The Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43, not to be confused with any of the other many developments on this chassis that Italy experimented with in the 1940s, was produced by the Officine Viberti of Turin in small numbers.
Because of the scarce information about it, it is often mistakenly called Autoblinda AS43 (English: AS43 Armored Car) or Tipo Zerbino after Paolo Zerbino, Chief of the Province of Turin and then Minister of the Interior of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (English: Italian Social Republic).
The Carrozzeria Speciale su AS43 was used by the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ (English: Armored Group) of the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana (English: National Republican Guard) from mid-1944 to the end of the war.
History of the Project
After the first engagements between Italian and Commonwealth troops in North Africa, it was clear to the Italian Regio Esercito (English: Royal Army) High Command that it was necessary to field a light armored car for fast reconnaissance as soon as possible. Starting work from the FIAT-SPA TL37 ‘Libia’ (TL for Trattore Leggero – Light tractor) light prime mover, which had good mobility thanks to the powerful gasoline engine and oversized tires, a new armored car was designed.
The new Autoblinda TL37 or Autoblinda AS37 (AS for Africa Settentrionale – North Africa) had an open-topped turret armed with a powerful Cannone-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65 Modello 1935 20 mm L/65 automatic cannon and a coaxial machine gun. Only one was built by the Ansaldo-Fossati plant in Sestri Ponente, near Genoa. It was shipped to North Africa, where it formed part of an experimental armored car platoon of the Regio Esercito, the Raggruppamento Esplorante del Corpo d’Armata di Manovra or RECAM (English: Reconnaissance Grouping of the Mobile Army Corp), alongside 3 AB41s of the Army, and 9 AB41s and an AB40 from the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana or PAI (English: Police of the Italian Africa) which arrived at a similar time.
Unfortunately, not much is known about its service. It was abandoned at Sidi Rezegh, south of the main road between Tobruk and Bardia, east of El Adem, probably due to a mechanical failure. The project was abandoned in favor of the ‘AB’ series of armored cars, the most produced during the war and the most modified Italian armored car during the war.
Despite the failure of this project, the Regio Esercito did not lose hope, and a new APC was developed on the chassis of the FIAT-SPA TL37. The S37 Autoprotetto was developed for desert fighting. It was ready in February 1942 and 150 were produced, all delivered to the Italian Occupation Units in Yugoslavia.
In North Africa, there was a development of ‘special’ vehicles by Italian frontline troops, which desperately needed vehicles to support their offensives. This is how some camionette (Italian word for reconnaissance military cars) were born, based on the chassis of the FIAT-SPA AS37, a light lorry developed on the chassis of the FIAT-SPA TL37 ‘Libia’.
These easy-to-modify vehicles were appreciated for their off-road characteristics and sturdiness. In late 1942, the Royal Army started to mass-produce vehicles with similar characteristics and for the same purposes. The first one was the Camionetta Desertica Mod. 1943 (English: Desert Reconnaissance Car Model 1943), of which a dozen were produced and used mainly in the Defense of Rome between 8th and 10th September 1943.
Another vehicle developed was the Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43, produced in 1943 on the AS37 light truck chassis as a cheaper and easier-to-produce vehicle to accompany the bigger and more expensive Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Sahariana’. Even this vehicle, despite being developed for use in North Africa, was never used in that operational theater. It saw use in Italy with the troops of the Royal Army to prevent attacks by paratroopers and Allied landings on the Italian coast.
After the Armistice of 8th September 1943, which led to the occupation of central and northern Italy by the Germans, the few vehicles captured and those produced between 1944 and 1945 were used almost exclusively by the Wehrmacht.
Of the dozens of Italian units loyal to Mussolini after the armistice, only a couple used the SPA-Viberti. The 2ª Compagnia of the Battaglione ‘Fulmine’ of the 2° Reggimento of the Xª Flottiglia MAS used a single modified vehicle, known as the SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata. The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ modified a certain number of vehicles at the Officine Viberti of Turin.
Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43
The Camionetta Desertica FIAT-SPA AS43 or SPA-Viberti AS43 was an Italian light reconnaissance unarmored vehicle developed for North African service as a cheaper, lighter and easier to produce variant of the SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Sahariana’.
In Italian, the term ‘Camionetta’ (plural Camionette) designates unarmored cars, jeeps or light trucks used in reconnaissance and infantry support roles.
The AS43 was developed by Società Piemontese Automobili or SPA, a FIAT subsidiary, and by Officine Viberti, both based in Turin. The project was started using the chassis of the FIAT-SPA AS37 (AS for Autocarro Sahariano – Saharian truck) light lorry, itself derived from the FIAT-SPA Trattore Leggero 37 ‘Libia’ (English: Light Tractor).
The AS43 was produced from mid-1943 until the 8th September 1943 armistice. After the German occupation of northern Italy, production was restarted for the German Army, which used the vehicles, with some modifications, until the end of the war.
The AS37 chassis was lowered from a ground clearance of 390 mm to 345 mm. The cab was completely modified, apart from the hood and the radiator grille. The side doors, the windshield, the roof, and the third seat were removed. The cargo bay was completely modified. The spare wheel was moved from behind the cab to the cargo bay’s rear, on tiltable support that the crew could lower to allow a full 360° traverse to the main gun. The loading bay’s sides were fixed and could not be lowered.
Developed as a desert vehicle, there were two lockers on the sides, between the rear mudguard and the commander and driver’s seats. Each locker could store five 20-liter jerry cans. Another six could be placed on the mudguards, two for each rear mudguard, and one for each frontal mudguard. This gave a total of 16 20-liter jerry cans for drinkable water, engine lubricant oil, and fuel. Obviously, given its use mainly in the Italian peninsula, the jerry cans were rarely transported and the side lockers transported ammunition for the main gun instead.
The main gun of the Camionetta AS43 could be a Cannone da 47/32 Mod. 1935 or Mod. 1939 47 mm L/32 support gun or a Cannone Breda da 20/65 Mod. 1935 anti-aircraft gun. The vehicle’s commander also fired a Breda Mod. 37 or Mod. 38 medium machine gun on a support mounted on the left side of the cab. The ammunition was placed in a small rack between the driver’s and commander’s seats.
The AS43 armored car’s turret was the Modello 1941 (English: Model 1941) developed and produced by Ansaldo for the L6/40 light reconnaissance tank. The one-man turret had an octagonal shape with two hatches, one for the vehicle’s commander/gunner on the roof and the second one on the back of the turret, used to facilitate the disassembly of the main armament for maintenance. On the sides, the turret had two air intakes, in addition to two slits through which personal weapons could be fired for close defense. The vehicle did not have fans or smoke extractors.
On the roof, next to the hatch, there was a 30º vision panoramic periscope for the commander. This allowed the commander a partial view of the battlefield. Due to the limited space inside the turret, it was impossible for it to rotate 360°.
After the production of some armored cars and light tanks, it became apparent that the turret had some balance problems, so a counterweight was added on the back, under the rear hatch. The turret did not have a turret basket and the commander/gunner operated the cannon and the machine gun through the use of pedals. There were no electric generators in the turret, so the commander needed to control the traverse and gun elevation with handwheels. The steel cables used to operate the guns were of the ‘Bowden’ type, protected by a plastic sheath, the same principle as on bike brakes.
In January 1944, the Turin Officine Viberti, a company specialized in bodyworks for Lancia Veicoli Industriali and FIAT Veicoli Commerciali trucks (mainly) and in the production (jointly with SPA) of armored cars and Camionette, resumed the project of the Autoblindo TL37, this time based on the chassis of the Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43, in order to obtain a vehicle that was cheaper and easier to produce than the armored cars of the ‘AB’ series.
The first design of this project of the Technical Department of the Officine Viberti dates from 18th January 1944. The last modification is dated 3rd April 1944, while the first photos of operational vehicles are from May of the same year. This vehicle was officially designated Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 by Officine Viberti and offered a certain degree of protection to the crew.
As on most Italian armored vehicles of the war, the armor was made of steel plates riveted to an internal structure. The armored superstructure had a mass of 911 kg, excluding connecting elements such as bolts and rivets.
The engine compartment was in the front and it had an armored radiator grille divided into four. On the engine deck, there were two inspection hatches. In order to remove the engine, the bolts of the engine deck had to be unscrewed and the plate lifted with a winch. The driver to the right and the loader to the left had slits to view the battlefield.
An armored door was present on each of the crew compartment’s sides, divided into two parts due to the angled armored plates. These were new models. In order to speed up production, the slits for close defense were removed.
On the rear were the cap for the 120-liter gasoline tank (right side) and sapper tools. The water tank cap was placed on the engine compartment, on the front, while the unprotected headlights were mounted in front of the mudguards. The vehicle had four armored fenders to prevent small arms rounds from piercing the tires. On the front fenders were width-limit indicators, used by the driver to help drive on narrow mountain roads or to park.
The armor was probably the same as on the armored cars of the ‘AB’ series, no more than 8 mm thick for the engine compartment and crew compartment. The turret had an armor of 18 mm on the frontal plate and gun shield, 10 mm on the sides and rear, and 6 mm on the roof. The lower rear angled armor plate was openable and protected the spare wheel from enemy fire.
The tires had the usual dimensions for Italian armored cars. These armored cars had the tires developed by Pirelli specifically for continental terrain, the Pirelli Tipo “Artiglio” 9 x 24″ (22.8 x 60 cm). Obviously, the rims were not modified and the vehicle could have mounted all the tires produced by Pirelli for the 24″ rims, also mounted on the AB series armored cars, the Camionette SPA-Viberti AS42 and the SPA TM40 prime mover.
Engine and Suspension
The SPA-Viberti AS43 was all-wheel drive, as on the AS37. On this new vehicle, only the front wheels steered, reducing the mechanical complexity and the need for complex maintenance of the steering system.
The front wheels had independent coil spring suspension coupled with hydraulic shock absorbers, which guaranteed great comfort on rough terrain. The rear wheels had inverse leaf springs, but these were reinforced compared to those of the TL37 light prime mover.
There are doubts about the brakes. ‘Italian Tanks and Combat Vehicles of World War II’, written by Ralph Riccio, mentions that the Camionetta had hydraulic brakes, while ‘Le Camionette del Regio Esercito’, written by Enrico Finazzer and Luigi Carretta, makes no mention of modifications to the original AS37 desert light truck, which had mechanical brakes with the brake pedal acting on pairs of brake jaws for each wheel.
The engine was a more powerful version of the one used on FIAT-SPA AS37, the SPA 18VT 4-stroke, 4-cylinder, petrol engine delivering 73 hp (or 75 hp, depending on the sources) at 2,000 rpm. This gave a maximum fully-loaded on-road speed of about 50 km/h due to the weight.
The fuel tank had a capacity of 120 liters, giving a range of 250 km, while the gearbox was the same as on the AS37, with 5 gears plus reverse.
The main armament was the Cannone-Mitragliera da 20/65 Breda Modello 1935. This 20 mm L/65 gun was developed as an anti-aircraft cannon but also used with great success in an anti-light armor role, with a theoretical rate of fire of 500 rounds per minute, while the practical one was about 220 due to the cramped space in the turret. It was equipped with an x1 sight produced by the San Giorgio Optics Factory. The elevation was +18°, the depression was -9°, while the manual traverse was 360°.
The Breda cannon could fire Italian-produced Armor Piercing-Incendiary – Tracer (API – T) and High-Explosive-Fragmentation – Incendiary – Tracer (HEFI – T) rounds of Italian production. These had a caliber of 20 x 138 mmB ‘Long Solothurn’, the same used by the German FlaK 38 cannon and the Solothurn S18-1000 anti-tank gun. With Italian armor-piercing rounds, the Mod. 1935 cannon could penetrate a 38 mm armor plate angled at 90° at 100 meters and a 30 mm armored plate at 500 meters. With German Pz.Gr. 40 ammunition, it could penetrate a 50 mm armor plate angled at 90° at 100 meters and a 40 mm armored plate at 500 meters. This made it a fairly fearsome weapon even against light tanks.
The secondary armament consisted of two Breda Modello 1938 8 x 59 mmRB Breda caliber machine guns. The first was coaxial to the cannon, on the left, while the second was in a ball support at the rear of the vehicle. These machine guns were the vehicle version of the Breda Modello 1937 medium machine gun and had a top-mounted curved box magazine with 24 rounds. The machine gun at the rear had x1 optics, identical to the main gun one.
From 1943 onward, anti-aircraft supports for the AB41 were produced by Ansaldo-Fossati, but very few were produced and not much is known about their use. No Carrozzeria Speciale su AS43 used them.
The ammunition load on the Carrozzeria Speciale su AS43 consisted of 50 magazines with 8 rounds each, for a total of 400 20 mm rounds. There were also 48 magazines of 24 rounds, for a total of 1,152 8 mm rounds. This compared well to the 456 20 mm rounds and 1,992 8 mm rounds stored in the AB41 and AB43 armored cars. The rounds were stored in two different wooden racks painted white, placed at the vehicle’s rear.
Many sources and videogames, such as War Thunder, mention the use of 8-round magazines instead of the common 12-round magazines. It is unclear whether these magazines were actually produced or whether they were modified on the battlefield by the crews to facilitate loading in the narrow turrets of the AB series armored cars.
The same sources claim that post-Armistice vehicles were mostly equipped with German-made ammunition. In some cases, the guns were modified by German crews to load the 24-round magazines of the FlaK 38 anti-aircraft cannon.
The Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 was probably modified at the Officine Viberti plant in Peschiera Boulevard 249, where the Camionette SPA-Viberti AS43 were produced.
Many Italian sources claim that Paolo Zerbino, Chief of the Province of Turin from 21st October 1943 to 7th May 1944 and then Minister of the Interior of the Italian Social Republic, “participated” in the development. It is not clear how he participated, whether economically, by providing money for the development and production, or if he only acted as an intermediary between Officine Viberti and another Turin factory that supplied the steel plates for the production of the vehicles.
Although the production dates are not known, it is likely that the first two were produced between 3rd April and mid-May 1944. They were spotted on 23rd May 1944 in a parade of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ in Turin.
The two vehicles were assigned to the 1ª Compagnia (English: 1st Company) or the 2ª Compagnia (English: 2nd Company) of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’, created in Montichiari, near Brescia in Lombardia.
In late February or early March 1944, the unit was transferred to Turin, in Piemonte and used almost exclusively in anti-partisan roles for the rest of the war. The two companies were located in the Caserma Dabormida and Caserma La Marmora barracks in Turin.
Between 27th May and 4th July 1944, the unit was employed in hunting partisans between the provinces of Ivrea and Biella in northern Piemonte. On these occasions, the Autoblindo AS43 was probably used. Official sources claim the use of “two armored cars”, which would probably be the Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 on their first operational mission. A total of 33 partisans were captured, as well 3 Australian soldiers that had escaped from a prison camp, and some military equipment.
In June 1944, the continuous arrival of volunteer soldiers and the recovery of armored vehicles allowed the reorganization of the two companies. The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ was now composed of: 1ª Compagnia Carri (English: 1st Tanks Company), 2ª Compagnia Autoblindo (English: 2nd Armored Cars Company) and 3ª Compagnia Arditi (English: 3rd Arditi Company).
In late 1944, one of the AS43 armored cars may have been destroyed or abandoned. On 23rd March 1945, at the last official parade of the unit in Turin, there was only one Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43.
The hypothesis of the destroyed armored car is unproven. On 22nd March 1945, a detachment of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ took part in an anti-partisan war in Valsesia, in the province of Vercelli, with a tank and an armored car of unknown model. It could very well have been a Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 which would not have reached Turin, about 150 km away, in time for the parade.
In late April 1945, a detachment of the group, composed of an L6/40 light reconnaissance tank and two armored cars, of which one was surely a Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43, was sent to Val Tellina, near Tirano in Lombardia, with the task of keeping the area clear of partisans.
This was the area chosen by the Secretary of the Italian Fascist Party, Alessandro Pavolini, for the “Ridotto Alpino Repubblicano” (English: Republican Alpine Redoubt), an area cleared of partisans where to amass the fascist units loyal to Mussolini fleeing from the cities of northern Italy and where to resist the Allied troops while Benito Mussolini fled to Switzerland.
The second armored car was of an unknown model, either an AB41 or AS43. Apart from the improvised armored cars, the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ had in its ranks a total of 18 AB41s and AB43s during its time in Piemonte, Lombardia and Emilia Romagna.
If some Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 remained in Turin, they followed the same fate as the Fascist troops in the city. After 24th April 1945, some tanks were deployed to protect strategic points of the city, while the armored cars were used to patrol the streets and as a reserve to launch counterattacks.
On 26th April 1945, the partisans attacked the city, occupying the town hall, the railway stations, and some manufacturing plants. Tanks and armored cars in the city were used to counterattack the partisan forces.
Around 1800 hrs of the same day, 4 tanks, 3 armored cars (model unknown), a platoon of Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’, and a platoon of the Black Brigade of Turin Iª Brigata Nera ‘Ather Capelli’ attacked and reconquered the barracks on Cernaia Street, the headquarters of the Black Brigade. The attack succeeded but, for the rest of the night, two armored cars (again, the models are unknown) and 5 tanks continued to patrol the parts of the city still in Fascist hands.
It was clear that it was impossible to repel the partisans, so the Fascist command of Turin decided to resist to the bitter end, hoping for the arrival of Anglo-American troops in order to surrender to them.
On 27th April 1945, an armored car escorted a truck of the Iª Brigata Nera ‘Ather Capelli’ to the Casa Littoria, the headquarters of the Italian Fascist Party of Turin in Carlo Alberto Street number 10. There, a group of Avanguardisti of the ‘Fiamme Bianche’ (English: White Flames) had barricaded themselves in for unknown reasons. The Avanguardisti were young people between 14 and 18 years old who voluntarily joined the RSI troops but, being too young, were not yet assigned to frontline units.
The armored car (of unknown model) managed to provide adequate supporting fire, evacuating all the young men from the building and escorting them to safety at the Caserma Cernaia barracks.
The situation was worsening by the minute. At 0140 hrs on 28th April 1945, all the surviving Fascist forces in the city, about 5,000 soldiers, gathered in Piazza Castello and fled towards Lombardia to gather at “Ridotto Alpino Repubblicano”. The protection of the column of trucks was entrusted to the tanks and armored cars of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’. The column reached Val Tellina and waited, with about 10,000 more men, until 5th May 1945, when they surrendered to the Anglo-American troops.
The detachment sent to Val Tellina had a different fate. Until 26th April 1945, all was quiet at Tirano, near Sondrio, a few kilometers from Switzerland. On the morning of 27th April, a column made up of the detachment from the ‘Leonessa’, 2° Battaglione of the III Legione Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana di Frontiera ‘Vetta d’Italia’, XXXVIII Brigata Nera ‘Ruy Blas Biagi’, and some soldiers of the French Vichy Republic, a total of about 1,000 men, set out for Sondrio in order to reach Benito Mussolini. The column was immediately blocked at the exit of the city by partisan troops, starting the Battle of Tirano.
On the night of 27th April, the Brigata Partigiana ‘Gufi’ (English: Partisan Brigade) encircled the city of Tirano. In the following hours, groups of partisans from Val Grosina and from the Sondalo area also arrived.
The total number of partisans is difficult to determine, partly because their lines were strengthened by citizens who arrived in the early hours to join them. The writer William Marconi, who took part in the battle as a partisan of the Brigata Partigiana ‘Gufi’, states in his book ‘L’Aprile 1945 fra Tirano e Grosio’ that there were no more than 300 or 350 partisans, with no heavy weapons apart from some mortars. They faced 1 L6/40 light reconnaissance tank, two armored cars (one AS43 and the other of an unknown model), and several trucks armed with Cannone-Mitragliera da 20/65 Breda Modello 1935, including at least one civilian FIAT 634N 2nd Series requisitioned weeks or days earlier by the Army.
The fight lasted from dawn until 1630 hrs. Among the partisans, there were two deceased, Ermanno Balgera and Nello Braccaioli, and some others were wounded. The Vichy French troops suffered 5 casualties and several wounded. The Fascists lost nine men and two auxiliaries (women assigned to units as nurses, cooks, etc.). In the reports, three Germans are also marked as fallen, of whom nothing else is known.
The armored car ended up in partisan hands after the clash, along with other vehicles of the Fascist column. These were used in the following days, until 2nd May 1945, in the area of the Mortirolo Pass, at 1,852 meters above sea level, where an attack by the I Legione d’Assalto ‘M’ ‘Tagliamento’ was feared.
Camouflage and Markings
The known vehicles had two different types of camouflage schemes, the Kaki Sahariano (English: Saharan Khaki), standard monochrome camouflage of the Italian Regio Esercito until mid-1943. However, as they were delivered to the unit in May 1944, this scheme was probably used because Officine Viberti had no other paint. The other scheme was the Continentale (English: Continental) three-tone camouflage scheme. It was the standard camouflage scheme for the vehicles produced after the end of the North African Campaign, when it became obvious that the peninsula had to be defended from Allied attacks and a desert camouflage was no longer suitable for the purpose.
The Kaki Sahariano base vehicles were covered with reddish brown and dark green spots. It was adopted from December 1944. The vehicles spotted from 23rd March until April 1945 had this camouflage pattern.
The only license plate known is ‘GNR 0151’, spotted on 23rd May 1944. When the vehicles had Kaki Sahariano camouflage they received the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ coat of arms on the turret sides and rear hatch. This was a red ‘m’, for Mussolini, with a lictorian beam (symbol of the Italian Fascist Party), and the acronym ‘GNR’ painted in red.
The vehicle captured in Tirano by the partisans received some patriotic slogans painted in white on the superstructure. Due to the framing of the only known photo of the vehicle and the low quality, only the word “ESERCITO” (English: Army) is legible.
It was common practice for the partisans to paint slogans or the names of fallen comrades on vehicles captured from the Fascists, both for superstition and in order to avoid friendly fire. It is possible that the phrase on the armored car was “ESERCITO DI LIBERAZIONE” (English: Liberation Army).
In the desperate situation in which the Italian Social Republic found itself in 1944, the Carrozzeria Speciale on AS43 was all the Fascist Italian troops could get.
Even if it was not a vehicle with extraordinary characteristics, it was employed in secondary tasks and against adversaries equipped with weak weapons that could not destroy it. The few examples produced were used successfully until the end of the war.
Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 Specifications
|Total weight, battle ready||5 or 6 tonnes|
|Crew||3 (driver, loader and commander/gunner)|
|Propulsion||Tipo 18 VT 4-cylinder petrol, 4,053 cm³, 73 hp at 2,600 rpm and 120 liter tank|
|Range||~ 250 km|
|Armament||One Cannone-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65 Mod. 1935 and a 8 mm Breda Mod. 38|
|Total production||From 2 to 6 built|
I corazzati di circostanza italiani – Nico Sgarlato
Italia 43-45. I blindati di circostanza della guerra civile – Paolo Crippa
Le Camionette del Regio Esercito – Enrico Finazzer and Luigi Carretta
I Carristi di Mussolini, Il Gruppo Corazzato “Leonessa” dalla MVSN alla RSI – Paolo Crippa
L’Aprile 1945 fra Tirano e Grosio – William Marconi