The Autoblindo Monti-FIAT armored car was a vehicle built in Africa Orientale Italiana or AOI (Eng: Italian East Africa). It was constructed by the Officine della Compagnia Monti (Eng: Workshops of the Monti Company) of Gondar in Ethiopia for the troops of the Regio Esercito (Eng: Royal Italian Army).
Its operational use is almost unknown, but its dimensions make it one of the most peculiar vehicles used by the Italians in the East African campaign that took place between June 10th, 1940 and November 27th, 1941.
Italian colonialism of East Africa began in 1890 with the formal creation of Italian Eritrea, which included the Eritrean territories near the sea shores. In the same year, the Protectorate of Somalia was created, which grew in size in 1925, following the agreements that the Kingdom of Italy had signed with the Triple Entente to enter the First World War in 1915.
In December 1934, the Incident of Walwal (in Italian: Ual Ual) occurred, where Italian and Ethiopian troops clashed near the Walwal water wells in Ethiopia. This was the pretext with which, on October 3rd, 1935, the Kingdom of Italy invaded the Ethiopian Empire of Emperor Haile Selassie, born Ras Tafari Maconnen.
The war lasted 7 months, during which the Italians used every means at their disposal, even toxic gases, and were able to conquer the nation, forcing the emperor to flee into exile in London.
After the declaration of war on France and the United Kingdom by Benito Mussolini on June 10th, 1940, the United Kingdom took measures by closing the Suez Canal to Italian merchant ships and warships. This caused the Italian colonies of Italian East Africa, composed of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Italian Somalia, to be totally isolated and surrounded by the British colonies of Sudan, Kenya and British Somalia and the French colony of French Somalia (now Djibouti).
As far as provisions were concerned, the civilians and the military had no problems. The serious shortages concerned armaments and logistics. In fact the Royal Army in the AOI had only 670,000 rifles, 5,300 light machine guns, 3,300 medium or heavy machine guns, 57 45 mm mortars, 70 81 mm mortars and 811 field guns available.
While these numbers may seem adequate, it must be considered that most of the weapons had been produced during World War I, if not earlier. All field artillery had been produced during 1915-1918, with some cannons produced in the 1800s. The medium machine guns were mostly Maschinengewehr Patent Schwarzlose M.07/12 captured from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 and FIAT-Revelli Mod. 1914, both produced during the First World War. The most modern machine guns were Breda 30, universally known for their inefficiency due to the necessary maintenance.
In the colonies of Italian East Africa, in addition to the Royal Army, there were the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale (Eng. Voluntary Militia for National Security), a paramilitary corps of the Partito Fascista Italiano or PFI (Eng. Italian Fascist Party), the Corpo dei Carabinieri Reali (Eng. Royal Carabinieri Corps) with police duties at home and in the colonies, the Corpo della Regia Guardia di Finanza (Eng. Corps of the Royal Finance Guard) with duties of economic and financial control, the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana (Eng. Italian African Police), with police and security duties in the colonies, and, finally, the Compagnia Autocarrata Tedesca (Eng. German Motorized Company) composed of 144 German volunteers.
The colonial troops were commonly known by the word Àscari, which is the Italianization of the Arabic word ‘ʿaskarī’, meaning Soldier. This corresponded to the rank of simple soldier of the Royal Army. However, the units of the colonial troops were also composed of Zaptiè from Zaptiye ‘Police’ in Turkish, colonial policemen under Carabinieri and Guardia di Finanza command and Dubad in Arabic “White Turbans”, a paramilitary fascist militia used in second line duties.
The colonial troops formed 13 Colonial Divisions composed of 29 brigades, 17 Autonomous Colonial Battalions, 8 Colonial Cavalry Squadrons with camels and, finally, 22 poorly armed and trained groups or regular and irregular bands.
According to the report of the commanders of the troops in AOI drawn up at the beginning of the campaign, the ammunition reserves were for “one year of war” for artillery and the ammunition reserves for small arms were only for “six or seven months of war”.
As for the vehicles, whether combat or transport, the situation was not good. The troops had at their disposal only 24 M11/39 medium tanks and 39 light tanks of the L3 series (L3/33 or L3/35), about 30 armored cars, 10 FIAT 611 and about 20 Lancia 1Z and 1ZM dating back to the First World War, 96 armored trucks or trucks with handmade weapons and a total of 5,300 other trucks. To the detriment of the Italian Fascist policy of Autarchy, or rather the self-sufficiency economic system, in the colonies of Italian East Africa, the trucks used were, in addition to nationally produced models, mostly Ford V8, Chevrolet, Bussing, or GMC trucks. These had been purchased in 1935 to participate in the conquest of Ethiopia.
The behavior of Benito Mussolini and the High Command of the Royal Army was very ambiguous. In fact, up until the day before the Kingdom of Italy entered the war, Italian merchant ships could pass through the Suez Canal undisturbed, but there was never an order to send war material or fuel to the colonies of the Italian East Africa.
On June 10th, 1940, for all these military vehicles in the AOI, there was a small reserve of fuel equivalent to only “six or seven months of war”, while the reserve of tires was significantly smaller, “only 2 months of war”. The roads of the colonies were in very bad condition and, for example, in a round trip from Asmara (capital of Eritrea) to Addis Ababa (capital of Ethiopia), 700 km as the crow flies, an average of 10 tires burst per truck.
Prince Amedeo’s request for reinforcements or equipment was rejected by the Royal Army because the merchant ships would have had to circumnavigate Africa, becoming easy targets and costing Italy a great deal of money.
However, the request to receive logistical supplies, such as truck wheels and fuel, from Japan was authorized. Japan agreed by illegally sending merchant ships that would unload the equipment in great secrecy.
Ironically, whoever gave the order to the Japanese from Rome probably got the measurements wrong and the merchant ships unloaded in Italian East Africa hundreds of tires of different sizes from those used by Italian trucks.
Between June 13th and August 19th, 1940, the Regio Esercito, with the limited supplies of ammunition and supplies, despite the order from Rome to maintain their positions, attacked the British troops in Sudan, Kenya, and British Somalia. They defeated the British troops, penetrating several tens of kilometers into the territories of Sudan and Kenya and conquering British Somalia in only 16 days of fighting, between August 3rd and 19th, 1940.
This advance was not a waste of precious resources. In fact, Prince Amedeo of Savoy launched targeted attacks to conquer the major British ports in the region, decreasing the risk of British landings and taking possession of the few resources available in their warehouses.
In November, after a considerable influx of British men and equipment, not only from Great Britain, but also from colonies such as South Africa, India, Australia, and New Zealand, the Commonwealth troops counterattacked but were unable to defeat the Italian troops which, worn out, were forced to fall back nonetheless.
By January 1941, the Italian troops had increased their numbers to approximately 340,000 Italian soldiers and Àscare troops. In fact, due to the isolation, many Italian citizens and natives had lost their jobs and there was nothing left for them to do but enlist. In the same month, the Commonwealth troops could count on 230,000 soldiers.
The second British counterattack of January 1941 was decisive. In Eritrea, in the north, they faced a lot of resistance that slowed down the progress. However, in the south, because of the long front of 600 km, the British easily defeated the Italian troops and indigenous troops, which were poorly armed and worn out by months of isolation.
Mogadishu was conquered by the British on February 25, while in March, they were already in Ethiopia.
On April 17th, 1941, the Viceroy of Ethiopia, Prince Amedeo di Savoia, commander of the Italian forces, barricaded himself together with 7,000 soldiers, 3,000 of whom were Ascaris, on the mountain of Amba Alagi. There, the British troops of General Alan Cunningham, 39,000 strong, besieged them for a month, until May 17th, when the Italian troops surrendered due to lack of ammunition.
The British gave the honor of arms to the Italian troops and to Prince Amedeo. On April 6th, Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, was captured and on May 5th, after 5 years of forced exile, the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie returned to the capital.
Despite the surrender of Prince Amedeo in the Gondar region, 40,000 well-organized Italian and Acehnese soldiers resisted the British assaults that began on May 28th, 1941, and ended on November 27th with the surrender of Italian forces in Italian East Africa.
The FIAT 634N Truck
In 1930, FIAT developed two heavy trucks, the 632N, and the 634N. The letter N stood for ‘Nafta’ or diesel in Italian. These were the first two heavy-duty diesel trucks made in Italy.
The 634N truck was officially presented to the public in April 1931, during the Milan trade fair. The 634N was then the largest truck produced in Italy, with a maximum weight allowed by law of 12.5 tonnes. It was nicknamed ‘Elefante’ (Eng: Elephant) for its robustness, power, and load capacity. Its production, in three versions, ran from 1931 to 1939.
After model number 1614, the wheel rims were replaced with ones with six spokes made of cast steel. After strengthening the rear axle, the chassis, and the leaf springs, the vehicle could carry more weight, from 6,140 kg to 7,640 kg, thus reaching a maximum total weight of 14 tonnes, with an empty weight of 6,360 kg. These modifications gave birth to the FIAT 634N1, which also had the front fenders connected to the bumper. The FIAT 634N1 was produced from 1933 to 1939.
In 1933, the FIAT 634N2 version was born with a modified cab to increase aerodynamics, a drop-shaped radiator grille, angled windscreen, and more rounded shapes. Load capacity and speed remained unchanged compared to the N1 version. The FIAT 634N2 was produced from 1933 to 1939.
This was the first truck in Europe to be equipped with bunks for the crew. The back of the seat could be raised to form two bunks and, on request, there was a modification available to provide a third bunk.
As an example, the second company to provide a berth in the cabin was Renault with its three-axle Renault AFKD with a load capacity of 10 tonnes, which entered service only in 1936. The third was Lancia with the Lancia 3Ro in 1938.
The wooden platform was 4.435 meters long and 2.28 meters wide. The foldable sides were 0.65 meters high, with a maximum load allowed by law of 7.640 kg, while the maximum transportable did not exceed 10 tonnes. The lateral and rear sides were foldable.
In the N1 and N2 versions, it was possible to tow a two-axle trailer for the transport of materials, reaching a maximum weight allowed by law of the truck + trailer of 24 tonnes.
During the war, the FIAT 634N successfully towed tanks of the ‘M’ series and self-propelled vehicles on their chassis in the Rimorchi Unificati Viberti da 15t (Eng. 15 tonnes Viberti Unified Trailer).
Most of the trucks received a cab from FIAT, but Officine Viberti of Turin and Orlandi of Brescia also built bodies for some chassis. The military version was called FIAT 634NM (Nafta, Militare – Diesel, Military), but its characteristics were almost identical to the civilian versions.
During the Second World War, due to the Royal Army’s need for logistic transport vehicles, a total of 45,000 civilian vehicles in Italy were requisitioned, overhauled, repainted, re-plated, and put back into service as military vehicles.
The big difference between the civilian and military versions was the windows; in the military versions, the truck had fixed windows, different headlights and lacked of the triangular placard on the roof of the cab used in the civilian models to indicate the presence of a towing trailer.
Several versions were produced on this truck chassis. There were at least 4 tanker versions for fuel or water produced by Officine Viberti and SIAV, a mobile workshop composed of three different FIAT 634Ns which carried the necessary equipment to set up a fully equipped field workshop, at least two versions for the firefighters, a horse carrier version for the army, a sand truck with tipping platform, a gas version and three different Autocannoni. These were the 102/35 su FIAT 634N, with 7 produced, the 76/30 su FIAT 634N, with 6 produced by the FIAT workshops in Libya during the North Africa Campaign, while in the AOI, some Autocannoni 65/17 su FIAT 634N were produced in an unknown number of units by Officine Monti in Gondar.
The military version could carry up to 7,640 kg of equipment per law, although the maximum transportable came to almost 10 tonnes of ammunition, provisions, or almost 40 fully equipped men.
The cargo bay could comfortably carry an Italian light tank, such as the L3 or L6/40, or the 47/32 L40 self-propelled gun. The Rimorchio Unificato Viberti da 15t could tow any tank of the ‘M’ series (M13/40, M14/41 or M15/42) and all self-propelled guns on their chassis.
The turrets mounted on the armored cars were those of a Lancia 1Z armored car. This old vehicle was produced from August 1915 until the end of World War I in 137 units.
It was produced in two models. The Lancia 1Z was equipped with two superposed turrets, one armed with two machine guns and the second armed with a single machine gun of the same model.
The other version, produced between 1917 and 1918 in 83 examples, had a single turret armed with two machine guns and a third machine gun of the same model in the hull, at the rear.
The Lancia 1Z was armed with three Vickers-Maxim Mod. 1911 6.5 mm machine guns in the turrets and four Fusil Mitrailleur Modèle 1915 CSRG Chauchat 8 mm caliber guns to be used through the slits positioned around the hull. The Lancia 1ZM was armed with three Saint Etienne Mod. 1907 8 mm machine guns and four Carcano Mod. 1891 6.5 mm caliber guns, as the Chauchats had reliability problems.
In both models, the ammunition reserves were 15,000 machine gun rounds plus 4,800 rounds for the rifles.
The machine guns in the turrets were independent of each other and were placed on articulated mounts. This allowed the vehicle to fire in two directions simultaneously.
The FIAT frame was left intact, but the cargo bay and cabin were removed. An armor with an estimated thickness between 8 and 10 mm was mounted. This was produced not with ballistic steel, but with leaf spring suspensions taken from scrapped trucks. These were disassembled and used for spare parts due to the reduced fuel reserves. These springs were quite elastic (Carbon Steel 5160 or Steel 1050), which allowed greater resistance within 200 meters.
Above the engine compartment, which was equipped with front slits for the radiator, there were slits for the driver and the vehicle commander, as well as two other slits for machine guns.
To the side, there were two slits on each side and, above them, two crew entrances. The turrets and rotation mechanisms were welded to the roof of the armored superstructure, increasing the height of the vehicle by quite a bit.
The Lancia 1Z had a serious problem: the two turrets raised the center of gravity, causing the vehicle to tip over. On the new vehicle, the problem was probably less pronounced. The Lancia 1Z was 1.49 meters wide, while the FIAT 634N was almost one meter wider, at 2.4 meters.
The crew consisted of 15 men, a driver, a commander, 11 gunners, and 3 servants in charge of reloading weapons. Given that 15 people had to operate inside a vehicle of this size, in a narrow space and in the desert, the conditions inside were probably atrocious.
There was also a radio station of an unknown model, 3 days of food for the 15 crewmen, ammunition for 11 machine guns, fuel, and water.
The total height of the vehicle is not certain, but it was around 3.5 meters. In one of the few existing photos of the vehicle, the workers of the Officine Monti of Gondar are in front of the vehicle. They are standing and it can be seen that the armored car is about twice as tall.
In another photo, a FIAT 500A car can be seen next to the Monti-FIAT armored car. The FIAT 500A is about half the height of the hull of the armored car. The FIAT 500A was 1.37 meters high, so the hull of the Monti-FIAT was around 2.6-2.7 meters high. The two turrets were 92 centimeters high, bringing the total height of the armored car to 3.5 meters.
Using the same principle with the FIAT 500A’s length of 3.21 meters, the Monti-FIAT should be about 8.2 meters long, 80 centimeters more than the FIAT 634N.
Engine and suspensions
The FIAT 634N was powered by a FIAT Type 355 diesel engine with six cylinders in line. It had a capacity of 8312 cm³, delivering 75 hp at 1700 rpm, developed independently by the company thanks to the experience gained with marine engines.
From the 1086 model onward, the engine was replaced by the FIAT Tipo 355C with a capacity of 8355 cm³. The power was increased to 80 [email protected] rpm thanks to an increased bore and stroke.
All three truck versions had a total of 170 liters of diesel in two tanks. One reserve tank was located behind the dashboard with gravity feed, while a pump brought the fuel from the main 150-liter tank which housed on the right side of the chassis. These gave a range of about 400 km. In order to start the engine, two electric motors were used on the right side of the vehicle, operated by an external crank.
The clutch was a multi-disc dry clutch connected to a four-speed plus reverse gearbox with a “Libyan” type reduction. It was equipped with four-leaf spring suspension units. The drum brakes were activated by a pedal through three servo pressure brakes.
The mastodonic Monti-FIAT was equipped with 11 loopholes, three in the two turrets, two in the front, two in the rear, and two on each side. All the loopholes were equipped with water-cooled FIAT-Revelli Mod. 1914 machine guns or 6.5 × 52 mm Mannlicher-Carcano rifles fed by strip-fed boxes of 50 or 100 rounds.
The FIAT-Revelli Mod. 1914 was developed between 1910 and 1914 by FIAT and designer Abiel Revelli. It fired the same ammunition as the standard rifle of the Regio Esercito, the Carcano Mod. 1891. It had a rate of fire of about 500 rounds per minute, a muzzle velocity of 800 m/s, and a maximum range of 3,000 meters (practical 700 meters).
47,500 were produced between 1914 and 1920, 10,000 by FIAT of Turin and 37,500 by Società Metallurgica Bresciana (Eng: Brescian Metallurgical Society) of Brescia. The weight of the machine gun was 21.5 kg with 4.5 liters of water in the sleeve.
In Italy, the machine gun had been largely replaced in infantry units by more modern medium machine guns, such as Breda Mod. 1937, FIAT-Revelli Mod. 14/35, and Breda Mod. 1930 light machine gun. In the colonies, where the adversaries were mostly poorly organized troops of indigenous guerrillas, machine guns such as the FIAT-Revelli Mod. 1914 or the Maschinengewehr Patent Schwarzlose M.07 /12, of which tens of thousands were captured during and after the First World War, were more than sufficient.
If necessary, the portholes were used to fire the crew’s personal weapons. Some FIAT machine guns were possibly replaced by Maschinengewehr Patent Schwarzlose M.07/12 8 × 50 mm R Mannlicher. The ammunition quantity carried is unknown, but it can be assumed, since some parts of the vehicle were taken from a Lancia 1Z, that the wooden ammunition racks were also taken from that vehicle.
It is not known if there were other weapons on board, such as rifles for the crew, Breda mod.1930 light machine guns or hand grenades.
Only a single Monti-FIAT was built in late June to early July 1941 in the Monti Company Workshop, at about the same time as two other armored tractors. The vehicles were produced at night because of the frequent British aerial reconnaissance during the day.
Like the two armored tractors called Culqualber and Uolchefit, very little is known about the Monti-FIAT armored car. As soon as it was finished, “OFFICINE MONTI GONDAR” (Eng. Monti Workshops in Gondar) was painted behind the frontal wheel. The two known photos of the vehicle were taken shortly after, one with the team of workers who worked on the project and the owner of the workshop and the other in which they compared the huge armored car with the small FIAT 500A car of the owner of the Workshop.
From then onwards, nothing more is known about the armored car. It was probably used to escort columns of supply trucks that were continuously attacked by Arbegnoch (Eng. Patriots). These were Ethiopian partisans loyal to Emperor Haile Selassie and allied to the British troops, who had been sabotaging the Italians since 1936, weakening them and waiting for the moment to take back their homeland.
The armored car was probably lost due to a lack of fuel or a mechanical failure before the arrival of the British troops in the Gondar region. No British source mentions the Monti-FIAT armored car.
The Monti-FIAT was an armored car of circumstance, not dissimilar to the smaller but famous Lancia 3Ro Blindato used a few years later in Italy for almost identical purposes.
Nothing is known about it apart from some technical data.
It was probably useful as a deterrent against attacks by Ethiopian patriots, as its size and armament would have intimidated even the most organized British troops. Speed, however, would have been an Achilles’ heel, making this vehicle like a turtle, relatively well protected, but slow on the terrible Ethiopian roads.
15, driver, commander, 11 machine gunners and 3 servants
Kingdom of Italy 1943-1954
Armored Car – 102 built
By late 1941, the crews of the AB41 armored cars had reported many problems and issues with the vehicle. In order to solve these and to provide the Regio Esercito (Eng: Italian Royal Army) with a long-range reconnaissance armored car suitable for use in the desert, in early 1942, the lighter and faster AB42 was designed by FIAT-SPA and Ansaldo.
The cancellation of the AB42 project due to the Axis defeats in the North African Campaign in late 1942 did not discourage the Italian designers. In a few months, they designed a new vehicle, the AB43, on the same chassis as the AB41 but with a new turret and a new and more powerful engine.
The AB43 was immediately tested but the Royal Italian Army did not have time to start production due to the Armistice of Cassibile signed on September 8, 1943. In late November of the same year, production started, though this time for the German Army, who really appreciated the new armored car and produced a total of just over 100 until 1945.
History of AB40 and AB41 armored cars
During the First World War, the Royal Italian Army was impressed by the performance of its armored cars and, after the war, it kept them in service alongside the cavalry and the companies of Bersaglieri motorcyclists. The only model of an armored car developed and produced until 1937 was the FIAT 611, 46 of which were made for the Corpo Guardie di Pubblica Sicurezza (Eng: Public Security Corps) and requisitioned by the Army in 1935 for the Second Italo-Ethiopian War.
To replace the old Lancia 1ZM and FIAT-Terni-Tripoli armored cars produced during the First World War and the unsuccessful FIAT 611, in 1937,the Italian companies FIAT and Ansaldo began the design a new armored car for use in Africa by the Royal Army and the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana or PAI (Eng: Italian African Police).
The first project presented in May 1939 was the AB40, an armored car of a modern design, weighing 6.8 tonnes, with a double steering system, with a Mod. 1940 turret armed with twin 8 mm machine guns and a third 8 mm in the hull, 9 mm armor on all sides and on the turret and a FIAT-SPA ABM 1 6-cylinder petrol engine that provided a top speed of 78 km/h and a range of 400 km. 5 pre-series and 24 standard vehicles of this first version, which went into production in January 1941, were produced. Due to its light armament, it was replaced by the 7.4 tonnes AB41 with the new Mod. 1941 turret armed with a 20 mm Breda cannon and two 8 mm machine guns. Total AB41 production was 435 units with the ABM 1 engine and 232 with the new 88 hp FIAT-SPA ABM 2 engine, which increased the speed to 80 km/h.
History of the Prototype
At the beginning of 1942, the High Command of the Royal Italian Army requested FIAT and Ansaldo to better adapt the AB41 armored car for service in the North African Theatre. A new version of the AB armored car produced in a single prototype in 1942 was the AB42, developed exclusively for use in the North African environment. The superstructure was completely redesigned with more inclined 8.5 mm armor and more space for the crew. The 8 mm rear machine gun was removed, as was the dual steering system, reducing the crew to 3 men and the weight to 6 tonnes.
FIAT-SPA developed a more powerful engine, the FIAT-SPA ABM 3 6-cylinder, while Ansaldo developed a new superstructure and the new Mod. 1942 turret which was wider and lower than the Mod. 1941, armed with the same 20 mm cannon as the AB41. The new vehicle had a speed of about 90 km/h and a range of 460 km.
The prototype was presented at the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione (Eng. Centre for Motorisation Studies) in September 1942 and tests were immediately started to evaluate its effectiveness.
After the defeat during the Battle of El Alamein on November 11, 1942, the AB42 project was no longer considered a priority and was shelved.
Ansaldo then came up with a brilliant solution that saved the factory a lot of money, but at the same time allowed the Regio Esercito to have a vehicle to replace the AB41. To avoid financing the design and construction of new prototypes, Ansaldo’s technicians, together with FIAT, took the turret and the engine from the AB42 prototype and mounted them on the chassis of one of the last series AB41 hulls produced. After miraculously escaping an Allied bombardment at Ansaldo’s factory in Genoa, the vehicle and another prototype on the chassis of the AB armored car were presented at the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione in August 1943. The vehicle with the Mod. 1942 turret was accepted in service by the Royal Army under the name of AutoBlinda Mod. 1943 (Armored Car Mod. 1943) or more simply AB43 while the second vehicle, developed on the chassis of the AB41 but equipped with a two-seater turret armed with a powerful 47 mm anti-tank gun was renamed AB43 ‘Cannone’. The AB43 and the AB43 ‘Cannone’ were ordered in 360 units each, but the Cassibile Armistice of September 8, 1943 did not allow Ansaldo to deliver even one unit to the Royal Army. After a few months, on November 13 of the same year, production was resumed under the control of the Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen (Eng. Inspector General of the Armed Forces) for the German Army, which considered the AB43 suitable for use, ordering 100 exemplars and canceling the order for the AB43 ‘Cannone’. In total, due to bombardments, scarcity of raw materials, delays in the supply of engines and other parts, and strikes of the workers who worked at the Ansaldo factory in Genoa, production was about 6 AB43 per month with a total of 60 armored cars produced in 1944 and 42 others completed by March 1945.
After the Italian surrender and the German capture of the north of the country, the Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen immediately evaluated the armored cars suitable for use in the Wehrmacht and ordered 100 AB43s. Production began in November 1943, but the first vehicles were delivered in the first months of 1944. Due to the lack of raw materials, coal, energy, delays in the delivery of engines, radios and guns and, finally the strikes of the workers, in the whole of 1944, only 60 AB43s were produced, i.e. only 5 per month. In 1945, production increased and, by the last days of March, the last 42 AB43 armored cars were delivered as per contract.
In a message dated April 9, 1945 sent from the headquarters of the Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen in Milan to the Reichsministerium für Rüstung und Kriegsproduktion of Berlin, the Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen proposed, following the completion of several contracts for the production of Italian vehicles, the conclusion of new contracts for three vehicles which the Wehrmacht considered suitable for the war: Panzerspähwagen AB43, Sturmgeschütz M43 mit 75/46 and Panzerspähwagen Lince. According to this document, the Ansaldo factory in Genoa stated that it could produce 10 AB43s per month until August 1945, when it would increase production to 50 per month. It is obviously not certain that these figures were possible because the Ansaldo-Fossati factory in Genoa had been hit by heavy bombardments in early 1945.
Hull and armor
In general, for the tasks the armored car had to perform, the armor was more than adequate, protecting the crew from enemy infantry light weapons fire. The armor on the entire hull and superstructure consisted of bolted plates on an internal structure. This arrangement did not offer the same efficiency as a mechanically welded plate but facilitated the replacement of armor elements in case they had to be repaired. The hull was 9 mm thick at the front, sides, and rear while, on the Mod. 1942 turret, the bolted plates reached a maximum thickness of 22 mm on the front plate and 8.5 mm on the sides and back. The wheel fenders were also armored to prevent enemy fire from piercing the tires.
On the sides of the superstructure were the two armored access doors, divided into two parts that could be opened separately, first the upper one and then the bottom. The upper part had a slit so that the crew could use their personal weapons for close defense. On the left was mounted the antenna, which rested on a support at the back of the superstructure. In fact, to open the upper part of the left door, it was necessary to raise the antenna a few degrees.
On the right, two horns were placed at the front, a pickaxe was placed on the right side and the exhaust pipe, of the same model used on the last built AB41, was placed on the rear fender. The two spare wheels were placed in two fairings on the sides of the superstructure. In the “Ferroviaria” (Eng. Railway) version, the support in the fairing was modified to allow to attach two wheels on each side. Above the engine compartment, there was the engine deck with two air intakes on two hatches for engine maintenance. On the back, were the cooling grille and the two rear lights.
The Mod. 1941 turret mounted on the AB41, the same as mounted on the L6/40 light reconnaissance tank , was too narrow to easily load the 20 mm cannon. Its silhouette was very high, over 50 cm, and made it easier to locate the armored car even at a long distance. On the new AB43 armored car, the new lower and wider Mod. 1942 turret developed for the AB42 armored car was mounted.
The one-man turret had an octagonal shape with two hatches: one for the vehicle’s commander/gunner on the roof, divided in two separated doors, and the second one on the back of the turret, used to facilitate the disassembly of the main armament during maintenance operations. On the sides, the turret had two slits and on the roof there was an anti-aircraft machine gun support, the same used on the P26/40 heavy tank, and a periscope for the commander next to the hatch, which allowed him a 360° view of the battlefield. Due to the size of the turret, only 35 cm high, a protuberance was bolted on the turret roof, which contained the top-mounted curved box magazine of the coaxial Breda Mod 38 machine gun, allowing the cannon to reach a depression of -9°.
The main armament was the same as on the AB41 and on the AB42, the Cannone da 20/65 Breda Mod. 1935 developed as an anti-aircraft cannon, but also used with great success in an anti-tank role. It had a theoretical rate of fire of 500 rounds per minute but, due to the reduced space inside the turret, the practical rate of fire decreased to about 200 rounds per minute. The cannon and the coaxial machine gun were installed with a x1 sight produced by the San Giorgio optics factory of Genoa. The elevation was +18° while the depression was -9°. The Breda cannon could fire a variety of different shells mostly developed for anti-aircraft use. The ammunition used for anti-tank and support tasks were the Armor Piercing (AP) and High Explosive (HE) rounds of Italian production, with a 20 x 138 mm B caliber, but also those used by the German FlaK 38 cannon and the Solothurn S18-1000 anti-tank gun, which increased the anti-tank capacity of the cannon. With the Italian armor-piercing shells, the Mod. 1935 cannon could penetrate a 38 mm Rolled Homogeneous Armor (RHA) plate inclined at 90° at 100 m and a 30 mm armored plate at 500 m with the AP rounds. With German Pz.Gr. 40 ammunition, it could penetrate a 50 mm armor plate RHA inclined at 90° at 100 m and a 40 mm armored plate at 500 m.
The secondary armament consisted, as on the AB41, of two Breda Mod. 38 8 mm caliber machine guns. The first one was coaxial to the cannon, on the left, and the second in a ball support on the rear of the vehicle. These machine guns were the vehicle version of the Breda Mod. 37 medium machine gun used by Italian infantry and had a top-mounted curved box magazine with 24 rounds and a fire rate of 350 rounds per minute due to the space of the turret.
The machine gun at the rear had a x1 San Giorgio optics on the right and could be disassembled from its spherical support and used in an anti-aircraft position mounted on the roof support.
A smoke grenade launcher was fitted to all vehicles on the right side of the engine compartment and a box containing the smoke grenades was added to the rear of the armored car, extending the shape of the vehicle by 20 cm. There are no photos of the grenade launcher or its ammunition, and it is not clear whether the last AB41s delivered to the Royal Army were also equipped with it or whether only the vehicles produced for the Germans after September 1943 had them mounted.
The ammunition on the AB43 consisted of 57 magazines with 8 rounds each, for a total of 456 20 mm rounds and 83 magazines of 24 rounds, for a total of 1,992 8 mm rounds. In the book “Italian Armoured & Reconnaissance Cars 1911-45”, however, Filippo Cappellano and Pier Paolo Battistelli state that the ammunition transported by the AB43 was reduced to 408 20 mm rounds, which meant 51 magazines, and 1,704 8 mm rounds, which meant 71 24-rounds magazines. This source has neither been denied or confirmed by other evidence. The magazines were placed in wooden racks, increasing the risk of fire. They were painted white on the sides of the hull. 24 20 mm magazines and 40 8 mm magazines were placed on the left side together with the commander’s intercom panel. The remaining 33 20 mm magazines and 45 8 mm magazines were placed on the right side. Many sources and videogames 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 in the battlefields by the crews to facilitate loading into the narrow turrets of the AB series armored cars. Almost all AB43s were equipped with German-made 20 mm shells which increased the anti-tank performance and, in some cases, the guns were modified by German crews to load the 24-round magazines of the FlaK 38 anti-aircraft cannon.
Although more spacious, there was no space for a loader in the single-seater turret and it was the commander of the vehicle who had to load the cannon in addition to commanding and firing. It was not rare, however, that one of the two drivers, when not driving and not using the radio, passed the magazines to the commander to speed up the loading.
The interior of the armored car remained unchanged between the AB41 and AB43. On the front was the 57-liter secondary tank, the steering wheel, with the dashboard on the right side. The front driver had a large front hatch and a periscope. On the right side, he had the gear lever with 6 forward gears, the hand brake, the intercom panel, and the directional control lever. On the left, at the top, there was a crank for the raising or lowering of the radio antenna. On the sides, the driver had two light fairings with armored hatches that could be raised or lowered by two handles.
Behind the driver, who had a seat with a backrest that could be lowered to facilitate entry, there were racks on the sides with ammunition for the cannon and machine guns. In the left wheel fairing was mounted the radio system, while on the right wheel fairing, at the bottom, there was a large box inside which generally carried the jack, tools for repair and maintenance of the vehicle, and personal belongings of the crew. However, it was not uncommon for crews to carry extra ammunition for the cannon inside the box. On the outside of the box were secured with straps one or two spare barrels for machine guns.
In the middle of the crew compartment was placed the single-seater turret with a folding seat and a support for the two firing pedals.
On the back, on the sides of the two ammunition racks, there were storage boxes on the left and two fire extinguishers on the right. On the back were placed the rear driver’s seat on the left and the rear gunner on the right.
Both sat on reclining seats to facilitate entry and exit from the vehicle. In the middle, between the two, was the transmission with the four-speed lever gear. The directional control lever was above the dashboard.
The steering wheel was secured with a butterfly screw that allowed for easy access to the interior of the vehicle. Behind the steering wheel, there was an engine cooling water tank and, on the right, the 20-liter reserve tank.
In front of the pilot there was a slit. On his right, in the middle, was mounted the panel of the intercom and finally, in front of the rear gunner was mounted the rear machine gun in a ball mount.
In the engine compartment, the engine was placed in the center, on the right was fixed the exhaust system and the fuel filter and finally, behind the engine were mounted two fans and the radiator.
The crew consisted of four: the front driver, who also operated the radio when not driving, placed in the front; the vehicle’s commander, who was in the turret in the middle of the vehicle, who was overburdened with giving orders to the rest of the crew, operate the guns in the turret, turn the turret, and control the battlefield; the rear driver was on the left of the rear; and the machine gunner/radio operator to the rear driver’s right. These two crew members, due to the limited space available to them while driving off-road, bumped into each other continuously as well as bumping into the roof of the combat chamber. Throughout the war, the lack of a loader for the main gun negatively affected the performance of the armored car, significantly reducing the rate of fire of the 20 mm cannon.
The engine of the Autoblinda Mod. 1943 was the powerful FIAT-SPA ABM 3 6-cylinder water-cooled inline petrol engine giving 108 hp produced by the Società Piemontese Automobili (SPA), a subsidiary of FIAT.
Its volume was 4,995 cm³, the same as the ABM 2, but the maximum power was 108 hp (other sources round this number to 110 hp, others mention a maximum power of 115 hp) at 2,800 rpm.
The engine was paired with a Zenith type 42 TTVP carburetor housed in the back of the engine compartment.
The weight of the vehicle increased to 7.6 tonnes, bringing the maximum speed to 88 km/h on the road and about 35/40 km/h off-road. The range was increased from the AB41 ones, from 400 to 460 km.
On the AB43, as on the other armored cars of the AB series, there were three fuel tanks for a total of 195 liters. The main one, with 118 liters capacity, was placed between the crew compartment floor and the armored bottom of the armored car. The 57-liter secondary tank was mounted in front of the front driver above the steering wheel, while the 20-liters reserve tank was placed under the machine gun position in the rear.
The crew compartment and engine compartment were not separated by an armored bulkhead, a very serious shortcoming because the reserve tank was placed right in front of the engine, and in the event of a fire in the engine compartment, the 20-liter tank immediately caused major fires inside the vehicle. To reduce the risk of fire, the crews began, during the North African Campaign, to not fill the rear 20 liter tank, preferring to carry a 20 liter jerry can outside the vehicle. Another problem found in the desert was the heat emitted by the engine forced the crews to keep the doors and the hatches open to allow them to properly breathe.
Radio system and electrical system
On the inside left fairing wall of the superstructure was the model RF3M radio system produced by the Magneti Marelli factory in Sesto San Giovanni near Milan, which was installed on all vehicles of the AB series from March 1941 onwards. It consisted of the transmitter and receiver placed one on top of the other. Underneath them, on the floor, were placed the power supplies. There were two pairs of headphones and microphones, one which was used by the front driver and the second by the rear machine gunner. A folding radio antenna with 6 beams was used. It could reach at most 7 meters high and had a radius of 60 km. When partially raised, however, it was 3 meters high and had a radius of 30 km. When the vehicle was moving with the antenna raised to 3 m the radius was about 20/25 km. This antenna could be lowered to 90°.
It is not clear whether during production or after delivery to the units, some AB43s received German Funkgerät or FuG radio equipment. It is unclear how many armored cars received the German radio equipment and whether the AB41s they captured received them as well.
To operate the starter system, the four armored car headlights and the radio system, between the floor of the crew compartment and the armored bottom of the AB43 were a Magneti Marelli 3MF15 battery and four accumulators produced by the company in Sesto San Giovanni. Two were on the left side, under the gunner’s seat, connected to the starter system and headlights, while the other two accumulators were connected to the radio power supplies and mounted under the rear driver’s seat.
Mention should be made of the fact that there were no electric cables in the turret, so the triggers of the guns were connected to the commander’s fire pedals via ‘Bowden’ type cables, the same as on bike brakes. The only version of the AB that received an electrical cable inside the turret was the “Ferroviaria” version that had a headlight located on the right side of the turret that could be controlled from the inside.
The tires used on the AB43 were the same used on the other vehicles of the AB series. They were produced by the Pirelli factory in Milan, as were almost all the tyres on Italian military vehicles. Pirelli produced several tires for the 60 cm (24″) rim used on the TM40, AB series armored cars, SPA-Viberti AS reconnaissance vehicles, and other transport vehicles.
A whole range of tyres was produced for use on sandy soils but was never used on the Autoblinda Mod. 1943 since, by the time the AB43s came into service, the North African Campaign had been finished for several months.
For use on European terrains, such as Italy and the Balkans, the AB43s instead used the Pirelli “Artiglio” (Eng: Claw) 9 x 24″ (22.8 x 60 cm), “Artiglio a Sezione Maggiorata” (Eng: Claw With Increased Section) 11.25 x 24″ (28.5 x 60 cm) with larger treads for better grip and finally, from 1942 onwards, the Pirelli “Sigillo Verde” (Eng: Green Seal) tires. Due to the troublesome supply lines of the Wehrmacht, the crews were not always supplied with spare wheels and the AB series armored cars were sometimes fitted with the AS42’s tires and vice versa. Some photographs show armored cars with non-standard tires of a suitable size.
The Germans began production of the vehicle in November 1943, renaming it Beute Panzerspähwagen AB43 203(i) (Eng. Captured Armored Reconnaissance Car AB43 203 Italian) and used it in Italy and the Balkans, mainly for anti-partisan duties.
In the days of the Armistice of September 1943, the 65. Infanterie-Division captured or received 10 AB41 armored cars and, in the following months, received two AB43 and 6 Lancia Lince. These 18 armored cars were used in the Battle of Anzio until May 1944 and then in Rome. After June 1944, the division was employed in anti-partisan actions in Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, where the division committed several war crimes against the Italian civilian population. In April 1945, it participated in the Battle of Bologna with its last armored cars, including an AB43. On April 22, it surrendered to the Allies on the banks of the River Po. The 334. Infanterie-Division received nine AB41 and AB43 armored cars which were used for the defense of the Gothic Line and later in the Battle of Bologna, when the division surrendered to the Allies.
The 356. Infanterie-Division used five AB41 and AB43 armored cars on the Gustav Line and on the Gothic Line. The 362. Infanterie-Division employed a total of six AB41 and AB43 at Anzio. One was employed in Piedmont where, in April 1944, it took part in a massacre of Italian civilians. After the retreat from Anzio, it was used on the Gothic Line and then in Florence and Bologna, where it surrendered on April 23rd to the Allies. The MG-Bataillon “Feldmarschall Kesselring” used 16 AB43s. The 90. Panzergranadier Division used many AB series armored cars and, in January 1945, it still had 15 AB43s available and also the prototype of the AB43 ‘Cannone’. The division was completely annihilated while covering the retreat of the other German forces in Bologna before the battle of April 1945. The 162. ‘Turkistan’ Infanterie-Division received six AB43s and six Lancia Lince, the last ones in April 1945 before surrendering in Padova after the signing of the Resa di Caserta surrender on April 29, 1945. The 8. Gebirgs Division employed two AB43s in the defence of the mountain passes in the Apennines until it surrendered to the Allies on May 8, 1945. The 42. Jäger-Division received at least three AB43s in July 1944 and used them during the Ronchidoso Massacre in October 1944, when 66 Italian civilians were executed.
The 4. Fallschirmjäger-Division received some AB41, AB43 and Lancia Lince and was sent in January 1944 to fight the Allies in the Battle of Anzio. It withdrew in June 1944, first to Rome, then to Siena and then to Florence, where we know that two vehicles of the 4. Fallschirmjäger-Division fought on August 18, 1944.
After this battle, the division fought against the British 8th Army in Rimini in August, but was forced to retreat to Bologna in December of the same year. In April 1945, it began its retreat again, fighting in Ferrara, Verona and Bolzano, until it surrendered on May 2, while trying a desperate escape from Bolzano to the city of Vicenza. The Fallschirmjäger-Division had its Italian armored cars driven by members of the Raggruppamento paracadutisti “Nembo” (Eng. “Nembo” Paratroopers Group), Italian paratroopers loyal to Benito Mussolini who fought alongside the Germans until September 1944, when the group was disbanded because of the losses suffered.
The SS-Polizeiregiment “Bozen” which, since February 1944, was stationed in the province of Belluno, made eighty-five anti-partisan operations between the Biois Valley and Mount Grappa between March and December. Between August 20 and 21, the men of this battalion under the command of Marshal Erwin Fritz were involved, together with some units of the Fallschirm-Panzer-Division 1 “Hermann Göring” and of the SS-Gebirgs-Kampfschule, in the Massacre of the Biois Valley. In that operation, they used at least eight armored cars, one Sd.Kfz. 232 and seven armored cars of the AB series, of which at least a pair were AB43.
The 12. Panzer Abteilung Besondere Zwecke Verordnung (Eng. Tank Battalion for Special Purpose) of the Panzergrenadier-Division ‘Brandenburg’ received some AB43 which were used in the Balkans for anti-partisan duties.
The last German unit known to have used AB43s was the SS-Karstwehr-Bataillon, composed of Italians of German origin and Croatian, Ukrainian, and Serb soldiers, which received some AB41 and AB43. The division was later renamed the 24. Waffen-Gebirgs ‘Karstjäger’ Division der SS and employed in anti-partisan actions in the Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
The armed resistance of the Italian partisans began on September 8, 1943, when Roman citizens took to the streets to defend their city from German soldiers. Many of them were badly armed and in some cases their only weapons were the stones with which the streets of Rome were paved.
The Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale or CLN (Eng. National Liberation Committee) was founded on September 9, 1943 in Rome and, in the following months, the first cores of resistance were formed in the part of Italy under Nazi-Fascist control.
The partisan units were commanded by the CLN but were affiliated to several clandestine political parties.
The Brigate Garibaldi, the most numerous, was affiliated to the Partito Comunista Italiano or PCI (Eng. Italian Communist Party) and numbered 575 throughout the north of the Italian peninsula. The Brigate Autonome (Eng. Autonomous Brigades) were the only ones not affiliated to any party or political ideology, often founded by former soldiers of the Royal Italian Army who escaped capture, however, they followed the directions of the CLN. They numbered a total of 255 units. The Brigate Giustizia e Libertà (Eng. Justice and Freedom Brigades) were affiliated to the Partito d’Azione (Eng. Action Party), a liberal-socialist political party and numbered 198 units. The Brigate Matteotti belonging to the Partito Socialista Italiano or PSI (Eng. Italian Socialist Party) numbered 70 in total. Finally, the Brigate del Popolo (Eng. People’s Brigades), that were affiliated to Democrazia Cristiana (Eng. Christian Democracy) political party, numbered 54. There were also many other minor partisan brigades such as the Brigate Bruzzi of anarchist ideology, the Brigate Badogliane (named after Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio) of monarchist ideology and the Brigata ‘Bandiera Rossa’ (End. ‘Red Flag’ Brigade) following the Trotskyist ideology.
The Partisan Brigades were structured in a scheme very similar to that of an army: partisan groups of 10 to 20 men formed a squadra (Eng. team), three teams formed a compagnia (Eng. company), and three companies formed a battaglione (Eng. battalion). Three battalions formed a brigata that could have between 270 to 540 partisans, and finally three brigades formed a divisione (Eng. division) that could reach 1,600 partisans. Their equipment varied greatly. At the beginning of the resistance, the only weapons that civilians who joined the resistance possessed were hunting rifles or pistols, while the former soldiers of the Royal Army had their personal weapons. During the almost 20 months of resistance, the partisans captured many weapons and vehicles from the Nazi-Fascists. The Allies also provided the partisans with weapons and ammunition. A general insurrection was organized by the CLN for April 25, preceded by a huge strike of the workers in the factories that produced military equipment. About 100,000 partisans took an active part in the insurrection, half of them in Piedmont. In Lombardy, about 9,000 partisans took part in the liberation of the main cities, the most important of all being Milan, where the partisan troops, commanded by the future President of the Italian Republic Sandro Pertini, fought fiercely against the last Italian soldiers loyal to Mussolini and the few German soldiers still in the city.
The battle was fought by the partisans of the 81ª Brigata Garibaldi Volante “Silvio Loss” (Eng. 81st Flying Garibaldi Brigade), a division with about 1,400 partisans who, before the insurrection, had participated in the foundation on June 11, 1944, and in the defense of the Partisan Republic of Valsesia, one of the twenty-four autonomous republics founded by the partisans on the territories torn from the Repubblica Sociale Italiana or RSI (Eng. Italian Social Republic), the republic founded by Benito Mussolini after the armistice of September 8, 1943. The Republic was dependent on the CLN and was situated between the Piedmont region and the Lombardy region. The partisans of the division, at an unspecified moment, probably a few days before the battle, took possession of an AB43 which they used after having painted on the sides with white paint the name of the division and on the front the inscription ‘W LA LOSS’. It was used to free the city and, the next day, it was used together with other vehicles in the partisan parade in the streets of the city.
After the War
After the war, the AB43, together with other Italian vehicles of the Second World War, went to arm some units of the Polizia di Stato (Eng. State Police) and the Arma dei Carabinieri (Eng. Arm of Carabiners) in an unknown number of vehicles.
The use of armored vehicles was required in the period immediately after the war because of the potential violence that could develop in any intervention, on the occasion of strikes, demonstrations or factory seizures by workers or the fight against anti-Republican movements, and this without counting the continuous threat of an insurrection by the thousands of members of the Partito Comunista Italiano. Since the Carabinieri were not sufficient for the needs and the Italian state wanted to avoid as much as possible the use of the new Esercito Italiano (Eng. Italian Army) to quell these demonstrations, it was indispensable that the Police had the suitable instruments to face any eventuality. For this reason, many Italian cities (especially where there were factories with many workers), first of all Turin, Milan and then Rome, Bologna, Udine and Genoa, many armored vehicles, even tracked ones, were supplied to the police.
The few surviving armed and armored vehicles of the former Regio Esercito, of the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano (Eng. Republican National Army) and the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana (Eng. Republican National Guard) of the Italian Social Republic, even if by now obsolete for wartime use, could still be used for public security roles. In this way, with the consent of the USA, the clauses of the Peace Treaty which forbade the Italian Army from owning many tanks were circumvented. If necessary, these armored vehicles, although obsolete, would still be an aid at the time of the dreaded Communist coup d’état. After these first years, the need for armored vehicles disappeared. Even in the most turbulent years of the protests of 1968, demonstrators lined up in front of the forces of law and order and, however fierce they were, they could be faced with riot gear.
In the early 1950s, the L3 and L6/40 tanks were withdrawn from the police service, as were the few M13/40s. Between 1954 and 1956, the Italian production armored cars, such as the AB41, AB43, Lancia Lince and SPA-Viberti AS42 were withdrawn. British and American production vehicles, such as the Humber Mk II, Bren Carrier and Staghound T17E1 were still used for anti-terrorism and airport patrols until the first half of the 1970s. The Allied vehicles were replaced by the FIAT 6614 armored cars, which are still used today for counter-terrorism tasks but whose use, by law, is subject to very strict constraints.
Not much is known about the service of the AB43s. After the war, they were overhauled in the FIAT factories in Turin that also managed to repair some damaged vehicles.
Together with the AB41s, they formed a Reparto Celere (Eng. Fast Department) in Turin and the Nucleo Celere di Pubblica Sicurezza (Eng. Cast Core of Public Security) in Rome until 1954 or 1955. No other police units are known to have used AB43s. Some others were put in service with Reparti Mobili (Eng. Moving Departments) of the Carabinieri, repainted in NATO green. Those ABs were still in service until 1953. For some years after the war, the Italian Army used some AB43 for training and eight AB43 were built after the war by the FIAT factory in Turin as AB43 ‘Ferroviaria’ and used until 1955 in the Railway Engineering units.
The AB43s in service with the State Police were all withdrawn from service in 1955 after many years of inactivity, interspersed only with rare exercises or exits to temporarily guard some sensitive targets.
Versions – AB43 ‘Cannone’
In the early months of 1943, Ansaldo proposed a new version of the AB armored car series armed with a 47 mm cannon called AB43 (also known as the AB43 ‘Cannone’). The AB41 superstructure was modified with straight sides and removing the rear machine gun. The larger and shorter turret was armed with a powerful 47/40 Mod. 38 cannon, the same as on the M15/42 medium tank. The ammunition capacity was 63 rounds for the cannon. Due to the weight increase to over 8 tonnes, the same 108 hp engine on the AB42 was installed, which allowed the armored car to reach a speed of 88 km/h. Approved in May 1943, the armistice blocked the plans of the Royal Army, which had ordered 360.
Six AB43s survive to this day, one at the Museo Storico della Motorizzazione Militare in Cecchignola near Rome, one in poor condition at the Museo Storico dell’Arma di Cavalleria in Pinerolo, one at the Museo di Guerra per la Pace Diego de Henriquez in Trieste and the last AB43 at a museum is an armored car used by the State Police, now under renovation and which will be exhibited at the Museo Memoriale della Libertà di Bologna. An AB43 is on display as a monument at the Grosseto Barracks “Beraudo di Pralorno”, headquarters of the 3º Reggimento “Savoia Cavalleria”. Only one AB43 is in running condition, often presiding over many exhibitions and historical reenactments throughout Italy. It is owned by Fabio Temeroli and exhibited in his private collection in the Republic of San Marino.
There is an AB43 ‘Ferroviaria’, the only ‘Ferroviaria’ armored car of the surviving AB series, on display at the Museo Storico della Motorizzazione Militare in Cecchignola.
The final version of the AB armored car family was mounted on the chassis of the AB41, but many defects were eliminated thanks to the new engine and turret inherited from the AB42. It was a very successful vehicle, appreciated by German crews during the war and by Italian policemen after the war. Unfortunately, the few examples produced were not able to satisfy the number of armored cars needed by the German Army to form autonomous reconnaissance companies. In fact, these effective armored cars were always forced to cooperate with Lancia Lince and AB41 armored cars that were not able to fill the gap.
5,20 x 1,92 x 2,30 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
4 (driver, gunner/vehicle commander, loader and rear driver)
FIAT-SPA 6 cyl, 108 hp with 195 liters tank
Breda 20/65 Mod.1935 with 456 rounds, two Breda 38 by 8x59mm machine-guns with 744 rounds 2040 rounds
hull 9 mm front, sides and rear. Turret 22 mm front, 8.5 mm sides and rear mm
Kingdom of Italy 1942-1945
Railway Armored Car – 20 Converted
The AB series armored cars were the main reconnaissance vehicles of the Italian Royal Army during the Second World War, with over 700 being produced between 1940 and 1945. Used on all the fronts of the war, after 1943, 120 were also used by the Germans and, after the war, by the Italian Army until 1954.
A total of 12 AB40 and AB41 armored cars were modified in 1942 to patrol the Yugoslav railways. This special version was called ‘Ferroviaria’ (Railway). After the war, another group of AB41 and AB43 vehicles were modified to be used to patrol the Italian railways.
History of the project
In an attempt to emulate the rapid German territorial expansion, Italy declared war on Greece in late October 1940. Due to unexpected Greek resistance, the Italian offensive was stopped and even reversed. The Italian situation in North Africa was also dire, and for these reasons, Mussolini had no choice but to seek help from his German ally. Hitler was not initially interested in the Mediterranean theater, being more preoccupied with the plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union. But, worried by the possibility of a second front being opened to the south in Greece by the British while the German forces were assaulting the Soviet Union, he reluctantly decided to send German military aid to help the Italians. The Germans quickly made combat plans for the occupation of Greece, which counted on the neutrality of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
The government of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia wanted to preserve neutrality and signed the Tripartite Treaty on 25th March 1941. Two days later, Air Force General Dušan Simović, with the support of other military officers staged a coup d’etat and overthrew the government. Hitler was furious about this event and ordered that Yugoslavia should also be occupied. This event would lead to the short so-called April War, during which Yugoslavia was defeated by a coalition of Axis forces which also included Italy. After this short war, the Yugoslavian territory was divided between different Axis forces. The Italians got part of Slovenia, Kosovo, part of Macedonia, Montenegro, and parts of the Adriatic coast.
While the war was over, the Axis withdrew most forces from this area, as it was thought to be pacified. However, two resistance movements, the Royalist Chetniks and the communist Partisans, would start a general uprising against the occupying forces only a few months later. In order to suppress these two resistance movements, the Germans and Italians began once again increasing their presence in Yugoslavia, which included armored vehicles.
The introduction of the AB40
After the occupation, the initial Italian armored force in Yugoslavia consisted of two groups of light tanks: the 1° Gruppo Carri ‘L’ ‘San Giusto’ (Eng: 1st Light Tank Group) station in Karlovac and the 2° Gruppo Carri ‘L’ ‘San Marco’ (Eng: 2nd Light Tank Group) stationed in Trebinje and Dubrovnik. These groups were each equipped with 4 squadrons, with a total of 61 L3 light tanks. In order to better protect their positions in Yugoslavia, in July 1941, the 31° Reggimento di Fanteria Carrista (Eng: Tank man Infantry Regiment), which also was equipped with the L3, was also sent to Yugoslavia. These units were mostly deployed to protect the Adriatic coast territories. Meanwhile, in Slovenia, the Italians initially did not expect any serious opposition. But, in June 1941, the communist movement began to be active even in Slovenia, which forced the Italians to pay attention to this part of the front as well. The Italian high command in Yugoslavia issued orders for the troops to arm and armor their trucks and to arm nearly all personnel.
In 1942, new armored equipment was brought to Yugoslavia by the Italians. This included the flamethrower version of the L3, the L3/38, and new types of armored cars, like the SPA-Viberti AS37, Fiat 626 and 665, and AB41.
The Italians employed a tactic of forming a large number of well-defended strong points. Their defenses often discouraged Partisans from attacking them. At the same time, they were left isolated and unable to efficiently coordinate attacks or defenses against the Partisans. This tactic led to an overextension of the supply lines. These strong points were also highly dependent on well-defended supply lines (like roads or rails), which were often prone to Partisan attacks. The rail tracks and trains were favorite targets of the resistance fighters. For the protection of these strong points, it was proposed to use armored trains and armored draisines to be used in the occupied territories of Yugoslavia. Interestingly, the rare AB40 was also operated there by the Italians.
The sabotage carried out by Yugoslav partisans, which increasingly hit sensitive targets such as bridges, communication points, and railways considerably slowed down the convoys and supply columns directed to the strong points controlled by Italian soldiers. The Regio Esercito (Eng: Italian Royal Army) was forced to find a solution quickly. It was first proposed to use armored trains and armored draisines to protect convoys heading for the Italian strong points, It was immediately clear that, although it was a good idea, building entire armored trains would take too long, and the army did not have the time necessary.
The order to build armored trains was given to Ansaldo, which began the development of new railway vehicles, while FIAT proposed to use the AB series armored cars, which were very useful for Italian soldiers to patrol the occupied territories.
In order to design this railway version, FIAT engineers asked for help from the experts of FIAT Ferroviaria, a subsidiary of FIAT which produced trains. After a very short time, it was decided to replace the tires of an AB40 with slightly modified steel wheels used by the Italian locomotives. Other minor modifications were made and, in January 1942, the AB40 ‘Ferroviaria’ was presented to the High Command of the Italian Royal Army. A few days later, some vehicles were taken from the Centro di Addestramento Autoblindo (Eng: Armored Car Training Centre) of Pinerolo and modified in the nearby FIAT factory of Turin. In total, in less than a month, 12 armored cars of the AB series were converted. These were eight AB40s that the Regio Esercito considered unsuitable for the reconnaissance role and were, in fact, used for training, and four AB41s that were used in armored car companies and command platoons.
In the months before the Armistice of September 1943, another order was placed for the conversion of 8 more AB41s.
In the mid-30s, the Royal Italian Army realized that the Lancia 1ZM armored cars produced during the First World War were by now poorly armed, poorly protected, and performed poorly off-road. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, some Lancia 1ZMs were sent to Spain to support General Francisco Franco’s army. After their use in battle, it was clear to the Italian High Command that, although still efficient as support vehicles, they could no longer carry out reconnaissance activities. In late 1937, the Royal Army decided to issue an order for the development of a new armored car for long-range reconnaissance.
In the 1930s, the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana or PAI (Eng: Italian Police in Africa), the police corps in charge of the security of the Italian colonies, still used the old Lancia 1ZMs, which were not very suitable for desert use, and also handcrafted armored cargo trucks to face the anti-imperialist resistance in Libya and Ethiopia. After testing light tanks with little success, in 1937, the PAI command autonomously requested the development of an armored car prototype for long-range reconnaissance.
FIAT and Ansaldo cooperated to produce two prototypes with many compatible parts that could meet the requirements of the Italian Royal Army and the Italian African Police. After almost two years of development, the two prototypes were presented in Turin on May 15, 1939. One of them was tested in East Africa, while the other one remained in Italy. For mass production, it was decided to unify the two vehicles, which later became the AutoBlinda Mod. 1940 (Eng: Armored Car Mod. 1940), more commonly known as the AB40.
From the beginning, the AB40 was evaluated as being poorly armed. When production began, it was decided to develop a version armed with a 20 mm cannon. 24 AB40s were produced until March/April 1941 plus 5 pre-series vehicles and two prototypes. The next version was the AB41 which had the same hull and the turret of the light tank L6/40. About 600 of this new version were produced for the rest of the war, until 1945.
The AB40 was designed for reconnaissance and not combat, so it had 9 mm armor all over the structure and turret. Another interesting feature were the dual driving controls, with one driver at the back and one at the front. This allowed the vehicle, in case of involvement in a firefight, to withdraw from combat without complicated maneuvers.
The crew consisted of four soldiers: front driver, vehicle commander/gunner, rear driver on the left and rear gunner on the right.
For the AB40, the armament was composed of two Breda Mod. 1938 machine guns in the turret and another Breda Mod. 1938 mounted in a ball bearing on the rear plate. This latter gun was removable and usable on an anti-aircraft support which was not always supplied to the crews. The ammunition stack was 2,040 rounds in 85 magazines of 24 rounds each, kept in the racks on the sides of the hull.
The radio equipment of the first vehicles produced was unknown. In March 1941, the RF3M radio produced by Magneti Marelli began to be installed. The vehicles with the radio apparatus of the first type are recognizable because they had the radio antenna on the right side.
The suspension was quite advanced. The vehicle had four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering, with independent shock absorbers on each wheel which gave excellent off-road mobility. The engine was a FIAT SPA ABM 1 6-cylinder water-cooled inline petrol engine developing 78 hp. This engine was designed by FIAT and produced by its subsidiary SPA in Turin. The AB40 had a speed of 80 km/h on road, while the range was about 400 km.
The AB41s received the new Mod. 1941 turret, armed with a 20/65 Breda Cannon Mod. 1935 caliber 20 mm and a Breda Mod. 38 coaxial machine gun and new racks that allowed the transport of 456 20 mm bullets. The last modification was the introduction, due to the weight increase from 6.8 to 7.4 tons, of a more powerful version of the SPA ABM 1 called ABM 2, which was able to deliver 88 hp of power.
Due to production problems of the new engine, many armored cars were equipped with ABM 1 engines and Mod. 1941 turrets, giving birth to AB40/41 hybrids. These armored cars, impossible to distinguish externally from the normal AB41, had a slightly lower top speed and range than the AB41 due to the lower engine power.
FIAT chose to keep the AB’s dual driving arrangement for the railway version, which allowed for a change of direction without turning the vehicle. Another vehicle of the type was the Autocarretta Ferroviaria Blindata Mod. 42 (Armored Railway Truck), based on the chassis of the Autocarretta OM 36 DM, a small truck suitable for the transport of about 900 kg of material, of which 20 were produced in late 1942. This particular vehicle did not have a double drive and, in order to drive at normal speeds backward, it needed to be lifted by a hydraulic jack and turned manually by the crew members. This was dangerous during possible ambushes by partisans.
In the ‘Ferroviaria’ version, the armored car was only modified externally. First of all, the steel wheels of the FS ALn 556, an Italian locomotive produced by FIAT Ferroviaria that entered service in 1938, were adapted to the armored car. On each fender, a box full of sand connected to the armored car’s braking system by a ‘Bowden’ cable (the same used on bicycle brakes) was mounted. When the braking system was in operation, some sand was released through a tube coming out from under the box’s floor and flowed on the rails increasing the grip of the steel wheels on the rails.
Four slightly raised skids were mounted in front of the wheels to prevent small objects, such as stones and branches, from slipping between the wheels and derailing the vehicle.
Much importance was given to the possibility of patrolling both railways and roads. On the hubs that supported the two spare wheels on either side, three fixing pins were added to mount a second spare wheel on each side. A steel cable was mounted on the superstructure to prevent the wheels from freeing themselves from the supports due to strong jolts. The steel cable was hooked to the superstructure when not needed. In order to prevent the cable from cutting the tires due to the tension, a wooden wedge was put on the wheels.
The modified AB40 and 41 armored cars were used to form platoons consisting of 5 vehicles. These were used by the 2° Raggruppamento Genio Ferrovieri Mobilitato (Eng: 2nd Group of Mobilized Railway Engineers) stationed at Sušak, east from the Croatian city of Rijeka. By mid-1942, the AB40s were operating in the area of Western Slovenia, Gorskog Kotara, Like, Krajine Primorske, and Dalmatia. These were used to protect the vital rail supply system. They were usually acting as train escort and support vehicles or for close proximity reconnaissance.
In July 1942, during the anti-partisan Operazione ‘Aurea’ (Eng: Operation ‘Golden’) near Biokov, the Italians also operated at least six AB armored cars (possibly the rail version).
In 1943, the Italians increased their presence in the area with more armored trains and by increasing the number of rail armored cars to 20 (which precise types were used is not clear). During the first half of 1943, the Litorina Blindata railway locomotive, with a diesel engine produced by Ansaldo and equipped with two M13/40 medium tank turrets armed with two 47 mm cannons, 6 machine guns, two 45 mm Brixia mortars and two flamethrowers Mod. 1940, was introduced. These were meant to support the units operating the AB rail armored cars stationed in Sušak. These were used to patrol areas in Slovenia and Croatia.
During 1943, the Partisans made over 120 attacks on the Sušak-Karlovci area. Of these, six attacks were aimed at the Italian armored trains. Interestingly, due to poor knowledge of the precise name of the AB 40/41 rail armored cars, in Partisans documents these were simply called small railroad armored cars. In late February 1943, one railroad armored car was reported to have struck a Partisan mine near Ogulin.
During the night of 22nd August 1943, due to a Partisan mine, No.3 armored train and an armored car (most likely an AB) were heavily damaged. The explosion was so powerful that the shockwave knocked off the rail track, the locomotive, several wagons, and the supporting armored car. The last use of the Italian armored formation (including 4 armored cars) in Slovenia was in early September 1943 against the Partisans in the area of Krvava Peč and Mačkovec. If the Germans operated the modified AB 40/41 in its rail protection role after 1943 is not clear. The German forces stationed in Slovenia in 1944 and 1945, due to increased Partisan activity, relied more and more on armored trains for troop and supply movements. It is possible that some ABs were still operational and used by the Germans at that time. In a Partisan attack on the German trains, one ‘rail tank’, which may have been an AB, was destroyed on 8th January 1945.
After the capitulation of Italy, their units still located in Yugoslavia found themselves in a state of chaos, as all fighting sides were racing to capture their territories and weapons. The Germans were anticipating the Italian capitulation and launched Operation ‘Achse’ (Axis) to seize the Italian Balkan held territories as fast as possible. They managed to disarm 15 Italian divisions in Albania and Greece and 10 more in Yugoslavia. The Germans captured many Italian AB armored cars, which were usually given to reconnaissance units, like the Aufklärungs-Abteilung 171 (reconnaissance battalion) and some police units.
The Yugoslav Communist Partisans were also quick to take advantage of the situation and captured a large number of Italian prisoners and weapons. During the period of 8th to 25th September 1943, the Partisans managed to capture at least over 7 armored cars. Sadly, it is difficult to determine the precise type of these cars, as the Partisans had trouble naming them properly in the sources, but we can assume that some were of the AB series. These armored cars were used against the Germans with some success until October, by which time most were either destroyed or hidden due to lack of fuel, spare parts, and ammunition. They also captured some Litorine Blindate, which were used to assault some Italians strongpoints before being destroyed by partisans to avoid being captured by the Germans.
Even the forces of the German puppet state of the Independent State Croatia managed to capture some weapons from the Italians, which included 10 armored cars. Partisan reports stated that the Croatian capital Zagreb was defended, from late 1943, by units equipped with ‘special’ armored cars (with some 7 to 10). These were described as being able to be driven in either direction (backward or forward) and had a turret. By this description, it is highly likely that at least some were of the AB series. In addition, at least one AB41 was operated by the Croat forces around the city of Varaždin.
After the end of the Second World War, the new Esercito Italiano (Italian Army) employed some AB “Ferroviaria” in its Railway Engineering units. These were an unknown number of AB41s and at least eight standard AB43s that were built after the war. These later vehicles had been taken from the army and modified in 1946, probably by the same FIAT plant (from Turin) that, four years earlier, had produced the ABs that went to fight in Yugoslavia.
These armored cars remained in service with the Italian Army until 1954 or 1955 and, like all the vehicles of the time, they were repainted in NATO Green and received new plates. One AB43 “Ferroviaria” survives and is preserved at the Museo della Motorizzazione in Cecchignola near Rome.
At least one AB rail armored car was operated after the war by the new Yugoslav People’s Army. The precise use and fate of this vehicle is unknown, but, by 1955, nearly all available captured armored vehicles were earmarked for scrapping. It is possible that the single AB was also scrapped at that time due to insufficient firepower and lack of spare parts.
The AB ‘Ferroviaria’ vehicles were produced to make up for the lack of armored trains in service in the Italian Royal Army. Fundamental for the patrols of railroads, preventing sabotage, and avoiding ambushes on the Italian supply trains, these special armored cars were used extensively even after the armistice of September 1943 by the Germans, who also reused them as normal armored cars. They also saw service post-war with the new Italian Army.
AB40 ‘Ferroviaria’ specifications
5,20 x 1,92 x 2,29 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
4 (driver, gunner, second driver and rear machine gunner)
FIAT-SPA ABM1 6 cyl, 78 hp with 145 l tanks
three Breda 38 by 8 x 59mm machine guns with 2040 rounds
The article was written by Arturo Giusti, who wrote the parts concerning the design and operational service, and by Marko Pantelić, who wrote the parts concerning the introduction of the AB 40, history of the project and operational service.
Kingdom of Italy 1940, Armored Car – 24 with Model 40 turrets and 435 with Model 41 turret built
The AB40 armored car was the most innovative reconnaissance vehicle of the Regio Esercito (Eng: Royal Italian Army) developed before the Second World War. FIAT and Ansaldo collaborated to respond to two requests for new armored cars: the first was to replace the old Lancia 1ZM, FIAT-Terni-Tripoli and FIAT 611 armored cars in service in the Royal Italian Army; whilst the second, was to replace the Lancia 1ZM in service in the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana or PAI (Eng: Italian Police in Africa).
Development of the AB40
The High Command of the Royal Italian Army considered armored cars fundamental to its modern warfare doctrine, firstly in the long-range reconnaissance role and, secondly, for infantry support tasks. The Italian Army was one of the first armes to test armored cars, with the FIAT Arsenale in 1912. Later, during World War I, the Italians were positively impressed by the capabilities of the Lancia and FIAT armored cars.
In the mid ’30s, the Royal Italian Army realized that the Lancia 1ZM and FIAT-Terni-Tripoli armored cars produced during the First World War, while still moderately effective in the infantry support role, were by now poorly armed, poorly protected and with substandard off-road driving characteristics.
In 1932, the FIAT 611 was produced. This armored truck was based on the FIAT 611C chassis with a speed of 28 km/h and a range of 180 km, but this low speed and short-range did not impress the High Command and less than 50 were produced. In 1937, ten Lancia 1ZM were sent to assist the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, where it was clear that, although still efficient as support vehicles, they could no longer carry out reconnaissance activities. In late 1937, the Royal Army decided to issue an order for the development of a new armored car for long-range reconnaissance.
In the 1930s, the PAI, the police corps in charge of the security of the Italian colonies, still used the old Lancia 1ZM, which were not very suitable for desert use, and also improvised armored cargo trucks to face the anti-colonialist groups in Libya and Ethiopia. In 1935-1936, the PAI tested some light tanks, but they were not appreciated for their short-range, which was considered unsuitable for the required tasks. In 1937, out of their own accord, the command of the PAI requested Italian companies the development of an armored car prototype for long-range reconnaissance.
History of the Prototype
FIAT and Ansaldo collaborated on the project, deciding to combine the two requests and to produce a single vehicle that would meet the needs of the PAI and of the Royal Italian Army. Thus, the AB40 was born. A first wooden model of the armored car was presented to Army officers during their visit to the Ansaldo factory in Genoa on 11 April 1938. The mockup was very similar to the final vehicle, with four-wheel drive, 4 steered wheels with independent suspension, petrol engine, armament composed of three 8 mm machine guns, and 4 crew members.
After the production of the wooden mock-up, two prototypes of the armored car, then called AutoBlindoMitragliatrice, or ABM (Eng: Machine gun Armored Car), were built. There is no precise date for the construction of the first prototype, but available photos are dated 5 May 1939 and the prototype was registered as ‘Autoblinda RE’ (for the Regio Esercito). The configuration of the front armor on this first prototype and on the prototype of the armored car destined for the PAI (initially registered “Polizia Coloniale 0021”) would be the one maintained on the final model. However, the headlights were not yet in the fairings inside the superstructure and the maintenance hatches on the engine hood were without air intakes.
The official presentation of the two armored car prototypes for the colonial police and the army took place on 15 May 1939, on the occasion of the inauguration of the FIAT Mirafiori plant in Turin. Then, these were shown for the first time to Benito Mussolini, the Army High Command and the PAI commanders. Mussolini was very impressed by the new vehicle and appreciated its silhouette. Some Italian newspapers of the time wrote that the Duce of Italy defined the vehicle as an “example of Italian elegance”.
The two vehicles differed in some details. The colonial police version was equipped with a large headlamp fixed on the roof of the turret and had a vertical radio antenna fixed on the front right of the superstructure, a siren on the rear part of the hull and an armored plate covering the spare wheels. The version intended for the army, provisionally re-registered as “Test TO.64”, was distinguishable by the inclination of the armor at the front of the superstructure and the fact that the spare wheels were unprotected. Compared to the prototype identified in the photos of 5 May 1939, during the test in May/June 1939, the Royal Army prototype had the air intakes on the engine deck. On both vehicles, all headlights were fitted with armor. It is not clear if the prototype of 5 May 1939 and the one with the “Test TO.64” plate are the same vehicle, but the FIAT archives in Turin do not mention the production of other prototypes.
The first prototype of the version intended for the army registered “Test TO.64”, was sent to the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione (Eng: Centre for Motorisation Studies) in Rome in June 1939 to undergo evaluation tests. The vehicle then participated in the maneuvers of August 1939 in Piedmont. It then received the rear registration plate “RE 3” on a triangular plate.
At the end of the tests, the engineers at the Centre for Motorisation Studies suggested some modifications and improvements, in particular, to simplify the shape of the mudguards and incorporate the front headlights into the front plate of the superstructure to prevent them from restricting visibility on bends. The sides of the front of the superstructure were modified, taking the example of the first version of the prototype to facilitate construction.
Tests on the prototype intended for the PAI, re-registered “Polizia Coloniale 0501”, were conducted in the operating theatre. The vehicle, sent to Africa Orientale Italiana or AOI (Eng: Italian East Africa), modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, disembarked in Massawa in Eritrea on 3 June 1939. From there, it left for a 13,000 km test run before returning to Massawa on 12 September. Despite the difficult weather conditions, the armored car was deemed a success. It was then sent back to Italy accompanied by a favorable report containing some proposed modifications: addition of an anti-aircraft machine gun mount on the turret, replacement of the enormous fixed headlight on the turret with a smaller one which could be maneuvered by the commander, installation of a system that allowed the radio antenna to fold up on the right side of the superstructure and removal of the spare wheel protection. After receiving these improvements, the prototype, called AB 6, was sent to the PAI training centre in Tivoli near Rome. In the summer of 1940, it was re-registered as “Polizia Africa Italiana 0501” and then sent to Libya.
The tests showed that the vehicle had excellent off-road driving characteristics and armor more than adequate for the role for which it was intended. Some modifications for speeding up production and eliminating some defects were made.
However, tests showed that the armament, composed of three medium machine guns, was not suitable for infantry support, but the imminent entry into the war and the need for new vehicles forced production to start anyway, while FIAT and Ansaldo technicians developed a new version. The thickness of the armor proved to be more than adequate to defend the crew from infantry fire and the hull proved to be very versatile and adapted to the requirements. The designers tried to modify the turret to mount a more powerful main armament. On 18 March 1940, the designation was changed and the vehicle received the name AutoBlindo Mod. 1940 or AB40 (Armored Car Mod. 1940).
A last prototype of the AB40 was produced, with the RE 116B registration plate. It can be distinguished from the earlier vehicles by the absence of a headlight on the turret, the elimination of the two rear air intakes on the turret, the adoption of new wheel rims, and the addition of a Notek headlight on the front of the superstructure. On the standard model of the AB40, the anti-aircraft gun mount and the Notek headlight were not mounted, the front fenders were shortened while a second horn was added to the right front fender.
Mass production began in January 1941 and the first 5 AB40 pre-series (registered 117B to 121B) were completed in March of the same year. By July 1941, 17 armored cars had been delivered and another 80 chassis were waiting to be equipped with turrets.
The most important specifications for the Italian designers were the off-road driving characteristics. The vehicle was built starting from the chassis of the TM40 artillery tractor (Medium Tractor Mod. 1940), a vehicle with four enormous wheels used to tow medium artillery pieces, in development since 1938 and which only entered service in 1942.
One of the major issues with previous armored cars was the time needed to disengage from a firefight. In order to withdraw, these old armored cars had to make complex and slow maneuvers that were often not feasible in the narrow streets of African villages. The problem was solved by adding another driving position on the right side of the back of the crew compartment of the new armored car. The steering system was then modified, allowing both the front and rear drivers to steer with all four wheels.
Engine and Suspension
The vehicle was powered by a FIAT SPA ABM 1 6-cylinder water-cooled inline petrol engine giving out 78 hp. It was positioned in the rear of the hull, with a Zenith type 42 TTVP carburetor housed in the back of the engine compartment. The engine was designed by FIAT and produced by its subsidiary SPA in Turin. The AB40 had a speed on roads of 80 km/h, while the range was about 400 km. There were three fuel tanks. The main one, holding 118 liters, was placed between the floor of the crew compartment and the bottom armored plate, the secondary 57-liter tank was placed in front of the driver while the reserve one with 20-liters was mounted under the machine gun at the back. The total was 195 liters.
The vehicle had four-wheel drive and all steering with independent shock absorbers on each wheel, which gave excellent off-road mobility to the armored cars. Also, the spare wheels, placed on the sides of the hull, were left free to rotate to help the vehicle overcome obstacles.
Hull and armor
The armor on the entire hull and superstructure consisted of bolted plates 9 mm thick. The turret also consisted of 9 mm thick plates on the front, sides, and back. The wheel fenders were also armored to prevent enemy fire from piercing the tires. The bottom had protection of 8 mm while the hull and turret roof received 6 mm plates.
In general, for the tasks the light armored car had to perform, the armor was more than adequate, protecting the crew from enemy infantry weapons and shrapnel. The hull of the armored car had an internal structure on which the plates were bolted. At the rear of the superstructure were the two armored access doors, divided in two parts that could be opened separately. The upper part had a slit to use the crew’s personal weapons for close defense.
On the right, the horn was placed at the front, the pickaxe was placed on the right side and the exhaust pipe was placed on the rear mudguard. The two spare wheels were placed in two fairings on the sides of the superstructure. In the ‘Ferroviaria’ (Eng: Railway) version, the support in the fairing was modified to allow two wheels to be attached on each side instead of one. Above the engine compartment, there were two air intakes and two hatches for engine maintenance. On the back were the cooling grille and the two rear lights.
Not much is known about the radio system of the AB40 pre-series, except that it was not the same system as on the standard AB, as the antenna was mounted on the right side of the vehicle.
On the standard vehicles, the radio system model RF3M produced by Magneti Marelli was placed on the left wall of the superstructure, in the middle. After March 1941, this was installed on all vehicles of the AB series. It consisted of a transmitter and receiver placed one on top of the other. Underneath them, on the floor, the power supply was placed, while the batteries were placed in the double bottom of the floor, near the main fuel tank. There were two pairs of headphones and microphones, one usable by the front driver and the second by the rear machine gunner. On the left was placed the antenna, which rested on a ‘V’ support welded at the back of the superstructure. The mounted antenna could be lowered to be horizontal. When ‘hoisted’ up, it was 3 m high, but could reach 7 m fully extended, with a maximum range of 60 km. In fact, in order to open the upper part of the left door, it was necessary to raise the antenna by a few degrees.
On the front of the armored car, the front driver had, apart from the slit and the hyposcope for driving, the steering wheel, the dashboard, and, in front of the steering wheel, the 57-liter fuel tank, and brake fluid tank.
On his left was the gear lever with 6 gears, the hand brake, the intercom panel, and the control lever which, when lowered, allowed the rear driver to take control of the vehicle. On the right, at the top, there was a crank that allowed the raising or lowering of the radio antenna and a box with a spare hyposcope. The driver’s backrest could be lowered to allow him to access his position.
On the two sides, above the wheel fairings, there were two headlights with armored doors that were raised and lowered by the driver with one lever.
Behind the driver’s seat, in the turret, there was the position of the vehicle commander/gunner. There was no turret basket, but there was a support with pedals which fired the machine guns.
On the sides of the hull were the ammunition racks that occupied most of the free space. On the floor, on the right, there was a large container that held machine gun barrels and equipment.
Behind the racks, there was enough space for a couple of small containers for equipment, and one fire extinguisher on the left side.
At the back were the rear driver on the left and the machine gunner on the right. Their seats were foldable and the steering wheel was secured with a butterfly screw and was easily removable, to facilitate crew access and exit. Between the two seats were the dashboard, gear lever with four gears, hand brake, and the direction control lever. The intercom panel was between the vision slit and the machine gun ball support. Between the two crew members and the engine compartment, there was not an armored bulkhead, but two tanks. On the right one was a 57-liter fuel tank and, on the right, one for the engine cooling systems with water. The problem of the lack of a bulkhead was never solved and the risk of fire was always very high.
Under the machine gunner, was the vehicle’s power battery and to the right of the machine gun were headphones and the radio microphone.
At the back of the vehicle was the engine compartment, which was not easy to access for maintenance because it had only two access doors. Behind the engine, there was the radiator and the oil tank.
The turret of the AB40 was called Mod. 1940, was developed and produced by Ansaldo and was the same used on the L6/40 prototype, called M6T. The single-seater turret was octagonal, with one hatch on the turret roof for the vehicle commander/gunner. On the sides, the turret had three slots on the sides and one in the rear and two air intakes to avoid the risk of intoxication of the crew, as the vehicle did not have fans or smoke extractors. On the roof, there was a periscope of the tank commander next to the hatch, which allowed a view of the battlefield and could rotate 360°.
The armament was composed of three 8 mm caliber Breda Mod. 38 machine guns. These had curved 24 round magazines placed on top. This machine gun was derived from the Breda Mod. 37 medium infantry machine gun. The maximum elevation of the machine guns in the turret was +18° while the depression was -9°. The third machine gun was positioned on the right side of the vehicle, oriented to the back, and placed on a ball mount. The rear machine gun could be dismounted and fitted on an anti-aircraft support, the same as that used on the ‘M’ series tanks, on the roof of the turret. From the photographs, however, it can be seen that only the pre-series armored cars received the anti-aircraft mount.
In total, there were 2,040 rounds of 8 x 59 mm RB Breda ammunition loaded in 85 machine gun magazines stored in wooden racks painted in white. 45 were stored on the right side of the hull and 40 on the left side.
Although hardly ever used, the M.39 AP (Armor Piercing) shells were available for the machine gun. The bullet weighed 12 grams and, with a muzzle velocity of 780 m/s, could penetrate a 16 mm RHA (Rolled Homogeneous Armor) plate at 90° at a distance of 100 m. Standard ammunition with the same muzzle velocity penetrated 11 mm at 100 m.
This armament was not ideal, especially because the magazines carried only 24 rounds, which did not allow for continued suppressing fire.
The tires used on the AB40 were produced by the Pirelli Factory in Milan, as were almost all the tires on Italian vehicles. Pirelli produced several tires for the 60 cm (24″) rims used on the TM40 transport vehicles and also AB series armored cars.
Three types of tires were used. In the African theatre, “Libia” (Eng: Libya) 9.75 x 24″ (25 x 60 cm) tires were used. For use in Europe, such as Italy and the Balkans, “Artiglio” (Eng: Claw) 9 x 24″ (22.8 x 60 cm) tires were used.
The third type was used on the “Ferroviaria” version, the wheels used were train wheels modified by FIAT to adapt them to the AB40 rim.
PAI AB40 Prototype
The PAI prototype, of which there are several photographs, was different from the standard AB40. The wheel rims were more elaborate. In order to speed up production, these were replaced by a more resistant six-spoke model. The slit for personal weapons on the side door was not installed, in its place there was only a less sophisticated slot used for the same role.
Another obvious detail was the radio antenna that was mounted on the left side. On the AB40 and the later AB40/41 hybrids, the antenna was mounted on the right side. The radio system of the prototype is unknown. The turret had four air intakes but no slots and, as on the prototypes, a fixed headlight was mounted on the roof of the turret. On the right side, near the door, was fixed the jack that on the standard models was transported inside the large box on the right side of the vehicle. The mudguards were longer and larger to protect the wheels from enemy fire. However, often, when driving off-road, the mudguards would hit obstacles and bend. In some cases, the bent part would cut the tire.
The testing of the prototype of the armored car in Africa and the study of a Soviet BA-6 heavy armored car captured intact during the Spanish Civil War, supplied to the Spanish Republican Army by the Soviets, made the Italian High Command understand that the three machine gun armament inherited from the Lancia 1ZM was no longer suitable for the needs of modern warfare. Production was started anyway while a solution was being considered. Ansaldo quickly proposed to install a new turret, called Mod. 1941, developed for the standard version of the L6/40 light tank, on the chassis of the AB40. Due to the weight increase from 6.8 to 7.4 tons, after some time, FIAT-SPA proposed to replace the engine with an enhanced version, the FIAT SPA ABM 2 6-cylinder giving out 88 hp. This version was not immediately tested, but when it was accepted in service, the new version had some problems.
In order to produce the SPA ABM 2 engine, the company had to modify the assembly lines and this took time. For a time, the old SPA ABM 1 engine was still mounted on the chassis of the AB armored cars fitted with the Mod. 1941 turret. This version is sometimes known as the AB40/41 hybrid, although it was never officially called that. The registers of the Ufficio Autonomo Approvvigionamenti Automobilistici Regio Esercito (Eng: Royal Army Autonomous Automobile Procurement Office), which lists the vehicles produced with their registration, chassis number and engine number, mention the AB40 version as a vehicle still produced in 1941 and early 1942. According to these registers, the armored cars registered from 116B to 551B would be AB40, i.e. 435 units produced. Those registered from 552B to 784B, i.e. 232 vehicles, would be AB41s. This means that a large number of the AB40s actually had the mod.1941 turret mounted.
The AB40 in action
As soon as the production order was received, FIAT started to build the assembly lines and to produce the new armored cars. 5 pre-series vehicles were finished in March 1941 and were delivered to the Armored Car Training Centre of Pinerolo for crew training. Another unknown number of pre-series vehicles, slightly modified with the addition of a searchlight on the roof of the turret and a littorio beam (symbol of the Italian Fascist Party) on the front of the hull, were sent to the Training Centre of the Italian African Police in Rome.
Polizia dell’Africa Italiana
Due to the entry into the war, the PAI did not receive many ABs, which went to the army instead.
When the African Campaign began on September 13, 1940, the PAI supported the 132ª Divisione Corazzata “Ariete” (Eng: 132nd Armored Division) of the Royal Army with motorcyclist companies. In 1941, all the armored cars it owned, 60 AB40 and AB41, were used to equip 5 Armored Car Companies and were sent to Africa.
On the first day of the war, a company with 10 old armored cars crossed the border with Egypt. After a few kilometers, almost all the vehicles were destroyed by friendly fire.
From that moment, all the PAI’s AB40 and AB41 armored cars had the Italian flag painted on the sides and on the front of the superstructure in order to distinguish them even at a distance. When they were not in use, they stayed in barracks in Benghazi and Tripoli.
For the rest of the African Campaign, the ABs of the PAI fought alongside the units of the Royal Army. It is not clear when but, before the Tunisian Campaign, due to the losses suffered, the PAI police officers and the very few survivors were aggregated into the army units. The PAI men and some AB41 armored cars fought in Rome during the days after the Armistice of 8 September 1943.
The Royal Italian Army used AB40s only in Italy and the Balkans. In Italy, the first 5 pre-production units, one of the two prototypes and an unknown number of units were used in the Centro di Addestramento Autoblindo ( Eng: Armored Car Training Centre) of Pinerolo near Turin. There, in March 1941, the training courses of the crews on the new armored cars began. The first crews of the Royal Army that employed the AB40 and AB41 at the outbreak of the war did not have a specific training for the new vehicles but were trained to fight on the old Lancia 1ZM.
The AB40 was used extensively by the students of the training center, together with the AB41s (probably AB40/41 hybrids), after the Cassibile Armistice of 8 September 1943. Their fate remains uncertain.
In 1942, the Royal Army took from the Armored Car Training Centre 12 armored cars, 8 AB40s and 4 AB41s, which were taken to the FIAT factories in Turin, where they were modified to be used on the railways. These armored cars, nicknamed “Ferroviarie” (Railways), were used to prevent sabotage by Yugoslav partisans on the railway lines of the territories occupied by Italians in the Balkans. The 12 armored cars were replaced by AB41s in the following months.
Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana
After the Armistice, the Germans occupied the factories of FIAT and Ansaldo and also captured or requisitioned all the Italian vehicles used by the Royal Army. The confused days after the Armistice brought the Italian soldiers, left without orders and officers, to take decisions autonomously in all the occupied territories and also in Italy. Some decided to fight against the Germans, joining the Allies, others, loyal to Mussolini, continued to fight together with the Germans, and others deserted, returning to their homes or joining the partisan brigades. This led the Germans to be very suspicious of Italian soldiers. The Germans also needed to replace the vehicles they lost in battle with anything available.
On 23 September 1943, Benito Mussolini founded the Repubblica Sociale Italiana or RSI (Eng: Italian Social Republic) in the Italian territories still under fascist and German control. Many Italian soldiers still loyal to Mussolini and fascist ideology joined the RSI and joined his new army, the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano or ENR (Eng: National Republican Army). The German Army provided the new Italian Army with a few tanks and armored cars that formed the armored nucleus of the ENR. The divisions of the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana or GNR (Eng: National Republican Guard), the fascist military police, however, were forced to rearm themselves without any assistance by building improvised or rudimentary armored cars, such as the Lancia 3Ro Blindato of the XXXVI° Black Brigade “Natale Piacentini” or by searching in warehouses and stores for any vehicle still able to fight.
The Gruppo Corazzato “Leonessa” (Eng: Armored Group “Lioness”), operating in Piedmont, Lombardy and Emilia Romagna, managed to take possession of dozens of transport vehicles, which were used in anti-partisan actions and were armored, such as the SPA-Viberti AB43 armored cars. The ‘Leonessa’ also managed to employ 18 AB41 armored cars found in northern Italy. According to an unconfirmed source, some of these armored cars were recovered from the Centro di Addestramento Autoblindo di Pinerolo. However, it is not clear why the use of AB40 is not mentioned in the ranks of the “Leonessa”. Two hypotheses have been made, the first is that the AB40s were disassembled and used as spare parts because, by then, the armament was obsolete. The second hypothesis instead states that the turrets of the armored cars were replaced with Mod. 1941 turrets supplied by the SPA factory in Turin.
The AB40 was a revolutionary armored car for the Royal Italian Army, with some very modern features, such as double driving positions and independent suspension for each wheel. However, its armament was insufficient for the infantry support role. This deficit led FIAT and Ansaldo technicians to develop a new version, the better-armed AB41 and other vehicles on the same chassis. The few examples produced were mostly used to train the crews of Italian armored cars.
5.20 m x 1.92 m x 2.29 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
FIAT-SPA ABM 1, 6-cylinders 78 hp engine
3x Breda 38 by 8x59mm machine guns with 2040 round
17 mm front, sides and rear
22 mm front, 8.5 mm sides and rear
3 prototype, 5 pre-series and 24 vehicles finished and delivered to the Royal Army. 435 AB41 armed with the SPA ABM 1 engine
I mezzi blindo-corazzati italiani 1923-1943. Nicola Pignato.
Gli autoveicoli da combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano. Nicola Pignato e Filippo Cappellano.
Le autoblinde AB 40, 41 e 43. Nicola Pignato e Fabio D’Inzéo.
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In 1937, the Regio Esercito (Eng. Italian Royal Army) realized that the Lancia 1ZM armored cars in service in the reconnaissance units since 1915, still employed in the Italian African Colonies and in the Spanish Civil War, even if still efficient, were obsolete because they were not fast, were weakly armored and had bad off-road driving capabilities. This led to the development of the Autoblindo Fiat-Ansaldo series, of which the most prominent was the AB41.
History of the AB Armored Car Series
The Italian Army, which was one of the first armies to use armored cars in 1912 with the FIAT Arsenale, held armored cars in high esteem for their role of long-range reconnaissance vehicles for armored divisions and support to infantry actions. The armored cars used in World War I received positive comments from the Army High Command who were impressed by the usefulness of the new vehicles. Between 1918 and 1932, there were a number of prototypes of various armored vehicles which, however, led to nothing other than the 46 FIAT 611s produced by Ansaldo with a maximum road speed of only 28 km/h and a range of 180 km. Italian officers were not satisfied with the new armored vehicle which during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, received more criticism than the older Lancia 1ZM. This led the Italian Army to give an order to all Italian companies for a new wheeled vehicle to replace the Lancia 1ZM which was being used in Spain and the FIAT 611.
Around the same time, the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana or PAI (Eng. Italian Police of Africa) unilaterally requested the development of an armored car for reconnaissance duties from Ansaldo to be used in the Italian African colonies of Libya and Ethiopia, where anti-colonial resistance groups were still present and light tanks could not adequately perform the long-range reconnaissance role that armored cars provided. This request was also aimed to replace the old FIAT-Terni-Tripoli and Lancia 1ZM that arrived in Africa after 1918, which by that point, had experienced 20 years of continuous service and suffered from several problems due to a lack of spare parts.
History of the Prototype
The two orders were answered by the FIAT-SPA and Ansaldo consortium, which began to develop a wheeled vehicle that would meet the requirements of the Italian Army and the Colonial Police. The feature that was most taken into consideration was the off-road driving, in fact, the vehicle used as the basis was the TM40 (Medium Tractor Mod. 1940), a vehicle used to tow artillery, in development since 1938 which only entered service in 1942.
One of the biggest issues that had been found in the previous armored cars was the time it took to disengage from a firefight and flee, which was made harder by the narrow streets in the villages of the colonies. The problem was solved by adding another driving position on the right side of the rear of the new armored car. The steering system was then modified, allowing the front and rear driver to steer with all four wheels.
The armament was composed of three 8 mm caliber Breda Mod. 38 machine guns and placed, as on the Lancia armored car, two in the turret and one on the rear, on the left side of the rear driver. The engine was a Fiat SPA ABM 1 6-cylinder petrol engine 78 hp.
On May 15th, 1939, the two prototypes produced, at the time called AutoBlindoMitragliatrice Mod. 1940 or ABM 40 (Eng. Machine gun Armored Car Mod. 1940), were presented to Benito Mussolini and the Italian Army during the inauguration of the FIAT production plant in Mirafiori, Turin.
Two weeks later, one of the prototypes was sent by sea to Africa Orientale Italiana or AOI (Eng: Italian East Africa), modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, where it covered 13,000 km during tests. After some modifications to speed up production, even if the tests revealed that the main armament was not powerful enough, the vehicle was accepted into service in March 1940 and ordered in the first batch of 176 units due to the imminent entry into the war, under the name of AutoBlinda Mod. 1940 (Eng. Armored Car Mod. 1940) or more simply AB40.
The first 5 vehicles were sent to the Centro di Addestramento Autoblindo (Eng: Armored Car Training Centre) of Pinerolo in March 1941. Twenty-four examples of the new armored car were produced with the temporary Mod. 1940 turret, while a prototype was created with the Mod. 1941 turret of the L.6/40 light tank.
The new version, called AB41, was armed with the Cannone 20/65 Breda Mod. 1935, overcoming the lack of firepower of the AB40, and a more powerful petrol engine, the FIAT SPA ABM 2 6-cylinder 88 hp. The modifications increased the weight, from 6.8 to 7.4 tons. After a few tests, it was judged favorably by the army, which authorized its production. After a short while, the new Mod. 1941 turrets, which were already being produced for the L.6, arrived at the assembly lines. The new engines took longer, as the assembly lines had to be modified, so it was decided to modify the AB40 armored cars by mounting the Mod. 41 turret on a hull powered by the FIAT SPA ABM 1 engine. These “hybrid” armored cars are indistinguishable from the AB41 from the outside, and the total production number is 435, 65% of the whole AB41 production.
The AB41 was the standard reconnaissance armored car of the Royal Italian Army which used it with excellent results in the African Campaign, the Russian Front and the Balkans from mid-1941 to September 8th, 1943. After the September 1943 Armistice of Cassibile, all the AB41s were requisitioned by the Wehrmacht, which went on to reuse them in France and Germany. Some of them were given to the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano or ENR (Eng. National Republican Army), the collaborationist army of Benito Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic, which was founded in September 1943 on Italian territories still under German control. In total, about 660 were produced even after the German occupation. After the war, they were still employed by the Italian Police and the Esercito Italiano or EI (Eng. Italian Army) until 1954.
The Royal Army considered the AB41 to be fundamental, so it ordered FIAT to give priority to the delivery of armored cars over light tanks. According to FIAT archives, a large number of L.6 were parked in the warehouses of FIAT factories for months, practically finished, but without the radio system and the optics of the cannon, because the production of these parts common to the AB41 was insufficient and priority was given to the armored cars.
The crew consisted of four: the front driver, who also operated the radio when not driving, placed in the front; the vehicle’s commander who was in the turret in the middle of the vehicle, who in addition to giving orders to the rest of the crew, had to operate the main gun and control the battlefield; the rear driver on the left of the rear; and the machine gunner/radio operator, to the rear driver’s right. Throughout the war, the lack of a loader for the main gun negatively affected the performance of the armored car.
Engine and Suspension
As aforementioned, the engine was a FIAT SPA ABM 1 6-cylinder water-cooled inline petrol engine 78 hp in the AB40 hull version, while in the AB41 version, it was a FIAT-SPA ABM 2 6-cylinder water-cooled inline petrol engine 88 hp with a Zenith type 42 TTVP carburetor housed in the back of the engine compartment. The two engines were designed by FIAT and produced by its subsidiary SPA in Turin. The second engine was chosen because the new turret armed with the Breda gun increased the weight of the vehicle and decreased the range and top speed.
With the ABM 1 engine, the AB41’s speed on road was 75 km/h while the range was about 370 km, whilst with the new engine, the speed on road was 80 km/h, even though the maximum speed reached during the tests was 98 km/h, and the range increased to 400 km. There were three fuel tanks for a total of 195 liters. The main one with 118 liters was in the double bottom of the floor, the 57-liter secondary tank was mounted in front of the front driver above the steering wheel, while the 20-liters reserve tank was placed under the machine gun position in the rear.
The suspension was a four-wheel drive with independent shock absorbers on each wheel which gave excellent off-road mobility to the armored cars. The spare wheels, placed on the sides of the hull, were left loose and free to rotate to help the vehicle to overcome obstacles.
Supports for extra jerry cans were mounted at the factory on the last vehicles along with a new exhaust, being able to carry up to a maximum of 5 or 6 (three or four on the right sides of the vehicle and two on the front fenders), but there are photos of AB41 in Africa equipped with jerry cans attached to racks built and welded by the crews on the battlefield.
Hull and armor
The armor on the entire hull and superstructure consisted of bolted plates. This arrangement did not offer the same efficiency as a mechanically welded plate but facilitated the replacement of an armor element in case it had to be repaired. The hull was 9 mm thick, front, sides, and rear while on the turret, the bolted plates reached a maximum thickness of 40 mm on the front plate and 30 mm on the sides and back. The wheel fenders were also armored to prevent enemy fire from piercing the tires.
In general, for the tasks the armored car had to perform, the armor was more than adequate, protecting the crew from enemy infantry light weapons.
The hull of the armored car had an internal structure on which the plates were bolted. At the rear of the superstructure were the two armored access doors, divided into two parts that could be opened separately. The upper part had a slit so that the crew could use their personal weapons for close-quarters defense. On the left was the antenna, which rested on a support at the back of the superstructure. In fact, to open the upper part of the left door, it was necessary to raise the antenna a few degrees.
On the right, the horn was placed at the front, a pickaxe was placed on the right side and the exhaust pipe was placed on the rear wing. The two spare wheels were placed in two fairings on the sides of the superstructure. In the “Railway” version, the support in the fairing allowed to attach two wheels on each side. Above the engine compartment, there were two air intakes and two hatches for engine maintenance. On the back were the cooling grille and the two rear lights.
On the left wall of the superstructure, in the middle, was placed the radio system model RF3M produced by Magneti Marelli, which was installed on all vehicles of the AB series from March 1941 onwards. The radio system mounted on vehicles built before March 1941 is unknown. It consisted of the transmitter and receiver placed one on top of the other. Underneath them, on the floor, the power supplies were placed while the batteries were placed in the double bottom of the floor. There were two pairs of headphones and microphones, one which was used by the front driver and the second by the rear machine gunner. The mounted antenna could be lowered to 90°. When ‘hoisted’ up, it was 3m high but could reach 7m fully extended with a maximum range of 60 km and 25/35 km when 3 m high. The company or platoon command armored cars also received an RF2CA radio also from Magneti Marelli, mounted on the rear of the fighting compartment, but there were no external differences between the normal AB41 and the command version.
Apart from the frontal slit and the episcope, the front driver had in front of him the steering wheel, the dashboard, the 57-liter tank, and brake fluid tank.
On his right was the gear lever with 6 gears, the hand brake, the intercom panel, and the directional control lever which, when lowered, allowed the rear driver to take control of the vehicle. On the left, at the top, there was a crank that facilitated the raising or lowering of the radio antenna.
On either side, above the wheel fairings, there was a headlight on armored hinges that were raised and lowered by the driver with two levers.
Behind the driver’s seat, with a foldable backrest, there was the position of the vehicle commander/gunner. The position did not have a turret basket and the commander/gunner operated the cannon and the machine gun by the use of pedals. There were no electric generators in the turret, so the cables that connected the pedals to the weapons in the turret were the ‘Bowden’ type cables, the same as on bike brakes. On the sides of the hull were the ammunition racks that occupied most of the free space on the interior sides of the superstructure.
On the right was a large container that was used to store the crew’s personal belongings and equipment, whilst fixed on the outside of the container was the support for the spare barrels for the machine guns.
Behind the racks, there was additional room for a couple of small containers for equipment and three fire extinguishers, two on the left side, and one on the right side.
At the back were the rear driver’s position on the left and the machine gunner’s on the right. Their seats were foldable and the steering wheel was secured with a butterfly screw which was easily removable, to facilitate crew access and exit. Between the two seats were the dashboard, gear lever with 4 gears, hand brake, and the directional control. The intercom panel was between the slit and the machine gun ball support. Between the two crew members and the engine compartment, there were two tanks, on the right a 20-liters fuel tank and on the left, one for the engine cooling water. Under the machine gunner, there was the vehicle’s power battery and to the right of the machine gun, the headphones, and the radio microphone.
Behind them, there was the engine compartment which was not easy to access for maintenance because it had only two access doors. Behind the engine, there were the radiator and the oil tank.
As aforementioned, the AB41 turret was the Mod. 1941 developed and produced by Ansaldo for the L.6/40 light 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 during maintenance operations. On the sides, the turret then had, in addition to two slits, two air intakes as the vehicle did not have fans or smoke extractors. On the roof there was a periscope for the commander next to the hatch, which allowed him a partial view of the battlefield because it was impossible, due to the limited space, to rotate it 360°. After some time it was realized that the turret had some balance problems, so a counterweight was put on the back, under the rear hatch.
The main armament was the Cannone da 20/65 Breda Mod. 1935 L.65 with a rate of fire of 220 rounds per minute with an x1 sight produced by the San Giorgio Optics Factory. The elevation was +18° while the depression was -9°. The Breda cannon could fire Armor Piercing (AP) and High Explosive (HE) rounds of Italian production caliber 20 x 138 mm, but also those used by the German FlaK 38 cannon and the Solothurn S18-1000 anti-tank gun, increasing the anti-tank capacity of the cannon. With the Italian armor-piercing bullets, the Mod. 1935 cannon could penetrate a 38 mm armor plate inclined at 90° at 100 m and a 30 mm armored plate at 500 m. With German Pz.Gr. 40 ammunition, it could penetrate a 50 mm armor plate inclined at 90° at 100 m and a 40 mm armored plate at 500 m.
The secondary armament consisted of two Breda Mod. 38 8 mm caliber machine guns, the first coaxial to the cannon, on the left, and the second in a ball support on the rear of the vehicle. These machine guns were the vehicle version of the Breda Mod. 37 medium machine gun and had a top-mounted curved box magazine with 24 rounds.
The machine gun at the rear had an x1 optics and could be disassembled and used in an anti-aircraft position. For the whole duration of the African Campaign, the AB41 crews used a variety of handcrafted supports for anti-aircraft machine guns. Often, machine guns captured from the Allies, such as the Browning M1919 or Bren gun, or other Breda Mod. 38s taken from Italian vehicles destroyed in combat, were used in these mounts. From 1943 onward, an anti-aircraft support for the AB41 was produced by Ansaldo, but very few were produced and not much is known about their use.
From 1943 onwards, a smoke grenade launcher mounted on the side of the engine compartment and a box containing the smoke grenades were added on the back of the armored car. It is not clear if the last AB41s delivered to the Royal Army were equipped with them or if only the Germans used them.
The ammunition on the AB41 armored car consisted of 38 magazines of 12 rounds (for a total of 456 rounds) of 20 mm and 83 magazines of 24 rounds (for a total of 1,992 rounds) of 8 mm. As aforementioned, the magazines were placed in white painted wooden racks on the sides of the hull, 14 20 mm magazines and 40 8 mm magazines were placed on the left side together with the radio and intercom of the commander. The remaining 24 20 mm and 45 8 mm magazines were placed on the right side.
In the one-man turret, there was no space for a loader and it was the vehicle commander who had to load the cannon in addition to commanding and firing the cannon, even though it was not uncommon for one of the two drivers, when not driving, to pass the magazines to the commander to facilitate loading.
The tires used on the AB41 were produced by the Pirelli factory in Milan, as were almost all the tires on Italian vehicles. Pirelli produced several tires for the 60 cm (24″) rim used on the TM40 transport vehicles and also AB series armored cars.
Three types of tires were used for the African campaign, the most common being the “Libia” (Eng: Libya) 9.75 x 24″ (25 x 60 cm). There was also the “Libia Rinforzato” (Eng: Libya Reinforced) with the same dimensions but run-flat and the “Raiflex” introduced in 1942 for the Camionetta FIAT-SPA AS42 and rarely fitted on armored cars.
For the use on ‘continental’ soils, such as Italy, the Russian steppes, France, and Germany, AB41s instead used the Pirelli “Artiglio” (Eng: Claw) 9 x 24″ (22.8 x 60 cm), “Artiglio a Sezione Maggiorata” (Eng: Claw With Increased Section) 11.25 x 24″ (28.5 x 60 cm) and finally, from 1942 onwards, the Pirelli “Sigillo Verde” (Eng: Green Seal) tires. There is photographic evidence that shows AB series armored cars fitted with the AS42’s specific tires and vice versa, as, due to the troublesome supply lines of the Royal Army and the Republican Army, the crews were not always supplied with spare wheels. Some photographs show armored cars with non-standard tires of a suitable size.
Flaws of the AB41
The AB41 was a well-designed vehicle but it was not without its flaws The steering system was very delicate and forced the crews to make continuous and long overhauls to make it continuously efficient. The mechanism which allowed the dual drive took up a lot of space inside the vehicle, thus making it very cramped.
The turret Mod. 1941 suffered from several problems too. It was very tall, therefore causing problems as it was easier to spot even at long distances and for balance. This latter issue was solved in the middle of 1942 with the addition of a counterweight on the back. Furthermore, it did not have a fume extractor but instead only two air intakes, often causing the gunner to become intoxicated. The turret was also very narrow, making loading very difficult.
The AB41 had a one-man turret, forcing the commander to perform too many tasks, including locating targets, firing, loading the cannon and giving orders. This obviously caused many problems for the commander, whose task was made even harder by the lack of a laryngophone and was forced to give orders through the intercom placed on the left side of the superstructure.
During the war, the Italian war industry failed to provide an adequate amount of high-quality ballistic steel armor for the Italian Army, in fact, the crews often complained about the armor on armored cars, which in some instances, during off-road marches, cracked whilst traversing rough terrain.
Although the armor was thick enough to defend the crew from light infantry weapons, making it adequate for a reconnaissance vehicle, due to the lack of suitable vehicles and the lack of organization, the Italian Army often employed the armored car as a vehicle to break the enemy’s defensive lines. This caused a lot of losses, as these long-range reconnaissance vehicles were an all too easy target even for anti-tank rifles that could penetrate the armor of the armored cars of the AB series over 100 m away.
When having to attack enemy positions, the crews often advanced with their vehicles facing backward, as the rear-facing machine gun provided superior offensive capabilities and the presence of the engine at the rear increased the armor protection for the crews, even if making the vehicle as a whole more vulnerable.
The 20-liter reserve tank was not protected by an armored bulkhead, a problem which was never solved and the risk of fire was always very high. Even during the use in the desert, this problem worsened because the heat emitted by the engine forced the crews to keep the doors and the hatches open to allow the crews to properly breathe. One interesting fact is that crews often did not fill the reserve tank and relied on externally transported fuel tanks to avoid the risk of fire.
During the Second World War, the Regio Esercito received 624 AB41s that operated in North Africa, Yugoslavia, Italy, and on the Eastern Front. In Africa, between 1941 and 1943, the lll° Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’ (Eng: Armored Group) and the lll° Gruppo Corazzato ‘Monferrato’ used 42 AB41s each. The AB41 also carried out patrolling tasks for the 132ª Divisione Corazzata “Ariete” (Eng: 132nd Armored Division) and for some Panzer Divisions of the Afrika Korps.
In 1942, the lll° Gruppo Corazzato ‘Novara’ received two AB41 armored cars as a replacement for some L6/40 light tanks lost in action, as both the L6 and AB41 had the Mod. 41 turrets were armed with a 20 mm cannon.
In late-1942, the men and vehicles of the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Lodi’ or R.E.Co. (Eng: Armored Exploring Group) were also sent to Africa after completing their training, and were equipped with 36 armored cars until the end of the African Campaign in May 1943. Its armored cars were the last in service during the Campaign, on April 10th, 1943, 40 AB41s were in service, but on April 22nd, the R.E.Co. “Lodi” grouped together all the Italian vehicles still in running condition, a couple of dozens of AB41s, two Semovente M41 da 75/18s, an M14/41 and some captured allied vehicles. The last action of the AB41 in North Africa is documented on May 11th, 1943, when the remaining Italian and German vehicles fought one last battle against the Allied forces in which they were completely destroyed two days before the surrender of the worn-out Axis forces in Africa.
In Russia, an unknown number of these vehicles were utilized to arm the Plotone Autonomo Autoblindo (Eng: Armored Car Autonomous Platoon) of the 156ª Divisione di Fanteria ‘Vicenza’ (Eng: Infantry Division). These vehicles were used together with some L.6/40s and L40 47/32s during the Don Offensive against the Soviet forces and were all destroyed before the retreat.
In August 1943, Romania bought eight AB41s that arrived in Romania by ship, their fate, however, is unknown.
In Ferrara (Italy), on 15th July 1942, the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Montebello’ was created, with four motorcycle squadrons, four armored car squadrons (about 40 AB41s) and four self-propelled squadrons with Semoventi M41 da 75/18 and L.40 da 47/32. This grouping was employed for about a year in public order tasks. On April 1st, 1943, the 135ª Divisione Corazzata “Ariete II” was created, which incorporated the M41 da 75/18s and L.40 da 47/32s of the armored squadrons of the “Lancieri di Montebello”. The R.E.Co. remained with less than 30 AB41s and the motorcyclist squadrons.
In July 1943, the R.E.Co. was transferred by railway to Rome. The convoys that carried it stopped at Castelnuovo di Porto, where the last armored cars were delivered, and then near Rome, in Isola Farnese, the 34 armored cars were unloaded and traveled by road to Olgiata, north of Rome. On September 8th, 1943, the R.E.Co. received the news of the signing of the Armistice of Cassibile. The R.E.Co. “Lancieri di Montebello” and the 135ª Divisione Corazzata “Ariete II” received orders from Italian Prime Minister, Pietro Badoglio, to defend the city from the Germans. On the morning of September 9th, 1943, the AB41s headed to Rome where the 21ª Divisione di fanteria “Granatieri di Sardegna” had erected defensive positions.
Between 9th and 10th September, they fought against the Germans who were trying to capture the city, first supported by the infantry on the Tiber River and later at Porta San Paolo. Two AB41s of the ‘Lancieri di Montebello’ were hit at short range by 3.7 cm PaK 36 German anti-tank cannons and destroyed. After these actions, the surviving armored cars were abandoned and the crews joined the partisans.
Polizia dell’Africa Italiana (PAI)
In the African Campaign, the PAI employed five Compagnie Autoblindo (Eng: Armored Car Company), a total of 60 armored cars, from 1941 to 1943. Each company had 12 AB41s (at the beginning also some AB40s), divided into two platoons of 4 armored cars plus the AB41 command vehicle and two vehicles in reserve. Until mid-1942, losses were always replaced with new vehicles, but the intensification of air and submarine attacks by the British Royal Air Force and Royal Navy made Italian naval convoys carrying supplies and new vehicles arriving in Libyan ports less regular.
After the end of the African Campaign, the PAI vehicles and men who had not been sent to Africa were sent to Rome, where on 8th September 1943, they took part in the defense of the city with 14 AB41s. Their most important task was to escort the King of the Kingdom of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III di Savoia, the royal family, and the Prime Minister, Pietro Badoglio, who had to flee down the Via Tiburtina where they found American soldiers who welcomed them. In Rome, on the night of 9th September, the police officers of the Italian African Police, some Bersaglieri, and the pupils of the academy of the Arma dei Carabinieri Reali (Eng: Arm of Royal Carabiners) with the support of some armored cars and perhaps other vehicles, were able to attack and force the German forces in the Magliana area, southwest of Rome, to retreat. A few hours later, they themselves were forced to retreat towards the Ostiense Fort, organizing defenses with the survivors of the ‘Granatieri di Sardegna’ division. The following day, German paratroopers attacked the fort at 6.00 am, with the defenders managed to hold out for over an hour until the Germans were able to bring a mortar and began to bomb the Italian defenses. When the last armored car was destroyed by mortar grenades, the Germans attacked with flamethrowers, forcing the last soldiers to flee. Some nuns from a nearby orphanage provided the surviving police officers and soldiers with civilian clothes for the escape while a priest organized the surrender of the fort at 11.00 am.
Some AB41s were captured by Commonwealth troops and the British Army supplied some of these armored cars to the Australian and Polish forces. The most famous was perhaps the AB41 of the ‘Polish Carpathian Lancers’ captured from the Italians and used against its former owner and the Germans in Egypt between May and August 1942. After that, it was requisitioned by British High Command and transported by sea to the United Kingdom, more specifically, to the School of Tank Technology (STT) in Chobham. After about a year, in May 1943, the British information service created a report on the AB41.
The British highly appreciated the armored car in the two versions encountered in Africa, AB40, and AB41. According to reports prepared by the British, in addition to the major criticisms regarding low-quality armor, the engine was considered reliable although difficult to maintain, the turret to be small and cramped, but the AB41 were deemed fast and well-armed, the vehicle was very effective in the task of long-range patrol and reconnaissance.
After September 8th, 1943, the Germans occupied all the assembly lines of the factories of central and northern Italy and captured the majority of the remaining Italian vehicles.
Around 200 AB41 armored cars were requisitioned, 20 were captured still in the factory and 23 were produced for the German Army, where they were renamed Panzerspähwagen AB41 201(i). A small number of the AB41s were supplied to the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano, with the Germans preferring to keep the few AB43s which were much more popular with German crews. In German service, the AB41 was used by the Divisions of the Waffen-SS, Luftwaffe, Wehrmacht, and Todt Organization, seeing service in France, Germany, Italy, and the Balkans. In the Balkans, they were used in anti-partisan operations and for patrolling airfields or military bases. Some units that used them were: 41. Panzer Spah Zug, 71. Infantry Division (1943-1944) and 162. Infantry Division, SS Polizei Gebirgs Regiment 18 and Gendarmerie Reserve Kompanie Alpenland-3.
In France and Germany, they were used against Allied troops. Photographic evidence shows what looks like a destroyed AB41 used by the Germans in the last-ditch attempt to defend Berlin from Soviet forces between 25th April and 2nd May 1945.
Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano (ENR) and Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana (GNR)
The Gruppi Corazzati (Eng: Armored Group) of the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano of the Salò Republic, the collaborationist regime founded by Benito Mussolini on 23rd September 1943, used some AB41 armored cars supplied by the Germans or that were found abandoned in some depot. Two AB41s were used by the Gruppo Corazzato “San Giusto” (Eng: Armored Group “St. Justus”) to patrol the Valtellina roads, to dissuade partisans from sabotaging it. The roads of Valtellina were fundamental for the fascist forces who in the last months of the war were forced to a desperate defense. Benito Mussolini’s plan was to flee to Switzerland via Valtellina together with the last soldiers loyal to fascism.
In April 1945, just before the partisan insurrection, the AB41s were used by the ‘San Giusto’ in Milan, where the fascist forces were not very organized and were swiftly defeated by the partisans, who destroyed the armored cars and the few tanks in the city.
Some sources state that at least four AB41s used by the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leoncello’ (Eng: Armored Group “Little Lion”) from 1943 to April 1945. The Light Tank Squadron was totally destroyed by the partisans in the city of Lonigo. There is no photographic evidence that can confirm this information, and, unfortunately, the registers of the Armored Group were almost all destroyed during the war.
The last AB41 of the ENR was used by the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani or RAP (Eng: Anti-Partisan Group) of Turin. This unit, formed in the summer of 1944, had the task of fighting the partisans located in the valleys near the city of Turin, which more and more often managed to strike at valuable targets during the night or contacted factory workers with the aim of organizing strikes and protests. On 2nd November 1944, the RAP, together with the AB41, participated in the assault on the city of Alba, occupied by a substantial partisan force, where it was probably destroyed.
The Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana (Eng: GNR – Republican National Guard), the Military Police of the Salò Republic, had some AB41 armored cars as well. 18 AB41s were used by the Gruppo Corazzato “Leonessa” (Eng: Armored Group “Lioness”), the largest Italian armored unit after 1943. The 18 armored cars were recovered from various military depots between November 1943 and January 1944 and used in Bergamo, as a supply escort to Milan. In Milan, they were used to patrol the last Valtellina roads for the Italian-German retreat. In the Province of Piacenza, some armored cars defended the few oil wells of the Azienda Generale Italiana Petroli or AGIP (General Italian Oil Company) and supported anti-partisan operations in Val Trebbia and in the Piacenza Apennines. In the province of Turin, some AB41s supported the dozens of Italian or German anti-partisan operations in the Val di Susa. They supported the attack on De Gaulle’s French forces who tried to occupy Chaberton fort, and in the city of Turin, they patrolled roads, such as the Turin-Milan one. In Turin, the ‘Leonessa’s’ vehicles slowed down the partisan’s advance for two days, allowing the retreat of 5,000 soldiers and tonnes of material from the city.
In the first months after September 1943, the Battaglione ‘M’ ‘9 Settembre’ (Eng: ‘M’ Battalion ‘9th September’), used an AB41 armored car, but, in 1944, on the island of Elba, it took possession of another four AB41s which were used on the Gustav Line.
After the Allied breakthrough of the Gustav Line on 18th May 1944, the battalion was sent to the Valle d’Aosta and then aggregated to the 2nd Regiment of the Panzergrenadier-Division ‘Brandenburg’, renamed “I° Battaglione M Camicie Nere IX Settembre” (Eng: ‘1st Battalion M Black Shirts 9th September’) and fought in Germany together with the German division until January 1945, when it was sent back to Vittorio Veneto in Italy, where the survivors were imprisoned and executed by the partisans. Some AB41s were destroyed in Germany and perhaps one arrived in Italy and was subsequently captured by the partisans. At least one was used by the Varese Provincial GNR Command in anti-partisan actions in October 1944.
The surviving ENR’s And GNR’s AB41s were captured or destroyed in the cities of Milan and Turin on 25th April 1945. During this time, some fought the more numerous and stronger partisan forces that descended from the mountains to free the cities of Northern Italy from fascist and German occupation.
In the days before the partisans attack, in Turin and Milan, some AB armored cars were captured and used by partisans. One was surely destroyed by German-manned anti-tank weapons in Turin on the Via XX Settembre. After the German and Italian surrender, two or three of them took part in the partisan parade in Turin.
AB41 in French Service
During the Second World War, AB41 armored cars came under the control of French forces in two separate contexts.
With the fall of the last Axis possessions in Tunisia in May of 1943, along with more than 240,000 prisoners taken, considerable quantities of ground equipment were left, including a variety of Italian armored vehicles. While these were generally of little interest for the by this point fairly well-equipped British and American forces, the French Army of Africa, which had joined the allies just a couple of months prior in November of 1942, was still equipped with few armored vehicles, mostly obsolete pre-1940 tanks such as the Char D1, and did press into service several types of Italian vehicles, including the AB 41. Two different photos of the AB 41 in French service exist. One shows a column of these vehicles operating under an unknown branch in 1946. This photo shows a total of 10 vehicles, which shows that the number of vehicles captured and used by the French was not necessarily negligible. Another photo, dated from as late as 1949, shows a crew of the French Gendarmerie, a form of military police, in front of an AB41, near Bône, once again in Algeria. This suggests that the Italian armored cars remained in service for several years for security operations. The date of the vehicle’s retirement from service in French North Africa is unknown, though nothing has ever emerged that suggests the vehicles were still in service by the time of the Algerian War which began in 1954.
In the summer of 1944, after the breakthrough of Operation Cobra, Allied troops began to liberate vast areas of France, the FFI (Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur / French Forces of the Interior), organized vast uprisings which liberated considerable amounts of territory neglected by German troops attempting to contain the Normandy landings. Those resistance fighters captured a number of different vehicles that had been used by German troops engaged in anti-partisan duties in France. This included German-made vehicles, previously captured French ones, but also at least one Italian-made AB41 armored car that had presumably been captured by the Wehrmacht following the Italian armistice of September 1943 and then put back to use in anti-partisan operations in France.
The vehicle was used by an FFI company operating in Brittany at the same time German troops were being expelled from the region by a mixture of American troops and French resistance fighters. That armored car had been captured in the town of Guingamp. It was included into what was called the “Compagnie de choc Bretagne” (Eng. Bretagne shock company), which then took part in FFI operations further south, against the “forteresse du Médoc”, a fortified German-held pocket on the Southern bank of the estuary of the River Gironde, which held until it was taken by FFI fighters on 20th April 1945, after a week of fighting which resulted in around 1,300 dead soldiers of both sides.
Another photo of an AB41 in use by French forces in metropolitan France exists, but its context is disputed. Showing an AB41 from the back along with FFI troops using a variety of equipment of both American and German origin, this photo has been taken to show FFI troops used to contain the pocket of Royan (a german pocket north of the Gironde’s estuary) or to have been taken post-war.
AB41 in Yugoslavian Service
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia’s Army had tried to negotiate the purchase of the AB armored cars, but due to the Axis invasion in April 1941, this was never fulfilled.
During the war, the AB41 would see service with nearly all involved factions in Yugoslavia.
The Independent State of Croatia’s (NDH – Nezavisna Država Hrvatska) Army asked the Italians for a number of AB41s but only got 10 L/33 and L/35 light tanks. After the capitulation of Italy, they may have captured a few AB armored cars.
The Italians operated some AB40s and AB41s from 1942 to 1943 until their surrender to the Allies in Yugoslavia.
Yugoslav Communist Partisans managed to capture a number of AB armored cars during September 1943. While they did see action against the Axis forces, all were either destroyed or were hidden by the Partisans to avoid being captured by the Germans. By late 1944, they managed to capture more with some surviving after 1945.
After the war, some AB41 armored cars remained in service with the new Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA) under the name ‘SPA 7 t’ until they were replaced with more modern Soviet-made vehicles.
After the war
After the war, from 1945 to 1954, some AB41 and AB43 armored cars were used by the Polizia di Stato (Eng: Italian State Police) in the Reparti Celeri (Eng: Fast Departments) and used with certainty in Turin, Udine, and Rome. After 1954, they were withdrawn from service and almost all of them were scrapped, though a couple were sold to museums and private collectors.
A small number of AB41 armored cars were also used by the Arma dei Carabinieri (Eng: Arm of Carabiners) in their Reparti Mobili (Eng: Moving Departments).
In both cases, the operations in which the armored cars were used are unknown. The few times they were seen outside the barracks were for parades or training. In the 1950s there were many strikes by workers in Italy to demand better working conditions that often ended up occupying entire factories for days, slowing down the country’s economy and creating quite a few inconveniences for the political establishment and factory owners. The Partito Comunista Italiano or PCI (Italian Communist Party) supported workers’ strikes and trade union struggles and gained more and more support among the population. The situation caused concern to the Italian state which feared a coup supported by the Soviet Union as had already happened in Czechoslovakia. In fact, many leaders of the PCI had been partisans during the war and some of them were on good terms with members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). For example, Enrico Berlinguer, one of the leading figures in the Party at the time, was received by Stalin himself during a visit to the Soviet Union in 1946.
In order to dissuade workers from armed occupations of factories or worse the attempted coup d’état, the Italian state destroyed most of the military equipment it did not use to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands and ordered the Police and Carabinieri to keep the AB41s efficient to use them as a deterrent during demonstrations. In 1954, the arrival of new security vehicles allowed AB armored cars to be removed from service.
The armored cars were painted in the factory in clear Khaki Saharan color, which was lighter than that used on Italian tanks. In Africa, the vehicles always remained in basic camouflage without being modified by the crews.
Due to a friendly fire incident involving some PAI ABs and Luftwaffe planes on September 13, 1940, for the first months of the African Campaign, the ABs of this police unit received the Italian flag painted on the sides and the front of the superstructure for easier identification.
By the time the African Campaign was over and the first clashes in Sicily in July 1943 were underway, factories began to paint their armored cars with the “Continentale” camouflage adopted by the Royal Army in the summer of 1943. Over the Light Saharan Kaki were added stains of Reddish Brown and Dark Green. This camouflage was also adopted on the FIAT-SPA AS42 and the self-propelled M42M 75/34 and M43 105/25 before the armistice of September 1943.
After the occupation of the factories by German forces, the AB41s continued to be painted with three-tone camouflage. The vehicles that were taken from the Royal Army depots were mostly painted in Saharan Khaki and so they remained, with the addition of the Balkenkreuz (Eng: Beam cross) and were put back into service. Only a few armored cars in the German Army received “circumstance” camouflage.
At least one German armored car was repainted with “Imperiale” camouflage which consisted of a series of relatively thin dark green and dark brown streaks applied on a Saharan Khaki background.
The AB41s of the R.E.Co. “Lancieri di Montebello” were painted in Saharan Khaki but, when they were sent to Rome for the defense of the city, during the trip, in Castelnuovo di Porto, they were painted with green and brown spots when they were still on the freight wagons.
Of the armored cars of the Republican National Army and the Republican National Guard, there is not much information about their camouflage. The 18 AB41s of the Gruppo Corazzato “Leonessa” had all been produced before the armistice and found in warehouses or had been repaired by soldiers loyal to Mussolini and were not all painted in the same way. Some armored cars stationed in Milan were repainted in the months following their recovery with three-tone camouflage while those used in Turin and the Susa Valley remained painted in Saharan Khaki. They received only the symbol of the Fascist Military Police, the red ‘M’ with a beam, and the ‘GNR’ written in black underneath. The armored cars of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘San Giusto’ and the RAP, instead, were painted in ‘Continentale’ camouflage, as were, supposedly, those of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leoncello’, but it is not certain because some vehicles of the ‘Leoncello’ were painted in green-gray while others were painted in the typical continental camouflage pattern. Vehicles captured by the Yugoslavs did not receive new camouflage but had new markings painted on to avoid friendly fire.
After the war, the AB41s of the State Police were painted in a reddish-rose shade called Amaranth Red which was the color of all Italian police vehicles until 1954, while the Carabinieri armored cars were painted in NATO Green.
Between 1941 and 1943, several vehicles based on the armored car chassis were designed, most of them were just prototypes due to the Armistice of 8th September 1943, while others were accepted in service before the Armistice or were produced only for the Germans.
Unnamed AB wooden training vehicle
To train drivers with dual driving, a vehicle was created on the same chassis as the AB. The vehicle had a wooden structure similar to that of the AB’s superstructure with two benches, one at the front for the frontal driver and an instructor, and a second at the back, for the rear driver and another instructor. This version was produced in an unknown quantity and supplied to the Training Center of Pinerolo.
AB41 Command Armored Car
The AB41 Command was developed as an artillery observation vehicle for armored units. The turret was removed and replaced with a large armored plate on the roof with a 4-piece door. This vehicle was unarmed, with 3 personal weapon slots and only had the forward driving position. The vehicle carried four officers and a map table. A second prototype of the Command AB42 armored car had different armor on the roof and two of the four armored doors were equipped with armored glass windows.
In mid-1943, the first prototype was accepted by the Italian High Command and 50 vehicles were ordered. These were not produced because of the Armistice. When the factories were captured by the Germans, they did not consider this variant useful for their purposes and the project was abandoned.
AB41 with 47/32
Another prototype was the AB41 with 47/32, also known as ’47/32 on AB41 ‘armed with a Cannone da 47/32 Mod. 1935. The turret, the rear machine gun, the rear driving position, the radio equipment, and the armored superstructure were removed. A 47/32 Mod. 1935 cannon with a shield to protect its operators were installed in the center of the superstructure together with various other modifications to the hull. The number of projectiles carried was 100 rounds while the thickness of the armor of the gun shield is not known. The crew consisted of 4: the driver, the gunner, the loader, and the commander. The speed and range remained unchanged, as was the SPA ABM 2 8-cylinder, 88 HP petrol engine.
This was Ansaldo’s first proposal to arm the AB armored cars with a 47 mm cannon. Due to the limited use of the vehicle, the project was shelved, but Ansaldo continued to develop an AB armed with a 47 mm cannon.
Another prototype based on the AB41 was the Autoblinda Alleggerita Mod. 1942 or AB42, a vehicle based on the AB41 hull but with many modifications to make it a more suitable combat vehicle in North Africa. The turret was replaced by a lower profile one armed with the same 20 mm cannon. This version was designed for infantry support and combat rather than reconnaissance. The rear machine gun and the second driving position were removed. Although it was lighter, weighing only 6 tons, the engine was replaced with a 108-hp FIAT-SPA ABM 3 and the armor was better angled which greatly increased crew protection.
Due to the end of the North African Campaign and due to the fact that too many changes had to be made to the assembly lines to produce the new version, the project was abandoned.
In the early months of 1943, Ansaldo proposed the new version of the AB armed with a 47 mm cannon called AB43 (not officially known as AB43 ‘Cannone’). The AB41 superstructure was modified with 90° inclined sides and removing the rear machine gun. The larger and shorter turret was armed with a powerful 47/40 Mod. 38 cannon, the same as the M15/42 medium tank. The ammunition capacity was 63 rounds for the cannon and 744 rounds for the coaxial machine gun. Due to the weight increase to over 8 tons, the same 108 hp engine of the AB42 was installed in the engine compartment which allowed the armored car to reach a speed of 88 km/h. Approved in May 1943, the armistice blocked the plans of the Royal Army.
In 1943, it was also proposed to mount the Mod. 1942 turret of the AB42 on the AB41 hull with the new ABM 3 engine. The resulting vehicle was called AB43 and about 100 were produced and used exclusively during the war on all front by the Germans, who denominated it Panzerspähwagen AB43 203(i). After the war, the Italian police used them until 1954, also in the ‘Ferroviaria’ version.
Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Sahariana’
In 1942, a prototype of a Camionetta (light truck) on the hull of the AB41 was presented to the Italian High Command, for a completely different task compared to those of the AB41. The SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Sahariana’ was a large car with a central fighting compartment and the same engine as the AB41 at the back. This Camionetta was used for really long-range reconnaissance, ambush and to counter the British LRDG (Long Range Desert Group).
These vehicles could be armed with several weapons, including the Breda 20/65 Mod. 1935 automatic cannon, the 47/32 Mod. 1935 anti-tank gun, or the Solothurn S-18/1000 anti-tank rifle and a maximum of three Breda Mod. 37 or 38 medium machine guns. The vehicle had 9 mm of armor on the front and around the combat compartment, while the engine compartment had only 5 mm of armor. The AS42 usually had “Libia” tires, had a range of 535 km, and could carry up to twenty-four 20-liter Jerry cans (20 with petrol and 4 with water), giving it a total maximum range of over 1,200 km. Another difference when compared to the AB41 was the absence of the rear driver position and the steering, which was done using only the front wheels because the vehicle was designed also to participate in skirmishes against other similar vehicles, not only for reconnaissance.
Another version of the vehicle, called AS42 ‘Metropolitana’, used for ‘continental’ soil, differed only by the adoption of 11.5 x 24″ “Artiglio” tires and that two huge boxes of ammunition were used instead of ten petrol jerry cans.
In total, of the two versions, about 200 vehicles were produced. The sources are not very clear as production records were destroyed during the war. These vehicles fought in North Africa, Italy, and, after September 8, 1943, captured by German forces, they were used in France, Ukraine, and finally Germany. They too, after the war, were reused by the Italian police until 1954.
In 1941 the German Army, the Hungarian Army, and the Royal Italian Army attacked Yugoslavia and divided the occupied territories. Soldiers who escaped capture and civilians immediately organized a clandestine resistance that led to several sabotage and attacks. To defend the railways, fundamental to bring supplies to the various Italian and German strongholds, on 24 January 1942, the High Command of the Royal Italian Army ordered Ansaldo and FIAT to find a solution.
To date, 9 AB41 armored cars have survived, three have become monuments at Italian Army barracks, four are on display in museums, two in Italy, one in Egypt in the El Alamein War Museum, and the last in South Africa in the Museum of Military History in Johannesburg.
There are also two vehicles still running, one in France in the city of La Wantzenau and the second in Italy, in Grosseto, at the Barracks of the 3° Reggimento “Savoia Cavalleria”.
The chassis of the AB series, from which several vehicles were produced, was well designed for the Italian standards of the period. The armament, speed, and armor were adequate for a reconnaissance vehicle. It was used on all fronts during the war with good results, from the arid African deserts to the harsh Russian winters. After the war, the AB41 was used for many more years by the Police and Carabinieri in Italy and by the French Gendarmerie in Africa.
Autoblinda AB41, February 1941, Libya. The Saharan kaki tone was the most common in Africa, but a variety of complex spotted patterns were also tried later.
Autoblinda AB41 of the long range reconnaissance patrols of the Bersaglieri, a cavalry unit attached to the Ariete Division, Libya, May 1941.
Autoblinda AB41, Italy, November 1942, 15° Reggimento Cavalleria of Brescia.
5.20 x 1.92 x 2.48 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
4 (front driver, rear driver, machine gunner/loader, and vehicle commander/gunner)
FIAT-SPA 6-cylinder petrol, 88 hp with 195 liters tank
Road Speed: 80 km/h
Off-Road Speed: 50 km/h
Breda 20/65 Mod. 1935 (456 rounds) and Two Breda Mod. 38 8 x 59 mm machine guns (1992 rounds)
Front: 40 mm
Sides: 30 mm
Rear: 15 mm
667: 435 with ABM 1 Engine, 232 with ABM 2 Engine
With the precious help of Marisa Belhote who shared photos and information on the AB41 employed by the French resistance and gendarmerie.
Thanks also to Marko Pantelić who shared information and photographs of the Yugoslavian AB41.
I Mezzi Blindo-Corazzati Italiani 1923-1943 – Nicola Pignato.
La Meccanizzazione dell’Esercito Italiano fino al 1943 Tomo 2 – Andrea Curami e Lucio Ceva
Gli Autoveicoli Da Combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano – Nicola Pignato e Filippo Cappellano.
Le Autoblinde AB 40, 41 e 43 – Nicola Pignato e Fabio D’Inzéo. http://polejeanmoulin.com/page33/
Bojan B. Dumitrijević and Dragan Savić (2011) Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu,
Institut za savremenu istoriju, Beograd
Bojan B. Dumitrijević (2010), Modernizacija i intervencija, Jugoslovenske oklopne jedinice 1945-2006, Institut za savremenu istoriju
Italy (1942 – 1954)
Reconnaissance Car – ~200 built
The concept behind the AS42 “Sahariana” appeared in the minds of Italian designers in 1942, when the famous British and Commonwealth Long Range Desert Groups (LRDG), with their distinctive heavily-armed and unarmored long-range vehicles, were breaking far behind Axis lines, creating havoc in refilling bases or airfields. At the same time, their large-scale reconnaissance tasks were very valuable to Allied intelligence. The Regio Esercito (Italian Royal Army) tried to emulate these units by using a project that SPA-Viberti had proposed a year before based on the chassis of the AB41 armored car, itself derived from the chassis of the Fiat-SPA TM40 medium artillery tractor.
The AS42 “Sahariana’ was a reconnaissance car, initially unarmed. However, under pressure from the Italian Royal Army’s high command, the vehicles received heavy armament. The SPA-Viberti AS42 was rapidly developed at the beginning of 1942. The prototype was presented to the army on July 9, 1942, passed all tests and was put into production in the SPA-Viberti factory in Turin as early as August 1942.
Design of the AS42
Exterior and Armor
Basically, the chassis of the AB41 was left intact, but the armored hull was completely remodeled, and the vehicle took a car-like shape. The front was tilted and housed a massive spare wheel and pioneer tools. Two spades were attached to the left side of the front hood, and a pickaxe on the left rear side. The mudguards were remodeled and the front ones held the tripods for the machine guns. At the front of the mudguards, two jerry cans were kept on each side for the transport of drinking water, recognizable by the white crosses painted on the side. The mudguards at the back had toolboxes on top and two perforated metal plates used for unditching the vehicle if it got stuck in the sand. On the rear of the right mudguard was the muffler, while on the left mudguard was a plate with a stoplight.
The open central combat compartment was armored on the sides and was 3.2 m long and 1.75 m wide. Armor was 17 mm all around the chassis.
The windshield had three bulletproof glass panels derived from glass made for aeronautical use. These were 12 mm thick, although their steel equivalent was significantly less. The windshield was equipped with rear-view mirrors and could be folded down.
Ground clearance was 0.35 m, with the possibility of fording 0.7 m of water.
The total weight decreased from AB41’s 7.5 tonnes to 4 tonnes in an empty AS42. Fully battle-ready, with the primary armament fixed, full tanks and full ammunition load, the vehicle reached 6.5 tonnes.
The vehicle had 4×4 traction, but only the front wheels were steered (like on the original chassis of the Fiat-SPA TM40) and therefore the rear driving position, characteristic of the AB armored car series, was removed.
The tires used on the AS42 were produced by Pirelli in Milan, as were almost all the tires on Italian vehicles. The AS used the same tires as the AB armored cars series, the Pirelli “Libia” 9.75×24″ and “Libia Rinforzato” tires for use in the sandy soil of North Africa. The “Artiglio” 9×24″ and “Artiglio a Sezione Maggiorata” 11.25×24″ tires designed for use in Italy and Europe were later used in the Russian steppe. In 1942, new tires were studied for the new Camionette, which could also be used on AB series armored cars: Pirelli “Sigillo Verde” tires again for sandy soils and Pirelli “Raiflex” tires for use in Europe. It should be noted that due to the poor logistics of the Royal Italian Army and the almost non-existent logistics of the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano (RSI, Eng National Republican Army), AB armored cars and Camionette used any tire available. It is therefore not rare to find AB41 or AB43 armored cars with “Raiflex” tires and AS42 with “Libia” tires.
Range and Engine
By design, a total of 20 fuel jerry cans with a capacity of 20 liters each could be transported in two rows of 5 on each side of the fighting compartment. In total, each AS42 could carry 24 jerry cans, 4 of which were for water. However, due to their use in North Africa, many more jerry cans were transported, crammed in any free space to increase the range of the vehicle and of the crew. The AS42 was equipped with a tarpaulin. It provided cover from the elements from the top and the rear, but not from the sides of the Camionette. There was also a tarpaulin to cover the windshield and two smaller ones for the frontal lights. When not used, all the tarpaulins, including the folding rods that supported them, were rolled up and fastened with straps on the back of the fighting compartment.
The 145 liters fuel tank allowed a range of 535 km, which was increased to a total of 2,000 km with the additional 400 liters transported in jerry cans. The vehicle consumed around a liter of gasoline for every 3.7 km. The armored rear compartment was not modified. The 430 kg heavy engine was the 6-cylinder petrol FIAT-SPA ABM 2 which gave 88 hp, the same as in the AB41. Automotive performance was greatly improved, with a maximum road speed of 84 km/h and up to 50 km/h offroad.
The fuel tank was located above the engine, while the 3 liters oil tank was to the left of the engine. There were two water tanks above the engine compartment and one in the wooden bulkhead between the engine compartment and the combat compartment. The armor on the outside of this compartment was 5 mm. The engine cooling water was contained in a 32-liter tank above the engine in the front.
The large volume in the open central position allowed the mounting of considerably heavy armament. Depending on the weapon, a different pedestal was situated in the middle of this open central position, which, with different attachments points, could mount one of several weapons, including a rapid-fire anti-aircraft/anti-tank Breda 20/65 Mod. 1935 gun, an anti-tank/infantry 47/32 Mod. 1935 support gun or a Solothurn S18-1000 20 mm anti-tank rifle, called Carabina “S” by the Italian soldiers.
Secondary armament consisted of Breda 38 or Breda 37 8×59 mm machine guns. Depending on the mission, one to three of these weapons could be mounted on supports positioned to the right of the driver and on the left and right sides of the rear part of the fighting compartment.
On several Camionettas, the secondary armament consisted of captured British Vickers K machine guns. These were famously used on LRDG vehicles throughout the North African campaign.
All the mounts for the main and secondary armament could be rotated 360°.
Ammunition was left inside its boxes scattered in the combat compartment due to a lack of ammunition racks. For this reason, the quantity of ammunition could vary from mission to mission. In addition to the driver’s seat, the crew members that handled the weapons on board were seated on folding seats on either side of the fighting compartment (two on the right and one on the left). In some cases, the crew consisted of five or six members crammed into the little vehicle.
The Sahariana in action
From September to November 1942, the first batch of 140 vehicles was delivered to the Royal Army. This delay was caused by a bombing of the SPA-Viberti factory in Turin during the previous weeks which destroyed several AS-42s.
The “Saharianas” that arrived in North Africa were used for raids in the desert, as originally planned. Its low profile allowed it to hide behind the dunes and wait for the enemy’s arrival without being seen. Its great range allowed it to pursue enemy forces for long periods and to fight LRDG teams effectively. Entering service in December 1942, the AS42 participated in the final stages of the Libyan Campaign and the entire Tunisian campaign. They were mainly assigned to the Auto-Avio-Saharan Battalions (Italian-specific battalions meant for close cooperation between aircraft and land vehicles of the army) and to the 103° Battaglione and Raggruppamento Sahariano. These last ones were divided in five Companies located in different positions. The 1st Company was in Marada, the 2nd in Murzuk, the 3rd in Sebha and in Hon (or Hun), while the 4th and 5th faced the LRDG in the Siwa Oasis and groups of French raiders commanded by Philippe Leclerc stationed in Chad.
They had a claimed kill ratio of 1:5, capturing dozens of British armed or transport vehicles. In 1943, LRDG command issued an order to attack only if there were no high numbers of Camionetta AS42 in the area. This meant the British needed aerial reconnaissance before attacking, which lowered the effectiveness of the LRDG. During the Tunisian Campaign, all the vehicles of the Auto-Avio-Saharan Battalions and 103° Battaglione Sahariano were lost in action along with the majority of the Arditi. The Arditi were an elite unit of the Royal Italian Army entrusted with the AS42. They fought bravely against the Allied troops that had surrounded them.
On April 26, 1942, the 10° Reggimento Arditi (Eng: 10th Arditi Regiment) was established, divided into three Companies. Its troops were composed of soldiers trained for the special forces of the Royal Italian Army, such as sappers, paratroopers and swimmers. They were moved into this regiment for distinguishing themselves as excellent drivers.
The three Companies were equipped with 24 Camionette AS42 each (for a total of 72 vehicles), each divided into four patrol groups with 2 officers and 18 or more soldiers armed with Carcano Mod. 91 T.S. rifles or MAB 38A submachine guns, Beretta M1934 pistols and a dagger.
After April 1943, all the Companies were active in Sicily for anti-paratrooper patrols. Between July 13th and 14th, the 2nd Company repulsed an attack by British paratroopers. On the night of July 14th, at Primosole, six Camionette fought at the Primosole Bridge over the Simeto River. The Arditi soldiers fired on their adversaries with personal weapons without using the weapons onboard due to poor visibility. Four AS42 were destroyed by mortar shells, but the 32 Arditi survivors fought along with a group of German paratroopers for another eight days. On August 13th, the surviving Camionette and their crews were moved to the Italian peninsula and taken to Santa Severa (their Headquarters) located near Rome to reorganize the Companies, replacing the fallen Arditi and destroyed vehicles.
On 8th September, the day of the armistice, the Companies were not involved in the action, but the various groups chose their fate independently. The 1st Battalion joined the Allies and was renamed as the 9° Reparto d’Assalto. The 2nd Battalion joined the new Salò Republic founded by Benito Mussolini in northern Italy on 23rd September without vehicles, ending in the Division “San Marco”, fighting the rest of the war without vehicles as assault infantry.
After intense fighting against German troops in Rome between 8th and 10th September, the vehicles that were captured by the Italian Fascists and Germans went to equip an entire Company of Arditi that decided to join the Germans. This would be the “Gruppo Italiano Arditi Camionettisti” (Eng. Italian Arditi Camionette Driver Group) that served in the 2. Fallschirmjäger Division “Ramcke”. This unit fought on the Eastern Front from October 1943 until the summer of 1944 against the Red Army. The Camionette, meant for the Saharan desert, ended up fighting in the Russian frozen steppes, where temperatures reached -25° C. Of the other Battalions of the 10th Arditi, not much is known. They probably broke-up and each soldier or small group decided for themselves what they would do. Some joined the partisan resistance, others joined the Republic of Salò, others went to the co-belligerent Italian Army and others fled home to their families.
The company that fought with the “Ramcke” Division then retreated to Romania and finally to Germany in the spring of 1944. In June 1944, the Arditi were sent to Normandy to fight the Allies that had just disembarked. There, a group was captured by the Americans during the battle and the surrender of Brest, while other Arditi with their surviving AS42 fought in Belgium and Holland. They faced British soldiers in Arnhem during Operation Market Garden. After all these events, in the autumn of 1944, the survivors returned with their last AS42s to Italy and fought for the Salò Republic in the Republican National Army (Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano – ENR).
The Italian Police in Africa (Polizia dell’Africa Italiana – PAI), an Italian police corp used for the security of the Italian colonies, received some AS42 that were used for patrolling and security tasks in the Italian cities in 1943, after the loss of all the Italian colonies. After the fall of the Royal Italian Army, the PAI was equipped with 15 AS42 of different versions coming from the Battaglione D’assalto Motorizzato of the Royal Italian Army. The PAI was then tasked with public safety duties. On 23 March 1943, some of these AS42 trucks, with elements of the “Barbarigo” Battalion of the XªFlottilla MAS, were involved in patrols after the partisan attack on Via Rasella in the center of Rome. On June 4, 1944, during the defense of Rome, one of the PAI’s Camionette, armed with Breda 20/65 Mod. 1935, accidentally came across an M4 Sherman on the Via Nazionale and was hit by a 75 mm shell that pierced the front on the Camionetta, destroying the front and the spare wheel of this vehicle.
After the Allied capture of the Italian capital, the PAI handed over all its equipment to the State Police. Among the vehicles surrendered were 12 Camionette of the Metropolitana and Sahariana versions (with “Artiglio” and “Libia” tires).
Another Italian corps that used the AS42 was the Battaglione “Barbarigo” of the Xª Flottiglia MAS, which had about twenty AS42 “Metropolitane” and AS43 taken directly from the factories. They were used in the Nettuno area against the American and Canadian forces which tried to break through the Italian lines, inflicting heavy losses.
A pair of AS42 type “Metropolitane” were built in Turin factories starting on April 25 1945 in order to defend the factories and their assembly lines from German sabotage. These Camionette can be distinguished from the others by some steel plates on the sides and on the back of the fighting compartment, about one meter in height, behind which the partisans used their weapons while being protected from enemy fire. One of these vehicles participated in the partisan parade on May 6 1945 along with another “Metropolitana” without any of these changes that was used as a command vehicle and then disarmed.
Seven AS42s that survived the war, were used by Italian Police departments and repainted in amaranth red (Italian post-war police color). They were employed, after several modifications, including the removal of the anti-tank guns, the pioneer tools and jerry cans, by different departments of the Italian State Police in Udine and Bologna until 1954. Some were put into service in the XI Reparto Mobile (Moving Department) in Emilia Romagna until 1954. These cars were supported by: AB41, AB43 and Lancia Lince armored cars. An unknown number of AS42s were produced for the police after the war and were delivered in January 1946.
All the Camionette used in the North African campaign were painted in the traditional sand yellow or Saharan khaki colors. Those produced for use in the European theater and those of the PAI were painted with reddish-brown and dark green spots on the Saharan khaki. Those of the “Ramcke” division had the continental camouflage but, in winter and in Russia, these Camionette were covered with white lime applied with brushes to cover the continental camouflage. Later, in the summer, this was scraped away to return them to the original three-tone colors.
Variant – The Fiat SPA AS42 “Metropolitana”
A second model, called ‘Sahariana II’ or ‘Tipo II’, more commonly, ‘Metropolitana’, entered service in Italy in 1943. It differed from the first model by the absence of the two upper rows of petrol tanks, replaced by two large boxes that held ammunition. With the remaining 14 jerry cans (4 for water and 10 for fuel), the maximum range went down to about 1,300 km. These jerry cans were almost never carried because such long ranges were not needed on the continent and the danger posed by transporting so much fuel during urban fighting.
The two perforated plates for unditching the vehicle were also removed, as they were now useless. However, the four pins that fixed them in place were retained. Two large boxes for tools were added on the upper part of the two rear mudguards. Furthermore, this version was equipped with new 11.5×24″ Pirelli “Artiglio”, “Sigillo Verde” and “Raiflex” type tires adapted to the continental terrain and temperate climate. The “Metropolitane” version seems to have not been armed with Solothurn S18/1000 anti-tank rifles. These Camionette were only armed with the 47 mm anti-tank guns and Breda 20 mm rapid-fire cannons.
The AS42 ‘Sahariana’ was designed for the transport of men and material during desert incursions. Its low profile allowed it to hide behind the dunes and ambush the enemy and its great range allowed units to chase the opposing troops for long distances. Unfortunately, it was introduced into service in the African Campaign too late and in too small numbers. It was a successful vehicle and saw significant use in both the Sahariana and Metropolitana versions. It fought in Africa, Italy, France and on the Eastern Front with good results and was used by the Italian Police after the war.
AS42 “Sahariana” armed with the 20/65 Breda Mod. 1935
AS42 “Metropolitana” armed with the 20/65 Breda Mod. 1935 and a Bred Mod. 1937 machine gun with the usual italian continental camouflage
5.62 x 2.26 x 1.80 m (18.43 x 7.41 x 5.90 ft)
Total weight, battle ready
6.5 tons (14330 lbs)
from 4 to 6 (depending on the main armament)
FIAT-SPA ABM 2, 6 cyl, 88 hp with 145 l fuel tank and 400 l in the 20 l Jerry cans (or 200l in the “Metropolitana” version)
on road 84 km/h (52 mp/h), off road 50km/h (30 mp/h)
535 km (332 miles) (2000 km with 20 Jerry cans and 1300 km with 10 Jerry cans)
Breda 20/65 Mod.1935 autocannon, 47/32 Mod. 1935 cannon or Solothurn S18/1000 20 mm anti-tank rifle
From one to three Breda 37 or 38 8×59 mm machine-guns
17 mm front and sides (0.66 in), 5 mm engine compartment and floor (0.19 in). The windshield glass was 12 mm thick (0.47 in)
Brand new Autoprotetto S.37 bearing registration number ‘RE 132468’. Source: Italie35-45.com
Original prototype of the A.S.37 showing the alternative position for carrying a spare tyre.
The A.S.37 started life in January 1941 with the acknowledgement by General Roatta (Deputy Chief of Staff for the Italian Army) of the need for an armored personnel carrier/light armored car for the Italian Army. A single-vehicle of the turreted armored car version of the Autoprotetto S.37 (A.S.37), also known as the Autoblindo T.L.37, was made. It was sent to North Africa for trials and the focus was switched to the evaluation of an armored personnel carrier variant of the vehicle instead.
Based on the T.L. 37 artillery tractor made by Fiat SPA, this vehicle is also sometimes referred to as the T.L.37 Protetto. In a memo dated 24th May 1941, 200 examples of the ‘trattore L.37’ based armored cars were ordered, as it showed more promise than other designs which were considered at the time to be too big. These other contemporary designs were studies on the same T.L.37 chassis, the Dovunque 33 and 35 trucks, half-tracked armored personnel carriers, and two fullytracked ones, contemplated to be along the lines of the British Universal Carrier.
Italian Trattore Leggero 37 (TL.37) with large pneumatic tyres used as a tractor for hauling field guns.
Blueprint outline of the A.S.37 showing original means of lowering the rear spare tyre.
Unlike many other Italian projects, the development was very quick and went through relatively minor modifications. The blueprints from 2nd April 1941 provide some insight into the development process showing the rear door as a 2 piece design with the bottom half folding down. The spare tire position was attached to this rear lower door half, but it is noted to weigh 145 kg, which is presumably the reason why it was moved, as the door would be impossible to close from the inside. Closer analysis shows the fuel tanks were in front of the rear wheels under the top of the benches. These would later be moved, as would the radio mounting points.
Overall development of the A.S.37 was rapid and a prototype was ready in just 4 months and delivered to the Centro Studi Motorizzazione (CSM) in May 1941. The rapid development, however, met with very slow acceptance and the design was not standardized for production until 4th of February 1942. Despite this, the vehicle had actually been good enough to have received orders for 200 vehicles in the summer of 1941- early in its evaluation – although, by that acceptance time, production had only managed to produce 6 complete vehicles. Eleven more vehicles would be delivered by the end of February 1942 bringing the total to 16, plus the original prototype.
Original prototype A.S.37 with the spare tire mounted on the side by the driver. An additional spare tire can be carried in the triangular mount of the small front roof section or the mounts could be used interchangeably.
Vehicles accepted by the Italian Army received registration numbers ‘RE132452’ to ‘RE 132602’ (RE – Regio Esercito – Royal Army) which confusingly is only 150 vehicles, suggesting a modification to the 1941 order of 200 examples. Further confusing the numbers is the fact that each of the two armored divisions in the army were originally supposed to receive 90 vehicles each (for a total of 180 vehicles).
A.S.37 as standardized, showing the very distinctive oversized sand-tires and mounting a single Breda Mod. 1937 machine-gun
Layout and details
The overall design was simple because the vehicle on which it was based on required very little modification. The engine was at the front, allowing for a large boxy armored superstructure over the back with an open-top to provide protection for troops being carried. A very unusual split two-piece rear door provided access with the top half overlapping the lip of the bottom half of the door.
Rear view of A.S.37 registration ‘RE 132489’ showing the unusual split back door.
Power was provided by a modified version of the engine used in the TL37 tractor. Instead of a 52 hp (at 2000rpm) petrol engine, the Fiat Spa 18VT version 3 petrol engine had been modified with a new compression ratio (4.9 to 5.5) and now delivered 67 hp (at 2500rpm). The driver’s position had not changed from the tractor and he sat on the front right, approximately centrally between the wheels. Vision for the driver was provided by a single rectangular hatch with a protective visor that could be raised or lowered depending on the tactical position. No other seats were provided in the vehicle, as the front left space next to the driver was empty and the rear seating was accomplished by means of long flat horizontal benches fitted with full length cushioned seats running above the top of the wheel arches to the rear. In this way, the maximum staff and utility of the vehicle were maintained allowing it to be used not only for troops but also for stores and so forth. Up to eight soldiers could be accommodated on those two rear benches and the spare space under the rear of the benches held two (one per side) 100 liter petrol tanks with an additional 90 liter fuel tank under the floor at the back for a total of 290 liters which provided an exceptional range of operation of up to 725 km.
Cutaway of the S.37 showing the positions of the engine, driver and fuel tanks. Source: Italie 35-45.com
Armor was simply arranged and consisted of armored steel plates, flat and cut to size, bolted to a steel frame. Plate thickness ranged from 6 mm to 8.5 mm thick providing protection from small arms fire and shell splinters, although the lack of a roof left the soldiers vulnerable to shrapnel or fire from above. On the other hand, the lack of a roof provided a significant amount of cooling for the cabin, which otherwise, under desert conditions, would have become unbearable.
Protection only extended to the front, sides and rear. There was no mine protection, but the floor of the vehicle could be removed for maintenance purposes. The mounted infantry were not equipped with portholes from which they could fire, meaning they would either have to dismount to fight or stand above the protection of the side armor.
A.S.37 fitted with RF3M radio and with the antenna in the stowed position.
Despite being equipped and designed for use in hot desert conditions to support the war in North Africa, the A.S.37 was not deployed there, but instead found use in Yugoslavia, fighting partisans and for convoy escort duties. Vehicles were issued to the 31st Regiment (Siena), the 955th Sezione Autoprotetti with the 1118th Autosezione of the Macaerta Division, the 259th Autoreparto Autoprotetti of the 5th Autogrippo (Trento), the 1034th Sezione Autoprotetti of the 71st (LXXI) Battalion Motociclisti (6th Regiment Bersaglieri) and the 1034th Sezione Autoprotetti of the 11th Autoreparto Pesante (Albania).
Operations in Yugoslavia took their toll on the A.S.37’s with numerous losses but, by the end of April 1943, there were still 102 vehicles operational there with Italian forces. By the time of the Armistice in September 1943, this number was lower and many vehicles were used by Yugoslavian partisan forces as well as by the Germans, who recovered 37 vehicles. These vehicles in German hands kept doing the same job they had done for the Italians: internal security in an increasingly dangerous Yugoslavia.
In German service, the A.S.37 was renamed Gepanzerte Manntransportwagen S.37 250(i) (i = Italian) (Abbrev. gp.M.Trsp.Wg.S.37 250(i)) and saw service, not just against partisan forces, but also against the Soviets and Bulgarians at the end of the war. The A.S.37 was operated by the 7th SS-Freiwilligen-Gebirgs Division ‘Prinz-Eugen’ and also some Wehrmacht units.
Three A.S.37’s seen together in Yugoslavia belonging to the 259th Autoreparto Autoprotetti in 1943 fitted with roof shields and at least one machine-gun. Source: Pignato.
Italian A.S.37 with additional protective shields added on the sides of the open compartment.
A standard A.S.37 with the machine-gun facing forward.Illustrations by David Bocquelet, with some modifications by Bernard ‘Escodrion’ Baker.
Fighting partisans, who liked to ambush and conduct hit and run combat in a mountainous country like Yugoslavia, meant that the troops carried by the A.S.37 were vulnerable from the lack of roof, and additionally vulnerable when having to fire from the back of the vehicle, exposing themselves to enemy fire. As a result, at least two types of up-armored modifications of which we have knowledge of were developed.
Extra cramped A.S.37 in Italian use Yugoslavia in 1943. The unit logo is that of a jumping Ibex. The circular motif is a manufacturer’s badge. Source: WarWheels.net
Another shielded A.S.37 in Italian use in Yugoslavia. The 9 men are well-armed, with at least two Breda Model 1930 machine-guns. Source: Italie 35-45.com
One solution to the lack of crew protection when fighting from the A.S.37 was the expedient of mounting four rectangular armored loophole plates on the back by bolting them to the superstructure, creating the look of castle wall battlements. These plates provided shelter for the soldier to hide behind whilst shooting and featured a shuttered hole through which they could fire through too. The exact position and number of shields mounted vary from vehicle to vehicle, however, as some may have been added by field workshops and other lost through damage.
A.S.37 fitted with fully superstructure additional armor on route to service in Yugoslavia
The second variant featured a much more cohesive superstructure lacking any ‘battlements’. Instead, this version used four large armored panels bolted completely around the top of the A.S.37 providing full coverage for the troops from both sides to above head height, whilst at the same time, retaining the open top of the vehicle. Large rectangular shuttered loopholes were provided in this top, with one positioned centrally on each face and one in each corner providing all-round coverage.
Both versions of up-armored A.S.37’s seen in Yugoslavia. The unusual rear door is apparent in the vehicles nearest to the camera. (Registration ‘RE 132558’). Source: Bundesarchiv 1011-203-1660-07A
On the original prototype, a single Breda Model 1938 8mm machine-gun was mounted to the rear right-hand corner but this was later standardized to a mounting point partway forwards of that on the right-hand side.
Side view of the prototype A.S.37 (left) and standardized vehicle (right) showing the relative positions of the machine-gun.
A.S.37 showing off the flamethrower somewhere in Yugoslavia
Another armament variation is that of the flamethrower version. Again, for combatting partisan activity in Yugoslavia, an unknown number of A.S.37’s were converted to carry a single flamethrower in the back and made use of two small rectangular shields on the rear superstructure, which are distinctive by the very wide unshuttered loopholes.
A.S.37 in Yugoslavia showing three shields added to the top as used in the flamethrower carrying versions.
A final variant of the armament carried by the A.S.37 seen in use by German forces mounted a single Italian 47 mm L.32 anti-tank gun in the open-topped body. No further details are known.
A.S.37 in German hands with Italian 47mm L.32 anti-tank gun mounted. Unit and date not known.
Due to the large amount of space available inside the vehicle, the vehicle found itself being converted in small numbers to a command and control variant fitted with the RF3M radio. The radio itself was mounted on the left wall of the inside, sat on the front of the left bench with the large heavy batteries down in the front left of the vehicle, which was available as there was no seat there., A simple chair was bolted to the floor centrally in the front though for the radio operator to sit on. The large antenna for the RF3M could fold down on a rotating mount fitted to the front left-hand side of the superstructure. A further variant of this command vehicle had a second radio set fitted. This version was the Centro Radio variant and also carried a RF1C short-range set. With the RF3M mounted on the front left, the RF1C was mounted on the front right behind the driver and the batteries for it under the driver.
The RF3M, depending on the model and the antenna used, had a range of 100 km and was considered a short-to-intermediate-range set. The RF1C was a tactical set for short-range communications to a range of about 12 km under ideal conditions. The two radio variants can be distinguished by the addition of a second antenna mounted on the opposite side to the first one.
A.S.37 mounting the RF3M (left) and RF1C as well (right)
War Wheels.net A Century of Italian Armoured Cars, Nicola Pignato
Encyclopedia of Armoured Cars, Crow and Icks
Italian Tanks and Combat Vehicles of WW2, Ralph Riccio
Gli autoveicoli da Combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano, Nicola Pignato
Mezzi Corazatti Italiani 1939-1945, Nicole Pignato
FIAT S37 specifications
4.95 x 1.92 x 1.8 m (without additional armored superstructure)
2.13 m high with additional shields
4.78 tonnes to 5.3 tonnes, payload 770 kg at combat weight
1 + 8
4.053 liter 18VT version III 4 cylinder petrol engine producing 67 hp at 2500 rpm
Maximum speed (on-road)
52 km/h (road)
725 km (450 mi)
Single Breda Model 37 or 38 8 mm machine-gun
Or 47 mm L.32 anti-tank gun
The tiny concession of Tianjin (written as Tien-Tsin or Tientsin in many period sources) in China was one of several small Italian possessions in the area and was run by Italy between 1901-1947. Italy had been granted the territorial concession in the Xinchou Treaty (also known as Boxer Protocol) on the 7th September 1901 by the Chinese Government following the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) and was occupied the following year. It was just 46 hectares (114 acres) and had a population of only a few thousand ethnic Chinese and under a thousand Italians and other foreign nationals. The shape was roughly rectangular with the southern border on the White River (Pei Ho) (the Italians sometimes had gunboats stationed there); Trieste Street on the west bordering the Austro-Hungarian concession; and Trento Street on the east bordering the Russian concession; Fiume Street formed the northern border and linked to the Beiping (Peking – modern-day Beijing) – Mukden (modern-day Shenyang) railway line through the city, very close to the East Station.
Map of Tianjin from 1912 showing (in green) the small Italian concession
The value of such a small concession is questionable, except that it served as a mark of international prestige for the Italian Empire and allowed the political legation to the Chinese Government to be properly protected.
Ermanno Carlotto Barracks. Sources: Public domain and Battaglione San Marco
In 1925, Italian leader Benito Mussolini created the 600 strong Battaglione Italiano in Cina (Italian Battalion in China) based in this concession. These new troops replaced the slightly more ad-hoc protection for the concession provided previously by the Regia Marina (RN). It was formed from soldiers of the San Marco, Libya, and San George Company’s who were housed in the Ermanno Carlotto Barracks (Italian: Caserma Ermanno Carlotto) named after a fallen Italian hero from the Boxer Rebellion. Along with these troops was a police force of Chinese police led by Italian officers. This constituted a very large military presence for such a small territory, and it was tasked with ensuring that the concession would not be able to be cut off from either Beiping or the sea.
Weapons at the concession around this time included at least two 76mm guns and a quantity of machine-guns, but no heavy weapons. There were continuing problems around the concession and incidents in the years following this (1926) lead to concerns over the safety of Italian citizens living there. To bolster defenses still further, four Ansaldo-Lancia 1ZM armored cars were sent to the concession in 1932 to help maintain law and order.
Four Series 3 1ZM’s on parade on 4th November 1932 in Tianjin. Two 76mm mountain guns are visible by the altar. Source: trentoincina.it
A close up of the 1ZM’s shows them fitted with 3 machine-guns. Source: trentoincina.it
Still from a newsreel of celebrations held in 1935 with a parade of equipment including the 1ZM’s. Source: Luce. This newsreel can be found at the end of this article.
By 1936 though, some troops were transferred away from the concession to Africa, leaving the force much reduced. The events of 1937 changed this situation when Japanese forces attacked the Chinese held part of the city of Tianjin and occupied it. This led once again to significant fears for the concession being attacked by either Chinese or Japanese troops, and consequently, a new delivery of soldiers – a battalion of the Grenadiers of Savoy (Granatieri di Savoia) – from Italy arriving in the concession. As things settled down by the end of 1938, most of these troops were once again withdrawn or relocated. By the end of the 1930s, the entire Italian military presence in China amounted to less than a 1000 men divided between Tianjin (~400), Shanghai (215), Shanhaiguan (25) and Beiping legation and radio station (15), along with an unknown number of naval personnel.
Some of the soldiers of the Granatieri di Savoia arriving by lighter to the riverside on 14th September 1937. Photo collection Karl Kengelbacher
The Lancia 1ZM. Illustration by David Bocquelet, modified by Bernard ‘Escodrion’ Baker.
World War II
Italy entered World War Two on the side of the Axis in June 1940. Initially, this did not affect the concession of Tianjin significantly, as the now-enemy forces of Great Britain had abandoned its concessions in August 1940. Only in the middle of 1941, was the concession once again felt to be under threat, and as a result, and consequently, reinforcements were despatched.
Nonetheless, the concession, being surrounded by the Japanese with whom they were allied, was relatively calm, but the events of September 1943 changed everything. Italy had signed an armistice with the Allies and officially capitulated on the 7th, becoming a co-belligerent force fighting with the Allies against a mainly fascist loyalist force called the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI) and the German occupiers in what was effectively a civil war in Italy. What this meant for Tientsin, was that the former Japanese allies now became potential enemies. The Italian troops stationed in China were given specific orders not to cause any trouble or engage with the Japanese forces and to scuttle any ships which would otherwise not be able to reach an Allied controlled port. Thus, the Lepanto, the Carlotto, and the Conte Verde were scuttled in Shanghai.
Unusual overhead view of the four Lancia 1ZM’s lined up in the concession.
Despite efforts not to aggravate the Japanese, the position in Shanghai changed on 9th and 10th September 1943, when the troops stationed there were seized by the Japanese. Those who chose to collaborate were put to hard labor, with the remainder of the men being sent to POW camps along with other Allied soldiers. The troops stationed at Beiping radio station, despite orders not to resist, fought against the Japanese until they could destroy the station and all documentation which might help the new adversary. The tiny force of just 100 sailors and soldiers led by Captain Baldassare held-off over 1,000 Japanese soldiers and some light tanks until surrendering on the 10th. They received very harsh treatment from the Japanese for their defiance, but given the equally harsh treatment given to some troops who ‘stayed loyal’ to the Axis, perhaps it did not matter anyway.
In Tianjin, the situation was equally confusing. The troops in China had no knowledge about the armistice of the 7th September and thus had no time to prepare. The senior officer commanding Italian forces in Tianjin at the time was the Captain of the Frigate Carlo dell’Acqua, who had at his disposal about 600 men, 300 rifles, some pistols, and about 50 machine-guns of various types. Four 76 mm guns made up the most powerful weapon in their arsenal along with the four ancient Ansaldo-Lancia 1ZM armored cars fitted with the Fiat Model 1924 6.5 mm machine-gun, and some unarmored motor vehicles. With plenty of ammunition and food for a week, he was going to have to face down the Japanese.
The Japanese under Lt. Col. Tanaka had over 6,000 men with numerous light armored vehicles and reportedly some tanks, as well as two gunboats. The Japanese provided an ultimatum to the Italian defenders to surrender, but this was rejected resulting in the Japanese firing some light artillery to attempt to intimidate the defenders. The Italian loyalty was fractured, with about a third of the troops wishing to remain loyal to the fascist regime but the rest not. Surrounded, outnumbered, and facing annihilation by the Japanese, the contingent surrendered. To have resisted would have been futile as it would have resulted in a lot of damage to the area and deaths of civilians for no purpose. The troops who surrendered elsewhere were often treated very badly by the Japanese by either being sent to POW camps or forced to carry out hard labor, so there was no good option available for the soldiers.
Having surrendered, their weapons and armored cars would have therefore fallen into Japanese hands, as at this time there was little time to destroy the equipment. No pictures are known to show the Japanese using these vehicles, although it is possible they would have been reused within the city for policing. No trace of them survives, so they were most likely scrapped then or subsequently.
Therefore, by 10th September the Japanese had completely occupied the Italian concession of Tianjin. Shortly afterward, the RSI chose to officially cede the concession over to the Chinese puppet state of Wang Jingwei. That Japanese puppet state would eventually fall to the forces of Chiang Kai-Shek. All rights to Tianjin were formally ceded by Italy on 10th February 1947 by the government of the Republic of Italy to the government of the Republic of China. Those Italian troops who survived the treatment of the Japanese finally returned to Italy in 1946.
Automitragliatrici Blindate E Motomitragliatrici nella grande guerra, Nicola Pignato
Italy’s Encounters with Modern China: Imperial Dreams, Strategic Ambition: ‘The Italian presence in China: Historical trends and perspectives 1902-1947, Guido Samarani
From the Bulletin of the Historical Office of the Navy March-June 1989, (written in 1933 by the Ten. Fanteria Amleto Menghi), San Marco
Italian Armed Forces in China 1937-1943
Self-portrait in a convex mirror: Colonial Italy reflects on Tianjin, Maurizio Marinelli
Making concessions in Tianjin: heterotopia and Italian colonialism in mainland China, Maurizio Marinelli
Italian Surface Units in Far East 1940-1943, Alberto Rosselli at www.icsm.it
Italian Social Republic (1944-45) Armored Truck – 2 Built
After the Italian Armistice was signed on 8th September 1943, Benito Mussolini created, on 23rd September, the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (Italian Social Republic – RSI). In Northern and Central Italy, which was controlled by the Axis, German and Italian troops had about 1,000 trucks in service, quite few considering that the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano (National Republican Army – ENR) and the Wehrmacht counted about 600,000 soldiers. On 26th June 1944, Mussolini approved the legislative decree no. 446, which had been proposed by Alessandro Pavolini, the secretary of the Partito Fascista Repubblicano (Republican Fascist Party – PFR). This order constituted the Corpo Ausiliario delle Squadre d’Azione delle Camicie Nere (ENG: Auxiliary Corps of the Action Squads of the Black Shirts), simpler known as the ‘Camice Nere’ (Eng: Black Shirt) or ‘Brigate Nere’ (Eng: Black Brigades) under the control of the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana (National Republican Guard – GNR), the fascist Military Police. The Brigades had the task of fighting in the second line against the partisan groups that carried out sabotage and ambush missions against the Axis mechanized columns. Only two Black Brigades out of 56 received factory-built armored vehicles, while the other brigades were equipped with trucks (military or civil) that they used as transport vehicles or that they armored themselves or in civil workshops.
Idreno Utimpergher, trusted man of Pavolini, was the commander of the XXVI° Brigata Nera “Benito Mussolini” (ENG: 26th Black Brigade), located first in Lucca but, after an Allied offensive, moved to Piacenza in Emilia Romagna. It was composed of over 200 men and was later renamed the XXXVI° Brigata Nera “Natale Piacentini” (ENG: 36th Black Brigade), after the first soldier from the unit that died in action against the partisans. On the order of Idreno, they armored the only working truck of the Brigade (they also had a Fiat 1500) to better engage the partisans, a Lancia 3Ro heavy truck. The transformation of the Lancia 3Ro was ready after a month of work, from September to October 1944. A Viberti Mod. Bianchi trailer, normally used to transport tanks, was also armored with salvaged plates. It could be towed behind the armored truck and used as a troop transport.
The armored car was built by the Arsenal of Piacenza, along with another identical one which was used by the XXVIII° Brigata Nera “Pippo Astorri” (Eng: 28th Black Brigade), but the destiny of this second vehicle is unknown. In the Arsenal of Piacenza workshop, two other vehicles were armored, a Ceirano CM 47 and a Fiat 666N that was totally armored and received a turret with a Breda-SAFAT 12.7 mm aerial machine gun, used by the 630° Comando Provinciale (Eng. 630th Provincial Command of the GNR).
The front of the Lancia 3Ro Blindato in Dongo, on 25th of April 1945. Note the armament of the vehicle, with a machine-gun in the front, one on the side (there was another one on the other side), and a cannon in the turret. Also, note the Bianchi trailer at the rear. Source: City of Dongo archive
The Lancia 3Ro
The Lancia 3Ro heavy truck was designed in 1937. It was produced from 1938 to 1948 for both the civilian market and the military and up to 1950 in the bus version. In total, 15,222 vehicles were constructed. It was produced in two plants, the Borgo san Paolo plant of Turin and the Bolzano plant.
Lancia was one of the first Italian companies to use diesel propulsion on its trucks, producing the German Junkers 2 cylinder 3,181 cm³ engines under license. This gave a power of 64 hp at 1500 rpm (the Lancia Tipo 89 mounted on Lancia Ro). A 3-cylinder version with a displacement of 4,771 cm³ gave out 95 hp was named Lancia Tipo 90 and mounted on the Lancia Ro-Ro, the predecessor of the 3Ro.
German engines, however, were very expensive, so Vincenzo Lancia, manager of the company, ordered his technicians to develop a new engine, the 5-cylinder inline Lancia Tipo 102 with a displacement of 6,875 cm³, giving out 93 hp at 1860 rpm.
In order to accommodate the new engine, the Lancia 3Ro’s engine hood was lengthened to accommodate the longer engine compared to the earlier licensed Junkers. Its top speed fully loaded was 45 km/h on-road. Its range, with the 135-liter tank of the basic version, was 450 km. The transmission was a license copy of a Maybach one with 4 gears and one reverse.
The civilian version was produced in two series. The 1st had a square engine compartment and vertical radiator grille, while the 2nd had a water-drop shaped radiator grille which was angled back.
There were two standard cabin types, the standard version and the ‘Lungo’ (Eng. Long) version, which, in the civilian version, had a berth behind the seats.
For the civilian versions, the cabins were produced (in a few examples) by Caproni, Cab and Orlandi. For the military versions, the cabins were produced and fitted out only by Viberti.
The Regio Esercito (Royal Italian Army) ordered the vehicle in two versions, the Lancia 3Ro MNP (Militare; Nafta; Pneumatici – Eng. Military; Diesel; Tires), with standard 270×20” tires and the Lancia 3Ro MNSP (Militare; Nafta; SemiPneumatici – Eng. Military; Diesel; SemiTires) with 285×88” rubber tires. These were used during the Second World War in all the campaigns in which the Royal Italian Army participated. Not only the military versions were used, but also the civilian ones. Due to the need for transport vehicles, the army was forced to requisition most of the trucks from the civilians.
The civilian version had a weight of 5,500 kg and a cargo bay of 7.49 m x 2.35 m, with a payload capability of 6,500 kg. The Lancia 3Ro Mnp had a weight of 5,610 kg and a payload capability of 6,390 kg, while the 3Ro MNSP had a weight of 5,890 kg and a payload capability of 6,110 kg.
The Lancia 3Ro MNP version could carry 32 fully equipped soldiers or 7 horses or over 6 tons of materials or ammunition or could tow all types of Italian artillery pieces. Lots of variants were built on the 3Ro MNP chassis, such as a tanker versions for fuel (5000 liters) or for water (one tank of 5000 liters or two of 2000) modified by the Viberti company of Turin, the mobile workshop Mod. 38, an ammunition transporter with 210 90 mm rounds, a bus variant, a command post that was used by Feldmarschall Erwin Rommel and also the famous italian Autocannoni, such as the Autocannone da 90/53 su Lancia 3Ro and 100/17 su Lancia 3Ro. The MNP could carry all the light tanks of the Italian Royal Army on the cargo bay (L3, L6/40 or Semovente L40 da 47/32). The Rimorchio Unificato Viberti 15T (Eng. Viberti Unified Trailer 15 tons) could carry medium tanks of the “M” series and all the Semovente based on their hulls.
Some examples were equipped with a 9.5-ton winch and a 31.5-meter-long steel cable.
The electrical system was a 6 volt one in the first 1611 Lancia 3Ro military vehicles, then replaced by a 12 volt system in the following models. It was limited to a dynamo produced by Magneti Marelli of Sesto San Giovanni, which was used to power the two front lights, the license plate and dashboard lighting, the windscreen wipers and the horn.
This excellent vehicle was still used by the Esercito Italiano (Eng. Italian Army) after the war until 1964, when it was replaced by more modern military trucks.
The vehicle was dubbed “the last armored car of the Duce” and was probably on a Lancia 3Ro MNSP chassis. All the truck’s automotive components were unchanged, including the engine, gears, and transmission. The rear wheels received armor plates, and the radiator had two inclined plates with slits to allow the engine to cool. For the maintenance of the engine, there were two doors on the sides of the cabin, above the front fenders and headlights.
The vehicle received armor 9 mm thick on all sides and a cylindrical single-seater turret that could rotate 360°, which was also fitted with 9 mm thick armor. The vehicle was equipped with three entrances: two doors on the sides and a large rear door at the back that provided access for some of the crew and for the 8 men that could be transported inside the vehicle.
On the sides of the vehicle there was painted the writing “XXXVI° BRIGATA NERA NATALE PIACENTINI LUCCA” and on the doors of the cabin were painted two lions, the symbol of the Lucca city.
The vehicle was armed with three 8×59 mm machine guns (two Breda 38 and a Breda 37) and a Scotti-Isotta Fraschini 20/70 Mod. 1939 anti-aircraft/anti-tank light automatic cannon. The Breda 37 was mounted on a spherical support on the front plate, on the driver’s left; two Breda 38 machine-guns were also mounted on spherical supports located on the two sides of the vehicle. In the turret was fixed the Scotti-Isotta Fraschini 20/70 Mod. 1939 automatic cannon. The elevation of the gun was very high to allow the use of the gun against aerial targets. The number of cannon and machine guns rounds transported was unknown.
There were seven crew members. Three were sat in the cabin on seats, namely the driver, the commander/machine gunner, and the machine-gun loader that had an ammunition rack for the 20 round magazines. There were also two side machine-gunners in the body of the vehicle with a gunner in the turret and the loader. Two wooden benches on the sides of the hull seated eight fully armed and equipped soldiers (with the two machine-gunners and the loader). In addition, on the sides were wooden racks of ammunition and two fire extinguishers.
The Lancia 3Ro Blindato being inspected by some civilians in Dongo, 25th April 1945. Note the Viberti Mod. Bianchi trailer. Source: City of Dongo archive
Illustration of the Lancia 3Ro Blindato produced by Yuvnashva Sharma, funded by our Patreon Campaign.
The vehicle was used from October 1944 up to the first months of 1945 as an anti-partisan patrol armored car. It saw action on 30th December 1944 against a partisan patrol. Between mid-February and early March, the XXXVI° “Natale Piacentini” Black Brigade was moved from Piacenza to Pinerolo in Piedmont. Around 23rd April, the brigade received an order to reach Valtellina in Lombardy.
On the 24th, the “Natale Piacentini”, now armed with this armored vehicle and a Fiat 626 truck armed with a Breda 20/65 Mod. 1935 automatic cannon in the cargo bay, had to escort a column of trucks carrying other Black Brigades towards Milan. At Vercelli, they found themselves involved in a shootout with a partisan brigade; for this reason, the surviving vehicles of the column arrived in Milan in the late afternoon. They were the last fascist vehicles arriving in the city before the insurrection of the following day.
On the morning of April 25, the partisans attacked the major cities of northern Italy still in the hands of the Germans and the fascists. At first, the XXXVI° Brigade was chosen to defend the city, but then it was realized that, thanks to its armored car, the Brigade would have been more useful to escort the Duce, Benito Mussolini, to safety in Switzerland.
On 26th April, the XXXVI° joined a convoy of Republican forces (178 trucks, 4636 soldiers and 346 female auxiliaries) that was moving to Como, where they arrived after lunch. From Como, the brigade and the Lancia 3Ro Blindato moved to Menaggio to escort Benito Mussolini to Merano. During the night of the 26th to 27th April, a column of German Flak vehicles arrived in Menaggio, which, along with the Italian vehicles, resumed the march to Merano with the Lancia at the head of the column. Mussolini, Mrs. Clara Petacci, Alessandro Pavolini and other members of the fascist party were part of the column, transported inside this armored car, along with many documents of the fascist government and Mussolini’s personal baggage.
The Lancia 3Ro Blindato in Dongo, the village where Mussolini was captured by the partisans in April 1945. It is unknown when this photo was taken. Source: web photo
On the morning of the 27th, in Musso, the convoy, led by the Lancia 3Ro Blindato, with all the fascist leaders inside, was stopped on the highway that runs along Lake Como at a checkpoint of the 52ª Brigata Garibaldi “Luigi Clerici” (ENG: 52nd Partisan Brigade). The partisans only allowed the German trucks and FlaK cannons to continue, so Mussolini, dressed as a German soldier, got into a German Opel Blitz which turned onto the road to Merano.
The remaining vehicles, with which the Lancia armored car remained, were moving back when, for unknown reasons, there was a clash. The vehicle fired several machine-gun bursts against the partisans, who responded with rifle fire and several hand grenades. One of these hit the vehicle, damaging one of the two front wheels, immobilizing it while it was trying to retreat. The fascist dignitaries then came out of the vehicle with weapons in hand. During this incident, the driver, Guido Taiti, and vehicle commander Merano Chiavacci were killed, while Pavolini was wounded. Pavolini, along with Idreno Utimpergher and Paolo Zerbino, were captured.
The vehicle was then captured by the partisans and taken to Milan to a foundry, where it was fixed up and placed in the village of Dongo for many years as a symbol of the victory against fascism and in the 60s it was probably demolished.
The vehicle was developed due to the lack of other armored vehicles in Northern Italy. Due to its poor armor, like the SPA-Viberti AS43 built in Turin for the same role, it was not meant to fight against similar vehicles, such as the British Humber armored cars or the American M8 Greyhound; its tasks were patrolling and anti-guerrilla warfare, which it carried out well. This article covered the vehicle used by the XXXVI° Black Brigade “Natale Piacentini” but there were other such vehicles built on the same Lancia 3Ro hull, but produced by other workshops and armed with different armament, such as Breda 20/65 Mod. 1935 automatic cannons, for the XXVIII° “Pippo Astorri” or Solothurn S-1000 anti-tank rifles mounted on a Lancia modified like the Carro protetto trasporto truppa su autotelaio FIAT 626. Some Lancia 3Ro were used to transport troops with armor only on the sides and on the front, like on the Fiat 665 NM Blindato.
A Lancia 3Ro truck with armor in the rear cargo bay, used as a troop transport. Source: Beutepanzer.ru
Scotti-Isotta Fraschini 20/70 Mod. 1939
Three 8×59 mm machine guns (two Breda 38 and one Breda 37)
Aprx. 9 mm
1 – 5
Italia 43-45. I blindati di circostanza della guerra civile. Tank master special.
Ricciotti Lazzero “Le Brigate Nere”
“Gli Ultimi in Grigio Verde” di Giorgio Pisanò
Nico Scarlato, I corazzati Di Circostanza Italiani.
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