Italian Social Republic (1944 – 1945)
Light armored car – 2 or 6 built
The Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43, not to be confused with any of the other many developments on this chassis that Italy experimented with in the 1940s, was produced by the Officine Viberti of Turin in small numbers.
Because of the scarce information about it, it is often mistakenly called Autoblinda AS43 (English: AS43 Armored Car) or Tipo Zerbino after Paolo Zerbino, Chief of the Province of Turin and then Minister of the Interior of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (English: Italian Social Republic).
The Carrozzeria Speciale su AS43 was used by the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ (English: Armored Group) of the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana (English: National Republican Guard) from mid-1944 to the end of the war.
History of the Project
After the first engagements between Italian and Commonwealth troops in North Africa, it was clear to the Italian Regio Esercito (English: Royal Army) High Command that it was necessary to field a light armored car for fast reconnaissance as soon as possible. Starting work from the FIAT-SPA TL37 ‘Libia’ (TL for Trattore Leggero – Light tractor) light prime mover, which had good mobility thanks to the powerful gasoline engine and oversized tires, a new armored car was designed.
The new Autoblinda TL37 or Autoblinda AS37 (AS for Africa Settentrionale – North Africa) had an open-topped turret armed with a powerful Cannone-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65 Modello 1935 20 mm L.65 automatic cannon and a coaxial machine gun. Only one was built by the Ansaldo-Fossati plant in Sestri Ponente, near Genoa. It was shipped to North Africa, where it formed part of an experimental armored car platoon of the Regio Esercito, the Raggruppamento Esplorante del Corpo d’Armata di Manovra or RECAM (English: Reconnaissance Grouping of the Mobile Army Corp), alongside 3 AB41s of the Army, and 9 AB41s and an AB40 from the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana or PAI (English: Police of the Italian Africa) which arrived at a similar time.
Unfortunately, not much is known about its service. It was abandoned at Sidi Rezegh, south of the main road between Tobruk and Bardia, east of El Adem, probably due to a mechanical failure. The project was abandoned in favor of the ‘AB’ series of armored cars, the most produced during the war and the most modified Italian armored car during the war.
In North Africa, there was a development of ‘special’ vehicles by Italian frontline troops, which desperately needed vehicles to support their offensives. This is how some camionette (Italian word for reconnaissance military cars) were born, based on the chassis of the FIAT-SPA AS37, a light lorry developed on the chassis of the FIAT-SPA TL37 ‘Libia’.
These easy-to-modify vehicles were appreciated for their off-road characteristics and sturdiness. In late 1942, the Royal Army started to mass-produce vehicles with similar characteristics and for the same purposes. The first one was the Camionetta Desertica Mod. 1943 (English: Desert Reconnaissance Car Model 1943), of which a dozen were produced and used mainly in the Defense of Rome between 8th and 10th September 1943.
Another vehicle developed was the Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43, produced in 1943 on the AS37 light truck chassis as a cheaper and easier-to-produce vehicle to accompany the bigger and more expensive Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Sahariana’. Even this vehicle, despite being developed for use in North Africa, was never used in that operational theater. It saw use in Italy with the troops of the Royal Army to prevent attacks by paratroopers and Allied landings on the Italian coast.
After the Armistice of 8th September 1943, which led to the occupation of central and northern Italy by the Germans, the few vehicles captured and those produced between 1944 and 1945 were used almost exclusively by the Wehrmacht.
Of the dozens of Italian units loyal to Mussolini after the armistice, only a couple used the SPA-Viberti. The 2ª Compagnia of the Battaglione ‘Fulmine’ of the 2° Reggimento of the Xª Flottiglia MAS used a single modified vehicle, known as the SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata. The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ modified a certain number of vehicles at the Officine Viberti of Turin.
Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43
The Camionetta Desertica FIAT-SPA AS43 or SPA-Viberti AS43 was an Italian light reconnaissance unarmored vehicle developed for North African service as a cheaper, lighter and easier to produce variant of the SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Sahariana’.
In Italian, the term ‘Camionetta’ (plural Camionette) designates unarmored cars, jeeps or light trucks used in reconnaissance and infantry support roles.
The AS43 was developed by Società Piemontese Automobili or SPA, a FIAT subsidiary, and by Officine Viberti, both based in Turin. The project was started using the chassis of the FIAT-SPA AS37 (AS for Autocarro Sahariano – Saharian truck) light lorry, itself derived from the FIAT-SPA Trattore Leggero 37 ‘Libia’ (English: Light Tractor).
The AS43 was produced from mid-1943 until the 8th September 1943 armistice. After the German occupation of northern Italy, production was restarted for the German Army, which used the vehicles, with some modifications, until the end of the war.
The AS37 chassis was lowered from a ground clearance of 390 mm to 345 mm. The cab was completely modified, apart from the hood and the radiator grille. The side doors, the windshield, the roof, and the third seat were removed. The cargo bay was completely modified. The spare wheel was moved from behind the cab to the cargo bay’s rear, on tiltable support that the crew could lower to allow a full 360° traverse to the main gun. The loading bay’s sides were fixed and could not be lowered.
Developed as a desert vehicle, there were two lockers on the sides, between the rear mudguard and the commander and driver’s seats. Each locker could store five 20-liter jerry cans. Another six could be placed on the mudguards, two for each rear mudguard, and one for each frontal mudguard. This gave a total of 16 20-liter jerry cans for drinkable water, engine lubricant oil, and fuel. Obviously, given its use mainly in the Italian peninsula, the jerry cans were rarely transported and the side lockers transported ammunition for the main gun instead.
The main gun of the Camionetta AS43 could be a Cannone da 47/32 Mod. 1935 or Mod. 1939 47 mm L.32 support gun or a Cannone Breda da 20/65 Mod. 1935 anti-aircraft gun. The vehicle’s commander also fired a Breda Mod. 37 or Mod. 38 medium machine gun on a support mounted on the left side of the cab. The ammunition was placed in a small rack between the driver’s and commander’s seats.
The AS43 armored car’s turret was the Modello 1941 (English: Model 1941) developed and produced by Ansaldo for the L.6/40 light reconnaissance tank. The one-man turret had an octagonal shape with two hatches, one for the vehicle’s commander/gunner on the roof and the second one on the back of the turret, used to facilitate the disassembly of the main armament for maintenance. On the sides, the turret had two air intakes, in addition to two slits through which personal weapons could be fired for close defense. The vehicle did not have fans or smoke extractors.
On the roof, next to the hatch, there was a 30º vision panoramic periscope for the commander. This allowed the commander a partial view of the battlefield. Due to the limited space inside the turret, it was impossible for it to rotate 360°.
After the production of some armored cars and light tanks, it became apparent that the turret had some balance problems, so a counterweight was added on the back, under the rear hatch. The turret did not have a turret basket and the commander/gunner operated the cannon and the machine gun through the use of pedals. There were no electric generators in the turret, so the commander needed to control the traverse and gun elevation with handwheels. The steel cables used to operate the guns were of the ‘Bowden’ type, protected by a plastic sheath, the same principle as on bike brakes.
In January 1944, the Turin Officine Viberti, a company specialized in bodyworks for Lancia Veicoli Industriali and FIAT Veicoli Commerciali trucks (mainly) and in the production (jointly with SPA) of armored cars and Camionette, resumed the project of the Autoblindo TL37, this time based on the chassis of the Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43, in order to obtain a vehicle that was cheaper and easier to produce than the armored cars of the ‘AB’ series.
The first design of this project of the Technical Department of the Officine Viberti dates from 18th January 1944. The last modification is dated 3rd April 1944, while the first photos of operational vehicles are from May of the same year. This vehicle was officially designated Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 by Officine Viberti and offered a certain degree of protection to the crew.
As on most Italian armored vehicles of the war, the armor was made of steel plates riveted to an internal structure. The armored superstructure had a mass of 911 kg, excluding connecting elements such as bolts and rivets.
The engine compartment was in the front and it had an armored radiator grille divided into four. On the engine deck, there were two inspection hatches. In order to remove the engine, the bolts of the engine deck had to be unscrewed and the plate lifted with a winch. The driver to the right and the loader to the left had slits to view the battlefield.
An armored door was present on each of the crew compartment’s sides, divided into two parts due to the angled armored plates. These were new models. In order to speed up production, the slits for close defense were removed.
On the rear were the cap for the 120-liter gasoline tank (right side) and sapper tools. The water tank cap was placed on the engine compartment, on the front, while the unprotected headlights were mounted in front of the mudguards. The vehicle had four armored fenders to prevent small arms rounds from piercing the tires. On the front fenders were width-limit indicators, used by the driver to help drive on narrow mountain roads or to park.
The armor was probably the same as on the armored cars of the ‘AB’ series, no more than 8 mm thick for the engine compartment and crew compartment. The turret had an armor of 18 mm on the frontal plate and gun shield, 10 mm on the sides and rear, and 6 mm on the roof. The lower rear angled armor plate was openable and protected the spare wheel from enemy fire.
The tires had the usual dimensions for Italian armored cars. These armored cars had the tires developed by Pirelli specifically for continental terrain, the Pirelli Tipo “Artiglio” 9 x 24″ (22.8 x 60 cm). Obviously, the rims were not modified and the vehicle could have mounted all the tires produced by Pirelli for the 24″ rims, also mounted on the AB series armored cars, the Camionette SPA-Viberti AS42 and the SPA TM40 prime mover.
Engine and Suspension
The SPA-Viberti AS43 was all-wheel drive, as on the AS37. On this new vehicle, only the front wheels steered, reducing the mechanical complexity and the need for complex maintenance of the steering system.
The front wheels had independent coil spring suspension coupled with hydraulic shock absorbers, which guaranteed great comfort on rough terrain. The rear wheels had inverse leaf springs, but these were reinforced compared to those of the TL37 light prime mover.
There are doubts about the brakes. ‘Italian Tanks and Combat Vehicles of World War II’, written by Ralph Riccio, mentions that the Camionetta had hydraulic brakes, while ‘Le Camionette del Regio Esercito’, written by Enrico Finazzer and Luigi Carretta, makes no mention of modifications to the original AS37 desert light truck, which had mechanical brakes with the brake pedal acting on pairs of brake jaws for each wheel.
The engine was a more powerful version of the one used on FIAT-SPA AS37, the SPA 18VT 4-stroke, 4-cylinder, petrol engine delivering 73 hp (or 75 hp, depending on the sources) at 2,000 rpm. This gave a maximum fully-loaded on-road speed of about 50 km/h due to the weight.
The fuel tank had a capacity of 120 liters, giving a range of 250 km, while the gearbox was the same as on the AS37, with 5 gears plus reverse.
The main armament was the Cannone-Mitragliera da 20/65 Breda Modello 1935. This 20 mm L.65 gun was developed as an anti-aircraft cannon but also used with great success in an anti-light armor role, with a theoretical rate of fire of 500 rounds per minute, while the practical one was about 220 due to the cramped space in the turret. It was equipped with an x1 sight produced by the San Giorgio Optics Factory. The elevation was +18°, the depression was -9°, while the manual traverse was 360°.
The Breda cannon could fire Italian-produced Armor Piercing-Incendiary – Tracer (API – T) and High-Explosive-Fragmentation – Incendiary – Tracer (HEFI – T) rounds of Italian production. These had a caliber of 20 x 138 mmB ‘Long Solothurn’, the same used by the German FlaK 38 cannon and the Solothurn S18-1000 anti-tank gun. With Italian armor-piercing rounds, the Mod. 1935 cannon could penetrate a 38 mm armor plate angled at 90° at 100 meters and a 30 mm armored plate at 500 meters. With German Pz.Gr. 40 ammunition, it could penetrate a 50 mm armor plate angled at 90° at 100 meters and a 40 mm armored plate at 500 meters. This made it a fairly fearsome weapon even against light tanks.
The secondary armament consisted of two Breda Modello 1938 8 x 59 mmRB Breda caliber machine guns. The first was coaxial to the cannon, on the left, while the second was in a ball support at the rear of the vehicle. These machine guns were the vehicle version of the Breda Modello 1937 medium machine gun and had a top-mounted curved box magazine with 24 rounds. The machine gun at the rear had x1 optics, identical to the main gun one.
From 1943 onward, anti-aircraft supports for the AB41 were produced by Ansaldo-Fossati, but very few were produced and not much is known about their use. No Carrozzeria Speciale su AS43 used them.
The ammunition load on the Carrozzeria Speciale su AS43 consisted of 50 magazines with 8 rounds each, for a total of 400 20 mm rounds. There were also 48 magazines of 24 rounds, for a total of 1,152 8 mm rounds. This compared well to the 456 20 mm rounds and 1,992 8 mm rounds stored in the AB41 and AB43 armored cars. The rounds were stored in two different wooden racks painted white, placed at the vehicle’s rear.
Many sources and videogames, such as War Thunder, mention the use of 8-round magazines instead of the common 12-round magazines. It is unclear whether these magazines were actually produced or whether they were modified on the battlefield by the crews to facilitate loading in the narrow turrets of the AB series armored cars.
The same sources claim that post-Armistice vehicles were mostly equipped with German-made ammunition. In some cases, the guns were modified by German crews to load the 24-round magazines of the FlaK 38 anti-aircraft cannon.
The Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 was probably modified at the Officine Viberti plant in Peschiera Boulevard 249, where the Camionette SPA-Viberti AS43 were produced.
Many Italian sources claim that Paolo Zerbino, Chief of the Province of Turin from 21st October 1943 to 7th May 1944 and then Minister of the Interior of the Italian Social Republic, “participated” in the development. It is not clear how he participated, whether economically, by providing money for the development and production, or if he only acted as an intermediary between Officine Viberti and another Turin factory that supplied the steel plates for the production of the vehicles.
Although the production dates are not known, it is likely that the first two were produced between 3rd April and mid-May 1944. They were spotted on 23rd May 1944 in a parade of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ in Turin.
The two vehicles were assigned to the 1ª Compagnia (English: 1st Company) or the 2ª Compagnia (English: 2nd Company) of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’, created in Montichiari, near Brescia in Lombardia.
In late February or early March 1944, the unit was transferred to Turin, in Piemonte and used almost exclusively in anti-partisan roles for the rest of the war. The two companies were located in the Caserma Dabormida and Caserma La Marmora barracks in Turin.
Between 27th May and 4th July 1944, the unit was employed in hunting partisans between the provinces of Ivrea and Biella in northern Piemonte. On these occasions, the Autoblindo AS43 was probably used. Official sources claim the use of “two armored cars”, which would probably be the Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 on their first operational mission. A total of 33 partisans were captured, as well 3 Australian soldiers that had escaped from a prison camp, and some military equipment.
In June 1944, the continuous arrival of volunteer soldiers and the recovery of armored vehicles allowed the reorganization of the two companies. The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ was now composed of: 1ª Compagnia Carri (English: 1st Tanks Company), 2ª Compagnia Autoblindo (English: 2nd Armored Cars Company) and 3ª Compagnia Arditi (English: 3rd Arditi Company).
In late 1944, one of the AS43 armored cars may have been destroyed or abandoned. On 23rd March 1945, at the last official parade of the unit in Turin, there was only one Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43.
The hypothesis of the destroyed armored car is unproven. On 22nd March 1945, a detachment of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ took part in an anti-partisan war in Valsesia, in the province of Vercelli, with a tank and an armored car of unknown model. It could very well have been a Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 which would not have reached Turin, about 150 km away, in time for the parade.
In late April 1945, a detachment of the group, composed of an L6/40 light reconnaissance tank and two armored cars, of which one was surely a Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43, was sent to Val Tellina, near Tirano in Lombardia, with the task of keeping the area clear of partisans.
This was the area chosen by the Secretary of the Italian Fascist Party, Alessandro Pavolini, for the “Ridotto Alpino Repubblicano” (English: Republican Alpine Redoubt), an area cleared of partisans where to amass the fascist units loyal to Mussolini fleeing from the cities of northern Italy and where to resist the Allied troops while Benito Mussolini fled to Switzerland.
The second armored car was of an unknown model, either an AB41 or AS43. Apart from the improvised armored cars, the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ had in its ranks a total of 18 AB41s and AB43s during its time in Piemonte, Lombardia and Emilia Romagna.
If some Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 remained in Turin, they followed the same fate as the Fascist troops in the city. After 24th April 1945, some tanks were deployed to protect strategic points of the city, while the armored cars were used to patrol the streets and as a reserve to launch counterattacks.
On 26th April 1945, the partisans attacked the city, occupying the town hall, the railway stations, and some manufacturing plants. Tanks and armored cars in the city were used to counterattack the partisan forces.
Around 1800 hrs of the same day, 4 tanks, 3 armored cars (model unknown), a platoon of Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’, and a platoon of the Black Brigade of Turin Iª Brigata Nera ‘Ather Capelli’ attacked and reconquered the barracks on Cernaia Street, the headquarters of the Black Brigade. The attack succeeded but, for the rest of the night, two armored cars (again, the models are unknown) and 5 tanks continued to patrol the parts of the city still in Fascist hands.
It was clear that it was impossible to repel the partisans, so the Fascist command of Turin decided to resist to the bitter end, hoping for the arrival of Anglo-American troops in order to surrender to them.
On 27th April 1945, an armored car escorted a truck of the Iª Brigata Nera ‘Ather Capelli’ to the Casa Littoria, the headquarters of the Italian Fascist Party of Turin in Carlo Alberto Street number 10. There, a group of Avanguardisti of the ‘Fiamme Bianche’ (English: White Flames) had barricaded themselves in for unknown reasons. The Avanguardisti were young people between 14 and 18 years old who voluntarily joined the RSI troops but, being too young, were not yet assigned to frontline units.
The armored car (of unknown model) managed to provide adequate supporting fire, evacuating all the young men from the building and escorting them to safety at the Caserma Cernaia barracks.
The situation was worsening by the minute. At 0140 hrs on 28th April 1945, all the surviving Fascist forces in the city, about 5,000 soldiers, gathered in Piazza Castello and fled towards Lombardia to gather at “Ridotto Alpino Repubblicano”. The protection of the column of trucks was entrusted to the tanks and armored cars of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’. The column reached Val Tellina and waited, with about 10,000 more men, until 5th May 1945, when they surrendered to the Anglo-American troops.
The detachment sent to Val Tellina had a different fate. Until 26th April 1945, all was quiet at Tirano, near Sondrio, a few kilometers from Switzerland. On the morning of 27th April, a column made up of the detachment from the ‘Leonessa’, 2° Battaglione of the III Legione Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana di Frontiera ‘Vetta d’Italia’, XXXVIII Brigata Nera ‘Ruy Blas Biagi’, and some soldiers of the French Vichy Republic, a total of about 1,000 men, set out for Sondrio in order to reach Benito Mussolini. The column was immediately blocked at the exit of the city by partisan troops, starting the Battle of Tirano.
On the night of 27th April, the Brigata Partigiana ‘Gufi’ (English: Partisan Brigade) encircled the city of Tirano. In the following hours, groups of partisans from Val Grosina and from the Sondalo area also arrived.
The total number of partisans is difficult to determine, partly because their lines were strengthened by citizens who arrived in the early hours to join them. The writer William Marconi, who took part in the battle as a partisan of the Brigata Partigiana ‘Gufi’, states in his book ‘L’Aprile 1945 fra Tirano e Grosio’ that there were no more than 300 or 350 partisans, with no heavy weapons apart from some mortars. They faced 1 L6/40 light reconnaissance tank, two armored cars (one AS43 and the other of an unknown model), and several trucks armed with Cannone-Mitragliera da 20/65 Breda Modello 1935, including at least one civilian FIAT 634N 2nd Series requisitioned weeks or days earlier by the Army.
The fight lasted from dawn until 1630 hrs. Among the partisans, there were two deceased, Ermanno Balgera and Nello Braccaioli, and some others were wounded. The Vichy French troops suffered 5 casualties and several wounded. The Fascists lost nine men and two auxiliaries (women assigned to units as nurses, cooks, etc.). In the reports, three Germans are also marked as fallen, of whom nothing else is known.
The armored car ended up in partisan hands after the clash, along with other vehicles of the Fascist column. These were used in the following days, until 2nd May 1945, in the area of the Mortirolo Pass, at 1,852 meters above sea level, where an attack by the I Legione d’Assalto ‘M’ ‘Tagliamento’ was feared.
Camouflage and Markings
The known vehicles had two different types of camouflage schemes, the Kaki Sahariano (English: Saharan Khaki), standard monochrome camouflage of the Italian Regio Esercito until mid-1943. However, as they were delivered to the unit in May 1944, this scheme was probably used because Officine Viberti had no other paint. The other scheme was the Continentale (English: Continental) three-tone camouflage scheme. It was the standard camouflage scheme for the vehicles produced after the end of the North African Campaign, when it became obvious that the peninsula had to be defended from Allied attacks and a desert camouflage was no longer suitable for the purpose.
The Kaki Sahariano base vehicles were covered with reddish brown and dark green spots. It was adopted from December 1944. The vehicles spotted from 23rd March until April 1945 had this camouflage pattern.
The only license plate known is ‘GNR 0151’, spotted on 23rd May 1944. When the vehicles had Kaki Sahariano camouflage they received the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ coat of arms on the turret sides and rear hatch. This was a red ‘m’, for Mussolini, with a lictorian beam (symbol of the Italian Fascist Party), and the acronym ‘GNR’ painted in red.
The vehicle captured in Tirano by the partisans received some patriotic slogans painted in white on the superstructure. Due to the framing of the only known photo of the vehicle and the low quality, only the word “ESERCITO” (English: Army) is legible.
It was common practice for the partisans to paint slogans or the names of fallen comrades on vehicles captured from the Fascists, both for superstition and in order to avoid friendly fire. It is possible that the phrase on the armored car was “ESERCITO DI LIBERAZIONE” (English: Liberation Army).
In the desperate situation in which the Italian Social Republic found itself in 1944, the Carrozzeria Speciale on AS43 was all the Fascist Italian troops could get.
Even if it was not a vehicle with extraordinary characteristics, it was employed in secondary tasks and against adversaries equipped with weak weapons that could not destroy it. The few examples produced were used successfully until the end of the war.
Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 Specifications
Total weight, battle ready
5 or 6 tonnes
3 (driver, loader and commander/gunner)
Tipo 18 VT 4-cylinder petrol, 4,053 cm³, 73 hp at 2,600 rpm and 120 liter tank
~ 250 km
One Cannone-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65 Mod. 1935 and a 8 mm Breda Mod. 38
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In 1937, the Italian Regio Esercito (English: 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 (English: 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 (Trattore Medio Modello 1940 – Medium Tractor Model 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 Modello 1938 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 Modello 1940 or ABM 40 (English: Machine gun Armored Car Model 1940), were presented to Benito Mussolini and the Italian Army during the inauguration of the FIAT production plant in Mirafiori, Turin together with the FIAT 626 medium truck prototype and the FIAT 666N heavy duty truck prototype.
Two weeks later, one of the prototypes was sent by sea to Africa Orientale Italiana or AOI (English: 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 (English: Armored Car Training Centre) of Pinerolo in March 1941. Twenty-four examples of the new armored car were produced with the temporary Modello 1940 turret, while a prototype was created with the Modello 1941 turret of the L.6/40 light tank.
The new version, called AB41, was armed with the Cannone-Mitragliera Breda 20/65 Modello 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 6.85 to 7.4 tonnes. 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 Modello 1941 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 (English: National Republican Army), the collaborationist army of the Benito Mussolini’s Repubblica Sociale Italiana (English: Italian Social Republic), which was founded on 23th 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 Polizia di Stato (English: State Police), Arma dei Carabinieri (English: Arm of the Carabinieri) and the Esercito Italiano or EI (English: 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.
AB40 with Modello 1941 turret or AB40/41
The Italian High Command immediately found that the two machine guns in the turret could not provide adequate support fire to the infantry and did not allow the AB40s to engage other armored cars.
Ansaldo proposed to install a new turret, tht in the article it’s called Modello 1941 (even if it was produced in 1940), developed for the L6/40 light reconnaissance tank, armed with a 20 mm automatic cannon, on the chassis of the AB40.
The modifications increased the weight, from 6.8 to 7.45 tonnes, and to avoid some stress problems for the armored car caused by the extra weight, a more powerful petrol engine, the 88 hp FIAT SPA ABM 2 6-cylinder, was mounted.
Following a few tests, it was judged favorably by the army, which authorized its production. After a short while, the new Modello 1941 turrets, which were already being produced for the L6/40, arrived at the assembly lines. The new engines took longer, as the assembly lines had to be modified at the SPA plant, so it was decided to modify the AB40 armored cars by mounting the Modello 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.
The registers of the Ufficio Autonomo Approvvigionamenti Automobilistici Regio Esercito (English: Royal Army Autonomous Automobile Procurement Office), which lists the vehicles produced with their registration, chassis 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 plate Regio Esercito 116B to Regio Esercito 551B would be AB40, i.e. 435 vehicles, 65% of the whole AB41 production. Those with registration Regio Esercito 552B onward would be AB41s. This means that a large number of the AB40s actually had the Modello 1941 turret mounted.
Engine and Suspension
The engine in the AB40 hull version armed with Modello 1941 turret was a 78 hp FIAT SPA ABM 1 6-cylinder water-cooled inline petrol engine, while in the standard AB41, it was a 88 hp FIAT-SPA ABM 2 6-cylinder inline petrol engine cooled by a water circuit driven by a centrifugal pump. The engine cooling water tank was placed under the rear driver’s hatch on the left of the fuel reserve tank. In both ABs, the engine was coupled 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 Società Piemontese Automobili or SPA (English: Piedmontese Automobiles Company) in Turin. The second engine was chosen because the new turret armed with the Breda gun increased the weight of the vehicle, from 6.85 tonnes in the AB40 with 3 machine guns to 7.4 tonnes in the AB41. Although increased by only 550 kg the performance of the first engine had decreased, decreasing the maximum speed and maximum range.
Increased engine power brought speeds to these levels:
‘AB’ armored car series velocity by gears
FIAT SPA ABM 1
FIAT SPA ABM 2
FIAT SPA ABM 3
FIAT SPA ABM 3
The values of the AB40 equipped with Mod. 41 turret are not known
There were three fuel tanks with a capacity 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 in front of the steering wheel, while the 20 liters reserve tank was placed under the machine gun spherical support in the rear of the crew compartment.
The oil bath air filters were of satisfactory quality, giving great results even in the desert environment.
The electrical system composed of a Magneti Marelli 3 MF15 battery with 4 accumulators was used to power the 4 external headlights, the three lamps for the internal lighting and the horn placed on the front right mudguard.
The engine could be started manually using a crank or electrically with an ignition key from either dashboards.
The single dry plate clutch transmitted the movement of the drive shaft to a gearbox. The differential from which the four drive shafts departed.
The front driver had six gears at his disposal while the rear driver had only four gears at his disposal, meaning that 37 km/h was the maximum speed in this configuration.
The suspension was a four-wheel drive and four steering wheels with independent shock absorbers on each wheel which, coupled with the large diameter tires gave excellent off-road mobility to the armored cars.
Supports for extra jerry cans were mounted at the factory on the last production 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.
The engine compartment was well cooled with grilles on the engine deck, right behind the rear armored plate of the superstructure, grilles on maintenance hatches, and inclined grilles on the rear for the radiator’s water cooling. It should also be considered that the lack of a bulkhead allowed for easier cooling.
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 ‘Ferroviaria’ 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.
The radio system mounted on vehicles built before March 1941 is unknown. The Transceiver Station model RF 3M, produced by Magneti Marelli, which was installed on all vehicles of the AB series from March 1941 onwards, was placed on the left wall of the superstructure, in the middle of the crew compartment.
The RF 3M consisted of a transmitter placed on a shelf on top of the receiver placed on another shelf on the spare wheel fairing. Underneath them, on the floor, the power supplies and accumulator were placed, while the batteries were placed in the double bottom of the floor. There were two pairs of headphones and microphones for the interphone, 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 3 m high but could reach 7 m fully extended with a maximum range of 60 km and 25/35 km when 3 m high.
Some armored cars received an RF 2CA radio, also produced from Magneti Marelli, with the antenna mounted on the rear of the fighting compartment, but, apart from the antenna mount, there were no external differences between the normal AB41 and the command version. The RF 2CA was used for communications among tank squadron commanders, so it is logical to assume that the AB41 equipped with this type of radio were used by squadron/company commanders.
The Stazione Ricetrasmittente Magneti Marelli RF 3M operated in graphic (Morse Code) and voice mode on frequencies from 1,690 to 2,790 kHz. The transmitter was 350 x 250 x 250 mm with a weight of 14.2 kg while the receiver was 350 x 220 x 195 mm with a weight of 8.4 kg. It was produced from 1940 and was later updated in 1942, under the new name RF 3M2 Modello 1942 with some internal improvement and a different front panel. Maximum communication range increased to 70 km.
The Stazione Ricetrasmittente Magneti Marelli RF 2CA operated in graphic and voice mode. Its production began in 1940 and had a maximum communication range of 20-25 km.
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 mmeters and a 30 mm armored plate at 500 meters. 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 Modello 1938 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 Mododello 1937 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. 1938s 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 Pirelli Tipo ‘Libia’ 9.75 x 24″ (25 x 60 cm). There was also the Tipo ‘Libia Rinforzato’ with the same dimensions but run-flat and the Tipo ‘Sigillo Verde’ 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 Tipo ‘Artiglio’ 9 x 24″ (22.8 x 60 cm), Tipo ‘Artiglio a Sezione Maggiorata’ 11.25 x 24″ (28.5 x 60 cm) and finally, from 1942 onwards, the Pirelli ‘Raiflex’ 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 German or Allied origin 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 meters 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. In one occasion, on 21st November 1941, during a reconnaissance mission on board of a Polizia dell’Africa Italiana AB41 armored car, the radio operator, Guardia Mario Sforzini, was hit by grenade splinters because the crew kept the hatches opened due to the heat.
The problem of the heat generated by the engine certainly benefited crews in the Soviet Union and the Balkans during the rigid winters.
One interesting fact is that crews of the armored cars deployed in the North African deserts often did not fill the reserve tank and relied on externally transported 20 liters jerry cans of the same capacity to avoid the risk of fire.
Production and Organization
Many companies competed in the production of the ‘AB’ series armored cars: Società Piemontese Automobili of Turin produced the chassis and the engines. Lancia of Turin produced a small percentage of chassis; San Giorgio of Sestri Ponente near Genoa produced all the optics devices of the armored car; Magneti Marelli of Corbetta, near Milan, produced the radio system, batteries, and engine starter; the armor plates were produced by Società Italiana Acciaierie Cornigliano or SIAC (English: Italian Steelworks Company of Cornigliano); Società Italiana Ernesto Breda per Costruzioni Meccaniche of Brescia produced the automatic cannons and machine guns; and Ansaldo-Fossati of Sestri-Ponente assembled the hull and produced the turrets.
In the ten months of 1941 during which the AB41 was produced, only 250 were delivered to the army, with an average monthly production of 25 armored cars out of 30 planned. In total, 269 chassis were produced by Società Piemontese Automobili and 282 armored superstructures by the Ansaldo-Fossati plant in 1941. In 1942, 302 AB41 armored cars were delivered to the army, also with an average monthly production of 25 armored cars. In 1943, due to various problems, between January and July, only 72 were delivered to the army, an average production of only 10 armored cars per month.
Under German Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen (English: Inspector General of the Armed Forces) on 13th November 1943, production was resumed after German’s evaluations for the Wehrmacht and totalled 23 AB41s produced until December 1944.
AB41 production during the war
November 1943 to December 1944
Average production per year
Average production per month
In late 1942 and early 1943, the Regio Esercito began evaluating which vehicles to prioritize for production and which others to give less attention to. The High Command of the Regio Esercito, well aware of the importance of the medium reconnaissance armored cars of the ‘AB’ series, ordered to give precedence to the production of the AB at the expense of the L6/40 reconnaissance light tanks.
This led to a drastic decrease in the production of this type of light tanks. When the L6/40s came out from the assembly line, there were not enough San Giorgio optics and Magneti Marelli radios for them because these were delivered with priority to the AB41s. This left the Società Piemontese Automobili’s plant’s depots, where the L6s were produced, full of vehicles waiting to be completed.
The AB41 armored car units were composed, aside from rare exceptions, of coppia (English: couple) consisting of 2 armored cars, plotone (English: platoon) composed of 2 couples, compagnia (English: company) or squadrone (English: squadron) composed of one command platoon (one command car) and four platoons, for a total of 17 armored cars, and Gruppo (English: group) or Battaglione (English: battalion) composed of one command company or squadron and from two to four companies or squadrons, for a total of 35 or 69 armored cars.
Prospective armored car crew members were assigned to cavalry schools and to armored Bersaglieri schools (Bersaglieri were the Italian assault infantry). The cavalry used squadrone and gruppi nomenclature, while the Bersaglieri used battaglioni and compagnie nomenclature, even if the sources often do not pay attention to this detail.
During a march, a platoon had three different types of formations: the standard column, with one armored car behind each other; a line, with all lined up side-to-side; and the stormo (English: wing), in which the four armored cars formed a ‘V’ shape pointing backward.
Companies and battalions had other types of formations. These could be the 17 vehicles forming a long column or four lines composed of four AB41s in a column, with the command armored car in front. They could also form a bigger stormo or a rhombus.
The maximum distance between each armored car could not exceed 100 meters, but, in case of air strikes, this would be extended to 200 meters.
For vehicle repairs and recovery, each squadron or company had a Modello 1938 mobile workshop, composed of two heavy trucks, a heavy duty Lancia Ro NM or Lancia 3Ro recovery truck and a SPA 38R light recovery truck.
In late 1941, the Regio Esercito designated a list of units that needed to be equipped with the AB41 armored cars. Each Italian armored division’s reconnaissance group needed a group or battalion with 35 AB41s, totalling 175 armored cars. Each mechanized division’s reconnaissance group was given 26 AB41s, a total of 208. A company or a squadron plus another platoon (17 + 4 armored cars) were needed for each of the 8 different army corps, 168 armored cars in total. A platoon plus a command armored car (8 + 1 armored cars) were needed for each Italian infantry division’s reconnaissance group. A total of 650 armored cars were needed to be produced. At the theoretical rate of 30 armored cars per month, this would take 21 months, just under 2 years.
However, the Italian Army had not considered the Balkan theater, where some AB units were assigned to fight against the Yugoslavian partisans.
In very late 1942, the AB41 received some small upgrades, the most important ones were the new muffler and some 20 liters cans supports, one on each frontal mudguard and 3 or 4 on the right side of the superstructure. In general, the can’s supports were rarely used on the upgraded ABs, as when they entered service in early 1943, the North African Campaign, where the need to increase range was necessary, had concluded, and none of the upgraded AB41s was ever sent across the Mediterranean to Africa.
Regio Esercito – North Africa
In late 1941, the RECAM was equipped with an experimental armored car platoon from the Gruppo Squadroni Corazzati ‘Nizza’ (English: Armored Squadron Group). This unit was not destroyed by the German air strike, but, due to the very limited number of armored cars assigned to it, by January 1942, it was disbanded.
On 26th April 1942, RECAM was disbanded, and, in its place, the Raggruppamento Celere Africa Settentrionale (English: North African Fast Group) was created.
It was composed of two Gruppi Celeri (English: Fast Group), each composed of an armored car squadron with 24 AB41s with FIAT SPA ABM 1 and standard AB41 armored cars, one Gruppo Batterie da 65/17 Autoportate (English: Truck-mounted 65/17 Battery Group), one Gruppo Batterie da 75/27 Mod. 11 Autoportate, one Gruppo Batterie da 100/17 Autoportate, and one Batteria Antiaerea da 20/65 (English: 20 mm Anti-Aircraft Battery). These units were supported by 2 infantry battalions and a logistic unit.
Strangely enough, there is some unclear information about where the armored cars of the Raggruppamento Celere Africa Settentrionale came from. A total of 48 armored cars are claimed to have come from the III Gruppo Esplorante corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Monferrato’ or GECo (English: 3rd Armored Exploration Group) which, however, was sent to Africa in July with 18 armored cars and arrived in August 1942, under the command of Major Riccardo Martinengo Marquet. The Raggruppamento Celere AS was disbanded in May 1942.
Some sources claim that the unit was equipped with an unknown number of armored cars from the III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’ (English: 3rd Armored Squadron Group) that was formed in Turin in July 1941 and sent to Africa “during 1942”. It is plausible that the unit was equipped with a few armored cars from this unit or from others.
In the book ‘La meccanizzazione dell’Esercito fino al 1943’ by Lucio Ceva and Andrea Curami, it is stated that 20 AB41s with FIAT SPA ABM 1 and standard AB41 armored cars arrived in Africa in February 1942 and another 63 in April of the same year. The same book reports that, in May 1942, there were a total of 93 armored cars in North Africa, assigned to various units:
The III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’, with a theoretical organic strength of 47 armored cars, but equipped with 38 in service (serviceable or needing repairs). VIII Reggimento Bersaglieri Corazzato, also with a theoretical organic strength of 47 armored cars, but equipped with 31 in service (serviceable or in need of repairs).
The 3ª Compagnia della Polizia dell’Africa Italiana, with a theoretical organic of 10, but the exact number of armored cars is unknown.
Considering that, of 93 armored cars, 69 were assigned to the first two units, this means that the remaining 24 armored cars in North Africa were assigned to the 3ª Compagnia della Polizia dell’Africa Italiana and to the Raggruppamento Celere AS. This number was less than half compared to the 48 armored cars theoretically assigned to them.
III Gruppo Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Monferrato’
The III Gruppo Esplorante Corazzato (GECo) ‘Cavalleggeri di Monferrato’ was created in April 1941 at the Deposito Reggimentale (English: Regimental Depot) of Voghera in Lombardia. The Group was composed of two armored car squadrons and was assigned to the 131ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Centauro’ (English: 131st Armored Division) as a reconnaissance unit. It was then assigned to the XXI Corpo d’Armata (English: 21th Army Corps) stationed at Agedabia, in the Sirte district.
In September 1942, the GECo took part in the occupation of the Jalo Oasis in Cyrenaica, Libya, and then the Siwa Oasis in Egypt, together with the 136ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Giovani Fascisti’ (English: 136th Armored Division). After the defeat of the Axis troops in the Second Battle of El Alamein (23rd October – 5th November 1942), the III Gruppo Esplorante corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Monferrato’ fought in southern Tunisia against Allied armored units.
In late 1942, the group consisted of one armored car squadron, a batteria autocannoni (English: autocannon battery) with captured Morris CS8 light lorries, a motorized company with 47 mm anti-tank cannons, a Willys platoon with captured Jeeps, 20 officers, 16 NCOs, and 213 soldiers.
The equipment consisted of 14 AB41 with FIAT SPA ABM 1 armored cars, 6 Willys Jeep, 4 Autocannoni da 65/17 su Morris CS8, 3 Lancia RO heavy duty trucks, 4 FIAT 666NM heavy duty trucks, 2 motorcycles, 1 ambulance, 2 FIAT 626NM medium trucks, 1 FIAT-SPA 38R light truck, 1 Morris CS8 light lorry (probably a 65 mm ammunition carrier), 1 staff car, 17 Cannoni Breda da 20/65 Mod. 1935 anti-aircraft autocannons, 18 Breda Mod. 37 medium machine guns, and 2 Cannoni da 47/32 Mod. 1935 anti-tank guns.
Although it was a reconnaissance unit, after late 1942, it was used to counter the attacks of the British Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). It managed to capture the LRDG commander, Lieutenant Colonel David Stirling, on 20th January 1943, near Al Ḥāmmah (now El Hamma), an oasis town in the south of Tunisia.
After this very lucky action that earned the unit the praise of their German comrades in arms, the GECo was employed in reconnaissance actions in southern Tunisia from 15th February to 17th April 1943, in the areas of Dour-Kébili and Bir Sultane, on the right wing of the Mareth defensive line. During the Battle of Al Ḥāmmah, in March 1943, it actively participated in the retreat from the area of Kebili, fighting against the Free French forces and the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards.
On 29th March, the 3rd Group, deployed in Kebili, was hit by two enemy units equipped with armored fighting vehicles. It was able to oppose their attacks, protecting the retreat of the Raggruppamento Sahariano ‘Mannerini’ (English: Saharan Group) and then carrying out considerable reconnaissance activities for the new defensive line, 24 km to the rear of Gabès, at Wadi Akarit.
On 8th April, with a company of the Raggruppamento Sahariano ‘Mannerini’ and the II Gruppo of the 21º Artiglieria (English: 21st Artillery), it formed a combat group that went to Garaet Fatuassa, where it fought against enemy reconnaissance and sabotage units.
On 13th April during one of these fights in the town of Djebibina, it captured prisoners and armored vehicles from an enemy unit, probably one of the LRDG.
On 22nd April, the commander of the 1ª Armata italiana (English: 1st Italian Army), General Giovanni Messe, decided to reinforce the ranks of the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato (R.E.Co.) ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’ (English: Armored Exploration Group) ,which had lost, in 5 months of fighting, 50% of its soldiers and 60% of its armored fighting vehicles. All the remaining armored units in Tunisia, including the III Gruppo Esplorante corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Monferrato’, fought in the Defense of Cape Bon until the surrender of the Axis troops in Tunisia, which took place on 13th May 1943.
Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’
On 15th February 1942, at the Scuola di Cavalleria of Pinerolo, the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’ was founded under the command of Colonel Tommaso Lequio di Assaba. The first unit that complete the training was the ‘I Gruppo A di Savoia Cavalleria’, which was deployed in the area of Pontinia, under the orders of Major Prince Vitaliano Borromeo Arese, employed in coastal defense with 4 squadrons and a command platoon.
This unit was accompanied by the ‘Gruppo Corazzato di Addestramento’ (English: Armored Training Group) of the Cavalry School, located in None, under the orders of Major Ettore Bocchini Padiglione.
The units were completed with tank drivers and soldiers taken from other regiments and from the School, with a prevalence of those who had attended training courses for armored cars. The Gruppo Squadroni Corazzati ‘Nizza’ had already trained crews for 3 squadrons.
On 15th April, the General Staff of the Royal Army decided that a Gruppo Semoventi M41 da 75/18 (English: M41 Self-Propelled Guns Group) with 2 batteries was to be assigned to the RECo.
In the spring, the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’ was sent to the area of Pordenone, at the orders of the 8ª Armata Italiana, waiting to leave for the Russian front. By order of the General Staff of the Royal Army, on 19th September, the destination was changed to North Africa, to the XX Corpo d’Armata di Manovra, for the defense of the Libyan Sahara.
Initially, however, only the equipment of the Squadrone Carri Armati L6/40 (English: L6/40 Tank Squadron) arrived in Africa, with personnel transferred by air. This was meant for the Oasis of Giofra. The other convoys were attacked during the crossing from the Italian mainland to Africa, causing the loss of all the equipment of the Squadrone Semoventi L40 da 47/32 and the rest of the Tank Squadron could not leave until much later, after the tanks were replaced by AB41 armored cars. They reached the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’ in mid-November, while another ship was diverted to Corfu, then reaching Tripoli.
The remaining personnel, airlifted from the airports of Sciacca and Castelvetrano between 20th and 25th November, were attacked by US-made fighters that inflicted heavy losses.
When the first units of the R.E.Co. ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’ reached Tripoli on 21st November 1942, the Anglo-Americans had landed in French North Africa. At that point, the task of the R.E.Co. changed from the defense of the Libyan Sahara to the occupation and defense of Tunisia. Once gathered, the regiment left for Tunisia.
On 24th November, after leaving Tripoli, the units of the R.E.Co. ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’ reached Gabes, and then, on 25th November, occupied Médenine, where the command of the I Gruppo was then stationed, with the 2º Squadrone Motociclisti (English: 2nd Motorcycle Squadron) and a platoon of anti-tank guns. The 1° Squadrone Motociclisti, the armored car squadron and the anti-aircraft gun squadron instead went to Gabes, sustaining losses to Allied air attacks during the march.
The regiment was divided as follows: elements in Gabes, with the commander, Lequio, the main part of the I Gruppo in the Tunisian south, all with the 131ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Centauro’ (English: 131st Armored Division), the Squadrone Carri Armati L6/40 in the Libyan south, temporarily assigned to the Raggruppamento Sahariano ‘Mannerini’.
A part of the RECo ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’ was still in Italy.
The units assigned to the 131ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Centauro’ took part in the Battle of Tebourba. During the final phases, they were deployed, together with the 1ª Divisione di Fanteria ‘Superga’ (English: 1st Infantry Division) in the sector of Gafsa-el Guettar.
On 27th November, by order of German general Nehring, the whole sector of Gabes, with the detachments of Médenine and Fountatuine, were entrusted to Colonel Lequio, who had to go as far as Kébili to handle the communication lines.
In the area of Gabes, the units of the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’, with the command unit, a motorcycle squadron, armored car squadron, and anti-aircraft squadron, carried out reconnaissance in the area south and north of Chott El Fejej and escort duties to the columns between Gabes and Sfax, a road threatened by units of the LRDG. They then participated in the occupation of Oudref-Achichina-El Hafay to improve the situation in Gabes.
The I Gruppo Squadroni, reinforced by two companies of the LX Battaglione Mitraglieri Autocarrato and by the Sezione Mobile d’Artiglieria da 76/30, garrisoned Medenine and Foum Tatahouine. They also occupied the narrows of Ksar El Hallauf, scouted the mountains of Ksour and sent motorcycle patrols up to Kebili.
On 9th December 1942, Kebili was occupied by a group made up of one platoon of the armored car squadron, one L6/40 light tank platoon, two 20 mm anti-aircraft platoons, the Sezione Mobile d’Artiglieria and two machine gun companies. These were followed two days later by the 2º Squadrone Autoblindo (English: 2nd Armored Car Squadron) in order to reinforce the garrison and to extend the occupation up to Douz, thus holding under control the whole territory of the Caidato of Nefzouna. The commander of the vanguard was second lieutenant Gianni Agnelli of the armored car platoon. From December 1942 to January 1943, the I Group, 50 kilometers away from the main Italian base, in a hostile area and in difficult terrain, continued intense operations in the whole area of the great Chotts and the southwest territories.
The tank squadron, composed of L6/40s, stationed in the area of Giofra and then Hon, received orders from the Comando del Sahara Libico (English: Libyan Sahara Command) on 18th December 1942 to move to Sebha, where it passed under its command, constituting the Nucleo Automobilistico del Sahara Libico (English: Automobile Squad of the Libyan Sahara), with 10 armored cars.
On 4th January 1943, the retreat from Sebha began. The Squadrone Carri Armati L6/40, after having destroyed all the tanks for lack of fuel, reached El Hamma on 1st February, where the squadron rejoined its I Group.
A fundamental role that the Italian scouting units played in Tunisia was to monitor, find, and destroy the enemy scouting units, so as to interfere with enemy information gathering.
Another role played by the unit was anti-aircraft fire, which shot down a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a Bristol Beaufighter and an American four-engine aircraft, probably B-17 or B-24, whose crew was entirely captured before they could destroy the aircraft. This last plane, originating from Algeria and bound for the Middle East, had a new type of optical device on board, which was found intact and sent to Army Headquarters. Two American fighters were also shot down at Mezzauna by a platoon of 20 mm automatic anti-aircraft guns and a platoon of armored cars fought against enemy armored vehicles near Krechen.
At the end of January 1943, the units of the RECo ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’ in the Gabes sector (RECo command, 1º Squadrone Motociclisti, an Armored Car Squadron, a half squadron of 20 mm anti-aircraft guns) were passed over to the 50ª Brigata Speciale di Fanteria (English: 50th Special Infantry Brigade). Together with the III Gruppo corazzato ‘Monferrato’ of the Raggruppamento Sahariano ‘Mannerini’, they moved further north, to the area of Triaga Fauconnerie. The units of the I Group remaining in the area of Kebili passed to the 131ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Centauro’.
On 23rd February 1943, the remains of the Italian-German Armored Army were included in the new 1ª Armata Italiana (English: 1st Italian Army), under the command of Italian General Giovanni Messe.
During the Battle of Kasserine Pass, all the units of the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’ were engaged, starting from the preliminary operations until the end of the offensive. In cooperation with the 21. Panzer Division, they occupied the passes of Kralif, Rabeau, and Faid, the starting point for the attack of Sidi Bou Zid. The garrison of Kebili, with a special division and a company of German Fallschirmjäger under the 131ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Centauro’, contributed to the occupation of the important command center. The 1º Squadrone Motociclisti, which had followed the 21. Panzer Division, was employed in the area of Raban and Kralif. Between 10th and 19th March 1943, the reconnaissance activity became even more intense.
The I Group, under the 131ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Centauro’, defended the city of Gafsa. Between 24th February and 17th March, the 2° Squadrone Motociclisti and one Armored Car Platoon attacked the enemy scout units in various locations on the road to Sidi Bou Said on a daily basis.
During the defensive and counter-offensive battle, which took place between 21st March and 7th April east and southeast of El Guettar, the 2° Plotone Autoblindo distinguished itself by capturing several enemy armed Jeeps in the Wadi Halfay area.
On 10th March, in order to prevent any enemy attack from the west and south, part of the 1st Group, which had occupied Douz on 6th March, moved to Kebili, then moved 26 km to El Hamma on 14th March, and was subjected to fierce aerial bombardment until 26th March. An offensive of the British 8th Army caused the capture or destruction of all the units of the group employed in this action.
The group was reconstituted with the Gruppi Corazzati ‘Nizza’ and ‘Monferrato’, with a Batteria Semoventi M41 da 75/18 and one with Autocannoni da 65/17 su FIAT 634N.
On 9th April 1943, the retreat of the German’s 5. Panzerarmee to the north resulted in the outflanking of the 1st Italian Army. The Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’ blocked the British attacks from Hammam Lif, on the road to Tunis, effectively delaying the enemy troops in order to cover the retreat of the 1st Army.
After the Battle of Mareth and the retreat of the front to the area of Enfidaville, the armored car patrols of the RECo continued their engagements with enemy reconnaissance units, also fighting a brief battle at the Bled Dicloula pit. They fell back between 9th and 12th April to Kairouan, then through Djebibina and Ben Saidana to Zaghouan.
In this action, the armored cars under the command of Lieutenant Masprone and the Plotone Semoventi L40 da 47/32 of Lieutenant Birzio Biroli claimed to have inflicted 22 tank and an unknown number of armored personnel carriers and other vehicle losses on the enemy.
On 13th April 1943, the 2º Squadrone Motociclisti, along with a 20 mm AA gun platoon, was assigned to the 16ª Divisione fanteria ‘Pistoia’ in order to reinforce the Gebel Gargi stronghold, west of Tarhuna. The III Gruppo corazzato ‘Lancieri di Novara’ was reduced to a machine gun section.
On 21st April, the remains of Gruppo I returned to the RECo. On 22nd April 1943, the command of the 1st Army decided to unite all the Italian mechanized elements in the RECo. In some sources, the unit is also designated as Raggruppamento Sahariano ‘Lequio’, from the name of its commander. The unit passed under the command of the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK) for the defense of Cape Bon.
Two tactical groups were constituted, one assigned to the 136ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Giovani Fascisti’, near Bouficha, and one to the 16ª Divisione fanteria ‘Pistoia’, near Saguaf. These were committed, from 24th to 30th April, to the extremities of the Italian-German defenses.
On 10th May 1943, Cape Bon was attacked by enemy armored units and the RECo resisted. The advance of the Anglo-American forces supported by French forces, superior in number and equipment, caused very heavy losses to the Italian-German units. On 11th May 1943, after fighting northwest of Boufichia, what remained of the RECo was annihilated in very bitter fighting that caused the destruction of the last armored artillery vehicles of the unit. War Bulletin n.1083 of 13th-14th May 1943 mentioned the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’ for its actions.
III Gruppo corazzato ‘Lancieri di Novara’
On 15th April 1942, the III Gruppo corazzato ‘Lancieri di Novara’ was established at the Deposito Reggimentale di Novara. It was composed of 3 squadrons equipped with L6/40 light tanks (52 vehicles) and sent to Africa as a reconnaissance unit for the 133ª Divisione corazzata ‘Littorio’.
In July 1942, it received three armored cars to try to make up for the loss of L6 tanks (78 out of 85). Reduced then to only five vehicles after the Battle of El Alamein, the unit followed the other units of the Italian-German army in the retreat from Egypt, Cyrenaica, and Tripolitania, on foot, continuing the war as a machine gun section attached to the Raggruppamento Sahariano ‘Mannerini’ during the Tunisian campaign.
III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’
The III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’ had at its disposal a theoretical force of 47 armored cars, 13 assigned to the Command Company and other two companies with 17 armored cars each.
In July 1941, it was initially named the 132° Battaglione Autoblindo per R.E.Co., then became the CXXXII Battaglione Esplorante Corazzato in December 1941 and, finally, III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’. During 1942, it was assigned to the 132ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Ariete’ becoming, with an attached medium tank unit, the Reparto Esplorante Corazzato (English: Armored Reconnaissance Unit) of the armored division. In March 1942, the unit was assigned the XIV° Gruppo of the autocannoni’s Batterie Volanti (English: Flying Batteries) equipped with four Autocannoni da 65/17 su FIAT 634N heavy duty trucks. Their service and destiny was unknown.
After a short period of time, it was renamed the III Gruppo Autoblindo ‘Nizza’ (English: 3rd Armored Car Group). In May 1942, it operated in Africa, with two squadrons within the 132ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Ariete’ in the XX Corpo di armata. It participated in the offensive against the British 8th Army, especially in the fighting at Bir Hakeim on 27th May. The unit was successfully supported by the 132° Reggimento Carri Armati (English: 132th Tank Regiment) at Bir Harmat on 28th and 29th May. It had reconnaissance tasks at Ain El Gazala, in the preparatory battle for the reconquest of Tobruk, supported by the 132° Reggimento Carri Armati of the Ariete division. Afterwards, the III Gruppo Autoblindo ‘Nizza’ operated in the Siwa Oasis and in the Qattara depression. In June 1942, it had only 38 armored cars in its ranks, but not all were serviceable.
In August 1942, following the loss of other armored cars, a single squadron was formed by consolidating the remains of the two squadrons.
In the months following the defeat of the Battle of El Alamein, the III Gruppo Autoblindo ‘Nizza’ also carried out, together with the surviving motorized units and with those that arrived from Italy in the meantime, the rearguard role for the retreat of the infantry towards Tunisia. It fought on 3rd February 1943 at Bir Soltane and at Ksane Rhilane, and again at Bir Soltane between 10th and 20th of March, facing the attack of a New Zealand column alone.
Due to heavy losses, it was forced to retreat, facing the reconnaissance units of the 6th English Armored Division, protecting the retreat through the Chotts up to Enfidaville. On 22nd April, it also joined the Raggruppamento Sahariano ‘Lequio’.
On 10th May 1943, when the surrender order came from Rome, the few armored cars still operational with the III Gruppo Autoblindo ‘Nizza’ were destroyed to keep them from falling into Allied hands.
VIII Battaglione Bersaglieri Blindato Autonomo
On 10th August 1941, at the Scuola di Cavalleria in Pinerolo, the 133° Battaglione Autoblindo per R.E.Co. was created, which should have been assigned to the 133ª Divisione corazzata ‘Littorio’.
In October, after training, the unit moved to Veneto and was restructured. It had a Compagnia Comando with 13 AB41s, 1ª and 2ª Compagnia Autoblindo with 34 AB41s in total, 3ª Compagnia Motociclisti, and 4ª Compagnia Anticarro.
For the needs of the North African Campaign, the 1ª Compagnia Autoblindo, 3ª Compagnia Motociclisti, and 4ª Compagnia Anticarro were assigned to the 132ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Ariete’ to replace its losses. On 25th November of the same year, the 133° Battaglione Autoblindo per R.E.Co. was renamed CXXXIII Battaglione Esplorante Corazzato and meant to be assigned to the 133ª Divisione corazzata ‘Littorio’. However, the unit was composed of a single company and, in the end, the III Gruppo corazzato ‘Lancieri di Novara’ was assigned to the ‘Littorio’.
In February 1942, the 1ª Compagnia Autoblindo was recreated and the battalion was renamed VIII Battaglione Bersaglieri Blindato Autonomo (English: 8th Autonomous Armored Bersaglieri Battalion). It only had the 1ª Compagnia Autoblindo and 2ª Compagnia Autoblindo, for a total of 40 or 47 armored cars, as sources do not agree. On 11th May 1942, it was assigned to the 101ª Divisione Motorizzata ‘Trieste’ as its reconnaissance unit.
The 101ª Divisione Motorizzata ‘Trieste’ fought in the Battle of Bir Hakeim, where the VIII Battaglione Bersaglieri Blindato Autonomo took part in the bloody fighting against Free French troops and British units.
On 26th May 1942,Second Lieutenant Cimino Luigi, the commander of an armored car platoon, was put in command of a reconnaissance mission. During the mission, having sighted some enemy armored reconnaissance vehicles, the unit launched itself at maximum speed against them. The attack allowed the capture of two vehicles with some prisoners, including an officer and ammunition.
At 2100 hrs, from the north of Bir Hakeim, the unit attempted to reach positions in the north to northeast, behind the enemy infantry line in order to attack them from behind. Unfortunately, after midnight, the unit was stopped by minefields. The mine explosions attracted the enemy’s attention, which began to open fire against the unit.
The 2° Plotone and the 4° Plotone of the 1° Compagnia Autoblindo distinguished themselves, responding effectively against the enemy fire in the fighting on 27th May.
On 28th May 1942, the Battalion tried to conquer the Gott el Ualeb stronghold, as the situation was escalating into what was called the “Battle of the Cauldron” by the Italian troops, due to the disorganization of the troops employed in the clash. The commander of one of the battalions, Major Silvano Bernardis, was killed while fighting.
Infantry Corporal Aldo Scolari repaired four armored cars rendered immobile by mines or artillery shells near Bir Bellafarit. For this action, he earned the Gold Medal of Military Valor.
On 29th May, the situation did not improve. The chaotic fighting continued, and ammunition and gasoline were running out because the battalion was not in contact with the rear lines. High Command ordered the Bersaglieri to advance without waiting for the opening of gaps in the minefields by the sappers.
The major gathered his men and communicated the order. Then, he led the unit and began the advance through the middle of the minefields under intense enemy fire. In a short time, the Plotone ‘Castelnuovo’ lost all the armored cars but managed to recover all the crews, passing on foot over the minefield. After the battle, the unit was deployed at first to the Oasis of Siwa and was then sent to the coast for anti-shipment reconnaissance.
The actions involving Lieutenant Fausto Cuzzeri, the commander of an armored car platoon,that took place on 29th June 1942 are noteworthy. In a single day, he attacked and captured two vehicles and then an entire British column, capturing many other vehicles and guns.
That same day, during a night reconnaissance mission, Second Lieutenant Giuseppe Cutrì, commander of an armored car platoon, spotted a patrol of enemy vehicles, including at least one tank. In spite of the intense enemy fire, Cutrì ordered an attack and was able to put the enemy unit on the run using only his armored car, freeing some German soldiers and their vehicles, and capturing some British soldiers and their weapons.
On another occasion, Sergeant Major Kruger Gavioli, from the battalion’s command company, identified and engaged with some enemy armored vehicles that were trying to infiltrate between the Axis lines during a night patrol on 18th July 1942. After running out of ammunition, he returned to the base. After a quick refueling and stocking up on ammunition, he went back to where he had encountered the enemy vehicles and, after a brief pursuit, attacked them again. His armored car was hit by an anti-tank shell. Hit a second time, the armored car was immobilized but continued to fire with all weapons until a third round hit it, destroying it.
On 1st September 1942, some armored cars clashed with British scouting units also equipped with armored cars. Sergeant Cademuro Giovanni, commander of a coppia of armored cars, and another car got around the enemy armored cars and made the British troops retreat, while the rest of the group engaged them from the front.
During the Battle of El Alamein, the VIII Battaglione Bersaglieri Blindato Autonomo was at the positions of the V° Battaglione of the Raggruppamento Tattico ‘Tantillo’, assigned to the 185ª Divisione paracadutisti ‘Folgore’.
On 6th November, VIII Battaglione Bersaglieri Blindato Autonomo assigned to the 101ª Divisione Motorizzata ‘Trieste’ lost 12 armored cars out of the 30 left, which were abandoned in the attempt to retreat. The unit was then used in the rearguard defense of the Italian-German troops retreating towards Tunisia, succeeding on several occasions in stopping units of the LRDG or scouting units of the British 8th Army.
In January 1943, because of the losses suffered, the battalion was disbanded and the vehicles and the remaining soldiers joined the III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’.
Regio Esercito – Italy
18° Reggimento Esplorante Corazzato Bersaglieri and 10º Raggruppamento celere bersaglieri in Corsica
On 1st February 1942, at the depot of the 5º Reggimento Bersaglieri (English: 5th Bersaglieri Regiment) in Siena, the 18° Reggimento Esplorante Corazzato Bersaglieri was created.
The 18° RECo Bersaglieri had at its disposal the I Gruppo Esplorante (English: 1st Reconnaissance Group) consisting of the 1ª Compagnia Autoblindo (English: 1st Armored Car Company) with 17 AB41 armored cars, 2ª and 3ª Compagnia Carri Armati L6/40 and 4ª Compagnia Motociclisti. The II Gruppo Esplorante consisted of the 5ª Compagnia Semoventi L40 da 47/32 and 6ª Compagnia 20 mm anti-aircraft guns. After a few days, the two L6/40 tank companies were reassigned to form the LXVII Battaglione, officially formed in Siena on 25th February 1942.
On 3rd January 1943, the 18° RECo Bersaglieri was assigned to the 4ª Armata Italiana deployed in Provence, with garrison tasks in the vicinity of Toulon, in view of possible enemy landings.
On 25th July 1943, the regiment returned to Turin, but the 1ª Compagnia Blindata, renamed as the 7ª compagnia, went to reinforce the 10º Raggruppamento celere bersaglieri in Corsica (English: 10th Bersaglieri Fast Regiment in Corsica). There, it was used to patrol the coastal roads of Corsica to prevent partisan attacks and to monitor the Mediterranean Sea.
After the Armistice of 8th September 1943, the company took part in the clashes against the 16. SS-Panzergrenadier-Division “Reichsführer-SS”.
After 25th September 1943, Free French troops arrived on the island and sided with the Italians. On 29th September, the Franco-Italian offensive against the Germans began and was successful. The Germans were forced to hastily re-embark for the mainland from Bastia. By 5th October, all the Germans had fled or surrendered. The French confiscated the heavy weapons from the Italian units.
III Gruppo ‘Lancieri di Firenze’
The III Gruppo ‘Lancieri di Firenze’, with a Command Company, an Armored Car Company, and a Motorcyclist Company, had a total of 18 AB41s and an unknown number of motorcycles.
A gruppo squadroni of the Reggimento ‘Lancieri di Milano’, and 4 other groups of squadrons, were passed under the orders of the III Gruppo ‘Lancieri di Firenze’, under the command of Colonel Sardella. These were meant for training with a view of expanding them into mixed regiments to be sent to North Africa.
The ‘Lancieri di Firenze’ was created on 1st February 1942 and assigned to the 2ª Divisione celere ‘Emanuele Filiberto Testa di Ferro’, where it remained for little more than a month. On March 10th 1942, the unit was sent to Albania without armored cars but equipped with horses. The armored cars were transferred in July 1942 to the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Montebello’.
V Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’
A V Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’ (English: 5th Armored Group) was also created, but its operational service is virtually unknown. Nicola Pignato and Filippo Cappellano’s book ‘Gli autoveicoli da combattimento dell’esercito italiano’, mentions in the ‘L’Esercito e i suoi Corpi’ chapter that the Italian Army Archive has no references of the V Gruppo. ‘La meccanizzazione dell’esercito fino al 1943’, written by Lucio Ceva and Andrea Curami, concludes by saying that the authors believe that the V Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’ did exist and was originally planned for use in North Africa, but was then diverted to Sicily in 1943.
In order to support their hypothesis, the authors refer to a discussion with Ambassador Umberto Bozzini, a former cavalry lieutenant at the time and apparently an expert on these units. The fate of the unit and if it was equipped with AB41 armored cars is unknown. A short article by Nicola Pignato and Fabrizio d’Inzeo mentions that the V Gruppo was equipped with 36 armored cars.
XL Battaglione Bersaglieri Corazzato
The XL Battaglione Bersaglieri Corazzato was created on 15th February 1942 at the Scuola di Cavalleria in Pinerolo and was used as a training unit. It was equipped with an unknown number of AB40 and AB41 armored cars, probably enough to equip 2 or more companies.
Reggimento Motorizzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lucca’
On 20th February 1943, the Army General Staff ordered the establishment of the Reggimento Motorizzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lucca’, which was created on 1st March 1943 at the Deposito Reggimentale of the Reggimento Corazzato ‘Vittorio Emanuele II’ in Bologna. This unit had a squadrone comando composed of 2 anti-aircraft platoons with 20 mm automatic guns and 1° Squadrone Motociclisti. The Motorcycle Squadron was also assigned an armored car platoon with 4 AB41 armored cars in total.
The unit also had a self-propelled squadron with Semoventi M42 da 75/18, two Auto-transported Mortar Squadrons, a Support Weapons, and an anti-aircraft Squadron. It was employed to keep public order in Bologna and in various localities of the Romagna region, at the disposal of the Comando della Difesa Territoriale di Bologna (English: Command of the Territorial Defense of Bologna).
On 1st April 1943, the 135ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Ariete II’ (English: 135th Armored Division) was created at the Deposito Reggimentale of Ferrara. It incorporated the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Montebello’ as its reconnaissance group and the Reggimento Motorizzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lucca’ as a mechanized unit.
In July 1943, the 135ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Ariete II’ was transferred from Ferrara to Rome by railway. The convoys that carried the RECo ‘Lancieri di Montebello’ and the ‘Cavalleggeri di Lucca’ stopped at Castelnuovo di Porto. The Motorized regiment received its armored cars, while the RECo ‘Lancieri di Montebello’ completed its ranks. Then the regiment and the RECo resumed their way to Rome, arriving in Isola Farnese, where the armored cars were unloaded and traveled by road to Olgiata, north of Rome.
Plotone Autonomo Autoblindo
In the Soviet Union, the 156ª Divisione di Fanteria ‘Vicenza’ was sent with two AB41 armored cars in the Plotone Autonomo Autoblindo (English: Autonomous Armored Car Platoon). These vehicles were used together with some L6/40 light tanks and L40 47/32 self-propelled guns, but were probably quickly abandoned due mechanical wear and tear.
Nuclei Esploranti Corazzati
In Naples, on 5th June 1943, the 9° Nucleo Esplorante Corazzato or NEC (English: 9th Armored Exploring Squad) of the 9ª Divisione di Fanteria ‘Pasubio’ was created. It had two platoons and a command car for a total of 9 AB41s.
In Palermo, on 5th June 1943, the 28° Nucleo Esplorante Corazzato of the 28ª Divisione fanteria ‘Aosta’ was created. It was probably composed of two platoons with a total of 8 AB41s, but there is no information on its service and it is uncertain if the armored cars were even delivered.
Other NECs included the 12° Nucleo Esplorante Corazzato of the 12ª Divisione fanteria ‘Sassari’, which took part in the Defense of Rome between 8th to 10th September 1943.
The 30° Nucleo Esplorante Corazzato of the 30ª Divisione fanteria ‘Sabauda’ was created on 1st August 1943. It received 8 AB41 armored cars. On 10th September 1943, the division was assigned to the defense of Sardinia and blocked the way of the Germans, which wanted to occupy Cagliari, the capital of the islandi. After the battle, the division joined the newly born Italian Co-Belligerent Army and moved to Sicily, in the areas of Enna and Caltanissetta. There, however, the Allies requisitioned all its armored vehicles due to the armistice clauses.
On 13th November 1942, at the Scuola Centrale Truppe Celeri (English: Central School for Fast Troops) in Civitavecchia, the Nucleo Esplorante Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Milano’ was created. As with some of the other NECs, nothing is know about its service.
X Battaglione Esplorante Corazzato
Another 17 AB41 armored cars were assigned to the X Battaglione Esplorante Corazzato (English: 10th Armored Reconnaissance Battalion) of the 10ª Divisione di Fanteria Motorizzata ‘Piave’ (English: 10th Motorized Infantry Division) on 15th July 1943. The battalion, together with the division, took part in the desperate defense of Rome in September 1943, defending the northern section of the city.
Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Montebello’
On 15 July 1942, in Ferrara, at the Deposito Reggimentale del III Gruppo ‘Lancieri di Firenze’, the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Montebello’ was created. It was composed of a command company and an armored car company, with a total of 18 AB41s previously belonging to the ‘Lancieri di Firenze’.
It had a theoretical force of 70 armored cars, but was never completely equipped. The unit was also equipped with four motorcycle squadrons, two self-propelled squadrons with Semoventi M41 da 75/18, and two self-propelled squadrons with Semoventi L40 da 47/32.
This unit was employed for about a year in public order tasks and was reorganized with a Squadrone Comando (4 AB41 armored cars), 1° Squadrone (17 AB41 armored cars), 2° Squadrone (17 AB41 armored cars) and 3° Squadrone Motociclisti.
In July 1943, the R.E.Co. was transferred by railway to Rome. The convoys that carried it stopped at Castelnuovo di Porto station, where the last armored cars were delivered to the R.E.Co., and then near Rome, in Isola Farnese, the armored cars were unloaded and traveled by road to Olgiata, north of Rome. During this period, the soldiers improved their training and the unit was reorganized with: Squadrone Comando with 4 AB41 and I Gruppo with a Squadrone Comando del Gruppo (English: Group’s Command Squadron) with 4 AB41 armored cars.
The I Gruppo had at their disposal 1° Squadrone Autoblindo (17 AB41 Armored cars), 2° Squadrone Autoblindo (17 AB41 Armored cars), and 3° Squadrone motociclisti (86 motorcycles, 10 Breda Modello 1930 light machine guns) for a total of 42 armored cars. II Gruppo had at their disposal: the Squadrone Comando del Gruppo (4 semoventi L40 da 47/32), the 4° Squadrone Motomitraglieri (90 motorcycles, 10 Breda Mod. 30), the 5° Squadrone Semoventi da 75/18 (12 semoventi M42 da 75/18) and the 6° Squadrone Semoventi da 47/32 (12 semoventi L40 da 47/32). The III Gruppo was composed of: Squadrone Contraereo da 20 (12 Cannoni-Mitragliere da 20 mm) and Squadrone Zappatori Traghettatori (English: Sapper and Ferryman Battalion) with 12 assault boats and other equipment for crossing waterways.
On 8th September 1943, the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato received the news of the signing of the Armistice of Cassibile.
The Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘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 9th September 1943, the AB41s headed to Rome where the 21ª Divisione di fanteria ‘Granatieri di Sardegna’ has erected defensive positions. Between 9th and 10th September, they fought supported by the Italian infantry on the Tiber River against the Germans that were trying to capture the city.
During the night of 8th September, the 21ª Divisione di fanteria ‘Granatieri di Sardegna’ was deployed in the southern sector of Rome on a 28 kilometers long front, divided into two sectors with a total of 13 strongholds to which were added 14 internal checkpoints that barred the main roads. These defenses were initially erected by the Italians some days earlier to defend from an Allied attack, as the Italian Army High Command feared an Allied landing near Rome at any moment. However, they would soon be used to defend against Italy’s former ally.
The 1° Reggimento Granatieri was entrusted with the first seven strongholds: from the first to the fourth to the I Battaglione on the right bank of the Tiber, the other three to the III Battaglione, while the II Battaglione was placed in divisional reserve in the western sector in the area between Abbazia Tre Fontane and Forte Ostiense. The other six strongholds were entrusted to the 2° Reggimento Granatieri.
The first unit that suffered the first losses against the Germans was the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana which first encountered German forces in the fuel depot of Mezzocammino and, attacked by surprise, was forced to withdraw on 8th September, abandoning some equipment. These events took place to the south of the V Caposaldo (English: 5th Stronghold) in front of the Ponte della Magliana, the quicker way to reach Rome.
Around 11 pm, the V Caposaldo was attacked by the German attack from the 3. Panzergrenadier Division and some units of the 26. Panzer Division. The reserve battalion was called to intervene and slowed down the German attack, but shortly after the Germans began to advance again.
A German column equipped with armored cars tried to reach Rome across the Magliana Bridge but was hit by machine gun fire from Captain Pomares’ Machine Gun Company and was forced to turn back hastily, leaving dead and wounded behind. At about 2 am, the Regimental Command asked for reinforcements for the total reoccupation of the position that had lost some smaller strongholds.
The Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Montebello’, under the command of Colonel Umberto Giordani, then entered into action. It was ready to enter in action from 11:30 pm in its barracks in Isola Farnese, but only at 2:30 am was it called to intervene. It arrived from the north of Rome, crossed the streets of Rome at full speed during the night, crossed San Paolo, crossed the Via Ostiense, and at 5 am of 9th September it arrived with its AB41 armored cars and some Semoventi L40 da 47/32 self-propelled guns near the Magliana bridge, at the headquarters of the 1° Reggimento Granatieri.
The motorcyclist units were employed in diversionary and garrison actions to prevent German surprise attacks from other directions, while the 6° Squadrone Semoventi da 47/32 with ten self-propelled guns and the 2° Squadrone Autoblindo with an unknown number of armored cars were passed under the control of the I Battaglione, while the 1° Squadrone Autoblindo, with the commander of the I Gruppo, were maintained in second line defending the Granatieri’s headquarter.
After a night of intense fighting, the morning of 9th September saw the resumption of the action for the total reconquest of the 5th stronghold. At 7 am, the II Battalion of Major Costa’s Grenadiers, supported by ten Semoventi L40 da 47/32 and some armored cars, began the action to reconquer the position under attack. The Battaglione Allievi Carabinieri, Bersaglieri, and soldiers and perhaps some armored cars of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana (both the police and the ‘Lancieri di Montebello’ had AB41 armored cars in Rome and the sources do not specify if also the police vehicles that took part in the battle) also took part in this action. At 10:30 am, the 5th stronghold was entirely recaptured by Italian soldiers.
During an attack, the 2° Squadrone Autoblindo the German units to retreat and they recaptured and brought back to the Italian lines a FIAT 626NM medium truck, which had previously been abandoned by the PAI, armed with two machine guns and with 20 MAB 38A submachine guns and some ammunition crates.
After the V Caposaldo was reoccupied, the 1° Reggimento Granatieri ordered Lieutenant Silvano Gray de Cristoforis, probably a AB41’s platoon commander of the 1° Squadrone Autoblindo, to attempt an attack on the German rear positions.
This plan was to reach the Caserma della Cecchignola barrack, where some trucks and trailers loaded with barrels of fuel had been abandoned. This was a desperate action ordered by the commander of the ‘Lancieri di Montebello’, which immediately needed fuel for its armored vehicles.
Under enemy fire, Lieut. Gray de Cristoforis’s unit reached the Caserma della Cecchignola and managed to transport back to the Italian lines two trailers full of fuel barrels that were used to refuel all the Italian vehicles in the area for the rest of the day.
At 2:00 pm, the Germans launched a violent counterattack, with mortar fire inflicting serious lossed on the V Caposaldo. The grenadiers were about to surrender and the 4° Squadrone Motomitraglieri was sent to reinforce them and attempted a counterattack in which the commander, Captain Cipriani, was wounded and the unit was forced to retreat to new defensive positions.
The 6° Squadrone was no longer receiving ammunition and its self-propelled guns were running out of shells. However, the commander decided to remain in position, under the heavy enemy fire, to keep the troops’ morale.
The combat restarted at around 5 pm, with mortar fire, attacks from German paratroopers, and aircraft machine gunning at low altitudes, which caused many casualties.
The Italian grenadiers, supported by the units of armored cars and self-propelled vehicles, resisted on the positions of the V Caposaldo, while the motorcyclists of the 3° Squadrone on the Strada Ardeatina, supported the front line units.
Subsequently, the Italian troops withdrew to the following positions:
Via Ostiense was barricaded by the 3° Squadrone Motociclisti, elements of the 1° Battaglione of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana, elements of the Battaglione Carabinieri that had recently arrived to replace the Battaglione Allievi Carabinieri, a platoon of the 5° Squadrone Semoventi da 75/18, and a platoon of armored cars.
Via Laurentina was barricaded by the 1° Squadrone Autoblindo, by about a platoon of paratroopers, put together during the free days in Rome before the attack and recently arrived on site.
The 6° Squadrone Semoventi da 47/32 was made to fall back to the command of the 2° Gruppo where, during the night, also the other units of the ‘Lancieri di Montebello’ would arrive.
The new defensive line stopped a German attack. Around 10 pm, a company of Italian paratroopers arrived and after this, the night passed quite quietly.
The new German attack took place at dawn, involving the stronghold on Via Laurentina. The Italians started to attack with the armored cars and some self-propelled guns of the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato to force the German forces to retreat. These attacks were easily repelled as the narrow streets forces the Italian vehicles to drive only in the middle of the road and were as a consequence more vulnerable to enemy mortar and to anti-tank fire from the 4,2 cm PaK 41 German Fallschirmjäger squeeze bore cannons.
At least three AB41 armored cars of the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato were destroyed during the attack by some German tanks and armored cars.
At dawn, the situation was desperate, and Colonel Giordani, commander of the line, tried to receive reinforcements from the 21ª Divisione di Fanteria ‘Granatieri di Sardegna’, on which he still depended. The situation became more critical when the Battaglione Carabinieri was called to intervene in another sector of the defensive line and the 1° Battaglione of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana had almost completely been destroyed.
The vice-commander of the division, General de Rienzis, informed Colonel Giordani that an armistice with the Germans had already been agreed, and therefore, ordered the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato to retreat.
At 10:30 am the radio station of the 21ª Divisionedi Fanteria recalled them and ordered the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato to return to battle, to position itself at Porta San Paolo and to resist to the bitter end, waiting for the arrival of the rest of its armored corps, already on the move.
Once in position, the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Montebello’ realized that it was by itself, as all the other units either did not receive the order to return to action or ignored it. A unit of recruits of the 4° Carristi, and a battery of the 60° Gruppo Semoventi da 105/25, of the 135ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Ariete II’ helped to defend the defensive line while a group of recruits commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Nisco without armored cars of the Reggimento ‘Genova Cavalleria’, were sent to guard the Ostiense station and the adjacent streets.
After a morning of fighting, the German column joined some other German troops and approached Porta San Paolo, an ancient gate of the 4 meter thick Aurelian Walls, which dated back to Roman times, which was insurmountable even for German tanks.
The fight in the Porta San Paolo lasted until 5:00 pm and was really fierce. The Italian soldiers were also joined by civilians and police officers from the capital that fought the Germans with hunting weapons or by throwing stones.
The armored cars of the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Montebello’ were destroyed one by one by anti-tank fire. After these actions, the surviving armored cars were abandoned or returned to the base with the survivors.
During the defense of Rome, the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Montebello’ lost 5 officers and 15 NCOs and soldiers with an additional 13 officers and 68 NCOs and soldiers wounded. Between 16th and 17th September 1943 the commander, Colonel Umberto Giornani, delivered the surviving vehicles and equipment (the number of AB41s in running order is unknown), and on 18th September 1943, disbanded the unit, allowing the soldiers to return to their homes.
9ª Compagnia Autoblindo Autonoma and other units
The last 12 AB41 armored cars were given to the 9ª Compagnia Autoblindo Autonoma that was assigned to the 11ª Armata Italiana in Greece, like the 8ª Compagnia Autoblindo Autonoma. On 31st August 1943, it was disbanded and the 12 armored cars with their crews were assigned to the Comando Generale Regi Carabinieri, which commanded the Gruppo Autonomo Carabinieri dell’Egeo (English: Aegean Sea Autonomous Carabinieri Group).
Other AB41s were delivered for a fee to some Italian units. Two AB41s with SPA ABM 1 engine (one had the number plate Regio Esercito 352B) were given to the Colonna Celere Confinaria ‘M’ (English: Fast Border Column) of the Rijeka Prefecture on 16th May 1942 and one AB41 to the Milizia Nazionale Portuaria (English: National Port Militia) on 4th October of the same year, for 410,313 Italian Liras.
Regio Esercito – Balkans
In the Yugoslavian theater, in the beginning, no AB41 armored cars were meant to be used. Due to the tenacious partisan resistance, the Italian High Command was forced to supply some armored cars to the Italian units of occupation in Yugoslavia.
Most AB41s deployed in this sector were placed within modest-sized units on the platoon or company scale. They were rarely mentioned in official documents and it is difficult to provide an adequate account of their operational service.
8ª Compagnia Autoblindo Autonoma
The 8ª Compagnia Autoblindo Autonoma (English: 8th Autonomous Armored Car Company), with 12 AB41 armored cars, was created in June 1943. It was meant to be shipped to Montenegro but, due to the need for armored vehicles to patrol and escort convoys in Greece, the unit was eventually delivered to the 11ª Armata Italiana in Greece.
IV Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’
The IV Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’ (English: 4th Armored Group) had two mixed squadrons, one armed with L6/40 light tanks and the other with 18 AB41 armored cars. It was sent to Albania. Some sources do not mention the use of L6/40 light tanks, but mention 36 armored cars. This could mean that a squadron was theoretically armed with tanks, but in fact, it was equipped with armored cars.
The IV Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’ was the largest unit equipped with AB41s in the Yugoslavian front. It was part of the Raggruppamento Celere. It was employed in counter-partisan operations and as an escort to columns. After the Armistice in September 1943, the 2º Squadrone Autoblindo, under the orders of Captain Medici Tornaquinci, joined the 41ª Divisione di fanteria ‘Firenze’ in Dibra, managing to open the way to the coast through bloody battles against the Germans, particularly in Burreli and Kruya. After the battle, the IV Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’ dispersed. Many officers and soldiers went back to Italy, reaching Apulia by makeshift means and concentrating at the Cavalry Center in Artesano to join the Allied forces.
Other units used in this teather were created on 13th January 1942: the 1° Plotone Autonomo, 2° Plotone Autonomo, 3° Plotone Autonomo, and the 4° Plotone Autonomo (English: 1st; 2nd; 3rd and 4th Autonomous Platoon), with a total of 10 AB41 armored cars that arrived in 1942 and 6 in 1943. These units were assigned to the 2ª Armata Italiana deployed in Slovenia and Dalmatia.
A total of 20 AB40 and AB41s in the ‘Ferroviaria’ (English: Railway) version were deployed in Yugoslavia to prevent partisan sabotage to the railway lines in the Balkans. They were assigned to the Compagnia Autoblindo Ferroviarie Autonoma (English: Autonomous Railway Armored Car Company).
Given the increased activity of Partisan forces in occupied Yugoslavia, the Italians were forced to introduce more and more armored vehicles in order to secure vital communication and supply lines. While most of these were improvised armored trucks, a number of more modern AB41 armored cars were also sent.
The usage of AB41s during 1942 is generally poorly documented. For example, Partisan sources do not specify in much detail which Italian vehicles they faced. The AB41s were sometimes used as security vehicles for the forced deportation of Yugoslav civilians into concentration camps located in Italy. One well-documented engagement of the Italian AB41 happened in April 1943 in a village named Brlog. There, two partisan operated L3 light tanks were chasing retreating Italian and Croatian soldiers. At Brlog, one AB41 was waiting in ambush for the partisan tanks to arrive. Once spotted, the AB41 began engaging the enemy armor. The L3 tanks were armed with only two machine guns and lacked infantry support, and thus could do anything against the AB41. One L3 was hit by several 2 cm armor-piercing rounds, killing both crew members. The partisans were soon reinforced with two additional L3s and one Hotchkiss tank (either a Hotchkiss H-35 or H-39 captured from the Germans).
While the AB41 2 cm rounds could do little against the Hotchkiss’ armor, its crew nevertheless engaged the partisan tank. The Italian crew managed to damage the tank’s optics and even wounded its crew. As it could not destroy the tank, the Italians retreated from the village. During the retreat, the armored car managed to damage two more L3 tanks. After the Italian capitulation, the remaining AB41s were mostly taken over by the Germans. Smaller numbers were captured by Croatian forces, but also by the Yugoslav Partisans.
The surviving Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano and Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana 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 general insurrection, in Turin and Milan, some AB armored cars were captured and used by the partisans. There is evidence that one was destroyed on the Via XX Settembre by German-manned anti-tank weapons in Turin. After the German and Italian surrender, two or three of them took part in the partisan parade in Turin.
When the Gruppo Squadroni Corazzati ‘San Giusto’ was disbanded on 27th April 1945, the AB41 stored in the depot in Mairano was taken by the partisans and reused against the German garrison at Cividale del Friuli on 28th April 1945. It also participated in an attack against the city of Udine on 30th April.
Italian Co-Belligerent Army
After the Armistice, part of the Italian soldiers joined the Esercito Cobelligerante Italiano (English: Italian Co-Belligerent Army) under Allied command.
The IX Battaglione d’Assalto (English: 9th Assault Battalion) of the Corpo Italiano di Liberazione or CIL (English: Italian Liberation Corp) had 3 AB41 armored cars in service since July 1944. These were used to free some cities in the Italian region of Marche.
The Squadrone ‘F’, composed of Italian soldiers under the British 6th Armoured Division, was equipped after March 1944 with an AB41 Platoon (4 armored cars, according to sources). These probably belonged to the 7ª compagnia of the 10º Raggruppamento celere bersaglieri in Corsica, which was aggregated to the CIL in February 1944.
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.
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.
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 September 8, 1943 6° Reggimento di cavalleria ‘Lancieri di Aosta’ (English: 6th Cavalry Regiment) began to enter into an agreement with Ellinikós Laïkós Apeleftherotikós Stratós or ELAS (English: Greek People’s Liberation Army) and the British Army to continue the war on their side against the Germans.
One year later, on October 14, 1944, ELAS disarmed the regiment that had been fighting alongside them for a whole year, killing some Italian soldiers who tried to resist.
The weapons they captured went to equip the ELAS troops, among the vehicles there was at least one AB41 armored car that was used during the final stages of the Liberation of Greece.
There is a photo of the armored car during its use with Greek partisans, date and location unknown, but probably after World War II, during the Greek Civil War.
After the war, from 1945 to 1954, some AB41 and AB43 armored cars were used by the Polizia di Stato (English: Italian State Police) in the Reparti Celeri (English: 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 (English: Arm of Carabiners) in their Reparti Mobili (English: 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 (English: 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 Kaki Sahariano Chiaro (English: Clear Khaki Saharan) color, which was lighter than that used on Italian tanks. In Africa, the vehicles always remained in basic camouflage with only few armored cars being modified by the crews. Usually were used camouflage nettings or tarpaulins to better hid the vehicles.
Initially, there was a theoretical maximum of four squadrons (or companies) for each group (or battalion), each identified by a different color 20 x 12 cm rectangle, on which one to three white vertical stripes were painted to indicate the platoon. The colors were: red for the first squadron, blue for the second squadron, yellow for the third squadron, green for the fourth squadron , black for the command company of the group, and white with black platoon stripes for the regimental command squadron .
As the conflict went on, there was also a change in the structure of the armored squadrons (or companies), as a fourth, and sometimes a fifth, platoon were added on the African and Balkan fronts.
In 1941, the Italian High Command ordered the units to paint a 70 cm diameter circle to ease aerial identification, but this was rarely applied on the turrets or on the engine deck.
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 Kaki Sahariano Chiaro were added stains of Reddish Brown and Dark Green. This camouflage was also adopted on the FIAT-SPA AS42 and the Semoventi M42M da 75/34 and Semoventi M43 da 105/25 before the armistice of September 1943.
Some units independently painted some mottos on the armored cars, such as “A Colpo Sicuro” (English: Sure Shot), or symbols. The III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’, for example, painted the symbol of the unit, a stylized bomb with a flame, on some vehicles.
During the North African Campaign, some armored cars of the Italian Army received the Croci di Savoia (English: Savoia’s Cross) painted in white to aid air identification.
The AB41s of the Reggimento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Montebello’ were painted in Kaki Sahariano Chiaro 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 Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano and the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana, 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 until December 1944 when they were repainted in the ‘Continentale’ camouflage scheme.
They received only the symbol of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’, the red ‘M’ with a beam, and the ‘GNR’ written in black underneath. The armored cars of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘San Giusto’ and the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani, instead, were painted in ‘Continentale’ camouflage, the RAP ones received also a Repubblica Sociale Italiana‘s flag on the sides.
Vehicles captured by the Yugoslavs did not receive new camouflage but had new markings, usually the Free Yugoslavian flag or red stars painted on the sides of the superstructure and turret to avoid friendly fire.
After the war, the AB41s of the Polizia di Stato were painted in a reddish shade called Amaranth Red which was the color of all Italian police vehicles until 1954, while the Carabinieri and Esercito Italiano 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.
Semovente da 47/32 su Scafo AB41
Another prototype was the Semovente da 47/32 su Scafo AB41, also known as ‘AB41 Cannone’, it was 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 was 10 mm. 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 Autoblinda Mod. 1941 con cannone da 47/40 Mod. 1938 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 Beute 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 (Italian term for military big jeeps or unarored reconnaissance vehicle) on the chassis 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 Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).
These vehicles could be armed with several weapons, including the Cannone-Mitragliera Breda 20/65 Modello 1935 automatic cannon, the Cannone da 47/32 Modello 1935 anti-tank gun, or the Solothurn S-18/1000 anti-tank rifle and a maximum of three Breda Mododello 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 Pirelli Tipo ‘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 SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Metropolitana’, used for ‘continental’ soil, differed only by the adoption of 11.5 x 24″ Pirelli Tipo ‘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 8th September 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
Italian Tanks and Combat Vehicles of World War II – Ralph A. Riccio
Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu 1941-1945, Institut za savremenu istoriju, Beograd – B. B. Dimitrijević and D. Savić (2011)
Arsenal 42 – A. Radić (2011)
Aggredisci e vincerai – Salvatore Loi
Italia 43-45 I Mezzi delle Unità Cobelligeranti – Luigi Manes
Italian Armored & Reconnaissance Cars 1911-45 – Filippo Castellano and Pier Paolo Battistelli
Le autoblinde AB 40, 41 e 43 di Nicola Pignato e Fabio d’Inzéo
Kingdom of Italy (1941 – 1943) and Italian Social Republic (1943-1945)
Armored Truck – Unknown Numbers built
The Renault ADR Blindati (plural of Blindato) were Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) used by the Regio Esercito (Eng. Italian Royal Army) in the Balkan theater starting from 1941. They had the task of patrolling and escorting supply convoys.
These were based on vehicles captured by Italian or German troops in France. They were armored and armed in local workshops by the Italian units employed in the Balkans.
In Italy, these vehicles are almost unknown because of the few examples produced and their improvised construction. In the few Italian sources that mention them, they are known as Renault ADR Blindati or Protetti (singular Protetto – eng. Protected).
Context – Situation in the Yugoslav Theater
Before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Regio Esercito did not consider armored personnel carriers necessary and completely ignored this type of vehicle. However, during the first campaigns in Africa, Greece, and Yugoslavia, officers quickly realized the need for these vehicles in their ranks.
On January 20th, 1941, after seven months of war, the High Command of the Royal Italian Army requested a wheeled armored personnel carrier. FIAT-SPA developed a vehicle on the chassis of the TL37 (Trattore Leggero – Light Tractor) called the FIAT-SPA Autoprotetto S37.
The prototype was presented in May 1941 for testing and was officially adopted by the Regio Esercito on February 4th, 1942. 200 units were ordered, of which only 160 were delivered before the order was canceled in favor of an APC based on the chassis of half-tracks produced under German license by FIAT and Breda. These were never produced though.
The units that were equipped with the S37 Autoprotetti were the 998ª Autosezione Autocarri (Eng. 998th Truck Section) in Montenegro, the 1034ª Autosezione (Eng. 1034th Section) in Albania, the 370ª Autoreparto Autocarri Protetti S37 (Eng. 370th Vehicle Protected S37 Section) that was sent to Yugoslavia and, finally, the 1650ª Sezione Autoprotetti (Eng. 1650th Vehicle Protected Section) that remained in Bari, in Southern Italy.
A number were delivered to the 13ª Divisione di Fanteria “Re” (Eng. 13th Infantry Division “Re”) and the 154ªDivisione di Fanteria “Murge” (Eng. 154th Infantry Division “Murge”) in the Balkans and other units stationed in Rome.
By way of comparison, Germany produced about 15,000 Sd.Kfz. 251s and the United States produced about 50,000 M3 Half-tracks throughout the war. Italy produced only 270 wheeled armored personnel carriers, which, for an army the size of the Regio Esercito, was too few.
General Mario Roatta, commander of the Regio Esercito of the 2nd Italian Army in Croatia with headquarters in the province of Ljubljana, understood after the Yugoslavian Campaign that he needed to equip his troops with civilian armored trucks. He called these “Mezzi Comuni Blindati” (Eng. Common Armored Vehicles), and would be used for patrolling and escorting supply convoys.
After a meeting with several officers and generals deployed in the various theaters of war, the Chief of General Staff of the Royal Army, Marshal Ugo Cavallero, declared that at least 500 civilian or military trucks, armored in an improvised manner, were necessary for the needs of Italian troops in the Balkans and North Africa.
After the French Campaign, the Royal Italian Army came into possession of a large part of the French equipment. More equipment was handed over by the Germans. Among this equipment, there were simple firearms, such as pistols, rifles, or machine guns, but also large equipment, such as cannons, howitzers and logistical material, such as Renault ADR trucks.
It is not clear how many were captured by the Kingdom of Italy and if some were sold to them by the Wehrmacht.
The Renault Truck
The Camion Léger Bâché Renault Type ADR 65cv 3,5 tonnes (Eng. Light truck Renault Type ADR 65 hp 3.5 tonnes) or, more simply, the Renault ADR 1, was the last Renault truck of the AD series to go into production, in 1935. The Renault ADR civilian version had a gasoline 4 cylinders in-line engine with an output of 65 hp at 2,200 rpm and a volume of about 4,000 cm³. This gave the truck a speed of 65 km/h at full load and a consumption of 27 liters per 100 km.
The Renault ADRD was also a civilian version with a 4-cylinder in-line diesel engine with an output of 45 hp at 1,800 rpm and a volume of about 4,300 cm³. Fully loaded, this truck could reach a speed of 47 km/h and a consumption of 19 liters per 100 km.
The two civilian versions had a gearbox with 4 gears and had a load capacity of 3.5 tonnes in the “Long” version. This gave a total weight of the vehicle of 4.5 tonnes, with a fuel tank of 95 liters. The short version had a payload of about 1.5 tonnes and a fuel tank of 75 liters.
The third version was the military one, produced with only the 4-cylinder in-line gasoline engine delivering 62 hp at 2,350 rpm and a 5-speed transmission. In 1940, due to the needs of the war, production had to be speeded up and the characteristic aerodynamic radiator grille was replaced with a standard one.
It was delivered to the Armée de Terre (Eng. French Army) in 400 units, 126 of which went to the Garde Républicaine (Eng. Republican Guard) before and during the war. Almost all were requisitioned by Axis troops after the French Campaign.
Given the improvised nature of these armored personnel carriers, their protection was also improvised or taken from scrap yards. The cargo bays were protected with 10 mm thick trench shields dating back to World War I or with plates found almost anywhere in the Balkans of similar thickness. Rectangular or ellipsoidal loopholes were made into the plates and shields. These shields and plates were placed in two rows, one on top of the other, on the cargo bays, held together by welding.
The first row was placed at 90° and consisted of eight trench shields (or plates of the same size) welded to supports fixed directly to the vehicle’s chassis. The second row was composed of eight shields or plates welded and angled at about thirty degrees.
Like many other protected vehicles produced by Italy, both in an improvised and industrial manner, a major problem was the lack of a roof. This created problems with shrapnel or hand grenades falling inside the cargo bay, injuring or killing all occupants. In addition to this serious problem, the lack of a roof exposed the transported soldiers to the weather conditions.
To solve these problems, bomb nets or wooden boards were mounted on the roof to protect from bombs thrown at the vehicles.
Initially, the vehicles produced received armor only on the cargo bay. Later, the vehicles also received cab protection to protect the driver and the vehicle commander. Some armor plates or trench shields were placed to protect the doors and the front of the cab by cutting a large slot for the driver and maintaining the slits on the doors and the side of the vehicle commander.
Together with the cabs, the fuel tanks were also armored to increase protection, but the wheels and the engine compartment, and the radiator were never armored.
In the beginning, the armament was absent on the Renault ADR Protetti vehicles. The defense was assured by the cargo bay slits, 13 on each side. Seven were in the lower row of trench shields and armor plates, and 6 in the upper row. In addition, there were six on the rear, 4 in the lower row and 2 in the upper one, for a total of 32 slits on three sides of the cargo bay.
For defense in these cases, the bipod of a light machine gun Breda Mod. 1930 was simply placed on the roof of the cabin, but it had many problems of reliability, a clip feed of 20 rounds, a very slow clip reloading system that did not allow an effective suppression fire and, finally, no protection for the gunner save for the gun shield.
At a later stage, the low volume of fire from the soldiers firing through the loopholes was noted. In most cases, they were equipped with Carcano bolt-action rifles of various models. In order to remedy this, a support was added to the center of the cargo bay for a FIAT-Revelli Mod. 14/35 machine gun with a frontal shield to protect the gunner.
At the same time, the cabin of the truck was armored. As a consequence, three more slits were added for the vehicle commander and driver, one on the right side, one on the left side, and a third one on the front.
The Breda Modello 1930 light machine gun was fed, as mentioned above, by a 20-rounds clip of 6.5 × 52 mm Mannlicher-Carcano rounds that guaranteed a practical firing rate of only 150 rounds per minute. The machine gun entered service in 1930 and 10,000 were produced until 1945. It proved unsuitable for the role of infantry support because of its weight, its mechanical unreliability and too much maintenance required to keep it effective.
The FIAT-Revelli Modello 1914/1935 medium machine gun, on the other hand, was a modification made between 1935 and 1940 to the stock of FIAT-Revelli Model 1914 6.5 × 52 mm water-cooled machine guns used with great success in World War I by the Regio Esercito.
The 1935 modifications included the removal of the water tank, barrel cover, barrel, and bolt, transforming the machine gun into an air-cooled weapon in the new and more powerful 8 × 59 mm RB Breda caliber.
Thanks to the belt feed of 50 or 100 rounds, the machine gun guaranteed a firing rate of 600 rounds per minute, a muzzle velocity of 750 m/s, and a practical range against targets of 700-1,000 meters.
After the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia from April 1941 on, the Italian garrison forces had at their disposal two armored units, the 1° Gruppo carri L “San Giusto” (Eng. 1st Light Tank Group) and the 2° Gruppo carri L “San Marco” (Eng. 2nd Light Tank Group). Both were equipped with 61 CV 33/35 tankettes. There was also a company of AB41 armored cars and another one composed of AB41 and L6/40 light tanks.
These were stationed in the city of Zadar. As the Yugoslav resistance movements began to extensively target garrisons, transport and supply convoys, rails systems, etcetera, the Italians began increasing the number of armored vehicles in Yugoslavia. Initially, these were just standard CV series light tanks. From 1942 onwards, several different types of armored trucks began to be a common appearance.
Due to the war and the loss of the occupied territories, many documents were destroyed or lost. Therefore, the numbers of Renault ADR Protetto used in Yugoslavia by the Royal Army and the number of Renault that were armored in the workshops of the Royal Army in Yugoslavia are still unknown.
The number of Renaults used in Yugoslavia should not exceed fifty units. The number of armored vehicles could vary from a minimum of 2-3 units to a probable realistic maximum of 10-15 units.
These trucks were used to patrol and protect various vital supply lines, act as convoy escorts, often used to transport documents or very important materials, reducing the number of men on board (but maintaining a more than the adequate defensive capacity to repel partisan attacks), directly supporting Italian units in combat against the Partisans, etcetera. They were mainly active in Italian-occupied territories like Slovenia and Croatia. Some Renault ADR Blindati armored trucks were also operated by the Italians in Yugoslavia. During 1942, these took part in the forced deportation of Yugoslavian civilians around the area of Gorskog Kotara and Slovenije to camps located in Italy. The use of ADR Blindato armored trucks after 1942 in Yugoslavia is unclear.
Another important role that the armored trucks played was to transport officers of the Royal Italian Army safely from one garrison to another while on official visits, or to replace other officers.
Yugoslav partisan attacks were unpredictable and it would not have been safe for officers to travel in unprotected staff cars.
Use of Armored Trucks by Others in Yugoslavia
After the Italian capitulation, the Germans came into possession of most of the weapons and armored vehicles of its former ally, including armored trucks. The contingent of these armored trucks may have included some ADR vehicles, but it is not known precisely. One of the first uses of Italian armored trucks by the Germans was for anti-partisan operations in Slovenia during September 1943. These, together with other captured equipment, were usually distributed to various small garrisons. After 1943, the use of Italian-built armored trucks largely disappeared from this front, or they were operated in quite limited numbers.
The forces of the German puppet state of Croatia also managed to capture a number of Italian fighting vehicles, including some armored trucks. The Yugoslavian Partisans also captured and used some Italian armored trucks.
The use of ADR armored trucks by these warring parties is, sadly, unclear. The reasons for this are the general lack of sources, small number of built vehicles, lack of Partisan knowledge of enemy vehicle designations, and the general removal from service after late 1943. Authors Bojan B. D. and Dragan S. (Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu 1941-1945) give an indication that, while other types of armored trucks were used by the previously mentioned participants in Yugoslavia, the ADR was used only by the Italians.
Although produced in workshops and in very few examples, the Renault ADR, together with the few other Italian armored trucks, played a key role in escorting convoys and patrols, being able to supply the isolated Italian garrisons in Yugoslavia until September 8th, 1943. While these were built using civilian vehicles and improvised armor protection, due to the Partisans’ lack of proper anti-tank weapons, they offered some level of protection and also increased the offensive capabilities of the Italians that used them. Nevertheless, after the Italian capitulation, the use of such vehicles rapidly declined under the control of the Germans.
Kingdom of Italy (1916)
Armored car – 120 built total
First Series Lancia 1ZM with armored guards over the front and rear wheels. Source: Pinterest
The need for a new armored car
Italy was one of the pioneers of armored cars with several designs and vehicles made before the outbreak of the First World War, such as the L’A.MI.Co. armored car. With the war between the great European powers starting in 1914, it was obvious to Italian planners that a new armored car was going to be needed. The fact that Italy did not declare war immediately and remained non-belligerent gave the designers and the Army some precious time in which to develop a new vehicle. By the time they entered the war in May 1915, developments were well progressed.
Delivery and development
The firm of Ansaldo had already approached the Italian High Command with their idea for an armored car, and early work on development was started by Engineer Guido Corni in September 1914, right after the major powers started fighting. His design was finished, and a patent on the design files (number 147355) was obtained on 14th February 1915. In April 1915, they took this design to the Ministry of War, where it was met with approval, and an initial order for just 20 machines was granted. Only 20 could be ordered at this time due to a shortage of machine guns. With two machine guns in the lower turret and a third in the top turret, each machine required 3 guns, so 20 machines needed 60 machine guns.
Two views of the first prototype vehicle at the factory in 1915, both with and without the front and rear armored wheel covers fitted. Note the unusual arrangement of the cooling grilles on the bonnet. Source: Pignato
First series vehicles being assembled by Ansaldo in 1915. Source: Pinterest
The first 20 machines were to be finished and delivered to the 1st Artillery Regiment at the Genoa Fortress (1 Regimento Artiglieria da Fortezza di Genova) for evaluation between June and July 1915. Here, they were divided into 5 machine-gun squadrons (squadriglie mitragliatrici) comprising 36 officers and 399 other ranks. Delivery delays meant that by the end of 1915, only the first seven vehicles had been delivered, with the remaining 13 vehicles being delivered at the start of 1916.
Design and Production
The basic vehicle on which the 1ZM was built was very similar to the already successful and robust Lancia 35 hp truck chassis but reinforced and strengthened to take the additional strain imposed by an armored body. This involved replacing the original rear axle and springs with improved ones capable of withstanding the additional load.
The original chassis and armor alone weighed 3 tonnes. The engine was the 4.94 liter model 1Z Lancia 4 cylinder inline petrol producing 35 hp and capable of taking an additional load of 30% (for a total of 40 hp) for up to 30 minutes. Even so, the vehicles were always somewhat underpowered and struggled to reach 60 km/h on a good road.
The arrangement was simple. The driver in the front was in the same position as he would have been in the truck, and then, in the back, the rest of the crew of up to 5 more men to crew the machine guns, etcetera. Due to the different types of machine guns chosen, mostly due to shortages of machine guns, the amount of ammunition would vary, but up to 450kg of ammunition was expected during the design phase. In the rear of the vehicle was a large cylindrical section with was topped with a very wide circular turret fitted with two machine guns. A third, smaller, one-man turret was placed on top of this bigger turret. With each machine gun requiring one man to fire it, the commander could take the top turret for observations and other duties, leaving the remaining crew to supply ammunition to the gunners or provide observation from the firing ports around the vehicle. The amount of ammunition and crew must have led to a very cramped interior.
The 1ZM prototype did have some flaws which resulted in minor modifications to the standard vehicle. Notably, during the examination in April 1915, the vehicle lacked armored covers over the rear wheels which were seen as being vulnerable. Also, those wheels did not provide sufficient off-road mobility or support, so were changed from a 120 mm wide tire (120/880) to a wider 135 mm type (135 x 935). Spare tires were usually carried on the right-hand side of the cab.
The sixty 6.5 mm Model 1911 Vickers-Maxim machine-guns needed for the first batch of 20 vehicles were not provided and, instead, in order to finish the vehicles, Ansaldo fitted the first seven vehicles with captured 6.85 mm Maxim-Dreyse machine-guns instead. Those machine guns had been removed from the 8006-tonne German freighter Bayern (Hamburg-America Line) which was interned by Italy at the outbreak of war. These first 20 vehicles were classed as ‘Serie 1’ production machines. Protection was provided by 6 mm thick high-quality chrome-nickel armor steel for the prototype and for all series 1 and 2 vehicles. By the time the third series was being ordered in November 1917, supplies of this armor were in short supply, so the bodies were clad instead in lower quality molybdenum steel armor instead. Six millimeters was not a lot of armor, but initially, the protection requirement was just to guard against perforation by rifle ammunition from a range of 300 m, but this had been improved for the 1ZM to specifically be sufficient to protect from the 6.5 mm Model 95 Rifle at a range of 100m. With a lower plate quality for the ‘Serie 3’ vehicles, it can be assumed that this requirement slipped slightly. With the Spitzgeschoss mit Kern (S.m.K) bullet (steel cored) becoming widely available later in the war, even the original 100 m specifications had become obsolete.
The second series of machines was ordered in March 1917 for a further 17 vehicles. The design had been slightly modified once more with the armored covers over the front wheels being abandoned in favor of a simple mudguard and a new layout of ventilation slots in the bonnet. Additionally, the radiator of the vehicle gained a redesigned layout, with bulletproof grilles to protect it. The final 5 vehicles of this second-order received a further modification in the form of an increase in the strength of the chassis.
Disaster spawns another version
The military disaster for the Italian Army at Caporetto in October and November 1917 led to large losses in men and material. Within a week, with perhaps a sense of panic at not having provided enough equipment, the Italian High Command placed another order for 1ZM armored cars straight away. It seems that this disaster altered the production plans, as the Ministry for Arms and Production in October 1917 had suggested 12 more vehicles based on the SPA chassis instead of the 1ZM, but this was canceled before it was even started in favor of the third series of production of the 1ZM. One hundred new vehicles were ordered in this third series and it was to stay in production until the armistice of November 1918. These new ‘Serie 3’ vehicles equipped the 3rd and 4th Squadrons (being rebuilt after heavy losses), and newly formed Squadrons 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17.
This third series was simplified in order to speed-up production. The first models of the 1ZM had featured the unusual extra turret on top of the main turret, and to crew this little one-man turret the soldier had to stand on a column underneath. These ‘Serie 3’ vehicles would dispense with this ungainly additional turret, which in the process, also reduced the crew by one man, making more space inside. This removal simplified the design, reduced the overall weight, and also, because the vehicle was shorter, improved the stability of the vehicle off-road. Of note is that despite removing the secondary turret, it did retain a very small circular hatch in the top of the turret, probably just for ventilation, as it is too small to be used for access. It was less likely now to topple over with a lower center of gravity. The vehicle was still underpowered though, even with the weight of the extra crew member and top turret and front armored wheel covers removed. On top of this, the vehicle was hard to steer in reverse as there were no mirrors and no visibility for the driver to the rear. These problems combined to make the 1ZM a difficult vehicle to drive.
These ‘Serie 3’ vehicles also abandoned the Vickers-Maxim 6.5 mm machine guns, replacing them with the more powerful St. Etienne Model 1907 8 mm machine gun. Sixteen ‘Serie 3’ vehicles were finished in January 1918, with a further 16 the following month and just 3 in March, for a total of 35 vehicles of the 100 vehicle order made in just 3 months.
In Combat in WW1
The disaster at Caporetto in 1917 was not the first time the 1ZM had seen combat. Straight after delivery in mid-1915, the vehicle had been deployed immediately to the combat zone on the North-Eastern front along the Isonzo for reconnaissance of enemy positions. Each Squadron (Squadriglia) was to be issued with 6 Lancia 1ZM armoured cars and, as new vehicles arrived, new squadrons were formed, and by mid 1916 there were 5. Two more were formed (6th and 7th respectively) when the 2nd Series vehicles were delivered, and by the end of the war the Italian Army had 16 squadrons.
The largest single loss of 1ZM’s was during the retreat at Caporetto, October- November 1917, when 10 vehicles were either destroyed or captured, with a few others being damaged. These losses were the reason for the replacement ‘Serie 3’ being ordered straight after. By the end of the retreat from Caporetto to the Piave, just 28 of these vehicles were left in running condition for the Army to use. When the ‘Serie 3’ vehicles arrived, their initial issuing was to the 3rd and 4th Squadrons to replace their losses at Caporetto.
By 1918, the 1ZM’s were deployed everywhere Italian troops were either fighting or peacekeeping, from Dalmatia and the Balkans, to Rome and Milan, and as far as the colony of Libya. More 1ZM’s were lost at the Piave (June 1918 – 2 lost) and Vittorio Veneto (October 1918 – 4 lost).
The inter-war period started with Italy having to reassert control over its troubled colony of Libya, which was undergoing periodic revolts to such an extent that outside of the main cities, the Italian Government exercised little control of the country. Eight Lancia 1ZM’s were sent to Libya in 1919 to try and regain control over the province, with three more following in 1923, forming two Squadrons of armored cars stationed in Benghazi. In 1923, two 1ZM’s were destroyed in combat with rebels at Bir Bilal, and the two units were simply merged into one with a total strength of 9 vehicles. The only notable modification post-war was that most vehicles had their armament replaced with the Fiat Model 1924 6.5 mm machine-gun.
The single ‘Serie 3’ 1ZM which ended up in Afghanistan was given to the Sovereign of Afghanistan, Amanullah Khan in 1928 on his visit to Italy and shipped back. Amazingly, this vehicle survived until at least 2007, when it was pictured by NATO forces at a military base. This incredibly rare vehicle is currently stored in Dresden.
Lancia 1ZM ‘Serie 3’ armored car found in Afghanistan. Picture taken in 2007, signs of the original paint of the turret can still be seen. Source: Twitter
Other than the deployment to Libya, the first major use post-World War One was to East Africa. Four Lancia 1ZM’s were sent to Italian Somaliland in about 1926 to conduct internal security duties, policing and convoy escort role. Ual Ual was in a disputed border area between Italian Somaliland and Ethiopia, and two of these vehicle took part in combat there on 5th December 1934, where they were ambushed by Ethiopian forces and received numerous hits although neither was destroyed. Three additional sections of Lancia 1ZM’s were sent to Italian Somaliland in March 1935 for the Ethiopian campaign.
On 1st February 1936, three platoons, belonging to two companies of the I btg. Automotoblindato Casali with a total of 13 vehicles (3 platoon of 4 vehicles plus 1 command vehicle) entered Eritrea at the Port of Massawa.
In Ethiopia, they played an important patrol and escort role and some vehicles can be seen in photographs to be using heavy-duty tires to assist on soft or sandy terrain. Combat continued on and off in the region for some time, and on 17th September 1936, two more 1ZM’s on patrol at Langhei were ambushed and damaged.
On 20th October, at Sade, four more Lancias were attacked with 37 mm anti-tank guns (3.7 cm Pak 36). They were part of the column of ‘S’ Division and accompanied by 8 tanks (CV.3). All four cars and 6 of the 8 CV.3’s were hit and were damaged. Nonetheless, despite this fire, the Italians attacked and captured the 4 guns they had been attacked with. Those 37 mm guns were later given to the 4th Motorized Artillery Group at Gallo and Sidamo, Ethiopia.
Continual action and suppression meant that by the end of the 1930s, the area was mostly pacified, after which, they were used mainly for convoy escorts and securing the roads rather than for reconnaissance. A section of Lancia armored cars was located at Harar, another at Amhara, and two at Galla and Sidamo where they worked in company with the Fiat 611 armoured cars. After the end of the campaign in Ethiopia, the vehicles remained in use in the region until WW2. At least 10 of the vehicles were rearmed with the Fiat Model 35 8 mm machine gun.
Spanish Civil War
To support the Nationalist forces under General Franco in the Spanish Civil War, Italy sent a single squadron comprising two sections of 1ZM armored cars (8 vehicles) of a mix of series variants. They arrived on 5th January 1937 at Cadiz in southern Spain. Once in Spain, all 8 vehicles were put under an independent armored car company in the Corpo Truppe Volontarie (C.T.V.) under the overall command of Major Lohengrin Giraud.
These vehicles took part in the occupation of Malaga in February 1937 and would also take part in the Italian defeat at Guadalajara in March 1937. Later, under Colonel Babini, they were in combat at Santander (August 1937) and in the Aragon and Catalan Offensives from the end of 1937 to well into 1938. By this point, they were part of the mixed mechanized battalion, along with a Bersaglieri company.
In Spain, the Lancia 1ZM proved to have some value in combat despite its age, being used to clear away infantry resistance, but what successes it had were not without loss. In September 1937, their use was curtailed with a warning due to their age and fragility. Crews were being regularly wounded by splash from small arms fire coming through the vision slits or from the inside of the armor. In contrast to the modern Soviet-supplied BA-6 and FAI and Republican Spain Blindado modelo B.C. and Blindado tipo ZIS, the Lancia was classed as obsolete. The Nationalist forces and C.T.V. had captured a number of BA-6 armored cars and the Italians sent one to Rome for analysis. The report, published in September 1937, revealed the deficiencies of the Lancias and the advantageous features of the BA-6. The report summarised the BA-6 as having a turret similar to that of the T-26 with a 45 mm gun, good armor, airless sponge rubber tyres, and 2 machine-guns – 1 hull and 1 in turret.
The Italian armored car squadron the Lancias were in decided to incorporate captured Soviet and Republican Spanish equipment and at some point, probably as early as late 1937 or 1938, the squadron had six 1ZM’s, one BA-6, and two UNL-35’s. Likewise, at least one captured 1ZM appears to have ended up being used by Republican forces for a while.
Five were still operational in 1938, though photographic evidence suggests the at least two of the ‘Serie 3’ vehicles had some sort of mechanical problems. By the end of the conflict in March-April 1939, of the 8 vehicles sent over, 5 had been lost to combat, mechanical failure, or accidents. Just three (one twin turret and two single turret examples) were still operational by February 1939 when they were seen at a public parade in Barcelona.
Hopelessly outdated by the late 1930s, these vehicles were well past their useful life, and the remaining three vehicles (two ‘Serie 3’ and a single ‘Serie 2’) are reported by Italian sources to have been handed over to the Spanish authorities rather than repatriate them. Spanish researchers find no trace that these were ever used after the Italians left meaning they may simply have been scrapped or that the records were incorrect.
The CV.3 tanks also sent over by the Italians were not suitable replacements to the use of armored cars which were still felt to be essential for the scouting role. With the Lancia outclassed and obsolete, there was a desire for a new armored car featuring many elements of the BA-6 they had captured. The new armored car was to have a dual drive, bulletproof tires, and a good degree of mobility; fast on road and good off-road. Just like in the BA-6, the Italians wanted a cannon in the armored car’s turret and also two machine guns, one in the front and one facing to the rear. The 1ZM was simply obsolete but had provided good service. The lessons generated from the use of the 1ZM and the Spanish Civil War in general would be put to good use in a replacement standard armored car for the army.
Despite being obsolete, there were still 34 Lancia 1ZM armored cars in service with the Italian Army at the outbreak of WW2 and the attack on France. Despite their obvious obsolescence, there was no replacement armored car. Of these 34 vehicles, 13 were sent to Libya in January 1941 and several more were sent to the Balkans. A platoon was also sent to the Italian-held island of Rhodes (312 Btg.). The last known use by Italian forces was in 1943 in China, where they served as the defense force in the Italian concession in Tianjin.
The 1ZM had provided good service in WW1 despite its problems and would continue to serve in some capacity for some time, but it can be considered officially obsolete for military purposes after 1928. During those 1928 reorganizations, the Tank Regiment which had including a four squadron armored car group, each with a single twin turret IZM and four single turreted IZMs, was converted to use the CV.29 light tanks instead. This change over was complete by 1931.
The 1ZM was obsolete before WW2, but with a new war and limited armor available, the 1ZM actually survived in use with the Italian Army until the armistice in September 1943. Even then, they would not be phased out and the remaining examples stayed in use with German forces in the Balkans until the end of the War. The 1ZM was a well-armed armored car and based on a robust chassis, but was simply too slow and too thin to be of much military value by WW2. Nonetheless, the early vehicles with the second turret on top of the primary turret make the 1ZM one of the most recognizable armored vehicles ever made.
Prototype – 1915 – armored body made from chrome-nickel steel
‘Serie 1’ # 1-7 fitted with 6.85 mm Maxim-Dreyse machine-guns
‘Serie 1’ # 8-20 fitted with 6.5 mm Vickers-Maxim machine-guns
‘Serie 2’ # 21-32 – modified bonnet, front-wheel guards, and radiator grilles
‘Serie 2’ # 33-37 reinforced chassis, new shaped mudguards, reduction in the number of vision ports which were of a new pattern, 2-piece sliding rear door
‘Serie 3’ # 38-138 removed top turret, Vickers-Maxim 6.5 mm machine-guns replaced with 8 mm St. Etienne, armored body made from molybdenum steel.
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.
Corpo della Regia Guardia di FinanzaRegia MarinaRegia AeronauticaPolizia dell’Africa ItalianaCompagnia Autocarrata Tedesca381330
ilizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale
Corpo dei Carabinieri Reali
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 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 1943-1945
Heavy Armored Car – 1 prototype built
The AB43 ‘Cannone’ (Eng: Cannon) was a prototype version of the AB armored car series armed with an anti-tank variant of the standard 47 mm support gun of the Italian infantry. It was meant to improve the anti-tank and support features of the ‘AB’ armored car series.
The single prototype was developed and produced by Ansaldo and FIAT for the Regio Esercito (Eng: Italian Royal Army). The AB43 ‘Cannone’ prototype was only able to take part in trials before September 8, 1943, when the Cassibile Armistice was signed, effectively putting Italy out of the war.
In the weeks after the Armistice, German troops captured the prototype. Considered of little use by the Germans, the vehicle was then stored in the Ansaldo factory warehouse.
Why an armored car armed with a 47 mm gun?
At the beginning of World War II, most armored cars were armed only with machine guns, and only in some cases with 20 mm or larger cannons (most notably the Soviet 45 mm equipped heavy armored cars). Their armor ranged from 7 to 15 mm depending on the model and the nations that used them.
During the Spanish Civil War, Italian volunteer soldiers, who fought for General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces, captured several examples of heavy Soviet-made BA-6 armored cars and Republican Blindados B.C., both armed with 45 mm guns. Many were reused by Italian or Nationalist Spanish soldiers, while one was sent to Rome to be studied by Royal Army engineers, together with a BT-5 tank.
During the drafting of the report on the efficiency of the vehicle, the Italian engineers understood that the AB40, the progenitor of the ‘AB’ series, armed with three medium machine guns and protected by 8.5 mm of armor on all sides, was not able to face heavy armored cars of potential enemies. It would be necessary to arm the Italian armored cars with more powerful weapons.
The AB41 was an excellent initial solution. It was armed with a 20 mm cannon developed for an anti-aircraft role, but also efficient against light armored vehicles. It could penetrate 38 mm of armor at 100 m, more than enough to face the British armored cars and also some light tanks of the time.
With the continuation of the war, however, the British developed wheeled vehicles armed with 40 mm guns that could not only perform reconnaissance tasks, but also support the infantry and do limited anti-tank duties.
The Regio Esercito decided to adopt a vehicle with similar characteristics but using the same chassis of the AB40 and AB41 armored cars in order to optimize production times and, above all, save time and money on the preparation of new assembly lines.
History of the project
At that time, FIAT and Ansaldo, which had collaborated on the design of the AB armored cars, were trying to solve the various problems encountered on the AB41. They accepted the new request and started to develop a new vehicle.
As usual, FIAT and its subsidiary SPA (Società Piemontese Automobili) worked on the mechanical and propulsion parts, while Ansaldo engineers worked on the armament and the armor of the vehicle.
The idea was born to arm the AB41 with the same gun as the ‘M’ tanks, the Cannone da 47/32 Mod. 1935. This weapon could deal effectively with light and reconnaissance vehicles.
History of the prototype
The first attempt by FIAT and Ansaldo
The 20 mm cannon, in addition to not being able to deal with better-armored threats, had explosive ammunition that was not effective against fortifications or machine-gun nests. Therefore, Ansaldo developed, by order of the Ispettorato delle Truppe Motorizzate e Corazzate (Eng. Armored and Motorized Troops Inspectorate), a vehicle on the chassis of the AB42, with the superstructure of the AB41 and with a more powerful armament.
The turret and the roof of the superstructure of the vehicle were removed and the sides of the superstructure were vertical in order to increase the space inside the combat compartment. The front of the vehicle and the frontal driving position were not changed but, behind the driver, a 47 mm 47/32 Mod. 1932 cannon was mounted. It was fitted with a large shield that protected the gun servants from enemy small arms fire from the front.
The ammunition supply consisted of 100 rounds of 47 mm caliber. The vehicle was not equipped with any secondary armament.
Presented in December 1942 and first completed in early 1943, this prototype was never accepted into service due to the poor crew protection, its height and the limited traverse angles of only 30° to each side.
After the failure of this project, in 1943, Ansaldo and FIAT tried to modify a standard AB41, powering it with the engine of the AB42, with a new superstructure with vertical sides and arming it with a larger and wider turret armed with a more powerful 47 mm cannon. This was the ‘AutoBlinda Modello 43 Cannone’ or, more commonly, AB43 ‘Cannone’ or ‘Anticarro’ (Eng: Anti-tank).
The new riveted enneagonal (nine sided) turret of the AB43 ‘Cannone’ was very low and wide enough for two crewmen. The loader sat on the left side and the commander/gunner on the right side.
The access hatch was mounted in the middle, behind the cannon breech. In front of it was a protuberance that allowed the cannon to depress more.
On the right side, there was a periscope for the vehicle commander, which allowed a 360° view of the battlefield.
The armor was the same as on the Mod. 1942 turret, 22 mm on the frontal side and 8.5 mm on the sides and rear. The roof was 6 mm thick.
Externally, the hull was similar to that of the standard AB41. The sides of the superstructure were modified, becoming vertical in order to increase the internal space necessary for the new larger turret. The armor was the same on the previous AB41, with 8.5 mm on all sides of the superstructure and 6 mm on the roof and bottom. This was enough to protect the crew from small arms fire and grenade splinters.
The machine gun in the rear of the superstructure was removed to facilitate crew entry and to increase interior space.
The machine gun was replaced with a slot from which, in case of need, the crew could defend themselves with their personal weapons.
The side doors were similar, made in two parts and with one pistol port for defense. On the sides of the hull were hooked two spare wheels and sapper tools, exactly as on the other armored cars of the ‘AB’ series.
An important note is that Ansaldo developed this version of the AB43 for the North African theater. However, when it was presented to the Italian Army, the African campaign was drawing to a finish. During testing, the vehicle was equipped with ‘Libia’ tires developed by the Milanese company Pirelli for the desert theater.
On the left side, the 3 m radio antenna connected to the RF3M radio system produced by Magneti Marelli was mounted. The radio was mounted on the left side of the superstructure wall. The antenna could be raised by a crank mounted inside the vehicle and could reach 7 m fully extended, with a maximum radio range of 60 km and 25-35 km when only 3 m high.
Engine and suspensions
The engine mounted on the AB43 ‘Anticarro’ was the same as that of the AB42 and AB43, a FIAT-SPA ABM 3 6-cylinder water-cooled petrol engine with a displacement of 4,995 cm³. This developed a maximum power of 108 hp at 2,800 rpm and was an improved version of the previous ABM 1 of the AB40 and ABM 2 of the AB41, with the same capacity of 4,995 cm³.
Performance was not bad. In fact, the 8-tonne AB43 ‘Cannone’ reached a top speed of 81.4 km/h, compared to the 90 km/h of the 6-tonne AB42 and the 88 km/h of the 7.6-tonne AB43.
The suspension for each wheel was independent. The wheels were all driven and all steered, allowing the vehicle to have good off-road performance even on sandy or rough terrain.
Thanks to a complex steering mechanism, the armored cars of the series ‘AB’ could change direction by pulling a lever. They had two drivers, one at the front and one at the rear. This allowed the crew to retreat quickly without having to make complicated maneuvers to change direction.
The engine was paired with a Zenith type 42 TTVP carburetor housed in the back of the engine compartment, the same as on the previous armored cars of the ‘AB’ series, the L6/40 light tank, and the Semovente L40 da 47/32. The muffler was positioned on the rear right sponson.
The fuel was stored in three different tanks, totaling 495 liters, with a range of about 400 km. Five 20 liter jerry cans were carried, two on the front fenders, two on the right side, and one on the left side. These increased the range to 480 km.
The problem of the ‘AB’ series armored cars that was not solved in this model was the absence of a firewall between the engine compartment and the crew compartment.
The main armament of the AB43 ‘Cannone’ was the Cannone da 47/40 Mod. 1938. This was also mounted on the Italian M15/42 medium tank. It was a significantly more powerful cannon than the 47/32 Mod. 1935 cannon used on the Semovente L40 da 47/32 and the M13/40 and M14/41 medium tanks.
The cannon was developed in 1938 and produced only for vehicles. It was made by the Ansaldo-Fossati factory of Genoa. The elevation in the AB43 was +18° and the depression was -9°. The firing rate was about 8-10 rounds per minute due to the reduced space inside the vehicle. Thanks to the semi-automatic breech, the 47/40 cannon could, with trained loaders, fire up to 28 rounds per minute.
The cannon had a maximum range of about 9,000 m, but its effective anti-tank range was only between 1,200 and 1,500 m.
The secondary armament consisted of an 8 mm Breda Mod. 38 machine gun mounted coaxially on the left side of the gun. This machine gun was a vehicle version of the Breda Mod. 37 medium machine gun used by the Italian infantry and had a top curved 24-round magazine.
It was planned for mass production vehicles to mount a support on the turret roof for an anti-aircraft mount for the Breda MG. It is unclear if a second machine gun would have been carried in the vehicle or if the crew would have to disassemble the coaxial machine gun when under air attack.
The 47 mm cannon used the same ammunition as the previous 47 mm L.32 gun. The ammunition types consisted of:
Cartoccio Granata da 47 mod. 35. High Explosive (HE) with percussion fuze mod. 35 or mod. 39.
Proietto Perforante mod. 35. Armor-Piercing – Tracer (AP-T) with percussion fuze mod. 09 and tracer.
Proietto Perforante mod. 39. Armor-Piercing Ballistic Capped – Tracer (APBC-T) with percussion fuze mod. 1909 and tracer.
Proietto Controcarri Effetto Pronto. High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) round with internal fuze mod. 41, distributed after 1942.
Proietto Controcarri Effetto Pronto Speciale. High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) with IPEM front fuze, distributed in early 1943.
The advantage was that the new gun had a larger breech that allowed the use of 328 mm long shell casings instead of 227 mm on the previous gun. This meant the muzzle velocity was about 43% higher. For example, the Proietto Perforante mod. 35. fired from the 47/32 Mod. 1935 had a muzzle velocity of 630 m/s, while the same ammunition fired from the 47/40 Mod. 1938 gun had a muzzle velocity of 900 m/s.
That round could penetrate 112 mm at 100 m and 43 mm at 1000 m instead of the 30 mm at 1000 m of the 47/32 Mod. 1935 round.
The 47 mm rounds were carried in two large box racks on the floor of the crew compartment.
It is not clear what material the two racks were made of, but it can be assumed that they were made of wood (like the other racks of the ‘AB’ series armored cars). This did not provide much protection in case of fire or penetration by enemy bullets.
The Breda machine gun had 27 magazines of 24 rounds each, for a total of 648 rounds. The 8×59 mm RB Breda cartridge had two types of bullets. These were standard ammunition and the M.39 AP (Armor Piercing) that 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. The standard ammunition with the same muzzle velocity penetrated 11 mm at 100 m.
The Breda magazine racks were mounted on the sides of the superstructure.
The prototype was presented to the High Command of the Royal Army on May 21, 1943, and satisfied the officers involved. 380 vehicles of the AB43 ‘Cannone’ and AB43 armed with 20 mm cannons were ordered.
Unfortunately, the Royal Army did not order the AB43s until August 16, 1943, less than a month before the Armistice of September 8, 1943.
When the Germans occupied the Ansaldo-Fossati factory in Genoa after the Armistice, they captured the prototype and gave it the designation “Panzerspähwagen Fiat/SPA Typ AB43(I) mit 4,7 cm kanone im Drehturm” (Eng: Armored Reconnaissance Car Fiat/SPA Type AB43 Italian with 47 mm cannon in turret).
The German Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen (Eng. Inspector General of the Armed Forces) considered the AB43 ‘Anticarro’ not suitable for their purposes because the gun was not of anti-tank quality compared to the guns mounted on similar German vehicles, such as the Sd.Kfz. 234/2 ‘Puma’. They preferred the standard AB43, which were called Beute Panzerspähwagen AB43 203(i) (Eng. Captured Armored Reconnaissance Car AB43 203 Italian) in German service. The Cannone prototype was kept for over a year in some factory warehouse to rust.
It is not clear under what circumstances but, in June 1944, the 90. Panzergrenadier-Division was sent to Genoa to reorganize itself after the losses suffered during the defense of Rome. On this occasion, it was assigned 16 AB43s, of which one was the prototype of the AB43 ‘Anticarro’.
Unfortunately, there is no information on the use of the AB43 ‘Cannone’, but the operational history of the 90. Panzergrenadier-Division can be traced.
On October 15, 1944, the division was ordered to move further south to defend the retreat of the German divisions towards Bologna.
In the following weeks and months, the division fought furiously against the Allied divisions that were trying to advance with the final objective of conquering Bologna. During these battles, the battalions of the division suffered very high losses, being reduced to little more than 200 men per battalion.
In March 1945, the division was assigned to the reserve and was able to reorganize itself until the first days of April. In fact, the division participated in the Battle of Bologna, fought between April 9 and 21.
The AB43 ‘Anticarro’ was probably lost in one of the battles fought between January and March 1945, as, on May 28, 1945, when the division surrendered to the Allies, it had no more vehicles available. The use of the AB43 ‘Cannone’ was not reported during the defense of Bologna.
The only version of the AB43 ‘Cannone’ was the AB43, an AB41 chassis with a new Mod. 1942 turret (the same from the AB42) and a new ABM 3 engine which allowed a top speed of 88 km/h, compared to the 80 km/h of the AB41.
102 AB43s armed with a 20 mm cannon were produced and assigned exclusively to German units. Some vehicles were captured by the partisans during the war and some were reused after the war by the police of the Italian Republic until 1954.
The AB43 ‘Anticarro’ was a project developed to face the more armored Allied reconnaissance vehicles, mainly in the vast deserts of North Africa. There, it would have probably been quite effective thanks to the adequate anti-tank gun and with sufficient speed that would have allowed it to engage the enemy and retreat quickly.
5,20 x 1,92 x 2,28 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
4 (driver, gunner/vehicle commander, loader and rear driver)
FIAT-SPA 6 cyl, 108 hp with 195 liters tank
Cannone da 47/40 Mod. 1938 with 63 rounds and one 8 mm Breda 38 with 648 rounds
8,5 mm all hull sides, 22 mm turret front and 8,5 mm sides and rear, 6 mm roof and bottom
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.
The 6ª Brigata d’Assalto Garibaldi ‘Nello’ (Eng: 6th Garibaldi Assault Brigade), so called in honor of the partisan officer Nello Olivieri (1914-1944) who was active in the region of Alagna Valsesia between the provinces of Vercelli and Novara in Piedmont was able to take possession, in the last days of the war, of six AB43 armored cars of which three without turret.
It seems that the vehicles were requisitioned from the Ansaldo factory in Novara where they had not yet been completed and lacked, among other things, a camouflage scheme and were covered with simple anti-rust primer. Together with the armored cars of the ‘Loss’ were used to liberate the cities of northern Italy.
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 20 AB40 and AB41 armored cars were modified in 1942 to patrol the Yugoslav railways. This special version was called ‘Ferroviaria’ (English: 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’ (English: 1st Light Tank Group) station in Karlovac and the 2° Gruppo Carri ‘L’ ‘San Marco’ (English: 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 (English: 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 626NM, FIAT 665NM Scudato, and AB41 armored cars.
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 (English: 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 (English: 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 Modello 1940 (English: 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 Modello 1942 (English: Armored Railway Light Lorry Model 1942), based on the chassis of the Autocarretta OM36DM, 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 AB41 armored cars were used to form platoons consisting of 5 vehicles. These were used by the 2° Raggruppamento Genio Ferrovieri Mobilitato (English: 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’ (English: 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 AB40/41 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 Fall ‘Achse’ (English: Operation 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 (English: 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 (English: Italian Army) employed some AB ‘Ferroviaria’ in its Railway Engineering units called Reggimenti Genio Ferroviario. These were an unknown number of AB41s survivors of the war converted into ‘Ferroviaria’ 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 at the Arsenale di Torino (English: Turin Arsenal) that four year early had produced the ABs that went to fight in Yugoslavia.
These railway armored cars remained in service with the Italian Army until late 1960s and, like all the vehicles of the time, they were repainted in NATO Green and received new plates. In October 1961 the Arsenale di Piacenza (English: Piacenza Arsenal) rearmed three AB43s with 12.7 mm Browning M2HB removing the 20 mm autocannon.
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
In 1941, the Regio Esercito (Eng. Italian Royal Army) realized that the performance of its modern AB41 armored cars was not able to meet the operational demands of the African Campaign. It was therefore decided to modify the AB41 to better adapt it for use in North Africa. Thus was born the lighter and faster AB42, a single prototype of which was produced in 1942. It was not accepted in service due to the changing war situation at the end of 1942 when the North African Campaign turned to the disadvantage of the Axis forces and a long-range reconnaissance vehicle with the characteristics of the AB42 was no longer necessary.
Development of the project
Between the end of the First World War and 1937, in the Kingdom of Italy, projects for new armored cars were shelved in favor of light tank projects. The Royal Army considered the Lancia 1ZM and the FIAT-Terni-Tripoli produced between 1915 and 1918 still effective until 1937, when it sent 10 Lancia armored cars together with the Corpo Truppe Volontarie (Eng: Corps of Volunteer Troops) to support General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
After the first clashes it was clear that, although the Lancias were still able to provide support to the infantry, its low speed, light armor and, finally, the poor off-road driving characteristics did not allow it to still provide the long-range reconnaissance capabilities that the Royal Italian Army High Command demanded.
The Italian Army and the Italian African Police, the police corps of the African colonies, which employed the FIAT-Terni-Tripoli, issued two separate orders for new vehicles meant for reconnaissance. FIAT and Ansaldo responded by producing two prototypes of an armored car, then called ABM, one for the Army and the other for the Police. After numerous tests and some modifications, the two vehicles were consolidated into one to speed up production. Thus was born the AB40, the first modern Italian armored car armed with two machine guns in the turret, one on the back of the hull, an all-wheel steering system, maximum armor of 17 mm, and a FIAT-SPA ABM 1 6-cylinder 78 hp petrol engine that gave the vehicle a maximum speed of 80 km/h and a range of 400 km.
From the very first tests, it was clear that the primary armament was not powerful enough for its long-range reconnaissance and infantry support tasks. As soon as production began in early 1941, Ansaldo began developing a prototype with a new turret.
In the end, in order to save time and money, a new, slightly larger and more powerful engine, the FIAT-SPA ABM 2, a 6-cylinder 88 hp petrol engine, was mounted on the armored car, along with the same turret as that of the L6/40 light tank, armed with the Cannone da 20/65 Mod. 1935. With the new engine, it could reach a top speed of 80 km/h and had an unchanged range at 400 km.
The new version, called AB41, replaced the AB40s on the assembly lines and, between 1941 and 1945, more than 667 units were produced. 12 AB40 and AB41 armored cars were also converted into AB Ferroviaria for patrolling the Yugoslav railways with various external modifications to adapt them to the rails.
Even the AB41 was not exempt from defects. The problem of the armament was solved, but the chassis had other problems. The steering system was very delicate and forced the crews to constantly overhaul it to keep it operable, especially in a desert environment where dust and sand damaged the gears. In addition, the mechanism that allowed dual steering took up a lot of space inside the crew compartment of the vehicle.
The armor, thick enough to defend the crew from light infantry weapons, was adequate for a reconnaissance vehicle. However, due to the lack of adequate vehicles and the lack of organization of the Italian Army, the AB41 was often used as a breakthrough vehicle.
Obviously, this caused a lot of losses, in fact, these long-range reconnaissance vehicles were an easy target even for the British Boys anti-tank rifles, which could penetrate the armor of the AB series armored cars at a distance of more than 100 m.
When having to attack enemy positions, the crews often advanced with their vehicles facing backward. The rear-facing machine gun could provide increased firepower and the presence of the engine at the rear increased the protection for the crew. However, this made the vehicle more vulnerable, increasing the fire risk.
The vehicle was equipped with dual steering to allow it to retreat quickly from a firefight. The narrow streets of the Italian mountains or those of the villages in the African colonies meant that normal vehicles had to make complicated and time-consuming maneuvers to be able to withdraw. This system, which also became very useful even when the vehicle was in the middle of a minefield, was practically useless in North Africa, where the vast expanses of sand did not hinder any retreat. Another problem encountered was the lack of space for the four-man crew inside the vehicle, also due to the four-wheel steering system. The rear machine gun, inherited from the old Lancia 1ZM (which had the same armament configuration as the AB40) in North Africa was almost never used in its original arrangement, but was often taken out by the crews and hooked up to anti-aircraft supports built by the crews to defend themselves from the raids of the RAF’s aircraft. The weight of 7.52 tonnes in combat order often caused the vehicle to be silted up on the sandy ground, forcing the vehicles to travel on the few dirt roads in the desert. Realizing the necessary modifications to be made to the AB41 in desert environments, the Italian Army looked for an economical and fast solution.
History of the prototype
At the beginning of 1942, the High Command of the Royal Italian Army requested that FIAT and Ansaldo design a new radical modification of the armored car to better adapt it to the service in the North African Theatre.
The Royal Army’s specifications were: removal of the double steering, which had proved to be of little use in the desert, the rear machine gun, and its rear ball bearing. They also required the installation of a more powerful engine to increase the speed of the vehicle on roads and the development of a new turret. Finally, it was required to increase the armor but, at the same time, lighten the vehicle.
As in the previous vehicles, FIAT-SPA was responsible for developing a more powerful engine and removing the dual steering system, while Ansaldo was responsible for developing a new superstructure and a new turret with the same 20 mm cannon as the AB41.
At first, it was attempted to modify the AB41’s superstructure by increasing the hull size, but the weight would have been too high and the Ansaldo technicians preferred to start developing a new superstructure from scratch.
In order to meet the Royal Italian Army’s requests to reduce the weight of the armored car, on the project dated 3rd June 1942, it was decided to slope the armor of the vehicle much more. The space inside the vehicle was redesigned, reducing the crew to three and keeping the ammunition capacity unchanged. The design work was very fast and, after the production of a wooden model of the vehicle, a prototype of the new armored car called Autoblinda Alleggerita Mod. 1942 (Eng. Lightweight Armored Car Mod. 1942) or, more simply, Autoblinda Mod. 1942, abbreviated to AB42, was immediately produced.
The High Command of the Royal Italian Army made an order on 19th July 1942 for between 200 and 300 examples of the new armored car to be produced after the tests at the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione Militare (Eng. Centre for Military Motorisation Studies), which were scheduled for late November 1942.
The prototype was ready by 7th November 1942 and it was planned to send it to the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione Militare a few weeks later. However, due to the defeat of the Italian forces at El Alamein on 11th November 1942, and the costs associated with modifying the assembly lines, the project was no longer considered a priority by the Italian High Command and the prototype was shelved.
In the following months, Ansaldo recovered the engine and the turret from the prototype, which went to be mounted on the chassis of an AB41, giving birth to the more powerful Autoblinda Mod. 1943 or, more commonly, AB43. After this recovery, the rest of the prototype was probably scrapped because the chassis was now useless. At the date of the Armistice of Cassibile, 8th September 1943, the AB42 prototype was not in any register.
The crew consisted of three, one less than on the AB40 and AB41. The driver was seated in front and had a steering wheel, an episcope, a slit, and a seat with a folding backrest to allow access to the vehicle to other crew members. Behind the driver, in the single-seater turret, was seated the vehicle commander, who also acted as the gunner, and finally, behind him was the loader. Due to the limited space on board, he could not reload the cannon and could only deliver the ammunition to the vehicle commander. In addition to the loader function, the third man in the crew was also the radio operator. The reduction of the crew and the redesign of the interior space increased the space available to the crew, who could thus operate more comfortably inside the vehicle.
Engine and suspensions
FIAT and its subsidiary, SPA, designed the new engine by upgrading the engine of the AB41, the FIAT-SPA ABM 2 6-cylinder petrol water-cooled engine with a displacement of 4,995 cm³. This developed a maximum power of 88 hp at 2,700 rpm and was itself derived from the FIAT-SPA ABM 1 with less displacement and a maximum power of 78 hp, which was mounted on the AB40. The new engine for the AB42 was improved. The displacement remained unchanged at 4,995 cm³, but the maximum power recorded was 108 hp (other sources round this figure to 100 hp or 110 hp, whilst others mention a maximum power of 115 hp) at 2,800 rpm. This significantly increased the speed on roads to about 90 km/h, compared to 80 km/h of the AB41 and 78 km/h of the AB40.
Apart from the removal of the dual-drive system and rear controls, the chassis, also used on the SPA-Viberti AS42 “Sahariana”, was no longer modified by FIAT-SPA. Though few, the modifications lightened the chassis, which nevertheless maintained the 4×4 configuration, the possibility of steering with all four wheels, and independent suspension for each wheel.
There is no clear information about the fuel and other liquids tanks of the vehicle. It is clear that the 57-liters tank in front of the driver was moved and replaced by another larger tank. The 118-liters tank between the floor of the combat compartment and the bottom of the vehicles was not changed. On the AB41, a serious problem was the lack of a bulkhead between the crew compartment and the engine compartment and the presence in front of the engine of the 20-liters reserve tank which often caused violent fires inside the vehicle. It is not clear if a bulkhead was installed on the AB42, but surely the reserve tank was moved.
The armored car had a range of 460 km thanks to the new fuel tank and the lighter total weight. To further increase the range, five jerry cans mounts were added externally on the left side of the prototype of the new armored car, which contained a total of 100 liters of fuel and increased the range to over 500 km.
The enormous fairings for the spare wheels were removed to increase the interior space of the vehicle and, on the right side of the vehicle, a support for only one spare wheel was fixed.
The prototype was fitted with the tires developed by Pirelli specifically for desert terrain, the Pirelli “Libya” type (Eng: Libya) 9.75 x 24″ (25 x 60 cm). Obviously, the rims were not modified and the vehicle could have mounted all the tires produced by Pirelli for the 24″ rims also mounted on the other AB series armored cars and the Camionette SPA-Viberti AS42.
The Mod. 1941 turret mounted on the L6/40 light tank and on the AB41 was narrow, making loading operations very uncomfortable and did not allow the commander to rotate the panoramic hyposcope 360° due to the limited space inside. Another problem was the height of the armored car, 2.48 m, of which about 50 cm were the turret. Ansaldo designed a new turret, called Mod. 1942, which was lower (35 cm) and wider than the Mod. 1941.
On the sides of the turret, the two air intakes were removed (it is not clear, however, whether a smoke extractor was added). The two slits on the sides remained, as well as the rear hatch used to facilitate the removal of the 20 mm Breda cannon during overhauls. On the roof of the turret was mounted a two-piece hatch, the usual panoramic hyposcope with 360° field of view, a new anti-aircraft support and, finally, a protuberance that contained the top-mounted curved box magazine of the Breda Mod 38 machine gun, allowing the cannon to reach a depression of -9°.
This turret, although lower, had more interior space than the Mod. 1941, making it easier for the commander to load the weapons on board.
In addition to the considerable advantage of the increased interior space, the new turret was also more balanced than Mod. 1941, which in fact needed a rear counterweight. It is interesting to note that, on the mock-up of the Lightened Armored Car Mod. 1942, the air intakes mounted on the sides of the Mod. 1941 turret were also mounted.
Hull and armor
The hull was completely redesigned by increasing the sloping of the armor in order to increase protection. Previously, the slit, the driver’s episcope, and, lower down, an unprotected headlight for night driving were placed on the front armor plate. The front mudguards were slightly modified to a more angular shape. On the two well-inclined sides, just behind the front wheels, there were the same armored doors mounted on the AB40 and 41 armored cars, divided into two parts. The upper part had a central slit for close defense with the use of personal weapons. On the left side, behind the door, there were five jerry cans, two on the upper row and three on the lower row. On the right side, there was the horn and, behind the armored access door, the spare wheel of the armored car and the radio antenna which was mounted at the rear. The antenna could be lowered to horizontal during movement. When raised, it was 3 m high but could reach 7 m fully extended, with a maximum range of 60 km and 25/35 km when it was 3 m high. The rear of the armored car was sloped and had two large hatches.
The engine compartment was completely redesigned, with two large square inspection hatches with air intakes and the tank cap. On the back, in addition to the large radiator fan grille, two large air intakes were present. On the two rear mudguards, there were two storage boxes. The one on the left was smaller because of the muffler, which was fixed to the mudguard.
The tools were probably transported inside a big box inside the armored car, like on the AB41, except the shovel and the pickaxe. The pickaxe was placed between the jerry cans and the rear fender while the shovel, in the wooden mock-up of the vehicle, was placed transversely on the left side and was probably not mounted on the prototype in order to make room for the jerry can supports.
The radio equipment of the armored car was probably a Magneti Marelli RF3M, already present on the AB40, AB41, and later on the AB43. It consisted of a transmitter, a receiver, two power supplies, and two batteries.
The armor of the vehicle was bolted to an internal structure. This made the vehicle dangerous because, when the armor was hit, the bolts shot away, becoming dangerous for the crew, but it made it easier to replace only one part of the armor in case of damage.
The hull armor was 8.5 mm on the front, sides, and back. The new Mod. 1942 turret had a front armor of 22 mm, while the sides and back were 8.5 mm thick. The roof and floor were 8.5 mm thick, while the engine deck was 6 mm thick.
The main armament was the Breda Mod. 1935 20/65 Breda Cannon, developed as an anti-aircraft gun. Due to the smaller space inside the armored car, it had a rate of fire of about 200 rounds per minute. It had a depression of -9° and an elevation of +18°. This cannon was more than suitable for the roles that Italian armored cars had to play. It was effective, easy to replace, and with excellent anti-tank characteristics. It fired 20 x 138 mm B caliber ammunition, i.e. the same caliber as the German FlaK 38 anti-aircraft guns and the Swiss Solothurn S-18/1000 anti-tank rifles.
The ammunition produced in Italy was of different types, but most had been developed for anti-aircraft use and therefore High Explosive (HE) and the Armor Piercing (AP) were used on the AB. The AP Mod. 1935 had a muzzle velocity of 840 m/s which could penetrate 38 mm of armor at 100 m and 30 mm at 500 m. With German production shells, such as the Pz.Gr. 40, with a muzzle velocity of 900 m/s, the gun could penetrate 50 mm of armor plate at 100 m and 40 mm at 500 m.
The secondary armament consisted of a Mod. 38 caliber 8 x 59 mm RB Breda machine gun with a top-mounted curved 24 rounds magazine. This machine gun was the vehicle version of the Breda Mod. 37 infantry machine gun with a theoretical firing rate of 600 rounds per minute but, due to the reduced space inside the turret, the firing rate dropped to about 350 rounds per minute.
In case of an air attack, the machine gun could be dismounted and used on the anti-aircraft support on the roof of the turret. The machine gun could fire different types of bullets, such as the M.39 AP bullets, with a muzzle velocity of 780 m/s. These weighed 12 grams and could penetrate a 16 mm armor plate at a distance of 100 m. Standard ammunition with the same muzzle velocity penetrated 11 mm at 100 m.
In total, the vehicle carried, as on the AB41, 57 magazines with 8 rounds for the main cannon, for a total of 456 rounds, probably transported in wooden racks on the sides of the vehicle and at the back. Unfortunately, the amount of 8 mm ammunition transported by the AB42 is unknown, although it can be assumed that they were, as on the AB41 and the subsequent AB43, around 1,992 rounds, i.e. 83 magazines with 24 rounds.
Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Sahariana’
In 1942, a prototype of a Camionetta (in Italian, the word “Camionetta” describes a four-wheeled vehicle, with particular characteristics of robustness, capable of traveling over rough terrain, and generally equipped with protective elements) on the hull of the AB42 was presented to the Italian High Command, for a similar task as the AB42. The SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Sahariana’ was a large vehicle with a central fighting compartment and the same engine as the AB41 at the back. This Camionetta was used for long-range reconnaissance, ambushes and to counter the British Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).
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 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 was the absence of the rear driver position and double 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, differing only by the adoption of two huge boxes of ammunition instead of the rows of ten petrol jerry cans. These vehicles were used in Italy, the Ukrainian steppes, France and Germany.
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 8th September 1943, were captured by German forces and were used by Italian soldiers under German command until the end of the war. After the war, these were produced in small numbers and used by the Italian police until 1954.
Shortly before the Armistice, the last project, called AB43, was proposed by the Ansaldo to the Wehrmacht. This vehicle was based on the normal chassis and superstructure of the AB41, but with the new turret of the AB42 and the more powerful FIAT-SPA ABM 3 engine. The amount of ammunition transported was the same, the maximum speed was increased compared to the AB41, and the range was reduced to about 400 km. It was immediately tested and accepted for service but, due to the Armistice, FIAT and Ansaldo did not have time to build even a single one. In November 1943, after being judged suitable by German technicians, production began for the German Army. About 100 vehicles were produced for the Wehrmacht and used in anti-partisan duties in northern Italy and the Balkans. After the war, some surviving AB43s were employed by the Italian State Police until 1954, and eight vehicles were also used by the Italian Army Railway Engineers in the ‘Ferroviaria’ version.
The AB42 was a version of the AB series armored car developed for use in the North African Campaign, lighter and faster than the AB41. Due to the defeats in Africa and the cost of retooling the assembly lines, it was decided to continue to produce the AB41, which remained the main reconnaissance and infantry support vehicle until 1943 with the Royal Army. Fortunately, some of the systems developed for the AB42 were reused on the AB43, which kept the chassis and superstructure of the AB41 but had the new and more powerful engine and the turret of the Lightened Armored Car Mod. 1942.
5.2 m x 1.93 m x 2.24 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready
3, driver, gunner and commander
FIAT-SPA ABM 3, 6-cylinders 110 hp engine
1x 20/65 Breda Mod. 1935 1x 8 mm Breda Mod. 38
8.5 mm front, sides and rear
22 mm front, 8.5 mm sides and rear
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
La Meccanizzazione dell’ Esercito fino al 1943 – Lucio Ceva e Andrea Cerami
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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