Categories
WW2 Italian Armored Cars

Autoprotetto S.37

Kingdom of Italy (1941-1943)
APC – ~200 Built


Brand new Autoprotetto S.37 bearing registration number ‘RE 132468’. Source: Italie35-45.com

Original prototype of the A.S.37 showing the alternative position for carrying a spare tyre.
The A.S.37 started life in January 1941 with the acknowledgement by General Roatta (Deputy Chief of Staff for the Italian Army) of the need for an armored personnel carrier/light armored car for the Italian Army. A single-vehicle of the turreted armored car version of the Autoprotetto S.37 (A.S.37), also known as the Autoblindo T.L.37, was made. It was sent to North Africa for trials and the focus was switched to the evaluation of an armored personnel carrier variant of the vehicle instead.
Based on the T.L. 37 artillery tractor made by Fiat SPA, this vehicle is also sometimes referred to as the T.L.37 Protetto. In a memo dated 24th May 1941, 200 examples of the ‘trattore L.37’ based armored cars were ordered, as it showed more promise than other designs which were considered at the time to be too big. These other contemporary designs were studies on the same T.L.37 chassis, the Dovunque 33 and 35 trucks, half-tracked armored personnel carriers, and two fully tracked ones, contemplated to be along the lines of the British Universal Carrier.

Italian Trattore Leggero 37 (TL.37) with large pneumatic tyres used as a tractor for hauling field guns.

Blueprint outline of the A.S.37 showing original means of lowering the rear spare tyre.
Unlike many other Italian projects, the development was very quick and went through relatively minor modifications. The blueprints from 2nd April 1941 provide some insight into the development process showing the rear door as a 2 piece design with the bottom half folding down. The spare tire position was attached to this rear lower door half, but it is noted to weigh 145 kg, which is presumably the reason why it was moved, as the door would be impossible to close from the inside. Closer analysis shows the fuel tanks were in front of the rear wheels under the top of the benches. These would later be moved, as would the radio mounting points.
Overall development of the A.S.37 was rapid and a prototype was ready in just 4 months and delivered to the Centro Studi Motorizzazione (CSM) in May 1941. The rapid development, however, met with very slow acceptance and the design was not standardized for production until 4th of February 1942. Despite this, the vehicle had actually been good enough to have received orders for 200 vehicles in the summer of 1941- early in its evaluation – although, by that acceptance time, production had only managed to produce 6 complete vehicles. Eleven more vehicles would be delivered by the end of February 1942 bringing the total to 16, plus the original prototype.

Original prototype A.S.37 with the spare tire mounted on the side by the driver. An additional spare tire can be carried in the triangular mount of the small front roof section or the mounts could be used interchangeably.
Vehicles accepted by the Italian Army received registration numbers ‘RE132452’ to ‘RE 132602’ (RE – Regio Esercito – Royal Army) which confusingly is only 150 vehicles, suggesting a modification to the 1941 order of 200 examples. Further confusing the numbers is the fact that each of the two armored divisions in the army were originally supposed to receive 90 vehicles each (for a total of 180 vehicles).

A.S.37 as standardized, showing the very distinctive oversized sand-tires and mounting a single Breda Mod. 1937 machine-gun

Layout and details

The overall design was simple because the vehicle on which it was based on required very little modification. The engine was at the front, allowing for a large boxy armored superstructure over the back with an open-top to provide protection for troops being carried. A very unusual split two-piece rear door provided access with the top half overlapping the lip of the bottom half of the door.

Rear view of A.S.37 registration ‘RE 132489’ showing the unusual split back door.
Power was provided by a modified version of the engine used in the TL37 tractor. Instead of a 52 hp (at 2000rpm) petrol engine, the Fiat Spa 18VT version 3 petrol engine had been modified with a new compression ratio (4.9 to 5.5) and now delivered 67 hp (at 2500rpm). The driver’s position had not changed from the tractor and he sat on the front right, approximately centrally between the wheels. Vision for the driver was provided by a single rectangular hatch with a protective visor that could be raised or lowered depending on the tactical position. No other seats were provided in the vehicle, as the front left space next to the driver was empty and the rear seating was accomplished by means of long flat horizontal benches fitted with full length cushioned seats running above the top of the wheel arches to the rear. In this way, the maximum staff and utility of the vehicle were maintained allowing it to be used not only for troops but also for stores and so forth. Up to eight soldiers could be accommodated on those two rear benches and the spare space under the rear of the benches held two (one per side) 100 liter petrol tanks with an additional 90 liter fuel tank under the floor at the back for a total of 290 liters which provided an exceptional range of operation of up to 725 km.

Cutaway of the S.37 showing the positions of the engine, driver and fuel tanks. Source: Italie 35-45.com

Protection

Armor was simply arranged and consisted of armored steel plates, flat and cut to size, bolted to a steel frame. Plate thickness ranged from 6 mm to 8.5 mm thick providing protection from small arms fire and shell splinters, although the lack of a roof left the soldiers vulnerable to shrapnel or fire from above. On the other hand, the lack of a roof provided a significant amount of cooling for the cabin, which otherwise, under desert conditions, would have become unbearable.
Protection only extended to the front, sides and rear. There was no mine protection, but the floor of the vehicle could be removed for maintenance purposes. The mounted infantry were not equipped with portholes from which they could fire, meaning they would either have to dismount to fight or stand above the protection of the side armor.

A.S.37 fitted with RF3M radio and with the antenna in the stowed position.

Operations

Despite being equipped and designed for use in hot desert conditions to support the war in North Africa, the A.S.37 was not deployed there, but instead found use in Yugoslavia, fighting partisans and for convoy escort duties. Vehicles were issued to the 31st Regiment (Siena), the 955th Sezione Autoprotetti with the 1118th Autosezione of the Macaerta Division, the 259th Autoreparto Autoprotetti of the 5th Autogrippo (Trento), the 1034th Sezione Autoprotetti of the 71st (LXXI) Battalion Motociclisti (6th Regiment Bersaglieri) and the 1034th Sezione Autoprotetti of the 11th Autoreparto Pesante (Albania).
Operations in Yugoslavia took their toll on the A.S.37’s with numerous losses but, by the end of April 1943, there were still 102 vehicles operational there with Italian forces. By the time of the Armistice in September 1943, this number was lower and many vehicles were used by Yugoslavian partisan forces as well as by the Germans, who recovered 37 vehicles. These vehicles in German hands kept doing the same job they had done for the Italians: internal security in an increasingly dangerous Yugoslavia.
In German service, the A.S.37 was renamed Gepanzerte Manntransportwagen S.37 250(i) (i = Italian) (Abbrev. gp.M.Trsp.Wg.S.37 250(i)) and saw service, not just against partisan forces, but also against the Soviets and Bulgarians at the end of the war. The A.S.37 was operated by the 7th SS-Freiwilligen-Gebirgs Division ‘Prinz-Eugen’ and also some Wehrmacht units.

Three A.S.37’s seen together in Yugoslavia belonging to the 259th Autoreparto Autoprotetti in 1943 fitted with roof shields and at least one machine-gun. Source: Pignato.

S37 with shields
Italian A.S.37 with additional protective shields added on the sides of the open compartment.

Autoprotetto_S37
A standard A.S.37 with the machine-gun facing forward.Illustrations by David Bocquelet, with some modifications by Bernard ‘Escodrion’ Baker.

Extra armor

Fighting partisans, who liked to ambush and conduct hit and run combat in a mountainous country like Yugoslavia, meant that the troops carried by the A.S.37 were vulnerable from the lack of roof, and additionally vulnerable when having to fire from the back of the vehicle, exposing themselves to enemy fire. As a result, at least two types of up-armored modifications of which we have knowledge of were developed.

Extra cramped A.S.37 in Italian use Yugoslavia in 1943. The unit logo is that of a jumping Ibex. The circular motif is a manufacturer’s badge. Source: WarWheels.net

Another shielded A.S.37 in Italian use in Yugoslavia. The 9 men are well-armed, with at least two Breda Model 1930 machine-guns. Source: Italie 35-45.com
One solution to the lack of crew protection when fighting from the A.S.37 was the expedient of mounting four rectangular armored loophole plates on the back by bolting them to the superstructure, creating the look of castle wall battlements. These plates provided shelter for the soldier to hide behind whilst shooting and featured a shuttered hole through which they could fire through too. The exact position and number of shields mounted vary from vehicle to vehicle, however, as some may have been added by field workshops and other lost through damage.

A.S.37 fitted with fully superstructure additional armor on route to service in Yugoslavia
The second variant featured a much more cohesive superstructure lacking any ‘battlements’. Instead, this version used four large armored panels bolted completely around the top of the A.S.37 providing full coverage for the troops from both sides to above head height, whilst at the same time, retaining the open top of the vehicle. Large rectangular shuttered loopholes were provided in this top, with one positioned centrally on each face and one in each corner providing all-round coverage.

Both versions of up-armored A.S.37’s seen in Yugoslavia. The unusual rear door is apparent in the vehicles nearest to the camera. (Registration ‘RE 132558’). Source: Bundesarchiv 1011-203-1660-07A

Armament

On the original prototype, a single Breda Model 1938 8mm machine-gun was mounted to the rear right-hand corner but this was later standardized to a mounting point partway forwards of that on the right-hand side.

Side view of the prototype A.S.37 (left) and standardized vehicle (right) showing the relative positions of the machine-gun.

A.S.37 showing off the flamethrower somewhere in Yugoslavia
Another armament variation is that of the flamethrower version. Again, for combatting partisan activity in Yugoslavia, an unknown number of A.S.37’s were converted to carry a single flamethrower in the back and made use of two small rectangular shields on the rear superstructure, which are distinctive by the very wide unshuttered loopholes.

A.S.37 in Yugoslavia showing three shields added to the top as used in the flamethrower carrying versions.
A final variant of the armament carried by the A.S.37 seen in use by German forces mounted a single Italian 47 mm L/32 anti-tank gun in the open-topped body. No further details are known.

A.S.37 in German hands with Italian 47mm L/32 anti-tank gun mounted. Unit and date not known.

Radio variants

Due to the large amount of space available inside the vehicle, the vehicle found itself being converted in small numbers to a command and control variant fitted with the RF3M radio. The radio itself was mounted on the left wall of the inside, sat on the front of the left bench with the large heavy batteries down in the front left of the vehicle, which was available as there was no seat there., A simple chair was bolted to the floor centrally in the front though for the radio operator to sit on. The large antenna for the RF3M could fold down on a rotating mount fitted to the front left-hand side of the superstructure. A further variant of this command vehicle had a second radio set fitted. This version was the Centro Radio variant and also carried a RF1C short-range set. With the RF3M mounted on the front left, the RF1C was mounted on the front right behind the driver and the batteries for it under the driver.
The RF3M, depending on the model and the antenna used, had a range of 100 km and was considered a short-to-intermediate-range set. The RF1C was a tactical set for short-range communications to a range of about 12 km under ideal conditions. The two radio variants can be distinguished by the addition of a second antenna mounted on the opposite side to the first one.

A.S.37 mounting the RF3M (left) and RF1C as well (right)

Sources

War Wheels.net A Century of Italian Armoured Cars, Nicola Pignato
Encyclopedia of Armoured Cars, Crow and Icks
Italian Tanks and Combat Vehicles of WW2, Ralph Riccio
Gli autoveicoli da Combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano, Nicola Pignato
Mezzi Corazatti Italiani 1939-1945, Nicole Pignato

FIAT S37 specifications

Dimensions (L-W-H) 4.95 x 1.92 x 1.8 m (without additional armored superstructure)
2.13 m high with additional shields
Weight 4.78 tonnes to 5.3 tonnes, payload 770 kg at combat weight
Crew 1 + 8
Propulsion 4.053 liter 18VT version III 4 cylinder petrol engine producing 67 hp at 2500 rpm
Maximum speed (on-road) 52 km/h (road)
Operational range 725 km (450 mi)
Armament Single Breda Model 37 or 38 8 mm machine-gun
And/Or flamethrower
Or 47 mm L/32 anti-tank gun
Armor 6-8.5 mm steel
Categories
WW2 Italian Armored Cars

Lancia 1ZMs in Tianjin, China

Kingdom of Italy (1932-1943)

The tiny concession of Tianjin (written as Tien-Tsin or Tientsin in many period sources) in China was one of several small Italian possessions in the area and was run by Italy between 1901-1947. Italy had been granted the territorial concession in the Xinchou Treaty (also known as Boxer Protocol) on the 7th September 1901 by the Chinese Government following the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) and was occupied the following year. It was just 46 hectares (114 acres) and had a population of only a few thousand ethnic Chinese and under a thousand Italians and other foreign nationals. The shape was roughly rectangular with the southern border on the White River (Pei Ho) (the Italians sometimes had gunboats stationed there); Trieste Street on the west bordering the Austro-Hungarian concession; and Trento Street on the east bordering the Russian concession; Fiume Street formed the northern border and linked to the Beiping (Peking – modern-day Beijing) – Mukden (modern-day Shenyang) railway line through the city, very close to the East Station.

Map of Tianjin from 1912 showing (in green) the small Italian concession
The value of such a small concession is questionable, except that it served as a mark of international prestige for the Italian Empire and allowed the political legation to the Chinese Government to be properly protected.

Ermanno Carlotto Barracks. Sources: Public domain and Battaglione San Marco
In 1925, Italian leader Benito Mussolini created the 600 strong Battaglione Italiano in Cina (Italian Battalion in China) based in this concession. These new troops replaced the slightly more ad-hoc protection for the concession provided previously by the Regia Marina (RN). It was formed from soldiers of the San Marco, Libya, and San George Company’s who were housed in the Ermanno Carlotto Barracks (Italian: Caserma Ermanno Carlotto) named after a fallen Italian hero from the Boxer Rebellion. Along with these troops was a police force of Chinese police led by Italian officers. This constituted a very large military presence for such a small territory, and it was tasked with ensuring that the concession would not be able to be cut off from either Beiping or the sea.
Weapons at the concession around this time included at least two 76mm guns and a quantity of machine-guns, but no heavy weapons. There were continuing problems around the concession and incidents in the years following this (1926) lead to concerns over the safety of Italian citizens living there. To bolster defenses still further, four Ansaldo-Lancia 1ZM armored cars were sent to the concession in 1932 to help maintain law and order.

Four Series 3 1ZM’s on parade on 4th November 1932 in Tianjin. Two 76mm mountain guns are visible by the altar. Source: trentoincina.it

A close up of the 1ZM’s shows them fitted with 3 machine-guns. Source: trentoincina.it

Still from a newsreel of celebrations held in 1935 with a parade of equipment including the 1ZM’s. Source: Luce. This newsreel can be found at the end of this article.
By 1936 though, some troops were transferred away from the concession to Africa, leaving the force much reduced. The events of 1937 changed this situation when Japanese forces attacked the Chinese held part of the city of Tianjin and occupied it. This led once again to significant fears for the concession being attacked by either Chinese or Japanese troops, and consequently, a new delivery of soldiers – a battalion of the Grenadiers of Savoy (Granatieri di Savoia) – from Italy arriving in the concession. As things settled down by the end of 1938, most of these troops were once again withdrawn or relocated. By the end of the 1930s, the entire Italian military presence in China amounted to less than a 1000 men divided between Tianjin (~400), Shanghai (215), Shanhaiguan (25) and Beiping legation and radio station (15), along with an unknown number of naval personnel.

Some of the soldiers of the Granatieri di Savoia arriving by lighter to the riverside on 14th September 1937. Photo collection Karl Kengelbacher


The Lancia 1ZM. Illustration by David Bocquelet, modified by Bernard ‘Escodrion’ Baker.

World War II

Italy entered World War Two on the side of the Axis in June 1940. Initially, this did not affect the concession of Tianjin significantly, as the now-enemy forces of Great Britain had abandoned its concessions in August 1940. Only in the middle of 1941, was the concession once again felt to be under threat, and as a result, and consequently, reinforcements were despatched.
Nonetheless, the concession, being surrounded by the Japanese with whom they were allied, was relatively calm, but the events of September 1943 changed everything. Italy had signed an armistice with the Allies and officially capitulated on the 7th, becoming a co-belligerent force fighting with the Allies against a mainly fascist loyalist force called the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI) and the German occupiers in what was effectively a civil war in Italy. What this meant for Tientsin, was that the former Japanese allies now became potential enemies. The Italian troops stationed in China were given specific orders not to cause any trouble or engage with the Japanese forces and to scuttle any ships which would otherwise not be able to reach an Allied controlled port. Thus, the Lepanto, the Carlotto, and the Conte Verde were scuttled in Shanghai.

Unusual overhead view of the four Lancia 1ZM’s lined up in the concession.
Despite efforts not to aggravate the Japanese, the position in Shanghai changed on 9th and 10th September 1943, when the troops stationed there were seized by the Japanese. Those who chose to collaborate were put to hard labor, with the remainder of the men being sent to POW camps along with other Allied soldiers. The troops stationed at Beiping radio station, despite orders not to resist, fought against the Japanese until they could destroy the station and all documentation which might help the new adversary. The tiny force of just 100 sailors and soldiers led by Captain Baldassare held-off over 1,000 Japanese soldiers and some light tanks until surrendering on the 10th. They received very harsh treatment from the Japanese for their defiance, but given the equally harsh treatment given to some troops who ‘stayed loyal’ to the Axis, perhaps it did not matter anyway.
In Tianjin, the situation was equally confusing. The troops in China had no knowledge about the armistice of the 7th September and thus had no time to prepare. The senior officer commanding Italian forces in Tianjin at the time was the Captain of the Frigate Carlo dell’Acqua, who had at his disposal about 600 men, 300 rifles, some pistols, and about 50 machine-guns of various types. Four 76 mm guns made up the most powerful weapon in their arsenal along with the four ancient Ansaldo-Lancia 1ZM armored cars fitted with the Fiat Model 1924 6.5 mm machine-gun, and some unarmored motor vehicles. With plenty of ammunition and food for a week, he was going to have to face down the Japanese.
The Japanese under Lt. Col. Tanaka had over 6,000 men with numerous light armored vehicles and reportedly some tanks, as well as two gunboats. The Japanese provided an ultimatum to the Italian defenders to surrender, but this was rejected resulting in the Japanese firing some light artillery to attempt to intimidate the defenders. The Italian loyalty was fractured, with about a third of the troops wishing to remain loyal to the fascist regime but the rest not. Surrounded, outnumbered, and facing annihilation by the Japanese, the contingent surrendered. To have resisted would have been futile as it would have resulted in a lot of damage to the area and deaths of civilians for no purpose. The troops who surrendered elsewhere were often treated very badly by the Japanese by either being sent to POW camps or forced to carry out hard labor, so there was no good option available for the soldiers.
Having surrendered, their weapons and armored cars would have therefore fallen into Japanese hands, as at this time there was little time to destroy the equipment. No pictures are known to show the Japanese using these vehicles, although it is possible they would have been reused within the city for policing. No trace of them survives, so they were most likely scrapped then or subsequently.
Therefore, by 10th September the Japanese had completely occupied the Italian concession of Tianjin. Shortly afterward, the RSI chose to officially cede the concession over to the Chinese puppet state of Wang Jingwei. That Japanese puppet state would eventually fall to the forces of Chiang Kai-Shek. All rights to Tianjin were formally ceded by Italy on 10th February 1947 by the government of the Republic of Italy to the government of the Republic of China. Those Italian troops who survived the treatment of the Japanese finally returned to Italy in 1946.

Sources

Automitragliatrici Blindate E Motomitragliatrici nella grande guerra, Nicola Pignato
Cronologia.leonardo.it
Marina.difesa.it
Italy’s Encounters with Modern China: Imperial Dreams, Strategic Ambition: ‘The Italian presence in China: Historical trends and perspectives 1902-1947, Guido Samarani
From the Bulletin of the Historical Office of the Navy March-June 1989, (written in 1933 by the Ten. Fanteria Amleto Menghi), San Marco
Italian Armed Forces in China 1937-1943
Self-portrait in a convex mirror: Colonial Italy reflects on Tianjin, Maurizio Marinelli
Making concessions in Tianjin: heterotopia and Italian colonialism in mainland China, Maurizio Marinelli
Italian Surface Units in Far East 1940-1943, Alberto Rosselli at www.icsm.it