Categories
WW2 RSI SPA-Viberti AS43

SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta

Italian Social Republic (1944-1945)
Armored Personnel Carrier – 2 to 4 Built

The SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta (English: Protected Car) was a wheeled Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) produced by the soldiers of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ (English: Armored Group) based on a Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43 light unarmored reconnaissance vehicle.

The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ was part of the new military police of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana or RSI (English: Italian National Republic), the pro-German Italian republic founded after the Italian Armistice with the Allied Powers on 8th September 1943.

A SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta on a street in Turin on 20th May 1944. Source: wikipedia.com

Context

After the fall of Tunisia in May 1943, the Italian Fascist Government began to fragment due to the loss of public support caused by the continued military defeats and the hardships civilians had to endure.

On 25th July 1943, the King of Italy Vittorio Emanuele III alongside some Royal Army officers and Fascist politicians took over control of the country. Benito Mussolini was arrested on charges of having dragged Italy into the war.

For more than two months, the Kingdom of Italy continued the war fighting the Allied powers, but under a new Monarchical government with Marshal Pietro Badoglio as prime minister.

In late August, Badoglio initiated negotiations for an armistice with the Allies. On 3rd September 1943, the Cassibile Armistice was signed and it went into effect at 19:42 on 8th September 1943.

Italian troops were taken by surprise by the Armistice announcement and were left without orders while the German troops expected these actions and quickly activated Fall Achse (English: Operation Axis). Between 8th to 23rd September 1943, German soldiers managed to kill 29,000 Italian soldiers and captured more than a million others. In addition, the Germans captured over 1.3 millions of rifles, machine guns and submachine guns, 17,058 mortar, anti-tanks, anti-aircrafts and field artillery pieces, 16,631 trucks, cars and motorcycles, and 977 armored fighting vehicles.

During Fall Achse, on 12th September 1943, a group of German Fallschirmjäger performed a daring action, Fall Eiche (English: Operation Oak), freeing Mussolini from prison. On 23rd September 1943, with German backing, he created, in the German-occupied Italian territories, the Repubblica Sociale Italiana or RSI (English: Italian Social Republic) with the new fascist party, the Partito Fascista Repubblicano (English: Republican Fascist Party) in the German-occupied Italian territories. The RSI’s army was the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano or ENR (English: National Republican Army) and its military police corps the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana or GNR (English: National Republican Guard).

These two forces were poorly equipped, apart from some rare exceptions, and had few armored fighting vehicles. The units solved the problem themselves by armoring some vehicles with scrap metal plates. The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ decided to weld some armored plates received from the Arsenale di Torino (English: Turin Arsenal) on some Camionette SPA-Viberti AS43 received from Officine Viberti.

Design

Camionetta FIAT-SPA 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.

Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43 with the waterproof tarpaulin. It is unarmed and has Pirelli Tipo ‘Raiflex’ tires. Source: Le Camionette del Regio Esercito

The AS43 was developed by the Società Piemontese Automobili or SPA (English: Piedmontese Automobile Company), a FIAT subsidiary, and by Officine Viberti, both based in Turin. The project began using the chassis of the FIAT-SPA AS37 (AS for Autocarro Sahariano – Saharian truck) light lorry, itself derived from the FIAT-SPA Trattore Leggero Modello 1937 ‘Libia’ (English: Light Tractor Model 1937) light prime mover.

The SPA-Viberti AS43 was produced from mid-1943 until the 8th September 1943 Armistice. After the German occupation of Northern Italy, the vehicles were examined by the Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen (English: Inspector General of the Armed Forces), which tested the vehicles and considered them positively. The production restarted with some modifications until the end of the war for the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe.

The FIAT-SPA 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 to free up space. The spare wheel was placed on a movable support that the crew could lower to allow the main gun to shoot at 0° elevation. The loading bay’s sides were fixed and could not be lowered, but were wide enough to permit the main gun 360° traverse.

Developed as a desert vehicle, there were two lockers on the sides, between the rear mudguard and the commander and driver’s seats. Each lockers could store five 20 liters jerry cans. Another six could be placed on the mudguards, two for each rear mudguard, and one for each frontal mudguard. This totaled 16 20 liters jerry cans for drinkable water, engine lubricant oil, and fuel. Obviously, given its use mainly in the Italian peninsula, the jerry cans were rarely carried and the side lockers transported ammunition for the main gun.

The SPA-Viberti AS43 prototype with Pirelli Tipo ‘Raiflex’ tires. Source: Italian Tanks and Combat Vehicles of World War II

The main gun of the Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43 was usually a Cannone da 47/32 Modello 1935 or Modello 1939 support gun or a Cannone-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65 Modello 1935 anti-aircraft gun. The vehicle commander was also armed with a Breda Modello 1937 or Modello 1938 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 and commander’s seats.

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.

Poor quality photo of the SPA 18VT engine. Source: Le Camionette del Regio Esercito

The engine was a more powerful version of the one used on FIAT-SPA AS37, the SPA 18VT 4-stroke, 4-cylinder, petrol 4,053 cm³ engine delivering 73 hp (or 75 hp, depending on the source) at 2,000 rpm. This gave a maximum fully-loaded on-road speed of 68.5 km/h. This was a powered version of the FIAT-SPA 18TL 4,053 cm³ engine, which delivered 52 hp at 2,000 rpm on the AS37. The gearbox was the same as on the AS37, with 5 forward and 1 reverse gears.

The fuel tank had a capacity of 120 liters, giving a range of 750 km on road and 1,120 km with the 20 liters cans.

Structure

Officine Viberti in Turin, a company with 1,780 workers, specialized, before the war, in producing bodyworks for Lancia and FIAT trucks. During the war, it also produced some autocannoni for Ansaldo and produced the frames of the Camionette that were produced jointly with SPA.

The SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Sahariana’ and the subsequent ‘Metropolitana’ proved adequate, but the Regio Esercito needed something lighter and cheaper. The Technical Department of the Officine Viberti took the experience gained from the North African Campaign with the Autocarro Sahariano 37 light lorry, the Camionetta AS37 and the Camionetta Desertica Modello 1943 (English: Desert Camionetta Model 1943) in order to design something new.

The FIAT-SPA Autocarro Sahariano 37 during off road trials. Source: Le Camionette del Regio Esercito
A Camionetta Desertica Modello 1943 armed with a Cannone-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65 Modello 1935 and a Breda Modello 1937 machine gun. Source: ladigetto.it

The AS37 frame was taken and lowered from a ground clearance of 390 mm to 345 mm. The cab was totally modified, apart from the hood and the radiator grille. The side doors, the windshield, the roof and the third seat were removed.

Camionette SPA-Viberti AS43s ready for delivery at the SPA Plant. The first one is equipped with Pirelli Tipo ‘Sigillo Verde’ tires, whilst the second one with Tipo ‘Artiglio’. Source: Le Camionette del Regio Esercito

Modifications

The Camionette were probably modified by workers in one of the FIAT plants or workshops in Turin in mid-1944. The armored plates used on the vehicles were donated to the unit by the Arsenale di Torino which, at that time, was responsible for the production of other improvised armored vehicles, such as the SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata and some Lancia 3Ro protected by armored plates and armed with 20 mm automatic cannons.
The official documentation mention that the Arsenale di Torino gave “Four armor sets for Autoprotette” to the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’, so it is logical to suppose that at least four vehicles were converted.

In the book Italia 1943-45 I Blindati di Circostanza della Guerra Civile written by Paolo Crippa, it is mentioned that the vehicles were converted by the Autoparco della GNR in Piacenza. However, it does not seem plausible that the armored plates were sent to Piacenza to modify the vehicles.

The frontal radiator grille and engine hood were left unchanged and unarmored. The armored windshield for the driver, found on the right, could be lowered, while the left front part was protected by an angled armored plate with a spherical support for a medium machine gun.

The sides and rear were also protected by angled armored plates of small thickness, probably enough to stop small arms bullets. These were probably 4.5 mm or a little more in thickness, probably in order not to weigh down the vehicle too much.

There were two slots on each side, one for the commander or driver towards the front and one in the center of the troop transport compartment. There were no armored doors and the crew had to climb over the armored superstructure to get in and out.

The rear was composed of angled armored plates with a spherical mount for a medium machine gun. There was enough space on the rear to keep the spare wheel support unmodified.

The rear of the SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta with a three-tone camouflage scheme. The armored superstructure shape is clearly visible. The vehicle was deprived of 20 liters can supports. The tires were Pirelli Tipo ‘Artiglio’. Source: pinterest.com

The vehicle had no roof. This was a problem in case of rain or if enemy troops threw Molotov cocktails or hand grenades inside the vehicle. The absence of a roof also meant that the soldiers transported could fire from inside, exposing themselves partially outside the vehicle.

On the frontal mudguards, the 20 liters can supports were removed and on top were mounted supports for the 18.8 kg tripods for the machine guns. This allowed the troops to use them on the ground. The rear 2 can supports were removed. On Italian territory, it was not necessary to expand the maximum range of the vehicle.

At the front of the vehicle sat the driver on the right and the commander on the left, who also operated the frontal machine gun. The cargo bay was spacious enough to accommodate two benches for six fully equipped soldiers, three per side, one of which operated the rear machine gun.

Main Armament

The main armament of the SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta was composed of two Breda Modello 1937 medium machine guns.

This gun was developed after the specifications issued by the Ispettorato d’Artiglieria (English: Artillery Inspectorate) in May 1933. Different Italian gun companies started working on the new machine gun. The requirements were a maximum weight of 20 kg, a theoretical rate of fire of 450 rounds per minute and a barrel life of 1,000 rounds. The companies were: Metallurgica Bresciana già Tempini (English: Metallurgica Bresciana formerly Tempini), Società Italiana Ernesto Breda per Costruzioni Meccaniche (English: Italian Ernesto Breda Company for Mechanical Constructions), Ottico Meccanica Italiana (English: Optician Italian Mechanics), and Scotti.

Breda Modello 1937 disassembled. Source: italie1935-45.com

Breda had been working since 1932 on a 7.92 mm machine gun derived from the 13.2 mm Breda Modello 1931 heavy machine gun, which had been adopted by the Italian Regia Marina (English: Royal Navy), but with a horizontal magazine feed. Between 1934 and 1935, the models developed by Breda, Scotti, and Metallurgica Bresciana già Tempini were tested.

The Comitato Superiore Tecnico Armi e Munizioni (English: Superior Technical Committee for Weapons and Ammunition) in Turin issued its verdict in November 1935. The Breda project (now rechambered for the 8 mm cartridge) won. A first order for 2,500 units of the Breda medium machine gun was placed in 1936. After operational evaluation with the units, the weapon was adopted in 1937 as the Mitragliatrice Breda Modello 1937 (English: Breda Model 1937 Machine gun).

The weapon was famous for its robustness and accuracy, despite its annoying tendency to jam if lubrication was insufficient. Its weight was considered too large compared to foreign machine guns of the time. It weighed 19.4 kg and its tripod had a weight of 18.8 kg, making this weapon the heaviest medium machine gun of the Second World War.

The practical rate of fire, which was about 200-250 rounds per minute, was considered a bit low. The machine gun was fed by 20-round rigid strips. After firing, instead of ejecting the spent casings like all firearms, the Breda Mod. 37 reinserted it into the rigid strip to facilitate the recovery of reusable spent casings.

A Mitragliatrice Breda Modello 1937 used by Italian troops in the Eastern Front. Note the 15-strip wooden crate with the 20-round strips. Source: italie1935-45.com

The machine gun shot 8 x 59 mm RB cartridges developed by Breda exclusively for machine guns. The 8 mm Breda had a muzzle velocity between 790 m/s and 800 m/s, depending on the round type. The armor piercing ones penetrated 11 mm of non-ballistic steel angled at 90° at 100 meters.

Breda Model 1937 used by the Marine Infantry. Source: italie1935-45.com

Deployed with infantry battalions and divisional corps machine gun units, the Breda Mod. 37 fought on all fronts during the Second World War. As of October 1939, the Regio Esercito had 17,690 Breda Mod. 37 machine guns and the Milizia per la Difesa Antiaerea Territoriale, or DICAT (English: Militia for Territorial Anti-Aircraft Defense) had 101, while another 11,098 were on order. By June 1942, 25,171 weapons had been delivered and the monthly production capacity of the Breda Mod. 37 reached 1,000 units. In the first half of 1943, 4,000 were delivered. After the Armistice of 8th September 1943, production continued for the Germans, which received 1,300 between 1st October 1943 and 30th September 1944.

Nothing is known about the number of rounds transported by the vehicle. They were probably stored in standard 15-strip wooden crates placed on the floor of the cargo bay, under the wooden benches or in the lockers on the sides.

Operational Use

The exact number of SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta, or AS43 Protetta (English: Protected) produced is unknown, as is their construction date.

At least two different vehicles are recorded through photographic evidence. Photos show that one of the vehicles had the license plate ‘GNR 438’ or ‘GNR 4381’. They were probably produced after 23rd May 1944. They were not spotted in a parade of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ in Turin on that day. Their first appearance was on 25th July 1944, during a parade of the unit in the city of Milan.

The book Italia 1943-45 I Blindati di Circostanza della Guerra Civile, published in July 2014, mentions that the vehicles were assigned to the 1ª Compagnia Arditi Autocarrati (English: 1st Company of Motorized Arditi) that was deployed in Turin, Milan, and the surrounding areas. In the book I Carristi di Mussolini, published in May 2019, Paolo Crippa mentions that the AS43 Autoprotette were used by the 2ª Compagnia Guastatori (English: 2nd Saboteurs Company). It is unclear if this inconsistency between the sources is due to a mistake or new information having become available since publication.

The two companies were created in Montichiari near Brescia on 29th September 1943, with soldiers from the 1ª Divisione Corazzata CC.NN. ‘M’ (English: 1st Black Shirts Armored Division ‘M’, ‘M’ for Mussolini). The unit was renamed after the arrest of Mussolini on 25th July 1943.

In spite of the change of name, the unit remained faithful to Mussolini and Fascism and did not take part in the fighting that broke out against the Germans on 8th September 1943. It surrendered without fighting in the following days, delivering all the equipment to the 2. Fallschirmjäger-Division. On 21st September, the remaining troops, 3 officers and 60 soldiers, were transferred to Montichiari.

On 9th February 1944, the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ moved to Turin with the 1ª Compagnia Arditi Autocarrati commanded by Capitano Aristide Lissa. It was stationed at the Dogliani Barrack in Via Savona 3. The 2ª Compagnia, commanded by Capitano Zerbio, was stationed at the Da Bormida Barrack in Corso Galileo Ferraris.

The companies were involved in dozens of anti-partisan operations in the Turin and Milan areas and protecting convoys on the A4 Highway that connected the two cities.

The first action during which the AS43 Autoprotette probably took part was Operation Köln from 11th to 22nd June 1944, when the two ‘Leonessa’ companies were deployed with an unspecified number and type of vehicles. During this action, Capitano Aristide Lissa was killed and the 1ª Compagnia Arditi Autocarrati was nicknamed ‘Lissa’ in his honor.

In June 1944, the continuous influx of new recruits and the arrival of new vehicles allowed the unit to change its composition. The 1ª Compagnia Arditi Autocarrati ‘Lissa’ was renamed 1ª Compagnia Carri ‘Lissa’ (English: 1st Tank Company) equipped with tanks, the 2ª Compagnia Guastatori was renamed 2ª Compagnia Autoblindo (English: 2nd Armored Car Company) equipped with armored cars and armored personnel carriers, and the 3ª Compagnia Arditi (English: 3rd Arditi Company) was created.

On 25th July 1944, the first anniversary of the fall of Fascism, General Renato Ricci organized a parade in Milan to demonstrate that Fascism was invincible, at least according to him. A delegation of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ was called to parade in the streets of Milan. Some tanks, trucks full of soldiers, and at least one SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta of the unit were present.

They arrived and lined up on the morning of 25th July at Porta Venezia, where Gen. Ricci reviewed the unit and handed it the combat flag. After the ceremony, the delegation of the ‘Leonessa’ along with other units, in total 3,500 soldiers and 275 female auxiliaries, paraded, passing through Piazza del Duomo, where a huge crowd was waiting for them. The civil and military authorities of the city, as well as a delegation of German officers, participated.

A SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta in Piazza del Duomo in Milan during the parade of 25th July 1944. The ‘Leonessa’’s coat of arms is visible on the side. Source: I Carristi di Mussolini

The unit was then deployed in many anti-partisan actions, where the autoprotette were most probably employed. One of these was Operation Straßburg from 5th September to 5th October 1944, in the Lanzo Valley and Susa Valley. An AB41 was knocked out in Viù by some improvised grenades launched by Communist Partisans on 12th September, but the crew survived. On 25th September 1944, in Giaveno, in the Susa Valley, a unit of the 2ª Compagnia Autoblindo, under Major Antonio Braguti’s command was deployed, with two tanks of the ‘M’ series (an M13/40 and an M15/42), 2 L6/40 light reconnaissance tanks, an autoprotetta, and 70 soldiers. The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ was supported by some units of the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani or RAP (English: Anti-Partisan Group) and of the 1ª Brigata Nera ‘Ather Capelli’ (English: 1st Black Brigade) of Turin.

The Partisan presence in the Langhe and Monferrato areas during the Repubblica Partigiana di Alba existence. The arrows show the Axis attack while the purple arrows show the Partisan retreats. Source: wikipedia.com

Some time after, on 10th October 1944, some partisan units liberated the city of Alba, 50 km south of Turin. The Repubblica Partigiana di Alba (English: Partisan Republic of Alba) remained free for 23 days. On 2nd November 1944, units of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana, such as the 2ª Compagnia Autoblindo of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’, the Black Brigades of Turin and Cuneo, the I° Reparto Arditi Ufficiali and a platoon of the II° Reparto Arditi Ufficiali of the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani, the X Battaglione Speciale, and some units of the Xª Divisione MAS, such as the Battaglione ‘Lupo’ and ‘Fulmine’, Gruppi d’artiglieria da Campagna ‘Da Guissano’ and ‘San Giorgio’, attacked the partisans. The Fascist troops counted over 1,000 soldiers and auxiliaries. The Partisan units that defended the city were the IIª Divisione Langhe, the 48ª Brigata Garibaldi ‘Dante Di Nanni’, the 78ª Brigata Garibaldi, Brigata ‘Castellino’, and the Brigata ‘Canale’.

The SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotette probably took part in the recapture of the city of Alba, together with an improvised armored car based on the same chassis of the Battaglione ‘Fulmine’, the SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata. The armored vehicles were probably not used in action due to the impossibility of ferrying armored vehicles across the River Tanaro.

Neither Partisan nor Fascist sources report the use of armored vehicles, which had probably remained on the hills and on the north bank of the Tanaro, providing, if possible, fire support to the Fascist troops. The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ only lost a single wounded soldier, a tank crew member that was hit by splinters from a partisan-manned mortar.

After the recapture of Alba, the unit was used only for escort duties until February 1945. On 21st February 1945, 2 Carri Armati M13/40s, two AB41 medium armored cars, and two autoprotette (model unspecified, but probably the AS43 ones) took part in an anti-partisan operation in Mondonio, near Villanova d’Asti. The unit was supported by the XXIX Battaglione ‘M’, the 1ª Compagnia Ordine Pubblico of the GNR Command in Turin, and a unit of the Xª Divisione MAS. That day was unsuccessful and only one partisan was found and killed.

The Autoprotetta took part in an anti-partisan operation in the Villanova d’Asti region, in March 1945, where the last big clashes between the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ and the Partisans took place.

One of these actions, organized by the commander of the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani, Colonel Alessandro Ruta, started on 6th March 1945. The action was headed by Major Gino Cera of the Compagnia Ordine Pubblico of the GNR. This anti-partisan action had the objective of reoccupying the towns of Cisterna d’Asti and Santo Stefano Roero, captured in the previous days by the partisans that also sabotaged the Genoa to Turin railway.

In Santo Stefano Roero, between 8th and 9th March, a column composed of a platoon of the 1ª Compagnia Carri, with two AB41s and an AS43 Autoprotetta (not clear why it was assigned to this company), two platoons of the 3ª Compagnia Arditi, some units from the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani, about 80 militiamen of the 1ª Brigata Nera ‘Ather Capelli’, a company of the Battaglione Ordine Pubblico (English: Public Order Battalion) of Turin, the Company Arditi Sciatori, and 25 soldiers of the Distaccamento ‘Umberto Cumero’ of the Xª Divisione MAS, a total of about 350 soldiers and auxiliaries, was ambushed by about 1,000 Partisans. The Partisan units were: 6ª Divisione Autonoma Alpina ‘Asti’ with three brigades, Divisione Matteotti ‘Tre Confini’ with five brigades, and 103ª Brigata Garibaldi ‘Rolandino’.

The AB41 commanded by Lieutenant Fossati was the opening vehicle of the column. Behind the armored car was a FIAT 666NM truck with a trailer full of militiamen, followed by the SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta of Lieutenant Berneschi, and then some more trucks full of soldiers and a Lancia Lince scout car of the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani.

The Rimorchio Unificato Viberti da 15t trailer attached to the FIAT 666NM, abandoned on the roadside after the battle. Source: I Carristi di Mussolini

The column was ambushed at the entrance of the city by the Partisan forces. Almost immediately, bullets pierced one of the tires of the armored car of Lt. Fossati, immobilizing it. The truck behind it was hit from the side, with many of the soldiers on board killed. The truck was set on fire.

Lt. Berneschi ordered the driver of the autoprotetta to overtake the stuck AB41 to support the ambushed Fascist soldiers and keep the Partisans occupied with its suppressing fire.

The SPA-Viberti AS43 started to move and open fire but was immediately hit by several light-weapon bursts and also burst into fire. Lieutenant Berneschi then ordered the transported soldiers to exit the AS43 Autoprotetta and continued to open fire with the frontal machine gun.

He probably managed to fire several magazines, and while reloading, he exposed himself. He was hit by some bullets in the chest and died. Lieutenant Fossati was wounded by a ricocheting bullet as he got out of the armored car, trying to repair the pierced tire.

The FIAT 666NM burned out after the battle, abandoned on the roadside. From this angle, the trailer is not visible. Source: I Carristi di Mussolini

The remaining vehicles reached the nearby city of Canale, abandoning the burning FIAT 666NM with its two-axle 15 tonnes trailer, the burning SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta, and the Lancia Lince of the RAP (which was later captured by the Partisans). It is unclear whether the AB41 armored car of Lt. Fossati was able to retreat or whether it was abandoned on the road after the injury of Lt. Fossati. The Partisans were not able to take possession of it. Apart from Lt. Berneschi, the Fascists suffered 3 (another source claimed 8) casualties and many wounded.

In the following day, with the help of some artillery pieces of the RAP which had arrived from Turin, the Fascist forces retreated to Turin, abandoning the ground. In total, the Fascist losses in the 3-days operations were 27 (at least 18 of the 1ª Brigata Nera ‘Ather Capelli’) dead and 32 wounded. Partisan losses were fewer. The funerals took place on 12th March 1945.

A bad-quality photo of the SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta burned out at Santo Stefano Roero. The reason why it was overturned is unknown, but probably took place after the battle. Source: I Carristi di Mussolini

On 23rd March 1945, on the anniversary of the foundation of the first Fascist units in Italy, the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ paraded on the streets of Turin. The Secretary of the Partito Fascista Repubblicano’s, Alessandro Pavolini, participated for the last time.

Some of the surviving light and medium tanks, self-propelled guns, and armored cars of the unit, such as one M14/41, 2 AB41s, one Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43, and the SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta registered GNR 438, which carried a soldier with the unit’s war flag, were at the parade.

The SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta appearing in the 23rd March 1944 parade. The plate GNR 438(1) is partially visible. Source: I Carristi di Mussolini

During the Great Partisan Insurrection of 25th April 1945, the Partisans of the Piemonte region started to attack the city of Turin, where the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ was stationed. The fighting lasted until 27th April, but the operations of the SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotette are not mentioned in official documents. At 1:40 am of 28th April 1945, about 5,000 fascist soldiers and auxiliares met up in Piazza Castello, the main square in Turin, and started the retreat to Lombardia.

The vehicle with the registration plate GNR 438 was captured by the US Army forces in Strambino Romano near Ivrea, 40 km north of Turin, when the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ surrendered to the Allied forces on 5th May 1945.

The vehicles of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ parked in a field in Strambino Romano. Three Carri Armati M15/42s, a Carro Armato M14/41, a Carro Armato M13/40, and an M42 command tank are in the foreground. Behind the last M15/42, on the first row, is the last AS43 Autoprotetta of the unit. Source: I Carristi di Mussolini

Camouflage and Markings

The SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotette were painted in standard Kaki Sahariano Chiaro (English: Light Saharan Khaki) used on all the Italian armored cars and camionette until mid-1943.

Front view of the SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta without a license plate. It was painted in Kaki Sahariano Chiaro monochrome camouflage scheme. The lictorial beam with the red ‘m’ and the acronym GNR are visible on the left fender. Source: Le Camionette del Regio Esercito

The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ coat of arms, an ‘m’ in lowercase italics painted red, which was the symbol of Mussolini was painted on the vehicles. A lictorian beam, the symbol of the Partito Fascista Repubblicano, intersected the ‘m’ transversely, and the acronym GNR was painted in red under it.

The Autoprotette also received the Continentale (English: Continental) three-tone camouflage scheme. It was the standard Italian 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.

Close-up of the AS43 Autoprotetta with three-tone camouflage spotted at the 23rd March 1944 parade in Via Po, Turin. The camouflage scheme with the coat of arms painted on the mudguards and the machine gun tripod fixed above are clearly visible. Source: I Carristi di Mussolini

They had a Kaki Sahariano Chiaro base covered with reddish brown and dark green spots. It was adopted on the Autoprotette after December 1944. The vehicles spotted from 23rd March until April 1945 had this camouflage pattern. During the application of the new camouflage pattern, the coat of arms of the vehicles was not all covered over. The front fenders remained while the sides were covered.

Conclusion

The SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta was an improvised wheeled armored personnel carrier produced by the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana due to the absence of factory-produced armored vehicles. Unfortunately, there is little information about its service and it is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the vehicle.

It proved to be a strong deterrent for the Fascist forces to avoid being ambushed by the partisans during anti-partisan patrols on the narrow mountain streets of Northern Italy.

This was an improvised vehicle specifically developed to counter guerrilla movements only armed with light fire arms that could not damage the vehicle in serious manners.

It was one of the dozens of improvised vehicles produced during the last bloody years of the Second World War when the civil war broke in Italy.

A Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta in monochrome camouflage.
A Camionetta SPA-Viberti Autoprotetta in thre tone camouflage in 1944. Illustrations by the illustrious Godzilla funded by our Patreon Campaign.

SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta Specification

Size (L-W-H): ~ 5 x ~ 2 x ~ 2.5 m
Weight, battle-ready: ~6 tonnes
Crew: 2 (driver and commander/machine gunner) + 6 soldiers
Engine: FIAT-SPA 18VT, patrol, 4-cylinder 4,053 cm³ delivering 73 hp
Speed: ~60 km/h
Range: ~700 km
Armament: two 8 mm Breda Modello 1937 medium machine guns
Armor: light
Production: 2 to 4 converted

Sources

Italia 1943-45 I Blindati di Circostanza della Guerra Civile – Paolo Crippa
I Carristi di Mussolini, Il Gruppo Corazzato “Leonessa” dalla MVSN alla RSI – Paolo Crippa
Le Camionette del Regio Esercito – Enrico Finazzer and Luigi Carretta
… Come il Diamante, I Carristi Italiani 1943-’45 – Marco Nava and Sergio Corbatti
1^ Brigata Nera “Ather Capelli”: Una documentazione – Marco Nava

Categories
WW2 RSI SPA-Viberti AS43

SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata

Italian Social Republic (1944-1945)
Light Armored Car – 1 Converted

The SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata (English: Armored) was an improvised light armored car produced on the Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43 chassis and used by the Battaglione ‘Fulmine’ (English: Battalion) of the Xª Divisione MAS (English: 10th MAS Division) in late-1944 and early-1945.

This unit of the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano or ENR (English: National Republican Army) was active in anti-partisan operations, mainly in Piemonte and Veneto, two regions in northern Italy. Little is known about its service and there were lots of doubts about its chassis.

The SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata during the 29th October 1944 parade in Via Roma, Turin. Source: Le Camionette del Regio Esercito

The Repubblica Sociale Italiana after the Armistice

After the Italian Armistice was announced on 8th September 1943, the Italian Regio Esercito (English: Royal Army) was disbanded, with some soldiers deciding to join the Esercito Cobelligerante Italiano (English: Co-belligerent Army) under Allied control. Others created Italian partisan units, while others swore allegiance to the Germans. Over a million fought against and were captured by the Germans.

Benito Mussolini, Duce of Italy, had been deposed from power on 25th June 1943 and spent some time in an Italian prison. On 12th September 1943, he was freed by a daring mission by a group of German Fallschirmjäger (English: Paratroopers).

Benito Mussolini was then taken to Germany, where he met Adolf Hitler to decide Italy’s destiny. Returning to Italy on 23rd September 1943, he created the Repubblica Sociale Italiana or RSI (English: Italian Social Republic) in northern and central Italy, which had been controlled by the Germans until that moment.

Of the thousands of Italian vehicles captured by the Germans (tanks, armored cars, supply vehicles, artillery pieces, etc.), only a few were returned to the new Italian units loyal to Mussolini. This meant that the units needed to equip themselves with vehicles abandoned by the Regio Esercito troops after the Armistice, that had been damaged before the Armistice, abandoned in military depots, or with civilian trucks requisitioned for military necessities.

The Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano, the heir of the Regio Esercito, received the majority of these vehicles, but there were not enough. In fact, it probably received or retrieved less than 20% of the vehicles necessary to fight and logistics duties.

The Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana or GNR (English: National Repubblica Police), used as a military police and for anti-partisan duties, was equipped with even fewer vehicles. Some units were able to equip themselves with many armored fighting vehicles and trucks, such as the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ (English: Armored Group), which managed to get around 60 tanks, around 20 armored cars, and more than an hundred trucks, cars and motorcycles.

The Corpo Ausiliario delle Squadre d’Azione delle Camicie Nere (English: Auxiliary Corps of the Action Squads of the Black Shirts), an auxiliary corp used almost exclusively to counter partisan actions, was practically not equipped with any armor at all. Of the 56 Black Brigades created, only two received armored vehicles, while the other brigades had to armor some civilian or military trucks in an improvised way in civilian workshops.

The majority of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana’s units were equipped only with military or civilian trucks that they used as transport vehicles or that they armored themselves.

The most famous one was probably the Lancia 3Ro Blindato of the XXXVI° Brigata Nera ‘Natale Piacentini’ (English: 36th Black Brigade) and the Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’.

The Xª Flottiglia MAS (English: 10th MAS Flotilla) was a Motor Torpedo Boat (MAS – Motoscafi Armati Siluranti – Armed Torpedo Motorboats) and nautical saboteurs unit, which had some of the most resounding successes of the Italian Army against the British Navy in the Mediterranean.

Before the Armistice, Frigate Captain Junio Valerio Borghese took command of the unit and, after September 1943, reorganized it into a naval assault infantry corps, equivalent in part to the US Marine Corps. The unit abandoned the saboteurs missions and become a naval infantry division.

The Xª Divisione MAS was equipped with a few vehicles during its service with the Repubblica Sociale Italiana. These were mostly FIAT 626 medium trucks and FIAT 666 heavy trucks, one Carro Armato Leggero L6/40 light tank, one Autocannone da 90/53 su SPA Dovunque 41, and some 75 mm, 100 mm and 105 mm artillery pieces.

Design

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) designated unarmored cars, jeeps, or light trucks used in reconnaissance and infantry support roles.

A column of FIAT-SPA AS37 in North Africa. Source: flickr.com

It was developed by Società Piemontese Automobili or SPA, a FIAT subsidiary, and by Officine Viberti, both based in Turin. The project began using the chassis of the FIAT-SPA AS37 (AS for Autocarro Sahariano – Saharian truck) light lorry, itself derived from the FIAT-SPA Trattore Leggero Modello 1937 ‘Libia’ (English: Light Tractor model 1937 ‘Lybia’).

The SPA-Viberti AS43 prototype with Pirelli Tipo ‘Raiflex’ tires. Source: Italian Tanks and Combat Vehicles of World War II

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.

Camionette SPA-Viberti AS43 ready for delivery at the SPA Plant. The first one is equipped with Pirelli Tipo ‘Sigillo Verde’ tires, the second one with Tipo ‘Artiglio’. Source: Le Camionette del Regio Esercito

Engine and Suspensions

The configuration was all-wheel drive, as on the AS37, but on this new vehicle only the frontal wheels steered, reducing the mechanical complexity and the need for complex maintenance of the four-wheels steering system.

The front wheels had independent coil spring suspension coupled with hydraulic shock absorbers which guaranteed great comfort on rough terrains. The rear wheels had inverse leaf springs, reinforced compared to those of TL37 light prime mover due to increased weight and the need to withstand the stress of recoil from the main gun.

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 the 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 68.5 km/h.

The fuel tank had a capacity of 120 liters, giving a range of 300 km, while the gearbox was the same as on the AS37, with 5 forward and one reverse gears.

Structure

Officine Viberti in Turin, a company with 1,780 workers, specialized, before the war, in producing bodyworks for Lancia and FIAT trucks. During the war, it also produced some autocannoni for Ansaldo and produced the frames of the Camionette that were produced jointly with SPA.

The SPA-Viberti AS42 proved adequate, but the Regio Esercito needed something lighter and cheaper. The Technical Department of the Officine Viberti took the experiences gained from the North African Campaign with the Autocarro Sahariano 37 light lorry, the Camionetta AS37 and the Camionetta Desertica Modello 1943 (English: Desert Camionetta Model 1943) in order to design something new.

A Camionetta Desertica Mod. 43 on the FIAT-SPA AS37 chassis. The tires were Pirelli Tipo ‘Sigillo Verde’. Source: Le Camionette del Regio Esercito

The AS37 frame was taken, lowered from a ground clearance of 390 mm to 345 mm. The cab was totally 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 a tiltable support that the crew could lower to permit 360° traverse to the main gun. The cargo 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, with another six that could be positioned on the mudguards, for 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 used and the crew transported ammunition for the main gun in the side lockers instead.

The main gun could be a Cannone da 47/32 Mod. 1935 or Mod. 1939 support gun or an anti-aircraft Cannone-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65 Modello 1935. The vehicle commander was also armed with a Breda Modello 1937 or Modello 1938 medium machine gun on a support mounted on the left side of the cab, with its ammunition placed in a small rack between the driver’s and commander’s seats.

Another view of the SPA-Viberti AS43 prototype. The jerry cans on the side racks are visible. Source: Italian Tanks and Combat Vehicles of World War II

The SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata

From right to left: an OM Taurus medium truck, the SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata, and a FIAT 508CM of the 2ª Compagnia of the Battaglione ‘Fulmine’ of the 2° Reggimento of the Xª Divisione MAS plus two Solothurn S-18/1000 anti-tank rifles at the front all lined up in Piazza Castello in Turin. Source: I corazzati di circostanza italiani

It is unclear if the SPA-Viberti AS43 truck on which the SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata was based was a new production model recently delivered from the Officine Viberti plant in Turin (where the finished camionette were ready for delivery) or whether the Battaglione ‘Fulmine’ took possession of an AS43 somewhere in Liguria or Piemonte.

The Camionetta was probably modified by workers in one of the FIAT plants or workshops in Turin in mid-1944. The armored plates used on the vehicle were most likely donated to the battalion by the Turin Arsenal which, at that time, was responsible for the production of other improvised armored vehicles.

The original bodywork produced by Officine Viberti was removed and an armored superstructure, part welded, part bolted, was fixed to the chassis. It had an angled hood and an armored radiator grille, while the sides were vertical, apart from the upper part.

On the roof there was a structure for the frontal and rear machine guns, which were mounted in spherical supports, with some loopholes on the sides, probably to permit the crew to see the battlefield and to defend themselves with personal weapons. The structure had a single large hatch or two small hatches on the roof.

The upper hatch was probably used to observe the battlefield or to open fire in anti-aircraft roles. An armored door was probably placed on the rear side to permit the four crew members to easily access and escape from the vehicle.

The driver was placed on the right and had a large hatch in front of him, but not on the sides, meaning he did not have a clear view of the battlefield.

The vehicle’s commander sat on the left and had at his disposal a machine gun on a spherical support in front of him. He had a square hatch on his top. The rest of the crew was positioned behind them, operating the machine guns placed on the structure. For night operations, the two machine gunners had at their disposal a searchlight placed on the center of the structure’s roof. This could be operated manually, exposing the soldier through the upper hatch.

The wheel mudguards were removed and replaced with armored, longer, and different shaped ones. These also covered the sides to better protect the tires from small-arms fire. Inside the frontal mudguards were the unarmored headlights. On the left front mudguard was a rod used by the driver to help drive through narrow mountain streets or to park.

The few photos of this vehicle show that the engine compartment had some hinged maintenance hatches on the hood and that the mudguard’s lateral plates could be opened upwards to change a tire or for suspension maintenance.

The new armored structure increased the weight of the vehicle at the expense of mobility. The engine, due to the increase in weight, was probably under stress, likely creating a series of problems, such as higher fuel consumption, increased wear of mechanical parts, and the need for more maintenance.

According to Paolo Crippa, who interviewed a veteran of the battalion, the armored car’s armor was very light, so much so that the veteran was very critical of its effectiveness in combat.

This could mean that the thickness was very limited, maybe between 4 mm and 6 mm, or that the plates were made of non-ballistic steel and consequently, less resistant, even to the weapons of the Partisans, who were armed with nothing but rifles, a few submachine guns, and the odd machine gun.

The camouflage on the AS43 Blindata was a three-tone ‘Continentale’ camouflage typical of Italian vehicles used on the mainland, composed of a ‘Kaki Sahariano’ (English: Saharian Khaki) background with reddish-brown and dark green spots.

Only a few images of the vehicle exist, but it is clear that it was not based on an AB41 armored car or SPA-Viberti AS42 chassis, as claimed by some sources.

The AB41 and SPA-Viberti AS42 chassis were derived from the same frame, the FIAT-SPA TM40 (Trattore Medio – Medium Tractor), and are too big to be the vehicle seen, with a wheelbase of 3.2 meters compared to the 2.5 meters of the SPA-Viberti AS43 and the AS37.

Another counter to this theory is the engine compartment, positioned at the front on the ‘Fulmine’ armored car. The AB41 and the AS42 had the engine on the rear.

Finally, an armored car like the one seen could only have very limited use because of how the armament was arranged and the shape of its superstructure. It would be logical that, if the ‘Fulmine’ Battalion had recovered an AB41 armored car or a Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS42, it would have immediately put it back into service without this unnecessary modification.

Some sources also hypothesize that the armored body may have been mounted on the SPA-Viberti AS37 chassis, but the AS37 was no longer in production and there is no data on the use of an AS37s by the Xª Divisione MAS or other units of the Italian Social Republic. However, if this were true, it would be impossible to prove.

Armament

The SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata’s main armament was made up of three Breda Modello 1937 medium machine guns. This gas-operated machine gun was developed by Società Italiana Ernesto Breda per Costruzioni Meccaniche in 1937, the same year it was accepted into service.

It was a powerful machine gun adopted by the Regio Esercito as a company or battalion support heavy machine gun. It was the heaviest rifle-caliber machine gun of the Second World War, with a weight of 19.4 kg.

A Breda Modello 1937 with its 18.8 kg tripod. Source: associazionenazionalefantiarresto.it

It had a theoretical rate of fire of 460 rounds per minute, but due to the 20-round feed strip, the loader needed to put in one ammunition feed strip after another. This dropped the practical rate of fire to around 200 rounds per minute when used on a tripod and operated by a machine gun squad. Inside the narrow AS43 Blindata and operated by only one soldier, the effective rate of fire of the machine gun would certainly fall, probably to less than 100 rounds per minute. This however meant that the weapons hardly overheated.

The machine gun shot 8 x 59 mm RB cartridges developed by Breda exclusively for machine guns. The 8 mm Breda had a muzzle velocity between 790 m/s and 800 m/s, depending on the round type. The armor piercing ones penetrated 11 mm of non-ballistic steel angled to 90° at 100 meters. Unfortunately, the quantity of ammunition transported in the vehicle is unknown and would have largely depended on availability.

Operational Use

The vehicle was first spotted during a parade in Turin on 29th October 1944, on the occasion of the delivery of the unit flags. It passed through Via Roma, Turin’s main boulevard, and was then placed in Piazza Castello (former Royal Palace Square), where the Battaglione ‘Fulmine’ was reviewed by some fascist higher-ups and generals who delivered the unit flags.

It was used in Piemonte and Valle d’Aosta, the two Italian regions of the northwest where the Battaglione ‘Fulmine’ and other units of the Xª Divisione MAS were active, patrolling the roads that went from Italy to France and Switzerland. These would have been the only escape routes for German and Italian troops fleeing Italy. The Italian Partisans also knew this and tried to sabotage the supply lines, destroying bridges and occupying cities where there were Fascist headquarters.

Some sailors of the 3° Plotone of an unknown company of the Battaglione ‘Fulmine’ in Locana, Piemonte, on 29th November 1944. Behind them is the SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata. Source: Italia 43-45. Source: I blindati di circostanza della guerra civile

Some days before, on 10th October 1944, some Partisan units liberated the city of Alba, 50 km south of Turin. The Repubblica Partigiana di Alba (English: Partisan Republic of Alba) remained free and autonomous for 23 days. On 2nd November 1944, units of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana, such as the Black Brigades of Turin and Cuneo, the I° Reparto Arditi Ufficiali and a platoon of the II° Reparto Arditi Ufficiali, the X Battaglione Speciale, and some units of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ attacked Alba. Most importantly, the Battaglione ‘Lupo’ and Battaglione ‘Fulmine’, Gruppi d’artiglieria da Campagna ‘Da Guissano’ and Gruppi d’artiglieria da Campagna ‘San Giorgio’ of the Xª Divisione MAS also participated, with a total of over 1,000 soldiers and auxiliaries. The Partisan units that defended the city were the IIª divisione ‘Langhe’, the 48ª Brigata Garibaldi ‘Dante Di Nanni’, the 78ª Brigata Garibaldi, Brigata ‘Castellino’, and the Brigata ‘Canale’. After some hours of fighting the city was reoccupied by the fascist troops.

The SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata was almost surely transported to Alba, even if it was probably not used in action due to the impossibility of ferrying armored vehicles across the Tanaro river.

Neither Partisan nor Fascist sources report the use of armored vehicles, which had remained on the hills and on the north bank of the Tanaro, providing, if possible, fire support to the Fascist troops.

After a valiant defense, Alba was recaptured by fascist forces on 2nd November 1944.

The SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata of the Battaglione ‘Fulmine’, along with a civilian FIAT 1100 car used by the same Xª Divisione MAS unit. Locana, Piemonte, 29th November 1944. Source: I blindati di circostanza della guerra civile

After the actions in Alba, the Xª Divisione MAS was transferred to Veneto and then to Friuli Venezia Giulia to counter the fierce resistance of Tito’s Yugoslav Partisans. The Battaglione ‘Fulmine’ was positioned as a garrison in Sleppe d’Istria, where it fought against the Slovenian IX° Corpus partisans.

According to veteran testimonies, the AS43 Blindata was transferred to Sleppe too, but due to the karst terrain, it saw limited use, if any.

After this point, all traces of this vehicle are lost. The most probable hypothesis about the fate of the vehicle is that it was destroyed during an anti-partisan patrol or that it was destroyed or captured in the last days of clashes between the Xª Divisione MAS and the Yugoslav Partisans in April 1945.

Conclusion

The SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata was one of the dozen improvised vehicles produced by the units of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana during the 17 months of its existence and used to fight against the Partisan brigades and the Allied forces.

The AS43 Blindata was a vehicle that was only suitable for anti-partisan actions, against an enemy with few anti-armor armament, but which would have easily succumbed to any better armed opposition.

The SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata of the Battaglione ‘Fulmine’ in 1944. Illustration by Godzilla.

SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata Specification

Size (L-W-H): ~5 x ~2 x ~2.5 m
Weight, battle-ready: ~6 tonnes
Crew: 3-4 (driver, commander/machine gunner and one or two machine gunners)
Engine: FIAT-SPA 18VT, patrol, 4-cylinder 4,053 cm³ delivering 73 hp
Speed: ~60 km/h
Range: ~700 km
Armament: 3x 8 mm Breda Modello 1937 medium machine guns
Armor: light
Production: one converted

Sources

Italian Tanks and Combat Vehicles of World War II – Ralph A. Riccio
zimmerit.com
I corazzati di circostanza italiani – Nico Sgarlato
Italia 43-45. I blindati di circostanza della guerra civile – Paolo Crippa
Le Camionette del Regio Esercito – Enrico Finazzer and Luigi Carretta

Categories
WW2 RSI SPA-Viberti AS43

Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43

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.

A Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 with a three-tone camouflage scheme and Pirelli Tipo ‘Artiglio’ tires. The vehicle was unarmed because the photo was taken at the Officine Viberti plant. Source: Archivio Viberti

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.

The Autoblinda TL37 in the desert. The front mudguard is damaged. An AB41 is in the background. Source: Archivio Centrale dello Stato

Despite the failure of this project, the Regio Esercito did not lose hope, and a new APC was developed on the chassis of the FIAT-SPA TL37. The S37 Autoprotetto was developed for desert fighting. It was ready in February 1942 and 150 were produced, all delivered to the Italian Occupation Units in Yugoslavia.

In North Africa, there was a development of ‘special’ vehicles by Italian frontline troops, which desperately needed vehicles to support their offensives. This is how some camionette (Italian word for reconnaissance military cars) were born, based on the chassis of the FIAT-SPA AS37, a light lorry developed on the chassis of the FIAT-SPA TL37 ‘Libia’.

These easy-to-modify vehicles were appreciated for their off-road characteristics and sturdiness. In late 1942, the Royal Army started to mass-produce vehicles with similar characteristics and for the same purposes. The first one was the Camionetta Desertica Mod. 1943 (English: Desert Reconnaissance Car Model 1943), of which a dozen were produced and used mainly in the Defense of Rome between 8th and 10th September 1943.

Another vehicle developed was the Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43, produced in 1943 on the AS37 light truck chassis as a cheaper and easier-to-produce vehicle to accompany the bigger and more expensive Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Sahariana’. Even this vehicle, despite being developed for use in North Africa, was never used in that operational theater. It saw use in Italy with the troops of the Royal Army to prevent attacks by paratroopers and Allied landings on the Italian coast.

After the Armistice of 8th September 1943, which led to the occupation of central and northern Italy by the Germans, the few vehicles captured and those produced between 1944 and 1945 were used almost exclusively by the Wehrmacht.

A Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43 in Luftwaffe hands after the Armistice. It has Pirelli Tipo ‘Artiglio’ tires and is armed with a Cannone Scotti-Isotta-Fraschini 20/70 Mod. 1941. Behind it is a FIAT-SPA 38R light lorry. Source: pinterest.com

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.

Design

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.

Another view of the SPA-Viberti AS43 prototype. The jerry cans are visible. Source: Italian Tanks and Combat Vehicles of World War II

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.

Turret

The AS43 armored car’s turret was the Modello 1941 (English: Model 1941) developed and produced by Ansaldo for the L6/40 light reconnaissance tank. The one-man turret had an octagonal shape with two hatches, one for the vehicle’s commander/gunner on the roof and the second one on the back of the turret, used to facilitate the disassembly of the main armament for maintenance. On the sides, the turret had two air intakes, in addition to two slits through which personal weapons could be fired for close defense. The vehicle did not have fans or smoke extractors.

Armor plate scheme of the Modello 1941 turret. Source: pinterest.com

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.

The AB41 turret, showing off the counterweight and the rear hatch, which is open to permit the extraction of the Cannone-Mitragliera da 20/65 Breda Modello 1935. Source: pinterest.com

Armored Superstructure

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.

Photo taken by Officine Viberti technicians at the Officine Viberti plant. The rear sapper tools are not present, but the fuel tank cap is visible. Source: Archivio Viberti

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.

Poor quality photo of the SPA 18VT engine. Source: Le Camionette del Regio Esercito

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.

Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 internal scheme. In front, the radiator and the engine are visible, while at the rear, the ammunition racks, the 120 liter tank and the spare tire are visible. Source: pinterest.com

Main Armament

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 Cannone-Mitragliera da 20/65 Breda Modello 1935 used by Italian troops in the Soviet Union. Source: pinterest.com

Secondary Armament

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.

Gun mantlet. From the left: the Breda Modello 1938 coaxial machine gun, the Cannone-Mitragliera da 20/65 Breda Modello 1935 and the San Giorgio 1x optic. Source: Archivio Ansaldo

Ammunition

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.

Operational Use

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 Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 during the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ parade in Turin on 23rd May 1944. The two AS43s and the AB41 on the right are painted in Kaki Sahariano. The unit’s coat of arms on the far left is clearly visible. Piazza Carlo Felice near Porta Nuova Train Station. Source: mab.forumfree.it
The column of vehicles composed, from the closest one, of an AB41 armored car, two AS43 armored cars, an L6/40 light tank, and two M13/40 medium tanks. They are on parade along Via Roma, from Porta Nuova train station to Piazza Castello. Source: I Carristi di Mussolini, Il Gruppo Corazzato “Leonessa” dalla MVSN alla RSI

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.

The same parade on 23rd May 1944. The first Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 is seen behind a L6/40 and two M13/40s. Partially legible, the license plate is GNR 0151. Piazza Castello, Turin. Source: forum.warthunder.com

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).

A Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 at the Caserma Lamarmora barracks during maintenance. The militiaman on the vehicle’s engine deck has the barrel cleaning rod in his hands. On the turret’s top is what looks like a Breda Mod. 38 dismounted from its support and ready to be cleaned. Behind the armored car is an OM Taurus medium truck on maintenance. Source: wikipedia.org

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.

The only Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 present at the 23rd March 1945 parade in Turin, with the new three-tone camouflage scheme, on the Via Roma. Behind it is a SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta and a FIAT 626NM. Source: pinterest.com

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.

One of the two armored cars dislocated at Val Tellina in late April 1945. Unfortunately, the license plate is unreadable because the author of the photo, Giorgio Pisanò, a former Italian politician and journalist, had to hide the camera roll with the photos and could only develop them a long time after. Source: Giorgio Pisanò

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.

A photo showing part of the Fascist column under partisan fire. Source: Giorgio Pisanò

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.

Civilian FIAT 634N 2nd Series with a Cannone-Mitragliera da 20/65 Breda Modello 1935 on the loading bay, used by the Fascist forces against the partisans at Tirano on 27th April 1945. Source: Giorgio Pisanò

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.

The Autoblinda AS43 captured by the partisans at Tirano waiting in a street in Sondrio together with two Peugeot pick-ups captured from Vichy troops. Source: Italia 43-45. I blindati di circostanza della guerra civile

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).

The captured vehicle in Tirano. The writing “ESERCITO …” is visible on the front. The men in front of the armored cars look like partisans. There is also a man dressed in a suit, maybe the city’s mayor or a citizen that joined the partisans that day. Source: Italia 43-45. I blindati di circostanza della guerra civile

Conclusion

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 Spegiale su SPA-Viberti AS43. Illustrations by the illustrious Godzilla funded by our Patreon Campaign.

Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 Specifications

Total weight, battle ready 5 or 6 tonnes
Crew 3 (driver, loader and commander/gunner)
Propulsion Tipo 18 VT 4-cylinder petrol, 4,053 cm³, 73 hp at 2,600 rpm and 120 liter tank
Speed ~50 km/h
Range ~ 250 km
Armament One Cannone-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65 Mod. 1935 and a 8 mm Breda Mod. 38
Armor 8 mm
Total production From 2 to 6 built

Sources

zimmerit.com
I corazzati di circostanza italiani – Nico Sgarlato
Italia 43-45. I blindati di circostanza della guerra civile – Paolo Crippa
Le Camionette del Regio Esercito – Enrico Finazzer and Luigi Carretta
I Carristi di Mussolini, Il Gruppo Corazzato “Leonessa” dalla MVSN alla RSI – Paolo Crippa
L’Aprile 1945 fra Tirano e Grosio – William Marconi