The Carro Armato M13/40 was the most widely produced Italian tank during the Second World War, with a total of 710 examples produced between early 1940 and mid 1941. It was used mainly by the Italian Regio Esercito (English: Royal Army) in the North African campaign.
After the Italian Armistice of 8th September 1943, some Carri Armati M13/40s remained on the Italian mainland for training or other tasks and were taken over by soldiers of the German Wehrmacht and by Fascist soldiers still loyal to Mussolini. In their hands, these tanks would be deployed against both partisans and the advancing Allied forces.
It is known that at least 11 were used by Repubblica Sociale Italiana or RSI (English: Italian Social Republic) units, along with 14 more medium tanks. Unfortunately, for the other 14 tanks, the sources do not specify which precise model they are, referring to them as ‘Carri M’ (English: Medium Tanks). Based on the Second World War era documents, it is only possible to confirm that they were Carri Armati M13/40s or Carri Armati M14/41s.
Italian Peninsula after the Armistice
After the end of the North African Campaign, Fascism began to lose support among the Italian population, exhausted by the Allied bombings, in crisis due to the embargoes and with most of the men deployed in war. Citizens no longer believed in Benito Mussolini’s promises.
On 10th July 1943, the Allied troops began the invasion of Italy with landings in Sicily. With these landings, even more support was lost by the Fascists, who had failed to organize a defense to protect their own country.
Thanks to the critical situation, the King of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III, along with some Fascist politicians who had lost confidence in Mussolini and his ideology, carried out a coup on 25th June 1943, 15 days after the allies landed in Sicily. Mussolini was arrested and transferred to many places to maintain his position secret from the Italians still loyal to him and from the German secret services.
The same day of Mussolini’s arrest, the King created a new monarchic government with General Marshal Pietro Badoglio as Prime Minister. Almost immediately, Badoglio’s government tried to arrange an armistice with the Allied forces. This Armistice was signed on 3rd September 1943 and made public only at 1942 hrs. on 8th September 1943.
Between 9th and 23rd September, the Germans occupied all the territories under Italian control, capturing over a million of Italian soldiers and killing about 20,000. Thousands of tonnes of military equipment were captured, including 977 Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFVs).
However, some of the Italian soldiers, still loyal to Mussolini, immediately surrendered to the Germans without fighting or joined them against the Yugoslavian partisans in the Balkans and against the Allied troops in the Southern part of the peninsula. In fact, on 3rd September 1943, the Allied troops had disembarked on the Italian Peninsula.
Repubblica Sociale Italiana
On 12th September 1943, Mussolini was freed from his last prison. He had been jailed in a hotel on the Gran Sasso, a 2,912 m high mountain about 120 km from Rome. Thanks to a unit of German Fallschirmjäger (English: Paratroopers) that landed with two Fieseler Fi 156 ‘Storch’ liaison planes, he was freed and left the mountain to go to Munich, Germany.
On 14th September 1943, he met Adolf Hitler in Rastenburg where, for 2 days, they spoke about the future of the northern part of Italy, which was still under German control.
On 17th September 1943, Mussolini spoke for the first time on Radio Munich, saying to the Italian population that he was alive and that a new Fascist government would be created in the part of the Italian peninsula not yet occupied by the Allied forces.
On 23rd September 1943, Mussolini returned to Italy and the Repubblica Sociale Italiana was officially created. In Salò, a small city near Brescia, Lombardia region, many offices and headquarters of the new republic were created. For this reason, in Italy, the Repubblica Sociale Italiana is also known as Repubblica di Salò (English: Salò Republic).
The New Armies
The new Repubblica Sociale Italiana’s army was the new Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano or ENR (English: National Republican Army). This was composed, during its 20 months of existence, of a total of 300,000 soldiers. Mussolini and Hitler had planned to form 25 divisions of which 5 armored divisions and 10 motorized divisions.
During the 20 years of Fascist government in Italy, all the paramilitary and police corps in Italy were substituted with militias: harbor militia, railway militia, etcetera.
After the Armistice, all these militias were united and renamed Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana or GNR (English: National Republican Guard). It was composed of over 140,000 militiamen and soldiers that mostly fought partisan units or as Police duty units in the main cities.
The two armies were supported by the Squadre d’Azione delle Camicie Nere (English: Auxiliary Corps of the Action Squads of the Black Shirts).
The Auxiliary Corps of the Action Squads of the Black Shirts were simply known as the ‘Brigate Nere’ (English: Black Brigades). They were under the control of the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana and were born from the necessity for small units to be located in the small cities of Italy as garrisons to stop partisan formations.
The reason for the constitution of the Black Brigades is to be found mainly in the attempt to preserve the life and property of the republican fascists and to constitute auxiliary units, well rooted in the territory where they operated (most of the members were born and lived in the cities where they operated) and to be used in the fight against the partisans.
During their existence, the Black Brigades were also used to help bigger units in anti-partisan operations, to maintain public order in the cities and to prevent partisan sabotage against sensible targets in the cities.
The Carro Armato M13/40, which, after 14th August 1942, was renamed in official designations into M40, was the first Italian medium tank equipped with the main armament in a rotating turret during the war. It was developed from the Carro Armato M11/39, with which shared many parts of the chassis and the suspension.
The Carro Armato M11/39 was developed in the 1930s with the task of fighting in the Italian mountains. In fact, the Italian High Command in the 1920s and 1930s thought that, in case a second Great War broke out, it would fight like during the first one, in the mountains of northern Italy.
For these reasons, the Carro Armato M11/39 had the 37 mm main armament on the right hand of the frontal hull armored plate and the secondary armament in a rotating one-man turret.
The new Carro Armato M13/40 reversed the gun positions, with a new 47 mm main gun coupled with a coaxial machine gun in the turret, with a depression of -15°, and an elevation of +25° and 2 coupled machine guns in a spherical support on the right side of the casemate.
The armor was 30 mm thick on the front of the casemate, 25 mm on sides and rear and 14 mm roof and floor. The horse-shoe-shaped turret had 40 mm thick armored plates on the gun mantlet and 25 mm on side and rear.
The crew was composed of 4 soldiers. The driver was on the left side of the hull, the machine gunner/radio operator on the right, the loader on the left side of the turret, and the commander/gunner on the right side.
Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano
The new RSI High Command, composed of the new War Minister, Marshal of Italy Rodolfo Graziani, and Chief of General Staff General Gastone Gambara, already Regio Esercito’s generals.
During a private meeting with Adolf Hitler in Rastenburg on 13th October 1943, Marshal Graziani spoke with the German dictator about Italian armored units. The German Generals had no more confidence in the Italians but, thanks to Graziani, Hitler agreed to train the Italian tank crews in Germany and in Italy, but with German instructors.
Three days after, on 16th October, in the same Prussian city, Italian General Secretary of the Ministry of War, Colonel Emilio Canevari, met German General Walther Buhle, Chief of the Army Staff of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), to discuss about Italian armored units.
Incredibly, they planned to train enough Italian crew members at the Panzertruppenschule (English: Tank Troop School) Wünsdorf near Bergen to equip 4 different units (not known if battalions or companies or other types), which would then be assigned to 4 different Italian infantry divisions. They also planned to do this a second time, creating another 4 armored units which would then be assigned to other divisions, and a 9th one to be equipped with German armored fighting vehicles by the end of 1944.
After a brainstorming with the German Heeresgruppe B on 26th October 1943, the Italian High Command ordered the Console (English: Consul) General Alessandro Lusana, commander of the 1ª Divisione Corazzata Camicie Nere ‘M’ (English: 1st Black Shirt Armored Division), also known as the 1ª Divisione Corazzata Legionaria ‘M’ (English: 1st Legionary Armored Division, where ‘M’ stands for Benito Mussolini) to send 268 tank crew members, mechanics and specialists to San Michele, 38 km from Verona. In the letter, the Italian High Command urged Console Generale Lusana to send the soldiers as quickly as possible, and that his men should be in San Michele by 30th October. After this decision, the plan to train Italian crew members in the Panzertruppenschule of Wünsdorf was aborted.
The document for the creation of the school, written by Heeresgruppe B, arrived to Colonel Canavari only on 29th October 1943. In that document, the Germans listed all the Italian personnel that they needed to open the Reparto Addestramento (English: Training Unit) of the Scuola Carristi (English: Tank Crew School) of San Michele. Food, equipment, uniforms, barracks, and canteens would be provided by the Wehrmacht.
In total, 286 soldiers (of 268 planned) of the 1ª Divisione Corazzata Camicie Nere ‘M’ arrived in San Michele from Rome, of which 173 were tank crew members, 15 mechanics and 20 radio operators. The others were officers and specialists with other tasks.
However, it is unclear to which unit the 286 soldiers belonged. In fact, on that date, the 1ª Divisione Corazzata Camicie Nere ‘M’ was already renamed Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ and was transferred to Montichiari, near Brescia, and only the 1st Armored Division’s command had remained in Rome, in the militia’s headquarters at Caserma Mussolini (English: Mussolini Barracks) in Viale Romania.
Between late 1943 and the early weeks of 1944, many other Italian tank crew members arrived in San Michele, while many others were sent to Verona, where a former Regio Esercito tank unit had its headquarters. These men would be used for other training in the future.
The High Command planned to create three companies at the training school: an Armored Car Training Company, a Light Tank Training Company and a Tank Hunter Training Company.
1° Deposito Carristi
On 20th February 1944, the RSI High Command renamed the old 32° Reggimento Fanteria Carrista (English: 32nd Tank Crew Infantry Regiment) of Verona into the 1° Deposito Carristi (English: 1st Tank Crew Depot) in order to replace the old Monarchic names.
In the same document, the High Command ordered the disbanding of the 31° Reggimento Fanteria Carrista (English: 31st Tank Crew Infantry Regiment) of Siena by 29th February 1944. All the soldiers and materiel from the former 31st Regiment were then moved to Verona. However, a Lieutenant Colonel, a Captain, 6 Lieutenants, 41 Second Lieutenants, 17 NCOs and 30 crew members volunteered for the training school of San Michele on 5th February 1944.
After April 1944, the Scuola Carristi of San Michele ceased to exist. Probably all the men and tanks (of which no numbers and models are known) were given to the 1° Deposito Carristi.
The new 1° Deposito Carristi on 14th April 1944 was theoretically composed (unfortunately, lack of documents do not allow us to understand if they were completed or not) of a Depot Command, Logistic office, Administration office and an Enlistment and rookies office, with a total of 14 officers, 16 NCOs and 46 soldiers.
The commander of the 1° Deposito Carristi was, at first, Lieutenant Colonel Enrico dell’Uva but, between March and May 1944, the Lt. Colonel left his position to Lieutenant Colonel Pietro Calini.
On 23rd February, a document was sent from the Ufficio Operazioni e Servizi of the Stato Maggiore dell’Esercito (English: Operations and Services Office of the Army General Staff) to all the Fascist Comandi Militari Regionali (English: Military Regional Commands). This asked them to send all the already trained tank drivers, tank commanders, radio operators and tank mechanics under their command to the 1° Deposito Carristi.
This meant that, in February 1944, the High Command was in such a desperate situation that they had to take all the tank crew members already trained before the Armistice in order to equip the armored units. However, on 28th February 1944 General Gastone Gambara of the Ufficio Operazioni e Servizi of the Stato Maggiore dell’Esercito sent a phonic message to the Comando Militare del Veneto (English: Veneto’s Military Command).
The Italian general ordered the soldiers of the 1° Deposito Carristi to be sent at the Centro Costruzione Grandi Unità (English: Division’s Building Center) of Vercelli to form tank destroyer self-propelled guns companies. In mid May 1944 6 officers and 106 crew members under Captain Giovanni dalla Fontana were sent to the Centro Costruzione Grandi Unità and to be trained and assigned at the 1ª Divisione Bersaglieri ‘Italia’ and to the 2ª Divisione Granatieri ‘Littorio’. Another 4 officers were sent to Sennelager, in Germany but they returned to Verona a month after.
When it was created the 1° Deposito Carristi had in its ranks: 2 Carri Armati M13/40s, 1 Semovente M43 da 105/25 and an unknown number of trucks in various efficiency status.
The 1° Deposito Carristi needed more equipment and sent soldiers to search for equipment in many former Regio Esercito depots, trying to find any kind of abandoned military stuff.
|Military Equipment recovered by the 1° Deposito Carristi|
|Former unit||City||Equipment recovered|
|Bologna||20 tonnes of equipment and a damaged Carro Armato L3 light tank|
|433° Battaglione Carrista||Fidenza||u/k|
|Reggio Emilia||4 Carri M (probably medium tanks), previously sabotaged|
|Centro Addestramento Carristi||Cordenons||10.7 tonnes of equipment including: Renault R35 hull and Somua S35 spare parts|
With this new equipment, in May 1944, the 1° Deposito Carristi had 3 Carri Armati M13/40s and 3 Carri Armati M15/42s. All were non-operational and, on 17th May 1944, Lt. Col. Calini wrote a letter to the 203° Comando Militare Regionale (English: 203rd Military Regional Command) asking for permission to purchase material for repairs, since the production of Italian tanks was under German control after 8th September 1943. The Germans no longer trusted the Italian soldiers and did not share spare parts or armored vehicles with the Italian Repubblica Sociale Italiana.
On 31st May 1944, the 203° Comando Militare Regionale authorized the purchase of resources on the civilian market, but at the same time, ordered that all salvageable material be recovered from the Regio Esercito depots abandoned the previous year in order to save money. Thanks to this “4 Carri Armati M13/40s could be prepared” even if the military command probably meant 4 medium tanks, in fact the 1° Deposito Carristi would never have 4 Carri Armati M13/40s in its ranks.
From a report written on 17th June 1944 by Lieutenant Colonel Amedeo Reggio, the presence of 2 Carri Armati M13/40s and a Carro Armato L3 tank in running condition is confirmed. He also mentioned that those tanks were sometimes used in support of GNR units in the region for anti-partisan operations, but also that, if the War Ministry needed them, the tanks could be made available.
Reggio complained about the lack of fuel and lubricants, which could be bought on the civilian market (but he needed the approval of the Military Command), and for lack of spare parts and specialized mechanics to repair the other tanks. Another serious problem was the lack of ammunition for the tanks, especially for the 47/40 cannons of the Carri Armati M15/42s and for the 105/25 howitzer of the semovente they had.
With the equipment in its ranks the 1° Deposito Carristi was composed of 1° Battaglione Addestramento (English: 1st Training Battalion). It had an unspecified number of training companies, the only known was the 1ª Compagnia Addestramento (English: 1st Training Company) but, due the presence of 3 Compagnia Deposito Carristi (English: Tank Crew Depot Companies) numbered from 4ª to 6ª, it is logical to assume that the training companies were 3 in total, probably a light tanks one, medium tank one and a self-propelled guns one.
In total, on 17th June 1944, the 1° Deposito Carristi had in its depots:
- 1 Semovente M43 da 105/25 – non-operational
- 3 Carri Armati M15/42s – non-operational
- 3 Carri Armati M13/40s – 2 in running condition, 1 non-operational
- 3 Carri Armati L3/35s – 1 in running condition, 2 non-operational
- 1 Carro Armato L6/40 – non-operational
- 1 FIAT 15 TER ¹
- 2 FIAT 18 BLRs ¹
- 1 FIAT 618 ¹
- 2 Ceirano C50s ¹
- 1 FIAT 626 ¹
- 1 Lancia Ro NM ¹
- 1 Lancia 3Ro ¹
- 1 Ceirano 47CM fuel carrier – non-operational
- 1 Ceirano 47CM fire truck – non-operational
- 1 FIAT 508 Spider – running condition
- 1 FIAT 508 Berlina – running condition
- 1 Guzzi 500 Sport 14 motorcycle²
- 1 Bianchi 500 M motorcycle²
- 1 Benelli 500 motor tricycle²
(¹ of these 9 trucks 4 were in running conditions, 5 non-operational, ² of these only one non-operational)
However, Lt. Col. Reggio pointed out that all vehicles in running condition needed repairs or maintenance in order to be 100% operational.
During its existence the 1° Deposito Carristi delivered trained crew members or tank mechanics to various Italian and German armored units, including: the Gruppo Squadroni Corazzati ‘San Giusto’, the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leoncello’, 1ª Divisione Bersaglieri ‘Italia’ and to the 26. Panzer Division.
|1° Deposito Carristi Ranks|
|Data||Officers||Non-Commissioned Officers||Crew members|
|14th April 1944||14||16||46|
|1st May 1944||6||22||245|
|30th May 1944||29||26||85|
The repair of many vehicles was really slow due the fact that many mechanics were enlisted in other armored units and sent to other Italian cities leaving only few well trained mechanics in Verona.
The High Command of the Fascist Army answered on 15 July 1944, accepting all requests of Lt. Col. Reggio. The 203° Comando Militare Regionale was ordered to purchase fuel and parts for vehicle repairs. It was then ordered to give priority to refurbishing the medium tanks and the self-propelled gun.
Two days laters, the Ufficio Operazioni e Addestramento (English: Operations and Training Office) ordered the Ufficio Operazioni e Servizi of the Stato Maggiore dell’Esercito to provide the 1° Deposito Carristi with 1,000 47 mm rounds for the 47 mm L.40 cannons and 100 rounds for the Semovente M43 da 105/25 main gun.
Anyway, on 27th June 1944, 10 days after Lt. Col. Reggio’s report, the High Command ordered the delivery (when operational) of 2 Carri Armati M13/40s with their crews to Sorbolo (near Parma), at the dependencies of the Centro Addestramento Reparti Speciali (English: Special Forces Training Center). 1 Carro Armato M13/40 would be delivered to the Squadrone Autonomo di Cavalleria (English: Autonomous Cavalry Squadron), while the last medium tank (which the Army General Staff called Carro Armato M13/40) would remain at the 1° Deposito Carristi to perfect the training of the crews.
On 31st August 1944, the Army General Staff ordered the disbanding of the 1° Deposito Carristi.
The remaining vehicles were assigned to a newly formed Sezione Carristi (English: Tank Crew Section) of the 27° Deposito Misto Provinciale (English: 27th Provincial Mixed Depot) always in Verona. This unit was equipped, in January 1945 with:
- 10 Carri Armati L3 light tanks
- 3 Carri Armati L6/40 light tanks
- 2 Carri Armati M13/40 medium tanks
- 4 Semoventi L40 da 47/32 SPGs
- 4 Autoblinde AB41 medium reconnaissance armored cars
The Sezione Carristi was composed of 2 officers, 3 NCOs and 4 soldiers. To the 27° Deposito Misto Provinciale was also assigned the workshop of the 1° Deposito Carristi that was particularly effective in reparations and maintenance.
On 1st October 1944 the 1° Deposito Carristi’s workshop and the Deposito C (English: C Depot) of the 27° Deposito Misto Provinciale went to form the Officina Autonoma Carristi (English: Autonomous Tank Crew Workshop) composed of 4 officers, 17 NCOs and 34 soldiers and tank crew members.
Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leoncello’
On 20th September 1944, the Ufficio Operazioni e Servizi of the Stato Maggiore dell’Esercito wrote a report about the spare parts needed for the reparation of tanks. These were significantly less than the ones ordered by Lt. Col. Reggio on 17th June, meaning that the 1° Deposito Carristi had done a great job in the restoration of the tanks, managing to find 4 new guns for the medium tanks and also to repair a serious problem with the electrical system of the self-propelled gun all by himself.
In the same report, the military office suggested to create a Compagnia Autonoma Carri (English: Tank Autonomous Company) with three platoons equipped as follows:
The office also suggested the ranks for this company, with 1 command platoon and 3 tank platoons.
Of these 16 tanks, 8 would be taken from the former 1° Deposito Carristi. Anyway, it is not clear why the office mentioned 5 Carri Armati M13/40s when the 1° Deposito Carristi had only 3 Carri Armati M13/40s and 3 Carri Armati M15/42s. They probably confused the medium tanks models.
On 26th September 1944, Captain Gian Carlo Zuccaro, who had been instructed in previous days by the Army High Command to form the autonomous company, wrote a letter to the 210° Comando Militare Regionale (English: 210th Regional Military Command) of Alessandria, in Piedmont, to deliver its Carro Armato M13/40 for the creation of the Reparto Autonomo Carri (English: Tank Autonomous Unit).
This was done to concentrate all the available tanks under the dependencies of a single unit and not individually with small units scattered throughout the peninsula still in Italo-German hands. From this letter, it is possible to infer that the Compagnia Autonoma Carri’s suggestion was accepted and its theoretical strength was expanded to include multiple tank companies.
Capt. Zuccaro had already been trying for months to create an armored unit for the RSI without the knowledge of the Germans. The cover name he had given the unit, in order to confuse the German authorities, was Battaglione Carri dell’Autodrappello Ministeriale delle Forze Armate (English: Armed Forces’ Ministerial Tank Battalion Unit).
On the same day, Capt. Zuccaro wrote a letter to the 27° Comando Militare Provinciale to deliver the Officina Autonoma (English: Autonomous Workshop) that, at that moment, was being retrained to become a new tank unit. He asked to stop the training and to send all the soldiers and materials to his command.
Whatever Capt. Zuccaro asked in his letters what was done and, after 1st October 1944, the workshop unit was renamed Officina Autonoma Carristi (English: Tank Crew Autonomous Workshop).
The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leoncello’ (English: Armored Group) was created in Polpenazze del Garda near Brescia on 13th September 1944 by Captain Gian Carlo Zuccaro. It had all the tanks that should have been assigned to the Reparto Autonomo Carri, which was never created. It was never deployed in active service apart from a few skirmishes on 24th and 25th April 1945. The personnel of the unit were 6 officers, 9 NCOs, and 38 crew members and soldiers in January 1945, increased to 8 officers, 22 NCOs, and 58 crew members and soldiers on 31th March 1945. The small number of men in the armored unit is explained for one reason: Commander Zuccaro wanted only volunteers in the ‘Leoncello’, and at the same time, these volunteers had to be staunch fascists, loyal to Mussolini and Italy. In many cases, letters from volunteers were rejected the very day they arrived, if Zuccaro did not think the soldiers were adequately fascists. Due to the presence of only volunteers, many soldiers enlisted had not received tank training, many had already fought in other units such as Carabinieri, i.e. military police that never trained or operated with tanks.
Due to the absence of barracks or military buildings in Polpenazze, the crew members and soldiers of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leoncello’ were hosted by the inhabitants of the small city in their houses while the NCOs and officers lived in an abandoned mansion. They rented a depot as their military canteen and holded the armored vehicles in barns or parked along the few civilian cars and trucks on the street sides.
The search for new tanks continued and, on 18th March 1945, the unit was equipped with 1 Semovente M43 da 105/25, 1 Carro Armato M15/42, 4 Carri Armati M13/40s, one Carro Armato L6/40, and 7 Carri Armati L3s. This meant that the unit never reached Zuccaro’s planned ranks of 16 armored vehicles but only reached the ranks of 14 armored vehicles, 3 trucks, 2 staff cars, 2 motorcycles, and some Cannoni-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65 Modello 1935s (English: 20 mm L.65 Breda Automatic Cannons Model 1935). This number is also confirmed by Lieutenant Carlo Sessa in a document dated 16th April 1945.
The Carri Armati M13/40s were assigned to the I Squadrone Carri M (English: 1st M Tanks Squadron) under Lieutenant Carlo Sessa command, the 7 Carri Armati L3 and probably also the Carro Armato L6/40 were assigned to the II Squadrone Carri L (English: 2nd L Tanks Squadron) under Second Lieutenant Lucio Furio Orano while the Carro Armato M15/42, the Semovente M43 da 105/25 together with the unarmored vehicles and the automatic cannons were assigned to the Squadrone Comando (English: Command Squadron) under Lieutenant Giacomo Cossu.
A small section of the unit detached in Milan, in the last days of war also deployed 2 Carri Armati P26/40s. It was the only Italian unit that deployed such a heavy tank.
The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leoncello’, placed in Polpenazze to defend the ministries of the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana trained for the whole duration of its existence awaiting for its deployment against the Allied forces. In fact, Zuccaro wanted to fight the Allied forces that slowly advanced in Italy and refused many times the deployment of the ‘Leoncello’ in anti-partisan operations. The trainings with mixed vehicles were hold in the hills near Polpenazze and probably in the nearby Lonigo where the Germans had placed the Panzer-Ausbildungs-Abteilung Süd (English: Tank Training Division South) created to train the German soldiers to operate on Italian vehicles.
On 23rd April 1945, the Armored Group ‘Leoncello’ received an order from General Graziani to reach Monza, where many ministries of the Fascist government were placed after the Allied advance along the Italian peninsula.
Capt. Zuccaro organized the unit for the march and, on the morning of 24th April, departed with his own staff car, a Bianchi S6 armed with four heavy machine guns, to plan the road trip to reach Monza. While his car was moving toward Milan with 2 Carri Armati L3s, he was attacked first by a US reconnaissance unit near Sant’Eufemia della Fonte and then by a US plane (a North American P51 or a Lockheed P38) in the city of Rovato. The plane damaged and forced Zuccaro to abandon a light tank but was itself shot down by the anti-aircraft fire from Zuccaro’s car.
Cap. Zuccaro was then forced to continue by foot the march and met an US tank column near Palazzo sull’Oglio. An Italo-American US soldier on a Willy MB Jeep asked him for road information and Zuccaro got into the jeep in which he arrived in Palazzolo from where he then reached Milan alone.
Part of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leoncello’ left Polpenazze on the night of 24th April to avoid air attacks. It had the new task of reaching Milan (which was being liberated by the partisans in those hours) with 5 medium tanks, the self-propelled gun and 3 Carri Armati L3 light tanks towed by the medium tanks to save fuel. At least 2 Carri Armati L3s, the only Carro Armato L6/40 of the unit and the Officina Autonoma Carristi remained in Polpenazze.
The tragi-comic story of the column started during the march, when one of the medium tank drivers felt sick and lost control of the vehicle, which skidded and ended up in a small canal on the roadside. The unit had to stop and tow it outside the canal, and when the tank was recovered, the march was restarted.
After a while, one of the iron chains connecting a Carro Armato M13/40 with the Carro Armato L3 it was towing broke, and the light tank fell off a small bridge, probably in the same canal as before. The driver (the only soldier inside the tank at the time) survived, jumping outside the tank a few seconds before the crash.
Near Chiari, meanwhile, some Germans were loading some train wagons with stolen stuff of all kinds. The tanks of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leoncello’ arrived when the Germans were departing. The commander of the Italian column, Lieutenant Carlo Sessa, threatened the Germans that they would open fire if they did not return everything to the civilians. The Germans unloaded everything and left for Germany on the train. Lt. Sessa allowed his men to take some packages of linen and sheets that could have been useful in the following days. The packages were loaded onto the engine decks of the medium tanks. After that, the tanks restarted the march.
Near Rovato, the column was attacked by some Allied planes. It is known that at least oneM13/40 was damaged by the attack and probably also the last two 2 Carri Armati L3 tanks, which were, in fact, abandoned. The crew of the Carro Armato M13/40 tried desperately to repair their tank to join the rest of the ‘Leoncello’. It seems that the other tanks were not damaged because the majority of the bullets fired by the Allied planes hit the linen and sheet packages being carried on the engine decks.
Arriving at Cernusco sul Naviglio, Lt. Sessa called the Milan headquarters from a public phone to receive orders. The Milan command informed him of the situation and suggested that he contact the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale or CLN (English: National Liberation Committee), the partisan command, to surrender.
Lieutenant Sessa contacted former Alpini Major Lucioni, commander of the Partisan forces in Cernusco and the surrender was made official. All the Fascist soldiers of the column received civilian clothes by the Partisans and were free to return to their homes apart from Sessa who was arrested.
The damaged Carro Armato M13/40 tank that was abandoned was then repaired in a few hours and restarted the march. On board there was also the driver of the Carro Armato L3 light tank that had fallen some hours before in the canal. Near Chari, it was attacked by a US plane; to avoid destruction, the driver hid under some trees at the side of the road and the aircraft gave up the attack.
After a few kilometers the engine broke again and the crew understood that they could not repair it for lack of parts and waited for other Axis units. Nothing happened on 25th April 1945, but at dawn on 26th April, some farmers informed the crew that the war in Italy was over. The crew split up and each soldier went his own way. Some of them reached Polpenazze and informed the soldiers remaining in the city of the situation and together went to the CLN of the city to peacefully surrender and deliver their weapons and tanks to the Partisans.
Gruppo Squadroni Corazzati ‘San Giusto’
The Gruppo Squadroni Corazzati ‘San Giusto’ (English: Armored Squadrons Group) was born in January 1934 as the 1° Gruppo Carri Veloci ‘San Giusto’ (English: 1st Fast Tank Group) in Parma with cavalrymen of the former 1° Gruppo Squadroni a Cavallo (English: 1st Horse-Mounted Squadrons Group) from the 19° Reggimento ‘Cavalleggeri Guide’ (English: 19th Regiment).
It was composed of three gruppi carri veloci (English: fast tank groups), later renamed gruppi carri L (English: light tank groups) and some cavalry squadrons.
In 1941, it was deployed with Carri Armati L3/33s and Carri Armati L3/35s during the Yugoslavian Campaign and remained in the Balkans with anti-partisan tasks until 8th September 1943. When the news of the Armistice arrived at the unit, it had a headquarters, a Squadrone Comando (English: Command Squadron) and Squadroni Carri L (English: Light Tank Squadrons). All were equipped with Carri Armati L3 light tanks.
The majority of the unit disbanded in the days after the Armistice, apart from the 2° Squadrone Carri L (English: 2nd L Tanks Squadron) under the command of Captain Agostino Tonegutti. On 9th September 1943, with its soldiers and 15 light tanks (of which 4 found abandoned during the march), it reached Rijeka from Susak and Crikvenica. Arriving in the city, they helped to stop the Yugoslavian Partisan attack that was besieging the city for days.
Tonegutti’s unit remained in Rijeka until February 1944, when the German command ordered him to reach Gorizia, also near the Yugoslavian border. The Germans provided the unit with Italian soldiers (some from the 1° Deposito Carristi of Verona) and armored vehicles. In Gorizia, they received another 80 soldiers and the 1° Gruppo Carri L ‘San Giusto’ had the following armored vehicles:
- 13 Carri Armati L3/33 and Carri Armati L3/35
- 2 Carri Armati L3/35 Lanciafiamme (Flamethrower)
- 1 Carro Armato L3 Comando
- 2 Carri Armati M13/40
- 3 Carri Armati M14/41
- 1 Semovente M41 da 75/18
- 2 Semoventi M42 da 75/18
- 1 Semovente M42M da 75/34
- 2 Semoventi L40 da 47/32
- 4 Autoblindo AB41
- 3 FIAT 665NM Scudati
- 2 FIAT-SPA S37 Autoprotetti
- 1 Renault ADR Blindato armed with a flamethrower
These were all the armored vehicles the unit had during its operational life. Never were they all operational all at once.
Thanks to the new vehicles, it was renamed Gruppo Squadroni Corazzati ‘San Giusto’ and organized into three squadrons:
The unit had at its disposal a total of 8 officers, 23 NCOs, and 80 soldiers, while in late 1944 the ranks were increased to 100-130 soldiers and 8 officers. In early 1945, due to about 20 losses, the unit remained with 6 officers. It was under the command of the German Befehlshaber in der Operationszone Adriatisches Küstenland (English: Commander in the Adriatic Coast Operational Zone), General Ludwig Kübler, even if it theoretically remained under Italian orders. In fact, it was the only armored cavalry unit of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana. During the reorganization of late 1944 the unit recovered from various sources 4 FIAT-SPA 38R light lorries, 1 FIAT 621P 3-axle medium truck, 2 SPA Dovunque 35 heavy duty trucks, 2 FIAT 666NM heavy duty trucks, 3 SPA mountain light lorries, and some staff cars.
The Germans usually called it the Italienische Panzer-Schwadron “Tonegutti” (English: Italian Armored Squadron) even after its renaming in Gruppo Squadroni Corazzati ‘San Giusto’. The German designation clearly refers to the Italian as a squadron, in fact it was a company-sized (or squadron-sized in Italian cavalry nomenclature) force that maintained the squadrons group designation for its military traditions.
In Gorizia the unit was rarely deployed and its mechanics repaired many vehicles to bring them on marching conditions and maintained 2 Littorine Blindate armored locomotives that were not assigned to the unit.
In April 1944, the Gruppo Squadroni Corazzati ‘San Giusto’ moved to Merano del Friuli, 12 km from Goriza and on the Udine – Monfalcone – Trieste main road abandoning in Gorizia the Renault R35 and the armored truck armed with flamethrower due the lack of spare parts for the first and probably for continuous maintenance needed by the armored truck.
In Merano del Friuli Gruppo Squadroni Corazzati ‘San Giusto’ was first trained reaching fully operable capabilities and then deployed in active service to protect the main road from partisan ambushes, escorting the military supply convoys and in anti-partisan operations near the Gorizia countryside, in Friuli Venezia Giulia’s east part. On some occasions, some units were employed for the protection of isolated guarrisons, bridges, or military depots.
The bloodiest fighting in which the unit took part was the one in Dobraule di Santa Croce, on the road between Gorizia and Aidussina, in the Vipacco Valley, on 31st May 1944.
During the escort of a military convoy, the unit was attacked by partisans and lost 1 Carro Armato M14/41, 2 Autoblinde AB41 medium reconnaissance armored cars, and two FIAT 665NM Scudati, even if the loss of life was more constrained, with only 3 deaths.
On 21st January 1945, a section of medium tanks broke the Yugoslavian encirclement to the Battaglione ‘Fulmine’ of the Xª Divisione MAS (English: 10th MAS Division) in Tarnova. On 17th January, three medium tanks were transferred to the area between Rijeka and Postumia to support the German forces that tried to fill the gaps in the Axis defensive line.
On 28th March 1945 General Archimede Mischi wrote a report on the unit that he had passed in review 6 days before. In his reports he claimed a total of 137 soldiers in the ranks of the unit. A report dated 8th April 1945 has a full list of all the armored vehicles of the unit. Some of these were likely under repair and were not operational at the time.
- 16 Carri Armati L3/33s and Carri Armati L3/35s (probably the same of February 1944)
- 4 Carri Armati M13/40s and Carri Armati M14/41s
- 1 Semovente M41 da 75/18
- 2 Semoventi M42 da 75/18s
- 1 Semovente M42M da 75/34
- 2 Semoventi L40 da 47/32s
- 2 Autoblindo AB41s
In mid April 1945, the situation for the Nazi-Fascist troops in the Balkans was becoming disperate and the Germans called the Italienische Panzer-Schwadron “Tonegutti” for support.
In total, 8 Carri Armati L3s, 3 Carri Armati M (Carri Armati M13/40s and Carri Armati M14/41s) and 2 Semoventi M42 da 75/18s with 4 officers (with Tonegutti himself), 56 NCOs, and soldiers were sent to Ruppa (nowadays Rupa in Croatia), about 50 km Southeast of Triest on railway. Their mission was to protect the city from the 4th Yugoslavian Army. From 18th April to 23th April 1945 the vehicles were deployed in patrol actions and many were attacked by Allied planes but without losses.
On 24th April, while the column was moving from Fontana del Conte (nowadays Knežak in Slovenia) to Massun, North of Ruppa, a Carro Armato L3 tank drove over an anti-tank mine which exploded and killed the crew and another light tank fell in a canal. The explosion attracted the attention of the Yugoslavs, who attacked the column with mortar fire and bursts of small arms fire. Under heavy fire, the remaining tanks were forced to retreat from the area while the semoventi shooted the majority of their 75 mm ammunition trying to slow down the partisans.
On the evening of 25th April 1945, the ‘San Giusto’ unit that had been sent to Ruppa had lost 3 Carri Armati L3 tanks, 2 to mines, and 1 to mortar shells. Another Carro Armato L3 was damaged by machine gun fire, while a medium tank and a self-propelled gun were damaged by air attacks.
Given the desperate situation and the impossibility of slowing down the Yugoslav partisans, the unit sent to Ruppa departed on 27th April 1945 first to Trieste and then to Mariano del Friuli, where the rest of the unit was headquartered.
They arrived in the city only on 28th April morning, discovering that the rest of the unit had peacefully surrendered to the partisans the day before and that the partisans had used some Carri Armati L3 tanks and an Autoblinda AB41 (the only operational vehicles that had remained in the barracks) against the German forces in Cividale del Friuli.
The still-equipped forces arrived from Ruppa then decided to disband, abandoning their tanks on the road on the same day.
Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani
The Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani or RAP (English: Anti Partisan Group) was created in August 1944 as an anti-partisan unit. Its main task was to counter partisan actions and to patrol the areas where the partisans concentrated.
It was created in Brescia, where it received 2 Carri Armati M13/40s. These were the two tanks of the 1° Deposito Carristi destined for the Centro Addestramento Reparti Speciali on 27th June 1944. 8 of the 13 tank crew officers of the RAP were from the already disbanded 1° Deposito Carristi of Verona.
After the organization of the unit, it left Brescia and was deployed in Turin, where it was headquartered in many barracks of the city.
In November 1944 the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani was composed of:
The Reparto Autonomo di Cavalleria (English: Cavalry Autonomous Department) was created in Bergamo and was composed of soldiers and crew members of various ENR units. The unit slowly phagocytes all the units of the Gruppo Esplorante (English: Exploring Group), where the armored vehicles were deployed. It was transferred in Turin in November 1944 and was headquartered in the Scuola di Applicazione (English: Training School) in Via Arsenale.
The 1a Compagnia Carri M had in its ranks 1 Carro Armato M13/40 medium tank received by the 1° Deposito Carristi. The 2a Compagnia Carri L was equipped with 10 Carri Armati Leggeri L3.
The commander of the 1a Compagnia Carri M was Lieutenant Ascanio Caradonna. Of the about 20 officers of the unit, 12 were trained in an unknown German Panzertruppenschule (English: Armored Troops School) and, for that reason, were praized in December 1944 by Oberleutnant (English: Senior Lieutenant) Glaser for their training.
Between November 1944 and January 1945 the 1a Compagnia Carri M was disbanded for the lack of medium tanks and the 2a Compagnia Carri L was renamed 1a Compagnia Carri L.
In December 1944 the RAP wrote to the German Aufstellungsstab Süd (English: Positioning Staff South) asking for the delivery of Italian armored vehicles.
After an inspection from Oberleutnant Glaser that after praized the crew members positively reviewed the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani, the Aufstellungsstab Süd delivered to the Italian unit some Italian armored vehicles.
The Germans put at the disposal of the unit some tanks abandoned at the Deposito di Caselle (English: Caselle’s Depot) in Caselle, near Turin.
The Germans would have had to spend too much time repairing them, so they donated them to the RAP, who could try to repair some and use the others for parts. The tanks that were made available by the Germans for the unit were:
- 7 Carri Armati L3
- 1 Carro Armato M13/40
- 2 Semoventi L40 da 47/32
- 1 Autoblindo AB41
- 2 Semoventi da 75/18 (exact model unknown)
All the vehicles were in bad conditions and necessitated to be heavily overhauled to return to combat valuable status.
On 10th January the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani had 6 serviceable Carri Armati L3 and 8 vehicles.
On 30th January 1945, the armored company was composed of 21 officers, 2 NCOs, 24 soldiers, and 5 female auxiliaries. On 5th April 1945, there were 16 officers, 5 NCOs, 27 soldiers, and 1 female auxiliary. The other soldiers were missing in action or had deserted.
Some of the vehicles delivered by the Germans were repaired and pressed into service with the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani. On 25th February 1945, in a report from the National Republican Army General Staff, the following vehicles were listed as in service with the RAP:
- 1 Autoblindo AB41
- 17 Carri Armati L3 (of which 7 under repair)
- 1 Carro Armato L6/40
- 2 Carri Armati M13/40
However, it seems that the Carro Armato L6/40 would have been a Semovente L40 da 47/32 that was wrongly identified, as some photographic sources reveal.
On the same document, the National Republican Army General Staff ordered the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani to deliver all its medium tanks and the Autoblindo AB41 to the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’, while the ‘Leonessa’ had to deliver all its light tanks to the RAP.
This was done to concentrate all the medium tanks and self-propelled guns in a single bigger unit able to fight against Allied forces, while the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani was created to fight the badly equipped partisans which were only equipped with light and obsolete vehicles.
It seems that the delivery was started before the Great Partisan Uprising of late April 1945. In fact, on 6th March 1945, the partisans captured a Lancia Lince scout car during an ambush near Cisterna d’Asti, a small city near Turin. This small scout car was deployed by the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani even if it was formerly a ‘Leonessa’ vehicle.
Anyway, the transfer was never finished. In fact, on 23rd March 1945, the AB41 armored car was still in the ranks of the RAP. On 28th April 1945, when the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani left Turin, it abandoned many of its tanks in its barracks, of which at least one was a Carro Armato M13/40.
However, during an unknown period, in order to allow the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani crews to receive adequate training, the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ assigned some of its tank crew officers to the RAP. One of these officers was put in charge of the Carro Armato M13/40 given his extensive previous experience. The only serviceable Carro Armato M13/40’s story is unknown, as is its fate.
Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana
Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’
The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ was the biggest and best equipped unit of the entire Repubblica Sociale Italiana.
It was created from officers and soldiers (the majority of them tank crew members) from the disbanded 1ª Divisione Corazzata Legionaria ‘M’. After the Armistice, on 21st September 1943, the Division created the new armored group in the Caserma Mussolini of Rome. They had already been disarmed by the German 2. Fallschirmjäger-Division ‘Ramke’ (English: 2nd Paratrooper Division) on 12th or 13th September in Tivoli, near Rome.
The soldiers put back the Fascist insignia on the lapel of the uniform (removed after the arrest of Mussolini on 25th July 1943) and tried to find new military equipment. They found 2 Carri Armati M13/40 and some lorries abandoned after 10th September in the Forte Tiburtino fortress, the headquarters of the former 4º Reggimento Fanteria Carrista (English: 4th Tank Crew Infantry Regiment). The 2 tanks were from the 3° Reggimento Fanteria Carrista (English: 3rd Tank Crew Infantry Regiment) that arrived in Rome shortly before the armistice to equip the IX Battaglione Carri M under creation.
On 17th September 1943, Lieutenant General Renzo Montagna, the former commander of the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale or MVSN (English: Voluntary Militia for National Security) was put in charge. The former 1ª Divisione Corazzata Legionaria ‘M’ was part of the MVSN before the Armistice, so returned under its control.
Lt. Gen. Montagna mentioned in a letter that the units under his control had recovered a total of about 40 medium tanks and dozens of other vehicles in the streets of Rome. This not seems an exaggerated number, in fact before the armistice, in Summer 1943 the 4º Reggimento Fanteria Carrista alone had at its disposal 31 tanks (probably all Carri Armati M), 11 semoventi and 20 camionette of which the majority deployed during the disparate defense of Rome.
The 2 medium tanks were immediately reused after an order of Lt. Gen. Montagna. They were to guard the Piazza Colonna, were the Ente Italiano per le Audizioni Radiofoniche or EIAR (English: Italian Body for Radio Broadcasting) and the Partito Fascista Repubblicano or PFR (English: Republican Fascist Party) were headquartered in Palazzo Wedekind.
On 29th September, the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ was transferred to Montichiari, near Brescia, with the few armored vehicles that it had recovered in Rome. The command of the former 1ª Divisione Corazzata Legionaria ‘M’ remained in Rome until November 1943 and then joined a small group of officers who prepared the new headquarters in Rovato, near Brescia.
The unit started to reorganize and a lot of new volunteers joined the unit. Among these were also 5 officers that were part of the 132ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Ariete’ (English: 132nd Armored Division) before the Armistice, two of them already decorated with medals for bravery.
The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ was able to create 3 companies. However, the armored ones were almost immediately disbanded due to the scarcity of armored vehicles in the unit’s ranks.
On 8th December 1943, due to the few tanks present in the unit’s ranks, the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale High Command planned to transform the unit into a public order company. After a fierce resistance of the officers to maintain the status of armored unit, General Renato Ricci, the new commander of the MVSN, amazed by the tenacity of the officers of the ‘Leonessa’ ,granted the unit two months to reorganize and find armored vehicles to use.
The officer in command of the armored group, Lieutenant Colonel Priamo Switch, ordered some officers to recover as many armored vehicles as possible from anywhere on the RSI territories.
The most successful officers were Tenant Giovanni Ferraris and Tenant Loffredo Loffredi who, in less than two months, found dozens of tanks, armored cars, trucks and other equipment in Bologna, Brescia, Milano, Siena, Torino, Vercelli and Verona.
Some tanks were found in the 32° Reggimento Fanteria Carrista (English: 32th Tank Crew Infantry Regiment) barracks and depots in Verona, thanks to the suggestions of former 32° Reggimento Fanteria Carrista members that joined the unit. Spare parts were taken from the depots of the Breda factory in Turin (which produced only spare parts), as Tenant Ferraris had some friends among the factory managers.
Everything that was found was sent to Montichiari, where the workshop of the unit commanded by Lieutenant Soncini and Lieutenant Dante, supported by civilians and workers from a nearby factory of the Officine Meccaniche or OM (English: Mechanic Workshops), repaired them. They were able to repair dozens of vehicles: motorbikes, staff cars, trucks, armored cars and tanks, allowing the unit to remain an armored group.
On 9th February 1944, Gen. Ricci arrived in Brescia to participate in the ceremony for the official Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ loyalty oath. After the ceremony, all the running condition vehicles of the unit paraded through the streets of Brescia. At least one was a Carro Armato M13/40 of the 1st series.
On 1st March 1944, the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ moved to Turin with the 1ª Compagnia Arditi Autocarrata (English: 1st Motorized Arditi Company), the 2ª Compagnia Guastatori (English: 2nd Saboteurs Company) and the 3ª Compagnia (English: 3rd Company). The moving was complete on 5th March and the group was headquartered in three different Turin barracks: the Caserma Alessandro La Marmora in Via Asti, the Caserma Vittorio Dabormida in Corso Stupinigi, Caserma Luigi Riva of Via Cernaia the and Caserma Podgora in Piazza Carlo Emanuele.
The 1ª Compagnia Arditi Autocarrata was deployed in the Caserma Luigi Riva, headquarter of the 1ª Brigata Nera ‘Ather Capelli’, while the 2ª Compagnia Guastatori was deployed in the Caserma Podgora.
The majority of the armored vehicles of the unit (unfortunately, there is no data to say how many there were) were deployed with the 2ª Compagnia Guastatori, even if it seems that the tanks were not assigned to the companies.
From Second World War-era documents about the operations of ‘Leonessa’, it is known that the armored vehicles were not assigned to a particular company but that they were essentially assigned to a company before the start of a mission. Obviously, the more dangerous the mission, the more armored vehicles were assigned to the company.
Together with the tanks, the crews were also assigned at the mission’s start. In fact, the armored group’s command decided to maintain the same soldiers for each tank as long as possible in order to create cohesion between the various members of the crew. More importantly, in this way, the driver knew all the characteristics of his vehicle and knew how best to repair it.
A group of veterans of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ wrote a list of all the vehicles of the armored group in the book Gruppo Corazzato Leonessa 1943–1945 – RSI. They did not specify if this is the list of vehicles in service at a certain data of the armored group’s life or if this is the full list of vehicles that the armored group had in service during its 20-month long service.
- 35 Carri Armati M (M13/40, M14/41, M15/42, and at least 2 M42 command tanks)
- 5 Semoventi L40 da 47/32s
- 1 Carro Armato L6/40
- 16 Carri Armati L3s
- 18 Autoblinde AB41s and Autoblinde AB43s
- 1 Dingo Scout Car (actually a Lancia Lince scout car, the Italian copy of the Dingo)
- 10 Autoblinde Tipo ‘Zerbino’ (improvised vehicles, unknown models)
- 3 Autoprotette Pesanti (improvised vehicles, unknown models)
- 4 Autoprotette Leggere (improvised vehicles, unknown models)
- 8 Autoblindo S40 and S26 (improvised vehicles, unknown models)
- 60 Lancia 3Ro heavy duty trucks
- 5 SPA Dovunque 41 heavy duty trucks
- 12 FIAT 634N heavy duty trucks
- 13 FIAT 666 heavy duty trucks
- 25 FIAT 626 medium trucks
- 10 OM Taurus medium trucks
- 4 Bianchi Miles medium trucks
- 9 FIAT-SPA 38R light trucks
- 8 FIAT-SPA TL37 light prime movers
- 48 Staff and civilian cars
- 60 Motorcycles
- 8 Mobile kitchens
- 2 Mobile workshops
- 4 Cannoni da 75/27 Modello 1911s
The only original list of vehicles in service with the armored group was written on 25th February 1945 in a document of the National Republican Army General Staff. It states that the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ had in its ranks:
- 10 Carri Armati M15/42s
- 10 Carri Armati M13/40s and Carri Armati M14/41s
- Unknown number of Carri Armati M13/40s and Carri Armati M14/41s under repair
- 12 Autoblinde
- 30 Motorcycles
This is surely an incomplete list that does not mention all the trucks in service with the armored group, but allows to understand the number of losses that the partisans inflicted on the Fascist forces.
The first anti-partisan action of the unit was on 21st March 1944, when it participated with a medium tank and an Autoblindo AB41 armored car that were temporarily assigned to the Füsilier-Bataillon 29 “Debica” (English: 29th Rifle Battalion) of the 29. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS “Italia” (English: 29th Grenadier Division of the SS) with about 500 soldiers under German SS General Peter Hansen.
The armored vehicles were deployed in the Lucerna Valley, where Italian communist partisans of the IV Brigata ‘Pisacane’ (English: 4th Brigade) were active. During a patrol, the vehicles were divided from the rest of the SS soldiers due to a landslide caused by the explosion of a partisan mine. The partisans then started to throw hand grenades and Molotov cocktails on the medium tank and the Autoblindo AB41. The Autoblindo AB41, hit by a hand grenade, fell off the road into a nearby river, killing the three crew members inside, while another 4 soldiers and an NCO were captured.
To celebrate its service in the Piedmontese capital city, on 23rd May 1944, a parade was organized by the High Command of Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ and the city’s mayor.
The parade counted 9 Carri Armati L3s, 1 Carro Armato L6/40, 2 Autoblinde AB41s, 2 Carrozzerie Speciali su SPA-Viberti AS43s, 2 Carri Armati M13/40s, another medium tank and some trucks. It departed from the Porta Nuova train station, passed through Piazza Carlo Felice, Via Roma and then arrived in Piazza Castello, Turin’s main square.
From Piazza Castello, the armored vehicles and trucks full of militia men turned back to Porta Nuova, from which the column disbanded and the troops returned to their barracks.
On 28th May, just returned from an anti-partisan operation in which 33 partisans and 3 former prisoners of war escaped from a military camp were captured, the ‘Leonessa’ was deployed in Operation Hamburg that took place in Biella, Caluso Cavaglia, Chatillon, Dondena, Gressoney, Rivara, and Ronco.
In total, two tanks and two armored cars (models unknown) and a company-strength unit of the ‘Leonessa’ were deployed. Together with the armored group soldiers were other units: the GNR from Vercelli, from other Turin units, a company of the GNR border police, a unit from the Legione Autonoma Mobile ‘Ettore Muti’ (English: Mobile Autonomous Legion) and some German soldiers.
In June 1944, the unit was reorganized with the 1ª Compagnia Carri (English: 1st Tank Company), the 2ª Compagnia Autoblindo (English: 2nd Armored Car Company) and the 3ª Compagnia Arditi (English: 3rd Arditi Company).
Between 26th June and 8th July 1944, the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ was deployed in an anti-partisan operation in Avigliana, 22 km from Turin. During the operation, 3 Carri Armati M13/40s were deployed, of which one was deployed in the city after the operation and remained in the city probably as a deterrent against other partisan attacks. Nothing is known about its service in Avigliana or how long the garrison of Avigliana remained operational.
After the same Val di Susa anti-partisan operation, at least 1 Carro Armato M13/40 was deployed to protect the Fixed Aircraft Spotting Post of Lanzo. This tank was deployed after a partisan operation, when the garrison of the 2ª Compagnia Ordine Pubblico (English: 2nd Public Order Company) commanded by Captain Giuseppe Bertoni was attacked by partisan forces. As reported by Captain Bertoni in his report, the armored vehicles of the ‘Leonessa’ left the barracks, attacking the partisans and forcing them to retreat.
The Carro Armato M13/40 medium tank was certainly engaged in combat at least once against the partisans. The garrison was disbanded at the end of 1944.
On 25th July 1944, Gen. Ricci organized a big parade in Milan to celebrate the first anniversary of the first fall of Fascism in Italy. A total of 5,000 soldiers and 275 female auxiliaries took part in the parade, including Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ armored vehicles.
On 25th September 1944, a Carro Armato M15/42, a Carro Armato M13/40, 2 Carri Armati L6/40s (probably a light tank and an SPG), an Autoprotetta and a platoon of the 1ª Compagnia of the ‘Leonessa’ were deployed in Giaveno, in Val di Susa, under the command of Major Antonio Braguti.
During the mission, some soldiers from the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani and from the 1ª Brigata Nera ‘Ather Capelli’ were also present. Together with the soldiers and vehicles of the armored group, they patrolled the villages of Fratta, Giaveno, and Maddalena di Val Sangone.
On 15th January 1945, 1 Carro Armato M13/40 was sent to support a convoy of German vehicles in Villanova D’Asti, which was hit by a partisan attack. The tank returned to its barracks in Turin the same night.
On 21th February 1945, 2 Carri Armati M13/40s, 2 armored cars and 2 autoprotette of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ were deployed in an anti-guerrilla operation between Villanova D’Asti and Mononio. Together with these armored vehicles, the XXIX Battaglione ‘M’ (English: 29th ‘M’ Battalion), the 1ª Compagnia Ordine Pubblico (English: 1st Public Order Company) of Turin and some soldiers from the Xª Divisione MAS participated. Only a single partisan was killed during the operation.
The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ was deployed after April 1944 to protect the Roberto Incerti Villar or RIV ball bearing factory in San Raffaele Cimena, near Chivasso. Some machinery tools were transferred from Turin to San Raffaele to continue the production. In fact, in February 1944, the RIV plant at Via Nizza 148 in Turin was badly damaged by Allied bombardments. The San Raffaele Cimena area was really quiet until 6th February 1945, when about 40 partisans attacked 21 ‘Leonessa’ soldiers, killing 2 and wounding 3 of them.
For this reason, after 3rd March 1945, a Carro Armato M13/40 was deployed by the armored group’s garrison in the village. In total, on 3rd March, the garrison had at its disposal 6 officers, 88 NCOs and militia men, 2 Carri Armati L3 light tanks, and 1 Carro Armato M13/40.
On 16th March 1945, the ranks of the garrison were reinforced with another Carro Armato M13/40 tank, but on the 29th, the ranks of the garrison were modified with 3 M15/42 medium tanks, 3 L3 light tanks, 5 officers, 50 NCOs and militia men. The garrison was probably disbanded and the soldiers returned to Turin between 15th and 20th April 1945.
On 23th March 1945, the unit took part in its last parade, on the occasion of the anniversary of the foundation of the Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale in Turin. Its tanks now paraded in Via Po, arriving in Piazza Vittorio Veneto, where Alessandro Pavolini, secretary of the Partito Fascista Repubblicano, took part at the ceremony.
At 1630 hrs. on 17th April 1945, Lt. Col. Swich had a small briefing with the officers of the unit present in Turin to inform them that the CNL had proclaimed a worker’s strike on 18th April. The unit patrolled the city roads all the night and day after but without partisan attacks. On this occasion, almost all the vehicles were deployed.
On 24th April 1945, General Adami Rossi, Commander of the 206° Comando Provinciale Regionale, ordered the creation of 22 checkpoints in the Turin countryside to prevent partisan attacks. All the roadblocks were patrolled by militia men from the 1ª Brigata Nera ‘Ather Capelli’.
On 25th April, the day of the Great Partisan Insurrection, the 1ª and 2ª Compagnia of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’, 2 companies of the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani, a platoon of the Xª Divisione MAS, the XXIX Battaglione ‘M’, a Battaglione Ordine Pubblico of the GNR of Turin and the 1ª Brigata Nera ‘Ather Capelli’ were present in Turin.
The ‘Leonessa’ headquarter was in the Via Asti Barracks, together with the Battaglione Ordine Pubblico. The 1ª Compagnia, under the command of Lieutenant Tommaso Stabile, was in the Caserma Luigi Riva with a company of the Black Brigade, while the 2ª Compagnia, under the command of Lieutenant Nicola Sanfelice, was in the Caserma Podgora together with the RAP companies.
Lt. Col. Swich had ordered 2 Carri Armati M13/40s to Piazza Castello with an armored car and about 15 militiamen to defend the prefecture of the city in that square. The Carro Armato M14/41 commanded by Brigadier Leonardo Mazzoleni was placed in Piazza Gran Madre di Dio to protect the bridge over the Po river. Two companies of the Battaglione Ordine Pubblico, the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani companies and the majority of the ‘Leonessa’ soldiers were deployed to reinforce the roadblocks and checkpoints and to patrol the city roads.
On 25th April 1945, the day was calm due to the fact that, in Turin, the CLN had delayed the attack by one day, to the 26th April. The Fascist soldiers tended to their guns and the engines of their tanks.
On 26th April, the partisans started their attack, occupying Porta Nuova, Dora, and Stura train stations, 8 of the 10 FIAT plants in the city (FIAT Lingotto and FIAT Mirafiori remained in Fascist hands), Lancia Veicoli Industriali, the RIV plant, the city hall and the Gazzetta del Popolo newspaper headquarter.
The EIAR headquarter was also attacked by the partisans but the soldiers and vehicles of the ‘Leonessa’ deployed near the radio broadcasting building, with a medium tank and two armored cars, forced the partisans to retreat.
Some counter attacks were undertaken and the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ was able to retake control of the majority of the production plants and train stations occupied by the partisan on the same day.
In the city hall, before being arrested by the partisans, the Podestà (English: Major) Michele Fassio called for reinforcements. Immediately, a medium tank and an armored car commanded by Second Lieutenant Stornelli of the 1ª Compagnia, together with some soldiers under the command of Captain Milanaccio, were deployed from the Caserma Luigi Riva to reoccupy the city hall.
The small unit reached the city hall where the partisans, hearing the engine noises, barricaded themselves inside the building. The door of the city hall was destroyed by the tank’s main gun, the major freed and the vehicles and men of the 1ª Compagnia returned to the Via Asti barracks.
In the afternoon, the Lamarmora barracks was surrounded but the partisans could not force the Fascists to retreat due to the heavy armament of the defenders. Lieutenant Marchegiani, commander of a medium tank, opened fire against the windows of a building near Porta Nuova train station, while partisans opened fire against a hotel from where civilian German inhabitants were rescued. After several machine gun bursts, the partisans retreated, abandoning the building.
The Caserma Luigi Riva was attacked around 14:00 of 26th April by partisans and auxiliary police (who joined the partisans that morning) from the Corso Vinzaglio police barracks, near the Porta Susa train station. The partisans also fired mortar shells against the building, but their lack of training did not permit them to deal heavy damage.
According to the testimony of Lt. Tommaso Stabile, at 18:00, 4 medium tanks, 3 armored cars, a platoon from the ‘Leonessa’ and a platoon from the ‘Ather Capelli’ left from the Caserma Luigi Riva. This group attacked the partisans and auxiliary police officers, who tried to resist. After a few hours, the Fascist armored cars destroyed the partisan 20 mm automatic cannons and the 47 mm guns of the tanks destroyed the barrack’s doors, allowing the Fascist troops to enter.
After the loss of 10 partisans and police officers, the rebels disbanded, retreating through the Pietro Micca tunnel which had been dug in 1706 by the Piedmontese Army to destroy French forces that had surrounded the city. One of the four tanks advanced until Porta Susa, 600 meters from the Caserma Luigi Riva’s entrance.
On 27th April 1945, almost all the plants and other targets occupied by the partisans the previous day were recaptured by Fascist forces. During the morning, 5 medium tanks and 2 armored cars were deployed to patrol the roads in the perimeter: Corso Vinzaglio, Via Cernaia, Piazza Castello, and Porta Susa train station.
At 15:00 on 27th April 1945, there was a briefing between all the Fascist commanders in Turin. They planned to activate the Esigenza Z2B Improvviso (English: Requirement Z2B Sudden) secret plan. This was a planned retreat of all Fascist forces to the Valtellina Valley, where they would wait for the Allied forces to surrender to them, avoiding falling into partisan hands.
The units were ordered to start moving toward Piazza Castello, where the Fascist column would depart from during the night.
All the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ militia men reached Turin’s main square, where Lt. Col. Swich ordered the tanks to position themselves in front and rear to defend the column in case of attacks.
At 0128 hrs. on 28th April 1945, about 5,000 Fascists, the few remaining Germans and some civilians (soldier’s families or persons who had collaborated with the Fascists) left the city towards Lombardia. The tanks in the front of the column opened a break in a barricade near the Dora train station and then reached the road to Chivasso.
On the dawn of 28th April 1945, the column left the highway to avoid Allied air attacks and continued the march on small roads, without the few German soldiers that had joined the column that night. The Germans tried to reach Germany or other foreign units continuing to march in the Northern direction.
After stopping their march for the night near Livorno Ferraris, the Fascist forces of the column were informed of Benito Mussolini’s execution. The officers then decided that it was useless to reach Valtellina and preferred to deploy the over 5,000 soldiers under their command in the village of Strambino Romano, where they created a headquarters and waited until 5th May 1945, when the Allied troops arrived in the area. At that point, the Fascist troops in Strambino Romano numbered between 15,000 and 20,000. All surrendered without fighting to the Allied troops.
Carro Armato M13/40 assigned to the II Battaglione Ciclisti d’Assalto ‘Venezia Giulia’
The first 2 tanks assigned to the II Battaglione Ciclisti d’Assalto ‘Venezia Giulia’ (English: 2nd Cyclist Assault Battalion) operating in Val d’Ossola area were 2 Carri Armati M13/40s that were temporary assigned to the Fascist unit from the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ with their crews under command of Adjutant Ferdinando Baradello. They were headquartered in Omegna but it seems that they were not used in early September 1944.
The Repubblica dell’Ossola (English: Ossola Republic) was a partisan republic that arose in northern Italy on 10th September 1944. This was a small (1,600 km²) territory freed by partisan troops.
In early October 1944, the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ temporarily assigned a total of 3 medium tanks and 10 armored cars more and their crew members to some units deployed in the area of Repubblica dell’Ossola to launch a fierce attack on the partisans, forcing them to disband.
At least 2 more tanks were assigned to the II Battaglione Ciclisti d’Assalto ‘Venezia Giulia’ of the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana, one Carro Armato M13/40 and one Carro Armato M14/41 commanded by Lieutenant Oberdan Marchegiani. They were deployed to the south of the republic. It had the task of destroying the partisan first line in Ornavasso and then reaching Domodossola as soon as possible, the capital city of the self proclaimed republic.
The attack on the Repubblica dell’Ossola was codenamed Operazione Avanti (English: Operation Ahead). The operation was planned by Monza High Command and the command was assigned to German Colonel Ludwig Buch.
Anyway, the II Battaglione Ciclisti d’Assalto ‘Venezia Giulia’ was supported by the Füsilier-Bataillon 29 “Debica” and some other small units, forming Kampfgruppe ‘Noveck’. It started the attack on the partisan republic on 10th October 1944. The book Il Battaglione SS ‘Debica’ written by Leonardo Sandri claims that the SS soldiers arrived at Gravellona Toce on 10th October and that the anti-partisan actions started on 11th October, a day after.
The same book claims that, during the operation, apart from the II Battaglione Ciclisti d’Assalto ‘Venezia Giulia’ and the Füsilier-Bataillon 29 ‘Debica’, a company of the Scuola Allievi Ufficiali (English: Officer Rookies School) of the GNR of Varese and a company of the Battaglione Paracadutisti ‘Mazzarini’ (English: Paratrooper Battalion) were also deployed for a total of about 3,500 soldiers. The Italian troops were supported by a 8.8 cm FlaK gun, two 75 mm mountain howitzers, two 75 mm anti-tank guns, two 47 mm anti-tank guns, a German armored train and 2 Carri Armati M13/40s. This confirms the presence of 2 Carri Armati M13/40s even if they had to be at least 5. Probably the book Il Battaglione SS ‘Debica’ was listing only the forces that supported the ‘Debica’ and not all the Axis forces deployed to attack the Partisan’s republic. The last tank detached to the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ was a Carro Armato M15/42 that was assigned together with a Carro Armato M13/40 and the Carro Armato M14/41 to the Il Battaglione SS ‘Debica’ after the Operazione Avanti.
On the first day, the II Battaglione Ciclisti d’Assalto ‘Venezia Giulia’ tried to break up the defensive line of the Divisione Partigiana ‘Valtoce’ (English: Partisan Division) on the right side of the Toce river, trying to enter in the city of Ornavasso. The Füsilier-Bataillon 29 ‘Debica’, on the left side of the river, tried to break the line of the Divisione Partigiana ‘Val d’Ossola’, trying to capture Mergozzo.
The 2 medium tanks were supporting the 1ª Compagnia, 3ª Compagnia and 4ª Compagnia of the II Battaglione Ciclisti d’Assalto ‘Venezia Giulia’ on the valley floor, while the 2ª Compagnia tried to circumvent the partisan defensive line, climbing the narrow streets of Monte Massone, covered by woods.
Luckily for the partisans, their reinforcements arrived quickly and they could start a counter attack before the 2ª Compagnia arrived in position. When the partisans attacked, the 2 tanks left the road to avoid being easily detected, but got stuck, probably in a mud field. The Fascist forces were forced to retreat with the tanks. On that day, the partisans resisted the attack.
At dawn of the next day, 2 tanks, supported by infantry, having learnt the ground, reached the partisan positions near Ornavasso, forcing the partisans to leave them.
The Fascist forces then advanced more into the partisan republic territory, but were blocked about 2 km north from Ornavasso, where the partisans had dug anti-tank ditches and entrenched themselves in a First World War-era bunker of the Liena Cadorna (English: The Cadorna Line). The Fascist forces were forced to stop their advance, fighting against the partisans barricaded in the fortress until 12th October 1944.
The night between 12th and 13th October, two companies of the II Battaglione Ciclisti d’Assalto ‘Venezia Giulia’ encircled the partisan forces from Monte Massone and deployed unnoticed on the right side of the partisan line, waiting to ambush the partisan reinforcements.
On the morning of 13th October, the remaining two companies of the II Battaglione Ciclisti d’Assalto ‘Venezia Giulia’ along with the medium tanks attacked the partisan positions in the Linea Cadorna again. When the soldiers of the Divisione Partigiana ‘Valtoce’ from the rearguard arrived in the area, the two companies hidden on the mountain ambushed them, causing many losses.
The partisans were forced to abandon the battle and retreated, pursued by Fascist forces and tried to reach Switzerland, a neutral territory, where they could have been saved. On 14th October afternoon, the reconnaissance squads of the Fascist forces arrived at Domodossola, the capital city of the partisan republic.
On 16th October 1944, the II Battaglione Ciclisti d’Assalto ‘Venezia Giulia’ and the Carro Armato M13/40 commanded by Lt. Marchegiani dispersed the last weak partisan defense in Varzo. After liberating the city, two companies of the battalion and the tank continued the advance, trying to arrive as soon as possible to the Swiss border and block the retreat of the last partisans in the area.
An interesting story about that day was mentioned by the commander of the II Battaglione Ciclisti d’Assalto ‘Venezia Giulia’, Lieutenant Ajmone Finestra, in his book Dal Fronte Jugoslavo alla Val d’Ossola. In it, he mentions that the Carro Armato M13/40 challenged the Swiss border guards when it arrived at the Swiss border, rolling towards the roadblock at high speed. The Swiss border guards tried to place an anti-tank gun in position as a deterrent, but before the gun was ready, the tank arrived near the borderline, turned around and went back.
After the end of the operations, one of the 2 Carri Armati M13/40s detached to the II Battaglione Ciclisti d’Assalto ‘Venezia Giulia’ in August returned back to Turin with Lt. Marchegiani. A single Carro Armato M13/40 was put under command of 1° Aiutante (English: Adjutant of 1st Class) Ferdinando Baradello, with driver Adjutant Stevani, while the other two crew members were Legionnaires Bianchi and Ciardi. It remained in Omegna under the command of the 2ª Compagnia of the II Battaglione Ciclisti d’Assalto ‘Venezia Giulia’. The other 3 tanks as seen before followed the Il Battaglione SS ‘Debica’.
In January 1945, thanks to the Carro Armato M13/40, the Fascist forces reached the goal of capturing an entire batch of Allied equipment launched from a cargo plane in the Val d’Ossola for the partisans.
On 14th and 15th March, the 2ª Compagnia of the II Battaglione Ciclisti d’Assalto ‘Venezia Giulia’ was attacked at Omegna. The troops, supported by the Carro Armato M13/40 of 1° Aiutante Ferdinando Boradello, broke through the encirclement and tried to reach Quarna, where a mixed garrison composed of Battaglione ‘Castagnacci’ of the Xª Divisione MAS and a black brigade were encircled. When the tank arrived, the Fascist troops had already surrendered.
On 17th March 1945, the car of Lieutenant Ajmone Finestra was ambushed by partisans while traveling with two soldiers from Omegna to Baveno. Miraculously escaping from death, the three fascist soldiers barricaded themselves behind the car, refusing to surrender. Meanwhile, the rifle shots attracted the attention of the fascist soldiers in Omegna, who sent the tank on the road.
Rescuing the officer and the two soldiers, the tank was again attacked by partisans near Omegna. This was an unsuccessful attack that cost the partisans 5 men.
On 22nd March 1945, a tank and an armored car took part in an anti-partisan operation in Varallo Sesia, while the Carro Armato M13/40 of Adjutant of 1st Class Boradello was deployed with the same task in Gravellona Toce area.
During the same month, 1° Aiutante Ferdinando Boradello was transferred and Adjutant Stevani took his place as tank commander. From March to late April 1945, the tank was deployed to support the units of the ‘Venezia Giulia’ battalion, black brigades, militia men and German forces in the cities of Cireggio, Lucerna, Luzzogno and Omegna. Their opponents were the 2ª Divisione ‘Garibaldi’ communist partisans and the autonomous of Divisione ‘Beltrami’.
The tank was again deployed in Intra, near Omegna, against the partisans on 21st April 1945. During the night between 23rd and 24th April 1945, the 2ª Compagnia of the II Battaglione Ciclisti d’Assalto ‘Venezia Giulia’ received the order to withdraw from Omegna to Baveno. On the morning of 24th April, the company left the city in column formation, with the tank at the rear. The partisans from the valley’s sides opened fire, blocking the Fascist company for some hours.
In the end, the column succeeded retreating to Gravellona Toce, where it met the rest of the II Battaglione Ciclisti d’Assalto ‘Venezia Giulia’ and other Italian and German units arriving from Domodossola. Together, they reached Baveno; the column was named ‘Stamm’ Column for the name of the German commander of the SS-Polizei-Regiment 20.
On 25th April 1945, there were 450 soldiers of the II Battaglione Ciclisti d’Assalto ‘Venezia Giulia’, 150 of the XXIX Brigata Nera ‘Ettore Muti’, plus some more Italian and German soldiers. In total, there was the Carro Armato M13/40 of Adjutant Stevani, two German armored cars and 700 soldiers ready to move toward Stresa under command of Major Fagioli and German Captain Stamm.
The column moved on the road to Belgiate, breaking all the Partisan roadblocks and entering Stresa and then Belgiate. During the late afternoon of 25th April, the column reached Meina, while the partisans in the area reached Arona to block the column.
During the night, the Carro Armato M13/40 and the German armored cars attacked Arona where the partisans opened fire with heavy guns. The muzzle flashes of the partisan bursts were targeted by the Fascist 75 mm WW1-era artillery pieces and by German 20 mm FlaK bursts.
Before dawn, some troops encircled the partisans. Supported by the medium tank and the two armored cars, the partisans came under heavy fire and were forced to leave Arona. After entering Arona, the Fascists freed it immediately and settled in Castelletto Ticino for 2 days awaiting ferries to cross the Ticino river.
On 28th April 1945, the ferries did not arrive and they tried to reach Milan but the road was blocked. They tried to go to Novara, but the road to that city was blocked. The Fascists were then reached by the Bishop of Novara, who went to confer with them, giving them news of the great partisan insurrection and that Milan and Novara were now in partisan hands.
The fascists came to an agreement with the partisans that allowed them to go to Novara where they would wait in the Caserma Cavalli in Novara for the arrival of the Allied troops.
They arrived in Novara on 29th April and parked the Carro Armato M13/40 of Adjutant Stavani outside the barracks. The unit surrendered to soldiers of the US 34th Infantry Division on 1st May 1945.
The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ in the Piacenza countryside
Piacenza is one of the biggest cities of the region of Emiglia-Romagna, located in the center north of the Italian peninsula. Piacenza was the capital of the homonymous province, with a population (in 1936) of 64,210 inhabitants. It was an important city for the Italian economy, with a well organized agriculture. The city also had some small companies specialized in the bodywork of cars and trucks and in the production of truck trailers. Machinery tools were also important in Piacenza, with many companies specialized in the production of lathes and other components. However, the most important companies in the area were the Azienda Generale Italiana Petroli (English: General Italian Oil Company) the only one in Italy that extracted oil until 19th April 1945, and the Arsenale Regio Esercito di Piacenza or AREP (English: Royal Army Arsenal of Piacenza). Until the armistice of September 1943, it was used mainly to produce and repair artillery pieces. After the armistice, it was renamed Arsenale di Piacenza and the workers started working for the Wehrmacht.
After the Armistice of September 1943, the German forces transformed the city into a headquarters for their units in the region. The Plazkommandantur was placed in Via Santa Franca, under Colonel Blecher’s command. Under his command were a number of units deployed in the city. In Via Cavour 64 was a Waffen-SS unit and a Sicherheitspolizei or SIPO (English: Security Police) and in Via Garibaldi 7 was another SIPO unit.
The Todt Organization, a German civil and military engineering organization responsible for a huge range of engineering projects in all the occupied territories, also had some units in Piacenza. In Piazza Cavalli 94 was its volunteer enlisting center, while in the Caserma (English: Barrack) of Via Emilia Pavese were the dormitories for the Todt workers.
The San Damiano airbase near the city was also under German control (even before the Armistice). There were also the Train Station, the bridges, the arsenal and the most important company of the city, the Officine Massarenti, specialized in the extraction of the little oil found in the Piacenza countryside.
To prevent this important city from falling into the hands of the partisans or Allied paratroopers, the garrison of Piacenza was reinforced by some Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ units. At the beginning, only 2 armored cars (other sources claim 1 armored car and an autoprotetta) and 50 soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Giovanni Ferraris arrived in the city on 20th August 1944. They were headquartered in the Caserma Paride Biselli. The first actions of the unit were essentially escort missions.
In the same period, part of the 29. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS ‘Italia’ was deployed in the area. It was at the orders of SS-Obersturmbannführer Franz Binz’s Kampfgruppe ‘Binz’ command along with a 29th Division regiment.
The unit was extensively used in the area and, in the months after, many other soldiers and vehicles were deployed in the Piacenza countryside. On 17th March 1945, a German report gave a list of vehicles deployed by the 3ª Compagnia and 4ª Compagnia of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ in the area of Piacenza:
In Montecchio (where the AGIP oil wells were located), these were commanded by Lieutenant Loffredo Loffredi.
|Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ equipment in the area of Piacenza|
|Montechino garrison; Lieutenant Loffredo Loffredi|
|Mitragliatrice Media Breda Modello 1937||Medium Machine gun||1|
|Fucile Mitragliatore Breda Modello 1930||Light machine gun||4|
|Moschetti Automatici Beretta (MAB)||Submachine guns||7|
|Carro Armato M15/42||Medium tank||1|
|Carro Armato M13/40||Medium tank||1; non-operational|
|Carro Armato L3||Light tank||1; non-operational|
|Autoblindo AB41||Armored car||2; 1 non-operational|
|u/k type||Motorized tricycle||3; 1 non-operational|
|u/k type||Motorbike||7; 5 non-operational|
|Rallio Garrison; Lieutenant Francesco Motta|
|Mitragliatrice Media Breda Modello 1937||Medium machine gun||2|
|Mitragliatrice Media Breda Modello 1938||Medium machine gun||4|
|Mitragliatrice Media FIAT-Revelli Modello 1914/1935||Medium machine gun||1|
|Fucile Mitragliatore Breda Modello 1930||Light machine gun||2|
|Moschetti Automatici Beretta||Submachine guns||6|
|Carro Armato L3||Light tank||3; 2 non-operational|
|Moto Guzzi Alce||Motorbike||1 non-operational|
|Moto Bianchi 500 M||Motorbike||1 non-operational|
|FIAT Balilla||Staff car||1 non-operational|
|Piacenza; Captain Giovanni Bodda|
|Carro Armato M13/40||Medium tank||1 non-operational|
|Carri Armati L6/40||Light tanks||2 non-operational|
|Autoprotetta||Armored personnel carrier||1 non-operational|
|Moto Guzzi Alce||Motorbike||1 operational|
|FIAT 1100||Utility car||1 non-operational|
|FIAT 626||Medium truck||1 operational|
|Bianchi Miles||Medium truck||1 operational|
Unluckily, the sources do not mention when the Carri Armati M13/40 were deployed in Piacenza. It is probable that they arrived in February 1945, after some heavy clashes with partisans. In Piacenza was also located the II Battaglione SS ‘Debica’ with the 3 Carri Armati M detached from the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ after the Operazione Avanti. It seems that the tanks were only theoretically assigned to the Italian SS unit, in fact it seems that not all 3 were operational in Piacenza.
On 12th April, the situation was slightly changed by the arrival of a Carro Armato M14/41 in the Montechino garrison, which had also repaired its Carro Armato L3. The Rallio garrison had received 1 running condition Carro Armato M13/40 (probably from the Montechino garrison). It had an operational Carro Armato L3 and another one under repairs.
The Piacenza headquarter had at its disposal 1 Carro Armato M13/40, 1 Carro Armato L6/40 and an Autoblinda AB41 under repairs, while an Autoblinda AB41 and 2 Semoventi L40 da 47/32 (they arrived on 20th April) were combat ready.
On 15th April, the 3 operational medium tanks (an M13, an M14, and an M15) were assigned to the I. Waffen-Grenadier Bataillon of the Waffen-Grenadier-Regiment SS 81. of the 29. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS ‘Italia’. The light tanks were assigned to the II. Waffen-Grenadier Bataillon ‘Nettuno’ from the same regiment, while the Autoblinde AB41 remained under Capt. Bodda’s command. The operational one, under the command of Legionnaire Medoro Minetti, was used to support the withdrawal of the Fascist garrisons in Montechino and Rallio.
The armored vehicles placed in Rallio were transported to Rivergaro and placed with the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ soldiers as garrison in the city, together with the Battaglione ‘Mantova’ of the V Brigata Nera Mobile ‘Quagliata’.
The German and Italian officers in Piacenza concentrated all the units under their command in Piacenza, apart from the I. Waffen-Grenadier Bataillon and II. Waffen-Grenadier Bataillon ‘Nettuno’. On 16th April, these latter units attacked Gropparello and Perino, inflicting heavy losses on the partisans.
During the next few days, the Brazilian forces of the Força Expedicionária Brasileira (English: Brazilian Expeditionary Force) and US troops entered Bologna and advanced further north.
The partisans tried to enter the city of Piacenza from all directions. The I. Waffen-Grenadier Bataillon retreated from Gropparello with their three medium tanks on 24th April. Two tanks were commanded by Vice Brigadier Donati and Vice Brigadier Martini, while the third one was probably Lieutenant Rinetti’s. The unit reached Pontenure, deploying on a defensive line along the Nure river, with the headquarters of the unit placed in a nearby farm on the Via Emilia.
On 25th April morning, 1 Semovente L40 da 47/32 under Second Lieutenant Giancarlo Fazioli left the Piacenza barracks of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’, leaving the city and taking the Via Emilia with 7 or 8 soldiers and a German officer. Their task was to reach the Allied reconnaissance units to counter them and slow down the Allied advance.
After crossing the II. Waffen-Grenadier Bataillon ‘Nettuno’ defensive line, south of Piacenza, it met Allied forces near Montale, 6 km south of Piacenza, and after firing some 47 mm rounds in the direction of the Allied forces, retreated before becoming an easy target for Allied artillery.
On the same day, I. Waffen-Grenadier Bataillon exchanged some light gun bursts with a platoon of A Company of the 755th Tank battalion of the US Army, which supported some troops of the 135th Infantry Division. The skirmish cost the life of a single Italian soldier.
After the skirmish, German commander SS-Obersturmbannführer Franz Binz, who commanded the Italian SS, ordered the battalion to retreat and to entrench itself in a defensive line closer to Piacenza. The I. Waffen-Grenadier Bataillon ‘Debica’ was located in the south-east part of Piacenza, in the city of Montale.
The 1. Kompanie (English: 1st Company), under the command of Waffen-SS Obersturmführer Giorgio Giorgi, was placed on the left side of the defensive line, the 2. Kompanie (English: 2nd Company), under the command of Waffen-SS Obersturmführer Vittorio Passéra, was on the right side, while the Abteilung-Schwere-Waffen (English: Heavy Weapons Section) of the 4. Kompanie (English: 4th Company) under Waffen-SS Obersturmführer Franco Lanza was a few hundred meters behind them with the support guns. The heavy equipment of the unit consisted of 81 mm mortars and some Cannoni da 47/32 Modello 1935 or 1939 anti-tank guns.
A few months before, the unit was equipped with 6 75 mm mountain howitzers, 6 Cannoni da 47/32 Modello 1935 or 1939 anti-tank guns, and three 20 mm automatic cannons, but it is not clear if some were lost in the previous weeks and how many were deployed in Montale.
On the morning of 26th April, the US soldiers of the 135th Infantry Division, supported by Sherman tanks of A Company, A platoon of B Company, and some M7 Priests of the 755th Tank battalion, stormed the defensive line of the Italian SS soldiers. Arriving within range of the German produced Panzerfausts (used for the first time by the units in combat) in the hands of the Italian soldiers, the US tanks were easily knocked out, while the Italian tanks and guns on the rear guard started heavy suppression fire in the direction of the US forces.
During the attack, the US soldiers were forced to retreat, leaving the task of breaking through the Italian lines to the Shermans. Some minutes after the start of the battle, the three medium tanks of the ‘Leonessa’ assigned to the Kampfgruppe ‘Binz’ arrived in the area, starting to fire at the US tanks. Some sources claim that there was probably also a Semovente L40 da 47/32 with them.
During the 20 minute-long battle, 2 Shermans and an M7 Priest were destroyed, while many others were damaged by mortar shells, Panzerfausts, and 47 mm armor piercing rounds and subsequently abandoned.
During the fighting, Waffen-SS Obersturmführer Giorgio Giorgi, a pair of NCOs and at least 4 soldiers of Kampfgruppe ‘Binz’ were killed. To these losses need to be added a squad of soldiers of the 2. Kompanie that was barricaded in a farm and was attacked by one of the Shermans. After a brief skirmish, the Italian soldiers surrendered. Corporal Major Rosario Carli was shot by US troops after surrendering because he refused to hand over personal items and for responding to the beating he suffered.
The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ suffered the loss of a driver and of Second Lieutenant Arnaldo Rinetti, the last Italian tank crew member killed in action during the Second World War. The information about his death is not so clear. Many sources claim different variants of which, in the past years, some were refuted.
At least two tanks were commanded by Vice Brigadier Donati and Lieutenant Rinetti. If the Semovente L40 da 47/32 was really deployed in the battle, it seems that the vehicle commander was Legionnaire Mimmo Bontempelli.
During the battle, one of the medium tanks was hit, probably by a US 75 mm armor piercing round. Which Italian tank was hit is nowadays a mystery. Lieutenant Loffredi, during an interview reported in the book …Come il Diamante, stated that, during the retreat after the battle, the Carro Armato M13/40 was present, commanded by Vice Brigadier Donati, while all the other sources claim that the vehicle targeted by the American shell was a Carro Armato M13/40. However, the armor piercing round penetrated an unspecified frontal part of the tank, killing the driver, cutting his legs and lightly wounding the commander who got out of the vehicle with slight burns. The crew tried to restart the vehicle, but it probably suffered a mechanical failure.
Lt. Rinetti did not abandon the burning tank and continued to fire with the main gun even if the vehicle was immobile. From the testimony of a veteran of the 29. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS ‘Italia’, it seems that, from the crew, 3 crew members exited. Lt. Rinetti was probably killed by a splinter of armor after a second shot hit his tank a few minutes later.
A source claims that he was killed by partisans after surrender, a hypothesis refuted because there were no partisans in the area. Another interesting hypothesis was the one that claimed that Lt. Rinetti was killed by the breech of the 47 mm gun during recoil.
This hypothesis is plausible as Italian medium tanks were cramped vehicles and, with a fifth crew member, the space inside would be really limited but. However, it needs to be noticed that, during the same day, Vice Brigadier Casoni was hit in the face by the 47 mm gun breech during recoil and, after the battle, he went to the Piacenza military infirmary to be treated.
The source which states that Lt. Rinetti died from the gun recoil was probably a confusion, created perhaps by a veteran who unwittingly mixed the two stories.
Another source claims that Lt. Rinetti was captured by US troops and transported to a prisoner camp, where he was shot by partisans to take revenge for all their fellow comrades killed by the ‘Leonessa’ tanks in the last months of war in the Piacenza area. However, this claim appears to have no supporting sources.
Anyway, the US Army had already won the battle and another heavy tribute of life was not necessary. For this reason, the fight was brief and, for the rest of the day, the Allied forces maintained the Italian positions under heavy artillery fire. This was also done to prevent the Italian soldiers from capturing the damaged Sherman and Priests abandoned on the battlefield.
The I. Waffen-Grenadier Bataillon ‘Debica’ retreated from Montale and was redeployed between Via Emilia and Mortizza, where one of the two river ferries used to reach the northern shore of the Po river was stationed.
During the battle between the I. Waffen-Grenadier Bataillon ‘Debica’ and the US soldiers, the partisans had infiltrated the city and the Fascist forces of the city fought back, supported by the soldiers of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’, the operational Autoblindo AB41 of Vice Brigadier Campanini, a tank (model unspecified but probably the Carro Armato L6/40 or a Carro Armato L3) and an automatic cannon.
On the night of 26th April, all the ‘Leonessa’s’ guns, ammunition and fuel depots were destroyed to prevent partisan capture. The non-operational vehicles were also destroyed, including the Autoblindo AB41 of Lt. Minetti.
The vehicles that survived destruction in Piacenza were:
- 2 Semoventi L40 da 47/32
- 1 Carro Armato L6/40 under repair
- 1 Carro Armato M13/40 of unknown status
- 1 Autoblindo AB41
2 medium tanks assigned to the I. Waffen-Grenadier Bataillon ‘Debica’ (model unknown).
1 Carro Armato L3 assigned to the II. Waffen-Grenadier Bataillon ‘Nettuno’.
During the night, the majority of German and Italian units crossed the Po river under the cover of darkness. The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ and the ‘Debica’ and ‘Nettuno’ battalions remained on the southern shore of the river to defend the city.
The Allied troops could easily enter the city and destroy the ferries with their armored forces, but they had made an agreement in the past days with the partisans. The partisans would free the city and then the Allied troops could enter. This decision favored the Fascist soldiers in the city that, with a few tanks, could slow down the partisan liberation.
On 27th April, the partisans suffered heavy losses and a total of 18 partisans lost their lives during two different clashes with the Fascists. Two medium tanks were under ‘Debica’s’ command, along with the last L3 of ‘Nettuno’. The Semoventi L40 da 47/32 were protecting the pier of Mortizza’s ferry for the duration of the day.
The I. Waffen-Grenadier Bataillon ‘Debica’ was not employed in action on 27th April and, at dawn on 28th April, was transferred to the northern shore of the Po river from Mortizza. During the crossing, some shells fell near the ferry without causing losses. The two medium tanks were probably too heavy for the Mortizza ferry and, on 27th April, they left the Italian SS unit to reach the other ferry pier in San Rocco al Porto, less than 5 km from Mortizza ferry.
The tanks waited all day and, on the morning of 28th April 1945, one of the two tanks was transferred to the other shore.
The second tank, claimed by Lt. Giancarlo Grazioli to be a Carro Armato M13/40, remained on the southern shore to defend the pier but was destroyed by artillery fire during the same day at an unknown hour.
The remaining 20 soldiers of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ and 20 soldiers of the 162. Infanterie-Division ‘Turkistan’ were taken from the command of Lieutenant of 1st Class Loffredi and transferred to Lieutenant Romolo Paroletti.
Lt. Paroletti divided the soldiers in squads of 10 soldiers (5 Italian and 5 Turkmeni) that entrenched on the main roads of Piacenza: the State Road for Cremona, Via Emilia Parmense, Via Emilia Pavese, and State Road 45.
The soldiers were well equipped. They took all the Italian firearms that remained in the city, such as heavy and light machine guns and submachine guns, dozens of hand grenades and also some really rare Italian anti-tank hand grenades.
The Turkmeni were also equipped with 8.8 cm Raketenwerfer 43 ‘Puppchen’ anti-tank rocket launchers.
The night of 28th April passed calmly, with Lieutenant Paroletti in a medium tank that patrolled the city roads.
Lt. Paroletti mentioned that the tank was a Carro Armato M14/41. If this information is true, it probably means that the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ mechanics in Piacenza had repaired the second Carro Armato M13/40 before the partisan insurrection and US attack.
Unfortunately, this information cannot be confirmed. However, the book …Come il Diamante reports that an Carro Armato M13/40 was left to defend the San Rocco pier.
Three or 4 medium tanks had left the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ barracks in Piacenza on 26th April 1945. A Carro Armato M13/40 was knocked out in Montale, while the rest retreated. The Carro Armato M15/42 crossed the Po river on 28th April, the last Carro Armato M13/40 was destroyed by artillery fire on 28th April while the last tank, a Carro Armato M14/41, was used to patrol the city of Piacenza.
During the night of 28th April 1945, the Carro Armato M14/41 was connected to an old WW1-era FIAT 18BL which the tank towed through all the city, taking all the Italian and Fascist soldiers still in Piacenza. Shortly after 0400 hrs., the soldiers reached San Rocco al Porto. The troops dismounted from the vehicles and crossed the Po river with the ferry.
Arriving on the northern shore, the ferry was destroyed and the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ veterans claimed that they were able to see US tanks already on the southern shore. The Carro Armato M14/41 that Lieutenant Paroletti used all night on patrol was ferried with the soldiers, while the old truck was abandoned near the shore, where dozens of damaged vehicles lay abandoned by the Axis forces.
While the soldiers were leaving the southern shore, a Carro Armato L6/40 tank reached their position at maximum speed. It was the Carro Armato L6/40 of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ deployed in Piacenza which, during the last days, was blocked in the barracks for maintenance. During the night, the crew had repaired it and was ready to transport it on the other shore but the Germans refused this, probably due to the lack of time. For the transport of the light tank, the ferry had to do 2 river crossings, wasting time, fuel (which probably they did not have) and increasing the risk that US or partisan forces would attack the ferry.
Lieutenant Romolo Paroletti ordered the sabotage of the tank and, when the ferry was on its way to cross the river with the medium tank loaded on, he ordered firing a pair of 47 mm rounds to totally destroy it.
On the morning of 28th April, the survivors of Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ and the Kampfgruppe ‘Binz’ restarted their march in the northern direction towards Erba to reach the rest of the 29. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS ‘Italia’.
Their real task was to reach Travagliato, near Brescia, to join the Kommandostab Ersatz Einheiten der italienischen Waffenverbände der SS (English: SS Italian Armed Forces Reserve Unit Command) under SS-Sturmbannführer Luis Thaler. Together, they were then meant to reach the Alto Adige region passing through Val Camonica.
For unknown reasons, only some soldiers of the 162. Infanterie-Division ‘Turkistan’ reached Travagliato.
On 28th April 1945, the soldiers of Kampfgruppe ‘Binz’ entered Santo Stefano Lodigiano, already liberated by the partisans. The partisans, seeing the Italian Fascist soldiers, preferred to retreat from the city and hid themselves in a nearby forest. The Italians freed hundreds of Fascist soldiers captured during the partisan attack of the previous days and also a dozen trucks.
The column restarted the march with a total of about 2,000 soldiers, including about 100 Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’s’ soldiers under Lieutenant Loffredi’s command. Together with them were about a hundred trucks, cars and motorbikes, 3 tanks (2 Carri Armati M15/42s and a Carro Armato M14/41), the Semovente L40 da 47/32 and an Autoblindo AB41 armored car. There were also some 75 mm howitzers, 4 Cannoni da 47/32 and some 20 mm automatic cannons.
The Semovente L40 da 47/32 of Second Lieutenant Giancarlo Fazioli fell into a canal near the road on the same day due to the ground collapsing under its weight. It was recovered after a few hours with a pair of oxen pulling it out of the canal.
In order to avoid US air strikes, the column was divided into three sections, with the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ vehicles in the front section, the II. Waffen-Grenadier Bataillon ‘Nettuno’ in the center section, and the I. Waffen-Grenadier Bataillon ‘Debica’ at the rear of the column.
For about half an hour, the reconnaissance groups of the column had a skirmish with partisan forces in Guardamiglio, where the partisans had a 20 mm automatic cannon on top of a bell tower and opened fire on the forward units of the column. After the fighting, the column was attacked by 3 Republic P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’ US ground attack planes.
During the attack, the last Lancia 3Ro of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ was damaged by 0.50 in. machine gun rounds, while the quick reaction of the Fascist soldiers damaged an US plane. Hauptmann Noweck, with a German 20 mm FlaK, shot down one of the planes.
The Lancia was towed by a medium tank and the column quickly restarted to move, reaching Codogno, where the column was ready to fight the partisans in the city. These had captured some German soldiers of another unit.
The unit commander and SS-Obersturmbannführer Franz Binz started discussions with the partisans and, in the evening, they managed to convince the partisans to free the Germans, or they would shell the city with artillery fire.
At midnight, the column stopped. The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ stayed in Livraga, the II. Waffen-Grenadier Bataillon ‘Nettuno’ in Ospedaletto, and the I. Waffen-Grenadier Bataillon ‘Debica’ stayed in Somaglia. The Semovente L40 da 47/32 crew slept in Brembio, near Livraga, where the Fascist soldiers entered the city pub where there were also some partisans. Before entering the city, in order to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, the partisans and fascists agreed to a ceasefire for the night.
On 29th April 1945, the march restarted on secondary roads to avoid the US planes. Around noon, the column reached Sesto San Giovanni, where some partisan commanders from Lodi arrived to have the column surrender.
German Commander Franz Binz strongly refused to surrender, intending to reach the city of Erba at all costs. During these hours, the Semovente L40 da 47/32 commanded by Lt. Fazioli was assigned to the ‘Debica’ battalion.
The soldiers under Lieutenant Loffredi’s command were composed of about 80 GNR soldiers of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’, 9 German sailors from the ferry, one female auxiliary, 4 militiamen, probably from the XIII Brigata Nera ‘Turchetti’, the Carro Armato M13/40 (the other one was abandoned due to mechanical failure), the Autoblindo AB41 and 2 trucks, of which one damaged. All the soldiers were well armed. Some hours before, they learned of the death of Benito Mussolini and the majority of the ‘Turchetti’ militiamen decided to return to their homes.
In Locate Triulzi, Lieutenant Loffredi’s forces, which now served as the vanguard of the column with about 600 ‘Nettuno’ soldiers, met some partisans. After a furious discussion between Lt. Loffredi and the partisan commander of the area, the partisans left the small city without shooting a single bullet.
During the night, at 2300 hrs., part of the column tried to advance but was blocked by a roadblock in Zizzolo and surrendered to the partisans.
On the morning of 30th April, the column restarted the march but was blocked again in Melzo by the partisans. After a few hours, they reached an agreement. They restarted the march but they were shortly after reached by US tanks from the 34th Infantry Division. SS-Obersturmbannführer Franz Binz finally surrendered to the Allied forces.
The troops under Lieutenant Loffredi had taken another road the night before and were not blocked in Melzo. They moved toward San Giuliano Milanese, Caleppio and Truccazzano, finally approaching Trecella, where they took a break to repair the Carro Armato M13/40 that still worked, but not at its best. Lt. Loffredi, along with some officers, reached the school of Trecella, where they spoke with an US NCO, trying to gain time while the crew repaired the tank.
When the tank was ready to move again, the force was encircled by at least 6 M18 Hellcat tanks, so Lt. Loffredi was forced to surrender.
From a postwar letter of Lt. Loffredi, it is claimed that the last tank was an Carro Armato M13/40 and that the US tank crew found it ready, permitting the crew to restart the engine with the crank, laughing a lot for all the operation. All the soldiers under Lt. Loffredi were taken prisoner without any problems.
Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ in Milan
In mid October 1944, the Compagnia Addestramento (English: Training Company) of the ‘Leonessa’ was transferred to the former Reggimento ‘Savoia cavalleria’ barracks in Via Monti with training tasks. Shortly after, it became part of the combat ready unit.
It was commanded by Major Egidio Zerbio. It was first planned to become an independent battalion but, due to the lack of men and vehicles, it remained under Leonessa’s command with logistic and support tasks. It supported the troops deployed in Piacenza and defended the Oleoblitz, the last refinery of Italy to produce fuel from the oil that came from Piacenza.
The unit remained a training unit and trained new crew members that were assigned to different Gruppo Corazzato companies around northern Italy after the courses.
The crew members were trained to drive armored cars in the city streets. For the tank driving lessons, the fields filled with US bomb craters near the barracks were used.
For training duties, a Carro Armato M13/40 and a Carro Armato M14/41 arrived from Turin. These were shortly accompanied by 2 Carri Armati L3 light tanks and a Semovente L40 da 47/32 recovered from some depots in Milan and repaired by the workshop of the unit in Milan.
In early 1945, Lieutenant Barone found 5 or 6 Italian medium tanks in Chiari. These arrived in Milan by railway. In the book I Mezzi Corazzati Italiani della Guerra Civile 1943-1945, the writer mentions a German document reported that the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ recovered about 30 damaged medium tanks from the Germans, who were in the process of scrapping them.
In the same book, Paolo Crippa states that only 5 of these tanks were repairable. This could suggest that the vehicles found by Lieutenant Barone were part of this batch. This also clarifies why the depot of the Distaccamento di Milano (English: Milan Detachment), as it was called, was full of spare parts. They were probably recovered from badly damaged tanks. The tanks were probably sent to Turin after repairs.
On 16th December 1944, the Distaccamento di Milano participated in the last speech of Mussolini at the Lyric Theater. Mussolini then climbed on the turret of a Carro Armato M15/42 tank outside the theater to make a second shorter speech. On the same day, Mussolini visited the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ barracks in Milan, where 2 Carri Armati M15/42 and 2 Autoblinde AB41 were lined up.
This means that the Carro Armato M13/40 was under repair, or the tank was assigned to another company. The first hypothesis makes more sense because the unit was created only in mid October 1944 and needed time to train the crews. It seems improbable that, in just 2 months, the tank was reassigned.
However, on 25th April 1945, Lieutenant Morandi participated with a medium tank in supporting the Fascist units in Sesto San Giovanni. With some soldiers, he then reached the Fiera Campionaria depot in Milan to take some freshly built armored vehicles not yet assigned to the Axis forces. They recovered 2 Autoblinde AB43 medium reconnaissance armored cars.
The same night, the company prepared to leave Milan and reach Valtellina. The Distaccamento di Milano was deployed with its armored vehicles in the front and rear of the column of Fascist forces leaving Milan.
The column left Milan at about 0600 hrs. on 26th April and the march for the valley was eventful, with some air attacks (without significant damage) and some machine gun fire from a partisan motorcycle that quickly retreated under the fire of the 47 mm cannon of the semovente.
During their way to Como, a Carro Armato M13/40 of the Distaccamento di Milano had a mechanical failure and Lt. Morandi shot some pistol rounds into the engine to make it unrepairable. One of the Autoblinde AB43s also had a failure of the fuel ignition system, but the failure was shortly repaired and the armored car reached Como. On the afternoon of 26th April, the Distaccamento di Milano arrived in Caserma De Cristoforis in Como. There, it surrendered to the partisans, as Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana’s High Commander, General Niccolò Nicchiarelli, had ordered.
The number of vehicles in service with the Distaccamento di Milano is uncertain. When it was transferred to Milan, it had only a Carro Armato M13/40 and a Carro Armato M14/41. Two months later, it had at least 2 Carri Armati M15/42, 2 Autoblinde AB41 armored cars, a Carro Armato L3 light tank, and probably a Carro Armato M13/40.
Before departing from Milan on 25th April night or 26th April early morning, Vincenzo Costa, one of the soldiers of the unit, wrote a list mentioning that the column that was leaving Milan had 10 tanks and 4 armored cars. The number of armored cars coincided with those present in the unit 4 months earlier (2 Autoblinde AB41 + 2 Autoblinde AB43 taken the day before), while the number of tanks had increased, although some may have been Carro Armato L3 light tanks from other Milanese units.
Comando Provinciale della Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana
The Reparto Corazzato (English: Armored Department) of the Compagnia Comando (English: Command Company) of the Comando Provinciale della Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana (English: Provincial Command of the Republican National Guard) in Varese had in its ranks a Carro Armato M13/40 and an Autoblinda AB41 armored car recovered shortly after the Armistice by Captain Giacomo Michaud from the countryside of Varese.
These were probably used only to defend the Varese’s command building and escort some convoys without fighting until September 1944. In September 1944, the High Command of the National Republican Army ordered the Provincial Command to send its armored vehicles in the Val d’Ossola area against the partisan brigades.
The vehicles, under Capt. Michaud’s command, arrived at Laveno and were embarked on a ferry, arriving in Cannobio on 9th September. However, only the Carro Armato M13/40 was disembarked while the Autoblinda AB41 that suffered from mechanical failure and returned to Varese.
The Carro Armato M13/40 took part in the Operazione ‘Avanti’ against the Ossola Republic, but in another sector of the battlefield. It departed from Cannobio and advanced east to Domodossola supporting 2 Nazi-Fascist columns. It was deployed in the area and then in Val Formazza against Partisan units until late October 1944. In that period it was heavily damaged, while the Cap. Michaud was badly wounded.
The Carro Armato M13/40 returned to the workshop in Varese but could not be repaired due to a lack of spare parts. Together with the unrepaired Autoblinda AB41, it was sent probably to Genoa or Turin. There they were repaired by specialized workshops and then were assigned to other unknown units.
XXI Brigata Nera ‘Stefano Rizzardi’
In a document from the Undersecretary of the Ministry of the Interior Giorgio Pini, in January 1945, the XXI Brigata Nera ‘Stefano Rizzardi’ (English: 21st Black Brigade) of Verona had a Carro Armato M13/40. The unit was named after Bersagliere Stefano Rizzardi, who died on 26th October 1943 and was the first Italian soldier awarded the Memorial Gold Medal for Military Valor.
Unfortunately, little information is known about the black brigade of Verona. In August 1944, the commander was Luigi Sioli and the total brigade force was about 150 soldiers.
The tank, used to patrol the streets of the city of Verona, was probably taken from the depot of the former 27° Deposito Misto Reggimentale when it was disbanded.
About the service of the former Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leoncello’ tanks, the Partisan commander Giacomo Cibra, nicknamed ‘Nino’ that commanded the 5° Squadra Volante (English: 5th Flying Squad) of the 11ª Brigata Partigiana ‘Matteotti’ (English: 11th Partisan Brigade).
In his book written after the war Cibra explained that, on 24th April 1945 night, while the majority of the Partisans attacked the Axis forces at Carugate, his detachment remained in Pioltello stopped a Nazi-Fascist column of vehicles in Cerusco sul Naviglio, near the tram station.
The Axis soldiers, aware of the imminent end of the war, surrendered weapons and vehicles peacefully. Cibra explained that created a column composed of 2 tanks (2 Carri Armati M13/40 of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leoncello’), a German armored car, 2 trucks full of partisans, and a staff car in which Cibra himself took his seat.
The column, after small skirmishes along the journey, reached Milan, entering in the northeastern boulevard Corso Buenos Aires.
As they advanced on the boulevard, at the height of Porta Venezia, in the downtown they met a car full of fascist soldiers that opened fire against the Partisan column.
One of the two tanks, probably while the driver tried to stop it to open fire, broke a track hitting at high speed a sidewalk and was abandoned.
The other tank, nicknamed ‘TEMPESTA’ (English: Storm), was deployed first to patrol some streets of the city and, on 26th April 1945 it was deployed in the final Partisan assault on Piazza 4 Novembre, where was located the Milanese headquarter of the Xa Divisione MAS.
On 27th April 1945 the tank nicknamed ‘TEMPESTA’ was transported to Pioltello, city of origin of most of the partisans of the 11ª Brigata Partigiana ‘Matteotti’ after the end of the battle in Milan. It was shown in the great partisan parade in Pioltello on 1st May 1945.
Always from Cibra’s testimony, the damaged tank was transported to Cernusco sul Naviglio where it was repaired in a local workshop with spare track links that Cibra had recovered somewhere in Milan.
Another Carro Armato M13/40 was taken on 25th April 1945 by the partisans of the 183ª Brigata Partigiana ‘Garibaldi’ (English: 183th Partisan Brigade) in Saronno. The tank was damaged by a Panzerfaust hit and the partisans took it to a Elettro Meccanica Societa Anonima or CEMSA (English: Caproni Electro Mechanical Limited Company) workshop. There, the tank was repaired by two Soviet prisoners of war that joined the Italian communist partisans after escaping from a fascist prison camp.
It was put in service again to patrol the streets of the city of Saronno during the partisan uprising and then publicly shown after the war for some time in the city.
At least one Carro Armato M13/40 was captured by the partisans in the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani barrack of Turin. Partisan’s War Diary declares that the vehicle was used during the fighting to liberate the city. It seems not clear if this statement is correct, in fact, if the vehicle had been in a condition to march, the Fascist forces would have taken him with them and not abandoned a working vehicle in enemy hands.
Some Italian sources, about the Comando Provinciale della Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana of Varese, only the armored car was sent back to Turin or Genoa for reparations while the tank remained in Varese where it was delivered peacefully by the Fascist to the Partisans at the war’s end on 25th April 1945. In the image of this vehicle it seems a Carro Armato M13/40 of 1st series or a Carro Armato M14/41; unfortunately the bad quality of the image and the presence of Partisans in front of it, did not permit a clear identification.
Camouflage and Markings
The Carri Armati M13/40s used in the first months of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana usually maintained the common monochrome Kaki Sahariano (English: Saharan Khaki) desert camouflage used by the majority of former Regio Esercito vehicles.
The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leoncello’ medium tanks (4 Carri Armati M13/40 and a Carro Armato M15/42) received three different camouflage schemes: at least 1 Carro Armato M13/40 was painted with a green-gray camouflage (probably the one applied at Ansaldo), while some other Carri Armati M13/40 received some medium brown and dark green spots camouflage. The Carro Armato M15/42 (and maybe also some Carri Armati M13/40s) were in Kaki Sahariano camouflage.
On the sides of the turret, at the front, lions were painted standing on two legs in a white rectangle. The lion was the symbol of the ‘Leoncello’. At the center of the turret was a tricolor Italian flag. Above the tricolor was painted a Roman numeral, indicating the number of the squadron, in this case the I Squadrone Carri M. Under the tricolor, in Arabic numerals, the number of the tank in the squadron was painted. These symbols were also painted on the turret rear, while on the front hull armored plate, between the driver and machine gunner’s positions, was only an Italian flag. Each tank also received a name painted near the driver’s slot. The names were painted in white capital letters.
The 2nd tank of the squadron was painted in green-gray camouflage and was named ‘TEMPESTA’ (English: Storm). The 3rd tank of the same squadron had the three tone camouflage but its name is not known.
The Gruppo Squadroni Corazzati ‘San Giusto’ tanks were painted in standard Kaki Sahariano camouflage and received the unit’s coat of arms on the front of the casemate.
The coat of arms changed with the evolution of the unit. The earliest one was a simple Italian flag. After Spring 1944, the black silhouette of an Italian medium tank was added on the flag. After late 1944, the flag was repainted as waving with the black silhouette of an Italian self-propelled gun.
At least one of the Carro Armato M13/40 medium tanks of the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani was painted with a particular three-tone camouflage similar to the Continentale (English: Continental) applied by Ansaldo on the tanks ready to be delivered. The Continentale had dark green and reddish brown spots on the original Kaki Sahariano camouflage.
In this case, it seems that the unit totally covered the Kaki Sahariano original paint with two different shades of dark green spots and then they outlined the border of the spots with slight Kaki Sahariano lines.
The medium tanks of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ were painted in usual Kaki Sahariano camouflage with the unit’s symbol, a red ‘m’ with a lictorial beam (symbol of the Fascist party) intersected by a lictorian beam. Under it was the acronym GNR painted in red. These coats of arms were painted on the turret sides and rear and were the only symbols painted on the Carri Armati M13/40 of which there are available images. The tanks also had a license plate with the acronym GNR. These plates were probably the original Regio Esercito ones but with the acronym RE covered. This hypothesis is supported because one of the license plates, ‘Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana 4340’, was probably the former ‘Regio Esercito 4340’.
After late 1944, the camouflage was modified on almost all the medium tanks, even if at least one Carro Armato M13/40 deployed in Turin was not repainted. The vehicles were now also painted with a camouflage similar to the Continentale, with dark green and medium brown spots, sometimes covering the coat of arms on the turret sides and sometimes maintaining them.
The Carro Armato M13/40 was already an obsolete vehicle when it was substituted by the Carro Armato M14/41 in 1941. Its main problem was the underpowered engine that did not permit it a good speed or good off road characteristics.
However, when used to stop the partisan maneuvers, the old Carri Armati M13/40 proved to be a more than adequate vehicle. Fighting the partisans, who did not have anti-tank weapons such as cannons, anti-tank guns, or rocket launchers, medium tanks were virtually unstoppable.
The absence of sand also favored the tank, which suffered fewer mechanical failures on the Italian mainland. This also permitted the crews to operate on mountain streets where partisans operated without overstressing the engines.
Carro Armato M13/40 Specification
|Size (L-W-H)||4.915 x 2.280 x 2.370 m|
|Weight, battle ready||13 tonnes|
|Crew||4 (driver, machine gunner, gunner/commander, and loader)|
|Engine||FIAT-SPA 8T Modello 1940 diesel, 8-cylinder, 11,140 cm³ 125 hp at 1’800 rpm|
|Armament||one Cannone da 47/32 Modello 1935 with 87 rounds, four 8 mm Breda Modello 1938 medium machine guns with 2,592 rounds|
|Armor||Hull: 30 mm front, 25 mm sides and rear. Turret: 30 mm front, 25 mm sides and rear.|
|Production||710 built until mid 1941, less than 25 in RSI service.|
I Mezzi Corazzati Italiani della Guerra Civile 1943-1945 – Paolo Crippa – TankMasterSpecial Italian and English Edition Volume 5
I Carristi di Mussolini: Il Gruppo Corazzato “Leonessa” dalla MSVN alla RSI – Paolo Crippa – Witness to war Volume 3
… Come il Diamante. I Carristi Italiani 1943-45 – Marco Nava and Sergio Corbatti – Laran Editions
Dal Fronte Jugoslavo alla Val d’Ossola, Cronache di guerriglia e guerra civile. 1941-1945 – Ajmone Finestra – Mursia
Il Battaglione SS “Debica”: Una documentazione: SS-Freiwilligen Bataillon “Debica” – Leonardo Sandri – eBook
La “repubblica” dell’Ossola – Paolo Bologna
Storia dei Reparti Corazzati della Repubblica Sociale Italiana 1943-1945 – Paolo Crippa – Marvia Edizioni
I Sbarbàa e i Tosànn che Fecero la Repubblica, Fatti, Storie, Documenti dal Primo Dopoguerra alla Liberazione a Pioltello – Giacomo Cibra – Lupetti