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Cold War Italian Armor

M47 Patton in Italian Service

Italy (1952 – 1989)
Main Battle Tank – 2,580 purchased

M47 Patton shown in the Museo Storico dei Carristi in Rome. Source: metaldetector.it

The M47 Patton was designed in 1949 by the United States’ military (Detroit Arsenal, US Army, Corps of Engineers, and Corps of Ordnance) to replace the aging US tank fleet of obsolete M4 Shermans, M26 Pershings, and M46 Pattons. It never saw active combat with the US Army, but 8,576 vehicles were built and were extensively used by many nations around the world, such as France, Germany, Italy, Iran and Spain.

History

In 1948, before the Korean War, a new tank was slowly making its way through the acquisition process. The prototype was called T42. This 37.2 ton (33.8 t) tank had a turret with a thicker armor (133 mm against 102 mm) than the M46 Patton, but its 500 hp engine caused a lot of issues and its development bogged down.

At the dawn of the Korean War, the American engineers tried to quickly resolve the problem. The Detroit Tank Arsenal (DTA) took the M46 Patton hull and mounted the heavier T42 turret on it. The turret was armed with the new T119 90 mm cannon, a modernized version of the M3 gun mounted on the previous M26 and M46. The vehicle now weighed 48.6 tons (44.1 t) was provisionally called M46E2 or ‘Patton ll’. After some more modifications, it received the name of M47 Patton and went into production in June 1951, entering service in the US Army shortly thereafter. Despite having been built with the shortcomings of the US experience in Korea in mind, it was never used in action in this war. In 1955, it was replaced in frontline units of the US Army by the more powerful and modern M48 Patton.

A frame taken from a 1959 video of an M47 Patton in service in the Esercito Italiano. Notice the machine gunner position and the T80E6 early type tracks. Source: footage.framepool.com

In the Ranks of the Italian Army

Nine hundred M47 Pattons were supplied to the Esercito Italiano (EI – Italian Army) by the USA within the Mutual Defense Assistance Act, and remained in service from 1952 until the end of 1981 in all armored units, including the Carabinieri Tank Brigade.

The Mutual Defense Assistance Act was a US military aid program to support its allies in the fight against the Communist bloc during the early stages of the Cold War. The program began in 1949 and lasted until the 1970s, and included the supply of military equipment on very advantageous terms. A total of $3.3 billion of surplus military vehicles were received by several European states, such as France, Spain, Belgium, Norway and Italy, which, due to their proximity to the USSR and their underdeveloped war industry in the late 1940s and early 1950s, received mostly tanks, but also war planes, submarines and warships.

When it first entered service, the M47 Patton replaced the WW2-vintage and obsolete Semoventi M41 and M42 da 75/18, M4 Shermans, and other vehicles based on the Sherman hull of the Italian Army. The Shermans were sold off to the Israelis or used as driver training vehicles until 1960 and they were then scrapped.

The 90 mm M36 gun of the Patton was much appreciated by the Italian tankmen who could now deploy vehicles capable of facing the most powerful Soviet vehicles of the time, such as the T-55. Italy then received two more batches of M47 Pattons, the first in 1962, when the Italian Army obtained another 1,000 M47s, bought at a discount price from the US Army, which was decommissioning them. Finally, in 1969, another 600 vehicles were bought from the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) which had retired them from service. After the acquisition of the German batch, the Italian Army owned 2,580 M47 Pattons, 30% of the entire M47 production. The camouflage was not changed and remained the typical US Army olive drab.

The vehicles used by Italy were provided with all three types of muzzle brakes, the early one also mounted on the M46 Patton, the mid one with two side holes, and a few later ‘T’-shaped ones used on the M48 Patton.

The three models of muzzle brakes used on the M47 Patton. Source: pinterest.com

Italian modifications

From the late ’50s up to 1960, all the Italian M47s were modified in Italian factories by removing the hull machine gun and covering the hole with an armor plate, eliminating the hull machine gunner’s seat and the 7.62 mm side rack. The hull machine gunner’s hatch was sealed by welding it to the hull and the periscope was removed. However, the emergency hatch door under the machine gunner’s seat was left. This change reduced the crew to 4 men. The Browning M1919 coaxial machine gun was replaced by an Italian-made Beretta MG42/59 7.62 mm and the 60-round rack in the hull was modified by adding more armor. Also, the radio equipment was changed and the standard radio SCR-528 was changed with the SCR-508 which was previously mounted only on the platoon command tanks. On the platoon command tanks, the radio was changed with a more powerful Magneti Marelli radio that had a 150 km range. All the tanks received 23 inch (58 cm) wide T84E1 tracks instead of the old T80E6 type used on the M46 Patton. The early type muzzle brakes were all substituted with mid type ones.

An Italian M47 Patton during training in a forest. The Italian M47s were modified by removing the hull machine gun. This is probably a platoon command vehicle, as it has painted white bands on the mudguards. Source: antoniobassetti.org

Italian M47 Patton Battalions

At the end of 1952, after crew training, the M47 Patton went to equip some Italian regiments. On 29th December 1952, the 132nd Tank Regiment “M.O. Secchiaroli” of the Armored Division “Ariete” received 315 M47 Pattons. On 1st January 1953, the 4th Tank Regiment “M.O. Pentimalli” of the Armored Division “Pozzuolo del Friuli” received 315 M47 Pattons. In mid-January 1953, the 31st Tank Regiment “M.O. Cracco” of the Armored Division “Centauro” received 315 M47 Patton.

The Divisional Scouting Battalion (Battaglione Esplorante Divisionale – BED) of the Infantry Divisions “Granatieri di Sardegna”, “Legnano” and “Folgore” received 51 M47s each.

The second batch of US-bought vehicles arrived in 1962. They equipped the Tank Battalion and the Divisional Scouting Group (Gruppo Esplorante Divisionale – GED) of the Mountain Divisions “Cremona” and “Mantova”, partly replacing the old M24 Chaffee. In total, the two divisions had 156 tanks, of which about 100 were M47 Patton.

In 1963, the entire Armored Division “Ariete” and Armored Division “Centauro” were equipped with the M47, replacing the older M26 Pershing in the Cavalry and Scouting Regiments. The older Second World War tanks in their use were later scrapped.

Some of the 1,000 ex-US tanks were not immediately modified due to a workers’ strike involving many Italian factories in 1959, including those where the tanks were converted. In those years the left-wing parties in Italy had more than 38% of the support and fearing that the striking workers might use the M47 Patton for rebel purposes, the police harshly suppressed the strikes and demonstrations.

After the strikes were quelled and normality was restored, the last M47 modifications were finished in late 1963. In mid-1964, they were put into service in other Italian regiments. The 1st Armored Bersaglieri Regiment of the 131st Armored Division “Centauro” received 157 M47 Pattons and, at last, the Cavalry Brigade “Pozzuolo del Friuli” was equipped with about 200 M47s.

At that time, the Italian tank battalions were organized in platoons with 4 tanks and a platoon command tank. A company had 16 tanks, three platoons plus a company command tank. The battalion had 51 tanks, with three companies plus three command tanks. A regiment had 157 tanks, three battalions plus 4 command tanks.

In total, an Italian Armored Division fully equipped with M47 Pattons was in possession of 315 tanks plus a Cavalry Squadron Group with 17 tanks, an Armored Cavalry Regiment with 52 tanks, three squadron groups plus commander tank and a Divisional Scouting Battalion with 51 tanks. A total of 1,901 M47 Patton were in active service in the Italian Army in 1967.

A color image of an M47 Patton, probably taken in the early ‘50s. The machine gunner’s position is still present. Source: antoniobassetti.altervista.org

After 1962, the new commander of the Arma dei Carabinieri (Arm of Carabinieri), Giovanni de Lorenzo, asked the Italian High Command to arm his Carabinieri, the military police, with these powerful tanks.

After many requests, in mid- or late-1963, the Italian Army agreed, and in 1964, part of the new M47s were supplied to the 11th Mechanized Brigade of the Carabinieri. Fifty went to arm the Brigade while another unclear quantity was supplied to the Carabinieri Vehicle Maintenance schools to familiarize the crews with these tracked vehicles. The Carabinieri crews would have followed the training course in the Training School like normal tank crews of the Italian Army and then, after the tests were finished, they would be able to operate on the Carabinieri vehicles.

Carabinieri recruits of the 7th Battalion during Exercise Polygon by River Meduna, being trained with an M47 Patton. The uniforms are from the Italian Army but the fulard and the caps they wear are of the Arma dei Carabinieri. The shell in the soldier’s hand is a DM 502, a training HE-P (High-Explosive – Plastic) shell. The tank is equipped with a ‘T’ muzzle brake. Source: armorama.com

In 1967, it was discovered that Carabinieri commander General de Lorenzo intended to stage a fascist coup in Italy to eliminate all the politicians of the Partito Comunista d’Italia (PCI – Communist Party of Italy) and the Partito Socialista d’Italia (PSI – Socialist Party of Italy), who at that time were gathering momentum in Italy.

The plan was foiled and, in order to prevent another coup, the Army requisitioned some of the Carabinieri’s tanks. Twenty remained in service until 1970, when they were sent from their headquarters in Rome to Reggio Calabria, southern Italy, due to political problems. There, violent clashes were erupting in the city between the Police and the Carabinieri on one side, and the citizens of the city on the other.

Only a few M113s were used during the months of the confrontations in Reggio Calabria. The M47 tanks were never used, but they served as a deterrent to avoid attempts by citizens to occupy the city by force.

M47 Patton tanks belonging to the Carabinieri brigade on a train bound for Reggio Calabria. Sorce: lagazzettaonline.info

Many sources, such as L’M47 Patton Nell’Esercito Italiano, state that in 1969, entire M47 Pattons were buried and some M47 turrets were mounted in special concrete boxes and used as bunkers in the fortifications of the Alpine Wall, a series of defensive lines positioned in the eastern border of Italy to defend against hypothetical attacks by the armies of the Warsaw Pact. None of the fortifications employed M47s, as it was preferred to use the obsolete M26 Pershing tanks which had a similar armament to that of the M47 Patton. Some images are available on the web that show some 90 mm M36 cannons mounted in anti-tank bunkers. These were probably mounted in the 70s.

A photo showing two Italian infantrymen next to an M36 90 mm gun of an M47 Patton in a concrete bunker. Source: associazionenazionalefantiarresto.it

In the 1970s, the Italian Army received an improved version from many Italian companies, which developed them as private projects such as OTO Melara in La Spezia, Officine Marconi and Astra, all of which made a single prototype using M47 tanks.

OTO prototype version

In mid-1967, a prototype of the M47 Patton ‘Italiano’ was started. The changes made by OTO Melara were the replacement of the 90 mm cannon with a British Royal Ordnance L7 105 mm L.52 NATO cannon on the mounts for the existing M36. The Continental AV-1790-5B petrol engine was substituted with a more efficient AVDS-1790-2A diesel engine of the M60 Patton, whilst the 1,055-liter fuel tanks were left unchanged. A heat suppressor to reduce the infrared signature was also installed. The General Motors CD-850-4 gearbox was substituted with the M60 Patton’s hydraulic gearbox, a new design of the final reduction drives. A new electrical system and a redesigned diesel feeding system with diesel filters were other modifications.

The prototype was ready in early 1968. It could carry 56 rounds, 10 in ready racks and 46 in a new armored and fireproof rack in the hull. A Fire Control System (FCS) and a computerized optical sight were also added.

The vehicle’s range was increased from 160 to 400 km (60% more) according to the tests carried out in 1968.

An M47 Patton rearmed with the 105 mm L7 cannon at the OTO-Melara factory of La Spezia, North Italy, early ‘70s. Source: OTO Melara

Marconi prototype version

Starting in 1969, Marconi also produced an upgraded version, only a prototype was built, mostly with regards to the firing systems. It added a brand new fire control system and sights and replaced the original stereoscopic rangefinder with a more efficient one made in Italy.

It was also proposed to transform the tank into a Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun (SPAAG). An Armored Recovery Vehicle (ARV) version was also proposed later, re-engined with the 525 hp General Motors 12V-71T diesel, but this was not a success.

Other prototypes

In 1967, three other factories proposed an engine upgrade of the M47. These were the FIAT Military Vehicles company with a Continental engine, the ISI Company with an MTU MB 838 CaM 500, 10-cylinder multi-fuel with a power of 820 hp, the same engine of the Leopard 1, and the Servizio Tecnico di Motorizzazione with an unidentified diesel engine.

Astra also presented upgrade projects for the turret and for the gun elevation mechanisms.

During 1968, all the four upgrade versions were homologated and presented to the Italian Army, which submitted them to rigorous trials to test the efficiency of the new engines and the stress on the frame from the 105 mm cannon gun in the OTO version.

On October 10th of the same year, the OTO prototype with the 105/52 cannon was presented to the Pakistani and Spanish delegations. Both armies wanted to modernize the M47 Pattons in service in their countries and were invited by OTO Melara in the hope of finding buyers. During the tests, the vehicle reached a maximum speed of 73 km/h and hit targets over 4,500 m away. The performance, however, did not achieve the desired results of the two delegations, which did not order any vehicles.

The Spanish produced their own version, possibly inspired by the OTO Melara project. This new tank was called the M47E2 Patton and was armed with the 105 mm L/52 Rheinmetall Rh-105 cannon of the Leopard 1 and received other small changes.

The Spanish M47E2 Patton. Source: otm-uswot.blogspot.com

The 46.8-tonne heavy tank was equipped with the M60 engine that increased the speed up to 56 km/h and, as in the OTO Melara model, the autonomy was increased to 400 km.

No vehicle was converted because the Italian Army was not interested in updating the M47 Patton preferring to buy other vehicles such as the Leopard 1, which was tested in 1970 and between 1971 and 1972, 200 Leopard 1s and 69 Leopard ARVs were acquired by Italy.

Top view of the OTO prototype armed with the 105 mm L7 cannon and the M60 engine deck. Source: reddit.com

The scrapping of the M47 tanks began in the late seventies. One hundred re-engined M47s, some from OTO Melara and others from Marconi, were given to the dictatorial regime of Mohamed Siad Barre in Somalia. They were used in the Ogaden War to balance the supply of Soviet material to Ethiopia. They were employed in the war with great success, fighting toe-to-toe with the Ethiopian T-34/85 and T-55. In the civil war that broke out a few years later, they were again employed but this time, due to a lack of spare parts, they were soon put out of use and employed in fixed positions.

A Somali child armed with a WW2-era PPSh-41. In the background, an M47 Patton is abandoned. Source: gettyimage.com

With the advent of the more modern M60A1 and Leopard 1A2, the M47 was gradually discontinued. The last vehicles were in service in the 1980s with the Armored Schools and the Brigades with less operational readiness (Aosta, Acqui, Friuli and Cremona). In Italy, the last M47 Patton was replaced from the second line units when the B1 Centauro tank destroyer entered service in 1989.

Conclusion

The M47 Patton II, produced to provide the US Army with a simple to manufacture and inexpensive tank, was replaced from US service as soon as possible in favor of much more efficient and powerful vehicles. In Italy, it was appreciated for its performances as, until 1952, the Italian Army still mostly employed tanks from the Second World War, such as the Semovente da 75/18 or the US M4 Sherman. Used until the late ‘80s, the M47 was for many years the main tank of the Italian Tank Corp before the service entry of the more powerful M60 Patton and Leopard 1A2.

An Italian M47 Patton showing the M2 Browning machine-gun and the mantlet canvas cover. An illustration by Ardhya Vesp Anargha

Sources

Rivista ufficiale Esercito Italiano 1980
L’M47 Patton Nell’Esercito Italiano – Filippo Cappellano, Fabrizio Esposito, Daniele Guglielmi
Patton: A History of the American Main Battle tank, Volume 1 by R.P. Hunnicutt

M47 specifications

Dimensions L x W x H 27 ft 11 in x 11 ft 6 in x 10 ft 1 in
(8.51 m x 3.51 m x 3.32 m)
Total weight, battle ready 45.45 tons (46.17 tonnes)
Crew 5
Propulsion Continental AV-1790-5B 12-cylinder, 4 cycle, petrol/gasoline 810 hp
Top Speed 30 mph (48 km/h)
Operational maximum range 80 miles (129 km)
Armament 90 mm M36 (T119E1) gun in M78 mount in turret, 71 rounds
Additional Armament 2x 7.62 mm Beretta MG42/59 machine guns, 4000 rounds
1x .50 cal Browning M2 HB machine gun, 500 rounds
Armor 0.5 to 4.5 inches
(13 mm to 144 mm)
Production 2580 used by the Italian Army, about 100 modernized with a diesel engine
Data source Patton: A History of the American Main Battle tank, Volume 1 by R.P. Hunnicutt

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