Italian Social Republic (1944)
Armored Ambulance – Paper project
The SPA-Viberti AS43 Ambulanza Scudata (English: ‘Armored’ [literally ‘Shielded’] Ambulance) was a post-Armistice paper project of the Officine Viberti (English: Viberti Workshops) company of Turin. It was meant to equip the Italian units with an armored emergency vehicle that could evacuate wounded soldiers.
At that time, only parts of the Italian peninsula were under the rule of the fascist Repubblica Sociale Italiana or RSI (English: Italian Social Republic). In order to speed up production and save raw materials, Officine Viberti developed a new vehicle instead of reusing old hulls. It was developed on the Camionetta (English: Reconnaissance Car) SPA-Viberti AS43 reconnaissance vehicle chassis and FIAT-SPA S37 Autoprotetto (English: Armored [wheeled vehicle]) armored personnel carrier superstructure, with which it shared some parts. Unfortunately, this interesting design would never materialize and remained only a paper project.
Regio Esercito Projects Prior of the Armistice
After the first engagements between Italian and Commonwealth troops in North Africa in 1941, the Italian Regio Esercito’s (English: Royal Army) High Command immediately understood three important things:
- It was necessary to field a light armored car for fast reconnaissance as soon as possible.
- It was urgent to field an armored personnel carrier (APC) to quickly and safely transport soldiers across the desert battlefields.
- An armored ambulance to rescue and evacuate wounded soldiers safely was necessary.
The FIAT-SPA Trattore Leggero Modello 1937 ‘Libia’ (English: Light Tractor [Produced by] FIAT-SPA Model 1937), abbreviated FIAT-SPA TL37 ‘Libia’, was a light prime mover that had good mobility thanks to its powerful gasoline engine and large tires. The ‘Libia’ (English: Libya) was a version of that prime mover specifically developed to operate in North Africa. Using it as the basis, a new armored car was designed.
The new Autoblinda TL37 or Autoblinda AS37 (AS for Africa Settentrionale – North Africa) armored car had an open-topped turret armed with a powerful Cannone-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65 Modello 1935 (English: 20 mm L/65 Automatic Cannon Breda Model 1935) autocannon and a coaxial machine gun. Only one was built by the Ansaldo-Fossati plant in Sestri Ponente, near Genoa.
The Autoblinda AS37 prototype was shipped to North Africa, where it formed part of an experimental armored car platoon of the Regio Esercito, the Raggruppamento Esplorante del Corpo d’Armata di Manovra or RECAM (English: Reconnaissance Grouping of the Mobile Army Corp). RECAM was also equipped with 3 AB41s of the Army, and 9 AB41s and an AB40 from the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana or PAI (English: Police of the Italian Africa), which had arrived at a similar time. Unfortunately, not much is known about its service. It was abandoned at Sidi Rezegh, south of the main road between Tobruk and Bardia, east of El Adem, probably due to a mechanical failure. The AS37 project was abandoned in favor of the ‘AB’ series of armored cars, the most produced during the war. The AB armored cars, even if not as light as the Autoblinda TL37, were effective in the same role.
At the same time, in January 1941, the Regio Esercito started the development of a light armored personnel carrier based on the same FIAT-SPA TL37 ‘Libia’. About 4 months later, the project was completed, and in May 1941, it was tested at the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione (English: Center for Motorisation Studies) in Rome. On 24th May 1941, a total of 200 S37 Autoprotetti were ordered, of which only 150 were produced. Ironically enough, not a single FIAT-SPA S37 Autoprotetto, also known as Autoprotetto FIAT-SPA AS37 Coloniale (English: Colonial Armored [Wheeled Vehicle] FIAT-SPA AS37), was sent to North Africa. Instead, they were all deployed to the Balkans against the Yugoslavian Partisans.
With the FIAT-SPA S37 Autoprotetto, the Regio Esercito stopped further developments, completely ignoring their previous requirement for an armored ambulance. The need for an armored ambulance was probably considered no longer a priority, as the FIAT-SPA S37 Autoprotetti, like many other types of armored personnel carriers, could also be used to rescue wounded soldiers.
At the same time, probably in order to stem the problem of the absence of armored ambulances, the organization of the Regio Esercito’s divisions was revised. AfterMarch 1941, each motorized division in North Africa had a theoretical force of 360 motorized vehicles, including 20 ambulances. The armored divisions were also subject to similar changes. Starting from August 1941, each Italian armored division had a theoretical force of 1,198 motorized vehicles (tanks excluded), of which 26 were ambulances.
In North Africa, there was a development of ‘special’ vehicles by Italian frontline troops, which desperately needed vehicles to support their offensives. This is how some camionette were born, based on the chassis of the FIAT-SPA AS37 (AS in this case means Autocarro Sahariano – Saharan Truck), a light desert lorry developed on the chassis of the FIAT-SPA TL37 ‘Libia’ especially for desert environments.
In Italian, the term ‘camionetta’ (plural camionette) designates unarmored cars, jeeps, or light trucks used in reconnaissance and infantry support roles.
These easy-to-modify vehicles were appreciated due to their off-road characteristics and sturdiness. In late 1942, the Regio Esercito started to mass-produce vehicles with similar characteristics and for the same purposes. The first one was the Camionetta Desertica Modello 1943, of which 11 were produced and which was used mainly in the defense of Rome between 8th and 10th September 1943.
The production of the Camionette Desertiche Modello 1943 started in mid-to-late January 1943, when the Axis forces in North Africa were outnumbered by the Allied forces.
The Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43 began development in late 1942. It was initially designed to equip the compagnie sahariane (English: saharan companies). These were fast and mobile units meant to counter the British Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) and Special Air Force (SAS) patrol cars that attacked isolated air bases or supply and fuel depots.
Although the vehicle was intended for desert environments, when production started, it was clear to the Italian High Command that the vehicles would not reach North Africa in time to participate in the last stages of the North African campaign. The project was modified with the new goal of deploying reconnaissance cars in Europe.
The Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43 entered service in July 1943 and saw use in Italy with the troops of the Regio Esercito to prevent attacks by paratroopers and Allied landings on the Italian coast.
Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana Projects after the Armistice
After the Armistice of 8th September 1943, which led to the occupation of central and northern Italy by the Germans, the few vehicles captured and those produced between 1944 and 1945 were used almost exclusively by the Wehrmacht.
Of the dozens of Italian units loyal to Mussolini after the Armistice, only a couple used the Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43:
- The 2ª Compagnia (English: 2nd Company) of the Battaglione ‘Fulmine’ of the 2° Reggimento (English: 2nd Regiment) of the Xª Divisione MAS (English: 10th MAS Division) used a single modified vehicle, known as the SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata.
- The Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ (English: Armored Group) modified a certain number of vehicles at the Officine Viberti of Turin.
Between 2 and 6 Camionette SPA-Viberti AS43 were converted into Carrozzerie Speciali su Camionette SPA-Viberti AS43, small armored cars, similar to the Autoblinda TL37 produced 3 years before. In fact, the Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43 was derived from the Camionetta Desertica Modello 1943, itself derived from the FIAT-SPA AS37 light desert lorry, in turn derived from the FIAT-SPA TL37, on which the Autoblinda TL37 superstructure was built. A full circle of sorts.
The Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 was equipped with an Autoblindo AB41 medium reconnaissance armored car turret armed with a Cannone-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65 Modello 1935 and a coaxial 8 mm Mitragliatrice Media Breda Modello 1938 (English: Breda Model 1938 Medium Machine Gun).
Another curious vehicle was the SPA-Viberti AS43 Autoprotetta, of which between 2 and 4 vehicles were produced for the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’. These were standard Camionette SPA-Viberti AS43 with armored plates added to create an open-topped crew compartment to protect from enemy light arms fire on the front, sides, and rear. The 2 crewmembers and the 6 soldiers transported on board were armed with a total of 2 machine guns mounted on spherical supports on the front and rear armored plates.
Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43
The Camionetta FIAT-SPA AS43 or SPA-Viberti AS43 was an Italian light reconnaissance unarmored vehicle. It was the first Italian vehicle of this category especially developed for continental battlefields, together with the Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Metropolitana’ (or ‘Sahariana II’), a continental version of the Camionetta Desertica SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Sahariana’, the first camionetta developed and produced.
The SPA-Viberti AS43 was developed by Società Piemontese Automobili or SPA (English: Piedimontese Automobiles Company), a Fabbrica Italiana Automobili di Torino or FIAT (English: Italian Automobiles Company of Turin) subsidiary, and by Officine Viberti, a coachwork company, both based in Turin. The project was started using the chassis of the FIAT-SPA AS37 light desert lorry.
The SPA-Viberti AS43 was produced from early 1943 until the 8th September 1943 Armistice. After the German occupation of northern Italy, production was restarted for the German Army, which used the vehicles, with some modifications, until the end of the war.
To produce the camionetta, the FIAT-SPA AS37 chassis was lowered from a ground clearance of 390 mm to 345 mm. The cab was completely modified, apart from the hood and the radiator grille. The side doors, the windshield, the roof, and the third seat were removed. The cargo bay was completely modified. The spare wheel was moved from behind the cab to the cargo bay’s rear, on tiltable support that the crew could lower to allow the main gun to fire at 0° elevation, even to the rear. The loading bay’s sides were fixed and could not be lowered.
The main gun of the Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43 could be a Cannone da 47/32 Modello 1935 (English: 47 mm L/32 Cannon Model 1935) support gun or a Cannone-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65 Modello 1935 anti-aircraft gun. The vehicle’s commander also fired a Mitragliatrice Media Breda Modello 1937 or Modello 1938 (English: Breda Model 1937 or 1938 Medium Machine Gun) on a support mounted on the left side of the cab. The ammunition was placed in a small rack between the driver’s and commander’s seats and on the sides.
The Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43’s Predecessors
In January 1944, Turin’s Officine Viberti resumed the project of the Autoblindo TL37, this time based on the chassis of the Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43, in order to obtain a vehicle that was cheaper and easier to produce than the armored cars of the ‘AB’ series.
In April 1944, the vehicles were ready, and in May 1944, they were seen for the first time outside their production plant.
It is likely that the SPA-Viberti AS43 Ambulanza Scudata’s development started after the development of the Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43. In fact, from the original drawings, many common details can be observed. This was probably done by Officine Viberti to speed up development, production, and total costs.
The armored ambulance vehicle was developed by Officine Viberti. This was a company specialized in doing bodyworks for Lancia Veicoli Industriali (English: Lancia Industrial Vehicles) and FIAT Veicoli Commerciali (English: FIAT Commercial Vehicles) trucks during the pre-war period. When the Second World War began, the majority of the Officine Viberti work was converted to the bodywork of military vehicles, such as fuel carriers, ammunition carriers and the production of fuel trailers, tank trailers, and other specialized vehicles, including, jointly with SPA, of armored cars and camionette during the war.
The SPA-Viberti AS43 Ambulanza Scudata was developed after the Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43. For this reason, it shared the same chassis, engine, and mudguards as the armored car.
Engine and Suspension
The Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43 had all-wheel drive, as did the FIAT-SPA AS37. On this new vehicle, only the front wheels steered, reducing the mechanical complexity and the need for maintenance of the steering system.
The front wheels had independent coil spring suspension coupled with hydraulic shock absorbers, which guaranteed great comfort on rough terrain. The rear wheels had inverse leaf springs, but these were reinforced compared to those of the FIAT-SPA TL37 light prime mover. The Camionetta AS43 had hydraulic brakes.
The engine was a more powerful version of the one used on the FIAT-SPA AS37, the SPA 18VT 4a Variante, 4-stroke, 4-cylinder, petrol engine delivering 73 hp (or 75 hp, depending on the sources) at 2,000 rpm. The maximum speed of the 5 tonne battle loaded Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43 was 68.5 km/h. Due to the size and total weight, the SPA-Viberti AS43 Ambulanza Scudata would probably have had a maximum speed that did not exceed 50 to 55 km/h.
The gearbox was probably the same as on the FIAT-SPA AS37, with 5 forward gears and reverse. Nothing is known about speeds and ranges. The rear-mounted 120 liter fuel tank used on the Carrozzeria Speciale could not be used on this vehicle due to the presence of a rear door. The tank could have been placed under the patient’s compartment or on the right side of the same compartment.
The frame had a wheelbase of 2,500 mm, the same of the FIAT-SPA TL37 ‘Libia’ and all the vehicles developed on its chassis. In order to increase the internal space, inside the armored ambulance version, the rear overhang was increased to 1,400 mm for a total length of 4,945 mm, as for the FIAT-SPA S37 Autoprotetto. This was a few centimeters more than the Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43 and the Carrozzeria Speciale.
The engine compartment was at the front and it had a single armored radiator grille. In contrast, the Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 had the radiator grille divided into 4 pieces due to a redesigned and well-angled front. This change for the ambulance was presumably done to save money and speed up production. The Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 had a better sloped frontal arc armored plates to increase protection, while the armored ambulance, although armored, did not have the same protection level.
Contrary to what one might imagine, the engine compartment was not the same as that of the Carrozzeria Speciale, but was instead inherited from the FIAT-SPA S37 Autoprotetto. Why the Officine Viberti design team made this decision is unclear, not least because the FIAT-SPA S37 Autoprotetto was produced at the Ansaldo-Fossati production plant in Sestri Ponente near Genoa, while the Carrozzeria Speciale was assembled in Turin, at the Officine Viberti plant in Corso Peschiera 249. Maybe there were some spare Autoprotetti armored superstructures in some depots and an eventual prototype could be assembled starting from these spare parts. It is plausible that, if the vehicle had been produced, in order to speed up assembly, the engine compartment would have been the same as the Carrozzeria Speciale.
On the engine deck, there were two inspection hatches, which were the same size as the FIAT-SPA S37 Autoprotetto’s hatches, but shorter than the ones used on the Carrozzeria Speciale. In order to remove the engine, the bolts of the engine deck had to be unscrewed and the plate lifted with a winch.
The driver was on the right and the commander on the left. The 2 crewmembers had hatches closable by a lever to view the battlefield. When the ports were closed, they could use 2 rectangular vision slits.
The main difference between the Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 and the SPA-Viberti AS43 Ambulanza Scudata was the rest of the superstructure. The most noticeable difference was the absence of the left door, substituted on the Ambulanza Scudata by a spare tire support. On the right, a door was divided into two parts due to the angled armored plates. The door opened backwards, and would not provide adequate frontal protection to the crewmembers if they exited the vehicle in an emergency situation.
From the original (and only) drawings of the vehicle, it seems that the door was identical to those of the Carrozzeria Speciale, but placed a few dozen centimeters ahead. Another interesting thing that can be noticed is that, in order to speed up the design process and future production, the designers took the left side door from the Carrozzeria Speciale and placed it on an inverted frame on the Ambulanza Scudata. For this reason, inconveniently, it would have only been able to open backwards.
The patient’s compartment was more rectangular-shaped and higher than the Carrozzeria Speciale‘s fighting compartment. On the rear, there was a central door divided into two parts, two stoplights on the lower side, and the license plate. To speed up production, both the side and rear doors were not equipped with slits. This could be a serious drawback, as the slits could have been useful for the crewmembers to check the surrounding area before opening the door in order to prevent enemy ambushes.
Internally, the vehicle had the driving compartment connected to the patient’s compartment, decreasing the comfort for the wounded soldiers during transport, but offering more space and allowing, in case of emergency, for the commander to help the medic, even when the vehicle was being driven.
The interior of the vehicle was arranged in the standard way of other armored ambulances of the era, such as the German Sd.Kfz.251/8 Mittlere KrankenPanzerwagen (English: Medium Armored Ambulance).
On the left side, there were two stretchers, probably foldable in order to offer more space while not transporting severely wounded personnel. On the right side, there was a seat for the medic and most likely another seat for a lightly wounded soldier or a nurse. Medicines and medical equipment were doubtless stored behind the commander and driver’s seats and on the right armored wall.
From the vehicle’s original drawings, it seems that the roof of the patient’s compartment could be opened to some degree to presumably offer light and fresh air to the wounded personnel on board.
The water tank cap was placed on the engine compartment, on the front, while the unprotected headlights were mounted in front of the mudguards. The vehicle had four armored mudguards to prevent small arms rounds from piercing the tires. On the front fenders sat the width-limit indicators, used by the driver to help drive on narrow mountain roads or to park.
The tires had the usual dimensions for Italian armored cars, with 60 cm rims, giving this armored ambulance great off-road capabilities. These armored cars had the tires developed by the Pirelli Company of Milan specifically for continental terrain: the Pirelli Tipo ‘Artiglio’ 9 x 24″ (22.8 x 60 cm), the Pirelli Tipo ‘Sigillo Verde’ 11.25 x 24″ (28.5 x 60 cm), and the Pirelli Tipo ‘Libia’ 9.75 x 24″ (24.76 x 60 cm) desert tires. The ‘Libia’ tire’s dimensions are specified in the original drawing. Given the chaotic state of the RSI and its armed forces, these tires were common even after the loss of the North African campaign.
The rims were not modified and the vehicle could have mounted all the tires produced by Pirelli for the 24″ rims, also mounted on the Autoblindo AB series armored cars, the Camionette SPA-Viberti AS42, and the FIAT-SPA TM40 prime mover.
The total weight of this paper project is not known, but it is probable that it ranged between 4 tonnes to 4.5 tonnes. This is because the Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS43 chassis weighed 2.62 tonnes (without fuel, cooling water, oil etc) and the armored superstructure probably weighed about a tonne. The equipment, fuel, cooling water, lubricant oil and passengers would have increased the total weight.
Armor and Protection
The armored ambulance was probably equipped with the same Carrozzeria Speciale su SPA-Viberti AS43 armor plate type, which was 8 mm thick on all the sides of the superstructure.
The shapes of the engine compartment and various sections of the patient’s compartment are similar to those of the FIAT-SPA S37 Autoprotetto, which could suggest that part of the armor plates for the ambulance were the same as the pre-Armistice designed armored personnel carrier. This means that the armor plates could also have ranged between 8.5 mm thick armored plates on the front and 6 mm thick armored plates on the sides and rear, as on the FIAT-SPA S37 Autoprotetto. This is not a far-fetched theory, as the role of the vehicle was to rescue wounded soldiers from the battlefield and it did not need heavy armor to perform this task. As per the Geneva Convention, in theory, ambulances should not be fired upon and the armor was more to protect the crew from shrapnel and stray hits. The vehicles would have lacked floor protection, which means that, in case of a mine detonation, the soldiers on board would be extremely vulnerable.
As on most Italian armored vehicles of the war, the armor was made of steel plates riveted to an internal structure. On the Carrozzeria Speciale su AS43, the armored superstructure had a mass of 911.23 kg, excluding connecting elements such as bolts and rivets. It is probable that in the Ambulanza Scudata, the armored superstructure exceeded a tonne of weight due to its dimensions, even if assembled with thinner armor plates. On the other hand, the absence of any armament or a rotating turret lightened the total weight of the Ambulanza Scudata.
There is no information about possible defensive armament or other protective features, such as smoke launchers. It is probable that the crew had to defend themselves with their personal weapons, such as pistols or rifles.
The crew most likely consisted of three personnel: driver; a medic or commander, who was probably licensed to treat the wounded; and a medic or a nurse, seated in the patient’s compartment.
The vehicle was equipped with 2 stretchers for seriously injured soldiers, but presumably had enough space for a third wounded soldier seated on the right side. As in the Sd.Kfz.251/8, it is imaginable that the number of wounded soldiers seated could be increased by removing or folding the stretchers.
The SPA-Viberti AS43 Ambulanza Scudata could have been an effective vehicle on the Second World War’s battlefields. The speed would not have been very high, but it would have had great mobility, even off-road.
Unfortunately for the Italians, Officine Viberti developed it too late in the war, when the German and Italian forces were without raw materials and out of time. Such a vehicle would have cost significant time that could be spent producing an armored fighting vehicle. For these reasons, and the chaotic state Italy was in on either side of the Armistice, this vehicle was never actually produced, not even as a prototype.
Specification of the SPA-Viberti AS43 Ambulanza Scudata
|Size (L-W-H)||4.945 x ~1.900 x ~2.200 m|
|Weight, battle ready||4 to 4.5 tonnes|
|Crew||3 (driver, commander, medic/nurse) + 2 wounded soldiers on stretchers|
|Engine||SPA 18VT 4a Variante, 4-cylinder, petrol engine, 73 hp at 2,000 rpm|
|Speed||~ 50 km/h|
|Armor||6 mm to 8.5 mm|
Gli Autoveicoli da Combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano, Volume Secondo, Tomo II – Nicola Pignato and Filippo Cappellano – Ufficio Storico dello Stato Maggiore dell’Esercito – 2002
Semicingolati, Motoveicoli e Veicoli Speciali del Regio Esercito Italiano 1919-1943 – Giulio Benussi – Intergest Publishing – 1976
Italian Tanks and Combat Vehicles of World War II – Ralph A. Riccio – Mattioli 1885 – 2010
Le Camionette del Regio Esercito. FIAT-SPA AS/37, SPA-Viberti AS/42, FIAT-SPA AS/43, Desertica 43, i Reparti che le Impiegarono – Enrico Finazzer and Luigi Carpetta – Gruppo Modellistico Trentino – 2014
One reply on “SPA-Viberti AS43 Ambulanza Scudata”
While their tanks left a lot to be desired,the Italian Armoured Cars and Heavy wheeled vehicles looked very useful