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WW2 RSI SPA-Viberti AS43

SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata

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

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

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

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

The Repubblica Sociale Italiana after the Armistice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Design

SPA-Viberti AS43

The Camionetta Desertica FIAT-SPA AS43 or SPA-Viberti AS43 was an Italian light reconnaissance unarmored vehicle developed for North African service as a cheaper, lighter, and easier to produce variant of the SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Sahariana’.

In Italian, the term ‘Camionetta’ (plural Camionette) designated unarmored cars, jeeps, or light trucks used in reconnaissance and infantry support roles.

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

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

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

The AS43 was produced from mid-1943 until the 8th September 1943 Armistice. After the German occupation of northern Italy, production was restarted for the German Army, which used the vehicles with some modifications until the end of the war.

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

Engine and Suspensions

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

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

There are doubts about the brakes. Italian Tanks and Combat Vehicles of World War II, written by Ralph Riccio, mentions that the Camionetta had hydraulic brakes, while the Le Camionette del Regio Esercito, written by Enrico Finazzer and Luigi Carretta, makes no mention of modifications to the original AS37 desert light truck, which had mechanical brakes with the brake pedal acting on pairs of brake jaws for each wheel.

The engine was a more powerful version of the one used on FIAT-SPA AS37, the SPA 18VT 4-stroke, 4-cylinder, petrol engine delivering 73 hp (or 75 hp, depending on the sources) at 2,000 rpm. This gave a maximum fully-loaded on-road speed of 68.5 km/h.

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

Structure

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

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

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

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

The cargo bay was completely modified, the spare wheel was moved from behind the cab, to the cargo bay’s rear, on a tiltable support that the crew could lower to permit 360° traverse to the main gun. The cargo bay’s sides were fixed and could not be lowered.

Developed as a desert vehicle, there were two lockers on the sides, between the rear mudguard and the commander and driver’s seats. Each locker could store five 20 liter jerry cans, with another six that could be positioned on the mudguards, for a total of 16 20 liter jerry cans for drinkable water, engine lubricant oil, and fuel. Obviously, given its use mainly in the Italian peninsula, the jerry cans were rarely used and the crew transported ammunition for the main gun in the side lockers instead.

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

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

The SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Armament

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

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

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

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

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

Operational Use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

SPA-Viberti AS43 Blindata Specification

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

Sources

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

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