As the belligerents dug into defensive positions to cover themselves from machine-gun fire and artillery, they deployed wire to protect themselves and ensnare enemy troops. Whether it was the Western Front or, as Italy knew it, the North Eastern front, the result was the same, a brutal stalemate with relatively little movement from each side and very high casualty rates. Great Britain, France, and Italy were all brought to the same conclusion at around the same time. A vehicle capable of crossing the shell shattered ground and wire obstacles with armor to protect itself from enemy machine-gun fire was going to be needed.
The Italians, for their part, whilst having their own developments underway, dispatched a team of their own experts led by Major Bennicelli (an artillery officer) to see the vehicles developed by their allies, Great Britain and France, following their use of tanks in 1917 and to report back.
Examination of the Schneider
A thorough examination of the French CA Schneider was conducted as part of this study in February 1917. The Schneider CA was an unusual vehicle, weighing 13 tonnes and classed by the mission as a Medium Tank. Six meters long, 2 meters wide and 2.25 meters high, it was powered by just a 60hp petrol engine and protected by just 11mm of armor plate. Offensively, it carried a short 75 mm gun in the right-hand side and two Hotchkiss 8 mm machine-guns. Ammunition supply was 90 rounds for the main gun and 2400 rounds for the machine-guns. All this was to fit along with the 5 crewmen, making it a cramped and uncomfortable vehicle.
The novelty of a track run machine meant that the experts reported the means by which a track laying machine worked as well as the basic elements of the structure such as it being constructed based on two longitudinal beams and suspension by means of large springs. Examining the motor, it was reported to use a dry-plate clutch with a 3-speed gearbox connected to a transverse shaft carrying two opposing gears for driving the driving sprockets of the tank. To steer, the driver used a combination of the clutch and brake to vary drive from one track to another. As one track slows or stops, the other, still moving, turns the tank in the direction of the slower track. The driving arrangements were poorly arranged though, and the interior cramped. On the plus side, the use by the French of a multi-colored camouflage scheme was excellent and Major Bennicelli was impressed that the French also painted their artillery this way.
Obstacle crossing was a primary area of concern for the designs. In examining the Renault ‘Tipo Leggero (Light tank) – the Renault model FT, in comparison to the Schneider machine, Major Bennicelli made the following points. Standard trenches, which any design would have to negotiate, were up to 1.7 or 1.8 metres wide and vehicles should be able to negotiate steep slopes. The Schneider vehicle could only manage a 55% grade (less than 30 degrees) whereas the lighter Renault FT could manage a 100% grade (45 degree slope). This would be made even worse by the effect of artillery and rain on the ground, rending it very difficult for any machine to cross. Neither vehicle was, in any way, fast. Despite both being technically capable of between 2 and 8 km/h, it was his view that in the terrible ground conditions of the front lines, just 3 km/h could be expected with an operating time of just 6 to 8 hours.
Despite the excellent use of camouflage though, the Schneider has serious limitations and several changes were recommended. The primary one was the exposed location of the fuel tank at the front. It was too exposed to damage by the enemy and, being petrol-powered, posed a huge risk of fire. Next, it was suggested that a door to exit or enter the vehicle should be added in the side of the machine in addition to the rear door. This would assist crews escaping in the event of fire or breakdown. Two final suggestions were to improve the lot of the drive with an improved type of clutch to make steering easier, and the adoption of a periscope to aid visibility around the machine.
The Italian Machine
Despite the complaints about the machine being difficult to control and with issues over its performance crossing a trench or on an incline, the Italians obtained a single example from the French for an unknown price in April 1917. Schneider CA chassis number ‘212’ did not feature any of the recommended changes to the design, but it was slightly different to the standard French machine. It lacked any of the additional spaced armor and, for whatever reason, the exhaust fitted to it had come from vehicle serial number ‘101’. It was eventually painted grey and green in replacement of the French camouflage, but only after some initial tests.
Once in Italian hands, the vehicle was evaluated in the area of the Piave in northern Italy to see how it handled the difficult and mountainous terrain. Given the relatively poor showing of it in France, it is likely that following a similar outcome in Italy the idea of buying any more seemed remote. None the less and perhaps as a result of lack of experience, the High Command deemed the performance satisfactory and decided to buy more anyway. Negotiations, however, did not go as expected and for whatever reason, Italy was not able to secure orders for any more machines or a licence to build their own in Italy. The vehicle was not scrapped and it was transferred to the Departmental Headquarters for the nascent Tank Regiment in Bologna.
The vehicle remained there, presumably for display and teaching, until about 1936, when it was supposed to be transferred to a museum, although a photograph shows it still outside at that location in 1937. It was still a running vehicle at the time as it received registration number ‘R.E.1053’. No trace of the vehicle remains and it is assumed to have either been repurposed for use as a tractor or for training during WW2.
Tactical Employment of Tanks by the French
Major Bennicelli’s visit had not provided Italy with a successful or useful tank design in the form of the Schneider. It did have some success with the Renault, but more importantly, he also gathered evidence as to the tactical use of tanks by the French. In reporting on French tank organization, Major Bennicelli wrote that the vehicles of the Schneider type were divided into ‘Groups’, each of which was comprised of 4 batteries of 4 tanks, totaling 16 tanks each. Four such groups were organized with each of these larger groups having a dedicated supply section attached.
In combat, tanks were to be used to accompany the infantry, destroying machine-guns, with the infantry following to clear out enemy trenches. As a result, it was necessary that the tanks would have to be incorporated into infantry units. To promote smooth tactical coordination between tank and infantry, it was expected that the two branches would exercise together for months. There would also have to be some kind of provision for supporting and countering air power. It was absolutely essential that neither tanks nor infantry became separated from one another as neither could advance without assistance from the other. Tanks, he felt, should be used making the most of natural covers like dusk or fog and expressly so during a surprise attack. The tank could act as a mobile shield for up to 3 men at a time, but, as the enemy would concentrated artillery fire on the vehicles, the bulk of the troops should stay away from the tanks following as the second wave to seize the primary trench line. All of this information about the use of tanks would influence how Italy would eventually develop its own strategy for using tanks too.
Back in Use For a New War
By the time WW2 had started, Italy was still unprepared for a protracted war against modern professional armies. It was, amongst other issues, seriously short of a variety of equipment, including tractors for towing medium and heavy artillery.
As a result, the Italian Army was supplied with at least 11 examples of the Schneider CD by the Germans from captured French stocks. The Schneider CD was roughly the same basic vehicle as the CA tank but with a different and unprotected superstructure creating a driving cabin at the front. Able to tow loads of up to 5.4 tonnes, albeit slowly, the CD was an ideal addition to artillery units, and these 11 captured examples were officially registered into Italian Army inventory on March 12th 1942 with registration numbers ‘11155’ to ‘11165’ (both inclusive). None of the 11 vehicles used by Italy are known to have survived to this day.
Illustration of the Italian Schneider CA produced by Tank Enyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet.
|Dimensions (L x W x H)||6.32m x 2.30m x 2.05m
(20ft 9in x 7ft 6in x 6ft 9in)
|Total weight, battle ready||13.6 tons|
|Propulsion||Schneider 4 cyl petrol, 60 hp (45 Kw)|
|Speed||8 km/h (5 mph)|
|Range on/off road||80/30 km (50/19 mi)|
|Main Armament||1x Schneider 75 mm (2.95 in) blockhaus gun|
|Secondary Armament||2x Hotchkiss M1914 8 mm (0.31 in) machine guns|
|Armor||11 mm + 5.5 mm spaced (0.43+0.21 in)|
Gli autoveicoli da combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano, Nicola Pignato & Filippo Cappellano
La meccanizzazione dell’Esercito Italiano, Ceva and Curami
Tanks Encyclopedia Magazine, #3
The third issue covers WW1 armored vehicles — Hotchkiss Htk46 and Schneider CA and CD in Italian Service. WW2 section contains two splendid stories of the US and German ‘Heavy Armor’ — T29 Heavy Tank and Jagdtiger.
Our Archive section covers the history of early requirements for the Soviet heavy (large) tank. Worth mentioning, that the article is based on documents never published before.
It also contains a modeling article on how to create a terrain for diorama. And the last article from our colleagues and friends from Plane Encyclopedia covers the story of Northrop’s Early LRI Contenders — N-126 Delta Scorpion, N-144 and N-149!
All the articles are well researched by our excellent team of writers and are accompanied by beautiful illustrations and photos. If you love tanks, this is the magazine for you!