Italy 1941-1954, Armored Car – 667 built
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In 1937, the Regio Esercito (Eng. Italian Royal Army) realized that the Lancia 1ZM armored cars in service in the reconnaissance units since 1915, still employed in the Italian African Colonies and in the Spanish Civil War, even if still efficient, were obsolete because they were not fast, were weakly armored and had bad off-road driving capabilities. This led to the development of the Autoblindo Fiat-Ansaldo series, of which the most prominent was the AB41.
History of the AB Armored Car Series
The Italian Army, which was one of the first armies to use armored cars in 1912 with the FIAT Arsenale, held armored cars in high esteem for their role of long-range reconnaissance vehicles for armored divisions and support to infantry actions. The armored cars used in World War I received positive comments from the Army High Command who were impressed by the usefulness of the new vehicles. Between 1918 and 1932, there were a number of prototypes of various armored vehicles which, however, led to nothing other than the 46 FIAT 611s produced by Ansaldo with a maximum road speed of only 28 km/h and a range of 180 km. Italian officers were not satisfied with the new armored vehicle which during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War, received more criticism than the older Lancia 1ZM. This led the Italian Army to give an order to all Italian companies for a new wheeled vehicle to replace the Lancia 1ZM which was being used in Spain and the FIAT 611.
Around the same time, the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana or PAI (Eng. Italian Police of Africa) unilaterally requested the development of an armored car for reconnaissance duties from Ansaldo to be used in the Italian African colonies of Libya and Ethiopia, where anti-colonial resistance groups were still present and light tanks could not adequately perform the long-range reconnaissance role that armored cars provided. This request was also aimed to replace the old FIAT-Terni-Tripoli and Lancia 1ZM that arrived in Africa after 1918, which by that point, had experienced 20 years of continuous service and suffered from several problems due to a lack of spare parts.
History of the Prototype
The two orders were answered by the FIAT-SPA and Ansaldo consortium, which began to develop a wheeled vehicle that would meet the requirements of the Italian Army and the Colonial Police. The feature that was most taken into consideration was the off-road driving, in fact, the vehicle used as the basis was the TM40 (Medium Tractor Mod. 1940), a vehicle used to tow artillery, in development since 1938 which only entered service in 1942.
One of the biggest issues that had been found in the previous armored cars was the time it took to disengage from a firefight and flee, which was made harder by the narrow streets in the villages of the colonies. The problem was solved by adding another driving position on the right side of the rear of the new armored car. The steering system was then modified, allowing the front and rear driver to steer with all four wheels.
The armament was composed of three 8 mm caliber Breda Mod. 38 machine guns and placed, as on the Lancia armored car, two in the turret and one on the rear, on the left side of the rear driver. The engine was a Fiat SPA ABM 1 6-cylinder petrol engine 78 hp.
On May 15th, 1939, the two prototypes produced, at the time called AutoBlindoMitragliatrice Mod. 1940 or ABM 40 (Eng. Machine gun Armored Car Mod. 1940), were presented to Benito Mussolini and the Italian Army during the inauguration of the FIAT production plant in Mirafiori, Turin.
Two weeks later, one of the prototypes was sent by sea to Africa Orientale Italiana or AOI (Eng: Italian East Africa), modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, where it covered 13,000 km during tests. After some modifications to speed up production, even if the tests revealed that the main armament was not powerful enough, the vehicle was accepted into service in March 1940 and ordered in the first batch of 176 units due to the imminent entry into the war, under the name of AutoBlinda Mod. 1940 (Eng. Armored Car Mod. 1940) or more simply AB40.
The first 5 vehicles were sent to the Centro di Addestramento Autoblindo (Eng: Armored Car Training Centre) of Pinerolo in March 1941. Twenty-four examples of the new armored car were produced with the temporary Mod. 1940 turret, while a prototype was created with the Mod. 1941 turret of the L.6/40 light tank.
The new version, called AB41, was armed with the Cannone 20/65 Breda Mod. 1935, overcoming the lack of firepower of the AB40, and a more powerful petrol engine, the FIAT SPA ABM 2 6-cylinder 88 hp. The modifications increased the weight, from 6.8 to 7.4 tons. After a few tests, it was judged favorably by the army, which authorized its production. After a short while, the new Mod. 1941 turrets, which were already being produced for the L.6, arrived at the assembly lines. The new engines took longer, as the assembly lines had to be modified, so it was decided to modify the AB40 armored cars by mounting the Mod. 41 turret on a hull powered by the FIAT SPA ABM 1 engine. These “hybrid” armored cars are indistinguishable from the AB41 from the outside, and the total production number is 435, 65% of the whole AB41 production.
The AB41 was the standard reconnaissance armored car of the Royal Italian Army which used it with excellent results in the African Campaign, the Russian Front and the Balkans from mid-1941 to September 8th, 1943. After the September 1943 Armistice of Cassibile, all the AB41s were requisitioned by the Wehrmacht, which went on to reuse them in France and Germany. Some of them were given to the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano or ENR (Eng. National Republican Army), the collaborationist army of Benito Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic, which was founded in September 1943 on Italian territories still under German control. In total, about 660 were produced even after the German occupation. After the war, they were still employed by the Italian Police and the Esercito Italiano or EI (Eng. Italian Army) until 1954.
The Royal Army considered the AB41 to be fundamental, so it ordered FIAT to give priority to the delivery of armored cars over light tanks. According to FIAT archives, a large number of L.6 were parked in the warehouses of FIAT factories for months, practically finished, but without the radio system and the optics of the cannon, because the production of these parts common to the AB41 was insufficient and priority was given to the armored cars.
The crew consisted of four: the front driver, who also operated the radio when not driving, placed in the front; the vehicle’s commander who was in the turret in the middle of the vehicle, who in addition to giving orders to the rest of the crew, had to operate the main gun and control the battlefield; the rear driver on the left of the rear; and the machine gunner/radio operator, to the rear driver’s right. Throughout the war, the lack of a loader for the main gun negatively affected the performance of the armored car.
Engine and Suspension
As aforementioned, the engine was a FIAT SPA ABM 1 6-cylinder water-cooled inline petrol engine 78 hp in the AB40 hull version, while in the AB41 version, it was a FIAT-SPA ABM 2 6-cylinder water-cooled inline petrol engine 88 hp with a Zenith type 42 TTVP carburetor housed in the back of the engine compartment. The two engines were designed by FIAT and produced by its subsidiary SPA in Turin. The second engine was chosen because the new turret armed with the Breda gun increased the weight of the vehicle and decreased the range and top speed.
With the ABM 1 engine, the AB41’s speed on road was 75 km/h while the range was about 370 km, whilst with the new engine, the speed on road was 80 km/h, even though the maximum speed reached during the tests was 98 km/h, and the range increased to 400 km. There were three fuel tanks for a total of 195 liters. The main one with 118 liters was in the double bottom of the floor, the 57-liter secondary tank was mounted in front of the front driver above the steering wheel, while the 20-liters reserve tank was placed under the machine gun position in the rear.
The suspension was a four-wheel drive with independent shock absorbers on each wheel which gave excellent off-road mobility to the armored cars. The spare wheels, placed on the sides of the hull, were left loose and free to rotate to help the vehicle to overcome obstacles.
Supports for extra jerry cans were mounted at the factory on the last vehicles along with a new exhaust, being able to carry up to a maximum of 5 or 6 (three or four on the right sides of the vehicle and two on the front fenders), but there are photos of AB41 in Africa equipped with jerry cans attached to racks built and welded by the crews on the battlefield.
Hull and armor
The armor on the entire hull and superstructure consisted of bolted plates. This arrangement did not offer the same efficiency as a mechanically welded plate but facilitated the replacement of an armor element in case it had to be repaired. The hull was 9 mm thick, front, sides, and rear while on the turret, the bolted plates reached a maximum thickness of 40 mm on the front plate and 30 mm on the sides and back. The wheel fenders were also armored to prevent enemy fire from piercing the tires.
In general, for the tasks the armored car had to perform, the armor was more than adequate, protecting the crew from enemy infantry light weapons.
The hull of the armored car had an internal structure on which the plates were bolted. At the rear of the superstructure were the two armored access doors, divided into two parts that could be opened separately. The upper part had a slit so that the crew could use their personal weapons for close-quarters defense. On the left was the antenna, which rested on a support at the back of the superstructure. In fact, to open the upper part of the left door, it was necessary to raise the antenna a few degrees.
On the right, the horn was placed at the front, a pickaxe was placed on the right side and the exhaust pipe was placed on the rear wing. The two spare wheels were placed in two fairings on the sides of the superstructure. In the “Railway” version, the support in the fairing allowed to attach two wheels on each side. Above the engine compartment, there were two air intakes and two hatches for engine maintenance. On the back were the cooling grille and the two rear lights.
On the left wall of the superstructure, in the middle, was placed the radio system model RF3M produced by Magneti Marelli, which was installed on all vehicles of the AB series from March 1941 onwards. The radio system mounted on vehicles built before March 1941 is unknown. It consisted of the transmitter and receiver placed one on top of the other. Underneath them, on the floor, the power supplies were placed while the batteries were placed in the double bottom of the floor. There were two pairs of headphones and microphones, one which was used by the front driver and the second by the rear machine gunner. The mounted antenna could be lowered to 90°. When ‘hoisted’ up, it was 3m high but could reach 7m fully extended with a maximum range of 60 km and 25/35 km when 3 m high. The company or platoon command armored cars also received an RF2CA radio also from Magneti Marelli, mounted on the rear of the fighting compartment, but there were no external differences between the normal AB41 and the command version.
Apart from the frontal slit and the episcope, the front driver had in front of him the steering wheel, the dashboard, the 57-liter tank, and brake fluid tank.
On his right was the gear lever with 6 gears, the hand brake, the intercom panel, and the directional control lever which, when lowered, allowed the rear driver to take control of the vehicle. On the left, at the top, there was a crank that facilitated the raising or lowering of the radio antenna.
On either side, above the wheel fairings, there was a headlight on armored hinges that were raised and lowered by the driver with two levers.
Behind the driver’s seat, with a foldable backrest, there was the position of the vehicle commander/gunner. The position did not have a turret basket and the commander/gunner operated the cannon and the machine gun by the use of pedals. There were no electric generators in the turret, so the cables that connected the pedals to the weapons in the turret were the ‘Bowden’ type cables, the same as on bike brakes. On the sides of the hull were the ammunition racks that occupied most of the free space on the interior sides of the superstructure.
On the right was a large container that was used to store the crew’s personal belongings and equipment, whilst fixed on the outside of the container was the support for the spare barrels for the machine guns.
Behind the racks, there was additional room for a couple of small containers for equipment and three fire extinguishers, two on the left side, and one on the right side.
At the back were the rear driver’s position on the left and the machine gunner’s on the right. Their seats were foldable and the steering wheel was secured with a butterfly screw which was easily removable, to facilitate crew access and exit. Between the two seats were the dashboard, gear lever with 4 gears, hand brake, and the directional control. The intercom panel was between the slit and the machine gun ball support. Between the two crew members and the engine compartment, there were two tanks, on the right a 20-liters fuel tank and on the left, one for the engine cooling water. Under the machine gunner, there was the vehicle’s power battery and to the right of the machine gun, the headphones, and the radio microphone.
Behind them, there was the engine compartment which was not easy to access for maintenance because it had only two access doors. Behind the engine, there were the radiator and the oil tank.
As aforementioned, the AB41 turret was the Mod. 1941 developed and produced by Ansaldo for the L.6/40 light tank. The one-man turret had an octagonal shape with two hatches: one for the vehicle’s commander/gunner on the roof and the second one on the back of the turret, used to facilitate the disassembly of the main armament during maintenance operations. On the sides, the turret then had, in addition to two slits, two air intakes as the vehicle did not have fans or smoke extractors. On the roof there was a periscope for the commander next to the hatch, which allowed him a partial view of the battlefield because it was impossible, due to the limited space, to rotate it 360°. After some time it was realized that the turret had some balance problems, so a counterweight was put on the back, under the rear hatch.
The main armament was the Cannone da 20/65 Breda Mod. 1935 L.65 with a rate of fire of 220 rounds per minute with an x1 sight produced by the San Giorgio Optics Factory. The elevation was +18° while the depression was -9°. The Breda cannon could fire Armor Piercing (AP) and High Explosive (HE) rounds of Italian production caliber 20 x 138 mm, but also those used by the German FlaK 38 cannon and the Solothurn S18-1000 anti-tank gun, increasing the anti-tank capacity of the cannon. With the Italian armor-piercing bullets, the Mod. 1935 cannon could penetrate a 38 mm armor plate inclined at 90° at 100 m and a 30 mm armored plate at 500 m. With German Pz.Gr. 40 ammunition, it could penetrate a 50 mm armor plate inclined at 90° at 100 m and a 40 mm armored plate at 500 m.
The secondary armament consisted of two Breda Mod. 38 8 mm caliber machine guns, the first coaxial to the cannon, on the left, and the second in a ball support on the rear of the vehicle. These machine guns were the vehicle version of the Breda Mod. 37 medium machine gun and had a top-mounted curved box magazine with 24 rounds.
The machine gun at the rear had an x1 optics and could be disassembled and used in an anti-aircraft position. For the whole duration of the African Campaign, the AB41 crews used a variety of handcrafted supports for anti-aircraft machine guns. Often, machine guns captured from the Allies, such as the Browning M1919 or Bren gun, or other Breda Mod. 38s taken from Italian vehicles destroyed in combat, were used in these mounts. From 1943 onward, an anti-aircraft support for the AB41 was produced by Ansaldo, but very few were produced and not much is known about their use.
From 1943 onwards, a smoke grenade launcher mounted on the side of the engine compartment and a box containing the smoke grenades were added on the back of the armored car. It is not clear if the last AB41s delivered to the Royal Army were equipped with them or if only the Germans used them.
The ammunition on the AB41 armored car consisted of 38 magazines of 12 rounds (for a total of 456 rounds) of 20 mm and 83 magazines of 24 rounds (for a total of 1,992 rounds) of 8 mm. As aforementioned, the magazines were placed in white painted wooden racks on the sides of the hull, 14 20 mm magazines and 40 8 mm magazines were placed on the left side together with the radio and intercom of the commander. The remaining 24 20 mm and 45 8 mm magazines were placed on the right side.
In the one-man turret, there was no space for a loader and it was the vehicle commander who had to load the cannon in addition to commanding and firing the cannon, even though it was not uncommon for one of the two drivers, when not driving, to pass the magazines to the commander to facilitate loading.
The tires used on the AB41 were produced by the Pirelli factory in Milan, as were almost all the tires on Italian vehicles. Pirelli produced several tires for the 60 cm (24″) rim used on the TM40 transport vehicles and also AB series armored cars.
Three types of tires were used for the African campaign, the most common being the “Libia” (Eng: Libya) 9.75 x 24″ (25 x 60 cm). There was also the “Libia Rinforzato” (Eng: Libya Reinforced) with the same dimensions but run-flat and the “Raiflex” introduced in 1942 for the Camionetta FIAT-SPA AS42 and rarely fitted on armored cars.
For the use on ‘continental’ soils, such as Italy, the Russian steppes, France, and Germany, AB41s instead used the Pirelli “Artiglio” (Eng: Claw) 9 x 24″ (22.8 x 60 cm), “Artiglio a Sezione Maggiorata” (Eng: Claw With Increased Section) 11.25 x 24″ (28.5 x 60 cm) and finally, from 1942 onwards, the Pirelli “Sigillo Verde” (Eng: Green Seal) tires. There is photographic evidence that shows AB series armored cars fitted with the AS42’s specific tires and vice versa, as, due to the troublesome supply lines of the Royal Army and the Republican Army, the crews were not always supplied with spare wheels. Some photographs show armored cars with non-standard tires of a suitable size.
Flaws of the AB41
The AB41 was a well-designed vehicle but it was not without its flaws The steering system was very delicate and forced the crews to make continuous and long overhauls to make it continuously efficient. The mechanism which allowed the dual drive took up a lot of space inside the vehicle, thus making it very cramped.
The turret Mod. 1941 suffered from several problems too. It was very tall, therefore causing problems as it was easier to spot even at long distances and for balance. This latter issue was solved in the middle of 1942 with the addition of a counterweight on the back. Furthermore, it did not have a fume extractor but instead only two air intakes, often causing the gunner to become intoxicated. The turret was also very narrow, making loading very difficult.
The AB41 had a one-man turret, forcing the commander to perform too many tasks, including locating targets, firing, loading the cannon and giving orders. This obviously caused many problems for the commander, whose task was made even harder by the lack of a laryngophone and was forced to give orders through the intercom placed on the left side of the superstructure.
During the war, the Italian war industry failed to provide an adequate amount of high-quality ballistic steel armor for the Italian Army, in fact, the crews often complained about the armor on armored cars, which in some instances, during off-road marches, cracked whilst traversing rough terrain.
Although the armor was thick enough to defend the crew from light infantry weapons, making it adequate for a reconnaissance vehicle, due to the lack of suitable vehicles and the lack of organization, the Italian Army often employed the armored car as a vehicle to break the enemy’s defensive lines. This caused a lot of losses, as these long-range reconnaissance vehicles were an all too easy target even for anti-tank rifles that could penetrate the armor of the armored cars of the AB series over 100 m away.
When having to attack enemy positions, the crews often advanced with their vehicles facing backward, as the rear-facing machine gun provided superior offensive capabilities and the presence of the engine at the rear increased the armor protection for the crews, even if making the vehicle as a whole more vulnerable.
The 20-liter reserve tank was not protected by an armored bulkhead, a problem which was never solved and the risk of fire was always very high. Even during the use in the desert, this problem worsened because the heat emitted by the engine forced the crews to keep the doors and the hatches open to allow the crews to properly breathe. One interesting fact is that crews often did not fill the reserve tank and relied on externally transported fuel tanks to avoid the risk of fire.
During the Second World War, the Regio Esercito received 624 AB41s that operated in North Africa, Yugoslavia, Italy, and on the Eastern Front. In Africa, between 1941 and 1943, the lll° Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’ (Eng: Armored Group) and the lll° Gruppo Corazzato ‘Monferrato’ used 42 AB41s each. The AB41 also carried out patrolling tasks for the 132ª Divisione Corazzata “Ariete” (Eng: 132nd Armored Division) and for some Panzer Divisions of the Afrika Korps.
In 1942, the lll° Gruppo Corazzato ‘Novara’ received two AB41 armored cars as a replacement for some L6/40 light tanks lost in action, as both the L6 and AB41 had the Mod. 41 turrets were armed with a 20 mm cannon.
In late-1942, the men and vehicles of the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Lodi’ or R.E.Co. (Eng: Armored Exploring Group) were also sent to Africa after completing their training, and were equipped with 36 armored cars until the end of the African Campaign in May 1943. Its armored cars were the last in service during the Campaign, on April 10th, 1943, 40 AB41s were in service, but on April 22nd, the R.E.Co. “Lodi” grouped together all the Italian vehicles still in running condition, a couple of dozens of AB41s, two Semovente M41 da 75/18s, an M14/41 and some captured allied vehicles. The last action of the AB41 in North Africa is documented on May 11th, 1943, when the remaining Italian and German vehicles fought one last battle against the Allied forces in which they were completely destroyed two days before the surrender of the worn-out Axis forces in Africa.
In Russia, an unknown number of these vehicles were utilized to arm the Plotone Autonomo Autoblindo (Eng: Armored Car Autonomous Platoon) of the 156ª Divisione di Fanteria ‘Vicenza’ (Eng: Infantry Division). These vehicles were used together with some L.6/40s and L40 47/32s during the Don Offensive against the Soviet forces and were all destroyed before the retreat.
In August 1943, Romania bought eight AB41s that arrived in Romania by ship, their fate, however, is unknown.
In Ferrara (Italy), on 15th July 1942, the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Montebello’ was created, with four motorcycle squadrons, four armored car squadrons (about 40 AB41s) and four self-propelled squadrons with Semoventi M41 da 75/18 and L.40 da 47/32. This grouping was employed for about a year in public order tasks. On April 1st, 1943, the 135ª Divisione Corazzata “Ariete II” was created, which incorporated the M41 da 75/18s and L.40 da 47/32s of the armored squadrons of the “Lancieri di Montebello”. The R.E.Co. remained with less than 30 AB41s and the motorcyclist squadrons.
In July 1943, the R.E.Co. was transferred by railway to Rome. The convoys that carried it stopped at Castelnuovo di Porto, where the last armored cars were delivered, and then near Rome, in Isola Farnese, the 34 armored cars were unloaded and traveled by road to Olgiata, north of Rome. On September 8th, 1943, the R.E.Co. received the news of the signing of the Armistice of Cassibile. The R.E.Co. “Lancieri di Montebello” and the 135ª Divisione Corazzata “Ariete II” received orders from Italian Prime Minister, Pietro Badoglio, to defend the city from the Germans. On the morning of September 9th, 1943, the AB41s headed to Rome where the 21ª Divisione di fanteria “Granatieri di Sardegna” had erected defensive positions.
Between 9th and 10th September, they fought against the Germans who were trying to capture the city, first supported by the infantry on the Tiber River and later at Porta San Paolo. Two AB41s of the ‘Lancieri di Montebello’ were hit at short range by 3.7 cm PaK 36 German anti-tank cannons and destroyed. After these actions, the surviving armored cars were abandoned and the crews joined the partisans.
Polizia dell’Africa Italiana (PAI)
In the African Campaign, the PAI employed five Compagnie Autoblindo (Eng: Armored Car Company), a total of 60 armored cars, from 1941 to 1943. Each company had 12 AB41s (at the beginning also some AB40s), divided into two platoons of 4 armored cars plus the AB41 command vehicle and two vehicles in reserve. Until mid-1942, losses were always replaced with new vehicles, but the intensification of air and submarine attacks by the British Royal Air Force and Royal Navy made Italian naval convoys carrying supplies and new vehicles arriving in Libyan ports less regular.
After the end of the African Campaign, the PAI vehicles and men who had not been sent to Africa were sent to Rome, where on 8th September 1943, they took part in the defense of the city with 14 AB41s. Their most important task was to escort the King of the Kingdom of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III di Savoia, the royal family, and the Prime Minister, Pietro Badoglio, who had to flee down the Via Tiburtina where they found American soldiers who welcomed them. In Rome, on the night of 9th September, the police officers of the Italian African Police, some Bersaglieri, and the pupils of the academy of the Arma dei Carabinieri Reali (Eng: Arm of Royal Carabiners) with the support of some armored cars and perhaps other vehicles, were able to attack and force the German forces in the Magliana area, southwest of Rome, to retreat. A few hours later, they themselves were forced to retreat towards the Ostiense Fort, organizing defenses with the survivors of the ‘Granatieri di Sardegna’ division. The following day, German paratroopers attacked the fort at 6.00 am, with the defenders managed to hold out for over an hour until the Germans were able to bring a mortar and began to bomb the Italian defenses. When the last armored car was destroyed by mortar grenades, the Germans attacked with flamethrowers, forcing the last soldiers to flee. Some nuns from a nearby orphanage provided the surviving police officers and soldiers with civilian clothes for the escape while a priest organized the surrender of the fort at 11.00 am.
Some AB41s were captured by Commonwealth troops and the British Army supplied some of these armored cars to the Australian and Polish forces. The most famous was perhaps the AB41 of the ‘Polish Carpathian Lancers’ captured from the Italians and used against its former owner and the Germans in Egypt between May and August 1942. After that, it was requisitioned by British High Command and transported by sea to the United Kingdom, more specifically, to the School of Tank Technology (STT) in Chobham. After about a year, in May 1943, the British information service created a report on the AB41.
The British highly appreciated the armored car in the two versions encountered in Africa, AB40, and AB41. According to reports prepared by the British, in addition to the major criticisms regarding low-quality armor, the engine was considered reliable although difficult to maintain, the turret to be small and cramped, but the AB41 were deemed fast and well-armed, the vehicle was very effective in the task of long-range patrol and reconnaissance.
After September 8th, 1943, the Germans occupied all the assembly lines of the factories of central and northern Italy and captured the majority of the remaining Italian vehicles.
Around 200 AB41 armored cars were requisitioned, 20 were captured still in the factory and 23 were produced for the German Army, where they were renamed Panzerspähwagen AB41 201(i). A small number of the AB41s were supplied to the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano, with the Germans preferring to keep the few AB43s which were much more popular with German crews. In German service, the AB41 was used by the Divisions of the Waffen-SS, Luftwaffe, Wehrmacht, and Todt Organization, seeing service in France, Germany, Italy, and the Balkans. In the Balkans, they were used in anti-partisan operations and for patrolling airfields or military bases. Some units that used them were: 41. Panzer Spah Zug, 71. Infantry Division (1943-1944) and 162. Infantry Division, SS Polizei Gebirgs Regiment 18 and Gendarmerie Reserve Kompanie Alpenland-3.
In France and Germany, they were used against Allied troops. Photographic evidence shows what looks like a destroyed AB41 used by the Germans in the last-ditch attempt to defend Berlin from Soviet forces between 25th April and 2nd May 1945.
Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano (ENR) and Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana (GNR)
The Gruppi Corazzati (Eng: Armored Group) of the Esercito Nazionale Repubblicano of the Salò Republic, the collaborationist regime founded by Benito Mussolini on 23rd September 1943, used some AB41 armored cars supplied by the Germans or that were found abandoned in some depot. Two AB41s were used by the Gruppo Corazzato “San Giusto” (Eng: Armored Group “St. Justus”) to patrol the Valtellina roads, to dissuade partisans from sabotaging it. The roads of Valtellina were fundamental for the fascist forces who in the last months of the war were forced to a desperate defense. Benito Mussolini’s plan was to flee to Switzerland via Valtellina together with the last soldiers loyal to fascism.
In April 1945, just before the partisan insurrection, the AB41s were used by the ‘San Giusto’ in Milan, where the fascist forces were not very organized and were swiftly defeated by the partisans, who destroyed the armored cars and the few tanks in the city.
Some sources state that at least four AB41s used by the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leoncello’ (Eng: Armored Group “Little Lion”) from 1943 to April 1945. The Light Tank Squadron was totally destroyed by the partisans in the city of Lonigo. There is no photographic evidence that can confirm this information, and, unfortunately, the registers of the Armored Group were almost all destroyed during the war.
The last AB41 of the ENR was used by the Raggruppamento Anti Partigiani or RAP (Eng: Anti-Partisan Group) of Turin. This unit, formed in the summer of 1944, had the task of fighting the partisans located in the valleys near the city of Turin, which more and more often managed to strike at valuable targets during the night or contacted factory workers with the aim of organizing strikes and protests. On 2nd November 1944, the RAP, together with the AB41, participated in the assault on the city of Alba, occupied by a substantial partisan force, where it was probably destroyed.
The Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana (Eng: GNR – Republican National Guard), the Military Police of the Salò Republic, had some AB41 armored cars as well. 18 AB41s were used by the Gruppo Corazzato “Leonessa” (Eng: Armored Group “Lioness”), the largest Italian armored unit after 1943. The 18 armored cars were recovered from various military depots between November 1943 and January 1944 and used in Bergamo, as a supply escort to Milan. In Milan, they were used to patrol the last Valtellina roads for the Italian-German retreat. In the Province of Piacenza, some armored cars defended the few oil wells of the Azienda Generale Italiana Petroli or AGIP (General Italian Oil Company) and supported anti-partisan operations in Val Trebbia and in the Piacenza Apennines. In the province of Turin, some AB41s supported the dozens of Italian or German anti-partisan operations in the Val di Susa. They supported the attack on De Gaulle’s French forces who tried to occupy Chaberton fort, and in the city of Turin, they patrolled roads, such as the Turin-Milan one. In Turin, the ‘Leonessa’s’ vehicles slowed down the partisan’s advance for two days, allowing the retreat of 5,000 soldiers and tonnes of material from the city.
In the first months after September 1943, the Battaglione ‘M’ ‘9 Settembre’ (Eng: ‘M’ Battalion ‘9th September’), used an AB41 armored car, but, in 1944, on the island of Elba, it took possession of another four AB41s which were used on the Gustav Line.
After the Allied breakthrough of the Gustav Line on 18th May 1944, the battalion was sent to the Valle d’Aosta and then aggregated to the 2nd Regiment of the Panzergrenadier-Division ‘Brandenburg’, renamed “I° Battaglione M Camicie Nere IX Settembre” (Eng: ‘1st Battalion M Black Shirts 9th September’) and fought in Germany together with the German division until January 1945, when it was sent back to Vittorio Veneto in Italy, where the survivors were imprisoned and executed by the partisans. Some AB41s were destroyed in Germany and perhaps one arrived in Italy and was subsequently captured by the partisans. At least one was used by the Varese Provincial GNR Command in anti-partisan actions in October 1944.
The surviving ENR’s And GNR’s AB41s were captured or destroyed in the cities of Milan and Turin on 25th April 1945. During this time, some fought the more numerous and stronger partisan forces that descended from the mountains to free the cities of Northern Italy from fascist and German occupation.
In the days before the partisans attack, in Turin and Milan, some AB armored cars were captured and used by partisans. One was surely destroyed by German-manned anti-tank weapons in Turin on the Via XX Settembre. After the German and Italian surrender, two or three of them took part in the partisan parade in Turin.
AB41 in French Service
During the Second World War, AB41 armored cars came under the control of French forces in two separate contexts.
With the fall of the last Axis possessions in Tunisia in May of 1943, along with more than 240,000 prisoners taken, considerable quantities of ground equipment were left, including a variety of Italian armored vehicles. While these were generally of little interest for the by this point fairly well-equipped British and American forces, the French Army of Africa, which had joined the allies just a couple of months prior in November of 1942, was still equipped with few armored vehicles, mostly obsolete pre-1940 tanks such as the Char D1, and did press into service several types of Italian vehicles, including the AB 41. Two different photos of the AB 41 in French service exist. One shows a column of these vehicles operating under an unknown branch in 1946. This photo shows a total of 10 vehicles, which shows that the number of vehicles captured and used by the French was not necessarily negligible. Another photo, dated from as late as 1949, shows a crew of the French Gendarmerie, a form of military police, in front of an AB41, near Bône, once again in Algeria. This suggests that the Italian armored cars remained in service for several years for security operations. The date of the vehicle’s retirement from service in French North Africa is unknown, though nothing has ever emerged that suggests the vehicles were still in service by the time of the Algerian War which began in 1954.
In the summer of 1944, after the breakthrough of Operation Cobra, Allied troops began to liberate vast areas of France, the FFI (Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur / French Forces of the Interior), organized vast uprisings which liberated considerable amounts of territory neglected by German troops attempting to contain the Normandy landings. Those resistance fighters captured a number of different vehicles that had been used by German troops engaged in anti-partisan duties in France. This included German-made vehicles, previously captured French ones, but also at least one Italian-made AB41 armored car that had presumably been captured by the Wehrmacht following the Italian armistice of September 1943 and then put back to use in anti-partisan operations in France.
The vehicle was used by an FFI company operating in Brittany at the same time German troops were being expelled from the region by a mixture of American troops and French resistance fighters. That armored car had been captured in the town of Guingamp. It was included into what was called the “Compagnie de choc Bretagne” (Eng. Bretagne shock company), which then took part in FFI operations further south, against the “forteresse du Médoc”, a fortified German-held pocket on the Southern bank of the estuary of the River Gironde, which held until it was taken by FFI fighters on 20th April 1945, after a week of fighting which resulted in around 1,300 dead soldiers of both sides.
Another photo of an AB41 in use by French forces in metropolitan France exists, but its context is disputed. Showing an AB41 from the back along with FFI troops using a variety of equipment of both American and German origin, this photo has been taken to show FFI troops used to contain the pocket of Royan (a german pocket north of the Gironde’s estuary) or to have been taken post-war.
AB41 in Yugoslavian Service
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia’s Army had tried to negotiate the purchase of the AB armored cars, but due to the Axis invasion in April 1941, this was never fulfilled.
During the war, the AB41 would see service with nearly all involved factions in Yugoslavia.
The Independent State of Croatia’s (NDH – Nezavisna Država Hrvatska) Army asked the Italians for a number of AB41s but only got 10 L/33 and L/35 light tanks. After the capitulation of Italy, they may have captured a few AB armored cars.
The Italians operated some AB40s and AB41s from 1942 to 1943 until their surrender to the Allies in Yugoslavia.
Yugoslav Communist Partisans managed to capture a number of AB armored cars during September 1943. While they did see action against the Axis forces, all were either destroyed or were hidden by the Partisans to avoid being captured by the Germans. By late 1944, they managed to capture more with some surviving after 1945.
After the war, some AB41 armored cars remained in service with the new Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA) under the name ‘SPA 7 t’ until they were replaced with more modern Soviet-made vehicles.
After the war
After the war, from 1945 to 1954, some AB41 and AB43 armored cars were used by the Polizia di Stato (Eng: Italian State Police) in the Reparti Celeri (Eng: Fast Departments) and used with certainty in Turin, Udine, and Rome. After 1954, they were withdrawn from service and almost all of them were scrapped, though a couple were sold to museums and private collectors.
A small number of AB41 armored cars were also used by the Arma dei Carabinieri (Eng: Arm of Carabiners) in their Reparti Mobili (Eng: Moving Departments).
In both cases, the operations in which the armored cars were used are unknown. The few times they were seen outside the barracks were for parades or training. In the 1950s there were many strikes by workers in Italy to demand better working conditions that often ended up occupying entire factories for days, slowing down the country’s economy and creating quite a few inconveniences for the political establishment and factory owners. The Partito Comunista Italiano or PCI (Italian Communist Party) supported workers’ strikes and trade union struggles and gained more and more support among the population. The situation caused concern to the Italian state which feared a coup supported by the Soviet Union as had already happened in Czechoslovakia. In fact, many leaders of the PCI had been partisans during the war and some of them were on good terms with members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). For example, Enrico Berlinguer, one of the leading figures in the Party at the time, was received by Stalin himself during a visit to the Soviet Union in 1946.
In order to dissuade workers from armed occupations of factories or worse the attempted coup d’état, the Italian state destroyed most of the military equipment it did not use to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands and ordered the Police and Carabinieri to keep the AB41s efficient to use them as a deterrent during demonstrations. In 1954, the arrival of new security vehicles allowed AB armored cars to be removed from service.
The armored cars were painted in the factory in clear Khaki Saharan color, which was lighter than that used on Italian tanks. In Africa, the vehicles always remained in basic camouflage without being modified by the crews.
Due to a friendly fire incident involving some PAI ABs and Luftwaffe planes on September 13, 1940, for the first months of the African Campaign, the ABs of this police unit received the Italian flag painted on the sides and the front of the superstructure for easier identification.
By the time the African Campaign was over and the first clashes in Sicily in July 1943 were underway, factories began to paint their armored cars with the “Continentale” camouflage adopted by the Royal Army in the summer of 1943. Over the Light Saharan Kaki were added stains of Reddish Brown and Dark Green. This camouflage was also adopted on the FIAT-SPA AS42 and the self-propelled M42M 75/34 and M43 105/25 before the armistice of September 1943.
After the occupation of the factories by German forces, the AB41s continued to be painted with three-tone camouflage. The vehicles that were taken from the Royal Army depots were mostly painted in Saharan Khaki and so they remained, with the addition of the Balkenkreuz (Eng: Beam cross) and were put back into service. Only a few armored cars in the German Army received “circumstance” camouflage.
At least one German armored car was repainted with “Imperiale” camouflage which consisted of a series of relatively thin dark green and dark brown streaks applied on a Saharan Khaki background.
The AB41s of the R.E.Co. “Lancieri di Montebello” were painted in Saharan Khaki but, when they were sent to Rome for the defense of the city, during the trip, in Castelnuovo di Porto, they were painted with green and brown spots when they were still on the freight wagons.
Of the armored cars of the Republican National Army and the Republican National Guard, there is not much information about their camouflage. The 18 AB41s of the Gruppo Corazzato “Leonessa” had all been produced before the armistice and found in warehouses or had been repaired by soldiers loyal to Mussolini and were not all painted in the same way. Some armored cars stationed in Milan were repainted in the months following their recovery with three-tone camouflage while those used in Turin and the Susa Valley remained painted in Saharan Khaki. They received only the symbol of the Fascist Military Police, the red ‘M’ with a beam, and the ‘GNR’ written in black underneath. The armored cars of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘San Giusto’ and the RAP, instead, were painted in ‘Continentale’ camouflage, as were, supposedly, those of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leoncello’, but it is not certain because some vehicles of the ‘Leoncello’ were painted in green-gray while others were painted in the typical continental camouflage pattern. Vehicles captured by the Yugoslavs did not receive new camouflage but had new markings painted on to avoid friendly fire.
After the war, the AB41s of the State Police were painted in a reddish-rose shade called Amaranth Red which was the color of all Italian police vehicles until 1954, while the Carabinieri armored cars were painted in NATO Green.
Between 1941 and 1943, several vehicles based on the armored car chassis were designed, most of them were just prototypes due to the Armistice of 8th September 1943, while others were accepted in service before the Armistice or were produced only for the Germans.
Unnamed AB wooden training vehicle
To train drivers with dual driving, a vehicle was created on the same chassis as the AB. The vehicle had a wooden structure similar to that of the AB’s superstructure with two benches, one at the front for the frontal driver and an instructor, and a second at the back, for the rear driver and another instructor. This version was produced in an unknown quantity and supplied to the Training Center of Pinerolo.
AB41 Command Armored Car
The AB41 Command was developed as an artillery observation vehicle for armored units. The turret was removed and replaced with a large armored plate on the roof with a 4-piece door. This vehicle was unarmed, with 3 personal weapon slots and only had the forward driving position. The vehicle carried four officers and a map table. A second prototype of the Command AB42 armored car had different armor on the roof and two of the four armored doors were equipped with armored glass windows.
In mid-1943, the first prototype was accepted by the Italian High Command and 50 vehicles were ordered. These were not produced because of the Armistice. When the factories were captured by the Germans, they did not consider this variant useful for their purposes and the project was abandoned.
AB41 with 47/32
Another prototype was the AB41 with 47/32, also known as ’47/32 on AB41 ‘armed with a Cannone da 47/32 Mod. 1935. The turret, the rear machine gun, the rear driving position, the radio equipment, and the armored superstructure were removed. A 47/32 Mod. 1935 cannon with a shield to protect its operators were installed in the center of the superstructure together with various other modifications to the hull. The number of projectiles carried was 100 rounds while the thickness of the armor of the gun shield is not known. The crew consisted of 4: the driver, the gunner, the loader, and the commander. The speed and range remained unchanged, as was the SPA ABM 2 8-cylinder, 88 HP petrol engine.
This was Ansaldo’s first proposal to arm the AB armored cars with a 47 mm cannon. Due to the limited use of the vehicle, the project was shelved, but Ansaldo continued to develop an AB armed with a 47 mm cannon.
Another prototype based on the AB41 was the Autoblinda Alleggerita Mod. 1942 or AB42, a vehicle based on the AB41 hull but with many modifications to make it a more suitable combat vehicle in North Africa. The turret was replaced by a lower profile one armed with the same 20 mm cannon. This version was designed for infantry support and combat rather than reconnaissance. The rear machine gun and the second driving position were removed. Although it was lighter, weighing only 6 tons, the engine was replaced with a 108-hp FIAT-SPA ABM 3 and the armor was better angled which greatly increased crew protection.
Due to the end of the North African Campaign and due to the fact that too many changes had to be made to the assembly lines to produce the new version, the project was abandoned.
In the early months of 1943, Ansaldo proposed the new version of the AB armed with a 47 mm cannon called AB43 (not officially known as AB43 ‘Cannone’). The AB41 superstructure was modified with 90° inclined sides and removing the rear machine gun. The larger and shorter turret was armed with a powerful 47/40 Mod. 38 cannon, the same as the M15/42 medium tank. The ammunition capacity was 63 rounds for the cannon and 744 rounds for the coaxial machine gun. Due to the weight increase to over 8 tons, the same 108 hp engine of the AB42 was installed in the engine compartment which allowed the armored car to reach a speed of 88 km/h. Approved in May 1943, the armistice blocked the plans of the Royal Army.
In 1943, it was also proposed to mount the Mod. 1942 turret of the AB42 on the AB41 hull with the new ABM 3 engine. The resulting vehicle was called AB43 and about 100 were produced and used exclusively during the war on all front by the Germans, who denominated it Panzerspähwagen AB43 203(i). After the war, the Italian police used them until 1954, also in the ‘Ferroviaria’ version.
Camionetta SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Sahariana’
In 1942, a prototype of a Camionetta (light truck) on the hull of the AB41 was presented to the Italian High Command, for a completely different task compared to those of the AB41. The SPA-Viberti AS42 ‘Sahariana’ was a large car with a central fighting compartment and the same engine as the AB41 at the back. This Camionetta was used for really long-range reconnaissance, ambush and to counter the British LRDG (Long Range Desert Group).
These vehicles could be armed with several weapons, including the Breda 20/65 Mod. 1935 automatic cannon, the 47/32 Mod. 1935 anti-tank gun, or the Solothurn S-18/1000 anti-tank rifle and a maximum of three Breda Mod. 37 or 38 medium machine guns. The vehicle had 9 mm of armor on the front and around the combat compartment, while the engine compartment had only 5 mm of armor. The AS42 usually had “Libia” tires, had a range of 535 km, and could carry up to twenty-four 20-liter Jerry cans (20 with petrol and 4 with water), giving it a total maximum range of over 1,200 km. Another difference when compared to the AB41 was the absence of the rear driver position and the steering, which was done using only the front wheels because the vehicle was designed also to participate in skirmishes against other similar vehicles, not only for reconnaissance.
Another version of the vehicle, called AS42 ‘Metropolitana’, used for ‘continental’ soil, differed only by the adoption of 11.5 x 24″ “Artiglio” tires and that two huge boxes of ammunition were used instead of ten petrol jerry cans.
In total, of the two versions, about 200 vehicles were produced. The sources are not very clear as production records were destroyed during the war. These vehicles fought in North Africa, Italy, and, after September 8, 1943, captured by German forces, they were used in France, Ukraine, and finally Germany. They too, after the war, were reused by the Italian police until 1954.
In 1941 the German Army, the Hungarian Army, and the Royal Italian Army attacked Yugoslavia and divided the occupied territories. Soldiers who escaped capture and civilians immediately organized a clandestine resistance that led to several sabotage and attacks. To defend the railways, fundamental to bring supplies to the various Italian and German strongholds, on 24 January 1942, the High Command of the Royal Italian Army ordered Ansaldo and FIAT to find a solution.
It was decided to produce armored trains, but in order to react promptly to the threat, 12 armored cars of the AB series were modified to also mount steel wheels to patrol the Yugoslav railways and roads. A total of 4 AB41s were modified and after the armistice, they were also used by the German Army to patrol Yugoslavian cities. After the war, another 8 AB43s and an unknown number of AB41s were used by the Italian Army to patrol the Italian railways.
To date, 9 AB41 armored cars have survived, three have become monuments at Italian Army barracks, four are on display in museums, two in Italy, one in Egypt in the El Alamein War Museum, and the last in South Africa in the Museum of Military History in Johannesburg.
There are also two vehicles still running, one in France in the city of La Wantzenau and the second in Italy, in Grosseto, at the Barracks of the 3° Reggimento “Savoia Cavalleria”.
The chassis of the AB series, from which several vehicles were produced, was well designed for the Italian standards of the period. The armament, speed, and armor were adequate for a reconnaissance vehicle. It was used on all fronts during the war with good results, from the arid African deserts to the harsh Russian winters. After the war, the AB41 was used for many more years by the Police and Carabinieri in Italy and by the French Gendarmerie in Africa.
Autoblinda AB41, February 1941, Libya. The Saharan kaki tone was the most common in Africa, but a variety of complex spotted patterns were also tried later.
Autoblinda AB41 of the long range reconnaissance patrols of the Bersaglieri, a cavalry unit attached to the Ariete Division, Libya, May 1941.
Autoblinda AB41, Italy, November 1942, 15° Reggimento Cavalleria of Brescia.
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||5.20 x 1.92 x 2.48 m|
|Total Weight, Battle Ready||7.52 tons|
|Crew||4 (front driver, rear driver, machine gunner/loader, and vehicle commander/gunner)|
|Propulsion||FIAT-SPA 6-cylinder petrol, 88 hp with 195 liters tank|
|Speed||Road Speed: 80 km/h
Off-Road Speed: 50 km/h
|Armament||Breda 20/65 Mod. 1935 (456 rounds) and Two Breda Mod. 38 8 x 59 mm machine guns (1992 rounds)|
|Turret||Front: 40 mm
Sides: 30 mm
Rear: 15 mm
|Total Production||667: 435 with ABM 1 Engine, 232 with ABM 2 Engine|
With the precious help of Victor Belhote who shared photos and information on the AB41 employed by the French resistance and gendarmerie.
Thanks also to Marko Pantelić who shared information and photographs of the Yugoslavian AB41.
I Mezzi Blindo-Corazzati Italiani 1923-1943 – Nicola Pignato.
La Meccanizzazione dell’Esercito Italiano fino al 1943 Tomo 2 – Andrea Curami e Lucio Ceva
Gli Autoveicoli Da Combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano – Nicola Pignato e Filippo Cappellano.
Le Autoblinde AB 40, 41 e 43 – Nicola Pignato e Fabio D’Inzéo.
Bojan B. Dumitrijević and Dragan Savić (2011) Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu,
Institut za savremenu istoriju, Beograd
Bojan B. Dumitrijević (2010), Modernizacija i intervencija, Jugoslovenske oklopne jedinice 1945-2006, Institut za savremenu istoriju