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WW2 Italian Tanks

Carro Armato Leggero L6/40

Kingdom of Italy (1941-1943)
Light Reconnaissance Tank – 432 Built

The Carro Armato Leggero L6/40 was a light reconnaissance tank used by the Italian Regio Esercito (English: Royal Army) from May 1941 until the Armistice with the Allied forces in September 1943.

It was the only turret-equipped light tank of the Italian Army and was used on all fronts with mediocre results. Its obsoleteness already when it entered service was not its only inadequacy. The L6/40 was developed as a light reconnaissance vehicle to be used on the mountainous roads of northern Italy, and instead, it was used, at least in North Africa, as a vehicle to support Italian infantry attacks across the wide desert spaces.

A Carro Armato L6/40 in the Eastern Front. Source: pinterest.com

History of the Project

During the First World War, the Italian Royal Army fought the Austro-Hungarian Empire on Italy’s north-eastern border. This territory is mountainous and brought the trench fighting typical of that conflict to heights of over 2,000 meters.

Following the experience of mountain combat, between the 1920s and 1930s, the Regio Esercito and the two companies involved in the production of tanks, Ansaldo and Fabbrica Italiana Automobili di Torino or FIAT (English: Italian Automobile Company of Turin), each requested or designed only armored vehicles suitable for mountain combat. The L3 series of 3 tonnes light tanks, the L6/40 itself, and the M11/39 medium tank were small and lightweight vehicles suitable for this environment.

The L3/33 prototype during tests. In this photo, the narrow streets on which it was to operate, according to the High Command of the Royal Army, are clearly visible. Source: fondazioneansaldo.it

To give an idea, the Royal Army was so obsessed with combat in the high mountains that even the AB40 medium armored car was developed with similar characteristics. It had to be able to easily pass through the narrow and steep mountain roads and to pass over the characteristic wooden bridges, which could hold little weight.

The 3 tonnes light tanks and the medium tank were equipped with armament positioned in the casemate, not because the Italian industry was not able to produce and build rotating turrets, but because in the mountains, when operating on narrow dirt roads or in narrow high mountain villages, it was physically impossible to be outflanked by the enemy. Therefore, the main armament was necessary only to the front, and not having a turret saved weight.

Four Ansaldo and FIAT interwar tank projects. From left to right: L3/33 light tank, Carro Cannone Modello 1936 (L6/40 predecessor), the Carro di Rottura da 10t (M11/39 prototype), and the Carro Armato Ansaldo da 9t self-propelled gun. All these vehicles were developed for high mountain fighting. Source: reddit.com – @warspot

The L6/40 followed these mountain combat specifications, with a maximum width of 1.8 meters which allowed it to travel on all the mountain roads and mule trails that other vehicles would have a hard time passing through. Its weight was also very low, 6.84 tonnes battle-ready with crew on board. This made it possible to cross small bridges on mountain roads and to pass easily even on soft terrain.

During the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the High Command of the Italian Royal Army was not impressed with the performance of the L3 series light tanks, which were poorly armored and armed.

The Italian Regio Esercito issued a request for a new turret-equipped light tank armed with a cannon. FIAT of Turin and Ansaldo of Genoa started a joint project for the new tank utilizing the chassis of the L3/35, the latest evolution of the L3 tank series.

In November 1935, they unveiled the Carro d’Assalto Modello 1936 (English: Assault Tank Model 1936) with the same chassis and engine compartment as the L3/35 3 tonnes tank, but with new torsion bar suspension, a modified superstructure, and a one-man turret with a 37 mm gun.

The Carro d’Assalto Modello 1936 during tests at the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione in Rome. 12th November 1935. Source: Centro Tecnico della Motorizzazione

After tests at the Ansaldo testing ground, the prototype was sent to the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione or CSM (English: Center of Motorization Studies) in Rome. The CSM was the Italian department which was responsible for examining new vehicles for the Regio Esercito.

During these tests, the Carro d’Assalto Modello 1936 prototype performed with mixed results. The new suspension functioned very well, surprising the Italian generals, but the vehicle’s center of gravity during off-road driving and firing was a problem. Because of these unsatisfactory performances, the Regio Esercito asked for a new design.

In April 1936, the same two companies presented the Carro Cannone Modello 1936 (English: Cannon Tank Model 1936), a totally different modification of the L3/35. It had a 37 mm gun on the left side of the superstructure with limited traverse and a rotating turret armed with a couple of machine guns.

The Carro Cannone Modello 1936. Source: worldwarphotos.infos

The Carro Cannone Modello 1936 was not what the Army had requested. Ansaldo and FIAT had only tried to develop a support vehicle for L3 battalions, but with limited success. The vehicle was also tested without the turret, but was not accepted in service because it did not meet the Regio Esercito’s requirements.

The same Carro Cannone Modello 1936 without the turret in Nepi, near Viterbo, Lazio Region, during the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione tests. Source: italie1935-45.com

History of the Prototype

After the failure of the last prototype, FIAT and Ansaldo decided to start a new project, a totally new tank with torsion bars and a rotating turret. According to engineer Vittorio Valletta, who worked with the two companies, the project was born at the request of an unspecified foreign nation, but this can not be confirmed. It was financed by both companies’ own funds.

Development only began in late 1937 due to bureaucratic problems. Authorization for the project had been requested on 19th November 1937 and was only issued by the Ministero della Guerra (English: War Department) on 13th December 1937. This was because it was a private FIAT and Ansaldo project and not an Italian Army request. It was probably FIAT that paid the costs for most of the development. Part of the production and the whole assembly of the vehicle were centered in the SPA plant, a subsidiary of FIAT in Turin, according to Document Number 8 signed by the two companies.

The prototype, armed with two machine guns in the turret, was baptized M6 (M for Medio – Medium), then L6 (L for Leggero – Light) when Circular n°1400 of 13th June 1940 increased the category limit for medium tanks from 5 tonnes to 8 tonnes. On 1st December 1938, the Regio Esercito had issued a request (Circular Number 3446) for a new “medium” tank called M7 with a weight of 7 tonnes, a maximum speed of 35 km/h, an operational range of 12 hours, and an armament composed of a 20 mm automatic cannon with a coaxial machine gun or a couple of machine guns in a 360° traverse turret.

FIAT and Ansaldo did not hesitate and offered their M6 to the Regio Esercito High Command. However, it met only some of the M7 requests. For example, the M6 (and then the L6) had a range of only 5 hours instead of 12 hours.

The FIAT and Ansaldo prototype was presented to the highest authorities of the Army General Staff at Villa Glori on 26th October 1939.

The FIAT-Ansaldo M6 during tests. It had a Imperiale camouflage scheme often mistakenly called “Spaghetti” camouflage. Source: facebook.com

The Italian High Command was not impressed with the M6. On the same day, General Cosma Manera of the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione, however, showed interest in the vehicle, proposing to accept it into service on the condition that the armament be changed to a 20 mm automatic cannon mounted in the turret. In the eyes of Gen. Manera, this solution, in addition to increasing the tank’s anti-armor performance, would also make it capable of engaging aircraft.

Same prototype during tests. Behind it, an L3/35 3 tonnes light tank is probably doing the same tests for comparison. San Polo dei Cavalieri, date unknown. Source: italie1935-45.com

Shortly afterward, Ansaldo presented a new prototype of the M6. The new M6 tank was proposed with two different armament combinations in the same taller single-seat turret:

A Cannone da 37/26 with a 8 mm coaxial machine gun
A Cannone-Mitragliera Breda 20/65 Modello 1935 automatic cannon also accompanied by an 8 mm machine gun

In spite of Gen. Manera’s wishes, the second option did not have high enough gun elevation to allow the main gun to engage aerial targets, not to mention the fact that, with the poor visibility the commander had from the turret, it was nearly impossible to spot a rapidly approaching aerial target.

The M6 prototype fresh off the assembly line, ready to be tested. Note the absence of the episcope support. Source: fondazioneansaldo.it

Despite the failure of this requirement, the prototype armed with the 20 mm automatic cannon was tested by the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione between 1939 and 1940. During one of these rough terrain tests, it caught fire after the tank overturned at San Polo dei Cavalieri, 50 km from Rome, due to the high center of gravity caused by poor arrangement of the gasoline tanks in the engine compartment.

Two images of the M6 prototype in San Polo dei Cavalieri after the incident. Sources: facebook.com

After being recovered and having undergone the necessary modifications, the M6 prototype participated in new tests. The prototype was accepted in April 1940 as the Carro Armato L6/40, short for Carro Armato Leggero da 6 tonnellate Modello 1940 (English: 6 tonnes Light Tank Model 1940). It was then renamed Carro Armato L6 (Model – weight) and, from 14th August 1942, with Circular Number 14,350, the name was changed to Carro Armato L40 (Model – year of acceptance). Today, a common designation is L6/40, as is commonly given in video games such as War Thunder and World of Tanks.

One of the first L6/40s produced with Imperiale camouflage at the Ansaldo-Fossati plant of Sestri Ponente, near Genoa. The slogan was “Credere, Obbedire e Combattere” (English: Believe, Obey and Fight), one of the most popular fascist mottos during the Fascist era. Sources: italie1935-45.com
Colorization by Johannes Dorn

Production

The first production model differed from the prototype armed with the 20 mm automatic cannon by the installation of the jack on the right front fender and a steel bar and shovel support on the left front fender. The only toolbox, located on the left rear fender on the prototype, was replaced by two smaller toolboxes, leaving room for a spare wheel support on the left rear fender. The fuel tank caps were also moved. They were isolated from the engine compartment in order to lessen the risk of fire in case of overturning. On production examples, the gun shield was slightly modified and the turret roof was tilted forward slightly to accommodate the new gun shield.

The final shape of the L6/40 with the Imperiale camouflage at the Ansaldo-Fossati plant of Sestri Ponente. Sources: italie1935-45.com

The armored plates were forged by Terni Società per l’Industria e l’Elettricità (English: Terni Company for Industry and Electricity). The engines were designed by FIAT and produced by its subsidiary Società Piemontese Automobili or SPA (English: Piedmontese Automobiles Company) in Turin. San Giorgio of Sestri Ponente near Genoa produced all the optical devices of the tanks. Magneti Marelli of Corbetta, near Milan, produced the radio system, batteries, and engine starter. Breda of Brescia produced the automatic cannons and machine guns, while the final assembly was carried out in Turin by the SPA plant of Corso Ferrucci.

On 26th November 1939, Gen. Alberto Pariani wrote to Gen. Manara, informing him that, during Benito Mussolini’s visit to the Ansaldo-Fossati factory in Sestri Ponente, the assembly lines of some vehicles, such as the M13/40 and the L6/40, at that time still called M6, were ready and they only had to sign the production contract with the companies.

Apart from the prototypes, the L6/40s were only produced in Turin, so it is unclear what Pariani was referring to. During Mussolini’s visit to Sestri Ponente, FIAT technicians informed the dictator and the Italian general that the assembly line for the L6 was ready and Pariani confused the place in which they would be produced.

In the letter, Gen. Pariani urged to decide which armament would be chosen, as FIAT-Ansaldo had not yet received news of which model the Regio Esercito wanted, the 20 mm or the 37 mm gun.

On 18th March 1940, the Regio Esercito ordered 583 M6, 241 M13/40, and 176 AB armored cars. This order was formalized and signed by the Direzione Generale della Motorizzazione (English: General Directorate of Motor Vehicles). This was even before the approval of the M6 for Regio Esercito service.

In the contract, a production of 480 M6 per year was mentioned. This was a difficult goal to reach, in fact, even before the war. In September 1939, a FIAT-SPA analysis reported that, at maximum capacity, their plants could produce 20 armored cars, 20 light tanks (30 maximum), and 15 medium tanks per month. This was just an estimation, and Ansaldo’s production was not considered. Nevertheless, 480 tanks a year goal was never achieved, reaching only 83% of the per-year planned production, even with SPA converting the Corso Ferruccio’s plant to only for L6 light tank production.

The first deliveries did not take place until 22nd May 1941, three months later than planned. At the end of June 1941, the order was modified by the Ispettorato Superiore dei Servizi Tecnici (English: Superior Inspectorate of Technical Services). Of the 583 L6 ordered, 300 chassis would become Semoventi L40 da 47/32 light support self-propelled guns on the same L6 chassis, while the total number of L6/40 would be reduced to 283, maintaining the previous order of 583 L6-derived vehicles. After other orders, 414 L40s were built by the SPA plant in Turin.

One of the first produced L6/40s, license plate ‘Regio Esercito 3825’, in standard yellow sand monochrome camouflage at the SPA plant of Corso Ferrucci, Turin. Source: facebook.com – @Curzio Cobetti

An analysis was carried out by the Ministry of War, which reported the number of L6 tanks needed by the Royal Army was about 240 units. However, the Chief of Staff of the Royal Italian Army, General Mario Roatta, who was totally unimpressed by the vehicle, had sent FIAT a counter-order on 30th May 1941 reducing the total to only 100 L6/40s.

Despite Gen. Roatta’s counter-order, production continued and, on 18th May 1943, another order was made to formalize the continuation of production. A total of 444 L40s were set for production. FIAT and the Regio Esercito decided that production would be stopped on 1st December 1943.

By the end of 1942, about 400 L6/40 had been produced, though not all delivered, while in May 1943, there were 42 L6s left to produce to complete the order. Before the Armistice, 416 had been produced for the Regio Esercito. Another 17 L6s were produced under German occupation from November 1943 to late 1944, for a total of 432 L6/40 light tanks produced.

The first batch of L6/40s, ready to be delivered to the Regio Esercito, waiting in the depot of the SPA plant of Turin. Source: italie1935-45.com

There were many causes for these delays. The SPA plant of Turin had more than 5,000 workers employed in the production of trucks, armored cars, tractors, and tanks for the Army. On 18th and 20th November 1942, the plant was the target of Allied bombers, which dropped incendiary and high-explosive bombs which caused heavy damage on the SPA factory. This delayed the delivery of vehicles for the last two months of 1942 and for the first months of 1943. The same situation occurred during heavy bombardments on 13th and 17th August 1943.

Alongside the bombings, the factory was paralyzed by workers’ strikes which occurred in March and August 1943 against bad working conditions and lowered wages.

FIAT-SPA poster showing a SPA worker finishing an L6/40. Source: facebook.com @Roberto Malaspina

In late 1942 and early 1943, the Regio Esercito began evaluating which vehicles to prioritize for production and which to give less attention to. The High Command of the Regio Esercito, well aware of the importance of the medium reconnaissance armored cars of the ‘AB’ series, prioritized the production of the AB41 at the expense of the L6/40 reconnaissance light tanks. This led to a drastic decrease in the production of this type of light tank, hence only 2 vehicles produced in 5 months.

An L6/40 fresh off the assembly line during testing at the proving ground of the SPA plant of Turin, with a small crowd of proud workers watching the tests. After production, all vehicles had to undergo quality testing. If they passed, they were ready for delivery. Source: facebook.com – @Curzio Cobetti

When the L6/40s came out from the assembly line, there were not enough San Giorgio optics and Magneti Marelli radios for them, because these were delivered in priority to the AB41s. This left the SPA plant’s depots full of vehicles waiting to be completed. In some cases, L6/40s were delivered to units for training without armament. This was mounted at the last moment, before embarking for North Africa or another front, due to the lack of automatic-cannons, also used by the AB41s.

A Carro Armato L6/40 crossing a small river during crew training at the Scuola di Cavalleria (English: Cavalry School) of Pinerolo. It does not yet have the main gun mounted and also seems to be missing the radio antenna. Source: italie1935-45.com

YearFirst Registration Number of the batchLast Registration Number of the batchTotal5,5025,5086

Carro Armato L6/40 production
1941 3,808 3,814 6
3,842 3,847 5
3,819 3,855 36
3,856 3,881 25
1942 3,881 4,040 209
5,121 5,189* 68
5,203 5,239 36
5,453 5,470 17
1943 5,481 5,489 8
Italian total production 415
1943-44 German Production 17
Total 415 + 17 432
Note * L6 Registration Number 5,165 was taken and modified into a prototype. It is not to be considered in the total number

Another problem with the L6/40 was the transport of these light tanks. They were too heavy to be transported on trailers developed by Arsenale Regio Esercito di Torino or ARET (English: Royal Army Arsenal of Turin) in the 1920s. The ARET trailers were used to carry the light tanks of the L3 series and older FIAT 3000s.

The L6/40 had another problem. With a combat ready weight of 6.84 tonnes it was too heavy to be loaded on medium trucks of the Italian Army, which usually had a 3 tonne payload capacity. In order to transport them, the soldiers need to use the cargo bays of heavy duty trucks with 5 to 6 tonnes of maximum payload or on the two-axle Rimorchi Unificati da 15T trailers (English: 15 tonnes Unified Trailers) produced by Breda and Officine Viberti in few numbers and assigned with priority to Italian units equipped with medium tanks. In fact, on 11th March 1942, the Royal Army High Command issued a circular, in which it ordered some units equipped with L6/40s to deliver their 15 tonnes payload trailers to other units equipped with medium tanks.

An L6/40 of the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’ in Cascina Colla, small village in the province of Alessandria, probably during training. The vehicle was not yet equipped with its main armament due the lack of automatic cannons produced by Breda. Behind it is visible a 15 tonne payload two axle trailer developed by Officine Viberti to carry medium tanks. Source: Archivio Temperino

After a request for a new 6 tonne payload trailer, two companies started to develop it: Officine Viberti of Turin and Adige Rimorchi. The two trailers were equipped with four wheels fixed to a single axle. The Viberti trailer, which started to be tested in March 1942, had two jacks and a tilted rear section, allowing the loading and unloading of the L6 without ramps, while the Adige trailer also had a similar system. The trailer had two tiltable platforms fixed on it. When the L6/40 was to be loaded on board, the platforms were tilted and, with the help of the truck’s winch, the platforms were repositioned to the marching position.

The Officine Viberti trailer for L6/40 light tanks. The absence of ramps and four tires are clearly visible. The truck was a Lancia 3Ro, license plate ‘Regio Esercito 32582’, while the L6/40’s license plate was ‘Regio Esercito 4029’. Source: Gli Autoveicoli da Combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano

The Italian Royal Army never really solved the problem with the L6 trailers. On 16th August 1943, the Royal Army High Command, in one of its documents, mentions that the trailer issue for the L6 light tanks was still being addressed.

The Ditta Adige L6/40 trailer in marching position. The travel lock that blocked the L6 on the trailer during transport is clearly visible. The vehicle that towed the trailer was a FIAT-SPA TM40 medium tractor. Source: Gli Autoveicoli da Combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano
Another Adige trailer. In this case, seen during the loading operation. The iron cable of the truck’s winch and the tilted platform are visible. The vehicle that towed the trailer was a Breda 41 heavy prime mover. Source: facebook.com – @Curzio Cobetti

Design

Turret

The L6/40 turret was developed by Ansaldo and assembled by SPA for the L6/40 light tank and also used on the AB41 medium armored car. 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 remove the main armament during maintenance operations. On the sides, the turret had two slits on the sides for commanders to check the battlefield and use the personal weapons, even if doing so in the turret’s cramped space was not practical.

On the roof, next to the hatch, there was a San Giorgio periscope with a 30° field of view, which allowed the commander a partial view of the battlefield because it was impossible, due to the limited space, to rotate it 360°.

The turret and gun shield scheme. Unlike the production models, this turret had no support for the episcope. Source: italie1935-45.com

The commander’s position did not have a turret basket and commanders were seated on a foldable seat. Commanders operated the cannon and the machine gun through the use of pedals. There were no electric generators in the turret, so the pedals were connected to the grips of the guns by means of flexible cables. These cables were of the ‘Bowden’ type, the same as on bike brakes and were used to to transmit the pulling force of the pedal to the triggers.

The L6/40 prototype’s turret. Although missing racks, radios, and other equipment, this was essentially the same as on the production versions. Source: fondazioneansaldo.com

Armor

The front plates of the superstructure were 30 mm thick, while those of the gun shield and driver’s port were 40 mm thick. The front plates of the transmission cover and the side plates were 15 mm thick, as was the rear. The engine deck was 6 mm thick and the floor had 10 mm armor plates.

The armor was produced with low-quality steel because of supply issues with ballistic steel, which were exacerbated from 1939 onward. The Italian industry was not able to supply very large quantities because the higher quality steel was sometimes reserved for the Italian Regia Marina (English: Royal Navy). This was further worsened because of the embargoes imposed on Italy in 1935-1936 due to the invasion of Ethiopia and those that started in 1939, which did not allow the Italian industry access to enough high-quality raw materials.

The armor of the L6/40s often cracked after being hit (but not penetrated) by enemy shells, even small-caliber ones, such as the Ordnance QF 2 Pounder 40 mm rounds or even the .55 Boys (14.3 mm) of the Boys Anti-Tank rifle. The armor plates were all bolted, a solution that made the vehicle dangerous because, in some cases, when a shell hit the armor, the bolts flew out at very high speed, potentially injuring the crew members. The bolts were, however, the best that the Italian assembly lines could offer, as welding would have slowed down the production rate. The bolts also had the advantage of keeping the vehicle simpler to manufacture than a vehicle with welded armor and offered the possibility of replacing damaged armor plates with new ones very quickly even in poorly equipped field workshops.

Hull and Interior

At the front side was the transmission cover, with a large inspection hatch that could be opened by the driver through an internal lever. This would often be kept open to cool the brakes during travel, particularly in North Africa. A shovel and crowbar were placed on the right fender, while a rounded jack support was on the left.

There were two adjustable headlights mounted on the superstructure’ sides for night driving. The driver was positioned on the right and had a hatch that could be opened by a lever mounted on the right and, on top, a 190 x 36 mm episcope that had a horizontal 30º field of view, a vertical 8º field of view, and had a vertical traverse of -1° to +18°. Some spare episcopes were carried in a small box on the rear wall of the superstructure.

L6/40 longitudinale section. Source: reddit.com – u/stalker_vanguard

On the left, the driver had the gear lever and the handbrake, while the dashboard was placed on the right. Under the driver’s seat, there were the two 12V batteries produced by Magneti Marelli, which were used to start the engine and to power the vehicle’s electrical systems.

In the middle of the fighting compartment was the transmission shaft that connected the engine to the transmission. Due to the small amount of space inside, the vehicle was not equipped with an intercom system.

A rectangular tank with the engine’s cooling water was at the rear of the fighting compartment. In the middle was a fire extinguisher. On the sides, there were two air intakes to permit air intake when all the hatches were closed. On the bulkhead, above the transmission shaft, there were two openable inspection doors for the engine compartment.

Driver’s position on the L6/40, with the dashboard on the right. Source: italie1935-45.com
Central part of the fighting compartment. The commander/gunner pedals are clearly visible in the center. In this photo, one can observe 28 20 mm clip racks (numbers 4) and a small locker (left) for some machine gun magazine racks. On the bottom side, the transmission shaft is visible. Source: italie1935-45.com
The rear section of the interior of the fighting compartment. Two machine gun magazine racks are visible, alongside the last 20 mm clips rack (number 6). In the photo, the openable inspection doors are also visible, together with the spare iposcopes box (number 2) and the cooling water tank (behind the iposcope box). Source: italie1935-45.com

The engine and crew compartments were separated by an armored bulkhead, which reduced the risk of fire spreading to the crew compartment. The engine was located in the middle of the rear compartment, with one 82.5 liter fuel tank on either side. Behind the engine were the radiator and the lubrication oil tank.

The engine deck had two large doors with two grilles for engine cooling and, behind, two air intakes for the radiator. It was not uncommon for the crew to travel with the two hatches open during North African operations in order to better ventilate the engine due to the high temperatures.

Engine deck and armored bulkhead of the L6/40 light tank. Source: Italeri, Carro Armato L6/40 Photographic Reference Manual

The muffler was on the rear parts of the mudguards, on the right. On the first vehicles produced, this was not equipped with an asbestos cover. The cover dissipated the heat and was protected by an iron plate to avoid damage. The rear of the engine compartment had a round-shape removable plate fixed with bolts and used for engine maintenance. A support for the pickaxe and the license plate with red brake light were on the left side.

Engine and Suspension

The L6/40 light tank’s engine was the FIAT-SPA Tipo 18VT gasoline, 4-cylinder in-line, liquid-cooled engine with a maximum power of 68 hp at 2,500 rpm. It had a volume of 4,053 cm³. The same engine was used on the Semovente L40 da 47/32, with which it shared many parts of the chassis and powerpack. This engine was also an enhanced version of the one used on the FIAT-SPA 38R, SPA Dovunque 35, and FIAT-SPA TL37 military cargo trucks, the 55 hp FIAT-SPA 18T.

FIAT-SPA Tipo 18VT engine, right side. Source: Carro Armato FIAT-Ansaldo Modello L6 ed L6 Semovente – Norme d’Uso e Manutenzione 2ª Edizione

The engine could be started either electrically or manually using a handle that had to be inserted at the rear. The Zenith Tipo 42 TTVP carburetor was the same one used on the AB series of medium armored cars and allowed ignition even when cold. Another great feature of this carburetor was that it ensured a regulated flow of fuel even on slopes of 45°.

Engine’s fuel scheme. Source: Carro Armato FIAT-Ansaldo Modello L6 ed L6 Semovente – Norme d’Uso e Manutenzione 2ª Edizione

The engine used three different types of oil, depending on the temperatures in which the vehicle operated. In Africa, where the outside temperature exceeded 30°, ‘ultra-thick’ oil was used. In Europe, where the temperatures were between 10° and 30°, ‘thick’ oil was used, while in winter, when the temperature fell below 10°, ‘semi-thick’ oil was used. The instruction manual recommended adding oil in the 8-liter oil tank every 100 hours of service or every 2,000 km. The cooling water tank had a capacity of 18-liters.

The Carro Armato L6/40 engine parts. Source: Carro Armato L6/40 Photographic Reference Manual

The 165 liter fuel tanks guaranteed a range of 200 km on road and about 5 hours off-road, with a top speed on-road of 42 km/h and 20-25 km/h on rough terrain, depending on the terrain on which the light reconnaissance tank was operating.

At least a vehicle, license plate ‘Regio Esercito 4029’, was tested with factory-built supports for 20 liter cans. A maximum of five cans for a total of 100 liters of fuel could be transported by the L6, three on the left superstructure side and one above each rear fender tool box. These cans extended the maximum range of the vehicle to about 320 km.

The transmission had a single dry plate clutch. The gearbox had 4 forward and 1 reverse gears with speed reducer.

The brakes and driving levers connected to the gearbox. Source: Carro Armato FIAT-Ansaldo Modello L6 ed L6 Semovente – Norme d’Uso e Manutenzione 2ª Edizione

The running gear consisted of a 16-tooth front sprocket, four paired road wheels, three upper rollers, and one rear idler wheel on each side. The swing arms were fixed to the sides of the chassis and were attached to torsion bars. The L6 and L40 were the first Royal Army vehicles entering service with torsion bars.

The frontal suspension bogie was probably equipped with pneumatic shock absorbers.

The tracks were derived from those of the L3 series light tanks and were composed of 88 260 mm wide track links on each side.

The L6/40’s engine suffered from starting at low temperatures, something especially noted by crews deployed in the Soviet Union. The Società Piemontese Automobili tried to solve the problem by developing a pre-warming system that connected to a maximum of 4 L6 tanks warming the engine compartment before the vehicle were due to move.

A mock-up of the pre-warming system that could be connected to a maximum of 4 L6/40s or Semoventi L40 da 47/32. Source: facebook.com @Curzio Cobetti

Radio Equipment

The radio station of the L6/40 was a Magneti Marelli RF1CA-TR7 transceiver with an operating frequency range between 27 to 33.4 MHz. It was powered by an AL-1 Dynamotor supplying 9-10 Watts mounted on the front of the superstructure, on the driver’s left. It was connected to the 12V batteries produced by Magneti Marelli.

The radio had two ranges, Vicino (Eng: near), with a maximum range of 5 km, and Lontano (Eng: Far), with a maximum range of 12 km.

The L6/40 radio equipment scheme. Source: italie1935-45.com

The radio had a weight of 13 kg and was placed on the left side of the superstructure. It was operated by the overburdened commander. On the radio’s right was a fire extinguisher produced by Telum and filled with carbon tetrachloride.

The lowerable antenna was placed on the right roof side and was lowerable 90° backwards with a crank operated by the driver. When lowered, it diminished the maximum depression of the main gun to a maximum of -9°.

Main Armament

The Carro Armato L6/40 was armed with a Cannone-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65 Modello 1935 gas-operated air cooled automatic cannon developed by Società Italiana Ernesto Breda per Costruzioni Meccaniche of Brescia.

This was first presented in 1932 and, after a series of comparative tests with autocannons produced by Lübbe, Madsen, and Scotti. It was officially adopted by the Regio Esercito in 1935 as a dual use automatic cannon. It was a great anti-aircraft and anti-tank gun and, in Spain, during the Spanish Civil War, some German-produced Panzer Is were modified to accommodate this gun in their small turret to fight the Soviet light tanks deployed by the Republicans.

A Cannone-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65 Modello 1935 during an anti-aircraft action in Greece. Winter 1941. Source: Archivio Centrale dello Stato

From 1936 onward, the gun was produced in a vehicle mount variant and was installed in L6/40 light reconnaissance tanks and AB41 and AB43 medium armored cars.

It was produced in the Breda plants in Brescia and Rome and by the Terni gun factory, with a maximum average monthly production of 160 autocannons. More than 3,000 were used by the Regio Esercito in all the war theaters. Hundreds were captured and reused in North Africa by Commonwealth troops, which greatly appreciated their characteristics.

After the armistice of 8th September 1943, a total of over 2,600 Scotti-Isotta-Fraschini and Breda 20 mm automatic cannons were produced for the Germans, which renamed the latter Breda 2 cm FlaK-282(i).

The barrel of the Cannone-Mitragliera Breda mounted on the vehicles (upper) and the one mounted on the other supports used by the Italian armies (lower). Source: italie1935-45.com

The autocannon had a total weight of 307 kg with its field carriage, which gave it 360° traverse, a depression of -10° and an elevation of +80°. Its maximum range was 5,500 m. Against flying aircraft, it had a practical range of 1,500 m and against armored targets it had a maximum practical range between 600 and 1,000 m.

In all the gun variants, apart from the tank ones, the Breda was fed by 12-rounds clips loaded by the crew to the left side of the gun. In the tank version, the gun was fed by 8-rounds clips due the cramped space inside the vehicle’s turrets.

An Italian soldier loading a 12-round clip for a Cannone-Mitragliera Breda 20/65 Modello 1935 or a Scotti-Isotta-Fraschini 20/70 Modello 1939 automatic cannon. Libyan desert, Spring 1941. Source: Archivio Centrale dello Stato

The muzzle velocity was about 830 m/s, while its theoretical rate of fire was 500 rounds per minute, which dropped to 200-220 rounds per minute in practice in the field version, which had three loaders and 12-rounds clips. Inside the tank, the commander/gunner was alone and needed to open fire and reload the main gun, decreasing the rate of fire.

The maximum elevation was +20°, while the depression was -12°.

Secondary Armament

The secondary armament was composed of a 8 mm Breda Modello 1938 mounted coaxial to the cannon, on the left.

This gun was developed from the Breda Modello 1937 medium machine gun after specifications issued by the Ispettorato d’Artiglieria (English: Artillery Inspectorate) in May 1933.

Different Italian gun companies started working on the new machine gun. The requirements were a maximum weight of 20 kg, a theoretical rate of fire of 450 rounds per minute, and a barrel life of 1,000 rounds. The companies were Metallurgica Bresciana già Tempini, Società Italiana Ernesto Breda per Costruzioni Meccaniche, Ottico Meccanica Italiana, and Scotti.

Breda had been working on a 7.92 mm machine gun derived from the Breda Modello 1931, which had been adopted by the Italian Regia Marina (English: Royal Navy), since 1932, but with a horizontal magazine-feed. Between 1934 and 1935, the models developed by Breda, Scotti and Metallurgica Bresciana già Tempini were tested.

The Comitato Superiore Tecnico Armi e Munizioni (English: Superior Technical Committee for Weapons and Ammunition) in Turin issued its verdict in November 1935. The Breda project (now rechambered for the 8 mm cartridge) won. A first order for 2,500 units of the Breda medium machine gun was placed in 1936. After operational evaluation with the units, the weapon was adopted in 1937 as the Mitragliatrice Breda Modello 1937 (English: Breda Model 1937 Machine gun).

During the same year, Breda developed a vehicle version of the machine gun. This was a lightweight one, equipped with a shortened barrel, pistol grip, and a new 24-round top-curved magazine instead of 20-round strip clips.

A Breda Modello 1938 medium machine gun. It was developed for use on armored vehicles. Source: dandbmilitaria.com

The weapon was famous for its robustness and accuracy, despite its annoying tendency to jam if lubrication was insufficient. Its weight was considered too large compared to foreign machine guns of the time. It weighed 15.4 kg, 19.4 kg in the Modello 1937 variant, making this weapon the heaviest medium machine gun of the Second World War.

The theoretical rate of fire was 600 rounds per minute, while the practical rate of fire was about 350 rounds per minute. It was equipped with a cloth bag for the spent casings.

The machine gun 8 x 59 mm RB cartridges were 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. The armor piercing ones penetrated 11 mm of non-ballistic steel angled at 90° at 100 meters.

Ammunition

The automatic cannon fired the 20 x 138 mm B ‘Long Solothurn’ cartridge, the most common 20 mm round used by the Axis forces in Europe, such as the Finnish Lahti L-39 and Swiss Solothurn S-18/1000 anti-tank rifles and German FlaK 38, Italian Breda and Scotti-Isotta-Fraschini automatic cannons.

During the war, the L6/40 also probably used German rounds.

Cannone-Mitragliera Breda da 20/65 Modello 1935 ammunition
Name Type Muzzle Velocity (m/s) Projectile Mass (g) Penetration at 500 meters against an RHA plate angled at 90° (mm)
Granata Modello 1935 HEFI-T* 830 140 //
Granata Perforante Modello 1935 API-T** 832 140 27
SprenggranatPatrone 39 HEF-T*** 995 132 //
Panzergranatpatrone 40 HVAPI-T**** 1,050 100 26
Panzerbrandgranatpatrone – Phosphor API-T 780 148 //
Note * High-Explosive Fragmentation Incendiary – Tracer
** Armor-Piercing Incendiary – Tracer
*** High-Explosive Fragmentation – Tracer
**** Hyper Velocity Armor-Piercing Incendiary – Tracer

A total of 312 20 mm rounds were transported in the vehicle in 39 8-round clips. For the machine gun, 1,560 8 mm rounds were transported in 65 magazines. The ammunition was stored in wooden racks painted white and with a cloth tarpaulin to fix the magazines. Fifteen 8-round clips were positioned on the left wall of the superstructure, another 13 20 mm clips were placed on the frontal part of the floor, on the driver’s left, and the rest were placed on the rear part of the floor, on the right, behind the driver. The machine gun magazines were stored in similar wooden racks in the superstructure rear.

Ammunition racks on a L6/40. Source: Italeri, Carro Armato L6/40 Photographic Reference Manual

Crew

The L6/40 crew was composed of two soldiers. Drivers were placed on the vehicle’s right and commanders/gunners just behind, seated on a seat fixed to the turret ring. Commanders had to perform too many tasks and it was impossible for them to perform all at the same time.

During attacks, commanders had to check the battlefield, find targets, open fire against enemy positions, give orders to the driver, operate the radio station of the tank, and reload the automatic cannon and coaxial machine gun. This was essentially impossible to do by a single person. Similar vehicles, such as the German Panzer II, had a crew of three to make the vehicle commander’s job easier.

Crew members were usually from the cavalry training school or Bersaglieri (English: assault infantry) training school.

A Carro Armato L6/40 Centro Radio (distinguishable by the two rear antennas) license plate ‘Regio Esercito 4007’ with its crew posing in front of it. Photo taken at the Centro di Addestramento Carristi of Rome; date unknown. Source: Collezione Luca Massacci

Delivery and Organization

The vehicles from the first batches went to equip the training schools on the Italian mainland. When the L6/40 was accepted into service, the L6-equipped units were expected to be structured like the previous L3-equipped units. However, during training at the Pinerolo Cavalry School and during the testing of four L6s with a testing company deployed in North Africa, it was seen as preferable to create new formations: squadroni carri L6 (English: L6 tank squadrons) after October 1941. At the same time, it was decided to deploy two such light tanks in each Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato or RECo (English: Armored Reconnaissance Regroupement). The RECo was the reconnaissance unit assigned to each Italian armored and mechanized division.

The Nucleo Esplorante Corazzato or NECo (English: Armored Reconnaissance Nucleus), which were assigned after 1943 to each infantry division, was composed a battaglione misto (English: mixed battalion) with a command platoon, two armored car companies with 15 armored cars of the AB series each, and a compagnia carri da ricognizione (English: reconnaissance tanks company) with 15 L6/40s. The unit was completed with an anti-aircraft company with eight 20 mm automatic cannons and two batteries of Semoventi M42 da 75/18, with a total of 8 self-propelled guns.

An L6/40 with license plate ‘Regio Esercito 3942’ during crew training. The armament is not yet delivered. Source: Archivio dell’Ufficio Storico dello Stato Maggiore dell’Esercito

The L6/40 squadrons consisted of a plotone comando (English: command platoon), a plotone carri (English: tank platoon) in reserve, and another four plotoni carri, for a total of 7 officers, 26 NCOs, 135 soldiers, 28 L6/40 light tanks, 1 staff car, 1 light truck, 22 heavy duty trucks, 2 medium trucks, 1 recovery truck, 8 motorcycles, 11 trailers, and 6 loading ramps. The new L6 squadrons differed from the L3 squadrons in their structure. The new ones had 2 more platoons of tanks.

Like the AB41s units, the Italian Army distinguished between the different army branches, creating gruppi (English: groups) for the cavalry units and battaglioni (English: battalions) for the Bersaglieri assault infantry units. Many sources often do not pay attention to this detail.

In June 1942, the L6 battalions or groups were reorganized into a command platoon with 2 L6/40 command tanks and 2 L6/40 radio tanks and two or three tank companies (or squadrons), each one equipped with 27 L6 light tanks (54 or 81 tanks in total).

If the unit had two companies (or squadrons), it was equipped with: 58 L6/40 tanks (4 + 54), 20 officers, 60 NCOs, 206 soldiers, 3 staff cars, 21 heavy duty trucks, 2 light trucks, 2 recovery trucks, 20 two-seater motorcycles, 4 trailers, and 4 loading ramps. If the unit was equipped with three companies (or squadrons), it was equipped with 85 L6/40 tanks (4 + 81), 27 officers, 85 NCOs, 390 soldiers, 4 staff cars, 28 heavy duty trucks, 3 light trucks, 3 recovery trucks, 28 two-seater motorcycles, 6 trailers, and 6 loading ramps.

Training

On 14th December 1941 the Ispettorato delle Truppe Motorizzate e Corazzate (English: Inspectorate of Motorized and Armored Troops) wrote the rules for the training of the first three squadrons of L6/40 tanks.

Training lasted a few days and consisted of firing tests up to 700 m. Also included were driving over varied terrain and practical and theoretical instruction to personnel assigned to drive heavy trucks. Each L6 had 42 rounds of 20 mm ammunition, 250 rounds of 8 mm ammunition, 8 tonnes of gasoline while for the truck driver there was 1 tonne of diesel fuel for the training.

The Italian training on armored vehicles was very poor. Because of the lack of availability of equipment, Italian tank crews had few opportunities to train to shoot in addition to substandard mechanical training.

Operational Service

North Africa

The first L6/40s arrived in North Africa, when the campaign was already ongoing, in December 1941. They were assigned to a unit to trial them for the first time on the battlefield. The 4 L6s were assigned to a platoon of the III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’ Mixed Company, assigned to the Raggruppamento Esplorante of the Corpo d’Armata di Manovra or RECAM (English: Reconnaissance Group of the Maneuver Army Corps).

One of the four L6/40s of the Mixed Company of the III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’. Libyan desert, December 1941. Source: reddit.com u/_Art_Tank_

III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Novara’

The III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Novara’, also known as the III Gruppo Carri L6 ‘Lancieri di Novara’ (English: 3rd L6 Tank Group) was trained to operate the light tanks in Verona. It was composed of 3 squadrons and, on 27th January 1942, it received its first 52 L6/40 tanks. On 5th February 1942, it was assigned to the 132ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Ariete’ (English: 132nd Armored Division), becoming operational on 4th March 1942.

A FIAT 634N transporting two L6/40s of the III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Novara’ to the battlefront. As mentioned before, the weight of the L6/40s was a problem for the Regio Esercito, which was forced to use heavy trucks and medium tank-trailers to transport them. Source: italie1935-45.com

The unit was transferred to North Africa. Some sources claim it arrived in Africa with only 52 tanks and the rest were assigned while in Africa, while others mention that it arrived in Africa with 85 L6/40s (full three squadrons). It was assigned to the 133ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Littorio’ (English: 133rd Armored Division) in June 1942.

A column of FIAT 634Ns loaded with L6/40s of the III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Novara’ during a break. It is possible to count a total of 9 L6/40s on heavy duty trucks and medium trailers and also a Ford light lorry truck captured from Commonwealth forces. Source: pinterest.com

The unit was deployed during the attacks to the city of Tobruk and in the decisive attack after which the Commonwealth troops in the city surrendered. On June 27th, along with Bersaglieri of the 12º Reggimento (English: 12th Regiment), the unit defended Field Marshal Rommel’s command post.

The III Gruppo corazzato ‘Lancieri di Novara’ then fought at El-Adem. On 3rd and 4th July, it was engaged in the First Battle of El Alamein. On 9th July 1942, it was engaged behind the depression of El Qattara, protecting the flank of the 132ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Ariete’.

In October 1942, the unit was equipped with three AB41 medium armored cars, one for each squadron. This was done to provide better communications to the L6 units, as the armored cars had longer-range radio equipment, and to replace the loss of almost all the L6 tanks (78 lost out of 85). Because of the wear and tear of the L6/40 tanks, many could not be repaired at that time, as the field workshops were all destroyed or reallocated to other units.

An L6/40 of the III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Novara’ knocked out during North African fighting in 1942. Its license plate is ‘Regio Esercito 3826’. Source: Cavalleria Italiana

Reduced to only five operable tanks after the Third Battle of El Alamein, it followed the other units of the Italian-German army in the retreat, abandoning some serviceable tanks in a depot behind the frontline.

From Egypt, the unit started a retreat, arriving first in Cyrenaica and then in Tripolitania, on foot. It continued the war as a machine gun section aggregated to the Raggruppamento Sahariano ‘Mannerini’ (English: Saharan Group) during the campaign of Tunisia.

Despite this, the unit continued to operate, first assigned to the 131ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Centauro’ after 7th April 1943, then with Raggruppamento ‘Lequio’ (formed with the remains of the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’) after 22nd April 1943. The survivors participated in the operations of Capo Bon until the surrender of 11th May 1943.

An L6/40 of the III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Novara’ abandoned after the Third Battle of El Alamein, being inspected by Australian soldiers. Source: David Zambon

Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’

On 15th February 1942, at the Scuola di Cavalleria of Pinerolo, the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’ was founded under the command of Colonel Tommaso Lequio di Assaba. On the same day, it was equipped with the 1° Squadrone Carri L6 and 2° Squadrone Carri L6 (English: 1st and 2nd L6 Tank Squadrons) from the school.

L6/40 light tanks grouped up in a farmhouse in Bologna province, Italy, during training in late 1941. Source: Tatsuya Noda

The unit was divided as follows: a squadrone comando, I Gruppo with 1º Squadrone Autoblindo (English: 1st Armored Car Squadron), 2º Squadrone Motociclisti (English: 2nd Motorcycle Squadron), and 3º Squadrone Carri L6/40 (English: 3rd L6/40 Tank Squadron). The II Gruppo was equipped with a Squadrone Motociclisti, a Squadrone Carri L6/40, a Squadrone contraerei da 20 mm (English: 20 mm Anti-Aircraft Gun Squadron), and a Squadrone Semoventi Controcarro L40 da 47/32 (English: Semoventi L40 da 47/32 Anti-Tank Squadron).

On 15th April, a Gruppo Semoventi M41 da 75/18 (English: M41 Self-Propelled Gun Group) with 2 batteries was assigned to the RECo.

In the spring, the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’ was sent to the area of Pordenone, at the orders of the 8ª Armata Italiana (English: 8th Italian Army), waiting to leave for the Eastern Front. By order of the General Staff of the Regio Esercito, on 19th September, the destination was changed to North Africa, to the XX Corpo d’Armata di Manovra, for the defense of the Libyan Sahara.

Initially, however, only the equipment of the Squadrone Carri Armati L6/40 (English: L6/40 Tank Squadron) arrived in Africa, with personnel transferred by airplanes. They were meant for the Oasis of Giofra. The other convoys were attacked during the crossing from the Italian mainland to Africa, causing the loss of all the equipment of the Squadrone Semoventi L40 da 47/32 and the rest of the Tank Squadron could not leave until much later, after the tanks were replaced by AB41 armored cars. They reached the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’ in mid-November, while another ship was diverted to Corfu, then reaching Tripoli. The second Squadrone Carri L6, even if assigned to the RECo, never left the Italian peninsula, remaining in Pinerolo for training.

By the time the first units of the RECo reached Tripoli on 21st November 1942, the landing of Anglo-American troops in French North Africa had occurred. At that point, instead of the defense of the Libyan Sahara, the task of the RECo became the occupation and defense of Tunisia. Once gathered, the regiment left for Tunisia.

On 24th November, having left Tripoli, the units of the RECo reached Gabes in Tunisia. On 25th November 1942, they occupied Médenine, where the command of the I Gruppo was left with the 2º Squadrone Motociclisti, a platoon of which had remained in Tripoli to recover, and a platoon of anti-tank weapons. The 1º squadrone motociclisti, an armored car squadron and the anti-aircraft gun squadron continued their march to Gabes, suffering, during the march, some losses due to Allied air attacks. The regiment was thus divided as follows: elements in Gabes, with the commander, Colonel Lequio, then the bulk of the I Gruppo in the Tunisian south, all with the 131ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Centauro’ and the L6/40 tank squadron in the Libyan south, with the Raggruppamento sahariano ‘Mannerini’.

A bad quality image of a FIAT 666NM loaded with an L6/40 during transport in the desert, followed by a German Panzer III. Source: facebook.com – @Curzio cobetti

On 9th December 1942, Kebili was occupied by a group made up of one platoon of the armored car squadron, one L6/40 light tank platoon, two 20 mm anti-aircraft platoons, the Sezione Mobile d’Artiglieria (English: Mobile Artillery Section), and two machine-gun companies. These were followed two days later by the 2º Squadrone Autoblindo in order to reinforce the garrison and to extend the occupation up to Douz, thus holding under control the whole territory of the Caidato of Nefzouna. The commander of the vanguard was Second Lieutenant Gianni Agnelli of the armored car platoon. From December 1942 to January 1943, the I Group, 50 kilometers away from the main Italian base, in a hostile area and in difficult terrain, continued intense operations in the whole area of Chott el Djerid and the southwest territories.

The tank squadron, composed of L6/40s, was stationed in the area of Giofra and then Hon. It received orders from the Comando del Sahara Libico (English: Libyan Sahara Command) on 18th December 1942 to move to Sebha, where it passed under its command, constituting the Nucleo Automobilistico del Sahara Libico (English: Automobile Nucleus of the Libyan Sahara), with 10 armored cars, and an unknown number of serviceable L6s.

On 4th January 1943, it began the retreat from Sebha, after having destroyed all the remaining L6/40 light tanks because of lack of fuel. It reached El Hamma on 1st February 1943, where the squadron rejoined its I Gruppo.

An L6/40 captured by the Commonwealth forces together with a pair of German Panzer IIIs. Source: worldwarphoto.com

In North Africa, due to losses suffered in 1941, the Italian Army made a number of reorganizing changes. This included forming the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato. The purpose of this change was to equip most armored and motorized formations with a better-armed reconnaissance element. This unit consisted of a command squadron and two Gruppo Esplorante Corazzato or GECo (English: Armored Reconnaissance Group). The newly developed L6 tanks and their self-propelled anti-tank cousins were to be supplied to these units. In the case of the L6 tanks, they were allocated to the 1° Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato, divided into two squadrons supported with a squadron of armored cars. Not many such units were formed, but included the 18° Reggimento Esplorante Corazzato Bersaglieri, Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’, and Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Montebello’. The last unit did not even have any L6 tanks in its inventory.

These armored reconnaissance groups were not used as a whole but, instead, their elements were attached to different armored formations. For example, elements from the RECo were attached to the 131ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Centauro’ (English: 131st Armored Division) and 101ª Divisione Motorizzata ‘Trieste’ (English: 101st Motorized Division), both of which were stationed in North Africa, and 3 celere divisions which served on the Eastern Front. A few mechanized Cavalry units were also supplied with the L6 tanks. For example, the III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’ (English: 3rd Armored Group), which supported the 132ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Ariete’, had L6 tanks. The L6 saw service during the Battle for El Alamein in late 1942 as part of the III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Novara’. All available tanks of this unit would be lost, which led to its disbanding. By October 1942, there were some 42 L6 tanks stationed in North Africa. These were used by III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Novara’ and Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’. By May 1943, Italian units had some 77 L6 tanks in service. In September, there were some 70 available for service.

In North Africa, due to losses suffered in 1941, the Italian Army made a number of reorganizing changes. This included forming the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato. The purpose of this change was to equip most armored and motorized formations with a better-armed reconnaissance element. This unit consisted of a command squadron and two Gruppo Esplorante Corazzato or GECo (English: Armored Reconnaissance Group). The newly developed L6 tanks and their self-propelled anti-tank cousins were to be supplied to these units. In the case of the L6 tanks, they were allocated to the 1° Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato, divided into two squadrons supported with a squadron of armored cars. Not many such units were formed, but included the 18° Reggimento Esplorante Corazzato Bersaglieri, Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’, and Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Montebello’. The last unit did not even have any L6 tanks in its inventory.

These armored reconnaissance groups were not used as a whole but, instead, their elements were attached to different armored formations. For example, elements from the RECo were attached to the 131ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Centauro’ (English: 131st Armored Division) and 101ª Divisione Motorizzata ‘Trieste’ (English: 101st Motorized Division), both of which were stationed in North Africa, and 3 celere divisions which served on the Eastern Front. A few mechanized Cavalry units were also supplied with the L6 tanks. For example, the III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’ (English: 3rd Armored Group), which supported the 132ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Ariete’, had L6 tanks. The L6 saw service during the Battle for El Alamein in late 1942 as part of the III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Novara’. All available tanks of this unit would be lost, which led to its disbanding. By October 1942, there were some 42 L6 tanks stationed in North Africa. These were used by III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Novara’ and Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Lodi’. By May 1943, Italian units had some 77 L6 tanks in service. In September, there were some 70 available for service.

Europe

1° Squadrone ‘Piemonte Reale’

Created in an unknown location on 5th August 1942, the 1° Squadrone ‘Piemonte Reale’ was assigned to the 2ª Divisione Celere ‘Emanuele Filiberto Testa di Ferro’ (English: 2nd Fast Division), which had been recently reorganized.

It was deployed after 13th November 1942 to southern France, with police and coastal defense duties, first near Nice and then in the Mentone-Draguignan region, patrolling the Antibes-Saint Tropez coastal sector.

In December, it replaced the 58ª Divisione di Fanteria ‘Legnano’ (English: 58th Infantry Division) in the defense of the coastal strip along the Menton-Antibes stretch.

Some L6/40s pass on the streets of Nice, southern France, during Spring 1943. Source: italie1935-45.com

Until the first days of September 1943, it was used in coastal defense in the same sector. On 4th September, it began the movement for the return home with destination Turin. During the transfer, the unit was informed of the Armistice and the transfer was expedited.

On 9th September 1943, the division set up its units around the city of Turin in order to prevent the movement of German troops towards the city and, later, on 10th September, it moved towards the French border to barricade the Maira and Varaita valleys in order to facilitate the return of the Italian units from France to the Italian mainland.

The division then ceased to function on 12th September. The 2ª Divisione Celere ‘Emanuele Filiberto Testa di Ferro’ was disbanded on 12th September 1943 following events determined by the Armistice, while it was in the area between Cuneo and the Italian-French border.

L6/40s on the waterfront of Nice during a break to rest and admire the view during spring 1943. Source: Istituto Luce

There is some disagreement in the sources about the unit’s name. In the book Gli Autoveicoli da Combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano, written by the famous Italian writers and historians Nicola Pignato and Filippo Cappellano, the unit was named ‘1° Squadrone’, but the nickname ‘Piemonte Reale’ is unsure.

The website regioesercito.it mentions the 2ª Divisione Celere ‘Emanuele Filiberto Testa di Ferro’, saying that, on 1st August 1942, it was reorganized. In the following days, the Reggimento ‘Piemonte Reale Cavalleria’ was attached to the division, probably the same L6-equipped unit but with a different name.

An L6/40 in Nice during 1942. It had the markings painted vertically on the turret side. Source: worldwarphotos.com

18° Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato Bersaglieri of the 136ª Divisione Legionaria Corazzata ‘Centauro’

This unit was formed on 1st February 1942 in the depot of the 5º Reggimento Bersaglieri in Siena. It had in its composition the I Gruppo Esplorante (English: 1st Reconnaissance group), consisting of 1ª Compagnia Autoblindo (English: 1st Armored Car Company), 2ª Compagnia Carri L40 and 3ª Compagnia Carri L40 (English: 2nd and 3rd L40 Tank Companies), and 4ª Compagnia Motociclisti (English: 4th Motorcycle Company). The unit had also a II Gruppo Esplorante, with the 5ª Compagnia Cannoni Semoventi da 47/32 (English: 5th 47/32 Self-Propelled Gun Company) and 6ª Compagnia Cannoni da 20mm Contraerei (English: 6th 20 mm Anti-Aircraft Gun Company).

On 3rd January 1943, the unit was assigned to the 4ª Armata Italiana deployed in the French region of Provence, with police and coastal defense duties in the Toulon area. After the creation of the unit, the 2ª Compagnia Carri L40 and 3ª Compagnia Carri L40 were reassigned to the 67° Reggimento Bersaglieri and two other companies, with the same names, were recreated on 8th January 1943.

L6/40s and crews lined up in France. Source: Gli Autoveicoli da Combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano

After Benito Mussolini was deposed as dictator of Italy on 25th July 1943, the 18° RECo Bersaglieri was recalled to the Italian mainland, arriving in Turin. During its time in Toulon, it also lost its 1ª Compagnia Autoblindo, which was renamed 7ª Compagnia and assigned to the 10º Raggruppamento Celere Bersaglieri in Corsica (English: 10th Fast Bersaglieri Regroupement of Corsica).

In the first days of September 1943, the unit started its railway transfer to the Lazio region, where it would be assigned to the Corpo d’Armata Motocorazzato (English: Armored and Motorized Army Corp) of the 136ª Divisione Corazzata Legionaria ‘Centauro’ (English: 136th Legionnaire Armored Division) assigned to Rome’s defense.

When the Armistice was signed on 8th September 1943, the 18º Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato Bersaglieri was still on flat cars on route to Rome. An entire battalion was blocked in Florence, along with half of the 3ª Compagnia Carri L40 and the 4ª Compagnia Motociclisti. The other units were half way between Florence and Rome or in Rome’s suburbs.

Some of these joined the 135ª Divisione corazzata ‘Ariete II’ (English: 135th Armored Division), which had been created after the destruction of the 132ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Ariete’, in North Africa.

From one of the last trains on which the RECo vehicles and soldiers were traveling, the Bersaglieri landed at Bassano in Teverina near Orte. The train also carried the command company. On the afternoon of the 8th September, the dispersed units near Rome rejoined the main body at Settecamini.

When, in the evening, the news of the Armistice with the Allies came, the units stopped in Florence and participated in the first clashes against the Germans. In the afternoon of 9th September, they unloaded the vehicles from the flat cars and took part in the fighting against the Germans near the Futa pass.

The units that were in the surroundings of Rome on the night of 9th September blocked the access to Rome at Tivoli along with elements of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana (English: Police of Italian Africa) and clashed with the Germans in the following morning. The units of the 18° RECO Bersaglieri in Rome were assigned to the 135ª Divisione corazzata ‘Ariete II’ after the morning of 10th September, as the Division had suffered many losses of its R.E.Co., the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Montebello’. In the afternoon, the elements of the 18° RECo Bersaglieri attacked the Germans at Porta San Sebastiano and Porta San Paolo, supporting the Italian units there and the Italian civilians that had joined the fighting to defend their own city.

After suffering heavy casualties, the Italian units retreated to Settecamini. The 18° RECo Bersaglieri suffered an air attack by German Junkers Ju 87 ‘Stuka’ and, on the morning of 11th September, with the commander wounded during the clashes, the unit dispersed after sabotaging its surviving vehicles.

Yugoslavia

The precise date when the Italians introduced the L6 in Yugoslavia is not quite clear. The 1° Gruppo Carri L ‘San Giusto’ (English: 1st Light Tanks Group), which operated in Yugoslavia from 1941 with 61 L3s on 4 squadrons, may have received its firsts L6/40 tanks in 1942 together with some AB41 medium armored cars. In reality, these probably arrived sometime in early 1943. The first evidence of their use in Yugoslavia is May 1943 according to Partisan reports. In them, they referred to the Italian tank as “Large tanks”. The term “Small tanks”, which they also used at this point, likely referred to the smaller L3 tanks. Given the general Partisan lack of knowledge about the precise names of enemy armor, these and other names should not come as a surprise.

One of the Italian units that had L6s was the IV Gruppo Corazzato, part of the ‘Cavalleggeri di Monferrato’ regiment. This unit had 30 L6 tanks that operated from their headquarter in Berat in Albania. In occupied Slovenia, during August and September 1943, the XIII Gruppo Squadroni Semoventi ‘Cavalleggeri di Alessandria’ had some L6 tanks.

In Albania, the II Gruppo ‘Cavalleggeri Guide’ had 15 L3/35s and 13 L6/40s in Tirana countryside. The IV Gruppo ‘Cavalleggeri di Monferrato’ resisted the German attempts to disarm this unit, so the L6s may have seen some limited service against the Germans in September 1943.

3° Squadrone of the Gruppo Carri L ‘San Giusto’

During 1942, the 3° Squadrone of the 1° Gruppo Carri L ‘San Giusto’, which had already been deployed to the Eastern Front, was reorganized, abandoning the surviving L3 light tank series and was reequipped with Carri Armati L6/40 and deployed in Spalato, in the Balkans, to fight the Yugoslavian partisans.

An L6/40 during a rest in Croatia. Note the license plate, that seems to be ‘Regio Esercito 3743’, and the Mickey Mouse face painted on the superstructure. Source: facebook.com

9° Plotone Autonomo Carri L40

Formed on 5th April 1943, this platoon was assigned to the 11ª Armata Italiana in Greece. Nothing is known about its service.

III° and IV° Gruppo Carri ‘Cavalleggeri di Alessandria’

On 5th May 1942, the III° Gruppo Carri ‘Cavalleggeri di Alessandria’ (English: 3rd Tank Group) deployed in Codroipo, near Udine, in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, and the IV° Gruppo Carri ‘Cavalleggeri di Alessandria’ (English: 4th Tank Group), deployed in Tirana, the Albanian capital city, were equipped with 13 L6 tanks and 9 Semoventi L40 da 47/32. They were deployed in the Balkans in anti-partisan operations.

The crew of an L6/40 posing for a photo in the Balkans. It had a two tone camouflage, common for Italian units operating in the Balkans. It had the number ‘32’ painted on the access door. Unfortunately, the opened driver’s port blocks the identification of the unit’s coat of arms painted on the front plate. Source: reddit.com

Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri Guide’

The Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri Guide’ was deployed in Tirana, Albania. It had in its ranks the I Gruppo Carri L6 (English: 1st L6 Tank Group) created during 1942 with a total of 13 Carri Armati L6/40. The unit had also in its ranks 15 older L3/35.

Crews and L6/40s during a blessing by a military pastor. The vehicles belong to the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri Guide’. Tirana, Albania, during 1943. Source: italie1935-45.com

IV Gruppo Squadroni Corazzato ‘Nizza’

The IV Gruppo Squadroni Corazzato ‘Nizza’ (English: 4th Armored Squadron Group, also sometimes mentioned as IV Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’) formed together with the III Gruppo Squadroni Corazzato ‘Nizza’ in the Deposito Reggimentale (English: Regimental Depot) of the Reggimento ‘Nizza Cavalleria’ of Turin on 1st January 1942. It was created six months after the III Gruppo and was composed of two Squadroni Misti (English: Mixed Squadrons). One equipped with 15 L6/40 light tanks and the other with 21 AB41 medium armored cars.

Some sources do not mention the use of L6/40 light tanks, but mention 36 armored cars assigned to it. This could mean that the squadron was theoretically armed with tanks, but in fact, it was equipped only with armored cars.

In Albania, it was assigned to the Raggruppamento Celere (English: Fast Group). It was employed in counter-partisan operations and escorting Axis supply convoys, highly coveted prey by the Yugoslav Partisans who often attacked them almost undisturbed, capturing many weapons, ammunition, and other military material.

After the Armistice in September 1943, the 2º Squadrone Autoblindo, under the orders of Captain Medici Tornaquinci, joined the 41ª Divisione di Fanteria ‘Firenze’ (English: 41st Infantry Division) in Dibra, managing to open the way to the coast through fierce battles against the Germans during which Colonnello Luigi Goytre, the commander of the unit, lost his life. The most bloody fights against the Germans took place particularly in Burreli and Kruya. After the battles, the IV Gruppo Corazzato ‘Nizza’ dispersed. Many officers and soldiers went back to Italy, reaching Apulia by makeshift means and concentrating at the Centro Raccolta di Cavalleria (English: Cavalry Gathering Center) in Artesano to join the Allied forces.

IV Gruppo Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Monferrato’

The IV Gruppo Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri di Monferrato’ was created in May 1942 and deployed in Yugoslavia. Not much is known about its service. It was equipped with a theoretical force of 30 L6/40 light tanks operating from the city of Berat in Albania.

Like the other units in the Balkan peninsula, it was deployed in anti-partisan and convoy escort duties until the Armistice of September 1943. From 9th September onward, the soldiers fought against the Germans, losing the majority of their serviceable tanks.

Even if the commander of the unit, Colonnello Luigi Lanzuolo, was captured and then shot by the Germans, the soldiers continued to fight the Germans in the Yugoslavian mountains until 21st September 1943. After that date, the remaining soldiers and vehicles were captured by the Germans or joined the Partisans.

Soviet Union

The L6 tanks were used by Italian armored formations that were engaged on the Eastern Front, supporting the Germans during 1942. A large contingent of some 62,000 men was dispatched by Mussolini to assist his German allies. Initially called Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia or CSIR (English: Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia), it was later renamed ARMata Italiana In Russia or ARMIR (English: Italian Army in Russia). At first, only some 61 older L3 tanks were used, which were mostly lost in 1941. In order to support the new German offensive toward the Stalingrad and the oil-rich Caucasus, the Italian armor strength was reinforced with L6 tanks and the self-propelled version based on it.

LXVII° Battaglione Bersaglieri Corazzato

The LXVII° Battaglione Bersaglieri Corazzato (English: 67th Armored Bersaglieri Battalion) was created on 22nd February 1942 with units from the 5° Reggimento Bersaglieri and 8° Reggimento Bersaglieri (English: 5th and 8th Bersaglieri Regiments). It was composed of 2 L6/40 companies, with 58 L6/40s in total. It was assigned after 12th July 1942 to the 3ª Divisione Celere ‘Principe Amedeo Duca d’Aosta’ (English: 3rd Fast Division), but officially arrived on the Eastern Front on 27th August 1942.

An L6/40 of the LXVII° Battaglione Bersaglieri Corazzato climbing on the cargo bay of a FIAT 666NM heavy duty truck on the Eastern Front. Source: italie1935-45.com

It was equipped with a command platoon with 4 tanks, and the 2ª Compagnia and 3ª Compagnia (English: 2nd and 3rd Companies). Each company was composed of a command platoon with 2 tanks and 5 platoons with 5 tanks each.

This Italian fast division also had the XIII Gruppo Squadroni Semoventi Controcarri (English: 13th Anti-Tank Self-propelled Gun Squadron Group) of the 14° Reggimento ‘Cavalleggeri di Alessandria’ (English: 14th Regiment), equipped with Semoventi L40 da 47/32.

Alpini, the Italian mountain troops, watching the march of some L6/40s of the LXVII° Battaglione Bersaglieri Corazzato to the battlefront. Source: Rassegna Militare

On 27th August 1942, the unit undertook its first combat in Russia. Two Platoons with 9 tanks contributed to the defensive maneuvers operated by the Battaglione ‘Valchiese’ and Battaglione ‘Vestone’ of the 3° Reggimento Alpini (English: 3rd Alpine Regiment), repelling a Russian attack in the Jagodny sector. Only a few days later, however, a company of the LXVII° Battaglione Bersaglieri Corazzato, with 13 L6/40s, lost all but one of its vehicles during a battle, knocked out by 14.5 x 114 mm Soviet anti-tank rifles.

A member of a Soviet anti-tank squad poses proudly with his PTRD-41 next to an L6/40 of the LXVII° Battaglione Bersaglieri Corazzato, which he probably helped knock out. The license plate is unfortunately only partially visible. Source: pinterest.com

On 16th December 1942, the Soviet Army launched Operation Little Saturn. On that day, the LXVII° Battaglione Bersaglieri Corazzato had in its ranks 45 L6/40s. In spite of the strenuous Italian resistance, between 16th and 21st December, the Soviets broke through the defensive line of Battalgione ‘Ravenna’, between Gadjucja and Foronovo, and on the 19th December 1942, the Italian units had to retreat.

The Bersaglieri and the Cavalry had to cover the retreat with the few armored vehicles that survived the fights of the previous days. About twenty vehicles of the XIII Gruppo Squadroni Semoventi Controcarri and the LXVII° Battaglione Bersaglieri Corazzato were available.

Two L6/40s of the LXVII° Battaglione Bersaglieri Corazzato and a Semovente L40 da 47/32 of the XIII Gruppo Squadroni Semoventi Controcarri abandoned in a Russian village south of Stalingrad. Source: pinterest.com

Most of these tanks and self-propelled guns were lost during the retreat, which ended on 28th December in Skassirskaja. The very few remaining tanks were then dispersed in the disastrous retreat of the ARMIR.

An L6/40 overturned for unknown reasons in a village south of Stalingrad. It was of the First Company of the LXVII° Battaglione Bersaglieri Corazzato. Source: socimage.com

Other Units

Some units received the L6/40 and its variants for training purposes or in small numbers for police duties. The 32° Reggimento di Fanteria Carrista (English: 32nd Tank Crew Infantry Regiment) in Montorio, near Verona, in north-eastern Italy, was equipped on 23rd December 1941 with six L6/40 Centro Radio that were assigned to its battalions.

Their fate is not clear. On 31st December 1941, the unit was disbanded and its soldiers and vehicles were transferred by ships to the 12° Autoraggruppamento Africa Settentrionale (English: 12nd North African Vehicle Group) of Tripoli after 16th January 1942, where they were used to create the Centro Addestramento Carristi (English: Tank Crew Training Center).

Another 5 L6/40s were assigned to the Scuola di Cavalleria (English: Cavalry School) of Pinerolo and used to train new tank crews to operate on the L6 light reconnaissance tanks.

A FIAT 666NM of the Scuola di Cavalleria of Pinerolo loaded with an L6/40 of the same school. The FIAT 666NM had a maximum payload of 6 tonnes and, from the photo, it is visible that the vehicle’s suspension was under strain. Source: worldwarphotos.com

On 17th August 1941, four L6/40 light reconnaissance tanks were assigned to the Compagnia Mista (English: Mixed Company) of the Battaglione Scuola (English: School Battalion) of one of the Centro Addestramento Carristi on the Italian mainland.

The 8° Reggimento Autieri (English: 8th Driver Regiment) of the Centro Studi della Motorizzazione was also equipped with some L6/40.

A total of three L6/40s were assigned to the Centro Addestramento Armi d’Accompagnamento Contro Carro e Contro Aeree (English: Support Anti-Tank and Anti-Aircraft Weapons Training Center) of Riva del Garda, near Trento, north-eastern Italian peninsula. Another three L6/40 were assigned to a similar center in Caserta, near Naples, southern Italy. All six tanks were assigned to the two centers on 30th January 1943.

Two unarmed L6/40 light reconnaissance tanks of the Scuola di Cavalleria loaded on a FIAT 666NM and its Rimorchio Unificato Viberti da 15T two axle trailer, developed for medium tanks. Source: Cavalleria Italiana

The last two L6/40s used by a Regio Esercito unit were assigned in late 1942 or early 1943 to the 4° Reggimento Fanteria Carrista (English: 4th Tank Crew Infantry Regiment) in Rome to train Italian tank crews to operate these light tanks before their departure for Africa.

Polizia dell’Africa Italiana

The Polizia dell’Africa Italiana or PAI was created after a reorganization of the Police Corps operating in Libyan territory and the colonies of Africa Orientale Italiana or AOI (English: Italian East Africa). The new corps was under the command of the Italian Ministry of Italian Africa.

During the first phases of the war, the corps operated side by side with the Regio Esercito troops like a standard army branch. It was equipped only with AB40 and AB41 medium armored cars so, during the North African campaign, the PAI command asked the Italian Army to better equip the police corp with tanks.

After bureaucratic delays, six (some sources claim 12) L6/40s were assigned to the 5° Battaglione ‘Vittorio Bòttego’ deployed in the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana training school and headquarter in Tivoli, 33 km from Rome.

At least six registration numbers are known for these tanks (which is why six seems the correct number of vehicles received). The numbers are 5454 to 5458 and were produced in November 1942.

The vehicles were deployed for training purposes until the Armistice in September 1943. The Polizia dell’Africa Italiana took active part in the defense of Rome, first blocking the road to Tivoli to the Germans and then fighting with the Regio Esercito units in the city.

Two Allied soldiers inspecting one of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana’s L6/40s. The other vehicles in the photo are all L6/40s. The license plates were not painted. Source: gbmodelli.blogspot.com

Nothing is know about the PAI L6/40’s service, but a photo taken on 9th September 1943 shows a column of L6/40 of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana on the road between Mentana and Monterotondo, north of Tivoli and north-east of Rome. At least 3 (but probably more) survived the fighting against the Germans and were deployed, after the surrender, by PAI agents in Rome for public order duties. Three of them survived the war.

Use by Other Nations

When the Italians capitulated in September 1943, what was left of their armored vehicles was seized by the Germans. This included over 100 L6 tanks. The Germans even managed to produce a limited amount of vehicles with the resources that were captured from the Italians. After late 1943, as it was a low priority, some 17 L6 tanks were built by the Germans. The use of L6s in Italy by the Germans was quite limited. This is mostly due to the vehicle’s general obsolescence and weak firepower. In Italy, the majority of the L6s were allocated to secondary roles, being used as towing tractors, or even as static defense points.

The L6 in German hands. Source: B. B. Dimitrijević and D. Savić Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu 1941-1945 Beograd.

In occupied Yugoslavia, the Italian forces were quickly disarmed in 1943 and their weapons and vehicles were seized by all warring parties. The majority went to the Germans, which used them extensively against the Yugoslav Partisans. The L6s saw use against the Partisans, where its weak armament was still effective. The problem for the Germans was the lack of spare parts and ammunition. Both Yugoslavian Partisans and the German puppet state of Croatia managed to capture and use L6 tanks. Both would use these up to the war’s end and, in the case of the Partisans, even after that.

An L6 in Yugoslav 1st Proletarian Brigade service in October 1943. Source: B. B. Dimitrijević and D. Savić Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu 1941-1945 Beograd.

Italian Soldiers in Yugoslav Partisan Ranks

Some Regio Esercito units in Yugoslavia joined the Yugoslav Partisans, since it was impossible to join the Allied forces.

Two L6/40 tanks of the 2ª Compagnia of the 1° Battaglione of the 31° Reggimento Fanteria Carrista joined the 13 Proleterska Brigada ‘Rade Končar’ (English: 13th Proletarian Brigade) near the village of Jastrebarsko on the day of the Armistice. They were assigned to an armored unit under the command of the I Korpus of the Yugoslavian People’s Liberation Army. Not much is known about their service, apart that they were operated by their previous Italian crews.

Also in Albania, entire Italian divisions that could not return to Italy after resisting the German forces even for entire months joined the Albanian Partisans.

The survivors of the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri Guide’, together with the survivors of some Italian infantry divisions such as ‘Arezzo’, ‘Brennero’, ‘Firenze’, ‘Perugia’, and other small units, joined the Battaglione ‘Gramsci’ assigned to the 1st Assault Brigade of the Albanian National Liberation Army.

Some of the L6/40s were used during the liberation of Albania and the soldiers of the RECo ‘Cavalleggeri Guide’ took part in the liberation of Tirana in mid-November 1944.

Commander Shehu, leader of the 1st Assault Brigade of the Albanian National Liberation Army, sits on an L6/40, probably of the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri Guide’. Source: I Mezzi delle Unità Cobelligeranti

After the War

After the war, the three L6/40s of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana were taken over by the newly formed Corpo delle Guardie di P.S. (English: Corps of Public Safety Officers), which was then renamed Polizia di Stato (English: State Police). The new Police, created after the fall of Fascism in Italy, used these surviving vehicles until 1952.

An L6/40 in front of the Viminale, Interior Ministry of Italy, in May 1946. It had a particular two tone camouflage and the license plate ‘Polizia 2632’. Source: italie1935-45.com

Due to wear and tear and few spare parts, the vehicles were rarely used in Rome. Other examples captured from the Germans and the Fascists loyal to Mussolini in April 1945 were also reused in Milan, assigned to the III° Reparto Celere ‘Lombardia’ (English: 3rd Fast Department). These vehicles were modified, probably by the Arsenale di Torino (English: Turin Arsenal), after the war. The primary armament was replaced and a second Breda Model 1938 machine gun was mounted to replace the 20 mm cannon.

The only known action of the Milanese L6/40s occurred on 27th November 1947, when the Italian Minister of the Interior, Mario Scelba, removed the prefect of Milan, Ettore Trailo, a former partisan of Socialist ideology. This act unleashed protests through the entire city and the government was forced to deploy the police departments, which at the time were not well seen by the population due to their violent actions during demonstrations, even peaceful ones.

Two L6/40s rearmed with twin Breda Modello 1938 machine guns in the streets of Milan in November 1947. On the left, above the sidewalk, there is a FlaK 30 covered by a waterproof sheet. A policeman is wearing an army tank uniform. Source: facebook.com – @Curzio Cobetti

Minister Scelba was the promoter of a hard line approach against the people with leftist ideologies. After the first opening of the police ranks to former partisans, Scelba changed plans. He tried to identify all those who, in his opinion, were dangerous Communists. He forced leftist former partisans and police officers to resign through continuous harassment and non-stop transfers from one city to another.

On this occasion, the Corpo delle Guardie di P.S. was deployed in Milan together with the Army. Barbed wire was placed with heavy armament and even medium tanks in some streets, in order to prevent attacks from the protesters.

Not even a single shot was fired and there were no injuries during the demonstrations. Thanks to the political intervention of Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi and Secretary of the Partito Comunista d’Italia or PCI (English: Communist Party of Italy) Palmiro Togliatti, the situation returned to normal within a few days.

The same vehicles in another photo. 27th November 1947, Milan. Source: polizianellastoria.it

Camouflage and Markings

As on all Italian vehicles of the Second World War, the standard camouflage applied in the factory on Carri Armati L6/40 was Kaki Sahariano (English: Light Saharan Khaki).

The prototypes used the standard, pre-war Imperiale (English: Imperial) camouflage composed of a standard sand yellow Kaki Sahariano (English: Saharan Khaki) base with dark brown and reddish-brown lines. This camouflage is popularly known as the “Spaghetti” camouflage, even if this is only a joke name that has appeared in modern times.

The vehicles used in the Soviet Union left for the Eastern Front in the classic khaki camouflage. At an unspecified point between summer and winter 1942, the vehicles were covered with mud, dirt, or earth, trying to camouflage them from air attacks. The vehicles were, in some cases, also covered with branches or straw for the same purpose.

The vehicles kept this camouflage even during winter, at which time the camouflage made them easier to observe even if, due to the low temperatures, during the colder months, snow and ice would stick to the mud or dirt sticking to the vehicle making it, unintentionally, better camouflaged.

L6/40 of the LXVII° Battaglione Bersaglieri Corazzato in the Soviet Union. The license plate is ‘Regio Esercito 3930’. Note the presence of dirt that covers part of the license plate and the frontal coat of arms, and the straw. Source: pinterest.com – Chris Coleman

The light reconnaissance tanks used in North Africa, the Balkans, France and Italy had the standard khaki camouflage pattern, often with the addition of foliage to better camouflage them from potential aerial attacks. Many Italian vehicles received new markings painted in the field by the crews. They had Italian flags to avoid friendly fire, mottos, or phrases, though no other camouflage patterns are known before German service.

An L6/40 of the III Gruppo Corazzato ‘Lancieri di Novara’ in the North African desert. Note the unit’s coat of arms on the vehicle’s side. gbmodelli.blogspot.com

In some photos, it is clearly visible that the barrel of the 20 mm gun was not painted in Saharan Kaki but retained the original metallic dark-gray color of the weapon. This was because the main armament was often mounted a few days or hours before being shipped to the front and the crew did not have time to repaint the barrel.

In the final months of the North African campaign, the Royal Air Force had complete control of the skies over North Africa, so it could act almost undisturbed at any time to support Allied ground troops on the battlefields. To avoid being spotted by Allied ground attack aircraft, the crews of the L6/40 light tanks began to cover their vehicles with foliage and camouflage netting.

An L6/40 of the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri Guide’ in Albania. It is camouflaged with foliage and a two tone camouflage with green spots. Near the driver’s port is the unit’s coat of arms. The plate was ‘Regio Esercito 4032’. Source: Gli Autoveicoli da Combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano

This practice was also used by the crews which fought in Italy even if, in that campaign, the Regia Aeronautica (English: Italian Royal Air Force) and the Luftwaffe were able to provide more efficient cover against Allied ground attack aircraft.

The markings that the L6/40s possessed identified the platoons and companies of the Regio Esercito to which they belonged. This system of cataloging vehicles was used from 1940 until 1943 and was composed of an Arabic numeral indicating the number of the vehicle within the platoon and a rectangle of different colors for the company. Red was used for the first company, blue for the second, and yellow for the third company, green for the fourth squadron, black for the command company of the group, and white with black platoon stripes for the regimental command squadron.

As the conflict went on, there was also a change in the structure of the armored squadrons, as a fourth, and sometimes a fifth platoon were added.

White vertical lines were then inserted inside the rectangle to indicate the platoon to which the vehicle belonged.

In 1941, the Italian High Command ordered the units to paint a 70 cm diameter circle to ease aerial identification, but this was rarely applied on the turrets of the light tanks.

An L6/40 during off road mobility tests in Castel Fusano during 1941. It had the white roundel for air identification and the gun barrel in its original dark-gray color. Behind the L6 was the T-34-76 that the Italian Army tested. Source: facebook.com – @Curzio Cobetti

Battalion command vehicles had the rectangle divided into two red and blue parts if the battalion had two companies or three red, blue and yellow parts if the battalion had three companies.

In the Soviet Union, during summer, before being camouflaged with dirt, the command vehicles received different markings for unknown reasons. These rectangles were monochrome (blue or red from photographic sources) with an oblique line running from the upper left corner to the lower right corner.

The Polizia dell’Africa Italiana’s L6/40s did not receive particular camouflages or coat of arms, remaining essentially identical to the Regio Esercito ones except for the license plate, which had the acronym P.A.I. instead R.E. on the left side.

At least four L6/40s of the 5° Battaglione ‘Vittorio Bòttego’ on the street between Mentana and Monterotondo, together with an AB41 of another Italian unit on 9th September 1943. Note the acronym P.A.I. on the left side of the transmission cover. The license plate was not painted. Source: instagram.com @Storia_Italiana

Post-war, L6/40s received two different camouflage schemes. The ones used in Rome received dark horizontal stripes, probably over the original Kaki Sahariano monochrome camouflage. The Milan vehicles were painted like all the Italian police vehicles after the war in Amaranth Red, a reddish-rose shade of red that was useful for two reasons. First of all, it was able to cover the previous military paintings and coat of arms applied on former military vehicles. Secondly, L6/40 tanks or Willys MB Jeeps (one of the most common vehicles used by the Italian Police after the war) had no sirens, so a garish red vehicle was more visible in the city traffic.

Variants

L6/40 Centro Radio

This L6/40 variant had a Magneti Marelli RF 2CA radio transceiver mounted on the left of the fighting compartment. The Stazione Ricetrasmittente Magneti Marelli RF 2CA operated in graphic and voice mode. Its production began in 1940 and had a maximum communication range of 20-25 km. It was used for communications among tank squadron commanders, so it is logical to assume that the L6/40 equipped with this type of radio were used by squadron/company commanders. Another difference between the standard L6/40 and the Centro Radio ones was the dynamotor power, which was increased from 90 watts in the standard L6 to 300 watts in the Centro Radio.

An L6/40 Centro Radio of the LXVII° Battaglione Bersaglieri Corazzato in the Soviet Union. The crew men, who wear the typical Bersaglieri fez, are having lunch on it with a bottle of wine. Source: facebook.com – @Curzio Cobetti

Externally, there were no differences between standard L6/40 and L6/40 Centro Radio (English: Radio Center) apart from different antennas positions. Internally, the second dynamotor was placed on the left side, near the transmission.

The L6/40 Centro Radio had a reduced amount of ammunition transported due to the space occupied by the transmitter and receiver box. This main ammunition load was reduced from 312 rounds (39 8-round clips) to 216 rounds (27 8-round clips), placed only on the floor of the fighting compartment.

The L6/40 Centro Radio equipment position. As visible, the 20 mm clips rack on the left wall was reduced to hold only five clips. Source: italie1935-45.com

Semovente L40 da 47/32

The Semovente L40 da 47/32 was developed by Ansaldo and built by FIAT between 1942 and 1944. It was designed on the L6 chassis to allow the Bersaglieri regiments to provide direct fire support with a 47 mm gun during infantry assaults. The second reason behind these vehicles was to provide the Italian armored divisions with a light vehicle with anti-tank performance. In total, 402 vehicles, also in Centro Radio and Command Post variants, were built.

A Semovente L40 da 47/32 in Sicily during the Allied invasion of southern Italy, 1943. Source: pinterest.com

L6 Trasporto Munizioni

In late 1941, FIAT and Ansaldo started the development of a new tank destroyer on the chassis of its medium tank, the M14/41. After the tests, the prototype was accepted in service in late March – early April 1942 as the Semovente M41M da 90/53.

This heavy self-propelled gun was armed with the powerful Cannone da 90/53 Modello 1939 90 mm L/53 anti-aircraft/anti-tank gun. The small space onboard did not permit the transport of more than 8 rounds and two crew members, so FIAT and Ansaldo decided to modify the chassis of some L6/40s to transport an adequate supply of rounds. This was the L6 Trasporto Munizioni (English: L6 Ammunition Carrier).

Two more crew members, together with 26 90 mm rounds, were transported by each auxiliary vehicle. The vehicle was also equipped with a shielded Breda Modello 1938 machine gun on an anti-aircraft support and racks for the crew’s personal weapons. The vehicle usually towed an armored trailer with another 40 90 mm rounds, for a total of 66 rounds transported.

The L6/40 ammunition carrier prototype outside the Ansaldo-Fossati plant. Source: wikipedia.com

L6/40 Lanciafiamme

The L6/40 Lanciafiamme (English: Flamethrower) was equipped with a flamethrower. The main gun was removed, while a 200 liter flammable liquid tank was placed inside. The machine gun ammunition amount remained unchanged at 1,560 rounds, while the weight increased to 7 tonnes.

The prototype, with license plate ‘Regio Esercito 3812’, was officially accepted in service on 1st September 1942. This variant was produced in small numbers, but the exact number remains unknown.

The L6/40 Lanciafiamme at the Ansaldo-Fossati plant in Sestri Ponente. Apart from the different main armament, the vehicle remained unchanged. Source: armedconflicts.com

Cingoletta L6/40

This was the Italian version of the British Bren Carrier re-engined with a FIAT-SPA ABM1 engine (the same engine of the AB40 armored car). Essentially, it had the same structure as the British APC/weapon carrier. However, the vehicle did not have a specific purpose. It could not carry soldiers (other than the two crew members and a couple of other soldiers) so it was not an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC). It had a payload of only 400 kg and could not tow anything beyond the 47 mm Cannone da 47/32 Modello 1939, so it was not a prime mover. Despite this, it was armed with a Mitragliera Breda Modello 1931 13.2 mm heavy machine gun in a frontal spherical support and a Breda Modello 1938 that could be mounted on one of two anti-aircraft mounts, one at the front and one at the rear. It was also equipped with a Magneti Marelli RF3M radio station, so perhaps Ansaldo developed it as a command post.

Upper view of the Cingoletta L40 prototype. Note the radio station with its antenna near the Breda Modello 1938 and the Mitragliera Breda Modello 1931 heavy machine gun on its spherical support. Source: Nicola Pignato

Surviving L6/40s

In total, nowadays, only three L6/40s remain. The first one is placed as a gate guardian at the Comando NATO Rapid Deployable Corps’ headquarter at Caserma ‘Mara’ in Solbiate Olona, near Varese. Another one is in bad condition at the Military Museum of the Albanese Army in Citadel-Gjirokäster.

The last and most important one is exhibited at the Armored Vehicles Museum in Kubinka, Russia.

The L6/40 exhibited in Kubinka before restoration, on 24th August 2017. Source: flikr.com @Nils Mosberg

During Summer and Fall 1942, the Red Army captured at least two L6/40s, (registration plates ‘Regio Esercito 3882’ and ‘3889’). Other vehicles in running condition were captured after Operation Little Saturn, but their fate is unknown.

The Soviets took at least three L6/40s to the NIBT Proving Grounds in different time periods. The Soviet technicians called it ‘SPA’ or ‘SPA light tank’ due the SPA factory logo on the engine and other mechanical parts.

The L6/40 license plate ‘Regio Esercito 3898’ photographed by Soviet technicians at the NIBT Proving Grounds in 1944. Source: warspot.net

The vehicle did not interest the Soviet technicians too much. They only noted on their documents some standard data, not even mentioning some important values, such as top speed.

One of these vehicles was the one that is now exhibited in Kubinka, the ‘Regio Esercito 3898’, which was the 4th tank assigned to the 1° Plotone of the 1ª Compagnia of the LXVII° Battaglione Bersaglieri Corazzato.

The same L6/40 from the front. From this angle, it is possible to read the license plate. Source: warspot.net
Colorization by Johannes Dorn

For many years, it remained exhibited in bad condition, with a broken suspension tilted on a side. Luckily, on 15th July 2018, a team led by Vladimir Filippov finished the restoration of this tank, taking it to running condition.

The restored L6/40 at Kubinka. Unfortunately, the license plate is not the original. Source: warspot.ru

Conclusion

The L6/40 light reconnaissance tank was probably one of the most unsuccessful vehicles used by the Regio Esercito during the Second World War. While it offered great improvement in armament and armor over the older L3 fast tank, by the time it was introduced into service, it was already obsolete in almost every regard. Its armor was too thin, while its 2 cm gun was only useful in a reconnaissance role and against lightly armored targets. Against other tanks of the time, it was useless. In addition, it was designed to operate in high mountains, but it ended up fighting in the vast deserts of North Africa, for which it was completely unsuited for. Despite its obsolescence, it saw relatively wide use given the lack of anything better. Surprisingly, it would see action on almost all fronts but with minimal success. Even when the Germans took over Italy, they regarded the L6 as an obsolete design, relegating it to secondary roles.

L6/40 prototype with ‘Imperiale’ camouflage scheme.
An L6/40 from the LXVII° Battaglione Bersaglieri Corazzato on the Eastern Front.
Carro Armato L6/40 Centro Radio always from the LXVII° Battaglione Bersaglieri Corazzato on the Eastern Front.
L6 Trasporto Munizioni in Sicily.
An L6/40 of the Raggruppamento Esplorante Corazzato ‘Cavalleggeri Guide’ with foliage. Illustration modified by the illustrious Godzilla funded by our Patreon Campaign.

Carro Armato L6/40 specifications

Dimensions (L-W-H) 3.820 x 1.800 x 1.175 m
Total Weight, Battle Ready 6.84 tonnes
Crew 2 (driver and commander/gunner)
Propulsion FIAT-SPA Tipo 18 VT 4-cylinder 68 hp ​​at 2500 rpm with 165 liters tank
Speed Road Speed: 42 km/h
Off-Road Speed: 50 km/h
Range 200 km
Armament Cannone-Mitragliera Breda 20/65 Modello 1935 and Breda Modello 1938 8 x 59 mm medium machine gun
Armor from 40 mm to 6 mm
Production until the Armistice: 440 vehicles

Sources

F. Cappellano and P. P. Battistelli (2012) Italian Light Tank 1919-1945, Osprey Publishing

B. B. Dimitrijević and D. Savić (2011) Oklopne jedinice na Jugoslovenskom ratištu 1941-1945, Institut za savremenu istoriju, Beograd.

D. Predoević (2008) Oklopna vozila i oklopne postrojbe u drugom svjetskom ratu u Hrvatskoj, Digital Point Tiskara

S. J. Zaloga (2013) Tanks of Hitler’s Eastern Allies 1941-45, Osprey Publishing

A. T. Jones (2013) Armored Warfare and Hitler’s Allies 1941-1945, Pen and Sword

unitalianoinrussia.it

regioesercito.it

La meccanizzazione dell’Esercito Fino al 1943 Tomo I and II – Lucio Ceva and Andrea Curami

Gli Autoveicoli da Combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano Volume II Tomo I – Nicola Pignato and Filippo Cappellano

digilander.libero.it/lacorsainfinita/guerra2/ordinamenti/cavalleria.htm

Carro Armato FIAT-Ansaldo Modello L6 ed L6 Semovente – Norme d’Uso e Manutenzione 2ª Edizione -Regio Esercito

Italia 1943-45, I Mezzi delle Unità Cobelligeranti – Luigi Manes

warspot.net – The Tankette’s Late Successor

warspot.net – FIAT L6/40 Again in Running Condition

Carro Armato L6/40 Photographic Reference Manual – ITALERI Model Kit Company

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