When speaking of Italian armor during the Second World War, it is important to analyze the training that Italian tank crew members received before being assigned to frontline units.
Although the Italian war industry was unable to keep up with the production capabilities of the Allied nations, it could have matched Nazi Germany in the experience gained by its crews due to the large number and variation of operations it was involved in. Unfortunately, training was completely ignored by the Italian Regio Esercito (English: Royal Army) High Command during the war, leading to catastrophic results.
Italian Training Before Second World War
Before joining the bloodiest war of the 20th Century, the Kingdom of Italy relied on a large and heterogeneous fleet of light and obsolete tanks for training.
In order to train crew members in driving light tanks, many Carri Veloci 33 and CV35 vehicles were employed together with older FIAT 3000s. In order to train medium tank crew members, the only Schneider CA at the Departmental Headquarters for the Tank School in Bologna was available. The vehicle remained in service as a training vehicle until 1936, two decades after it was first introduced.
Surprisingly, the High Command of the Italian Regio Esercito (English: Royal Army) did not consider the lack of training a notable issue, instead blaming the defeats suffered during the Spanish Civil War on the obsolescence of the vehicles used. A prime example of this is the absence of any change in the training of the Regio Esercito infantry or tank drivers during and after the Spanish Civil War.
The Regio Esercito focused on developing new fighting vehicles to deal with more modern threats, such as the Soviet armored fighting vehicles encountered in Spain.
Despite the development of new vehicles, such as the Autoblinda AB40 and the M11/39 tank, the Regio Esercito remained anchored on the concept of mountain trench warfare that had seen it victorious in the Great War, but in which armored fighting vehicles were not considered a priority.
One of the most serious problems that would be faced by the Italian Regio Esercito (English: Royal Army) during the Second World War was not the enemy, but the effectiveness of its armored vehicles. On many occasions in North Africa, entire Italian armored units failed to adequately confront similarly sized Commonwealth units because of the Italian crews’ poor training.
The Italian 3 tonnes Carri Armati L3 light tanks had been delivered to cavalry schools to replace horses with tracks. Medium tanks, on the other hand, were delivered to tank schools where prospective crews had already completed infantry courses and then received tank crew members training. In fact, in Italy, the tank units were called fanteria carrista (English: tank crew infantry), meaning that they were infantry and tank crew members at the same time.
Miscellaneous Training during World War II
Training on armored cars and light tanks is barely reported in the relevant sources. The armored car training courses were held, for the duration of the war, at the Scuola Militare di Cavalleria (English: Military School of Cavalry) in Pinerolo, Piemonte.
Armored car crew members were recruited from soldiers that had already been trained as cavalrymen or from the Italian assault light infantry, also known as Bersaglieri.
The only difference between the two types of recruits was their nomenclatures: Bersaglieri units were composed of coppia (English: couples) consisting of 2 armored cars, plotone (English: platoons) composed of 2 couples, compagnie (English: companies) composed of one command platoon (one command car) and four platoons, for a total of 17 armored cars. Battaglioni (English: battalions) consistedof one command company and two to four companies, for a total of 35 or 69 armored cars. The cavalry units used squadrone (English: squadrons) instead of compagnie and gruppi (English: groups) instead of battaglione in the nomenclature.
Interestingly enough, some armored car training units were deployed on Italian coastal patrols after completing basic driving training in Piemonte.
The war diary of the VIII Battaglione Bersaglieri Blindato Autonomo (English: 8th Armored Bersaglieri Autonomous Battalion) shows that the crew training lasted from mid-August 1941 (the unit was established on 10th August) and ended in October 1941. Some of the companies of the battalion were shortly after sent to North Africa, with less than 3 months of training.
On 14th December 1941, the Ispettorato delle Truppe Motorizzate e Corazzate (English: Inspectorate of Motorized and Armored Troops) issued the rules for the training of the first three squadrons of Carri Armati L6/40.
Training lasted a few days and consisted of firing exercises up to 700 m. Also included were driving over varied terrain and practical and theoretical instruction for the unit personnel assigned to drive heavy trucks. Each Carro Armato L6/40 had at its disposal, during training: 42 rounds for the 20 mm main armament, 250 rounds for the coaxial 8 mm machine gun, 8 tonnes of gasoline. For the logistic truck drivers, there was 1 tonne of diesel fuel for 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.
Medium Tank Training during World War II
Italian medium tank crew members were recruited from soldiers who had first completed their training as infantry. They were then selected by commanders from those with a minimum knowledge of engines or those who had a driver’s license. An elementary school diploma was compulsory for all participants in the tank crew course.
In many cases, the officers and NCOs were replacements and had barely finished the officer academy, being sent to war before they had a chance to even finish their courses.
Production of the Carro Armato M13/40 (English: M13/40 Tank) started in January 1940 and the first training courses were started for 12 officers, 12 non-commissioned officers (NCOs), and 30 soldiers at the Corso Carrista (English: Tank Crew Course) in the Centro Addestramento Carristi (English: Tank Crew Training Center) of Bracciano near Rome, under the guidance of Colonel Scalabrino.
The crew members first trained on a Carro Armato M11/39, 5 Carri Armati L3/35 light tanks and, surprisingly, also on the Carro Armato M13/40 prototype.
Each soldier was trained to perform multiple tasks, not just one. For example, almost all crew members were taught how to use radios, which were nonetheless almost absent in the first produced Carri Armati M13/40.
Unfortunately, there were few practical lessons. Each tank commander fired only 5 rounds with the 47 mm gun and a magazine of machine gun ammunition, while drivers and machine gunners/radio operators fired 3 47 mm rounds and a magazine with the Breda. The loaders probably followed a mechanical course to be able to maintain and repair the tank.
Unfortunately, due to the demands of war, the Carri Armati M13/40 training course was interrupted on 4th February 1940, by which time the 54 crew members had not yet fully completed their training on the new medium tanks.
Some courses also started at Ansaldo-Fossati of Genoa on 15th July 1940. The first of these lasted only 19 days, weekends included. The crew members trained on a single Carro Armato M13/40 and on the new vehicles that were tested after production on the Ansaldo testing ground. The first 15 Carri Armati M13/40 produced by Ansaldo were delivered to the Bracciano Tank Training School in mid-July 1940 to train the new crews.
However, only on 29th August did the courses restart at the Bracciano training school. The number of students greatly increased to about a battalion, but with very limited numbers of vehicles available for training: one Carro Armato M11/39, 5 Carri Armati L3/35, and 8 Carri Armati M13/40. Nothing is known about the other 7 Carri Armati M13/40 delivered a few weeks earlier.
A total of 14 crew members were trained as general mechanics and engine mechanics during a 10-day course at the Centri Addestramento Carristi (English: Tank Crew Training Centers). Of these 14 soldiers, 7 carried out the course at Ansaldo-Fossati of Genoa, while the other 7 carried out the course at Società Piemontese Automobili plant in Corso Ferrucci, in Turin.
On 27th October 1940, General Mario Roatta complained in the Foglio N.9,722 (English: Paper Number 9,722) about the scarcity of trained personnel at the tank crew infantry regiments. Out of 3,905 soldiers, only 1,166 were specialists.
The Italian Army High Command was convinced that, in 3 months, the tank school could adequately train a driver or a tank commander, while, in the other Axis and Allied countries, the tank training courses were longer.
Another serious problem was the lack of instructors. The few officers and NCOs that were trained to operate the medium tanks were all deployed to North Africa and, to a lesser extent, also to the Balkans. In some cases, the drivers trained with the tanks, but they did not fully know the machinery at their disposal.
The theoretical courses were full of superfluous details and failed to teach the crews important tactical considerations, such as which terrain was best for an ambush or how to overcome obstacles.
These serious learning gaps were signaled by Ansaldo and FIAT, first to Gen. Caracciolo of the Ispettorato Superiore Servizi Tecnici ed alla Direzione Generale della Motorizzazione (English: Superior Inspectorate of Technical Services) and then to General Augusto de Pignier of the Ispettorato delle Truppe Motorizzate e Corazzate (English: Motorized and Armored Troops Inspectorate). The two inspectors slightly modified the training.
With the start of 1941 and the need to form new tank units, the courses intensified. In January and February, the fourth and fifth courses took place, while on 5th February, the first course for NCOs arriving from infantry and cavalry units began. They trained on the Carro Armato M13/40, but also on Carri Armati L6/40 light reconnaissance tanks and Autoblinde AB41 medium armored cars.
On 6th April, a course for Carri Armati M13/40 officers began and, on 1st March 1941, the fourth Carri Armati M13/40 course for an entire tank battalion began. On 13th April, a course on Carri Armati M13/40 for self-propelled gun crews began, as the Carro Armato M13/40 and Semovente M40 da 75/18 shared the same chassis and similar internal layout. The Ispettorato delle Truppe Motorizzate e Corazzate also had a first advanced course for Carri Armati M13/40 tanks for tank officers lasting 25 days, which began on 1st December 1941.
The crews were trained to shoot only while the tank was stationary, so it was common during the North African Campaign for the crews to stop for a few seconds, permitting the gunner to aim and shoot while advancing against British positions or fighting against British tanks.
On 29th December 1941, the Italian High Command created the rules for the training of the battaglioni esploranti corazzati (English: armored reconnaissance battalions), which were equipped with Autoblinde AB41 armored cars and Semoventi M40 da 75/18.
On 12th March 1942, Centri di Istruzione (English: Instruction Centers) for tank crews were established in North Africa. These centers were created with the goal of facilitating the acclimatization of crews to the hot and arid North African environment.
Mixed training sessions were also organized. In 1941, one was held south of Bologna from 10th to 12th June by the IX Battaglione Carri M13/40 with 5 light tanks, 41 Carri Armati M13/40, and a Renault R35 light tank. During that training, all the Carri Armati M13/40 suffered mechanical failures, while the use of radios by the crews was judged to be good.
General Roatta, who had become Chief of Staff of the Regio Esercito on 24th March 1941, sent the results of the training to the Ispettorato Superiore Servizi Tecnici ed alla Direzione Generale della Motorizzazione on 15th June 1941, highlighting the problems of the Carri Armati M13/40.
He suggested increasing the training courses to 12 days, permitting the crews to train for 2 days in the Brughiera di Sequals near Udine, which had a similar terrain to the Marmarica region in Libya, and to carry out experiments on similar terrain with a Carro Armato M13/40 with a powerful engine and to compare the results with results of the Somua S35 and Skoda T22 tanks. In the same letter, he required a 15 day training course for units equipped with Renault and Somua tanks directly in Libya.
In general, the units equipped with semoventi were better trained. Light tanks were crewed by cavalrymen and medium tanks by infantrymen, while the semoventi were employed by artillery units.
These vehicles, based on the same Carro Armato M13/40 (and then Carro Armato M14/41) chassis, broke down significantly less often. This was not because of a change in weight, as semoventi weighed roughly as much as medium tanks and were equipped with the same engines. The reason seems to have been that the drivers and crew members had been previously trained to repair military heavy trucks or prime movers to tow their artillery pieces.
As can be seen, the training on Italian armored vehicles was scarce and suboptimal. Due to the limited availability of vehicles, the Italian tank crew members had few opportunities to conduct live fire training, which led to lower rates of fire and poorer precision in combat. Mechanical training was likewise scarce, increasing the time needed for repairs of the tanks and lowering availability.
In order to train the soldiers to operate and repair the tanks, from the start of the war, on 10th June 1940, up to 1st July 1942, FIAT deployed a total of 120 workers and technicians. The project, completely financed by FIAT, provided FIAT workers to training schools on the Italian mainland and on the battlefront. Of these 120 workers, one died during fighting against Allied troops, another died due to other causes, and 19 were taken prisoner.
In the book Carro M, Volume I, a document from Engineer Lieutenant Picciafuoco is mentioned, which states that in the training school of Bologna, some tank commanders and officers were instructed in the use of radios.
One tank was called a stazione (English: station), multiple tanks were called a maglia (English: network), and many maglie with a command stazione were called nodo (English: knot, node).
The communications were never meant to be stated in the clear, in usual language. The voice mode on the radio was only used between the tank commander and radio operator. The radio operator repeated orders received in Morse code to the commander or repeated unclear messages.
Crews were urged to use voice mode only with short messages and, if possible, in dialect. There are 20 regions in Italy, each with different dialects that, in some cases, vary significantly even within the same region. This was a great method of disguising communications because, even if enemy troops could listen to Italian communications, it was improbable that any one enemy soldier could understand all the different Italian dialects. On the other hand, this difficulty also applied to the Italians themselves.
Each company of a battalion was usually nicknamed using an Italian city in radio messages, such as: Bologna, Ferrara, Genoa, or Turin. Each platoon was given a number along with the company’s city name: Primo (English: First), Secondo (English: Second), Terzo (English: Third), or Quarto (English: Forth). So the first platoon of the company would have been Bologna Primo. Each platoon commander was distinguished with numbers from 1 to 9, while each tank distinguished itself with two-digit numbers, the first one being the number of its platoon and the second was the number of the tank in the platoon (from 2 to 5). It could be, for example: Torino Secondo 5 or Torino 2-5 meaning that it was the 5th tank of the second platoon of the 2nd Company. In some other cases, the names of platoon commanders were used instead of the numbers primo, secondo, etc.
Crew members sometimes used the voice mode to send messages on the frontline. Commonwealth tanks were called Elefanti (English: Elephants), armored cars Gazelle, and armored trucks, reconnaissance vehicles, and jeeps were called Volpi (English: Foxes). Colonels were referred to as il papà (English: the father) and generals il padrone (English: the boss).
Crews were instructed to destroy their radio equipment to avoid the enemy capturing them and using them to intercept Italian radio communications.
Due to the desperate situation after the Italian Armistice of 8th September 1943, the problem of trained crew members became even more serious.
After the Armistice, many military leaders, ignoring the disbanding of the Regio Esercito, remained loyal to Fascism and to Dictator Benito Mussolini.
Soldiers regrouped, in some cases in their dozens, in some other cases, even entire battalions, under their command and operated quite independently from the Italian High Command. There was also a confusing difference between training units, and different examples of well documented training courses that Italian soldiers received after the Armistice are illustrative.
In this desperate situation, Italian Defense Minister Marshal Rodolfo Graziani met Adolf Hitler on 13th October 1943 in Germany to speak about reorganization of the Italian army with divisions trained in Germany by German instructors and partially equipped with German equipment.
In other meetings between Italian and German commands, 8 infantry divisions and a single armored division were programmed to form up in Germany with Italian personnel.
At the same time, in October 1943, the German Panzer-Ausbildungs-Abteilung Süd (English: Tank Training Unit South) was created to train German soldiers to operate on Italian captured vehicles. The training unit was located in Montorio Veronese, near Verona.
In November 1943 a total of 120 Italian officers, NCOs and crew members were gathered in Montorio Veronese and went to create the 1a Compagnia Addestramento Italiana (English: 1st Italian Training Company) with German trainers.
The 120 Italian soldiers were former Italian veterans or fresh young volunteers. It was commanded by Lieutenant Alberto Santurro and was divided into 10 to 15 men squads under a German instructor’s command.
In the book Come il Diamante! I Carristi Italiani 1943-35 written by Sergio Corbatti and Marco Nava, an Italian veteran’s recounting of training is given. Each Italian volunteer was trained in practical courses of tank driving, operating radio apparatus, maintaining and lubricating guns and repairing engines and electrical systems on the tanks.
The Germans meant to train each crew member in as many tasks as possible to prepare them for any threats and be capable of substituting a wounded comrade. The theoretical courses were harder due to the language differences. In these cases some German soldiers from Sudtirol were helpful. This is the northernmost region of Italy which is still, to this day, majoritarily German in ethnicity.
Everyday life started at 6 am, with an hour a day dedicated to the vehicle’s refueling and engine starting. The Italian veteran explained that starting the Italian tracked vehicle engines by means of the electrical starter was forbidden by the German instructors due to frequent failures which necessitated consequent electrical system repairs. The crew had to start their tanks manually with cranks.
Driving and shooting lessons were made north-east of the Panzer-Ausbildungs-Abteilung Süd base, at the Montorio castle area. The fields around the castle were used to train the crews to cooperate during the fights and shoot at concrete targets located at various distances.
After months of trainings, in June 1944, the 1a Compagnia Addestramento Italiana was disbanded. The 120 Italian soldiers that had trained for over 6 months were reassigned back to the original units from which they came over or to other Italian units. With the skills they earned in the training, the majority of the soldiers were assigned to frontline and rear line units. Sadly, some were assigned to units that did not have any armored vehicles, making their training useless.
The Italian veteran reported that he (together with 3 comrades of the company) were assigned to the 29. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS (italienische Nr. 1) (English: 29th SS Mechanized Division (Italian No. 1)) that was not equipped with armored vehicles. They later asked to be assigned to the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ (English: Armored Group).
The soldiers of the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ had trained in Montichiari near Brescia. A few officers and soldiers of the disbanded 1a Divisione Corazzata Legionaria ‘M’ (English: 1st Legionnaire Armored Division) had refused to obey the Armistice, recovered as many vehicles as they could in Rome (were they were previously located) and reached Montichiari on 29th September 1943.
The unit only had a few armored vehicles so, until December 1943, the soldiers did not train but departed throughout northern Italy to find armored vehicles. During this time, freshly enlisted volunteers joined the unit and awaited training. Among the crew members who joined the unit in that period were 5 officers that were part of the 132ª Divisione Corazzata ‘Ariete’ (English: 132nd Armored Division) before the Armistice. Two of them had already been decorated with medals for bravery.
Between early December 1943 and February 1944, the unit trained in the hilly area near Montichiari, even if its training regimen is not detailed in the sources. In March 1944, the unit reached Turin.
In December 1944, the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’, which in the meantime had become the biggest armored unit of the Fascist Italian forces after the Armistice, established a supply and workshop unit in Milan.
The unit, known as the Distaccamento di Milano (English: Milan Detachment) was moved from Turin and received the tasks of resupplying Italian troops in the Piacenza area and sending spare parts to Turin to repair some damaged tanks. Another important task of the unit was to train the young militiamen in the training company. The training unit was located in the former barracks of a cavalry regiment, with some nearby fields for exercises.
The commander of the Distaccamento di Milano received the task of creating an armored battalion for the Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ under dependencies of Milan command. The training company in Milan then received the order of training the new companies.
The training company created a workshop and a driving class in two enormous depots of the barracks. The training courses were divided into engine maintenance, driving courses, shooting courses and radio operator courses. Each recruit received driving lessons on armored cars and tanks and, at the end of the training, they received their tank driving license.
The armored car driving lessons were undertaken in the deserted streets of Milan, after curfew. This allowed the drivers to improve their skills in urban terrain.
The tank driving lessons were given in the fields near the barracks. From veteran testimonies, during the war, these fields were erroneously bombarded by the Allies. Italian training officers then created an off-road route along the bomb craters in order to train the drivers.
The instructors were former combat-experienced Regio Esercito crew members. They had at their disposal a pair of L3 light tanks, 2 medium tanks, and a Semovente L40 da 47/32 self-propelled gun. Unfortunately, the exact number of Italian crew members that finished the tank courses in Milan is unknown.
After their training, the soldiers were not deployed to form new armored companies as planned. They were instead assigned to various Gruppo Corazzato ‘Leonessa’ garrisons around northern Italy.
During the Second World War, the Italian armored vehicle crews received poor training that usually led, together with the vulnerability of the Italian vehicles, to the total defeat of numerous Italian units in all theaters of war.
From 10th June 1940, the day when Italy joined the war, to 2nd May 1945, the training of Italian crews lacked resources, time, vehicles, men, and instructors.
With the continuation of the war, ammunition, fuel, spare parts, and even armament were rarely delivered to training schools, which were forced to buy equipment from private individuals and use obsolete tanks instead of modern vehicles.
As repeatedly seen in the century-long history of the tank, one need not necessarily have the best vehicle on the battlefield, well-trained crews are sufficient in some cases. The Regio Esercito, unfortunately, had neither effective tanks nor trained crews.
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Paolo Crippa Storia dei Reparti Corazzati della Repubblica Sociale Italiana 1943-1945 Marvia 2022