Having been somewhat opportunistic in joining in the war on the side of Germany against her First World War allies, Britain and France, Italy had come into a new long conflict ill-prepared. Hoping for a quick victory and share of the spoils, Italy found herself at war while its army was still not fully modernized. Their stock of tanks was outdated and ill-suited for the coming war. The primary tank for Italy was the diminutive CV3 series vehicle.
On top of this ill-timed entry, Italy had major problems with tank production. The army (Regio Esercito, RE) had little money with which to develop such vehicles, as the majority of government money for the military went to the Italian Navy. What tanks they did possess were intended for use in colonial wars in Africa or for fighting in the mountainous Italian north, much along the lines of the fighting in WW1. Consequently, Italy had little experience with large, heavy tanks. Fighting in mountains required small tanks, narrow enough for mountain tracks, light enough to cross small wooden or stone bridges, or even capable of being recovered with rudimentary tools by troops. For this, light tanks like the CV3 series or the L6 were ideal.
Italian CV3 (left) next to a wooden mockup of the Panther tank to same scale (right)
In North Africa, the quick victory which had awaited Italy in 1940 over the numerically inferior British forces had not transpired. Despite the numerical advantages they possessed over the British forces in those early months of WW2, the Italian command squandered their opportunity to attack when their enemy was weak and instead took very little offensive action, allowing the British to build up their forces. When the war in North Africa did start in earnest, the Italian armor was outclassed by the faster and more maneuverable British Cruiser tanks and the armor of the British A.12 Matilda II. The response from Italy was slow and came too late. This was the Italian’s own desert cruiser; the ‘Sahariano’. A well-designed machine with well-angled armor, good maneuverability, and decent firepower, but it was too late for the North African war in which it was needed. After losing North Africa to the Allies, work was eventually stopped on that project and the focus was moved to protecting mainland Italy and Sicily.
Hunting for a Heavy Tank
By April 1942, the Ansaldo company had already begun construction of a self-propelled gun mounting the 149/40 cannon with the intention of mounting it on a vehicle based on the P40 hull. At the same time, a study was started on the use of a 105mm howitzer on the hull of a heavy tank. This latter project was abandoned in favor of using the hull of the M15/42 medium tank which was already in production. The 149/40 self-propelled gun project ended up using the M15/42 chassis as well, with the engine originally planned for the Sahariano instead, which does at least demonstrate a good level of interchangeability between the engines in Italian hulls. It did not though, solve the problem of the complete lack of a production heavy, or for that matter effective medium tank on a par with a contemporary enemy or allied vehicle.
Italy in 1942 was in a bad state of affairs. The war was not going well for them and back home Italian industry was in a crisis of production. Despite having the spare industrial capacity and large stockpiles (in 1943, after the Germans audited Italian stocks they found 3 years worth of steel supply had been hoarded) of material the Italians were still requesting materials from Germany. They could not meet the demands from the Regio Esercito for their own tanks, engines, or guns. The Italians had had formal authorization from the Germans to produce the Panzer III in Italy since the 5th of August 1941 and a license for production of the Panzer IV in 1942. Even the Skoda T.21 which at one point had been considered wasn’t going to be produced despite being seen as favorable, simply because production would have had to include companies like Alfa, Reggiane, OTO, and Lancia. The duopoly that existed between FIAT and Ansaldo wasn’t going to be broken easily. So, none of these perfectly acceptable vehicles would ever enter production in Italy and at that time the first P40 was still not complete and ready for examination as there were significant problems with the original petrol engine.
The P40 was a well thought out design in its own right but it appears that the actual orders for it were delayed because the Italian High Command (Commando Supremo) had favored local production of the Panzer IV instead. A lead engineer at Ansaldo remarked in December 1943 that, despite opening a new production plant to increase capacity, the manufacture of tanks for the Italian army was taking too long and in his opinion, this shortfall should be addressed by the purchase of large numbers of Panzer IV tanks instead. This presumably was an idea to take the pressure off production to allow the plants to convert to new production lines but it did not take place. Regardless though, while the P26/40 (P40) heavy tank, (which was supposed to have already been in service by 1942) was still in development hell, the Germans were already putting the Pz.Kpfw. V Panther into production. With more armor and a bigger gun, the Panther was clearly a far more impressive tank on paper.
An Offer Rejected then Accepted
The Italians were still wedded to their own anemic tank construction program and perhaps as an attempt to spur development, on the 6th December 1942 General (Generalmajor), Ernst Von Horstig contacted General Ugo Cavallero. General Von Horstig (1893-1969) was the head of the German Economic Office at the German Embassy in Rome (since November 1941), and the head of the Italian Army Office (HWA) (from the 1st March 1942). General Ugo Cavallero (1880-1943), was the Chief of the Italian Defence Staff.
Out of the blue, General Horstig offered General Cavellero the possibility of construction of the German Panther tank in Italy. At 0945 hours that day, Gen. Cavellero formally turned down the offer from Gen. Horstig on the basis that he thought the ‘equivalent’ (the P40 was far from equivalent to the Panther but Gen. Cavellero seems to have considered it as such) Italian P40 tank was enough. The P40 was still classed as a heavy tank ( ‘P’ being ‘Pesante’ for the ‘heavy’ tank) despite only weighing 26 tonnes and Gen. Cavellero had believed this vehicle to already be in a “programme of construction” only to find out from General Pietro Ago an hour later that “in reality the P40 does not exist” because it was not in production at all. This was a stunning lapse in oversight by the Italian Chief of Staff. Whatever the reason for the oversight was, the plan now would be to obtain Maybach engines as used in the Panzer IV for the P40 program to spur that project into life.
Left to right: General Pietro Ago (1872-1966), General Ugo Cavellero (1880-1943), General Luigi Efisio Marras (1888-1981). Photos: composite image compiled from biographies at it.wikipedia.org
Faced now with the reality that Italy wasn’t producing any ‘heavy’ tanks at all, it seems that Gen. Cavellero then rescinded his previous rejection of Gen. Horstig’s offer and agreed to some production although the nature of the deal remains unclear.
Negotiations were made regarding this contract for production at the Ministry of War between the 13th and 24th of February and the idea of constructing the Panther in Italy would have solved some large problems for Italy. It would almost certainly have resulted in abandoning the M15/42 tank design, which was still in production, admitting the failure of the P40 project (it was late), and abandoning other plans to focus on a single more capable platform. This new vehicle would likely have to be capable of fulfilling the medium and heavy tank duties the army wanted as well as having the flexibility to be used for the Semovente conversion to fulfill support, artillery and tank destroyer duties. The Germans would end up doing exactly this, using the Panther tank as a basis for numerous types of vehicles.
What is known is that, following the phone call between Generals Cavellero and Horstig, Gen. Cavellero went on to state that if they (Italy) were given certain (unspecified) equipment and a Panther tank to work from that it would significantly speed up Panther tank production. This was agreed to by Gen. Von Horstig, who invited Gen. Cavallero to Berlin to discuss the matter.
The Germans, however, expected production of the Panther to begin just one year after receipt of the drawings in Italy. Plans which would take three months to prepare in Italian. Combined together this would mean an expectation of starting Panther production in Italy by the Ansaldo-FIAT consortium no earlier than March 1944. On the plus side, unlike the licence for production of the Panzer IV, there would be no licence fee due.
Hitler had ordered, a month earlier, in January 1943, that Panther production was to take place in Italy without any licence fee payable. The firm of Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg (MAN) was also (per the directive) to supply not one, but four complete Panther tanks to Italy. As it happened though, MAN was unable to comply due to their own manufacturing problems. A further directive from Hitler came on the 16th February 1943 on the subject as to whether Italy should build the Panther or Panther II tank. However, Italy did not seem to have had expressed an interest in the Panther II although the Italians were generally in agreement with the German proposals. From the Italian end though it was clear that due to a complete change in manufacturing that production of Panthers ‘from scratch’ could not start in Italy before 1945.
Likely as a result of trying to speed up the production of the Panther and to examine the tooling needed, an exchange of technical experts was agreed to by General Luigi Marras (Italian Military Attache in Berlin). Two engineers from each country would jointly examine the Italian P40 and the German Panther, the small problem being that the P40 wasn’t actually finished.
Allied bombing of Italian industry, including engine factories, had helped to grind Italian tank production to a near standstill. Gen. Cavellero subsequently contacted Gen. Von Horstig about the sale of Maybach engines for the P40 and more about the Panther. In order to expedite tests, a request was made for a 12 cylinder Maybach HL-120 TRM V12 296hp petrol engine supplied from Germany to be installed in the P40. Around this time too (early 1943), license production of the Maybach engine was approved in Italy. Following examination of the P40 fitted with the German engine the tank was approved, although it was noted that improvements would be needed to the armor.
For the Panther though, a tentative (and optimistic) production schedule was organized that in the first 18 months of production the Italians were to produce 50 tanks a month. Half of that production was to be supplied back to Germany (presumably in lieu of the payment of the waved license fee), leaving Italy with 25 per month for their own use. On the 22nd February 1943, the testing of the Maybach in the P40 probably still had not happened. The Germans were offering to supply major components of Panther tanks directly to Italy working on the contingency that if Italian industry could not start production until 1945, Panther tanks would have been supplied directly from Germany without guns, sheet metal work and probably other fittings such as radios.
If this option was to be selected, then Germany would supply just 10 nearly complete Panther tanks to Italy per month starting in December 1943 and let the Italians finish the vehicles there. The fact that the Germans would make this contingency would suggest that they expected it to take a long time to get Italian production up to speed.
The historian Jonathan Steinberg recounts that the problems with production really lay not in actual manufacturing but gross corruption within the Italian regime. Either way though, a second Ansaldo plant being built at Pozzuoli could have been ready by the middle of 1943 for Panther production, presumably with the tooling required.
Construction of this plant, however, would have necessitated taking off the short-term pressure from the factory production lines which were producing Italian vehicles, and instead purchasing Panzer IV’s, as had been suggested. As this was not done, the plant for local Panther production was delayed and therefore so was the Italian Panther.
It is confusing that so much effort was made to get the Panther into production considering the Army High Command preferred the Panzer IV, which was much closer to the tank requirements for a new medium tank for Italy. Presumably, the failure of their own heavy tank program to provide a suitable design forced the decision to select the Panther to fill both roles.
In hindsight, this was a poor choice, as a production license was already in place for the Panzer IV and could have been started by Spring 1943 with an estimated 130 tanks producible each month, compared to just 50 Panthers per month. Regarding Panzer IV production the first five months would have been solely for Italy after which half of the tanks would have been supplied to Germany which in comparison would mean that one year of Panzer IV production would have theoretically produced 1,560 Panzer IV’s (1,105 for Italy and 455 for Germany) compared to just 600 Panthers (300 each for Italy and Germany). Italy could, therefore, under ideal circumstances have had over three times the number of Panzer IV’s compared to Panthers. Given the state of Italian manufacturing, Allied bombing, and corruption, such figures are extremely optimistic but nonetheless, Panzer IV production was better suited to Italian capabilities than the Panther.
As an added confusion to the production of the Panther tank in Italy they would also have to produce the special Pmx series rail cars for moving the tanks, just yet another complication their industry was not going to be able to manage. Even so, a license for their production was also arranged.
How Different Would an Italian Panther be From a German One?
Assuming the Panther entered production in Italy, then certainly the radios would have been changed and so would the machine guns. It is logical to assume that the Breda 7.7mm machine gun would have been adopted for the hull and coaxial mounts, as well as another on the Italian anti-aircraft mount. The historian Walter Spielberger confirms that, as part of the February 1943 negotiations at the Ministry of War (which took place between the 13th and 24th February), it was agreed that the German team would be responsible for optics and electrical equipment. It is not known if this refers to simple optical devices like periscopes which could simply have been substituted in Italy or for the telescopic sights to ballistically match the guns.
A question still remains if German-built Panthers supplied to Italy would have included engines. Bearing in mind contracts had already been exchanged for Maybach engine production in Italy it is logical to assume that some or all of the engines would also be manufactured in Italy and be Maybachs.
Designers model line up of P26/40 (left), P43 (centre), and Panther (right) showing the size and suspension differences to good effect.
There is no mention at all in the licensing discussion about the production of the guns so the working assumption is that the Italians would fit a gun which they had on hand, likely to have been a 75mm gun like on the P40 given the inability of the industry to supply other guns in the quantity required. Fitting any guns other than the German 7.5cm or something very closely balanced to it would have necessitated additional changes to the mounting in the turret – work that would have only slowed down production.
The complexity of the entire Panther deal was further deepened by the separate licenses for the Maybach engine production and the desire to use the Maybach in the P40 design which was a direct competitor to the Panther for production contracts. With production problems especially with tank engines in short supply the option to use the German engines in the P40 program was a very desirable option. It is possible that the license was only given to Italy with the hope or intention that it be used to make Maybach HL-230 engines for Panther tanks rather than for the P40. Possibly to avoid this problem, FIAT-SPA produced their Model 344 700 hp engine, which was essentially a straight copy of the HL-230 rather than a license-built version. The preceding model, the Model 343, was an exact duplicate and license-built a copy of the Maybach HL-120 (for the German Panzer IV and Italian P40 program). With the HL-120 licensed for production back in early 1943 for the P40 but with a limitation on a license for the HL-230 limiting it to use in Panther tanks it is possible that the goal was simply to produce the copy of the more powerful engine without having to build the German tank.
Comparisons between the German Panther and the Italian P26 and P43 designs showing how much more compact the Italian designs were to their German rival albeit at a price of less armor and firepower.
Licences to produce Maybach engines had been provided from Germany to Italy in early 1943 and there could have been issues relating to payments leading to this renaming confusion but information is lacking in this area. The confusion over licenses is additionally complicated by Field Marshal Kesselring. When he returned to Rome on the 8th June 1943, he was clear that his instruction, coming directly from Hitler, was that whatever Italy wanted, they just had to ask for, whether it was tanks, troops, or self-propelled guns with no discussion over licensing or reciprocal manufacturing agreements.
Regardless though of existing plans, September 1943 turned everything upside down and Italy became split in half politically with a cobelligerent force fighting with the allies on one side and other troops continuing to fight on the side of the Axis under German control. The Germans after the September 1943 capitulation took over control of northern Italy including the armaments manufacturing plants. The Italians were no longer in charge of their own manufacturing after that point and ideas of producing the Panther in Italy seems to have been forgotten about, although some sources state that component parts were manufactured. It may have been a moot point anyway as a different design was ready at the time to replace the P26 which had barely begun to roll out of the factories. Just two months after the capitulation the Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen reported by November 1943, that “The firm of Ansaldo-Fossati in Genoa planned to produce a Heavy Tank Model 1943 armed with a Kanone 90/42, weighing 35 tons with 80mm frontal and 60 mm side armor (imitating the Panther). The engine and wooden model are not yet available.” That replacement tank was never built but the existence of this planned project perhaps gives an idea as to why the Italians had tried to get the engine for the Panther and not the Panther itself – they had something better planned.
The story of the Italian Panther then is a drawn out and complicated one.
A combination of Italian bureaucracy and the industrial oligarchies of Breda, FIAT, and Ansaldo, had managed to ensure that relatively little in terms of license production of engines or tanks had been achieved since the summer of 1940.
Negotiations over Italian production of various tanks had taken place between June 1941 and April 1943 with licenses agreed on 5th August 1941 (Panzer III), in 1942 (Panzer IV), and in 1943 for the Panzer V Panther. None of these plans ever came to fruition and no finished vehicles were actually produced though.
The Italians had at least gotten as far as being able to produce the HL-120 and HL-230 engines for their own heavy tank projects through which while slow was at least still in development. The final note on the matter is that just prior to the capitulation in September 1943, “several PzKpfw V Panther tanks were… to be purchased from Germany, while a P43 tank armed with a 90mm gun was under development”
Had Italy ever fielded the Panther it would have been expected to fulfill their needs until at least 1947-8 if the war had continued. It was likely the better long-term choice than the Panzer IV production in such a ‘what-if’ scenario, even though the Panzer IV made more sense numerically and logistically as well as being far better suited to the abilities of Italian industry at the time. As it turned out though, the Italians never got to put a Panther tank into combat and the only such vehicles seeing action in Italy were German vehicles or one of the 37 Panther turrets installed as fixed defenses.
Mussolini inspecting a brand new Panzer turret defensive bunker somewhere in Northern Italy. The concrete is still held in place by shuttering which would then be removed and backfilled with dirt
|6.87/8.66 x3.27 x2.99 m (22.54/28.41 x10.73 x9.81 ft)
|Total weight, battle ready
|44.8 tons max. (98,767 lbs)
|Main: 75 mm (2.95 in) KwK 42 L/70, 79 rounds
Sec: 2x 7.9 mm (0.31 in) MG 34, 5100 rounds
|Sloped, from 15 to 120 mm (0.59-4.72 in)
|5 (commander, driver, gunner, loader, radioman/machine gunner)
|V12 Maybach HL230 P2 gasoline, 690 hp (515 kW)
|ZF AK 7-200 7-forward/1-reverse gearbox
|Double torsion bars and interleaved wheels
|Speed (late model)
|48 km/h (29 mph)
|250 km (160 mi)
|For information about abbreviations check the Lexical Index
Links, Resources & Further Reading
I Panther del Regio Esercito: L’Affare che non si fece digilander.libero.it
Panzer Tracts 19-2
Beute-Kraftfahrzeuge und -Panzer der deutschen Wehrmacht, Walter Spielberger
Panzer V Panther – Walter Spielberger
Veicoli da Combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano dal 1939 al 1945
Gli autoveicoli da combattimento dell’esercito italiano, volume 2, Nicola Pignato
Italian Armoured Vehicles of WW2, Nicola Pignato
Minute, 8th June 43, item 165, Minutes of Conferences, Comando Supremo, IT 26.
US Army in WWII; Mediterranean Theater of Operations: Sicily and the Surrender of Italy by Garland and Smith
Maybach Engines www.fahrzeuge-der-wehrmacht.de
Italian Medium Tanks by Cappellano and Battistelli
Veicoli da Combattimento dell’Esercito Italiano dal 1939 al 1945, by Cesare Falessi and Benedetto Pafi
German Defences in Italy in World War II, Neil Short, Osprey Publishing fortress #45, 2006
PANTHER TANKS FOR THE ROYAL ARMY, Nicola Del Bono
HISTORY militate 1994 n6, The Chimera of the RE: Welcome Wagon P40 Bruno and Andrea Curami
Osprey – Italian Armored Vehicles of World War Two
Peter Chamberlain, Chris Ellis, Tanks of the World 1915-1945
OKH (Chef der Heeresrustung und Befehlshaber des Ersatzheeres) Wa. Pruf. 6.Bb.Nr.5/43 gKdos vom. 8 Januar 1943)
All or Nothing: The Axis and the Holocaust 1941-43, Jonathan Steinberg
Guide to Foreign Military Studies 1945-54, Historical Division, USAER, 1954
A Military History of Italy, Ciro Paoletti
Quellen und Forschungen aud italianischen Bibliotheken und Archiven Bd.71, 1991 – Zwischen Bundnis und Ausbeutung: Der deutsche Zugriff auf das norditalianische Wirtschaftpotential 1943-1945*, Maximiliane Rieder