Most historians would probably agree that one of the weakest elements of the Royal Italian military was the armored branch. Because Italian industry lagged behind the other major military powers of Europe and because armored units were expensive to design, produce and maintain, Italian tanks were usually at a great disadvantage in World War II. When Italy joined the conflict, shortages meant that tanks were thrown into combat regardless of how outmatched they would be and often Italian tanks were forced to go up against enemies that had them vastly outmatched. Making matters worse was the fact that, because of a shortage of resources, Italian armor developed very little during the conflict, putting them at an ever greater disadvantage as the armored units of other nations (such as the British) continuously improved based on lessons learned in the field. Probably nowhere was this more obvious than in the fact that many Italian armored units still made use of antiquated tankettes that served little more purpose than providing British tanks more targets. With only thin armor and light weapons even the rather mediocre tanks Britain first fielded could pick them off at will while putting themselves in almost no danger at all.
Yet, as in so many other areas, the weakness of Italian armor has been dwelt upon to such an extent as to become rather exaggerated. There is no denying that, on the whole, the armored branch was a weak point for the Royal Italian armed forces, yet not all were so useless as they are often portrayed. In fact, Italy had some tank designs that were quite capable and effective. Not many people realize that in the celebrated campaigns in North Africa in which the German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel gained such an illustrious reputation, most of the armored vehicles under his command were Italian rather than German. Few would dispute that the German models were superior weapons but Rommel still won a great many victories with an armored fighting force that was predominately made up of Italian vehicles. Obviously, under the right circumstances, Italian armored units could be effective and some Italian tanks were quite capable and deadly. Here we will take a look at a few of the Italian tanks that provided good service during World War II.
Starting out modestly, we have the L3/33 tankette. The original CV-33 had a 2-man crew protected by 12mm of welded armor and wielding a 6.5mm machine gun. Obviously, it was not designed for battle against other armored vehicles, certainly not tanks, but was an infantry-support mini-tank meant to accompany an attacking infantry force to keep the flanks clear or to take out enemy machine-gun nests while breaking up any enemy formations. Over the years the L3/33 was often modified for particular tasks such as the L3/Lf which turned the tankette into basically an armored flamethrower team. It was used in Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, France, the East African campaign, North Africa and the Balkans. Although it stood no chance against Allied tanks, it was fairly capable in its intended role as an infantry support vehicle and could also be used for reconnaissance operations.
Next we have the Fiat M13/40 medium tank. This was probably the most widely used Italian tank of the war and was designed to be an improvement on the old M11/39 which proved to be about as useless in armored combat as the CV33 tankette. The M13/40, however, was a fairly capable machine. It had a 4-man crew protected by 30mm riveted steel plate armor on the front, 42mm on the turret front, 25mm on the sides and 6mm on the bottom (so landmines were to be avoided). The armament consisted of a 47mm main gun that was capable of penetrated 45mm of armor at 500m (550 yards) along with 3 to 4 machine guns to deal with enemy infantry. One of the most innovating aspects of the M13/40 was its 125hp V8 diesel engine since, at that time, few other countries had yet to realize the benefits of the diesel engine for armored vehicles. It was capable of taking out virtually any light tank the Allies had as well as the British Cruiser tanks (of which the Crusader was the most prominent). Against more modern medium or heavy tanks it was certainly at a disadvantage but it was capable of dealing with most British armored units it would encounter in North Africa. The most significant problems with the M13/40 was its mechanical unreliability (they were rather prone to break-downs) and the lack of radio equipment in all units other than that of the company command tank which made coordination in battle extremely difficult. Nonetheless, the M13/40 gave dedicated service as the "workhorse" of the Axis armored units on the north African front.
One Italian armored vehicle that proved to be very effective was the Semovente 75/18. A self-propelled gun, it was one of the few new weapon designs that the Italian forces received during the course of the war. Artillery Colonel Sergio Berlese first suggested such a design based on the success of the German StuG III assault gun. Intended as something of a stop-gap measure it provided excellent service when shipped to the front. It had a 3-man crew protected by 50mm of riveted steel plate frontal armor and was armed with a 75mm gun. There were some problems with obtaining sufficient engine power and the original 125hp engine was later replaced with a 145hp design and was capable of a top speed of 32kmh (20mph). It was a very formidable weapon that proved itself well when put into action in North Africa. Unfortunately, the Semovente 75/18 was largely a case of 'too little, too late'. Sufficient numbers were not available to make a major difference on the battlefield where inferior tanks and armored vehicles continued to carry the brunt of the burden in combat because there were simply too few Semovente 75/18 units to go around.
Finally we have the Carro Armato P40 heavy tank which may have been the finest armored fighting vehicle Italy produced during the war. The Semovente 75/18 had been intended to make up for the deficiencies of older tank designs until the P40 was ready for service. It had a 4-man crew protected by 60mm of armor on the front and sides of the turret, 50mm on the rear of the turret and 20mm on the top. The main body had 50mm of armor on the front, 40mm on the sides and rear and 14mm on the bottom. It was still riveted armor in typical Italian style but incorporated a new, more sloping design that had proven more effective. The main armament was a 75mm gun and had a 330hp diesel engine capable of a top speed of 40kmh on a smooth surface or 25kmh on rough terrain. The P40 represented the ultimate in the evolution of Italian tanks and we can say with certainty that it would have taken a deadly toll on the Allied forces if it had been widely deployed. However, the P40 simply came about too late and very few units were produced before the armistice of 1943. Some, however, were used by the German occupation forces to great effect such as at the battle of Anzio. Had the P40 been available earlier it would likely have been a "game changer" for the Italian war effort.