Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Italian Tankettes

As discussed before, Italian armored forces have not fared well in the estimation of most historians, to some extent unjustly so, and none have had to endure more derision than the tankette. These light tanks are almost invariably dismissed as totally useless, nothing more than so many helpless targets for British gunners and downright laughable. More than anything else, however, this only displays the ignorance of the ridiculing party. Far too many fail to understand the background of the tankettes. They insist on seeing them through the narrow vision most have become accustomed to, which is to view any tank as being intended to take on other tanks. This was never intended to be the case with the tankette. They were never intended to be thrown into tank-on-tank combat and were intended for a conflict more like what was seen in the First World War rather than the Second. The first Italian light tanks were developed with the understanding that in the future any conflict would likely be focused on where Italy had fought in the First World War against Austria and would probably be aimed at German forces attempting to dominate Austria or, more probably, against the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Even if the conflict was to be against France, the situation would still be similar. It would mean fighting in mountainous areas and so armored units were needed that would be small enough and light enough to navigate narrow mountain roads and bridges.

The aim of the tankettes, from the earliest designs to the CV33/L3 that are probably the most familiar, never involved the idea of fighting other tanks but of supporting attacking infantry. They were intended to eliminate 'trouble spots' that would cause heavy casualties among the infantry such as clearing paths through barbed wire and taking out enemy machine gun nests. Later, they were also intended to replace armored cars in performing reconnaissance. Their primary aim was to help attacking infantry overcome problems that would slow them down or cost lives. They were never intended to take on other armored vehicles and so were thinly armored and armed only with machine guns. It was only because of the extreme necessity that arose in World War II that tankettes were forced to take on duties they were not designed for. In that event, although they were facing a hopeless cause, Italian innovation showed itself to be as strong as ever. Tankettes were often modified in the field to try to make them at least somewhat more effective. Some were modified to carry a mortar which could give suppressing fire or to lay smoke screens. Some were equipped with flame throwers and some, to give them at least a somewhat better chance against armored vehicles, were modified with the addition of a 20mm Solothurn anti-tank rifle. Rather than being dismissed, these vehicles should really be viewed in the proper context and valued for the service they gave against daunting odds.


  1. Good article on the Carro Veloce.

    Heinz Guderian, in his Achtung Panzer, praises the CV-33/35.

    "In Abyssinia the Italians put into the field about 300 Fiat Ansaldo tanks. They were equipped with machine-guns only, and did not have traversible (sic) turrets. The fixed positions of the machine-guns put the Italians at a disadvantage, and particularly when the tanks were employed one at a time, which enabled the natives to board the machines and kill the crews through the vision slits, which were inadequately protected. On the other hand the tanks were operated to generally good effect in spite of the difficulties presented by terrain and climate - neither the sandy deserts nor the high mountains proved to be insurmountable obstacles. However there is a limit to the lessons that are relevant for warfare in Europe, since the Abyssinians had no anti-tank defence and no armour of their own.

    When we look at the categories of the Italian tanks, we see that they performed their tasks well, whether the armoured reconnaissance vehicles on scouting missions, or the tanks which operated with motorized infantry in a variety of assaults. Altogether the armour helped the Italians to finish off the campaign as quickly as they did."

    1. True, and it shouldn't really be that surprising since the Italians were pioneers in the development of armored cars and mechanized warfare (for the same reason the Bersaglieri came about -a lack of horses). Even in the type of combat seen in WW2, the tankettes could have been much more useful if there had been more heavier tanks for them to work in conjunction with and if all had radio sets (only the tanks of unit commanders had them) so they could coordinate, it would have made a huge difference. The ironic thing about that is that the radio itself was an Italian invention.