Sunday, March 22, 2015

Italian Armoured Cars

The Lancia IZ and the Lancia IZM were two variations of an Italian armoured car built during World War I and which saw limited service during that war, the interwar period, and during World War II.

 Italy was the first country to use a machine-gun car in true war operations.

 
The Autoblinda 41, one of the most numerous of the Italian armoured cars, is shown armed with a turret-mounted 20-mm cannon and a machine-gun at the hull rear.

Although having never produced a really significant armoured car design, Italy deserves a place in military history as being the first country to have used a machine gun car in true war operations, thanks to an opportunity offered by the Italo-Turkish conflict. This occurred in late 1912 when such vehicles were sent to North Africa.

By 1912, the SA Fabbrica Automobili Isotta Fraschini of Milan, which was one of the oldest and most famous Italian automobile builders, had expanded its activities into the field of armoured car construction. Initiating a design under the direction of Ing. G. Cattaneo, the company produced two armoured cars, differing in details only, as a private venture. The cars weighed three tons and were armed with two machine guns. Their 100 b.h.p. petrol engine gave them a speed of 60 Km.p.h. A little later, at the request of the Italian Army, the Artillery Arsenal of Turin embarked on the design of an armoured car based on a Fiat truck chassis. The car was also completed in 1912: it emphasised a heavy armour protection which unduly penalised the machine as far as speed and mobility were concerned.

The SA Automobili & Velocipedi Eduardo Bianchi of Milan engaged themselves in the manufacture of armoured cars in 1913. They developed such a machine which may have been inspired by the Isotta Fraschini model. The Bianchi armoured car was distinguishable by its rounded bonnet shape. The front wheels carried steel flanges and the rear ones were dual. A light armour protection (6-mm) and an armament composed of two machine guns only resulted in a three-ton vehicle with good mobility on roads given by a 30 b.h.p. (nominal) engine. This car was offered to the Italian Army by the city of Milan and then went to North Africa, where the AAT/Lancia and Isotta Fraschini armoured cars had already been sent.

Although World War One broke out in 1914, Italy remained neutral up to 1915. The Italian War Ministry took advantage of this period to devote more attention to armoured cars. When Italy entered in war, the matter had progressed satisfactorily: development and production of an armoured car had been entrusted to the Ansaldo engineering company which had constructed a prototype on the basis of the Lancia IZ 25/35 h.p. light truck chassis. After successful trials carried out with the pilot model in April 1915, production of the Autoblin-domitragliatrice Ansaldo-Lancia, tipo IZ quickly started. The Ansaldo-Lancia IZ armoured car could be considered as advanced for its time. The armament was carried in two turrets arranged one above the other: the lower and larger one housed two machine guns while the upper one had a single machine gun and could revolve independently from the other. The car weighed four tons and had a roomy armoured hull of chrome-nickel steel which could accommodate a six-man crew. Powered by a Lancia, in-line four cylinder engine, it had a maximum speed of 70 km.p.h. and a range of about 500 km.

In the meantime, the development of earlier Bianchi car had continued. A more powerful 60/75 h.p. chassis had been selected to be fitted with two different types of armoured bodies. One was an open top vehicle armed with one machine gun overlooking the hull and another one in the rear of the hull. The second model was fully armoured and carried a turreted machine gun. Both variants had the wheels protected by semi-circular armoured mudguards which covered much of the pneumatic tyres. A single wire cutter extended from low down in front to cover the top of the vehicle. Unditching boards were usually carried to assist in trench crossing. The bonnet was angled front and top. A few armoured cars of these latter Bianchi models were produced, but they were widely eclipsed by the new Ansaldo-Lancia IZ/M type which went into production in 1917. The Ansaldo-Lancia IZ/M was a redesign of the 1915 vintage and carried only one turret. Its small upper turret had been discarded and its machine gun transferred to the rear of the hull.

Both the Ansaldo-Lancia IZ and IZ/M armoured cars enjoyed a distinguished wartime career. The first Italian armoured car units had been formed in June 1915: they were two car sections known as sezioni autoblindomitragliatrici. Later the organisation was expanded to squadrons including seven cars. By November 1918, the Italian Army had 120 Ansaldo-Lancia cars distributed amongst seventeen Squadrons. Most of these units had been employed during the Italian retreat after the battle of Caporetto in 1917 and their offensive on the River Piave of 1918. The American troops in Italy had been also trained with these cars.

It is worthy of note that Isotta Fraschini, Fiat and Lancia four wheeled chassis had been most appreciated for armoured car use outside of Italy. Prototypes were produced in England by Messers. Ch. Jarret & Letts Ltd on behalf of the Russian Army which also acquired a large fleet of armoured cars using a Fiat chassis. Some improvised armoured cars set up on chassis of the same make were widely used by the British for security duties in India. A number of Lancia armoured cars were utilised by the British Air Ministry in Iraq and by the Irish Government, the latter to deal with the disturbances which occurred there during the twenties.

Italy was then ahead in having one of the most important armoured car forces of the world but the vehicles which composed it could not be considered as fully satisfactory, being only road bound cars quickly designed under wartime pressure. However they were to remain in service for a very long time, even after they were obsolete by contemporary standards. Some Ansaldo-Lancia IZ and 12/M were given or sold to Afghanistan, Albania, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

The Italian military authorities soon began to evince interest for new wheeled combat vehicles which had to embody the most recent technical advances. Research, design and development were directed towards half-tracked and wheeled armoured cars, and, last but not least, wheeled tanks. In 1924, Alfa Romeo Spa built a prototype chassis which emphasized a wheel-cum-halftrack concept stemming from the French Citroen-Kegresse Autochenille de Cavalerie. This machine was original in offering, beside its half-tracked running gear intended for cross-country work, a full wheeled alternative for road travel. However this rather sophisticated vehicle failed to receive approval for production neither as armoured car nor as a light artillery, prime mover. Another interesting turretless prototype appeared two years later; it featured a curved armoured body shell which would have merited further development of a turreted version but this was not done probably because of the cost. Designed by Messrs Corni and Scognamiglio, this vehicle was known as the Autoblindata Niebolo.

By the mid twenties, the colonisation of Libya brought the Italians into conflict with the Senussi, a fanatical warlike Arab sect who threatened the Fezzan area. To face the problem raised by the Senussi and other mutinous tribesmen, Italy engaged a new type of armoured car quickly developed on the basis of a light 4 x 2 lorry chassis. This car, manned by a four-man crew, was armed with a single machine gun mounted in a revolving turret. Designated Autoblinda leggera tipo Libia, this vehicle took part in the reconquest of the Libyan oases from 1926 to 1931. A colonial security force — the Policia Africana Italiana —was formed and equipped with armoured cars. A new proposal was submitted on the same lines in 1929 for a machine adapted from the chassis of the Fiat 501 which was one of the most successful Italian commercial cars since World War One. The most advanced armoured car design ever evolved by the Italian war industry was the tipo AF amphibious car projected by the Breda company of Milan in 1932. However, it seems that neither the (Fiat) tipo 501 nor the (Breda) tipo AF ever got off the drawing board, as no photographic evidence was ever published about them.

In the meantime, the possibilities offered by wheeled tanks had been widely investigated in Italy. Since 1924¬-26, the articulated high wheel tractors designed by Ing. Ugo Pavesi had enjoyed considerable success not only in Italy but elsewhere and had set the pattern for much of their subsequent development as wheeled tanks. Unfortunately, these latter machines left a good deal to be desired on trials both from the point of view of technical and tactical capabilities. As a result, the wheeled tank concept propounded by the Pavesi and Ansaldo companies come to a halt in 1932.

By the early thirties, the Fiat/Spa concern had begun development work on a whole sequence of a so-called dovunque or “go-anywhere” series of military trucks, first of the six-wheel, four-wheel drive, then several years later, of the six-wheel, six-wheel drive varieties. Initial success with the former type inspired the Fiat/Spa company to evolve an armoured car variant set up on their called 6 x 4 tipo 611 chassis. The first six-wheeled armoured car conceived in Italy, the Autoblinda 34 —as it was officially referred to — appeared in 1934. The AB.34 was a five-man vehicle which was armed with two individually mounted machine guns Ltd the turret and another machine gun at the rear of .the hull. Sorrier had a 37-mm gun at the forward end and a machine gun at the rear of a differently shaped turret. The two spare wheels were mounted on dummy axles, one on each side of the vehicle. They projected below the level of the chassis frame and thus prevented bellying between the front and rear wheels. A six-wheeled, four-wheel drive vehicle, the AB.34 was powered by a 56.b.h.p. six-cylinder Fiat engine which gave it a speed of 75 km.p.H. It was provided with dual steering for reverse driving at a maximum speed of 40 km.p.h.

The expansionist territorial policy of Mussolini led Italy to try to enlarge her African colonies. In October 1935, Italy began the invasion of the Ethiopian Kingdom from Somalia and Eritrea and made full use of her mechanised war machine. Three types of armoured vehicles were involved in this typical “colonial” war: there were a relatively large number of CV.33 (L-3) tankettes and a few 1Z and AB.34 armoured cars. During the following year, the civil war started in Spain, and Italy sent there her so-called Corpo Truppe Voluntarie which included two CV.35 battalions and a handful of armoured cars.

When the Second World War broke Out, Italy had no modern armoured car in hand, all such vehicles in service being outdated Ansaldo-Lancia IZ/M and Bianchi cars, of the already obsolescent AB.34 type. .Fortunately a new design was rapidly forthcoming from the Fiat/Spa design office, as an answer to a specification drafted since 1938 for a cavalry armoured car and subsequently adapted to be common with Colonial Police requirements. The resulting machine was the Fiat L armoured car which grew out of the four-wheel drive, four-wheel steer Fiat/Spa T.40 artillery tractor chassis modified in such a way to have a longer wheelbase and the engine at the rear. From the design point, of view, the new armoured car prototype, first designated as the Abm.1, then as the Autoblinda 39, contrasted favourably with all the former models. The car had a generally well thought mechanical layout but still contained a few details which had been neglected. However, the Fiat L (AB.39) armoured car was standardized as the Autoblinda 40, or AB.40. With a reliable 80 b.h.p, engine and a six forward and lour speed reverse transmission the vehicle was, fast and mobile both on road and cross-country. Top road speed was 75 km.p.h., and an additional driving position was provided to facilitate driving in reverse. Mounted on a stub-axle, freely revolving spare wheels were fitted on the sides, in such a manner as to prevent bellying in crossing obstacles. The maximum armour thickness was 15-mm and the total weight of the vehicle was 6.4 tons. The AB.40 was armed with twin machine guns mounted in the turret and one machine gun located in the hull, facing to the rear.

Production of the AB.40 commenced in 1940 under a collaboration agreement between the Spa company of Turin and the Ansaldo-Fossati concern of Genoa-Sestri. The first armoured car reached Libya on January 1941. Deliveries continued at a rather slow tempo and a relatively small number was produced before this model was supplanted on the assembly line by the Autoblinda 41. The principal development of the AB.41 design had been a slight up-rating of the power plant and the installation of a heavier armament. The two turret machine guns were replaced by a Breda 20-mm automatic cannon adapted from a light anti-aircraft weapon. The AB.40/41 model had also been envisaged as an armoured railway car, designated Autoblinda Ferroviaria, by fitting it with special steel rims, a drive locking device and other appropriate equipments.

The AB.40/41 armoured cars were allocated to the Raggruppamenti esplorante of the three divisioni corazzate — (131) Centauro, (132) Ariete, (133) Littorio — and to the Armoured Cavalry groups of the two divisioni motorizzate — (101) Trieste, (102) Trento — of the Italian Army in North Africa. Since summer 1940, an armoured car company was given to some Colonial Police battalions. Bersaglieri, or Italian elite light motorised infantry used the AB.41 in the Western desert, in France and Corsica, and last but not least, with the 3rd Divisione Celere Principe Amedeo Duca d’Aosta, which was a part of the Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia (CSIR) , the Italian expeditionary force on the Eastern front. Early in 1942, one subsidiary of the largest industrial group in Italy — the Societa Italiana Caproni — brought out prototypes of a so-called Vespa small two-seat reconnaissance car. In fact, the design of this vehicle dated back to the mid-thirties but actual testing of the pilot models did not begin until then. The Autoblinda Caproni-Fuscaldo, or Vespa scout car, was the most original armoured vehicle ever developed in Italy. It embodied an unorthodox wheel arrangement featuring two wheels along the vehicle axis (one behind the other, like a motorcycle), and one wheel on each side, so giving a losange configuration which was claimed to offer a better trench crossing performance. Two Vespa scout car prototypes were widely tested by the Centro Studi della Motorizzazi-one; they were not approved for series production and the pioneering work in that direction was lost. Weighing about three and a half tons the Vespa scout car was armed with a single machine gun. It had a top speed of 86 km.p.h. provided by an Artena, in-line 8 cylinder engine of 82 b.h.p. Its armour protection was at a maximum of 26-mm at the front and 14-mm on the sides.

In 1943, the development of the AB.40/41 armoured car continued, further increase taking place in armament, engine horsepower and armour, particularly under the influence of the operations in North Africa. This later variant, the Autoblinda 43, carried a 47-mm gun or, sometimes, a German 50-mm short-barrelled tank gun. A number of AB.41 cars captured in the desert by the Commonwealth forces were re-issued to the Free Poles who used them with a revised armament including one .55 Boys anti-tank rifle and one .303 Vickers machine gun.

The qualities of the small, fast and versatile British Daimler (improperly known as Dingo) scout car had not gone unrecognised by the Italian Army, which had captured some vehicles of that type during the Western desert campaign. At the request of the Italian War Ministry, the Fabricca Automobili Lancia & Co derived from it a domestic version which became known as the Veicolo blindalo ‘Lince’ (Lancia 269). In fact, most of the technical features of the British scout car — four wheel drive and steering, independent suspension and single central differential gear — were incorporated in its Italian counterpart which was ready for production in 1943. Weighing three tons, the Lince was powered by a V-8 cylinder, 60 b.h.p. (Lancia, tipo 91) petrol engine which gave it a maximum speed of 86 km.p.h. But in September of that year, after the axis defeats in Sicily, Italy’s Fascist regime collapsed. Subsequently, the Germans took the control of the largest part of the country and of its industrial resources, mainly located in the Northern area. The Fiat concern, and their Spa, Ceirano and OM subsidiaries were kept running on behalf of the German Wehrmacht and the Italian Esercito della Repubblica Sociale Italiana, i.e. the new Fascist army raised by Mussolini. Despite numerous difficulties — lack of workers and raw materials, bombardments, sabotages and strikers — Lancia and Ansaldo jointly produced 250 British inspired Lince scout cars. These were mainly allotted to the Guardia Nazionale Repubblicana (GNR), a Fascist militarised police which fought mainly against partisans. The GNR also used a number of AB.41/43 armoured cars and some vehicles of that type survived until after the war. The Germans also had taken over some of these machines, and, after their withdrawal from Greece, in October 1944; a small number fell into the hands of the Communist-controlled Greek faction known as the ELAS (People’s National Army of Liberation) who used them during the civil war which followed.

During the immediate post war years, the few surviving AB.41 and Lince armoured cars were taken over by the Police and the reborn Italian Army, until more modern armoured vehicles (tanks) could be provided for them.

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