Early Italian Tanks

Pavesi Autocarro Tagliafili (The Pavesi Wire Cutting Machine)

The Italians had, incidentally, shown a very early interest in armored warfare. Just as an Italian plane had, in Libya during the Italo-Turkish war of 1911-12, flown history’s first combat mission by a powered aircraft, the Italians had also been among the first to use armored vehicles, sending a few four-wheeled Bianchi armored cars (armed with a single machinegun) to both the North African theatre and the Balkans during the same conflict. An Italian observer on the western front had seen French tanks in one of their first actions in the fall of 1916, and in 1917 a single French Schneider model donated by their allies had been tried in combat on the Carso front. Enthusiastic plans to build or purchase tanks in large quantities were sidetracked by the Caporetto disaster in October of that year. In the summer of 1918 the first Italian tank unit was formed with four vehicles turned over by the French (one Schneider and three FTs). The Italian interest in armored cars had also continued, the Fiat factories turning out more than a hundred, some of which saw action supporting the infantry during the pursuit of the Austrians after the Italian Piave offensive and the victory of Vittorio Veneto. Italian tank designers were actually on the cutting edge, technically speaking, in the period 1918-21. The forty-ton Fiat 2000, of which two examples were made, was the heaviest operational tank in the world when the first one was completed in 1918, and its rotating turret carried a 65-mm gun (converted from an old mountain howitzer which in its original version still proved effective as an antitank weapon in Spain in 1937). Both Fiat 2000s being sent to Libya for desert testing.

After the war the FIAT 2000 was displayed as one of the weapons used ‘to defeat the enemy’ and the two prototypes completed were sent to Libya to fight guerrilla forces, together with other tanks bought from France, in a special unit, the Tank battery (1° Batteria autonoma carri d’assalto).

In Libya, the FIAT tank proved capable of an average speed of 4 km/h, and so, after two months its career ended, being unable to keep up with rapid movement of the enemy. One remained in Tripoli and the other was sent to Italy in the spring of 1919, where it performed before the King at Rome Stadium. The tank put on a convincing display: it climbed a 1.1 m wall, then faced another 3.5 m wall, which it knocked down with its weight. Then a trench of 3 m width was successfully crossed and several trees were knocked down. This impressive performance failed to revive interest in the heavy tank and so it was abandoned.

The surviving FIAT 2000 at Rome was left in a depot for several years, until it was sent on the orders of Colonel Maltese to Forte Tiburtino, risking to catch fire during the travel. In 1934 it was seen again in a Campo Dux parade, having been repainted and even rearmed, with two 37/40 mm guns instead of the forward machine guns. It was later reportedly transformed into a monument at Bologna, after that its fate is unknown, like the other tank.

The heavy Fiat 2000, with its bulky dimensions, narrow tracks and excessive weight, was in fact criticized for its lack of mobility and was therefore judged unsuitable for use in the north-eastern border area, where the war against Austria-Hungary and Germany was fought. On the other hand, the French FT tank was considered fully suitable, being lightweight, highly mobile and manoeuvrable. However, repeated requests to France from the Italian General Staff for the supply of an appropriate number of the FT tanks (along with the request addressed to Britain to deploy on the Italian front a 40-tank-strong unit) were eventually rejected, with the consequence that armour were not employed at all on the Italian front and, in the meantime, Italy would start its own tank production. In the summer of 1918 production under licence of the FT was obtained, and Fiat started to develop its own version of the tank, now equipped with a more powerful engine and armed with two machine guns. Delivery was to start from May 1919, but the end of the war in November 1918 came earlier. At this time the Italian tank inventory included one Schneider, two Fiat 2000 and seven FT tanks.

The end of World War I did not stop the production of the licence-built version of the FT, even though the crisis of 1919-22 (that saw the rise of Fascism to power) greatly limited it. First built in 1921 and entering service the following year, the Carro d’assalto Fiat 3000 modello 1921 (Fiat 3000 assault tank model 1921) was the first Italian tank to enter mass production, although in a relative way.

The Fiat 3000 (Model 21) was first used in action in February 1926 in Libya, and subsequently also saw action against the Ethiopians in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War in 1935. It was not one of the tanks used by the Italians in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, however. With Italy’s entry into World War II in June 1940, a limited number of Fiat 3000s still in service with the Italian Army were employed operationally on the Greek-Albanian front. They were also among the last Italian tanks to oppose the Allies, as in July 1943, when the Allies landed in Sicily, two Italian tank companies on the island were still equipped with the 3000. One company was dug in and their vehicles were used as fixed fortifications, while the other company was used in a mobile role to respond to the amphibious landing during the Battle of Gela, with few of the tanks surviving the Allied drive.

Far from being the ideal solution, it was nevertheless the only armour available to the Italian army until 1933-35 (apart from some Fiat-Lancia armoured cars), and its assignment to infantry is revealing of the Italian attitude towards armoured warfare during the inter-war years. Although debated, thanks also to a widespread diffusion of Fuller’s and Liddell Hart’s scripts (partly published in the Rivista Militare, the army’s official journal), armoured and mechanized warfare were not seriously taken into account by the army staff, inclined only to consider a partial motorization of the army mainly focused on infantry and artillery, and in particular on mountain warfare. Since the Western Desert was not considered suitable either for large-scale offensive operations or for mechanized warfare, mostly because of logistical reasons, the Italian military focused on Italy’s northern borders, which, dominated by the Alps, were only suitable for light tanks.

The Fiat 3000, an Italian improvement of the two-man French Renault FT light tank, was significantly faster than either the original French model or the contemporary American copy, and featured a better transmission. However, the stringent financial atmosphere of the immediate post-war period killed this promising beginning in tank design, as war-time orders were cancelled. For instance, of 1,400 Fiat 3000’s ordered on the original contract only 100 were completed, and these 100 vehicles were the only tanks produced for the Italian Army in the entire decade beginning 1920.

Armoured Vehicle: Produced

Fiat 2000: 2

Fiat 3000 A (modello 21): 100

Fiat 3000 B (modello 30): 51