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Opening Salvo: Carro Armato M13/40
by Michael J. Canavan, Sr
Command Sergeant Major
US Army (retired)


Axis operations in World War II were conducted with the help of the Italian Army. The Italians were not nearly as well equipped as German land forces but still played an integral role, particularly in North Africa, where Italian armor units often were asked to perform tasks beyond their capability. Restricted by inferior equipment rather than a lack of courage, Italian tank crews fought alongside the Germans and went toe to toe with the Allies.

Considered by many to be the best Italian tank of the war, the Carro Armato M13/40 was the primary medium tank of the Italian Army from 1940 to 1941. Manufactured by Fiat-Ansaldo, it was designated as a medium tank although the design was more in line with light tank engineering. Fiat provided the engine, transmission, and running gear while Ansaldo provided the armor and armaments. Approximately 780 of these tanks were fielded. The same chassis was used for a number of Italian self-propelled guns.

Italian Carro Armato M13/40

The backbone of Italian tank battalions in North Africa was the Carro Armato M13/40. Weighing in at about 14 tons, this tank was intended to be an infantry support weapon. The main gun was a 47 mm L/32 with a supply of 104 rounds.

The turret was capable of 360-degree traverse and could elevate from -10 degrees to +20 degrees. To supplement its infantry support role, the tank was outfitted with four Breda M38 machine guns. Two were located in the bow, another was a coaxial mount, and a final machine gun was mounted on the turret for air defense. Just over 3,000 rounds were carried for the machine guns.

Powered by an SPA TM40, eight cylinder diesel engine, the tank had a top speed of about 32 km/h on road and 12 km/h off road. The engine generated 125 hp at 1,800 rpm. The transmission had four forward and one reverse gear. Four double-wheeled, articulated bogies (two assemblies supported by semi-elliptic springs) on each side provided suspension. The tank had a range of 200 km on its load of 227 liters of fuel. It could climb a 40-degree gradient and cross trench obstacles just over 2 meters wide. The tank was operated by a crew of four consisting of a radio operator, driver, commander/gunner, and loader.

Italian engineers had little experience in tank design prior to the development and production of this tank. The M13/40 was plagued by the same problems as most other Italian tanks in World War II. It was inferior to most German and Allied tanks because of poor-grade armor plate and an inadequate horsepower-to-weight ratio. High sulfur content in the steel yielded brittle armor that cracked and split when hit by enemy fire. Additional plate did not remedy the problem. Making things worse, the tank frequently burst into flames once the armor was penetrated. Attempts to increase the horsepower-to-weight ratio caused failures in the suspension and tracks. The low power also left the M13/40 slower than other tanks in its class. These problems were compounded by the fact that many Italian crews received their tanks direct from the factory and were given only a one-week training course on the vehicle.

The M13/40, like many of its British counterparts, suffered frequent mechanical breakdowns during operations in the harsh environment of North Africa. Its armament was on par with contemporary British tanks -- it could hold its own against the British cruiser tanks and the US M3 Stuart. The 47 mm L/32 was a good gun that performed well against soft and medium armored targets. It was next to useless, however, against the cast hulls of British Matilda tanks, where only a lucky shot against a turret ring or vision port would yield significant damage. Heavier tanks such as the US Lee and Grant outclassed the M13/40 in every way. The Breda machine gun was equal to Allied machine guns and effective against infantry and lightly armored targets.

The first M13/40s rolled off the production line in March 1940. Three battalions were deployed to Libya in October of that year. Most of those vehicles were destroyed in the British counter-offensive. The M13/40 also saw service in Greece, Yugoslavia, and Montenegro. Despite its poor reputation for reliability, the British employed over 100 captured M13/40 tanks. Italian tank crews had to cope with an outclassed tank, poor training, and no radio communication. The Italians, like their Allied counterparts, tried to mitigate substandard armor by adding sandbags and spare track sections around vulnerable areas.

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