Designed in 1936, the role of the Fiat M11/39 tank was primarily for infantry support in mountainous terrain. The main armament consists of a 37 mm Vickers-Terni L/40 gun and a storage capacity of 84 rounds. Production commenced in July 1939 and Fiat-Ansaldo built 100 units by May 1940.
Background on the Fiat M11/39 Tank
The Carro Armato Fiat M11/39 was born out of a complex moment in Italian military history. First, Italy stood at a crossroads between their old tankette doctrine and a slow acknowledgment of the inadequacy of tankettes. Second, they began to establish a mobile warfare doctrine but lacked the resources with which to put it into practice. Finally, they faced the thankless task of designing armored vehicles suitable for mountain warfare against enemies such as Yugoslavia. It can come as no surprise that such confused, daunting circumstances created a vehicle as deficient as the M11/39.
Intended only as a temporary measure to gain manufacturing experience, the M11/39 served as a stepping stone towards the Fiat M13/40. As such, it was an awkward design, similar to the later M3 Lee. The turret was found to be too small to fit a capable anti-tank weapon, so the gun was instead placed in a hull casemate. Additionally, Fiat had intended that each tank carry a radio, but none of them carried such a luxury. Fiat-Ansaldo produced 100 of the M11/39 tanks, which went on to fight in North Africa and East Africa.
The Fiat M11/39 possessed a small, three-man crew. Most tanks carried four or five men, and the small complement of the M11 forced additional duties on the commander and gunner.
A small innovation, but a valuable one, the M11/39 was among the first tanks with a diesel engine. However, the engine itself was quite underpowered. The Fiat SPA 8T V-8 engine produced only 105 hp; on roads, the best speed possible was 32/kmh. At a length of 4.7 m, a width of 2.2 m and a height of 2.3 m, it held larger dimensions than one might expect of such a light vehicle.
For weaponry, it carried 2,808 rounds for the dual machine guns in the turret. For the 37mm, L/40 cannon in the hull, the M11 carried 84 rounds. The hull-mounted cannon was one of the key weaknesses of the M11; it could only traverse 15 degrees horizontally, and 20 degrees vertically. For the most part, the gun needed to be aimed by shifting the whole tank to face the target. While quite effective at dealing with many pre-war British light tanks, the cannon struggled against British cruiser tanks. When it fired against British infantry tanks, the rounds generally bounced harmlessly off.
The tank was quite lightly armored, and of riveted construction. The frontal armor and turret armor, at 30 mm thickness, could withstand 20mm fire. However, this covered only the most outdated anti-tank weapons – 37mm and 40mm guns had proliferated by Italy’s entry to the war. Such weapons could slice through the most heavily defended sections of the M11’s armor with ease. To speak little of the 14.5mm side armor, or the 8mm rear armor. Anti-tank rifles and even heavy machine guns could present a real threat from these angles.
Fiat-Ansaldo M11/39s had no radios installed and sidecar fitted motorcycles coordinated the attacks on the battlefield. Of the 100 Fiat M11/39s, 72 went to Libya in July 1940 and 24 deployed in Italian East Africa (12 to Eritrea and 12 to Somalia). By 1941, every M11 tank was either destroyed, immobilized or captured by the 9th Australian division.
Service History of the Fiat-Ansaldo M11/39
When the war began, 72 of the M11/39 tanks served with the 10th Army in Libya. Another 24 served in the almost forgotten East African theater, where they actually did quite well by any measure. They were clearly superior to the other Italian tanks, a handful of Carro Veloce tankettes. Initially, the British possessed only poor stocks of tanks and anti-tank weapons. There, the M11/39 tanks played a significant role in the conquest of British Somaliland, an early victory. However, as British forces around Ethiopia built up, the trapped Italian forces were eventually overwhelmed and crushed.
In Libya and Egypt, the Carro Armato M11/39 had a worse go of it from the start. They played a part in the brief invasion of Egypt, which stopped after achieving only a shallow penetration into British territory. Most of the M11/39’s and an assortment of CV-35’s composed the Maletti Group, the principle armored unit under the 10th Army. When the British counter-attacked during Operation Compass, the Maletti Group fell victim to a direct assault. Superior British armored forces closed with and destroyed them in the opening phase of the operation. From there, it becomes difficult to pinpoint actions by M11/39 tanks, as most had already been lost. Many captured tanks fell into use by the British and Australian troops. As they ran out of captured diesel and as the Axis counterattacked in the next year, the Commonwealth forces destroyed these captured tanks.
Four remained in Italy, but it’s largely a mystery what happened to them. Despite one being shipped to Britain for evaluation, none survive today.
|Model||Fiat M 11/39|
|Max Speed||21 mph or 33 km/h (15 km/h off-road)|
|Range||130 miles (210 km)|
|Length||15 ft 6" (4.72 m)|
|Width||7 ft 1" (2.16 m)|
|Height||7 ft 4" (2.25 m)|
|Vertical Traverse||-8° to +12°|
|Main Armament||L40 37mm (84 rounds)|
|Secondary Armament||Dual 8 mm Breda 38 MG (2,808 rounds)|