Background on the Fiat M13/40 Tank
Italian armored development faced many challenges during the interwar years. The variable terrain surrounding Italy presented a unique challenge. Additionally, all major nations grappled with the hard, theoretical questions of armor development and employment. More so than the other major nations, Italy was hamstrung by a weak industrial base. These and other factors drove Italy to cling to the tankette concept much longer than other nations.
As the deficiency of the prolific Carro Veloce CV-35 became evident, Italy grasped at the first stopgap it could. This brought about the Fiat M11/39, a ‘medium’ tank with capabilities more in line with a light tank. A poor light tank, at that. Few models left the production lines, and these were annihilated during Operation Compass.
It was a step towards better things, however. The need for a better tank became immediately evident, and Fiat designed the M13/40 in October 1939. The M13 and its successors, the M14 and M15, formed the backbone of Italian armored forces in Africa.
General Description of the Fiat M13/40
With a length of 4.915m, a width of 2.28m and a height of 2.37m, the M13 cut a relatively small target. While this was beneficial, it went hand in hand with grave tactical weaknesses such as lack of a radio. It did, however, possess a four-man crew which could efficiently divide all tasks involved in operations.
Similar to the British cruiser tanks it faced, frontal armor ranged from 30-42mm thickness. On the sides and rear, the figure fell to 25mm. Another major shortcoming, Fiat employed riveted construction of the armor. Such armor was prone to spalling. That is, impacts which failed to penetrate the armor might cause bolts to fly off internally, harming the crew.
To increase armor protection, crews would sometimes pile sandbags on the chassis. The value of the practice was questionable, and officers discouraged it due to the strain created by excess weight. While the M13/40 boasted a diesel engine, the engine itself was fairly underpowered. Rated at 125hp, the SPA 8T V-8 produced a top speed of 30 km/h. The suspension was, like so much Italian equipment, designed for mountain combat. It goes almost without saying that both the engine and the suspension suffered in the Libyan desert. The M13/40 gained a reputation for poor reliability, but the same can be said of most enemies it faced.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The eventual evolutions of this tank, M14/41, and M15/42′s, did little to help. In fact, it was very unreliable and caught on fire easily after being hit by rounds. The Carro Armato M13/40 mounted a respectable 47/32 gun whose muzzle velocity was 2,060 feet per second. Unfortunately, this velocity could only penetrate 38 mm of armor plating at 750 yards and 32 mm of armor plating at 1,000 yards. Most Italian tank operators, receiving new M13/40′s straight from the factory had no radio and approximately one week of actual training.
The strongest feature of the M13/40 was undoubtedly its armament. It mounted four 8mm machine guns, and the venerable Cannone da 47/32 Mod. 1935. For a long time, this was the largest tank-mounted cannon in North Africa, excepting the short 75mm of the Panzer IV. It out-ranged many British contemporaries, and could more effectively combat infantry than Stuarts and Cruisers. Only the British infantry tanks truly outclassed them in the early phase of the Desert War.
Fiat-Ansaldo M13/40 Variants
The M13/40 and its many derivatives represented the best units of the Italian armored forces. First among these were the M14/41 and the M15/42, marginal improvements on the basic design of the M13/40. Additionally, there was an M13/40 command variant, the Semoventi Comando M.40. It stripped off the turret, to make room for communications equipment. The M13/40 chassis was also employed in the construction of the 75mm Semovente tank destroyers.
Service History of the Fiat M13/40
The M13/40 suffered an unenviable baptism by fire. Three battalions were present for Operation Compass, the crushing British offensive of 1940. Owing to poor training, tactics, dispositions, logistics, generalship… and so on, the 10th Army was obliterated. While it was a humiliating defeat, the Italian army of later years was almost a different beast entirely.
By the end of 1941, Italy had reorganized her armored forces into proper divisions. Centauro and Ariete boasted a full complement of M13 and M14 tanks. Just as importantly, they possessed organic infantry and artillery support, something British armor doctrine still neglected. This culminated in the proudest moment of the Italian armored forces, the Battle of Bir el Gubi.
It was here that a force of 150 British tanks crashed into their lines, as part of an effort to relieve Tobruk. Though outnumbered, the Ariete division fought an excellently planned and coordinated combined-arms defense. The victory was clear-cut, and wholly Italian; the weapons, the officers, and the men. The defeat played into the dismal British prospects during the early part of Operation Crusader.
The Italian armored divisions fought valiantly during the 1942 counteroffensive, the recapture of Tobruk and the brilliant victory at Gazala. It was in this period, between Bir el Gubi and the capture of Tobruk that Italian armored forces enjoyed the greatest success.
Afterwards, the Fiat M13 dove into obsolescence with the arrival of the M4 Sherman. The Axis would suffer steady defeats against the overwhelming materiel superiority marshaled by Bernard Montgomery. However, the M13s and their crews fought bitterly throughout the long retreat preceding their final surrender.
|Specifications||Fiat-Ansaldo M 13/40|
|Length||16.12 ft (4.915 m)|
|Width||7.48 ft (2.28 m)|
|Height||7.7 ft (2.37 m)|
|Armament||47mm Ansaldo 47/32 104 Rnds (4) 8 mm Breda Model 38 MG’s|
|Powerplant||SPA 8T V-8 Deisel Engine rated at 125 HP|
|Speed||18.6 mph (30 Km/h)|
|Armor||6mm to 42mm|