You may have heard the joke the old South African World War 2 North African campaign veterans used to often tell about ‘Italian Bravery’ – how many gears does an Italian tank have? Answer; one forward and four in reverse!
History is very cruel to these very brave Italian tankers fighting alongside Nazi German forces and the likes of Rommel against the South Africans, British and Allied forces.
Weighting only 14 tons, by Allied standards the Italian M13/40 tank was seen as a light tank. For the unfortunate crews who manned it, it was nothing short of a death-trap.
Its semi-automatic 47 mm Ansaldo 47/32 gun could penetrate 1.7 inches (43mm) of armour at 550 yards (503 m), making it more than adequate to deal with most allied tanks -saved for the cumbersome Matildas- and its diesel engine had a low probability of catching fire when hit, but it lacked power which made the M13/40 a slow moving target, specially off-road.
Although it had armour deemed adequate by 1940 standards, this was made of low quality steel which lacked tensile strength, resulting in a higher probability to shatter when hit, spraying the crew inside with deadly pieces of metal from their own armour.
To these men in dark blue overalls, destined to fight on unequal terms, history has often been cruel. Nevertheless, time and again, they charged gallantly against a superior adversary, often paying the ultimate price for their courage.
Note on the main featured image: The number 3 on the turret and the rectangle with a white stripe identifies this tank as the 3rd tank of first Platoon. The rectangle background colour identified the Company, the number of stripes the Platoon.
These Italian tanks were easy prey to the British, South African and other Commonwealth and Allied forces, here a member of the crew of an Italian M13/40 tank giving himself up near Gazala. His captor might be a soldier of the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifles Brigade (part of the British and ‘Allied’ forces in North Africa).
As courageous the Italian tankers in these tanks were, so too were the Australian ones, as captured kit, including tanks were always handy as they afforded more protection than not having the convenience of armour at all. Here’s an interesting colourised photograph of the re-taking of Tobruk by the Allied forces.
Note the port installations as they burn again over the harbour on 24 January 1941. Of interest to this article, note in the foreground, here later version M11/40 (on the left) and M11/39 (on the right) Italian tanks can be seen, under new ‘ownership’. White kangaroo symbols can be seen on the tanks, now the possessions of the 6th Australian Division.
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Researched and Written by Peter Dickens. Original’s source of feature photograph unknown, feature image, colourising and caption by “In colour veritas”. Insert image – Imperial War Museum copyright. Colourised Australian M11 tanks by Benjamin Thomas, Photographer: Lieutenant L.B. Davis, No. 1 Army Film & Photographic Unit – Imperial War Museum.