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Semovente L40 da 47/32: Italy's Smallest SPG

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Italian armoured vehicles of WWII pale in comparison to those of either their allies or their opponents. However, even though their tankettes, light, and medium tanks were not quite world class, the SPGs built on their chassis were not that bad.

The light L6/40 tank was accepted into service in the Italian land forces in 1941. This vehicle was  already obsolete: the 20 mm autocannon was not enough to fight British infantry tanks, and the armour was clearly insufficient. Nevertheless, the army needed a replacement for tankettes, and Italian industry produced about 440 of these vehicles by the summer of 1943, which were adopted by reconnaissance units.

Canone da 47/32.

Italian command decided to reinforce the reconnaissance units with an SPG on the same chassis to make up for the deficiency in armament. The 47 mm Canone da 47/32 mod. 35 anti-tank gun produced by Breda under license from the Austrian Boeler company (differing in the absence of a muzzle brake and a few other details) was chosen as the armament. Thanks to the presence of a 2.37 kg HE shell, the gun was marketed as universal, capable of fighting not only tanks, but personnel, machinegun nests, and other targets. The armour piercing shell of the 47 mm gun weighed in at 1.44 kg an could penetrate 43 mm of armour from 500 meters.

Italian designers already tried to install the 47 mm gun on a self propelled chassis in 1939, the L3/35 tankette. The tiny dimensions of the "buggy on tracks" did not allow for the inclusion of a proper casemate. The gun was out in the open and the crew was not protected by anything. Naturally, the military rejected this SPG. Next year, Ansaldo began working on an SPG on the L6/40 chassis. Its layout was not clear from the very beginning. The infantry inspectorate insisted on a barbette layout, which would give larger traverse angles, but the casemate style was chosen to reduce the height of the vehicle and protect the crew.

47 mm SPG on the L3/35 tankette chassis.

Trials of the Semovente L40 da 47/32 prototype began in May of 1941. This was essentially an L6/40 tank without a turret. The gun was installed in the front of the hull, offset to the left. The horizontal traverse angle was 27 degrees, the vertical ranged from -12 to +20 degrees. There was no auxiliary armament. The prototype had a closed casemate, but the final vehicle lacked a roof. This allowed the designers to kill two birds with one stone: improve the ventilation of the crew compartment and reduce the weight of the SPG. A tarp was included to protect the vehicle from precipitation.

Semovente L40 da 47/32.

Design

The Semovente L40 da 47/32 had a riveted hull with armour up to 30 mm thick. A fireproof bulkhead split the hull into two parts: the combined fighting/driving compartment and the engine compartment. The driver's station was positioned to the front and to the right. he had a rectangular hatch in the front armour for observation, which had a door with a vision slit in it, as well as a periscope. A large door was present in the side of the vehicle, but the driver usually took his place like all other crew members, by climbing over the side. The door was later welded over, and then cancelled altogether.

Italian SPG crews typically did not use the side door.

The commander's station was to the left of the driver. Initially, the crew of the Semovente L40 da 47/32 consisted of only two men, but the obviously overwhelming amount of duties forced the introduction of a loader, placed behind the driver, in the first half of 1942. The ammunition was stored in two racks: 33 rounds behind the driver and 37 rounds on the right wall of the fighting compartment.

Drawings of the Semovente L40 da 47/32.

The Semovente L40 da 47/32 was powered by a FIAT SPA 18VT 68 hp gasoline engine and had a four speed gearbox, like its base tank.

Regular SPGs did not carry radios, but two types of radio vehicles were built alongside the basic version. The Semovente L40 Comando Plotone was designed for platoon commanders. It was equipped with a Mareli RF 1 CA radio with a range of 5-6 kilometers. The ammunition capacity was reduced to 49 rounds. Company commander vehicles, the Semovente L40 Comando Compagnia, also had an RF 2 CA radio with a range of 20 km. These vehicles had no cannon, but were armed with an 8 mm Breda 38 machinegun that fired though a fake wooden barrel.

The crew of a Semovente L40 da 47/32 typically consisted of three crewmen: the commander/gunner, driver, and loader.

Italian land forces initially ordered 283 SPGs, but the order was increased to 460 units in May of 1943. Mass production at the SPA factory in Turin began in January of 1942. About 320 vehicles were delivered until the armistice in September of 1943. Around 30 vehicles were converted into ammunition carriers for 90 mm Semovente M41 da 90/53 SPGs in the spring of 1942.

Combat

As intended the first batches of the Semovente L40 da 47/32 were sent to reconnaissance units formed from cavalry and bersaglieri units. The SPGs were tasked with supporting the L6/40 light tanks and AB-41 armoured cars. The cavalry formed armoured reconnaissance squadrons (Raggruppamenti Esploranti Corazzati — R.E.Co.) consisting of two squadron groups (Gruppo Squadroni). Each group was armed an SPG squadron, numbering 11-12 SPGs. In February of 1942, the 15th Group, formed from the Cavalleggeri di Lodi regiment, received Semovente L40 da 47/32 SPGs. In July, these vehicles appeared in the 8th Group, created from the Lancieri di Montebello regiment. The 13th Group, formed by the Cavalleggeri di Aleksandria regiment had two Semovente L40 da 47/32 squadrons, numbering a total of 19 vehicles.

In February of 1942, one company of the 69th Battalion of the 18th Bersaglieri Regiment (Regimento Bersaglieri Motocorazzato) received Semovente L40 da 47/32 SPGs. Soon after, anti-tank battalions (Battaglioni Contracarri Semovente da 47) became the main type of unit armed with this SPG. As a rule, they were composed of two companies and could either be included in divisions or the corps reserve. Italian command formed at least 16 such battalions, but considering the number of Semovente L40 da 47/32 not all of them were brought up to full strength.

The combat debut of the Semovente L40 da 47/32 happened on the Eastern Front, where the 13th Squadron Group along with the 67th Bersaglieri Battalion (armed with L6/40 tanks) was sent in the summer of 1942. The SPGs, along with tanks, supported the counterattacks of mountain infantry at the Chebotarevskaya-on-the-Don village. On November 19th, 1942, the 13th Group, a part of the motorized reserve of the  Principe Amadeo Duca d'Aosta division, contained 16 Semovente L40 da 47/32 SPGs. All of them were lost after December 16th, when Italian positions were overrun by the Soviet South-Western Front.

A sad end to their service on the Eastern Front. Abandoned Semovente L40 da 47/32 SPGs and L6/40 tanks.

The 69th Bersaglieri Battalion and its SPGs took part in the occupation of the Mediterranean coast of France in late 1942, and the 20th and 131st ant-tank battalions (19 and 20 Semovente L40 da 47/32 respectively) were moved to Corsica at this time. 

The small size of the Semovente L40 da 47/32 made it easy to conceal.

Three Semovente L40 da 47/32 battalions fought in Tunisia (1st, 101st, 136th), as well as the 15th Armoured Reconnaissance Group, partially armed with these SPGs. All vehicles were lost in battle with a quantitatively and qualitatively superior opponent by May of 1943. It was in Tunisia where the drawbacks of the Semovente L40 da 47/32 became obvious: the weak armament and fragile construction, unsuitable for long marches. Due to a lack of towing trailers, the SPGs had to perform marches on their own, which led to significant breakdowns. These issues were exacerbated due to difficulty in delivering spare parts.

A column of Semovente L40 da 47/32 in Tunisia, early 1943.

The peak of the Semovente L40 da 47/32's career was in Sicily, where at least seven anti-tank battalions armed with these SPGs (although not fully equipped) were gathered.

A British soldier is inspecting a captured SPG. Sicily, July 1943.

On September 8th, 1943, news spread of the armistice signed between Italy and the Allied nations. The Wehrmacht immediately began disarming Italian units. Among units that resisted were the 8th Armoured Reconnaissance Group, whose 2nd squadron group had 16 Semovente L40 da 47/32 (4 in the HQ platoon and 16th in the 6th squadron). The SPG unit tried to hold back the progress of the German 2nd Parachute Division in battles on September 9th and 10th at Cecchignola and Porta San Paolo (near Rome).

Italians in German Service

The Wehrmacht captured 78 regular Semovente L40 da 47/32, 8 platoon commander vehicles, and several company commander vehicles. They were adopted into service as the Sturmgeschütz L6 mit 47/32 630(i), Kommandowagen L6 630(i), and Panzerbefelswagen L6 770(i). In addition, production of these obsolete vehicles continued. 74 more regular SPGs, 36 platoon commander vehicles, and 10 company commander vehicles were built on German orders in late 1943 and early 1944. These SPGs differed from their predecessors by the height of the side armour. The extra space was used to increase the ammunition capacity to 73 rounds and install a radio.

The Wehrmacht did not intend on using these SPGs on the front lines, but they were useful against partisans, which is why the majority of Sturmgeschütz L6 vehicles were sent to the Balkans. The SPGs were used to support infantry in anti-partisan actions, as well as supply column escorts. The Sturmgeschütz L6 was given to police in occupied territories. For instance, the 14th Police Tank Company received 20 SPGs. A few vehicles were given to SS units stationed in the Balkans: the 105th tank battalion and 7th mountain division. As of December 31st, 1944, Army Group C (Italy) had only 7 Sturmgeschütz L6 SPGs (4 of which were functional). Army Group F (Balkans) had 42 SPGs (25 functional). Other units, including police units, had 31 SPGs of this type.

Sturmgeschütz L6 from the 14th Police Tank Company. The SPGs had MG mounts with shields added.

Sturmgeschütz L6 from the 18th SS Police Regiment on parade in Athens, May 1944.

Sturmgeschütz L6 armed with an additional machinegun. Croatia, March 1944.

Abandoned Sturmgeschütz L6 and L6/40 tank in Belgrade, 1945.

A small amount of Sturmgeschütz L6 (likely without cannons) were used to tow Pak 40 and Pak 43 anti-tank guns. These vehicles were called Kettenschlepper L40. A small amount of Semovente L40 da 47/32 were used by the Italian Social Republic armed forces. The Germans also gave 62 Sturmgeschütz L6 vehicles to their Croatian allies. Also, two such SPGs that were captured in Yugoslavia were passed on by the 3rd Ukrainian Front to the Bulgarian army. A few more Sturmgeschütz L6 became Yugoslavian trophies.

Two Sturmgeschütz L6 SPGs and other captured vehicles, Ljubljana, June 1945.

A short evaluation of the Semovente L40 da 47/32 can be made in two words: too late. An SPG with a 47 mm gun could be a dangerous enemy for British tanks in North Africa in 1940 or early 1941, but in late 1942, when the Semovente L40 da 47/32 first saw combat, their guns could only penetrate Allied tanks at close range. A lack of a machinegun robbed the Semovente L40 da 47/32 of any means of dealing with infantry, barring a couple of submachineguns carried in the fighting compartment. A lack of radios on most vehicles was also an anachronism. The toughness of the suspension also left much to be desired. The narrow tracks created serious issues in difficult terrain. It would have been wiser of the Italians to cease production of the Semovente L40 da 47/32 in 1942, moving on to produce better SPGs on medium tank chassis.


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