Italian tank building is usually treated with a large dose of derision. However, Italy managed to create a number of vehicles that were quite good for their time. This mostly applies to armoured cars, but there were some good tanks under their belt as well. The FIAT 3000 light infantry tank was one of them. The tank was based on the French Renault FT tank, but it surpassed its predecessor significantly.
After Italy was unified in 1870 the new government tried its luck in the colonial expansion game. Success was mixed and not particularly profitable. Meanwhile, colonial wars required a powerful army. Many Italian guns had British, German, or French roots, but Italian industry developed quickly. The Italians were the first to use armoured cars and bombers in battle. Italy built very good original armoured cars during WWI.
FIAT was the flagship of Italian automotive industry. They created progressive cars and trucks. FIAT had a role in the creation of the first Soviet tanks, as they were powered by Italian engines. The FIAT 50 HP truck was used to build FIAT-Izhora armoured cars, the second most numerous Russian armoured car at the time.
Italian industry was ready for tanks by the time there was a need to build them. The order to build a tank (initially called blindata d’assault, assault armoured car) was given by Major General Julio Martini on October 13th, 1915. The FIAT project was the most successful. On July 21st, 1917, the chassis of a tank called FIAT 2000 was demonstrated. This was a very progressive tank for its time. It was the first heavy tank with a rotating turret. The FIAT 2000 had good protection and powerful armament.
The Italian military understood that only heavy tanks will not be enough. A heavy tank would be ineffective in the hilly and mountainous terrain of the Italian theater of war. British experience in the first tank battles showed that the effectiveness of tanks in battle grows with their numbers. 50 FIAT 2000s were ordered, too few to achieve required concentration.
Other Entente nations helped. The British only had heavy tanks themselves at the time, but the French designs were preferable. Italy wanted to order 1500 Schneider CA1 tanks, but the French themselves had more than a few issues with the design after the first few battles. The overall number of these tanks built did not surpass 400. Italy only received one of them in early 1918.
The Italians changed their mind as well. In 1917 they encountered the Renault FT light tank. This tank was smaller, simpler, and faster than the Schneider CA1. It was built using automotive components, could be transported by trucks, had high mobility of fire, and could be built by the thousand. This was just what was needed.
Having familiarized themselves with a sample of the Renault FT, the Italian army wished to purchase them. However, the French could barely keep up with the demands of their own army. The Americans also liked the French tanks, and they solved this issue by setting up production under license. These tanks were called M1917.
There was nowhere to build 1400 required tanks for Italy. In early 1918 France managed to send them 4 tanks. Three of them had cast Berliet-Girod turrets, one a riveted Renault turret. One tank with serial number 66947 was armed with a 37 mm SA 18 cannon, the others had machine guns. In December of 1918 Italy tried to order 60 Renault FT tanks to use in Libya, but fruitlessly.
Trials showed that the Italian military made the right choice. The Renault FT was a good match for the Italian theater of war. The three machine gun tanks had a long service life in the Italian army. They received registration numbers A1001, A1002, and A-1003. French armament was replaced with FIAT Revelli M1914 machine guns. One tank received a SIA Modello 1918 aircraft machine gun, which was a popular choice for Italian tank armament for some time.
Tank #66947 had a more interesting fate. An idea came up in the fall of 1918 to convert it to an SPG. Knowing that the French did something similar, the Italian military ordered the Ansaldo company to convert the tank to an SPG. The turret and turret platform was removed. Instead a backwards facing 105 mm Obice da 105/14 gun was installed. 12 SPGs were supposed to be built and gathered into one battery, but trials held in April of 1919 showed mixed results. Italy also only had 4 tanks, and no further shipments from France were expected. The Semovente da 105/14 remained a prototype. Analogous projects with the 75 mm Cannone da 75/27 modello 11 field gun and 105 mm Cannone da 105/28 were never built.
Lighter, roomier, faster
Without the ability to order more Renault FTs, the Italians decided to copy it. FIAT and Ansaldo received a joint order. Preparation for production of the French tank was to begin in the fall of 1918. Tank #66947 was disassembled and carefully studied. The Italian military wanted to have 1400 tanks like it.
The Renault FT was a very good tank, but there are no ideal designs. The Italians had some issues with the French tank. Its fighting compartment and driver's compartment were very cramped. The Swedish army rejected this tank for the same reason. The mass of 7 tons was too great, as it caused issues when transporting the tank on trucks. Mass had to be reduced to 6 tons. The speed of 7 kph was too low. The 37 mm SA 18 gun was also not well liked. Italian tanks would be built with two machine guns.
The FIAT design bureau radically altered the French tank to meet the military's wishes. Since the requirements for armour were the same and mass could only be reduced by making the hull smaller. The requirement to enlarge the crew compartment made this harder. The solution was to reduce the size of the engine compartment. The tank received a fairly large engine, the 50 hp FIAT 304 6236 cc model. The engine was placed perpendicularly, which made the tank slightly wider than the Renault FT.
The suspension also changed. Since the tank became shorter, the number of road wheels was reduced to 5 per side. The suspension elements were improved. The diameter of the drive sprockets increased. The idlers and track links were changed. These changes were not as radical as on the Soviet MS-1, but the improvements were definitely effective.
The turret also changed. The diameter was slightly larger than the Renault FT's turret, but changing the angle of the plates freed up more room. The cast turret was heavier than the riveted one, and thus was unsatisfactory.
The significant changes meant that the production of the tank, indexed FIAT 3000, was late. Instead of the fall of 1918 the tanks were expected in March of 1919, and even that deadline was not met. The technical project was ready in April of 1919, in which the mass of the tank was set at 6 tons and the top speed at 15 kph. The start of production was now scheduled for September of 1919. However, WWI ended on November 11th, 1918, and 1400 tanks were no longer needed. The planned monthly production volume was reduced from 200 to 100 tanks. The deadlines continued to slip.
The first FIAT 3000 entered trials in June of 1920. The mass of the tank was 5.5 tons, its power to weight ratio was excellent for its time: 9.09 hp/ton. The prototype reached a speed of 26 kph on trials. A fully equipped tank had a top speed of 20-21 kph.
The Carro d’assalto FIAT tipo 3000 was accepted into service in November 1921. Like the Italian Renault FTs, these tanks were armed with dual SIA Modello 1918 machine guns. The gun mount could be aimed horizontally as well as vertically, which reduced the need to traverse the turret.The taller turret was a blessing, since the machine guns were fed with magazines from the top.
The reloading process was still inconvenient, and so one tank was rearmed with a pair of Lewis guns in 1922. This tank continued service and even saw action in Libya, but the rest of these tanks continued using aircraft machine guns.
From machine guns to cannons
Soon after the FIAT 3000 began arriving in the army, the military decided that the tank does not fully meet its requirements. The dual machine guns were effective against infantry, but the tank was helpless against other tanks. 16 mm of armour protected the tank from rifle caliber bullets, but this was not enough to protect from heavy machine guns.
The issue of replacing the FIAT 3000 with a more modern tank was raised by Colonel Enrico Maltese. Maltese commanded a tank group from March 1924. It was in no small part because of his efforts that tanks transitioned from being artillery support to infantry support. The colonel presented a project describing further tank development on May 24th, 1925. It described a modernized FIAT 3000 called Carro Armato Tipo 2. The layout was the same as the FIAT 3000, but it was larger. Armour thickness increased to 20 mm, and the mass to 8.5 tons, maybe even 9. The number of road wheels increased to 12 per side. A 75 hp engine would be needed to retain the tank's mobility. The top speed of this tank would be 24 kph.
Aside from the hull, the turret was also enlarged. It still only housed one crewman, and the work of the commander/gunner/loader only increased. The tank received a cannon as well as a machine gun. A 37 mm gun and a FIAT M1924 machine gun would be used. The tank would carry 270 rounds for the 37 mm gun and 4500 rounds for the machine gun.
The Carro Armato Tipo 2 remained a draft. One of the reasons was the poor economic situation. However, the use of the FIAT 3000 in Libya in 1926 proved once again that tanks need a cannon. The Italian military finally gave in by 1928. However, the SA 18 and its analogues were rejected.
There is a common opinion that anti-tank cannons appeared on tanks only in the 1930s. This happened long before. The first here were the British, who put the 3-pounder (47 mm) gun on the Medium Tank Mk.I, which could penetrate up to 25 mm of armour. A 37 mm gun with a 40 caliber barrel was developed for the FIAT 3000. It had exceptional penetration characteristics, only slightly lower than the much later German 3.7 cm Pak.
The gun was installed in an experimental tank which was then used in 1929 training exercises in Piedmont. The converted tank was named FIAT 3000 B, the machine gun version was retroactively renamed FIAT 3000 A. No significant changes were made to the design. The gun was shifted to the right from the center axis, which gave more room for the commander. The mount was deemed successful, which paved the way to mass production of the FIAT 3000 B.
Replacing the gun was not enough. The mass of the tank grew to 5900 kg, which meant that the mobility decreased. The engine was supercharged to compensate, giving 63 hp. The power to weight ratio grew to 10.7 hp/ton. The modernized FIAT 3000 was even faster. Its top speed grew to 22 kph. It was the fastest out of all Renault FT clones. 68 rounds for the 37 mm gun fit into the tank.
The FIAT 3000 B was accepted into service in 1930. Mass production began that same year. 52 tanks of this type were built. The tanks received a new index: now the machine gun tanks were called Carro armato mod.1921 and the cannon tanks Carro armato mod.1930.
A difficult economic situation and a stagnation of tank building resulted in the FIAT 3000 having a long career in the Italian army. They were gradually modernized. A good replacement for the machine guns was finally found in the late 1930s: the Fiat-Revelli Modello 1935. They received thick hoods which made them look like cannons. Most Carro Armato mod. 1921 received these new guns.
Another variant of the Carro armato mod.1921 was a flamethrower tank. This variant was developed in 1932. The flamethower was installed in the turret. Fuel tanks were installed in the running gear bays, 270 L in capacity. Several tanks were converted in this way. Later the Italian army received many flamethower tanks, but on the chassis of the L3 tankette.
The last stage of modernization consisted of equipping the FIAT 3000 with radios. The first experiments began in 1925, but really the issue was only explored starting in 1934. A system with a RFCR radio and complicated antenna was developed. This antenna looked like a frame antenna, but it was attached to a special base on the turret roof. Both cannon and machine gun variants of the tank could have a radio, but only a small portion received them.
The tank saw two decades of service. Formally they were replaced with Carro Armato 11/39 medium tanks in 1939, but in practice the FIAT 3000 remained in service. The designation changed in 1939. The tanks were now called Carro Armato L 5-21 and L 5-30. They went into battle for the last time in 1943 against the Anglo-American landings in Sicily. The long and turbulent history of this tank had a drawback: not a single one survives to this day.
The first export success
The tale of the FIAT 3000 would be incomplete without recalling how the first Italian mass produced tank ended up in other nations. One of the first foreign buyers was the USSR. Italy proposed the sale of 10 FIAT 3000 in 1924, but the deal fell through. The Italian tanks came up again during a meeting called to discuss a domestic infantry support tank. The Italian tank was a matching candidate. Even though it only carried a machine gun, it had decent characteristics and weighed less than the Renault FT. The FIAT 3000 was also the most accessible tank for the USSR. Even though Mussolini came to power the Italian defense industry cooperated closely with the USSR.
According to documents dated late July 1926, the Italians proposed the purchase of three FIAT 3000 at the cost of 1800 pounds sterling apiece. In the event of buying 25 or more tanks, the cost was reduced to 1650 per unit. The armament and optics were not included in the price. Delivery was planned for 10 months after the deal was signed.
After negotiations the deal was signed for three tanks. The USSR received them on November 14th to 15th 1927. The vehicles were given serial numbers 107, 108, and 109. Final acceptance took place in late December of 1927, and the tanks arrived to warehouse #37 in Moscow in mid-March 1928.
The claim that the MS-1 was copied from the FIAT 3000 is baseless. The only commonality these tanks have is the perpendicular engine layout. In everything else they are very different. The only other similarity is that one of the requirement for their design was the reduction of mass. The FIAT 3000 also arrived after the Red Army had already accepted the FIAT 3000 into service. The MS-1 surpassed the Italian tank in firepower, but not in speed or reliability. Either way, by the spring of 1928 the tanks were valuable as a curiosity. Since the tanks arrived without armament they were equipped with 37 mm Hotchkiss guns, the same as the T-18s used. One tank with the name Feliks Dzerzhinskiy took part in a parade on Red Square on November 7th, 1928. It was officially claimed that it was purchased with donations from Polish communists.
As of October 1st, 1929, one tank was present at the Motoviliha Machinebuilding Plant where production of the MS-1 was ramping up. Two more FIAT 3000s were assigned to the Armoured Commander Courses academy. After that the trail of these tanks is lost.
The second country to receive FIAT 3000 tanks was Abyssinia (Ethiopia). The first machine gun tank was given as a gift in 1927, and then two Carro armato mod.1930 were sent in the early 1930s. Ironically, Ethiopia often fought wars against Italy. The tanks that were given as gifts were captured back in 1936.
In 1928 one tank was purchased by Denmark, Greece, Spain, Argentina, and Japan bought one each as well. Two machine gun tanks were purchased by Albania in the early 1930s. These tanks were also captured in 1939. Five FIAT 3000 were delivered to Hungary in 1931. There they received Schwarzlose machine guns and then Hungarian Gebauer 34M tank machine guns. The biggest purchase was made in 1926-27, when Latvia bought six tanks. Two of them were armed with SA 18 guns taken from Renault FT tanks, the others were equipped with MG 08 machine guns. The vehicles served until 1940. They were finally written off in May of 1941.
Translated by Peter Samsonov. Read more interesting tank articles on his blog Tank Archives.
- Gli autoveicoli da combattimento dell'Esercito Italiano P.1 (Dalle origini fino al 1939), Nicola Pignato, Filippo Cappellano, SME, 2002, ISBN 88-87940-28-2;
- Russian State Military Archive;
- Central State Archive of St. Petersburg;
- Russian State Archive of Film and Photo Documents;
- Author's photo archive.