Italian Tank L 6/40 on Russian front
( by Andrea and Antonio TALLILLO)
After Italy’s entry into the war against France and England in 1940, it became obvious the next enemy became Soviet Union in June 1941, when Italian dictator was convinced that Italy would gain prestige by joining the German great offensive ‘Operation Barbarossa’ The Eastern Front campaign of the Italian Army in 1941-1943 is a neglected part of the WWII. The first ill-equipped expeditionary corp (the CSIR) of 1941 was reinforced, from March 1942, with further seven Divisions so the Italian amount of troops grove to an entire Army (ARMIR). At this time there was an almost total lack of published informations regarding the L6/40 tank of ARMIR in English, although the vacuum has been partially filled since at least two fresh Italian publications of Mr Daniele Guglielmi and Mr. Stefano Di Giusto. I attempted to present as much information as possible, within the limits of this type of work, concerning not only the vehicles themselves.
The only one equipped unit with L6/40 on Russian Front made no substantial contributions to the Axis efforts, but I would suggest to forget thet any preconceived notions of a negative nature concerning of the performance of Italian armored troops in combat.
The later type of light tank to see service with the Regio Esercito (Italian Army) in World War II was the L6/40. The design dated back to 1936 when a larger and more heavily-armed, five-ton, two-man tank was developed by Fiat-Ansaldo as a possible L3 replacement. At first the L3’s layout was followed, but the next example had a turret with twin machine guns and a second prototype had a turret-mounted 37 mm. The suspension was on the torsion bar principle with two sets of double-wheel bogies each side. The new tank which appeared in summer of 1939 was slightly up in weight with an improved suspension and mounted a Breda 20 mm. automatic gun and co-axial machine gun in a hand-operated turret. A four cylinder Fiat (SPA) engine drove the tank at 28 mph. The Italian Army were at first uninterested and the design was kept with exports only in mind, but soon after tests it was ordered to replace L3s in cavalry and motorized formations. The tank was designed with an almost similar turret of that mounted on the Autoblinda 41 armoured car, with the Breda 35 20 mm; there was a tremendous demand for both the turrets and the gun itself which was the standard light anti-aicraft weapon. So difficulties with the supplies of 20 mm weapons for the L6 tank resulted in its appearance taking place almost one year later. From May of 1941 until early June of 1943 were delivered at least 460 L6 tanks.
The L6 appeared in Russia, along the Don River, even more later, when the LXVII (67 th) Bersaglieri armored battalion arrived to became part of the 3 rd Celere (Fast) Division, after a short period of training, for the rush to the north west area from Stalingrad. The slow moving Italian forces meanwhile were inexorably marching towards their appointment with the disaster.
Three Celere Divisions were raised from former cavalry formations but included a Bersaglieri (èlite light infantry, truck-borne) Regiment and motorized artillery. This Bersaglieri tank unit, built somewhat hastily during the spring of 1942 with troops from 5° Bersaglieri Regiment consisted of fifty-eight tanks in two companyes and a HQ unit – divided into Commander’s tank and staff tanks together with a platoon. L6 ‘Centro Radio’ acts as Command Tank – every tank received the standard RF 1 radio equipment but ‘Centro Radio’ an additional RF 2 set also. The unit took part in few engagements, to support infantry attacks : in the late August, two platoons fought at Jagodniy and after there were few serious encounteers with soviets troops, but the long drives placed a great deal of wear on tanks. Soon another attack led to near 90 % losses of a group of 13 L6, against soviet antitank rifles. Progress on Eastern Front tank warfare was so fast after 1941, that the L6/40 was seriously outclassed by Russian and German light tanks and only suitable for scouting, liaison and security duties. The weakness of the vehicle caused many losses – not compensated by new machines – or spare parts – delivery. The Battalion – reduced to 15 tanks – eventually retrating in the rear area but must return to the battle front and saw from the 11 December extensive fighting with the support of only 22 german guns. Against a high number of elite troops and armoured units at Gadjucya and Foronovo, the unit suffer other heavy losses, virtually wiped out in the retreat to Skassirkaya that followed near the end of the year. The performance of Italian crews was, however, superior to the end, especially when one considers the relatively inferior equipment which had to work with all the time. The Soviets captured some L6 since the summer of 1942, but only one survivor of this Bersaglieri units it’s kept, in the NIIBT Museum of Kubinka. Like most of the exhibits seemed to be in good condition, and the murky shade of green of some years ago, is repainted in a more correct sand yellow. The previous markings were also a bit of a mixture.
Camouflage and markings
From March 1941, the italian tanks were painted in the factory with the so-called ‘khaki sahariano’, a deep sand-yellow comparable more or less to the FS 20260 shade. No national marking was carried, but only a small metal state crest, riveted to the upper left corner of the glacis plate. A large – 70 cm diameter – white spot for air identification was painted on the turret roof.
Registration plates were two, one painted on the bow plate and the other – an enameled, stamped iron sheet of about from 23 x 15 cm – fixed to the lower left rear of the tank. The fore plate was painted split in two thiny white rectangles because the towing eye, after the red prefix RE – means Regio Esercito, Royal Army in Italian language and a red flaming grenade, the other part follow with a black, four digit, number. In the Bersaglieri 67 th Battalion the numbers ran from the low 38.. of the ranks to the high 40.. of HQ unit. The rear plate show all these elements rearranged in a square manner and with a more semi-gloss finish.
Italian tanks, since 1940, used a simple but detailed method of tactical markings which made possible to identify any vehicle of a formation ranging from the single tank right up to HQ Battalion level, achieved by a combination of colours, stripes and numbers. The tactical signs – a kind of color patches - were displayed on the hull front, sides and rear of the turrets, it is interesting to note that the dimensions are larger than the rule and on the sides the numbers was painted ahead of the signs. Third exception from the rule was the uncommons four bars for 4 th and slanted or slash bar for 5 th platoons of the two companyes (the standard 1940 pattern was set only for three platoons).
The Battalion had two companies of five platoons and in each platoon were five L6. Battalion was identified only in the commander’s tank by black Roman numerals, 10 cm high, companies by a colored oblong on the rear and both sides of the turret, platoons by white vertical bars on the oblongs and the individual tank by an everytime red, 10 cm high, Arabic number (at the) side of oblong side turret and above in the rear’s oblong.
The bars code for platoons was one bar for the 1 st platoon, two for the 2 nd ans so on. The color sequence was red for the 1 st company and pale blue for the 2 nd. Company Commander’s tank was marked with a solid oblong in the companies colour. HQ Staff tanks were identified by a black oblong, without bars at all.
The sand-yellow shade was found to be unsuitable for the conditions on the Eastern Front, but there was no time or means to apply a carefully worked-out scheme. So L6 of Bersaglieri had an almost unique last ditch method to blend into terrain, because many of them received soon a hasty and rough coat of dark wet mud – a deep brown, almost chocolate color – over the superstructure and turret, with few care for tactical signs and fore license plates, by the crews. Furthermore, the splattered and smeared shapes were often hidden by foliage or straw.
I have no records about a white paint for the Bersaglieri tank unit, and some snapshots taken in the January 1943 shown a natural return to the original sand yellow, under snow and ice.
For the most part L6 crews seem to have worn armored and motorized troops model 1926 overall, the best choiche for the cramped space of light tanks and for fatigue duties also. The single piece, blue cloth overall had usually two breast pockets, slide pockets in the trouser parts, concealed buttons, two loops for belt and legs and sleeves with buttoning tabs. The matching cloth belt for other ranks was closed by buttons, all buttons was made of blackened bone. NCO, warrant officers and officers wore the brown leather ‘Sam Browne’ belt. Sergeants and Sergeant-Majors wore yellow chevrons, while corporals red chevron, both woven on the upper sleeves. From the late 1940, all rank officer badges became smaller and, instead of gold, they were made in yellow braid on grey-green background. The common sight for officers was one rank badge woven on the left breast. On the lapels, all rank stitch the Army’s universal white cloth stars, on grey-green background.
Another widespread garment for tankers was the three-quarter black leather coat, double breasted with two rows of wood buttons, painted in black. On the collar, was fixed the ordinary white-metal stars of the Army, but not universally. The only ranking was worn by officers, with wartime, reduced in size, yellow braid sewn on both forearms.
Italian tankers put on the head a black leather crash helmet, with neckguard and padded rim, an unofficial but respected custom for the Bersaglieri units was to decorate with a cluster of their cockerel feathers the right side of the helmets.
With the overalls, nobody seems to have bothered with the leggins, which was unnecessary when the legs themselves could be gathered over the black hobnailed boots. Some warrant officers and officers wore black leather leggins, secured at the ankle by internal metal chips and at the top with an external little belt. Equipment was only the old-fashioned, three pockets grey-green leather bandoleer for the 9 mm Beretta semi-automatic pistol – with his grey-green leather holster attached to the end, for the enlisted ranks and brown leather belt – the ubiquitous Sam Browne type – for warrant officers and officers, for Beretta pistol again. All ranks wore drive goggles, with interchangeable lens (neutral or amber-coloured) for keeping dust off.
BIBLIOGRAPHY- Carri armati leggeri n 2/III – Edizioni Bizzarri 1974 - Carri armati ed autoblinde del Regio Esercito 1918-1943 – Intergest - La meccanizzazione dell’Esercito fino al 1943 – Ufficio Storico SME 1989 - Notiziario CMPR n. 2-94 - Ground Power 15 – Italian fighting vehicles of WWII – Delta PUblihsing 1995 - Panzerfahrzeuge und Panzerin-heiten der Ordnungspolizei 1936-1945 – Podzun Pallas Verlag 1999 - I reparti Panzer nell’Operation Adriatisches Kustenland (OZAK) e le Panzer- Sicherungs-Kompanien in Italia – Edizioni della Laguna 2002 - Gli autoveicoli da combattimento dell’esercito italiano – Ufficio Storico SME 2002 - Italian Military Vehicles of WWII – Galileo Publishing 2003 - Notiziario GMT – Gruppo Modellistico Trentino – 3/04 e 1/05
The CMPR staff and I would like to express our sincerest thanks to all of those individuals who assisted us in gathering photos and informations used in this article. But the work however is provisional and open to amendment. We oewe particular thanks to Mr. Urmas Plinkner, Mr. Boris Kharlamov and Dr. Stefano Sogni for his generosity in supplying photos of this rare Italian tank – only three was keeped in the world – about which, until this strong help, nobody knew so much.
The following list, hopefully, will recognize all of those to whom recognition is justly due :Mr Giorgio Breviglieri, Rodolfo Ciuffoletti, Giampiero Fuscalzo, Daniele Guglielmi, and Lorenzo Tonioli and the staffs of Italian modelling association CMPR – side of Bari, chapter and GMT – Gruppo Modellistico Trentino.st, but not least, Miss Tallillo Annalisa for setting up and translation of English text.
PLATE 1 - A complete set of markings positions for L6 light tanks and Bersaglieri unit (see text)
1 – Air identity white spot position 2 – Metal crest 3 – Rear license plate 4 – Hull front tactical marking 5 – Side tactical marking 6 – Rear tactical marking 7 – Unit Commander Tank’s marking PLATE 2 – Hull and turrets tactical markings (see text)
1 – Unit Commander Marking 2 – HQ Staff platoon 3 – 1 st Company – First Platoon 4 – Second Platoon 5 – Third Platoon 6 – Fourth Platoon 7 – Fifth Platoon 8 – 2 nd Company – First Platoon 9 – Second Platoon 10 – Third Platoon 11 – Fourth Platoon 12 – Fifth Platoon 13 – Some tank’s number style PLATE 3 – Modelling tips about MODEL VICTORIA 1/35 RESIN KIT
PLATE 4 – Bersaglieri tank Unit Uniforms – Eastern Front (see text)
1 – A Bersaglieri soldier with crash helmet and a ‘marmitta’ (food container) 2 – A Bersaglieri Sergeant in model 1926 tank suit with bandolleer and goggles 3 – The Lieutenant Nardi 2 nd Company tank with flags and Bersaglieri red fez. A – Some tanks of 2 nd Company sport a small national Italian flag. PLATE 5 – Bersaglieri tank Unit officers uniform and forearm rank badges
1 – Lieutenant with tankers leather jacket and service uniform 2 – 2 nd Lieutenant rank badge 3 – Lieutenant 4 – Seniot Lieutenant 5 – Captain 6 – Senior Captain 7 – Major 8 – A makeshift camouflage example (mud smeared over the base deep yellow dope) Il kit in scala 1/72 della Ditta "Il Principe Nero"
Il modello in scala 1/35 autocostruito a metà degli anni '70 da G. Breviglieri, con tanto plasticard e altrettanta buona volontà. (foto Breviglieri)Il kit in scala 1/35 della Ditta "Model Victoria"
Il kit completato, con i colori e le insegne dei Lancieri di Novara in Africa Settentrionale, 1942 - grazie alle decals A.W.D.
L’esemplare, presumibilmente targato RE 3912, terzo carro del terzo plotone della 1 a Compagnia, dei tre esistenti al mondo è quello meglio conservato, anche negli elementi meno massicci, foto di Mr. Boris Kharlamov a Kubinka (via U. Plinkner e S. Sogni).
The only one L6 tank of the 3rd Tank Regiment demonstration team, in the second half of 1942.
The definitive prototipe, accepted by the Regio esercito with few improvements. The tank shows a temporary camouflage.
Some L6 of Bersaglieri unit, just arrived to the front, in a field mass.
A L6, probably from 2 nd Company, at speed. The makeshift camouflage its only in the fore half of the tank. (coll. Fuscalzo)
Another well known camouflage system was about foliage and branches. (coll. Fuscalzo)
A L6 platoon on the move. The smeared mud lacks of some surfaces. (coll. Fuscalzo)
Some other tanks of the Bersaglieri’s unit, with makeshift camouflage about smeared mud, described in the text. (coll. Castore via D.Guglielmi)
Last stand for this L6 in January 1943. The tank was probably overturned to clear the road for other vehicles. (g.c. Lorenzo Tonioli)
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