Tank driver Corporal Lorenzo N— with his M13/40 tank. He fought in North Africa with the Ariete Armored Division, surrendered on Cap Bon and ended the war in the New Orleans Italian POW camp. All photos by Ron Leverenz, Doughboy Militaria, Springfield, Mo.
by Clement V. Kelly
Despite the design and manufacture of prize-winning motor cars with expert and experienced drivers, Italy remained an un-mechanized nation prior to World War II. When war broke out in 1939, the nation had only 469,000 motor vehicles compared with 1.98 million in Germany and 2.42 million in Great Britain. This led to a dire shortage of qualified persons able to operate and maintain military vehicles. Therefore, the Italian Army had to undertake the training, not only of mechanics but drivers as well, of a peasant class only familiar with mules. Those who had learned to drive and maintain such a complicated and awesome item as a military tank, considered themselves on par with other Italians who had learned to drive airplanes.
In Italian, a tank driver is called a pilota carrista, so it is not surprising that one series of WWII Italian Army tank driver badges are similar to those for Royal Italian Air Force pilot wings. The aviation badge is a gold eagle, about 75mm in length and flying to the wearer’s left holding a Fascist “Littorio” in its talons, and has a royal crown above the eagle’s center. For tank drivers, the badge was modified by replacing the royal crown with a small tank. Several different styles of tank design can be encountered, but these are only manufacturers’ variations. After the fall of Mussolini, the badges were altered by removing the entire Fascist symbol or by simply cutting off the axe blade.
Tank driver badge, Fascist Era evidenced by the Fascist symbol in eagle’s talons.
Another badge for drivers, also used by other tank crewmen, consists of a silver metal oval laid horizontally, about 45mm wide and 30mm high with pin back. In the center is the starboard side of a tank and rising above that is a winged dragon breathing fire. The center is fretted and enclosed by a 4mm wide border which is inscribed with the tank force motto at the top, reading, “FERREA MOLE, FERREO CUORE” (Iron Walls, Iron Hearts), incised and filled with black paint. Unfortunately the iron walls were not as strong as the iron hearts that they enclosed and the Italian tankers referred to their tanks as “iron coffins.” The bottom of the enclosing border has a sprig of oak leaves to the wearer’s right and laurel leaves to his left.
Tank driver badge, modified after the fall of Mussolini by the removal of the blade from the Fascist symbol.
Close-up view of one of the tanks atop the eagle.
A similar badge designed for drivers, but eventually worn by the other tank crewmen, was made of metal, 60mm wide and 35mm high, with a dragon breathing fire (red enamel) above a tank. There is no enclosing border on this badge. It also has a pinback suspension.
The last two mentioned badges with the dragons were used during WWII and are still being used today in a silver finish for troops and gold for officers. None of the above badges were officially authorized by the Italian army but still saw considerable use by tankers.
The tank appearing on the last two mentioned badges appears to be the “carro amato M13/40” designed in 1940. At the time, it was on par with most of the tanks found in other countries. It was armed with a good 47mm cannon in a revolving turret, four machine guns and carried a crew of four. The cannon could fire both armor-piercing and high explosive shells so it was able to engage other tanks as well as infantry and artillery, while comparable British tanks could fire only armor-piercing rounds and only engage other tanks. The M13/40 was the primary battle tank found in the WWII Italian armored forces. The Italian Army was satisfied with the medium tank 13/40 and lack of funding, but disinterest by the tank manufacturers precluded the development and production of more advanced tanks.
ITALY’S TANK ARM DURING WWII
The Italian Army’s tank inventory included an Italian-built tank of WWI vintage, the French designed FT-17, built under license from Renault and designated the Fiat 3000. The army also possessed 2,500 of the L 3/33 and L 3/35 light tanks, built under license from Carden Lloyd of Britain, and the Mark V tank (known to the British as the Bren gun carrier). The Italian generals were quite happy with this small tank, preferring quantity to quality. However, the failings of these light tanks in the Ethiopian War and Spanish Civil War became fatally apparent.
The resulting new design, the M11/39 tank, also the first built with a revolving turret (the turret held only one machine gun while the 47mm cannon was fixed in the hull) was still not on par with other nations’ more modern tanks and few were built. The better M13/40 followed, but they did not begin to arrive in the Italian Armored Divisions until late 1940. As other nations continued to build better tanks with thicker armor and heavier guns the M 13/40 sank further into obsolescence. Obviously these tanks could not stand up to the more advanced tanks fielded by Italy’s enemies, Britain, Russia, Germany and the United States, a situation often fatal to their luckless crews.
Oval tank driver and crew badge in silver for troops.
Dragon tank driver and crew badge in gold for officers.