The L3 series of tankettes primarily served the Italian Army in the years leading up to World War 2. By this time in history, the system held little value to warplanners where larger, heavier armed and armored battle tanks were beginning to rule. Regardless, the little tank was produced in numbers large enough to force its use by several parties in the global war. In this way, the L3 nevertheless made a historical impact in the field of armored warfare in spite of her mounting losses and ineffectual combat qualities.
The L3/35 was classified as a "tankette" which put in a special category of tracked armored vehicles that were devised following World War 1. Tankettes were small in size and more akin to machine gun carriers than even "light" tanks as they lacked traversing turrets (armament was fixed in the superstructure), were armed with a light assortment of machine guns and were very light in weight. The L3/35's size ensured that there was just enough room inside for the engine, transmission system, ammunition supply and two personnel - a driver and gunner/commander. Tankettes were valuable in their high operating speeds where they could be used to reconnoiter forward areas with some level of protection for the crew. This quality could also make them valuable in supporting infantry actions where portable machine gun fire was the call of the day.
The L3/35 was born from the engineering research garnered in the Italian purchase and study of four British Carden Loyd tankettes in 1929. The Carden Loyd was a success for the type of tank it was and proved a multi-faceted, budget-minded performer. Of all the marks in the Carden Loyd tankette family, the Mark VI proved the most successful and ushered in the usefulness of tankettes across the world during the inter-war years. As such, the British Mark VI would become the origination of many similar systems designed during this time by global parties looking for more indigenous products. Production of the British system spanned from 1927 to 1935 to which some 450 examples were delivered to interested parties. Armament was a single .303 Vickers machine gun for the crew of two.
The Italian tankette research project produced the initial Carro Veloce CV-29 "Fast Tank" in 1929. It proved a novel attempt to the point that some 21 production examples followed. The CV-33 appeared in 1933 as a design sponsored by the FIAT and Ansaldo firms and some 300 examples ensued. The CV-33 sported riveted and welded armor and a 1 x 6.5mm machine gun configuration. Riveted armor worked up to a point for the rivets could very well become flying bullets in the event of a direct hit from an enemy shell - a definite hazard to the crew within. The design was therefore revisited and, in 1935, the improved CV-35 made its appearance. Its benefits (bolted armor, 2 x 8mm machine guns) forced earlier CV-33 systems to be brought up to the new standard. The CV-35 became the definitive mark in the series though it essentially differed little from the CV-33 before it.
Serial production began in 1933 and the vehicle family formally entered service in 1935 with the Italian Army becoming the first notable operator of the type. Production would last until 1936 to which some 2,000 to 2,500 examples would be delivered in all.
In 1938, the series was redesignated to feature the more traditional "L" marker (L for "Light") as in "L3/33" (CV-33) and "L3/35" (CV-35). The series also saw one more evolution in the resulting L3/38 design of 1938. One of the key additions of this variant was the installation of a torsion bar-based suspension system (over that of the original bogie system) and a heavy caliber 13.2mm Madsen machine gun. Despite the upgrades, very few of this model existed in the Italian Army ranks for, by this time, tankettes were becoming more of a forgotten battlefield implement thanks to the arrival - and inherent value - of light and medium tanks.
In all, the L3/35 weighed in at 3.52 tons and measured a running length of approximately 10 feet, 5 inches. She was 4 feet, 8 inches wide and sported a height of 4 feet, 3 inches. Armor protection ranged from 6mm to 14mm in thickness. Power was supplied by a single FIAT-SPA CV3 water-cooled engine of 43 horsepower which allowed for a top speed of 26 miles per hour (on roads) and an operational range of up to 78 miles The tracked systems consisted of a set that presented the hull with a distinct "nose-up" attitude. The drive sprocket was held forward on each hull side with the track idler at the rear. Suspension was of the bogie type with a pair of three-wheeled leaf springed bogie fittings and a single fitting of an unsprung wheel to each track side. In profile, the L3/35 displayed a sharply angled forward hull superstructure - good for ballistics protection - slab side armoring and a slight angled upper hull superstructure side. The superstructure was squared off along the rear facing with the engine compartment equally squared off. Armament of 2 x 8mm machine guns was contained in the forward facing of the superstructure and was adequate for anti-infantry defense and offense as needed. Beyond that, the L3/35 system could not contend with heavier class tanks regardless of crew training. Crew seating saw the driver on the right of the hull with the commander/gunner to his left.
The L3 series was quick to find combat actions during its relatively short operational tenure. Despite the strong British pedigree and promising inherent characteristics, the L3 was not a very fit mount for battle. The L3 fared somewhat poorly in the 2nd Ethiopian-Italian War, often times outdone by large concentrations of infantry. The L3 was also featured in the Spanish Civil War where it was owned by the Soviet T-26 light tanks and BT-5 fast tanks. Despite their poor early history, the L3 was still available to the Italian Army in some number and was to be featured along every Italian front in the upcoming World War 2 as a result. Those systems that were not felled in combat were usually captured and reconstituted for inventory-building or held in reserve for localized guard duties by their new owners. More L3 tankettes were lost or captured in the Anglo-Iraqi War, the Greco-Italian War and the Invasion of Yugoslavia. As such, the type was a rare sight by the end of 1940. The German Army was able to get some limited use of the tankette after the Italian surrender to the Allies in late 1943.
The L3 series proved something of a limited global success especially for budget conscious operators looking to modernize without having to put in the time and funding into lengthy and costly indigenous tank projects. Austria and Hungary were chief export operators, ordering the type in substantial numbers (72 and 65 respectively). Other purchasers became Albania, Bolivia, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Iraq and Nationalist Spain. Slight variations greeted each L3 tankette in service with these foreign forces and each were given appropriate localized armament and additions as needed.
Some L3 tankettes were eventually converted by the Italian Army into a make-shift 20mm anti-tank gun carrier (L3 cc) to be used in the North African campaign (in limited numbers) as well as a flamethrower tank (L3 Lf), the latter losing one of its machine guns for a flamethrower.
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