Carro Armato L6/40
Light Tank Tracked Combat Vehicle
Like most other Italian tanks of World War 2, the Carro Armato L6/40 was outdated by its contemporaries the moment it was introduced.
Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited:
The Carro Armato L6/40 series was manufactured by the Italian concern of Fiat-Ansaldo from 1939 to 1944 to which 283 examples were ultimately produced. Both the Italian and German armies made use of this light tank in their various campaigns, mostly during the early phases of World War 2. First operational use was recorded in 1940 and actions ultimately included the famed North African Campaign fought during the early-to-middle years. For what it was designed to do, the L6/40 series was an adequate tank that could reconnoiter key areas ahead of the main fighting force and, if required, engage enemy light armored vehicles with its primary armament. However, medium and heavy tanks were eventually en vogue with the Allied armies, resulting in the L6/40 - and its related types - becoming obsolete as "direct-attack" frontline vehicles. Regardless, the L6/40 were consistently forced into direct combat by their overseers against overwhelming odds. The L6/40 was roughly equivalent in scope, form and function to the German Panzer II series light tanks.
After World War 1, the light tank proved all the rage to discerning budget-minded military customers of the world. As such, Fiat-Ansaldo took to designing a new light tank based on its successful Carro Armato L3 "tankette" for the purpose of export. The L3 was developed during the early part of the 1930s - itself being heavily influenced by the successful British-designed Carden Lloyd Mark VI Tankette- and began serial production in 1935, running to 1938 with as many as 2,500 examples ultimately delivered. The type went on to see action almost immediately and throughout a variety of conflicts waged across Europe including the Spanish Civil War - what essentially proved to be an active test ground for the Axis prior to World War 2. The L3 was in service up to about 1944 when it was clear that the tankette was outmatched by most every other tank being fielded and that stage of the war - essentially bringing an end to the age of the tankette in whole. Regardless, the widespread use and proven qualities of the vehicle made it a sensible notion to produce an offshoot based on the type.
As such, several prototypes soon emerged. An early form mounted a 37mm main gun in a side sponson with a traversing main turret housing 2 x 8mm Breda machine guns. Another form then saw the 37mm main gun set within the turret installation along with a single 8mm coaxial machine gun. Still another design initiative did away with cannon armament altogether and fitted 2 x 8mm machine guns in the turret. By 1939, the design was finalized with a 20mm Breda Model 35 series main gun and a coaxially-mounted 8mm Breda Model 38 series machine gun - both to be held in a traversing turret. The tank would be crewed by two personnel made up of the driver and the commander. Unfortunately for the commander, he would also have to double as the gunner (of both weapons) and loader. When Italian authorities came across this new design, interest was such that the type was formally accepted into Italian Army service as the "L6/40". L6/40s were delivered to awaiting Italian cavalry and reconnaissance elements.
Of note here is that the Italian Army utilized a unique, sometimes confusing, identification system for their tanks. In the case of the "L6/40", the designation actually breaks down quite conveniently to clearly label various identifiable pieces. The "L" indicated "light" (or "Leggero" in Italian) to cover the light classification of the L6/40 series. The use of the number "6" detailed the vehicle's general operating weight while the "40" was nothing more than an identifier used to mark the vehicle's year of formal acceptance into service.
At its core, the L6/40 was a highly conventional light tank system by any regard. With its "light" tank classification, the L6 design was assured of three primary qualities - good speed, light armor protection and limited armament. Speed (an inherent offspring of both a solid powerplant and light armor protection) was essential for such tanks in the reconnaissance role or for break-through measures against dug-in enemy personnel where gaining advantage along the flanks was an imperative. Its armament was capable of handling equally-light armored vehicles and high-explosive shells could be used to dislodge concentrations of enemy troops. The L6/40 weighed in at a manageable 7.5 tons and was powered by a single Fiat SPA 180 series 4-cylinder engine developing 70 horsepower conventionally fitted to the rear hull. Top road speed was approximately 26 miles per hour while operational range was limited to 120 miles. Armor protection ranged from 6mm to 40mm at various facings with critical facings being given top priority. Hull construction was of riveted armor panels, though riveting soon fell out of favor with most tank designs. Armament centered on a 20mm main gun while anti-infantry defense was supplied by a single 8mm machine gun with armament counts of 296 and 1,560 rounds respectively. The main gun was fitted to a 360-degree, manually-powered turret that was offset to the left of centerline while the machine gun was mounted coaxially next to the main gun. The main gun managed an elevation of +20 to -12 degrees to allow for some flexibility in engagement. The track system consisted of four doubled road wheels to a hull side with the drive sprocket at front and the track idler at the rear. The idler was notably set very low and essentially acted as a fifth road wheel. Three track return rollers guided the thin segmented track sections along the upper hull sides. The hull superstructure sported slightly angled surfaces while the turret displayed more sloped angles - though neither design was truly "ballistics friendly". The crew entered/exited the tank via a turret roof hatch or a hatch located along the right side of the hull. Overall, the dimensions of the L6/40 were such that it maintained a generally low profile and made for a hard target to effectively engage at distance with any accuracy.
The L6/40 was quick to see combat action with the execution of the Balkans Campaign beginning in October of 1940. The campaign saw the combined forces of Germany, Italy, Albania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania invade the sovereign nations of Greece and Yugoslavia. The Axis powered eventually gained the victory over the joint allied forces that included the British, Australians, New Zealanders, Greeks and Yugoslavs in June of 1941. When Germany officially invaded the Soviet Union through "Operation Barbarossa", Italian L6/40s were also participants and were furthermore featured in subsequent offensives that nearly shattered the Soviet Union. By this time, however, the L6/40 series was obsolete though they were still being forced into service as frontline combat systems. L6/40s then served as part of the Axis contingent used across North Africa in an attempt to halt Allied advances. Ultimately, the Axis powers were foiled in this region of the world and completely forced from North Africa altogether - the noose beginning to tighten. Closing combat actions involving L6/40 light tanks took place in the final days of Italian participation in World War 2 as an Axis power. These were featured in the defensive-minded engagements at strategic locations in Sicily and Italy proper. Ultimately, Axis Italy was forced into surrender in September of 1943 and would soon join the Allied cause in the push towards Berlin.
Variants of the base L6/40 light tank series included a command vehicle, flame projector, ammunition carrier and self-propelled assault gun. The command vehicle was completed with an expanded communications suite as well as an open-air turret, providing the field commander unfettered views of the action ahead. A single 8mm machine gun was used for defense but these were falsified to appear as though the larger 20mm-armed combat tanks so enemy tanker crews could not outright identify these valuable battlefield communications relays. The flame projector version replaced the cannon armament in the turret with a liquid-fueled flamethrower. The tracked ammunition carrier was used to supply projectiles to self-propelled guns and were defensed by a single 8mm machine gun. Perhaps the most notable L6/40 development became the Semovente 47/32 self-propelled gun. Semovente 47/32s saw the original L6/40 turret removed in favor of a fixed, armored superstructure mounting a heavier, more potent field gun of 47mm caliber. Production of this type reached approximately 300 examples by war's end. Amazingly, the nimble little L6/40 series outlasted Italian participation in World War 2 as well as the entire war itself. It was used in limited security roles across a rebuilding war-torn Italy under control of militia forces up until the 1950s to which the series was officially and finally retired from operational use.