Part 1: Semovente M.41M Development and Deployment
Soon after Italian forces fighting the Soviets on the Eastern front in 1942 had encountered the T-34 it was obvious that the standard army 47mm L.32 Ansaldo-Bohler field gun mounted as a field piece and in a modified L.6/40 tank chassis was insufficient for the task. The 47/32 was a good gun; superior overall to the German 37mm Pak AT gun, and very accurate but simply not up to the task. Capable of firing a variety of shells the main Armour Piercing M.39 shell was 1.43kg and fired at 670m/s could achieve just under 60mm of penetration at 100m dropping to about 43mm at 500m. The hollow charge EP (‘Effeto Pronto’) shell was in short supply and could drum up a respectable 112mm of pen but nonetheless a more effective tank destroyer was required specifically to counter the threat of the T-34. Even the idea of fitting any of the variety of 47mm guns available was going to be sufficient.
Italy had already tried fitting a 75mm gun into a modified tank chassis as early as 1939 and then later on the modified M.13/40 tank hull in late 1940 but this time they turned to the much more potent 90mm gun. There was already in existence a 90/50 (50 calibre 90mm gun) in Naval service and the 53 calibre version was designed in about 1938 to be an Anti Aircraft gun to replace the well regarded 75/46 piece. The 90/53 was a superior gun to its more famous cousin; the German Flak 8.8 which was being supplied to Italy from 1940. Despite producing various versions of that German 8.8cm gun from May 1942; a gun which was simpler and cheaper to manufacture than the Italian 90mm gun, the Italians still stuck to wanting more of this 90mm gun seeing the value of the piece. This Italian gun could fire a heavier shell at a higher velocity to a higher ceiling and is equivalent to or slightly better than the UK 3.7” Mk.3 or US 90mm M1 guns, first delivery took place of this gun on 30th January 1940.
The 90mm cannon itself was a fine piece of work. The design incorporated an internal sleeve allowing the inner part of the barrel to be withdrawn and replaced when cold due to the excesses of barrel wear. This method had been used on the earlier 75mm anti-aircraft guns but like that piece the very ‘hot’ rounds being used caused a large amount of barrel wear and thus the shells were modified. These modified rounds used a reduced propellant to reduce barrel wear and as a consequence some loss of performance. In common again with the 75mm guns, the 90mm gun was also stymied by continual fuzing problems with shells. These issues, not to mention other things like manufacturing quality of shells no doubt contributes to the very mixed set of data for performance from a variety of sources for it.
Generally though the early M.38/39 and 41 pattern 90/53 guns could fire the 11.25kg AP shell or the 10.2kg APHE shell at about 840 m/s. The performance for this piece against armour firing AP shot was estimated at the by the British at 143mm at 457 metres. There is also a variety of earlier shells which were also compatible with that gun but of particular note is the EP hollow charge round weighing 10.6kg capable during tests of over 206mm of penetration at any range.
Specifications for a new vehicle to carry this gun were set down on 29th of December 1941 although work on the project had actually already begun sometime in the autumn of that year and a wooden mockup was ready by November of 1941. The design of this new ‘Semovente’ was approved on 27th of January 1942 and without even waiting for trials the Italian Army ordered 17 of them on the 30th of January 1942 (only 3 days after the design was approved).
The earliest concept for this vehicle appears to be have been this one; the ‘Primo Studio’ with a small gunshield and very small profile. The hull is very square with 3 unequally spaced return rollers and 4 pairs of twin bogied wheels each side. The hull is laid out with the transmission at the front as was the norm for Italy, then the crew compartment with the engine behind and then the gun mounted at the rear on a pedestal. In my opinion this ‘Primo Studio’ M.41M would just make an ideal premium tank destroyer in WoT; small and well armed, but slow with weak armour. This would be a tank destroyer for the patient player.
It had originally been proposed to fit this 90mm L.53 calibre weapon into the chassis on the P.26/40 heavy tank which was under development at the time by Ansaldo but due to construction and development issues a modified and lengthened M.14/41 tank chassis was utilised instead, fitted with improved suspension to take the additional weight of this cannon (hence M.41-M, with ‘M’ being ‘Modificata’). The prototype was undergoing trials by the 5th of March 1942; from a November 1941 mockup to functional prototype in only four months was a remarkable achievement.
Left, the Prototype M.41M da 90/53 and Right, the M.41M da 90/53 during trials 5th March 1942 Photo Credit: Pafi/Falessi)
Following testing the design was then further modified with an extended collar of armour plate on the hull covering the gap between the hull and the base of the armoured shield, the sides of the shield were extended backwards and a roof plate with radio antenna mount added as well.
This improved design of the M.14/41 tank hull based version (the P.26/40 hulls still in development hell at this time) was authorised with the original 17 ordered in January changed to 30 examples in April 1942. All 30 ordered were in service by August of 1942; which is effectively just 1 year from concept to mockup, to testing, and to production, delivery and deployment. By the time it was ready for service though it was too late to salvage the disaster on the Eastern front as what remained of the Italian Army there was disbanded in July of 1942. The war against the Soviets had cost Italy the majority of their most modern artillery as well as desperately needed trucks and men so 24 these vehicles were kept back for the defence of Sicily with the other 6 held in reserve in mainland Italy in December 1942.
The 24 Semovente M.41M sent to Sicily were issued to the 10th Raggagruppamento and divided into 3 Gruppi of 8 vehicles each; the 161st, 162nd, and 163rd Gruppi respectively. On the 10th July 1942 the 161st Gruppi was sent to Licata on the Southern coast to bolster the coastal unit defences. At least two were later gathered at a vehicle collecting point there just North-West of the Corso Umberto on the southern bank of the river.
Licata vehicle collecting point, Sicily, July 1943
The M.41M nearest the camera shows to good effect the gun depression available. You can also see a battered L.6 Portamunizioni in the top middle of the image and two twin machine gun armed Fiat 3000’s. If you are interested in such things or find yourself in Licata with a metal detector and a spare afternoon I managed to tie down this location http://i.imgur.com/qUrUrsT.jpg
On the 12th July 1943 the advance column of the US 66th Armored Regiment was engaged by Semovente M.41M belonging to the 163rd Gruppi positioned around the town of Canicatti about 39km north of Licata. Upon the approach to the town US forces were engaged at a range of up to 2500 yards losing 3 Sherman tanks for no known enemy loss. During this action the Italian fire is described by a US tank commandeer as “all enemy fire was accurate and well timed but used so sparingly as to make location of their weapons impossible”. Interestingly an account from another tank commander of that unit recounted in November of 1943 tried to put a more positive spin on events saying “At CANICATTI we were fired on by a number of German 90mm self-propelled guns perhaps ten or fifteen of them, and they were in position and got their-rounds off first. But their marksmanship was poor 'and they got little effect on us……”
“Little effect” here, being the loss of three tanks clearly and the chances of their being 10 or 15 of them in the same place being basically nil. Only 30 were made total and only 24 sent to Sicily. The Gruppi concerned had 8 maximum and logically defending that position is likely to have divided into two units of 4 vehicles to control the key ridges and provide supporting fields of fire. My view here is that the Americans drove into this prepared defensive position and suffering from this fire assumed there must have been more guns than there were. Poor infantry/armour coordination was also blamed for the losses in this action but sometime after nightfall a portion of the Italian forces have tried to move out and become caught in a US artillery barrage resulting in 2 being knocked out and another 2 (along with a stock of other vehicles) to be abandoned. Whether these 4 vehicles were the total faced earlier by that US column or just half of it is not known at this time but confirms my working hypothesis that the Gruppi was either down to 4 vehicles or had been divided into two kill groups.
With at least 2 lost at Licata the 10th Raggagruppamento was now down to not more than 18 x M.41M’s. Six more Semovente were known to be lost between Southern Caterina and Resuttono by July 19th 1943 and by that time unit cohesion had broken down as the Italian forces have retreated towards Messina. Only 4 have remained in Italian hands in Sicily by the 19th and two found abandoned at Messina shortly afterwards. More research is being done to track these down to account for the missing vehicles and if I manage to collate this data I will bring it to you.
From the Italian point of view using these guns though, they were in no doubt as to how effective these guns were. In 1971 Colonello Vittorio Castiglioni was interviewed regarding the use of these vehicles in Sicily, his reply was succinct “Once a tank was in our sights, it was dead” - Pretty much that sums it up.
Video of US troops examining a damaged M.41M in Sicily.
The loss of Sicily cost Italy 24 of their 30 Semovente M.41M’s, the final six vehicles which had been left at Nettuno near Rome on were taken over by the Germans on the 9th of September 1943 after the capitulation of Italy and served on in German service known as Selbsfahrlafette 90/53 801(i).
Semovente M.41M as captured in Sicily (sides have been chalked with "To Commanding General, Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Aberdeen Maryland, Captured Enemy Material" – this particular vehicle is now at Fort Sill, Oklahoma on public display
Despite the potency of the gun there were issues caused by having to cram such a large gun onto such a small vehicle. The main flaw being the limited traverse due to the positioning of the gun in the back of the hull and the limited ammunition (8 rounds in tubes + whatever you could carry in an unapproved manner inside the hull or elsewhere). The low ammunition count required the use of an ammunition tender created from an obsolete L.6 tank was used, converted to ‘L.6 Portamunizioni’ and carrying 26 additional shells internally. There was also a trailer with another 40 shells so as a unit, 74 shells carried per gun in total. One is left to wonder how much better this whole arrangement would have been using the P.26/40 hull; with better hull armour, a bigger and better engine to improve on the M.41M’s 35kph top speed (this was not possible for long periods due to overheating so 25kph was the norm.) and of course a bigger space for ammunition.
L.6 Portamunizioni with ammunition trailer
That concludes Part 1; Part 2 will continue this with the derivatives of the programme, sources and the conclusion for both parts as Part 1 here is already pushing the word limit.
Read more about Italian Tanks in WoT here.