Designer's Notes: Gurps WWII: Grim Legions

by Michele Armellini

What's In It

This 48-page book is organized along the same standard of the other GURPS WWII "nation books." Chapter 1 offers a general history from 1918 to 1945, obviously focusing on the Italian point of view. The chapter describes not only Italy's war, but also how Mussolini came to power, and what he did in two long decades at the nation's helm.

Chapter 2 provides an overview of the Italian armed forces of WWII, from infantry squad up, with notes on strategy, tactics, intelligence. It also covers the TO/E of the various unit types, and dwells on specialized, elite, foreign and native troops, as well as on the "poor bloody infantry." Apart from the Army, it covers the Navy, Air Force, and Fascist Militia (the Blackshirts), and the Italian order of battle in June, 1940.

Chapter 3 deals with Italian characters, building on the relevant chapter of the core book, GURPS WWII. Readers will find a National Package of Advantages and Disadvantages, suggested background Skills, and customization notes to create Italian soldiers on the basis of the core book templates, as well as information on Military Ranks and the status of Italian Jews.

There are also three all-new templates: the Alpino mountain infantryman, the cavalry trooper, and the frogman, for creating those daring raiders who piloted their ride-on torpedoes under the British battleships' bellies.

Chapter 4 is dedicated to the Italian armory, starting with personal gear, equipment, and assorted items. There is a rich selection of small arms, from pistols to the infamous Breda 30 squad machine gun, from flamethrowers to the late-war crudely-machined Schmeisser look-alike. Then there are the Italian vehicles: light artillery, the most representative tanks, the most common fighter, a fast, well-armed recon "jeep", a small torpedo boat, and the ride-on torpedo.

Chapter 5 offers information for all campaigning styles, and suggests campaign themes. It describes the living conditions of the Italian soldiers on all fronts, how they fought and what they felt. It offers a whole range of interesting campaign units, up to the unexpected Italian elite soldiers. It also covers lesser-known topics such as the home front in Italy, Mussolini's collaborationist regime after 1943, the Resistance, and the Italian Allied Army. It gives plenty of roleplaying seeds: The abysmal performance of some scratch-built infantry units during the first Commonwealth offensive in the desert. The bravery of the last cavalry charges in WWII. The epic struggle of the Folgore paratroops who just wouldn't give up. The nightmarish rout through the snow-covered steppes and out of the great pocket. The men who stubbornly decided to hold out against all comers in the Balkan mountains, in September, 1943. It's all there.

How I Came To Write It

In January, 2002, I off-handedly asked Gene Seabolt, the GURPS WWII line editor, whether he had an author for Grim Legions, the small book about the Italian WWII forces that was then on the wish list. I also immediately went on to criticize him rather curtly as to a very minor point in his recent work, GURPS WWII -- which, one would guess, isn't the best way to make friends with an editor! However, I didn't manage to spoil our relationship from the start. Gene saw "promise" in my outline, and by the end of February I got the job.

I had already published a few articles on Pyramid, so, while feeling a bit daunted by the idea of writing a book in a language that isn't my mother tongue, I thought I could do it. I was to discover that while the quality standards of Pyramid are high, going from electrons to paper would require a further effort at style-polishing.

Apart from the language issue, I was quite confident. I'm no history professor, but I have been an avid wargamer and history buff for years, and I am very familiar with the topic. Additionally, I had a trump card. The very fact that I'm Italian, while being a drawback when it came to writing, was a great advantage because (I reckoned) not many prospective writers in Gene's stable would be able to access the original sources, in the original language. I was. Apart from the many books I own, I could access libraries containing, for instance, the official Italian General HQ histories about all the campaigns: bulky, difficult-to-find tomes, crammed full with original documents. These were all great primary sources, from operational orders to strength returns. So, I was sure I'd have all the info I needed. Given time, I would find all the details.

Indeed, it turned out I had too many details! I delved and dug and found more and more fine gems; soon, Gene had to tell me to curb my ambition. I was listing every second Italian vehicle (well, almost). I had to scale back my project because, as I wrote one chapter, then another, the balance of remaining pages was shrinking far too quickly. One might assume that the good news, coming halfway through my work, would make things easier: the booklets of the GURPS WWII line, initially budgeted at 36 pages, leapt to 48. Initially, I was astounded. Then, I did feel relieved; but, knowing I had 12 pages more, I let my contents grow too fat, again. In the end, I had to cut something . . . and you will find one such painful clipping below. But the harder issues came out later, as I was finishing the main history chapter (it probably wasn't too wise of me to keep most of it as the last thing to do).


Politics is always controversial, and 1930 politics was an especially inflammatory strain. Today, especially in the Western world, we tend to take for granted that democracy is good, that political violence is abhorrent, and that nationalism may easily get out of hand. This is what we think, exactly because we hazily know of times, bad times, when these ideas were hotly contested. The times of fascism.

Fascism condemned democracy, espoused political violence, and if it had a tenet, it was a chauvinistic, aggressive nationalism. It came to power before Nazism, and not long after Communism. However, once the three totalitarian systems began working in practice, Fascism appeared more difficult to define, as external observers were often puzzled. It was also less effective and ruthless than the other two regimes, and I had to explain all of this in a few terse statements. I wanted to tell the unvarnished truth as I perceived it, but I did not want to offend anyone . . . at least, not too much. Readers will judge if I succeeded.

An even more difficult hurdle was determining how popular, really, had been Fascism with Italians. Mussolini's government actively and purposely stripped the Italians of any overt means to express any disagreement, so there are few objective ways of measuring the actual support he had -- which, additionally, fluctuated considerably. I hope the book explains why at times the nation was with Mussolini, and when and how the popular support began to wane.

The key to understanding Italian Fascism probably lies in understanding Mussolini himself, which is not an easy proposition. Although top-ranking officers, party officials, and other bigwigs would at times even quietly sabotage Mussolini's minor directions in order to defend their own turf and businesses, it's still unquestionable that the destiny of Italy was decided by one man. This is the reason why I dedicated a sizable amount of space to him. There are biographic details, information about his ideology and way of thinking, and a treatment of his special relationship with Hitler.

Stereotypes And Balance

All the WWII combatants have some stereotyped labels attached to them, but this is probably more true for the Italians. Their reputation never recovered from the first Commonwealth desert offensive, which bagged tens of thousands of prisoners. The British propaganda protrayed them as cowardly buffoons and mandolin players. The label is still there today, as otherwise reliable sources still quote from those wartime propaganda bits.

I had to explain how and why this reputation came around, when it wasn't deserved, and why: how it happened that the Italians would "run away," while, when the British and Germans happened to leave their positions in a backward direction, they would "quickly withdraw"; how the Germans would happily take all the merit when things went well, and blame the Italians when they didn't. I also had to write about the many other reasons behind the poor show in WWII.

On the other hand, however, I needed to maintain my balance. There were cases when the Italians' bad reputation was deserved. There was shame, and defeat, and young men's lives stupidly wasted. Being an Italian myself, I risked becoming overly defensive and, well, biased in favor of the Italian troops. I had to avoid that.

I think I did, also because I could enlist some allies.

An Allied Effort

This being my first book, of course my editor's help was invaluable, and he taught me much more than I expected. But apart from him, other authors working for the GURPS WWII line helped me, going out of their way to do it. We compared notes with Brian Underhill, author of GURPS WWII: All the King's Men, and he gave me useful advice. As GURPS gearheads will have already guessed, the small-arms section is largely born of Hans-Christian Vortisch. Italian friends, including a historian, a wargamer and a former serviceman, also provided useful material, and their help is acknowledged in the title page. I want to thank all of them.

Finally, this book owes a lot to my father-in-law, Captain Francesco Scalettaris, Silver Medal of Military Valor, 8th Assault Engineer Battalion, "Folgore" Parachute Division. He was captured while wounded, at El Alamein, after having done more than his duty.

So, here's the clipping you were waiting for:

The Front Runner

In 1938, Ansaldo and Spa (A Fiat subsidiary) were developing an armored car for the Army, and another one for the colonial police. They were instructed to unify the projects. The Italian Africa Police began field tests in Eastern Africa in 1939, while the Army ordered its batch, now designated Autoblinda AB40, in March, 1940.

To be useful for the colonial police, the armored car had to be suitable for extended patrolling, mainly on roads or dirt tracks, and for breaking up rebel bands that would lack any anti-vehicular weaponry. It also had to be fast and long-ranged, in order to be effective in policing the huge East African colony.

As a result, the AB40's armor was skimpy, its weaponry were only MGs, and its main advantage was speed, especially on the road. Like other armored cars of the time, it had a unique transmission and driving arrangement: it had two drivers, one of them facing to the back. The idea was that while cruising on a road, the armored car might be ambushed by a road block in a bottleneck, where it would lack the space to turn around. The rear-facing driver would step in, literally, and drive away much faster than in an ordinary reverse movement controlled by a forward-facing driver. In practice, it was a two-fronted vehicle: indeed, its rear facing was as sloped as the forward one, and it had a rear-facing MG. Of course, this advantage would be helpful in a very limited set of circumstances, probably not worth the complications to the transmission layout (with the added weight and maintenance problems).

This was by far the fastest vehicle the Italian armor outfits had. Once the war began, the Italian officers realized it was also much less likely to break down than most of their tracked vehicles, especially in the grueling, long-haul movements the desert war involved. Thus, the armored cars were valued both for the recon duties they had been designed for, and whenever a true runner was needed, particularly on the North African front.

Another useful asset of the AB40 was its radio: the vehicles were meant to be able to report from long-ranging patrol missions. Many Italian tanks lacked radios, and even the battalion command ones had shorter-ranged, less reliable sets. To compensate for this, a handful of armored cars were attached to tank regiments, serving both for recon and as radio/command vehicles. In another example of uninformed and hasty judgement on the Italian armed forces after WWII, foreign observers remarked that the Italians wasted good recon vehicles by using them for "escorting their officers."

In 1941, the armored car was upgraded to carry the Breda 20mm autocannon in place of the twin MGs; this upgunned version, detailed below, is the AB41, capable of dealing with its counterparts.

The vehicle was employed by the Italian Africa Police (in small numbers), as divisional assets in armored divisions, by Bersaglieri armored battalions, and by cavalry armored outfits, including independent companies. Such companies, platoons and detachments could be found almost anywhere in the Italian Army, although more likely in armored/mobile formations. The Giovani Fascisti Division had one of these in 1942, for instance.

Some 250 AB40s were delivered, including a batch of 54 never sent to the Yugoslavian army. About 580 AB41s had been delivered by August, 1943. The Germans captured 57 vehicles, including 20 still in production, and gave some to the RSI; the Germans themselves used them both in Italy and in the Balkans, and had some 200 AB41 produced for them. They also ordered a minor variant, the AB43 (see below), and 103 vehicles were delivered. The Allies also employed captured armored cars in the desert; the specimen tested in Great Britain arrived there sporting a white-red pennant and the Polish Carpathian Lancers' badge. The Polish tankers had added a fire extinguisher.

Three of the crew stations are entirely in the Body, while the commander/gunner station is half in the Turret. There are two drivers, one facing backwards. The radioman takes care of the radio and, if needed, mans the rear-facing MG. He also reloads the main gun with 8-round chargers, or hands them to the commander if the turret is rotated in an awkward position for him to reload. The engine burns 2.7 gallons per hour. The loadout costs $187.65, with slightly more anti-personnel than anti-vehicular 20mm rounds. The commander rotates the turret by hand-cranking, at about 4° per second.

Autoblinda AB41 (Spa-Ansaldo)

Subassemblies: Standard Wheeled Chassis, heavy, medium slope +3; Medium Weapon Turret, full rotation, [Body:T] +1; Wheels, off-road (4) +2.
Powertrain: 60-kW standard gasoline engine with 60-kW all-wheel drive transmission, 51-gallon standard tank, 16,000-kWs batteries.
Occ: 3 CS Body, 1 CS half in Body, half in Tur Cargo: 1.4
Body 1.8 Tur

























20mm Long Ground Autocannon/Breda-SAFAT Mod. 35 [Tur F] (456 rounds)*
8mm Ground LMG/Breda Mod. 38 [Tur F] (1,328 rounds)*
8mm Ground LMG/Breda Mod. 38 [Body B] (664 rounds)
* Linked

Body: Large radio receiver and transmitter, casemate mount for the Ground LMG, backup driver option.

Size: 17'×6'×6' Payload: 0.7 tons Lwt: 7.4 tons
Volume: 59 Maint: 119 hours Cost: $2,800
HT: 12 HPs: 660 Body, 112 each Wheel, 75 Tur.
gSpeed: 48 gAccel: 2 gDecel: 10 gMR: 0.75 gSR: 4
Ground Pressure Moderate. 1/3 Off-Road Speed.

Design Notes

The Standard Wheeled Chassis, with its heavy option, is defined on p. W:IC65.

As designed, the vehicle comes in a bit slower than in history, but spot on as to weight. The armor was designed for facing incoming fire from the front and the back, and both aspects are sloped; so half of the standard allocation of sloping for medium slope has been swapped to the back. This is the same procedure used for the Panther turret, p. W:IC81.

The wheels were large, and special tires were designed for this car; additionally, it had all-wheel steering. Therefore, following the same procedure as for the German SdKfz 231 (p. W:IC76), the High ground pressure resulting from the design was improved to Moderate (at an arbitrary price of $150). This places the off-road speed about in the right historical range. 500 20mm rounds and 2,000 8mm rounds were purchased; historical figures are given above.


The first armored cars, known as AB40, had two linked 8mm MGs as main turret weaponry. These vehicles carried about 2,500 8mm rounds. They were used just like the more common AB41, described above, and some units had a mix of vehicles.

The Autoblinda Ferroviaria 40/41 was the same vehicle, but its wheels could be replaced with railroad wheels. Meant for line patrolling, these vehicles were not often used on the tracks. Calculated speed would be doubled with the railway wheels.

The Autoblinda AB43 was a development in the same direction taken by mid-war German armored car designs: It mounted the 47mm tank gun, and had a new, more powerful 82-kW engine (top speed: 55 mph). Although 360 vehicles were ordered in May, 1943, the vehicle remained a prototype.

Autoblinda 43 or Autoblinda AB41/43: a misleading name, since it did not mount the 47mm gun; it still had the 20mm autocannon. It was produced for the Germans in 1944 and 1945. Some sources mention that a few were modified to carry the German KwK39 (a 50mm Long Tank Gun). In addition, it had an AA pintle mount (a limited-rotation Mini Open Mount on top of the turret, with a Universal Mount) where the rear-facing MG could also be fitted.

The final runs of the AB41 had a better silencer and a fixed Mini Open Mount on the Body top, containing two Smoke Dischargers.

Article publication date: May 16, 2003

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