We’ve reviewed more than one peculiar weapon here, someones even extravagant. Today we’ll continue in that line with the Vespa 150 TAP which, as you can deduce from its name, was a scooter but unheard of, as it had an incorporated anti-tank cannon; that’s why it was also known as the Vespa Bazooka.

Although it looks like it’s taken from a comic, the Vespa 150 TAP was created in a rather less humorous context: the Indochina War. It was in the early fifties when the scooter, manufactured by the Italian company Piaggio since 1946 as a new means of cheap and easy transportation, became fashionable and entered a period of splendor, with the peak being the images of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck riding one in the movie Roman Holiday.

Originally, the Vespa was called Paperino; the name change was Enrico Piaggio’s idea because it reminded him of a wasp, as the rear part was thicker than the front. In fact, placing the engine at the back was a completely innovative idea that engineer Corradino D’Assanio came up with to make the front arm resemble an airplane landing gear, as aeronautics was his passion. Something curious because he probably didn’t imagine that his scooter would fly someday.

Not by itself, of course, but through the TAP (Troupes Aéro Portées), that is, the French Airborne Troops. Shortly after the end of World War II, France had refused to meet the demands of the Viet Minh, the League for the Independence of Vietnam, which allied communists and nationalists under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, Giap, and Vam Dong with the goal of breaking free from colonial subordination. In 1946, the ruthless bombing of the city of Haiphong by the French Navy, which caused thousands of deaths, was the turning point to unleash hostilities.

The CEFEO (French Far East Expeditionary Corps) managed to prevail in the short term, taking control of the cities and pushing the Viet Minh into the jungle and China. But that meant giving up control of the largest part of the country, hindering communication by land and leaving the field open for proselytizing among the predominantly rural population. In less than three years, the situation began to change, and in the fall of 1950, the disaster of Cao Bang occurred.

Generals and campaigns followed to try to stop those adversities, but the catastrophe of Dien Bien Phu in the spring of 1954 knocked out the French. The enemy had revealed to be much better equipped than they thought; it was no longer a mass of famished and fanatic Vietnamese, but they had received artillery and T-34 tanks from China, giving them dominance on the battlefield. It was necessary to counter the power of that tank – considered by many as the best of World War II – with an anti-tank weapon that could move swiftly on the rugged roads through the jungle.

They had recently acquired the M20, a 75mm cannon of American manufacture that fired HEAT (High Explosive Anti Tank) projectiles, capable of penetrating 100mm armor, more than double that of the Soviet tank. That was one of the virtues of the M20; the other was its lack of recoil, as it released the propellant gases through the chamber’s own closure, allowing it to be fired comfortably, either from a tripod or another support.

Since the way to send it to the front was aboard Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar planes, a twin-engine transport model also provided by the U.S., which had already been used successfully in the Korean War, the size of the vehicle carrying the cannon was an important consideration. That’s how the Ministère de la Défense Nationale decided to mount it on a scooter-type motorcycle, a vehicle that could be loaded into the planes in large numbers and dropped with parachutes without worrying too much about trees.

It wasn’t a new idea, actually, as during World War II, the U.S. provided its airborne troops with a vehicle with similar characteristics, inspired by what the British and Italians were doing. It was the Cushman 53, rough in appearance and without suspension but so sturdy that you could attach the parachute directly to it. Between 4,000 and 5,000 units were produced from 1944 until the end of the war, used by the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions on the European and Pacific fronts.

However, ten years had passed since then, and a generational change was necessary. Consequently, a competition was held in which the Vespa beat the Valmobile 100 and the Bernadet 250. In 1955, Piaggio was commissioned to produce it, equipping its Vespa 150 – which weighed only 90 kilograms, 26 less than the Cushman – with a smaller hood and handguards than the civilian version but keeping the same single-cylinder two-stroke engine of 145 cc (later expanded to 150). With it, it could reach a speed of 60 kilometers per hour with a range of approximately 200 kilometers.

Due to the weight of the weapon it carried, it was necessary to add reinforcements to the structure, completely surrounding the motorcycle with a bumper, and placing steel protections on the crankcase so that it would not be damaged when landing after the parachute jump. It had a front rack to place a couple of fuel tanks and a light rear luggage rack designed to carry half a dozen projectiles, although the motorcycles were launched in pairs, so the second one carried additional ammunition.

Also in the rear was the tripod to place the cannon. Because, despite its appearance and the resulting myth – the cannon protruded a meter from the front and rested under the saddle – it was not possible to fire the anti-tank as it was, let alone while moving; its gunners – two people could ride the motorcycle – had to disassemble it and put it on the stand.

Piaggio presented the model at the 33rd Milan Motor Show in December of that year, and in January of the following year, its production began at the factory of its French subsidiary, ACMA (Ateliers de Construction de Motocycles et Accessoires), located in Fourchambault. Since there were plenty of M20s available, and manufacturing was very cheap, quite a few units of what was called Vespa 150 TAP were produced: five hundred (although some sources raise the number to eight hundred). Yes, in two versions: the TAP 56 and the TAP 59.

They didn’t arrive in time to play their role in Indochina because the surrender of Dien Bien Phu had been the death blow to the French presence in Asia, so they were redeployed to another colonial conflict, Algeria, where they also didn’t have the prominence they deserved because their role was that of tank hunters, not fighting the terrorist or guerrilla actions that characterized that episode. In the mid-sixties, they were retired from service and today remain as something somewhat quaint.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 8, 2018. Puedes leer la versión en español en Vespa 150 TAP, la sorprendente moto con cañón antitanque de las guerras de Indochina y Argelia

Sources

Stephen Bull, Encyclopedia of Military Technology and Innovation | Giorgio Sarti, Vespa. 1946-2006: 60 Years of the Vespa |María Teresa Largo Alonso, La guerra del Vietnam | Wikipedia


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