By Richard Henry
Date: 11 February 2021
Words: 3 971
The Ditsong National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg, South Africa owns a Beretta Model 1934 semi-automatic pistol with a chequered provenance. Richard Henry, the curator of small arms at the Museum found many inconsistencies regarding this pistol while completing and updating a new firearms data base. These are recorded below.
Brief History of Beretta
The firm Fabbrica D’ Armi Pietro Beretta S.p.A is the oldest manufacturing firm in the world. The company is recorded as first forging barrels in 1526. The same family have continued to make quality, reliable firearms to this day. The factory is situated in the village of Gardone in a valley known as Val Trompia, in the Northern Italian region of Brescia. The area was known as an iron-working centre from the Middle- Ages.
After the unification of Italy in 1861, the Beretta family returned to making military firearms. Many visitors came to the factory both on private and official business and these were accommodated at the Beretta Hotel built in the village.
Pietro Beretta established a hydroelectric plant on the Mella River to supply the factory with its own source of power. During the First World War 1914-1918 the company developed new arms, designed by Tulllio Marengoni to use with existing Italian Army ammunition. The Model 1915 was the first pistol produced by Beretta and by 1918 more than 4 000 of these semi-automatic pistols were being made a month.
Modern day Gardone
Italian Service Cartridge
The official Italian pistol cartridge from 1910 was the 9mm Glisenti. This cartridge had a case length of 19mm. It was identical in appearance to the German 9mm Parabellum used in the Luger. It was however not loaded with as much powder and made it significantly less powerful. It was sufficient for use with the simple blowback design of the Beretta Model 1915. If one used the 9mm Parabellum cartridge in the pistol it could lead to a serious accident.
Beretta Modello 1934
Between the wars Beretta produced the Models 1922, 1923 and 1931. In 1929 the German arms producer Walther, unveiled their excellent compact double action semi-automatic PP (Police Pistol) pistol and in 1931 the more compact PPK pistol. The Italian Army showed an interest in the Walther PP and PPK pistols. It appeared that Italian Army would purchase German Walther pistols and Beretta was worried of missing out a potentially large order. The Italian Navy at the time were using a small number of Model 1931 pistols. These were mechanically excellent and compact but no large military orders were forth coming. They needed to develop a new model and looked to their designer Tulllio Marengoni for the answers.
The Model 1934 pistol as did its predecessors used the direct blowback method to re-cock the pistol. This means that the explosive effect of the powder in the pistol cartridge both propelled the bullet down the barrel and re-cocked the pistol by blowing the slide backwards. The scientific principle of “for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction” was used. The blow back from the 9 x 19mm Glisenti cartridge was just able to be handled safely. Beretta decided to use a new less powerful .380 ACP cartridge, or as it was known in Italy as the 9mm Corto (short). This had a 2mm shorter case than the 9x19mm Glisenti. It was however still powerful enough to consistently re-cock the pistol.
The Italian Army were interested in the new Model 1934 but guided by the Walther PP safety feature, requested that they include a firing pin safety. Beretta tried to convince them otherwise. The army insisted and Beretta made 650 Model 1934 pistols with firing pin safety catches. The new Berretta was subjected to a series of tests by the armed forces and the police. It passed with flying colours and the military conceded that the fin pin safety was not required.
The Model 1934 pistol had a reliable feed and extraction action. It was a simple, dependable, light, compact pistol, which was easy to field strip and clean. Because of the few parts in the pistol, milling operations were few, and the manufacturing costs were minimal even though it was finish to a high standard. . This enabled it to be easily mass-produced. The grip was comfortable and the seven cartridge magazine had a spur on the lower forward side which rested against the lower parts of the soldiers pinkie finger. This gave a very solid grip for a small compact pistol.
The Italian armed forces decided that the Model 1934 would be their standard pistol even though a new cartridge, – the 9x17mm Corto would have to be introduced as the new standard cartridge. The compact Model 1934 was not as powerful as some of the other nations pistols but was utterly reliable.
The Italian police placed an order for one thousand pistols in 1935. This was followed by another order for 250 pistols for the Port Militia. The Regio Esercito (Royal Army) finally placed a large contract for 150 000 Model 1934 pistols in June 1936. The Model 34 was officially adopted into service on 16 October 1936. The serial number range for the Model 1934 started at 500 000. The next order for 80 000 pistols, was placed in early in 1938, this was followed by large order 165 000 pistols. Each pistol was issued in a leather holster and two seven round magazines. Officers had brown leather holsters and NCOs and men used a grey green holster. Thereafter orders were placed for the Regia Marina (Navy) and Regia Aeronautica (Airforce). The pistols were marked in the following way:
The serial number was stamped on the right side of the slide as well as on the frame and the barrel. The name P BERETTA – Cal. 9 CORTO Mo 1934- BREVETTATO was stamped on the top line of the left side of the frame. Below this on the second line was the place of manufacture GARDONNE VT. This was followed by the year of manufacture in both Arabic numerals and Roman numerals. The Roman numerals were according to the Fascist calendar which started on 29 October 1922. So for example, a pistol made before 29 October 1938 would have the Roman numeral XV and after 29 October 1938, XVI
For military Model 1934 Berettas one finds on the left side of the frame, below the hammer the acceptance marks: a crown and RE (Regio Esercito) for the army, RM (Regia Marina) for the navy, or RA (Regia Aeronautica) for the air force.
The Beretta was well liked by the Italian armed forces and was the most widely produced and issued Italian pistol of the Second World War 1939-1945. Because of its reliability, simplicity and compactness, it was also a prized and sought after spoil of war for both German and Allied soldiers.
The Museum’s Beretta Model 1934 Pistol Manufacture
The Museum’s Beretta Model 1934 Pistol with serial № 713860 was made between 29 October 1938 and 31 December 1938. This is evidenced by the Arabic date 1938 and the Fascist Roman numerals XVI. It bears the acceptance mark Crown over RE and was made for the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito).
The right side of the frame and slide clearly showing the Serial № 713860
Left side of the Museum’s Beretta Pistol showing the spur on the magazine
First Italian Owner is Unknown
It is unknown to what Italian Army unit or person the Beretta pistol was first issued to. It is most likely that sometime after July 1940 it was used by an Italian Officer serving in the Africa Settentrionale Italiana.
The Italians declared war on the Allies on 10 June 1940. Shortly afterwards the British raided the Italians and the Italians counter attacked the British from 9 September 1940. The British then attacked the 10 division strong army on 9 December during Operation Compass. By the mid-February 1941, the Allied forces had destroyed the Italian Tenth Army. About 130 000 Italians were made prisoners of war.
The Beretta is good enough to be used by a German General
On 6 February 1941, Maj General Erwin Rommel was appointed commander of the new Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK). The DAK was dispatched to Libya from 12 February 1941 as part of Operation Sonnenblume in support the Italian forces in North Africa. One of Rommel’s senior officers, stationed in Germany, was Major General Artur Schmidt.
Arthur Schmidt was born on Wednesday 20 July 1988 in the Bavarian Rhine District. In 1912, Schmitt joined the Imperial Schutztruppe and was posted to German South West Africa (GSWA). He fought against the South Africans in GSWA in the First World War and was captured.
At the start of the Second World War he commanded the 626 Infantry Regiment. On 19 June he was promoted to commander of the 555 Division. By the end of 1940 he was promoted to Major General. He was at first, the Chief Administrative Officer, stationed in Germany on behalf of the Panzergruppe Afrika. His task was to relieve Rommel and other field commanders of as much administrative work as possible and to provide a regular flow of trained recruits and supplies to the DAK.
From Late October 1941 he was made the commander of the combined Axis Division Bardia and was transferred to Libya. . He was responsible for the Sollum- Bardia sector. This included Sidi Omar, Halfaya Pass, Sollum and Bardia. He had some 4 200 Italians from the Savona Division and 2200 German under his command.
Schmidt was stationed at the well-fortified Libyan port Bardia. The combined German and Italian forces there had strengthened the defensive artillery and machine gun positions. These were well concealed and some had machine gun posts had concrete bunkers. The perimeter was protected by anti-tank ditches, barbed wire and landmines. Schmidt was in overall command and in command of the Italian forces in Bardia was Colonel Pierucci. It is presumed that Schmidt obtained the Beretta pistol from the Italians while at Bardia.
Stationed at Sollum, 35 km south of Bardia, was the overall commander of the Italian 55th Infantry Division Savona, Maj General Fedele de Giorgis.
The crest of the 55 Savona Infantry Division: Ref Wikipedia
During November 22 and 23 in the initial fighting of Operation Crusader, nearly 1 500 men from Savona Division were taken prisoner after fierce fighting.
On November 23, the 5th New Zealand Brigade, advancing east from Fort Capuzzo toward Sollum, cut off Axis positions at Sidi Omar-Sollum-Halfaya Pass, effectively isolating Bardia.
On 4 December 1941, the DAK started to retreat to the Gazala Line. Division Bardia was given instructions by Rommel to cover the Axis withdrawal as much as possible by containing as many Commonwealth forces on the Sollum – Bardia sector as possible. From early December, 1941, the supply situation gradually deteriorated, with food, water and ammunition becoming scarce. An air drop helped but was insufficient and irregular.
By 14 December 1941 the Germans and Italians were completely hemmed in at fortress Bardia receiving meagre supplies by barges from Benghasi. General Rommel authorised the defenders to surrender with honour after all ammunition and provisions had been exhausted.
The South African 2nd division under command of a police officer, Major General Isaac Pierre de Villiers was directed to contain and reduce Axis positions around Bardia. The South Africans with their headquarters at five miles from Fort Capuzzo, continued to maintain armoured-car patrols around the Bardia perimeter and between Bardia and Sollum.
Between 17 and 31 December, the South Africans initiated an intense harassing artillery, mortar and machine gun fire. Allied bombers intensified their bombing of Bardia.
The main South African assault force consisted of the 3 Brigade commanded by Brigadier General C.E. Borain, and included three battalions—the Imperial Light Horse, Rand Light Infantry, and the Kaffarian Rifles. In reserve at first was the 1 South African Police Battalion under Lt Colonel Robert (Bobby) John Palmer.
At 01H00 on the 2 January 1942, General Schmidt signalled General Rommel to inform him that his position was desperate. What was left of his ammunition dumps and provision supplies had fallen into Allied hands. Further resistance would mean a useless sacrifice of brave men. He was going to send an officer to negotiate surrender. Any remaining equipment would be blown up so as not to fall into Allied hands.
At 07h00 on a cold and blustering 2 January 1942, Lt Sanguinetti in a small car under a white flag was stopped at the South African perimeter and was taken to Lt Col Butler –Porter of the 1Bn Royal Durban Light Infantry.
Butler-Porter escorted Lt Sanguinetti to 3 South African Brigade Headquarters. Gen PI de Villiers at 3 Brigade HQ, bluntly informed Lt Sanguinetti that his terms for surrender were unconditional and that General Schmidt had better get to the 3 Brigade HQ by 10H00.
Butler-Porter and a Captain Bizzell as an interpreter, proceed to Bardia town to escort General Schmidt back to 3 Brigade HQ.
German and Italian post at the entrance of Bardia in Libya. – PK photo, 1941.
From: journal ‘Signal’, French edition, vol. 2, no. 22, 1941, p. 25.
Schmidt arrived punctually at 10H00 and was met by General de Villiers. Due to the strong wind they moved into a the rear seat of a Ford Fordor station wagon. Here de Villiers without any chivalry handed Schmidt his terms of surrender. Schmidt, able to read and understand English but poor at speaking it, accepted all the terms but one. Through the interpreter in the front seat of the car said he explained he had already given the order for equipment to be destroyed. It is in the back seat of a Ford C11ADF, Station Wagon/Heavy Utility, 4×2, (Fordor) that the first German General in the Second World War, surrendered to the Allies.
The surrender was signed in this Ford Fordor station wagon
A beautifully restored Ford Fordor showing detail
Major General Schmidt sitting next to Major General de Villiers. Note the Beretta Pistol in Schmidt’s holster
Ref: Official Photograph E 493
In the sequence of official photographs taken at the time, Photo E 493 clearly shows a
Beretta pistol in the Schmidt’s holster on his right hand side. The very next photograph E 494 show an empty holster.
Pistol owned by Colonel Bobby Palmer
General de Villiers was not interested in keeping the surrender pistol and handed it over to Lt Colonel Bobby Palmer, who won the Distinguished Service Order for his brilliant leadership at Bardia. Bobby Palmer later commanded the 3 South African Brigade and after the war he became the Commissioner of the South African Police.
Rommel recommended Schmitt for the Iron Cross. In Rommel’s view, Schmitt’s stand at Bardia had bought him crucial time to consolidate and withdraw his main forces from the deadly British pincers. Schmidt was send to Canada as a prisoner of war. He was transferred to England in 1946 but was only released in 1948. He died in 1972.
War Museum looking for interesting material
On 13 March 1943, Captain WA Bellwood, the Officer Commanding the War Museum, had written a draft circular in which he set out the aims of the War Museum and asked for all ranks to do what they can to assist in building up the Army section of the War Museum. A copy of this appeal for equipment was send out by the Deputy Chief of Staff, on 23 March 1943. This circular came to the attention of old 3 South African Brigade Commander, now 12 SA Brigade commander, Brigadier Bobby Palmer while in Egypt. Brigadier Palmer despatched the Beretta to Captain Bellwood who had an office at the Johannesburg Municipal Library. Captain Bellwood kept the pistol in a locked drawer of his office desk.
In July 1945, with the war in Europe over, Captain Bellwood left the Union Defence Forces to return to his civilian occupation of a journalist. A week before he left the Museum, he and his permanent force successor Major Jacobus Albertus de Wet, completed induction and signing over of the existing collections. De Wet was appointed on 13 July and the signing over the collection was completed on 16 July 1945. In later correspondence, de Wet states he saw the pistol in Bellwood’s desk drawer. De Wet assumed command of the War Museum on Monday 23 July 1945.
In late 1946, apart from much administrative work, De Wet was also responsible for the packing and movement of the collection. Equipment had to be moved from the Johannesburg Library, Milner Park Show Grounds and the City Engineer’s Department to the newly erected Bellman Hangars at Zoo Lake.
The Berretta Pistol is stolen or is it?
On Thursday 12 December 1946, Maj de Wet wrote to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) SA Police, at Marshall Square, Johannesburg, to inform the police that Beretta Automatic Pistol Serial № 713860 had been stolen out his office desk sometime during the previous week. He said he noticed the pistol was missing when he wanted to pack it for transport to the new War Museum location at the Zoo grounds. De Wet also wrote to the Chairman of the War Museum as well as the secretary to inform them of the theft of the Beretta pistol. On the 7 January 1947 the Police wrote to De Wet to tell him that after a thorough investigation, the police were unable to trace the stolen pistol or person responsible for its theft.
A new responsible person
On 1 February 1947 forty- nine year old, Brigadier George Thomas Senescall with no museum background officially became the first Director of the War Museum. For a week he leaned about Museums at the Cape Town Museum. His first working day was Monday 3 February. During the unpacking of the collection at the Zoo Grounds, the Beretta was found. At this time the Museum consisted of two empty Bellman Hangars with no storage facilities or secured area to keep the small arms in the collection. There was not even an office for the Director. A portion of the one of the hangars was closed off with wire fencing and this became the working as well as secured area. Display cases still had to be made for the many exhibits.
In 1950, for a reason that is not recorded, Brigadier Senescall handed the Beretta Model 1934 pistol with Serial № 713860 to a Mr J F Locke. Mr Locke thought that the pistol was a gift to him personally and registered the firearm in his name. He appears to have some knowledge of the pistol’s history and the Bobby Palmer connection. Other correspondence at the time also shows that Senescall did swaps of material. In 1974 correspondence, the then director George Duxbury, states that he had correspondence written in Brigadier Senescall’s handwriting that the pistol was on LOAN to Mr Locke. Brigadier Senescall died on Thursday 31 May 1951.
The George Duxbury early era
George Reginald Duxbury was 33 years old and the deputy director at the time of Senescall’s death. He became the acting director as of 1 June 1947 and his appointment as director was approved on 22 August 1951. There was much work to be done to catalogue and display the collection and the staff compliment was few. Staff numbers improved but from the 1960s there was a large turnover of staff.
Back to Bobby Palmer
Brigadier Bobby Palmer was a well- liked very competent Officer Commanding the 12 Motorised Brigade in Italy when the war ended on 2 May 1945. After the war he returned to the South African Police. On 1 August 1945 he appointed as the Commissioner of the South African Police, a position he held until 1951, when he retired. He died on 23 March 1957.
Major General Robert John Palmer SA Police Commissioner 1945-1951
In 1961/62 ex- soldiers, many who had served under Bobby Palmer, started a new MOTH shellhole at the Lombardy East Sports Club, in Johannesburg, named the Bobby Palmer Shellhole. The first Old Bill of the shellhole was J F Tucker. Mr JF Locke knowing the history of the Beretta pistol made some arrangement with Old Bill Tucker that the pistol could be displayed at the Bobby Palmer Shellhole.
A Little Confusing
On 4 April 1963 the Beretta Pistol was donated to the then South African National War Museum by the new Old Bill of the Bobby Palmer Shellhole, Mr Esposto. The thank you letter signed by George Duxbury thanks Mr Esposto for the Beretta Pistol which “General Schmidt handed to General Palmer as the surrender weapon at Bardia”. It appears that the pistol was not well documented on its arrival.
In 1973 an audit of the Museum highlighted many undocumented items. Commandant Duxbury found loan correspondence where Senescall had loaned the pistol to Mr Locke. On 13 December 1972, Cmdt Duxbury wrote to Mr Locke whom he knew, asking for the return of the pistol but quoting the wrong serial № 763860. Locke responded that Senescall had given the pistol to him as a gift and the he (Locke) had registered a pistol with Serial № 713860 in his name and had a licence to prove it. He also had no intention of returning the pistol. Duxbury asked him to reconsider otherwise the problem would be handed to the Museum lawyers. It is not known if Mr Locke made any attempt to return the pistol but if he had, he would have found the Old Bill Esposto had donated the pistol to the Museum nearly eleven years previously.
John Limrick Keene started at the Museum on 16 November 1966 as a technical assistant. He was assigned multiple tasks by Duxbury. After proving himself with precision work, he was later tasked with sorting out many of the collections especially the firearm collection. After the audit the outstanding firearms were documented and written up in the acquisition register in John Keen’s very distinctive handwriting. Against acquisition number 17382, John Keene had logged a Beretta Pistol Model 1934 with Serial № 713860. A detailed documentation card listing Mr Esposto (donor № 881) as the donor was completed.
The writer started to work with the firearms under Director John Keene in 2002. In 2009/10 the curators were informed by John Keene that the Auditor General required that all of the collections be listed and valued in an electronic database to conform to General Accounting Practice 103. It is during this intense period of listing the collections and ensuring precise documentation that the above inconsistencies came to light by researching old Museum documentation. Cross checking firearm serial numbers from 1940s typed lists against the electronic data base made it a lot easier to track the firearms in the collection and record the date of acquisition.
Barnes, FC Cartridges of the World Follett, Chicago, 1965
Hogg, IV & Weeks J Military Small Arms of the 20th Century Arms & Armour, London, 1981
Hogg, IV Jane’s Directory of Military Small Arms Ammunition Janes, London, 1985
Orpen, N War in the Desert Purnell, Cape Town, 1971
The South African National War Museum Annual Report 1962-1963 page 7
MOTH Transvaal Provincial HQ District Dugout & Affiliated Shellhole Directory 1961
MOTH Transvaal Provincial HQ District Dugout & Affiliated Shellhole Directory 1962
In Library File 369.2 (68) Moth entry 5
South African National War Museum Donor’s Letter 881 dated 4 April 1963 Ref: 63/ 3140
South African National War Museum Acquisition master card
Union Defence Forces Official Photographs, E 492, E 493, E 494