Fascist Poster from 1938 Inviting Young Men to Try Out for the Air Force
Italian participation in World War II started late and ended early. Italy only entered into combat when the Germans had rolled their Blitzkrieg over France and were conducting the final maneuvers that led to the armistice of 22 June 1940. The members of Benito Mussolini’s Grand Council, with the assent of the king, declared war on their Gaulish neighbors and attacked. The main action took place in the air with the Regia Aeronautica or Royal Air Force making attacks on French fortifications and airfields. The bombing and strafing raids were largely ineffective however because while the Italian air arm looked good in propaganda films, it deployed few modern types and of those — few proved themselves efficient in combat. The obsolescence of Italy’s air-inventory had its roots in Mussolini’s participation in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the Nationalists. In 1936 the Regia Aeronautica deployed an air arsenal that included up-to-date types, like the Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 trimotor bomber and the Fiat CR.32 biplane fighter. The latter acquitted itself marvelously against the inferior French and Russian aircraft fielded by the Republicans. The Cucaracha, as it came to be called, represented the perfection of the biplane interceptor and could also undertake ground-attack and close-support duties. A Fiat V-twelve with six cylinders in each bank propelled the sleek, streamlined airframe pulled through the air by a two-bladed metal propeller. The CR.32 had a maximum speed of about 230 miles per hour, fast when Italy introduced the type in the early 1930s. The Cr.32’s two machine guns stood as adequate for the time. The SM.81 followed the planform of a Savoia-Marchetti airliner, which meant that it had not begun life as a proposed military type. Again, SM.81 performed adequately considering the opposition, as it had in the Italo-Abyssinian war of 1935 – 37, against no opposition at all. Italy sent other types to Spain, including the Breda 65 ground-attack aircraft, which even managed to score a few victories in air combat, a role for which its designers did not intend it.
Poster Advertising the Italian Aeronautics Exposition in Milan in 1934
When Italy entered World War II, these types still served in quantity. The “new” types just entering the inventory had been designed in the mid-1930s on the lessons “learned” from the Spanish involvement. The numerically preponderant fighter of the Regia Aeronautica in 1940 was the Fiat Cr.42 Falco, an improved Cucaracha with a radial engine, and still adhering to the biplane pattern. The aeronautical authorities had decided that maneuverability, not speed, made for air superiority. A biplane will maneuver better than a monoplane, but at the cost of slower speed. Two monoplane fighters had entered service: The Fiat G.50 and the Macchi 200; both had open cockpits, radial engines, and an inadequate armament of only two machine guns. A third consigned itself to the category of export fighter, the Reggiane Re.2000, but the Air Force relented, accepting a few alongside its Fiats and Macchis. Trimotors meanwhile dominated the bomber inventory – the SM.79 and the CANT Z-1007. Only the twin-engine Fiat Br.20 Cicogna equipped bomber squadrons in significant numbers, but time had already rendered the Cicogna obsolete. In the Italian attempt to join the Luftwaffe in the bombing campaign against Britain the BR.20 suffered losses simply in getting to the Belgian airfields from which they were supposed to launch their raids. Cr.42s escorted the BR.20s on their raids over England, but never managed to shoot down a defending Hurricane or Spitfire. One “new” type, the Breda 88 Lince, a twin-engine ground attack machine and dive bomber, looked modern, but failed in combat, achieving nothing, proving un-maneuverable, and sometimes even incapable of getting off the ground with a full bomb-load.
Fiat CR.32 Cucaracha
Although its pilots fought bravely and skillfully, the capability of the Italian aircraft industry to produce replacements fell behind attrition of the stock in combat. In minor theaters of war like East Africa and – for a time – the North African desert, the Regia Aeronautica held its own. The Cucarachas and Falchi found themselves in combat with Gloster Gladiators, an even match where outcome depended on the competence of the pilot. Once the RAF sent a quantity of Hurricanes and even Spitfires, not to mention the American Curtis P-40, into the desert, the Regia Aeronautica squadrons quickly found themselves suffering heavy attrition. The Macchi 202 likely outmatched the Hurricane and equaled the early marks of Spitfire, but there were never enough of them. Once Allies gained victory in the desert and began their assault on Sicily and the Italian boot, and despite the fact that three new top-grade fighter planes (Fiat G.55, Macchi MC.205, and Reggiane 2005) had entered Regia Aeronautica service, the fate of Italian military aviation became clear. The coup-d’état against Mussolini, supported by the king, resulted in the Armistice of Cassabile, which went into effect on 3 September 1943 and effectively took Italy out of combat although it bestowed on her the title of “Co-Belligerent.” In German-occupied Northern Italy, Mussolini kept fighting, but more or less defensively in the air against British and American bombers. After the war, Italy kept two of its Series 5 fighters in production, the G.55 and the Macchi 205. Italy kept flying these machines until the early 1950s and sold them Argentina, Syria, and Egypt.
Fiat Cr.42 Falco
The foregoing prose sketches the state of military aeronautics in Italy from 1930 – 1945. In these years Italy produced dozens of types of military aircraft in prototype form or in small production runs (this scattering of effort was one of the reasons why the nation could never delivery enough of its best machines). But my purpose in this essay is personal and aesthetic rather than historical or technical. Around 1968 or 70 my Uncle, David van Westen, who worked as a tool maker at Northrop, an airframe manufacturer in Southern California, let me borrow his copy of Italian Civil and Military Aircraft 1930-1945 by Jonathan W. Thompson. The topic of Italian aircraft has fascinated me ever since and I have collected about a dozen books on the Regia Aeronautica, some concentrating on a single aircraft type, like the Falco or the Macchi models 202 and 205, the latter being a version of the former with a much more powerful engine. Even the ugly machines attracted me – for their blatant disregard of aesthetics – but the sleek machines, even when they performed poorly in combat, riveted my attention and in all probability led to the conscious awakening of my aesthetic perception. I was also already at this time a voracious reader and a beginning listener to so-called classical music – excluding, ironically, Italian opera. An airplane possesses a sculptural aspect. And speedy aircraft require a low-drag profile, which early airplanes like the Wright Flyer distinctly lacked. Clément Ader’s steam-powered Avion III, from 1897, however, with its bat-like wings, looks if not exactly sleek at least imposing. Futurism, an aesthetic movement one of whose centers was Italy, celebrated the machine, its dynamism, and its pleasing form. Futurism undoubtedly affected airplane design in the 1920s and 30s, especially designs for racing hydroplanes, which competed for speed records during that period.
Macchi MC.72 Record-Breaker
The Schneider Trophy Race went back to 1913. It was in the late 1920s and early 1930s, however, that the Schneider competition hit its peak. The main contenders, Macchi and Supermarine, attached high-output engines to slim fuselages. The pilot sat low in the cockpit so that the windscreen could be as minimal as possible. In silhouette both the S.6 and the Macchi M.33 – and later the Macchi M.72, which boasted a contraprop – emphasize a long fuselage tapering to the rear with the engine resembling a slim arrowhead. The Supermarine S.6 and the Macchi M.33 could reach 350 miles per hour, while the M.72 set an absolute record of 469 miles per hour in 1931. Experience with the S.6 would yield the Spitfire; and experience with the Macchi M.33 and M.72 would yield the Veltro. Yet neither the Veltro nor the Spitfire could approach the top speed of the M.72. The engines of these racing floatplanes ran at maximum power over the entire course. They could not operate indefinitely but only in the short, short term. The engine filled the half of the fuselage forward of the cockpit and immense, redundant cooling systems, located in the wings and floats, had also to run at full capacity to keep the engine from seizing. Nor were the racing floatplanes built to maneuver. They flew at extremely low altitude, lacked the capacity to climb, and could turn only with difficulty. Not excluding the twin floats, which match the lines of the fuselage, these machines embodied elegance. They nevertheless provided the ideal form for their later fighter-plane equivalents.
Fiat G.55 Centauro
Three of the advanced Italian fighters employed the German-designed Daimler-Benz 601 twelve-cylinder inverted V engine. These were the Folgore and the Veltro, and the Reggiane 2001 Falco II, which carried no nickname. The Folgore retained the airframe of the Macchi 200 Saetta, an open-cockpit low-wing monoplane with a radial engine and retractable landing gear. The Saetta, which first flew in 1937, had a “tight” cowl protecting the engine. This gave the machine about as sleek a look as a pursuit plane with a radial engine could have. Compared with its contemporaries, The Fiat G.50 and the Reggiane 2000, also fitted with radials, the Saetta made a better visual impression. Installing the DB 601 to the 202’s forward fuselage required minor changes to the overall structure of the body and wings. These small alterations completely transformed the Saetta into an appreciably modern fighter aircraft. Because of the curvature of its wings, for example, it possessed an elegance that was not quite there in Messerschmitt 109 or the Curtiss P 40 Warhawk even though the Messerschmitt used the same engine in its early models. Installation of the DB 605 required additional changes, making the MC. 205 Veltro, the successor of the Folgore, even more stylish than its precursor. The Veltro had two companion types and the three were known together as the Series 5 fighters. The DB 601 also drove the Falco II from Reggiane. Seen from the side, the Falco II’s canopy sits farther forward than that of the Folgore, over rather than behind the wing, somewhat diminishing the beauty of the design.
CANT Z.501 Gabbiano
It is the case that even the non-sleek Italian aircraft of the period cast their spell on me, such as the lumbering trimotor bombers and the numerous seaplanes, both float planes and flying boats. Flying boats, because they must have a streamlined hull, can advertise themselves as awkward and elegant at the same time. Take the CANT Z.501 Gabbiano, inducted into the aircraft roster in the mid-1930s and still equipping squadrons when the war began. A single engine reconnaissance and bomber aircraft, the Gabbiano lifted its wing into the parasol position high above its hull. The single engine positioned itself mid-wing over the fuselage by means of a complicated system of struts and wires; behind the engine, in the extended nacelle, was a rotating dual machine gun turret. The designers put another turret in the bow of the boat-hull and a third behind the glazed cockpit. The Gabbiano looks formidable. Its maximum speed, on the other hand, was only 150 miles per hour; its cruising speed much less. It lacked maneuverability and presented enemy fighters with a sitting duck of a target – or rather a sitting gull, as Gabbiano means “gull” in Italian. From the Italian seaplanes of the late 1920s and early 1930s including the Gabbiano the Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki took his aesthetic for the charming film Porco Rosso (1992). CANT also built the Z.506, a large trimotor floatplane torpedo bomber and reconnaissance machine which presents a measure of nobility, especially in flight. The CANT seaplanes were built of stressed plywood, making them lightweight. The Z.506 served with the Italian Coast Guard until 1959.
Fiat G.55 Centauro in Italian Social Republic Livery
The Series 5 machines conformed to a plan to field fighter-interceptors that could match or better the late-model Spitfires and the P 51D Mustang. The Veltro was the first among the trio, a visible modification of the Folgore. The Fiat G.55 Centauro and the Reggiane Re.2005 Sagitarrio could be said to have stemmed respectively from the Fiat G.50 Freccia and the Re.2001 Falco II. Mainly they were altogether new designs, the Freccia having been a radial-powered, open cockpit monoplane that came off the drawing boards in 1937 and the Falco II a hastily modified Re.2000 that swapped its radial engine for a DB 601. Italian industry struggled to produce the Series 5 fighters. After the September Armistice Italy divided itself into two parts, the Allied occupied South and the German occupied North where Mussolini’s new government declared itself. As the Fiat aircraft factory was in the North, manufacture of the Centauro could continue, but as with the Veltro, fewer than three hundred came off the assembly line before the German surrender in May, 1945. Only seventy-two Sagitarrios left the Reggiane assembly line. The Germans themselves used the Veltro and the Centauro and contemplated the manufacture of the latter in Germany. Rumors circulate that the Germans confiscated the available Sagitarrios and used them either for the defense of Berlin or for the defense of the Romanian oilfields. No Sagittario survived the war, but post-war Italy put the Veltro and the Centauro back into production.
Reggiane 2005 Sagitarrio
My sense of the Series 5 machines is that they were the most elegant fighters of the piston-powered era. I would rank them aesthetically in ascending order as follows: Centauro, Veltro, and Sagitarrio. The Sagitarrio conforms to the high-speed floatplane shape more than any other fighter of the Second World War, with its set-back cockpit, minimal rear fuselage, and elliptical wings (it omits the floats, of course). Seen in silhouette, the Sagitarrio signifies both speed and agility; seen in planform, its elliptical wings curve gracefully. The rear fuselage of the Veltro is not as slim as that of the Sagitarrio, but in other ways they resemble one another. The Centauro makes a formidable impression and exceeded the two other types in its technical features and reliability – and it is more elegant even than a late-model Spitfire. Seen in silhouette it lacks a degree of the sleekness of its competitors. This does not mean, however, that it is not sleek. Could aesthetics have mattered to the designers of the aircraft? To some extent aerodynamics and aesthetics converge. One could therefore answer the question positively. Mention should also be made of the Caproni-Vizzola F.6 although the planned production never took place and only a few prototypes were built; and of the Ambrosini SAI.403, a lightweight all-wood fighter, a few of which got into combat in 1943.
Breda 88 Lince
What do I mean by the “quaintness” of the Regia Aeronautica in World War II? I mean in part that the Regia Aeronautica was for show, for propaganda purposes. Mussolini was himself a pilot and his son Bruno served in the air force. Mussolini admired Italo Balbo (1896 – 1940), who served in the Fascist government and became chief of the air service. Balbo had organized the two extravagant trans-Atlantic crossings and returns in the early 1930s involving mass flights of twenty-four Savoia-Marchetti S.55 twin-hulled flying boats to Brazil and to the USA, where they were a highlight of the Chicago World’s Fair. During Mussolini’s rule over Italy, the Regia Aeronautica functioned as a showpiece on national holidays and political occasions, organizing mass flyovers to impress the people. Luce, the state-run “Movie-Tone News” of Italy, made scores of films of Regia Aeronautica activity, and continued to do so during the war. On YouTube one can view Luce films of Balbo’s mass flights. In a film of the Naval Review at Naples in 1936, with Hitler present, the Regia Aeronautica also gets involved; the viewer sees an airborne squadron of CANT Z.501s making mock attacks on submarines and destroyers. From the Italian participation in the Spanish Civil War, films exist of the Fiat CR.32 conducting ground-attacks against Republican positions. There are films about constructing the Savoia-Marchetti SM.82 Canguru trimotor bomber and cargo aircraft and the Reggiane Falco II.
Macchi MC.205 Veltro in Luftwaffe Livery
I also mean by “quaint” the fixation on tactics rooted in the aerial warfare of the World War I. This we find in the commitment to biplanes. In the case of the Fiat CR.42, this had an ironic late-war development. In all theaters, the Germans needed to fight partisan or asymmetric warfare. This entailed fighting at night against soldiers hiding in rural areas. Fast-flying daytime fighters like the Messerschmitt 109 or the Focke Wulf 190 proved useless, so the Germans ordered two hundred of the Italian biplane to serve in their anti-partisan night attack units. While they were flying the jet-powered Messerschmitt 262 and Arado 234, they were also operating a classical biplane fighter in the assault role. “Quaint” involves the Breda 88, already mentioned, a close-support machine designed to collaborate with advancing infantry and armor. The Regia Aeronautica needed an airplane for that specific function, but they wanted the prototype to be a record-breaker. The designers took the record-breaking assignment more seriously than the military assignment. This bias resulted in a sleek, twin-engine machine that indeed broke a number of records for speed and altitude. When the Breda 88 went to war, however, it revealed its military deficiencies. The cockpit was cramped; the machine would not turn properly in flight; and the engines were so underpowered once all the combat equipment was added that at times the Breda 88 could not take off. They were placed in alluring positions on airfields so that attacking Allied aircraft would be distracted from other, more valuable targets.
There were other “quaint” air forces in World War II – the Finnish, the Romanian, the Bulgarian, the Hungarian, and the Croatian. The last flew the MC.202 and the MC.205 and the first flew the Fiat G.50. The Romanians flew a variety of types, mostly obsolete German designs, but also confiscated French fighter planes, equally obsolete. The same story covers the Bulgarians, who however also used the confiscated Czech biplane fighter the AVIA B534, roughly the equivalent of the Fiat Cr.32, but with an enclosed cockpit. Werner Neulen tells the story of these air forces in his In the Skies of Europe (1998). The best account of the Regia Aeronautica is Chris Dunning’s Courage Alone – The Italian Air Force 1940 – 1943, a richly illustrated large-format book. I reviewed it here at The Orthosphere on 1 July 2020 under the title Lectures d’été (Sélections de Juillet). The present essay is an expansion of that three-paragraph review. Both Neulen and Dunning emphasize that, despite their inadequate mounts, the pilots and crews of the Regia Aeronautica fought bravely. It must have taken considerable courage to fly solo in a Falco biplane with the duty of escorting slow bomber aircraft on a raid over Malta – or to take a Reggiane 2000 to Russia in Winter with the mission to protect Italian infantry from attacks by the Red Air Force. The Regia Aeronautica suffered great losses in these military forays. After the Armistice there was Co-Belligerent Air Force that ran errands for the USAAF and the RAF. It mostly used discarded Allied aircraft like the Bell P-39 Airacobra and early model Spitfires.