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.