Of the aircraft used by the major powers during the Second World War least has been written of those produced by Italy's aircraft industry. Indeed, so little detailed information has been published on the aircraft employed by, or under development for, the Regia Aeronautica, that there is a serious gap in the reference generally available concerning the military aircraft of World War Il. This account fills that gap. It covers aircraft used in service (as well as those under development) up to the fall of the Fascist Government in July 1943, and subsequently in Northern Italy while under German occupation. Many of the types described and illustrated appear for the first time anywhere.
The quality of Italian combat aircraft was frequently derided during
the war years, and it was generally supposed that the equipment of Regia
Aeronautica squadrons was considerably below world standards. In part
this was true, for while Italy's aircraft designers were undoubtedly
capable of much first class creative work, her aircraft industry never
acquired the ability to achieve quantity production without allowing the
basic design to become obsolescent.
Immediately before the war Italy was one of the leading exponents of
the high-performance attack bomber, some of which set up remarkable
"prestige" records, producing several types which were among the fastest
in their class at the time of their appearance. But, paradoxically, the
Italians were strangely sentimental with regard to fighter biplanes,
devoting a sizeable proportion of their production capacity to such
types long after they had been discarded by all other major air powers.
Although the Italian aircraft industry was loath to discard the biplane
for the interception role, it should not be thought that such machines
were developed to the exclusion of the fighter monoplane. On the
contrary, six distinct types of fighter monoplane made their debut in
1937-39, but their designers were forced to contend with one major
handicap, the lack of a high-powered, low-drag, liquid-cooled engine.
Reliance on comparatively low-powered, bulky, drag-producing, air-cooled
radials rendered adequate armour protection and effective offensive
armament secondary considerations where a reasonable performance was to
Thus, it was with obsolescent fighter biplanes and under-powered
fighter monoplanes that Italy's Stormi Caccia (Fighter Squadrons)
entered the war. The later availability of the excellent Daimler-Benz
series of liquid-cooled engines gave Italian fighter aircraft the much-
needed "shot in the arm", but even then inadequate production capacity
did not allow for the disruption in the flow of replacement aircraft
that would have resulted had any attempt been made to introduce
completely new fighters. In consequence, existing air- frames were
adapted to take the new power plants and, surprisingly, several of these
Italo-Germanic combinations proved to be exceptional fighting machines.
This was fortunate for the Italians, for no single-engine, single-seat
fighter of exclusive Italian wartime design ever reached the squadrons
of the Regia Aeronautica.
A substantial proportion of Italian combat aircraft production was
devoted to twin-engined and tri-motor medium bombers, but of the 13,253
military aircraft of all types produced in the years 1939--43 inclusive,
only 163 were four-engined heavy bombers, and after several relatively
abortive attempts at strategic bombing, the Regia Aeronautica confined
its bombing forces to tactical duties. Several light and medium bombers,
obviously influenced by German trends, were entering service or under
development at the time or the armistice.
The Italian aircraft industry never succeeded in developing mass
production techniques comparable to those developed by the other major
powers. In consequence, the total number of combat aircraft produced by
Italy was uninspiring. Whereas in 1940, the year of Italy's entry into
the war, production was nearly double that of the preceding year (3,257
aircraft as compared to 1,750 aircraft), no commensurate increase was
attained in 1941, when 3,503 aircraft were delivered. Subsequently
output fell off, dropping to 2,813 aircraft in 1942 and only 1,930
aircraft in 1943. Such production figures were inadequate to replace the
Regia Aeronautica's losses, let alone increase its first-line strength
and its numbers-which had comprised 1,458 bombers and transports and
1,160 fighters when Italy entered the war-gradually declined.
AERONAUTICA UMBRA: The Aeronautica Umbra S.A. of Foligno was
established in 1935, and was primarily concerned throughout the war
years with sub-contract work for other aircraft manufacturers. However,
Aeronautica Umbra's design office, which was responsible for the
unsuccessful T.18 single-seat fighter of 1938, designed by Dr. Ing. F.
Trojani, did undertake some original work, and a heavy fighter of
advanced and unorthodox design, the M.B.902 designed by Ing. Bellomo,
was actually built, although flight testing had not commenced when the
prototype was destroyed.
The construction of the M.B.902 was begun in 1942, and this single-seat
fighter was unusual in being powered by a pair or 1,250 h.p.
Daimler-Benz DB 605 liquid-cooled engines buried in the fuselage and
driving twin contra-props mounted outboard on the wings via extension
shafts. Featuring a retractable nose wheel undercarriage and carrying an
armament of four 20-mm. and two 12.7-mm. guns, the M.B.902 had an
estimated maximum speed of 429 m.p.h., and a maximum range of 1,056
AMBROSINI: The Ambrosini industrial group took over the Societa
Aeronautica Italiana in 1934, and in the immediate pre-war years its
Passignano plant was responsible for a successful series of light cabin
monoplanes. However, in 1939, the chief designer, Sergio Stefanutti,
developed an unorthodox tail-first, single-seat fighter, the S.S.4. This
canard fighter was powered by a liquid-cooled engine mounted aft of the
pilot's cockpit and driving a three-blade pusher airscrew. A
retractable nose wheel undercarriage was fitted and vertical surfaces
were mounted on the wing at approximately mid-span. An armament of two
20-mm. cannon was mounted in the nose and flight trials started late in
1940, but the characteristics of the S.S.4 were generally unsatisfactory
and the machine crashed at Guidonia in 1941.
The series of light monoplanes had culminated in the S.A.I.7 which, of
exceptionally clean design and powered by a 280-h.p. Hirsh H.M.508D
air-cooled engine, gained the 100-km. closed circuit record for F.A.I.
Category I aircraft with a speed of 244 m.p.h. in 1939. The S.A.I.7
possessed excellent flight characteristics. Stefanutti had designed the
aircraft with the alternative role of fighter trainer in mind, and a
fully militarized trainer prototype flew in 1941.
The original prototype
featured a long, faired windscreen which extended to the front of the
engine cowling to reduce drag, but the military trainer had an orthodox
cockpit canopy for the tandem-seated pupil and instructor, and the
German Hirsh was replaced by a 280-h.p. Isotta-Fraschini Beta R.C.I0.
Despite highly enthusiastic flight test reports, the need for increased
production of combat aircraft necessitated the shelving of the S.A.I.7
trainer, but the aerodynamic qualities of the basic design were such
that Stefanutti contemplated its adaptation as a lightweight interceptor
fighter. The initial single-seat model, the S.A.I.107, was built for
research purposes and, powered by a 540-h.p. Isotta-Fraschini Gamma, was
flown early in 1942. The S.A.I.107 was externally similar to the
S.A.I.207, which was built to full fighter requirements and carried an
armament of two 20-mm. cannon and two 12.7-mm. machine guns. In dives
the S.A.I.207 fighter attained an indicated air speed of 466 m.p.h. at
10,000 ft. (representing a true air speed of 596 m.p.h., or Mach 0.86),
and maximum level speed was 357 m.p.h., which was attained on the 750
h.p. provided by an Isotta-Fraschini Delta R.C.40 engine.
Encouraged by the remarkable performance of the S.A.I.207, Sergio
Stefanutti developed the more ambitious S.A.I.403 Dardo, which featured
increased wing area and redesigned tail surfaces. Carrying a similar
armament to that of its predecessor, the Dardo was powered by a 750-h.p.
Delta R.C.21/60 engine which provided a maximum speed ~ 403 m.p.h.
Large-scale production of the Dardo was planned, but the armistice
precluded further development.
Other wartime activities of the S.A.I.-Ambrosini concern were the
construction of the AL-12P troop- and cargo-carrying glider designed by
Aeronautica Lombarda S.A., and the development of the Ambrosini AR
"flying bomb". Conceived by General Ferdinando Raffaelli as an
anti-shipping weapon, the flying bomb was powered by a 1,000-h.p. Fiat
A.80 radial engine and was to have been flown off the ground by a pilot
who would then bail out, the bomb being directed to its destination by
remote radio-control. Flight tests began on 13th June 1943, and four
further examples were built at the Venegono plant.
Flight trials were
successful and a speed of 225-230 m.p.h. was expected, but the bomb was
too late to see operational service.
BREDA: The Societa Italiana Ernesto Breda was one of the largest
members of Italy’s wartime aircraft industry, having plants at Sesto S.
Giovanni (Milan), Torre Gaia (Rome), Apaulia and Brescia. From the early
'thirties this company was preoccupied with the development of ground
attack aircraft, and two types were in production when Italy entered the
war, the Breda Ba 88 and the more elderly Ba 65.
The Breda Ba 88 Lince appeared in 1937, and in December of that year
the prototype established several international records (with a load of
2,205 lb. flying 62 miles (100 km.) at 344.5 m.p.h., and 621 miles
(1,000 km.) at 326.3 m.p.h.). Initially the prototype was flown with a
single fin and rudder assembly, but poor stability necessitated the
adoption of a rather cumbersome twin fin and rudder arrangement which
marred the Ba 88s otherwise good aerodynamic form. The prototype was
powered by two 900-h.p. Isotta-Fraschini K.14 radials and was one of the
fastest aircraft in its class at the time of its appearance.
Production orders far the Ba 88 were placed far the Regia Aeronautica
and assembly lines were established by both Breda and 1.M.A.M.
(Meridionali) with deliveries commencing late in 1938. The production
version featured considerable redesign and was powered by two 1,000h.p.
Piaggio P.XI R.C.40 radials which provided a maximum speed of 304 m.p.h.
The first unit to receive the Ba 88 was the 7th Gruppo, which arrived
in North Africa in September 1940.
However, relatively poor performance
and inadequate defensive armament resulted in the Ba 88 being taken out
of production after only 105 aircraft had been built. In 1941 the Agusta
concern substituted two 840-h.p. Fiat A.74 R.C.38 radials for the
Piaggios, increased wing span and fuselage length, and began the
construction of a small series under the designation Ba 88M. Only about
three aircraft of this type were completed.
The Ba 65 was a single-engined, low-wing monoplane which was already
obsolescent when Italy entered the war, although it was employed quite
extensively during the North African campaign. The Ba 65 was produced
with both the 1,030-h.p. Fiat A.80 R.C.41 and the 900-h.p.
Isotta-Fraschini K.14 engines (although, far operational service, all
A.80-powered Ba 65s were re-engined with the K.14), and a few Ba 65bis
were produced with a dorsal turret containing a single 12.7-mm. machine
gun. The Ba 75 was an experimental prototype produced in 1939 far both
the reconnaissance and ground attack roles. Bearing a marked family
resemblance to the Ba 65, the Ba 75 was a shoulder-wing monoplane with a
stalky, fixed and liberally strutted undercarriage, powered by the
900-h.p. Isotta-Fraschini K.14 radial.
Another Breda design that progressed no further than the prototype
stage was the Ba 201, which designation was, during the war years,
erroneously applied to a supposed Italian-built version of the Ju 87B.
In fact, although undoubtedly influenced by Junkers trends, the Ba 201
was an entirely original design. Powered by a 1,050-h.p. DB 601 engine
and featuring an inverted gull wing and retractable undercarriage, the
Ba 201 was tested at Guidonia in 1940-41.
Filippo Zappata, responsible far the C.R.D.A. Cant series of bombers,
joined the Breda design staff in 1941, and was subsequently responsible
far several interesting projects, few of which were actually built. His
first design under Breda auspices was the Bz 301 long-range, all-metal
medium bomber derived from the Cant Z.1018 but not built. The Bz 302 was
a projected twin-engined heavy fighter of all-metal construction
abandoned in favour of the Bz 303 night fighter. The Bz 303 was a sleek
two-seat, low-wing monoplane of mixed construction with twin fins and
rudders. Power was provided by two 1,450-h.p. Piaggio P.XV R.C.60j2V
radials, and the exceptionally heavy armament of eight 20-mm. Mauser
cannon (four firing forwards and four firing to the rear) and a 12.7-mm.
machine gun in a dorsal position. Maximum speed was 360 m.p.h., and
range was 963 miles. The sole prototype was destroyed by the Germans.
Other Zappata projects included the Bz 304 twin-engined attack bomber,
the Bz 305 four-engined troop and cargo transport, the Bz 306
four-engined long-range bomber, and the Bz 401 light
reconnaissance-bomber seaplane. No prototypes of these aircraft were
CANT: The Cantieri Riuniti Dell'Adriatico stemmed from the famous naval
construction company of Cantiere Monfalcone when the latter entered the
aircraft industry in 1923. Initially the C.R.D.A. concentrated solely
on the design and construction of sea-going aircraft, but in the mid
'thirties the company produced two land- based medium bombers to the
designs of its chief designer, Filippo Zappata. These were the
three-engined Z.1007 and the twin- engined Z.1011, both powered by
840-h.p.Isotta-Fraschini Asso Xl R.C.15 engines. Five prototypes of the
Z.1011 were built, but the bomber was under-powered and inadequate
performance led to the abandonment of further development in favor of
Quantity production of the Z.1007 was ordered in 1939, and in addition
to the C.R.D.A.'s Monfalcone plant, various other manufacturers, such as
Piaggio and I.M.A.M. (Meridionali), established production lines. The
production model, the Z.1007bis Alcione, differed from the prototype in
having three 1,000h.p. Piaggio P.XIbis R.C.40 radials, and was unique in
being produced with both single and twin fin and rudder assemblies. The
former has hitherto been incorrectly referred to as both the Z.1007ter
and Z.1008. Of wooden construction, the Z.1007bis Alcione was a very
efficient aeroplane, although inadequately armed, and was built In large
numbers far the Regia Aeronautica, serving on most fronts on which this
force was engaged. The Z.1007ter was externally identical to the bis,
differing only in having 1,100-h.p. Piaggio P.XIX radials, and the
Z.1015 was a further version with 1,500-h.p. Piaggio P.XII R.C.35
radials, both produced in small quantities.
Concurrently with development of the production models of the Alcione,
Zappata was engaged on the development of the twin- engined Z.1018, the
first of several prototypes of which flew in 1939. The Z.1018 broke away
from previous C.R.D.A. practice in featuring metal construction,
although one of two Piaggio P.VII- powered prototypes tested an
alternative wooden fuselage. Several types of engines were installed in
the prototypes, one having Piaggio p .XV radials, another having Alfa
Romeo 135 R.C.32 radials, and yet another having Daimler-Benz DB 605
engines. Some prototypes had twin fin and rudder assemblies, but a
single unit was adopted far the production model which, powered by
1,400-h.p. Atfa Romeo 135 R.C.32 radials, began to appear in service in
1943 but was too late to participate extensively in the air war prior to
Another major type designed and produced by the C.R.D.A. was the Z.506B
Airone tri-motor, twin-float reconnaissance-bomber seaplane which was
developed in 1936 as a military version of the Z.506 commercial
floatplane (the Z.509 was a further commercial development differing
from the Z.506 in having 1000-h.p. radials), and the Monfalcone factory
had produced ninety-five Z.506B float- planes by the time Italy entered
the war. Production was subsequently undertaken by Piaggio. The Z.506B
was employed primarily far maritime reconnaissance, bombing and torpedo
attacks on shipping around Italy's coasts.
The Z.506S was an ambulance
and air-sea rescue version built by Piaggio. The Airone largely replaced
the earlier Z.501 single-engined high-wing flying- boat, although some
of these obsolescent machines were operated throughout the war. The
Z.508 was a tri-motor flying-boat derived from the Z.501 (three 840-h.p.
Isotta-Fraschini Asso XI R.C.40), but only a small production batch was
During the war years the C.R.D.A. also completed two prototypes of the
Z.511 commercial transport floatplane designed by Zappata before the war
and intended far use on Alitalia's South Atlantic route. Construction
of the Z.511 commenced in 1941 and the first prototype flew on 8th
September 1943. The first prototype was destroyed when it struck a mine,
and the second, commandeered by the Luftwaffe, was destroyed in
Germany. The Z.511 was powered by four 1,500-h.p. Piaggio P.XII R.C.35
radials and had a loaded weight of 74,957 lb. The Z.515 WIIS a light
reconnaissance floatplane powered by two Isotta-Fraschini Delta engines
and built as a prototype only.
CAPRONI: The Societa Italiana Caproni, founded by Count Gianni Caproni,
had its beginnings as far back as 1908, and between the two world wars
became the largest group of companies in the Italian aircraft industry.
The most prolific company in the group was the Compagnia Aeronautica
Bergamasca, which began aircraft design in 1927, joining the Caproni
group in the 'thirties. The chief designer was Cesare Pallavicino,
formerly chief designer to Ernesto Breda, and initially the original
designs produced by Bergamasca were given Caproni-Bergamaschi
designations, but later "Bergamaschi" was dropped and aircraft emanating
from the Bergamo works could only be identified by their type numbers,
which were in the 300 series.
The Ca 309 Ghibli light colonial monoplane powered by two 185-h.p. Alfa
115 engines was the first of a series of light twin-engined aircraft
produced for export and for the Regia Aeronautica in considerable
numbers. The Ghibli was produced before the war and was used for police
duties by the Aviazione Presidio Coloniale and the Aviozione Sahariana
as a light reconnaissance-bomber and transport (carrying two crew
members and six passengers).
Several production series were produced,
the final versions of the Ghibli to Ibe produced in quantity being the
Series V and VI, the latter having a forward-firing 20-mm. cannon
mounted in the nose. A progressive development of the Ghibli was the Ca
310 Libeccio, which differed from its predecessor main1y in having the
spotted fixed under-carriage replaced by rearward-retracting main
members, and two 430-h.p. Piaggio P.VII C.16 radial engines. The
Libeccio was produced primarily for export and was supplied to the
Croatian Air Force.
The Ca 311 differed from its predecessor in having the "stepped"
windscreen replaced by a more extensively glazed Blenheim I-style dose
section (although the second production series, the Ca 311M (Modificato)
reverted to a stepped canopy rather like that later adopted for the Ca
314), and the Ca 312 was a version with 630-h.p. Piaggio P.XVI R.C.35
radials. The Ca 312M possessed a similar nose to that of the Ca 311, the
Ca 312bis was a twin-float seaplane variant, and the Ca 312-1S was an
experimental torpedo floatplane. The Ca 313 was a further development of
the Ca 311 with two 650-h.p. Isotta-Fraschini Delta R.C.35 engines
which was used in limited numbers on the Russian Front.
The Ca 313 could
carry a torpedo under the fuselage, and eighty aircraft of this type
were exported to Sweden in 1940. According to Swedish sources, the Ca
313 was generally unsatisfactory and had to be rebuilt and extensively
strengthened after delivery. Forty-one Swedish airmen lost their lives
in accidents involving the Ca 313 and, after the war. the Swedish
Government took legal action against the Caproni concern but, in the
meantime, the Societa Italiana Caproni had gone into liquidation. The Ca
314, an improved version of the Ca 313, was the last of the
Bergamaschi-designed light twin-engined reconnaissance bombers to be
produced in quantity. It was also used in small numbers by the Luftwaffe
and, surprisingly, was to have been built under license in Germany as
the Ca 315 (featuring a modified nose similar to that of the Ca 316).
The Ca 316 was a twin-float reconnaissance seaplane powered by two
450-h.p. Piaggio P.VII C.16 radials and intended for catapult launching
from warships of the Italian Navy. The Ca 316 was designed to replace
the obsolescent I.M.A.M. Ro 43 float biplane, but only prototypes had
flown before the armistice stopped further development. The Ca 325 was a
medium bomber powered by two 1,250-h.p. Isotta-Fraschini Zeta R.C.42
engines projected by the Bergamo design office in 1939, and the Ca 331
was a further light twin-engined bomber reconnaissance aircraft. Of
all-metal construction, the Ca 331 was projected in two versions, the Ca
331A reconnaissance bomber and the Ca 331B night fighter, prototypes of
both versions being built and flown. The latter version was to have
been built in large numbers and carried an armament of four 20-mm.
cannon and four 12.7-mm. machine guns. Power was provided by two
825-h.p. Isotta-Fraschini Delta 4 in-line engines and construction was
all metal. A projected escort-fighter variant was to have had an
armament of eight 12.7-mm. guns. The Ca 365, projected in 1942, was a
progressive development of the Ca 331 with increased wing span, higher
loaded weight and two 1,250-h.p. Isotta-Fraschini Zeta R.C.42 in-line
The Ca 350 was a projected a11-metal two-seat fighter powered by a
1,250-h.p. Isotta-Fraschini Zeta R.C.42 engine. This project, dating
from 1939, had an estimated maximum speed of 402 m.p.h., but.
construction was abandoned. The Ca 380 Corsaro was a twin- fuselage
two-seat fighter with the crew seated in tandem in a cockpit carried by
the port boom (a similar arrangement to that adopted for the S.M.92).
The Corsaro was powered by two 1,550-h.p. Daimler- Benz DB 603 engines
and carried an armament of eight 2O-mm. Mauser cannon and a bomb load
under the wing section between the two fuselages. A prototype of the
Corsaro was flight tested but eventually destroyed by the retreating
Other wartime Caproni products included the Ca 135bis medium bomber
powered by two 1,000h.p. Piaggio P.XI R.C.40 engines which was built in
small numbers for export to Hungary; the Ca 183bis, an unusual
high-altitude fighter which was under construction in 1943 and powered
by a DB 605 engine and a 700-h.p. Fiat A.3D engine, the latter buried in
the fuselage aft of the pilot’s cockpit driving a compressor for a
Campini ducted-fan type unit, and the Ca 225, a two-seat low-wing attack
bomber powered by two 800-h.p. Isotta-Fraschini Delta R.C.1750 engines.
Neither the Ca 183bis nor Ca 225 was tested.
CAPRONI-VIZZOLA: The Caproni-Vizzola S.A. of Vizzola Ticino (Varese)
was originally the Scuola Aviazioni Caproni, one of the oldest flying
schools in Italy, but in the mid 'thirties its activities were expanded
and a fully-equipped factory built. The plant was primarily engaged on
sub-contract work building the Breda Ba 65 attack aircraft, but in 1938
its first original designs, the F.4 and F.5 single-seat fighters
appeared, powered respectively by the 1,025-h.p. Isotta-Fraschini Asso
121 R.C.40 and the 840-h.p. Fiat A.74 R.C.38 radial. Designed by Ing.
Fabrizi, a pre-production batch of fourteen of the radial-engined F.5
fighter was built immediately prior to Italy's entry into the war, but
like most of Italy's fighters of this period the F.5 was under-powered
(maximum speed being 326 m.p.h.) and under-armed (two 12.7-mm. guns).
Nevertheless, a squadron was equipped with the F.5 for a short period
and employed for the night defense of the area surrounding Rome.
One of the fourteen F.5 fighters was re-engined in 1941 with a
1,050-h.p. DB 601 engine. This conversion was designated F.6, but the
most interesting development was the F.6Mz powered by the 1,250-h.p.
Isotta-Fraschini Zeta engine (which was also to have been installed in
the Reggiane Re 2004). The F.6Mz flew for the first time late in 1942
and was to have carried an armament of four 12.7-mm. guns or two
12.7-mm. and two 20-mm. guns. Maximum speed was 404 m.p.h., but the Zeta
engine was insufficiently developed for operational service, and the
F.6Mz progressed no further than the prototype stage.
C.A.N.S.A.: The Costruzioni Aeronautiche Novaresi S.A. at Cameri, a
subsidiary of the Fiat Group, was primarily responsible for a series of
trainers, such as the C.5 and C.6 biplanes of 1940 and 1942
respectively, and the C.4 training monoplane of 1942. In 1940,
C.A.N.S.A. produced two prototypes of the F.C.12, which was intended as a
trainer for dive-bomber pilots but was also projected as a light attack
bomber. The F.C.12 was a tandem two-seat monoplane powered by a
600-h.p. Fiat A.30 R.A. in-line engine. Armament comprised two 12.7-mm.
guns in the fuselage and two 12.7-mm. guns in the wings, and a
manually-operated 12.7-mm. gun in the rear cockpit.
In the following year C.A.N.S.A. produced the F.C.20 reconnaissance
bomber powered by two 840-h.p. Fiat A.74 R.C.38 radials, and the
F.C.20bis, which was intended for ground attack and carried a 37-mm.
cannon in the Dose. The final development of the design was the F.C.20
quater of 1943, which was similar to its predecessor apart from the
engines, which were two 1,150-h.p. Daimler-Benz DB 601s. These increased
maximum speed from 261 m.p.h. to 311 m.p.h.
C.M.A.S.A.: The Costruzioni Meccaniche Aeronautiche S.A., with works at
Marina di Pisa, was another subsidiary of Fiat, being incorporated in
the Group in 1931. The major wartime activity of this concern was the
development and production of the R.S.14, the prototype of which was
flown in 1938. The R.S.14 was powered by two 840-h.p. Fiat A.74 R.C.38
radials, and the production models, the R.S.14B and R.S.14C, differed
from the prototype in having a ventral gondola to house torpedoes or
bombs. In 1942, this concern produced a land-based version of the R.S.14
A.S.14. Similarly powered to the floatplane, the A.S.14 was intended
for the ground-attack role and it was proposed to install a 45-mm.
cannon in the nose. The sole prototype of the A.S.14 was destroyed at
Guidonia in September 1943.
In 1939, C.M.A.S.A. had been building the C.S.15 powered by the
experimental 2,250-h.p. Fiat A.S.8 engine. The C.S.15 was de- signed for
an attempt on the World Air Speed Record and employed surface
evaporation cooling. Estimated maximum speed was 528 m.p.h., but
construction of the prototype was suspended when Italy entered the war.
The plant also produced a conversion of the Fiat 0.50 Freccia
single-seat fighter as a tandem two-seat advanced trainer.
designated 0.50B, and the prototype flew for the first time on 30th
April 1940, but no production of this version was undertaken. The
C.M.A.S.A. design office undertook the conversion of a Fiat 0.50 to take
the 1,050-h.p. Daimler-Benz DB 601 in-line engine. This conversion,
which flew on 15th August 1941, was designated 0.50Y and attained a
maximum speed of 360 m.p.h. It served to provide data for the Fiat 0.55
Centauro-one of the best fighters produced in Italy during the war.
Production ceased at the Marina di Pisa works after extensive damage had
been caused by bombing in 1943.
FIAT: Aeronautica d'Italia S.A. (Fiat) was perhaps the most powerful
organization within the Italian aircraft industry and certainly the most
prolific.Its aircraft were exported all over the world prior to the
war, and it supplied a substantial proportion of the equipment of the
Regia Aeronautica. It was also the last of the world's major aircraft
manufacturers to produce fighter biplanes. When Italy entered the war
many of her second-line fighter squadrons and attack elements were
equipped with the Fiat C.R.32 which, designed by Ing. Rosatelli, had
first flown as far back as 1933. Despite the fact that it appeared
antiquated even by standards obtaining in the mid 'thirties, this little
fighter biplane was produced in substantial quantities right up until
the outbreak of World War Il. Powered by a 600-h.p. Fiat A.30 R.A.
engine, it had a maximum speed or 248 m.p.h., and production versions
included the bis, ter and quater. It was also produced under license in
Spain as the Hispano HA-132-L Chirri.
The C.R.42 Falco was widely used as a bomber escort and
subsequently relegated to the assault role with two 220-1b. bombs. In
1940, C.M.A.S.A. built an experimental twin-float version of the C.R.42,
and another experimental version featured a retractable undercarriage.
This fighter was also exported to the air forces of Sweden and Hungary.
Ing. Rosatelli was also responsible for the design of the B.R.20 bomber
of 1936. A modern twin-engined low-wing monoplane, the B.R.20 was in
complete contrast to Rosatelli's biplane fighters and quantity
production was initiated. The initial production model was powered by
two 1,030-h.p. Fiat A.80 R.C.41 radials, and 350 machines of this type
were built between 1937 and 1940. In 1939 the B.R.20M (Modificato)
appeared, featuring a redesigned nose section and other refinements, to
be followed in 1941 by the B.R.20bis with 1,250-h.p. Fiat A.82 R.C.42jS
engines and increased armament (one 12.7-mm. gun in a power-operated
dorsal turret, and manually-operated guns in the nose, a ventral
position and side blisters). A total of 250 B.R.20M and B.R.20bis
bombers were built during the war years. The B.R.20 was dubbed Cicogna
Other Rosatelli designs were the C.R.25 and the C.R.23. The C.R.25,
which first flew in 1939, was designed as a long-range escort fighter.
It was powered by two 840-h.p. Fiat A.74 R.C.38 radial engines which
provided a top speed of only 273 m.p.h. at 13,123 ft., and a range of
932 miles. Armament comprised three machine guns and a 1,550-lb. bomb
load. Only a pre-production batch of ten C.R.25 aircraft was completed,
one of these being used as a personal transport by the Italian air
attaché in Berlin. The remaining nine aircraft were actual1y used for
convoy escort late in the war and were, on one occasion, engaged by
Beaufighters. The C.R.23 was a fighter-bomber powered by two 1,550-h.p.
DB 603 engines and carrying an armament of four 20-mm. Mauser cannon and
one 12.7-mm. machine gun. Construction of a prototype began in 1943 but
was not completed.
Also in the equipment of the Regia Aeronautica was the series of
single-seat fighters designed by Ing. Gabrielli. The first of these, the
Fiat G.50 Freccia, flew in prototype form on 26th February 1937, and a
small production batch was built far the Regia Aeronautica. The major
production model of the Freccia, the G.50bis, flew far the first time on
13th September 1940, and although similarly powered to the first
version (840-h.p. Fiat A.74 R.C.38) and carrying the same armament (two
12.7-mm. Breda-Safat guns) it had a reduced all-up weight which resulted
in a slightly improved speed and range, and relinquished the cockpit
canopy of the former. The G.50bis/A, which first flew on 3rd October
1942, was similar but carried two additional machine guns in under wing
gondolas. Approximately 350 G.50bis fighters were built, and some of
these were supplied to Finland and Croatia.
Reference has already been made to the G.50B trainer produced by
C.M.A.S.A., but a little-known experimental version was the G.50ter
powered by a 1000-h.p. Fiat A.76 R.C.40/S radial (first flown on 17th
July, 1941) which increased maximum speed from 293 m.p.h. to 329 m.p.h.
The G.51 was a projected development of the G.50 with an A.75 R.C.53
engine, and the G.52 was another projected version with a DB 601N engine
and derived from the G.50Y developed by the C.M.A.S.A. plant.
Progressive development of the basic Freccia design resulted in the
G.55 Centauro powered by the 1,475-h.p. Daimler-Benz DB 605 in 1942. The
Daimler-Benz engine was built under licence by Fiat . as the R.A.1050
and was installed in the production Centauro, deliveries of which began
in 1943. The initial production model, the G.55/0, carried an armament
of four 12.7-mm. Breda-Safat machine guns and one 20-mm. Mauser cannon.
This was succeeded by the G.55/I with two 12.7-mm. and three 20-mm. guns
and, finally, by the G.55/11 with five 20-mm. cannon. The G.55S
(Scorta) escort-fighter variant carried a long-range fue1 tank under the
fuselage. Production deliveries of the G.55 Centauro started too late
far this fighter to see active service with the Regia Aeronautica, but
production of this fighter was centered in the area of Ita1y occupied by
German forces and, after the armistice with Italy, production of the
Centauro continued in Northern Italy far the Fascist Repub1ican Air
Force fighting alongside the Luftwaffe. However, only about 100
Centauros had been delivered when Northern Italy was overrun by the
The G .56 was a further development of the Centauro, differing in
having a 1,510-h.p. DB 6O3A engine. The sole prototype of the G.56 flew
on 28th May 1943 and no production was undertaken. The G.57 was a
projected version which reverted to a radial engine, the 1,250-h.p. Fiat
A.82 R.C.24-52, but no prototype of this version was tested.
Ing. Gabrielli was also responsible far the G.12 transport, designed
before the war far high-altitude Alpine crossings. The first prototype,
the civil G.12C with accommodation far fifteen passengers, flew on 15th
October 1940, and the first military transport version, the G.12T, which
could carry twenty-two fully-equipped troops, flew on 15th May 1941. A
number of G.12T transports were delivered to the Regia Aeronautica,
being used notably during the Tunisian fighting, and the type was
powered by three 770-h.p. Fiat A.74 R.C.42 radials.
I.M.A.M. (ROMEO): The S.A. Industrie Meccaniche e Aeronautiche
Meridionali of Naples was, until 1936, when it was absorbed by the Breda
Group, the S.A. Industrie Aeronautiche Romeo. Before the war this
concern produced several original designs which were produced in
quantity, such as the Ro 37 and Ro 37bis two-seat reconnaissance
biplanes, the Ro 43 two-seat fighter-reconnaissance floatplane, and the
single-seat Ro 44 float-plane fighter biplane. The I.M.A.M. Ro 51 was
another of the single- seat interceptor fighter monoplanes produced to
meet similar requirements to those fulfilled by the Macchi C.200 Saetta
and the Fiat G.50 Freccia in 1937-38. Powered by an 840-h.p. Fiat A.74
R.C.38 radial, the Ro 51 was a low-wing monop1ane with a fixed
undercarriage and the usual armament of two 12.7-mm. Breda-Safat guns.
second prototype was fitted with a retractable undercarriage and a
third with a single central float and outboard stabilizing floats, being
intended as a replacement catapult fighter far the Ro 44. Neither water
nor land-based variants of the Ro 51 were placed in production.
In 1939, Meridionali projected a twin-engined single-seat fighter, the
Ro 57. Powered by two 840-h.p. Fiat A.74 R.C.38 radials, the Ro 57
carried two 12.7-mm. and two 20-mm. guns in the nose, and attained a
maximum speed of 304 m.p.h. Designed by Ing. Giovanni Galasso, the
I.M.A.M. Ro 57 began to leave the production lines of the Naples factory
early in 1942, and entered service in small numbers with Regia
Aeronautica fighter elements defending Italy. Performance of the Ro 57
proved to be inadequate for fighter requirements, and the design was
adapted for the assault role by the attachment of dive brakes and an
under-fuselage crutch for bombs up to 1,100 lb. The assault version was
designated Ro 57bis.
Two further original designs produced by Meridionali as prototypes were
the Ro 58 and the Ro 63. The Ro 58 was a two-seat heavy fighter similar
in conception to the Me 110. Powered by two 1,050-h.p. DB 601 engines
and of all-metal construction, the Ro 58 was flown at the Guidonia test
establishment in 1943 and proved to be a particularly promising design.
Armament comprised five forward-firing 20-mm. cannon (three in the nose
and two in a blister under the fuselage), and a manually-operated
12.7-mm. gun in the rear cockpit. Maximum speed was 376 m.p.h. at 17,000
ft., and normal range was 932 miles.
The Ro 63 was a small, three-seat artillery observation and liaison
monoplane powered by a 250-h.p. Hirsh H.M.508D engine. The Ro 63 could
take off in a distance of 200 ft. and land in 180 ft., and quantity
production orders were placed although deliveries had not commenced at
the time of the armistice. The major wartime activities of the
Meridionali plants at Bufola, Vasto and Capodichino were the series
production of Breda Ba 88, Cant Z.1007bis and Cant Z.1018 bombers.
REGGIANE: One of the many companies controlled by Count Gianni Caproni,
the Officine Meccaniche "Reggiane" S.A. of Reggio began aircraft
production in 1937 with a variant of the P.32bis (referred to under
Piaggio) which was originally deve1oped from the Ca 405C Procellaria.
The Ca 405C was designed by Reggiane to establish several international
records and powered by two 850-h.p. Isotta-Fraschini Asso XI. R.C.40
liquid-coo1ed engines, featured double-slotted high-lift flaps. The
P.32bis was virtually a redesigned bomber version of the Ca 405C, and
the variant built by Reggiane featured a 1engthened fuse1age.
Simultaneously, Reggiane built the Savoia-Marchetti S.M.79 Sparviero
The Reggie design office is best known for the series of single-seat
lighters that it produced for the Regia Aeronautica. The first of these,
the Re 2000 Falco I (readers will note that the Fiat C.R.42 was also
dubbed "Falco"), designed by Alessio and Longhi, was a delightful little
aeroplane, despite its bulky radial engine, and was demonstrated at
Guiding in 1938. Its powers of maneuver were undoubtedly superior to
those of its nearest competitor for production orders, the Macchi C.200
Saetta, and it was favored by the Guidonia test pi1ots, but the
prototype suffered structural deficiencies which, together with
difficult maintenance, dictated the choice of the Saetta far the Regia
Aeronautica. However, several export orders for the Falco I were obtained
(notably from Sweden, here it was designated J 20, and Hungary, where
it was known as le Héjja and later built under license), and production
However, with Italy's entry into the war, the Re 2000 was taken over by
the Regia Aeronautica, later serving in Greece and North Africa, where
its maneuverability delighted its pilots but its armament of two
12.7-mm. Breda-Safat machine guns proved totally inadequate. The
prototype had been powered by a 1,030-h.p. Fiat A.80 R.C.41 radial, but
this was primarily a bomber engine and not entirely suitable as a
fighter power plant. Consequently, the production model of the Re 2000
employed the 986-h.p. Piaggio .XI R.C.40 which provided a top speed of
332 m.p.h. at 16,400 ft. one Re 2000s were adapted as fighter/bombers
with a 440-lb. bomb slung under the fuselage, and in 1942 a series of
experiments l catapult launching were conducted from the deck of the
In 1940 a number of Daimler-Benz DB 601 engines of 1,050 h.p. had
arrived from Germany and been distributed to various Italian fighter
manufacturers far experimental purposes. One of these was installed in a
modified Re 2000 airframe, resulting in a considerable improvement in
climb rate and ceiling. This version was designated 2001 Falco II, and
production deliveries commenced in 1941, first being used by the 2nd
Gruppo Caccia and appearing aver Malta early in 1942. Initially, the
Falco II carried the same armament as s predecessor, but the first
production machines had two 7. 7-mm. machine guns in the wings,
supplementing the two 12.7-mm. guns, and in the Re 2001CN (Caccia
Notturna) night fighter and the 2001H, the 7.7-mm. guns were
supplemented by two 20-mm. Mauser cannon in underwing gondolas. The Re
2001G was a fighter/bomber variant carrying a 440-lb. bomb in an
under-fuselage crutch which cou1d be swung forward to clear the airscrew
for diving attack.
Development of the original radial-engined Falco I was continued
side-by-side with the inline-engined Falco II, resulting in the 2002
Ariete, which appeared in service in 1942. The Re 2002 Ariete was first
employed by the 5th and 50th Stormi (previously operating Ba 65 and Ba
88 attack aircraft) as a fighter/bomber, and was powered by a 1125-h.p.
Piaggio P.XIX R.C.45 radial enclosed in a neat, Mercier-style cowling.
The Re 2002 was used for a series of trials with a naval torpedo slung
under the fuselage, and when used for the escort tasks with an
under-fuselage drop-tank, was designated Re 2002S (Scorta). The Re
2002bis was an experimental version with a sideways-retracting
undercarriage which was later employed by the Re 2005 Sagittario.
The Re 2003 was an experimental tandem two-seat reconnaissance-bomber
variant of the original Re 2000. Only two prototypes of the Re 2003 were
built. The Re 2004 was a projected development powered by a 1,250-h.p.
Isotta-Fraschini Zeta R.C.42 (similar to that installed in the Vizzola
F.6Mz) with which a maximum speed of 385 m.p.h. was expected.
Availability of the German DB 605AL engine of 1,250 h.p. led to the
abandoning of the Re 2004 in favour of the Re 2005 Sagittario.
The Sagittario embodied considerable structural redesign, being fitted
with a longer fuselage and an outward-retracting under- carriage (first
tested on the Re 2002bis), and possessed the then exceptionally heavy
armament (by Italian standards) of three 20-mm. Mauser cannon and two
12.7-mm. Breda-Safat machine guns. The Sagittario was first operational
aver Sicily early in 1943 with the 320th Fighter Squadron (22nd Gruppo)
but did not reach operational service in large numbers, although it was
flown by German and Rumanian pilots after the signing of the armistice
between Italy and the AIlies. The Re 2005R was to have had a
supplementary propulsion unit of the Campini type; the Re 2006, with a
1,350-h.p. DB 603 engine, was on the drawing boards at Reggio when
SAVOIA-MARCHETTI: The Societa Italiana Aeroplani "Savoia- Marchetti"
was the major manufacturer of bombing aircraft far the Regia Aeronautica
from the early 'thirties, when the first of the Savoia-Marchetti bomber
tri-motors, the S.M.81 Pipistrello, was delivered to the bomber
squadrons in 1934. The Pipistrello first saw active service in Ethiopia
and subsequently in Spain. It was powered by three 700-h.p. radiaIs and,
with its fixed undercarriage, had a maximum speed of only 217 m.p.h.
Despite its obsolescence, the S.M.81 Pipistrello still served with the
Regia Aeronautica when Italy entered the war, being used as a night
bomber in Greece and North Africa.
The most important product of the Savoia-Marchetti factories was
undoubtedly the S.M.79 which, although possessing an earlier type number
than that of the Pipistrello, did not actually enter service until
1936. The S.M.79 originally appeared in 1935 as an eight-passenger
commercial monoplane powered by three 650-h.p. Alfa Romeo 125 R.C.35
radials but the initial bomber production version was powered by three
850-h.p. Alfa Romeo 126 R.C.34 radials. Simultaneously, the
Savoia-Marchetti design office developed a twin-engined version of the
design, the S.M.79B, featuring a completely redesigned nose section to
house a bombardier. The S.M.79B was intended primarily for export, and
in 1936 this type won the Military Aircraft Competition organised by the
Argentine Government-during this competition the Italian pilot executed
four /oops-and was awarded an order. The S.M.79B was powered by two
1,030-h.p. Fiat A.80 R.C.41 engines and had a maximum speed of 276
m.p.h. The S.M.79B was also built under license in Romania for Romanian
Air Force bomber elements, Romanian-built aircraft being powered by two
1,100p. Junkers Jumo 2llF liquid-cooled engines, but no machines were
delivered to the Regia Aeronautica.
The second production version of the S.M.79 (named Sparviero) was the
S.M.79-II powered by three 1,000-h.p. Piaggio P .XI R.C.40 radials which
increased maximum speed from 267 m.p.h. to 295 m.p.h. The final
production series of the Sparviero, the S.M.79-III, was an improved
version which was used after the armistice by the air arm of the
Republica Sociale Italiana, which operated in concert with the
Luftwaffe. The S.M.79-III could be employed as a torpedo bomber,
carrying one or two torpedoes externally under the fuselage, and some
machines had their defensive armament augmented by a forward-firing
20-mm. cannon. One Sparviero was used as a radio-controlled flying bomb
on 13th August 1942, being directed against British warships off the
Algerian coast. However, owing to a fault in the radio circuit, the
aircraft crashed in the mountains of K1enchela.
The S.M.82 Marsupiale, which appeared in 1938, entered service in 1941
and was employed as a long-range heavy bomber pending the availability
of the Piaggio P.l 08B. The Marsupiale was used far bombing raids on
Palestine and Bahrain Island, and had an unusual central bomb-aimer's
position which retracted into the fuselage.
However, the major wartime function of the Marsupiale was that of heavy
transport. In 1942 a Marsupiale flew from Rome to Tokyo with a Campini
power plant that had been purchased by Japan for research purposes.
The S.M.84 (which designation originally caused some confusion as the
S.M.84B was a twin-engined commercial transport of pre- war design
derived from the S.M.73) was a further bomber tri- motor used
extensively in the Mediterranean. The S.M.84, powered by three
I,000-h.p. Piaggio P.XI R.C.40 radials, was first reported in action
against British shipping in the Mediterranean in November 1941, and soon
after its appearance succeeded in scoring a torpedo hit on the
battleship Ne/son. The S.M.84 had a defensive armament of five machine
guns and could carry two torpedoes side by side under the fuselage.
The S.M.85 and S.M.86 were both light, twin-engined dive- bombers of
pre-war design the S.M.85 was powered by two 460-h.p. Piaggio P.VII
R.C.35 radials and a small production batch was built. However, the type
was unsuccessful and never used operationally. The S.M.86 was a
development of the S.M.85 powered by two 520-h.p. Walter Sagitta engines
which progressed no further than the prototype stage. Another
experimental prototype was the S.M.87 twin-float seaplane transport
version of the land- based S.M.75. The S.M.87 was powered by three
960-h.p. Pratt and Whitney SG 3G radials.
In 1943, Savoia-Marchetti completed the prototypes of four assault
aircraft, the S.M.89, the S.M.91, the S.M.92 and the S.M.93 (the S.M.90
was a commercial transport powered by three 1,400-h.p. Alfa Romeo 135
R.C.32 radials). The S.M.89 was virtually a twin-engined development of
the S.M.84, with the wings of the earlier aircraft and two 1,350-h.p.
Piaggio P.XII R.C.35 radial engines. The S.M.89 carried a forward-firing
armament of two 37-mm. cannon and three 12.7-mm. machine guns in the
nose, and a further 12.7-mm. gun in a dorsal turret. Maximum speed was
286 m.p.h. at 17,388 ft. The S.M.91 and S.M.92 were both two-seat
twin-boom fighter-bombers powered by two 1,475-h.p. DB 605 engines. They
differed primarily in that the S.M.91 possessed a central cockpit
nacelle between the twin booms, whereas the S.M.92 carried both crew
members in the port boom (like the Caproni Ca 380 Corsaro). The armament
of the S.M.91 comprised four 20-mm. cannon and two 12.7-mm. machine
guns (in the wing roots) firing forward, and one manually-operated
12.7-mm. gun far rear defence. The S.M.92 had a forward-firing armament
of three 20-mm. cannon (one firing through the airscrew hub of the
starboard engine and two mounted in the wing centre section) and four
12.7-mm. guns mounted in two pairs under each engine. Rear defence was
provided by a 12.7-mm. gun installed in a remotely- controlled barbette
mounted centrally on the tailplane.
Savoia-Marchetti's final wartime prototype was the S.M.93 dive-bombing
and ground attack aircraft. The S.M.93 carried a crew of two, the pilot
lying in a prone position, and power was provided by a 1,475-h.p. DB 605
engine. Armament comprised one 20-mm. cannon firing through the
airscrew hub, one 12.7-mm. gun in each wing and one manually-operated
12.7-mm. gun fired by the observer. Maximum bomb loads included 1,800
lb. under the fuselage and 1,400 lb. under the wings, and maximum speed
was 337 m.p.h. at 22,975 ft. On1y single prototypes were built of each
of the last four aircraft mentioned.
Saturday, December 31, 2016
Thursday, October 27, 2016
Sunday, August 14, 2016
The colony of Italian East Africa was to be short lived, and on 18 January 1941 Emperor Haile Selassie would cross the border into Abyssinia and raise his flag and march at the head of his irregular army into Addis Ababa on 5 May.
The second Italo-Abyssinian war was devastating for Abyssinia. Over three-quarters of a million people were killed, half a million houses were destroyed, along with six million cattle, seven million sheep and goats, a million horses and mules and two thousand churches.
By June 1940 the balance of power, as we shall see, was entirely in favour of the Italians. The bulk of British strength was concentrated to defend the Suez Canal, and so was in Egypt. There were small forces of both British and French troops in their respective Somaliland territories.
With France falling in May 1940, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and East Africa were all vulnerable. It was very much a question of what Mussolini would choose to do, as it seemed that the initiative was very much with him. It would have been relatively easy for the Italians to seize almost anything for very little cost.
There was an enormous danger with Italy joining the war for the Mediterranean to become untenable for the Allies. If Italy were to press its claim for control of the Mediterranean, then British forces bound for the Middle East would have to be brought all around Africa and come into the Middle East via the Red Sea. This, then, made East Africa all the more important. A strong and determined Italy, in control of the entrance to the Red Sea, could place Britain’s tenuous control of the Suez Canal, Egypt and vital oil assets in jeopardy.
Some attempts had been made to strengthen the Royal Air Force in the Sudan, British Somaliland, Kenya and Aden. Any such move, however, would only seek to weaken the already stretched forces in Egypt. There could be no hope of launching any offensive action in this theatre either on the ground or in the air. What assets could be spared in East Africa were little more than police forces and patrol units.
Although Italian East Africa was vast, it was not an ideal theatre of war with its enormous highlands, deserts and rainy seasons. Across the region there were areas that were virtually deserts, while others were sub-tropical. There were few good roads, and in the rainy season they became almost impassable. There were just two railway lines: one ran from the Eritrean port of Massawa to Asmara and Tessenei, and the other ran from Addis Ababa to Djibouti in French Somaliland.
Although Italian East Africa was some 600 per cent larger than Italy itself, it was effectively cut off. To send troops, supplies or ammunition meant that the vessels would have to pass Gibraltar and then proceed down the west coast of Africa, around the Horn and up the east coast towards Italian Somaliland. In any case, both the Italian army and the air force were designed primarily as a colonial force. There was only a single, regular, Italian division – the Savoy Grenadiers. There were also territorial units, or Blackshirt battalions. These were men predominantly middle aged, with little in the way of training or equipment, who had somehow been persuaded to avoid the humiliation of unemployment at home for the uncertain virtues of life in East Africa.
The bulk of the army was, however, native units. They were recruited on a tribal basis. They were not designed to fight conventional wars; they lacked mobility, were terrified of artillery fire and were led by aloof Italian officers on horseback. There were also native scouts and skirmishers, again led by Italian officers. Added to this there were also irregular troops, who tended to be used for police duties. To support the ground forces there were a handful of tanks and armoured cars, mostly old and poorly maintained. The artillery was also outdated, and even anti-aircraft defences were poor. In all, the ground forces could muster some sixteen battalions, a pair of armoured car companies, two squadrons of tanks, ten artillery units, 123 native battalions, eight units of cavalry, some light artillery carried by mules and some irregulars. In total the Italians could muster upwards of 280,000 men. This was increased to 330,000 in June 1940. Reservists had been called up, although most of these men were either too old or too poorly trained to be of any use. There was a shortage of rifles, and many native units had been deployed as road builders.
Considering the enormous distances involved and the poor infrastructure, added to which the troops available were not suitable for large-scale offensive actions, it was understandable that Italian commanders in East Africa were unwilling to consider much more than defence.
Facing the northern borders with the Sudan were some 100,000 troops. These were primarily concentrated from the Red Sea coast to the border facing Khartoum. Some 83,000 men were on the borders of French and British Somaliland, 20,000 men formed the Army of the Juba, 40,000 were in central Abyssinia and just a scattering of forces covered the rest of the Sudanese border and the border with Kenya.
Ground forces were supported by a small Italian navy based in the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab. They had two squadrons of destroyers and eight largely unserviceable submarines.
The Italian Air Force, or Regia Aeronautica, was of a reasonable size. The bulk of the aircraft were Caproni Ca 133s. They were perfectly designed for their original purpose. The aircraft were monoplanes with three engines, and could be used for bombing, troop carrying or cargo carrying. But they were only any good if the enemy did not have their own aircraft or anti-aircraft defences; simply they were too slow and too poorly armed.
Another common aircraft was the Savoia S.81. This was a three-engined monoplane with fixed undercarriage. It would turn out to be so poor that it would only be used at night. Another aircraft deployed by the Italian Air Force in June 1940 was the Savoia S.79. It was a three-engined monoplane with a retractable undercarriage. Two of its five machine-guns were 12.7 mm, and it was without doubt the best aircraft to be deployed by any force in the region. The third engine, in the nose, limited its effectiveness, particularly when it was used on bombing missions. Added to this, there were very few spare parts for the aircraft.
Two of the fighter squadrons were flying the Fiat CR.32. It was a biplane, and, as the Italians would discover, it was far too slow to catch their bombers. Three other fighter squadrons were equipped with Fiat CR.42s. It was to be one of the more successful Italian aircraft in the theatre. The Italian pilots would discover that it was more manoeuvrable than the Hurricane and faster than the Gladiator. The three squadrons of CR.42s – 412th, 413th and 414th Squadrons – would have mixed fortunes. The best squadron was the 412th.
Another fighter squadron, the 110th, was flying Meridionali Ro.37bis, twin-seat biplanes. They were originally designed for reconnaissance, observation and army co-operation. They were to prove particularly useless when ordered to intercept enemy aircraft.
The most powerful striking force of the Italian Air Force in East Africa was, of course, the three main bomber groups. The fighters were scattered all around East Africa. Generale Pietro Pinna was the air commander in East Africa. His instructions on the outbreak of war were to hit any British airfields or ports within striking distance. The availability of bombs was to be a considerable problem. He would reserve his 250 kg bombs for stationary ships in port. Ships at sea would be attacked with 50 kg bombs.
In all, across Italian East Africa, there were nine Italian aircraft groups. Each of the groups could have from two to eight squadriglie. Broadly speaking, the strength of one of these was similar to an RAF flight. However, the Italian fighters were usually in the larger squadriglie, and these could be as large as an RAF squadron.
The Italian Air Force was organised into three distinct areas. Comando Settore Aeronautico Nord (Air Sector Headquarters North) was based in Asmara in Eritrea. The 26th Group could muster twelve Caproni Ca 133s (11th and 13th Squadriglie). These were based at Gondar and Bahar Dar. The 27th Group had the 18th and 52nd Squadriglie, also with a dozen Ca 133s at Assab. The 118th Squadriglia, also part of 27th Group, with half a dozen Savoia S.81s, was also based at Assab. At Zula was 28th Group with the 10th and 19th Squadriglie, and they had twelve S.81s. The 62nd and 63rd Squadriglie of 29th Group were based at Assab with a dozen S.81s. The rest of the group was scattered, apart from 413th Squadriglia, with its nine CR.42s at Assab. The 412th Squadriglia had four CR.42s at Massawa and five at Gura. Also at Gura was the 29th Group’s final squadriglia, the 414th, with six more CR.42s. At Agordat there was Gasbarrini Group, with twelve Caproni Ca 133s (41st Squadriglia and Squadriglia Dello Stato Maggiore Del Settore Nord).
On the western side of Italian East Africa, based at Addis Ababa, was the Comando Settore Aeronautico Ovest. The 4th and 44th Gruppi were based at Diredawa. The 4th Gruppo, consisting of the 14th and 15th Squadriglie, mustered some twelve Savoia S.81s. The 44th Gruppo, consisting of the 6th and 7th Squadriglie, had twelve Savoia S.79s. The 49th Gruppo, based at Jimma, was made up of the 61st and 64th Squadriglie with some twelve Caproni Ca 133s. Both the 110th and 410th Squadriglie were also at Diredawa; the 110th had nine Ro.37bis and the 410th had nine CR.32s. Based at Addis Ababa was the 411th Squadriglia, also with nine CR.32s, and Squadriglia Dello Stato Maggiore Del Settore Centrale with six Ca 133s. The 65th Squadriglia had six Ca 133s and was based at Neghelli, and the 66th Squadriglia was at Yavello with three Ca 133s.
Based around Mogadishu was Comando Settore Aeronautico Sud. This consisted of the 25th Gruppo, which had the 8th and 9th Squadriglie with twelve Ca 133s. Half of these were based at Gobwen, and the other half at Lugh Ferrandi. Finally, at Mogadishu were the seven Ca 133s of the Squadriglia Dello Stato Maggiore Del Settore.
The Italians also had a considerable number of transport aircraft. There were nine Savoia S.73s and a similar number of Ca 133s. There was one Fokker FVII and six Ca 148s. The reserve forces consisted of thirty-five Ca 133s, six CR.42s, five CR.32s, four S.79s and two Ro.37bis. In addition to this were aircraft that were currently under repair, and these included forty-eight Ca 133s, sixteen S.81s, eleven CR.32s and two of each of S.79s, CR.42s and Ro.37bis.
Although the numbers of aircraft presented an impressive total, one of the key problems was the position and the state of the airfields. The bulk of the airfields were at the edges of the Italian territories and therefore potentially vulnerable. Many of the airfields had also been designed primarily for use by Ca 133s, and as a consequence the runways were too short for S.79s and CR.42s. The crews were not, by and large, the most adept of pilots; few had decent navigation skills; maps were at a premium; few of the aircraft had radios, and this meant that it was difficult not only to communicate between ground and air but to co-ordinate the flights themselves.
Allied forces in the region were neither that impressive nor necessarily well positioned. In the Sudan, based at Erkowit, was the impressively named Advanced Striking Force of the RAF. It comprised 254 Wing, which had three squadrons, all of which had been supplied with the Vickers Wellesley. This was a single-engined bomber, and in every other theatre barring the Sudan it had already been phased out. No. 47 Squadron, commanded by Wg Cdr J.G. Elton, was actually based at Erkowit. At Port Sudan was Sqn Ldr A.D. Selway’s 14 Squadron, and at Summit was 223 Squadron, commanded by Sqn Ldr J.C. Larking.
Attached to 47 Squadron was D Flight of the Sudan Defence Force, commanded by Gp Capt Macdonald. They had been supplied with seven Vickers Vincent biplanes. On 3 June 1940 they were reinforced by nine Gloster Gladiators of 112 Squadron. They would be based at Summit and would be responsible for protecting Port Sudan and other bases in the Sudan. By August 1940 Air Cdre L.H. Slatter would be in position to take command of all forces in the Sudan, as part of 203 Group.
AVM G.R.M. Reid commanded both the ground forces and air assets in the Aden Protectorate. Reid’s responsibility was not only to deal with tribesmen in Aden, but also to protect vessels passing through the Red Sea. Based at Khormaksar was 8 Squadron, commanded by Sqn Ldr D.S. Radford. No. 8 Squadron had a flight of Vincents and a flight of Bristol Blenheims. No. 94 Squadron, based at Sheik Othman and commanded by Sqn Ldr W.T.F. Wightman, had a single flight of Gladiators. Working alongside 8 Squadron at Khormaksar was 203 Squadron. Wg Cdr J.R.S. Streatfield had Blenheim IVs, which had been converted to operate as long-range fighters. In June 1940 Blenheim Is of 39 Squadron were en route from India to Sheik Othman, and more Blenheim Is were coming from Singapore, as part of 11 Squadron. They were also due to set up at Sheik Othman.
To the south of Italian East Africa, in Kenya, there were no RAF units available at the start of 1940. In April, 1 Squadron of the Southern Rhodesian Air Force arrived at Nairobi and became part of 237 Squadron. They were equipped with Army Co-operation biplanes, mainly Hawker Harts, Hardies and Audaxes.
Additional air assets would be provided by the South African Air Force. In September 1939 the South Africans could muster sixty-three Hawker Hartebeests (these were converted Hawker Harts), eighteen Junkers Ju86s (these were former South African Airways airliners that had been converted into bombers and reconnaissance aircraft), six Hawker Fury Is, four Hawker Hurricane Is and a single Blenheim IF.
Britain had provided South Africa with several additional aircraft by May 1940, including Avro Ansons (maritime reconnaissance) and some Vickers Valentia Transports. A further ten Ju52/3M aircraft, belonging to South African Airways, had been requisitioned as military transports. The South Africans had also been able to create three squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes and Furies. The flights, commanded by Capt S. Van Schalkwyk, Lt B.J.L. Boyle and Lt S. van Breda Theron, became operational by the middle of 1940. The unit was commanded by Maj N.G. Neblock-Stuart.
On 13 May 1940 the pilots of the first two flights were transported to Egypt to be converted to use Gloster Gladiators. They were trained on Gloster Gauntlets. Once the training period was over, they would ferry their own aircraft south to Nairobi. Six days later, on 19 May, Maj R. Preller’s 11 Bomber Squadron, with twenty-four Hartebeests and a Fairey Battle, headed for Nairobi.
There was more reshuffling; 12 Bomber Squadron had their Ansons replaced by Ju86s, and along with 1 Squadron’s Hurricanes they too headed for Nairobi, arriving there on 25 May. The Ju86s were commanded by Maj C. Martin, and the Hurricanes were led by Lt Theron. Once 12 Squadron had arrived at Nairobi, together with 11 Squadron, they became 1 Bomber Brigade under Lt Col S.A. Melville. No. 1 Squadron’s Furies were disassembled on 26 May and ferried to Kenya on board the SS Takliwa, arriving in Kenya on 1 June. Two of 11 Squadron’s flights shifted to Mombasa.
By the second week of June there were forty-six South African aircraft, a single Rhodesian squadron and additional aircraft for liaison duties available in Kenya. No. 12 Squadron’s Ju86s were dispersed, with A Flight, commanded by Capt Raubenheimer, at Dar-Es-Salaam, B Flight at Mombasa under Capt D. Meaker, and Capt D. Du Toit’s C Flight remaining at Nairobi.
Completing the Allied air forces available was a tiny force in French Somaliland. This was the Armée de l’Air. It had eleven Potez 25 Army Co-operation biplanes, four Potez 631 reconnaissance bombers, three Morane 406 fighters and a pair of Potez 29 transport and liaison biplanes.
In July 1943, a coup ousted Mussolini from power. He was made captive by his enemies but rescued in a daring mission the following September 12 by German commandoes. The Duce thereafter reestablished himself in the north, at the town of Salo, where he set up the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI), the Italian Social Republic. Its chief purpose was to continue the fight against the Anglo-American invaders by creating a new armed forces, including the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana. Members of the former Italian Air Force responded virtually en masse to his call for volunteers. For example, of 66 Macchi MB.205 fighters still in service, all save half a dozen were flown away from the south. Less than 200 men out of the Regia Aeronautica's 12,000 officers and 160,000 NCOs flew for Marshal Badoglio's puppet Co-Belligerent Air Force (the Aeronautica Cobelligerante del Sud) operating at the behest of the Western Allies. In short order, most of these volunteers became disenchanted with their new superiors, who re-assigned them to transport duties on behalf of Tito's Communist partisans in Yugoslavia.
Meanwhile, the ANR's unexpected influx of volunteers fleshed out into one fighter group (the Gruppo Caccia Asso di Bastoni) composed of three squadrons, a bomber group (the 2° Gruppo Caccia "Gigi Tre Osei") of three squadrons, a torpedo-bomber group (the Gruppo Aerosiluranti Buscaglia Faggioni), the supporting Squadriglia complementare cl'allarme "Montefusco-Bonet," and the 2° Gruppo Aerotrasporti "Terraciano" for training. The Gruppo Caccia Asso di Bastoni defended industrial areas controlled by the RSI, intercepted enemy aircraft en route to southern Germany, offered close support for Italo-German land forces, and carried out missions outside the Salo Republic's immediate sphere of influence.
The ANR's ex-Regia Aeronautica warplanes were augmented by factory replacement production, provided especially by Turin's Fiat plant, and arrivals from Germany in the form of Fieseler Storch liaison planes, Dornier Do.217 medium-bombers, Messerschmitt Bf 109 interceptors, and Bf-110 ground-attack "destroyers:' In all, the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana operated no less than 56 different types of aircraft, from doddering CR.32 biplane veterans of the Ethiopian War to another Fiat, the finest of World War II. Described by Oberst Hans Petersen, inspection officer of the Luftwaffe's aircraft evaluation department, as "the best fighter in the Axis;' the G.55 was powered by a liquid-cooled inverted V-12, 1,475-hp Fiat R.A 1050 Tifone engine (a license-built Daimler-Benz DB 605A-1), enabling the sleek Centauro to climb almost 23,000 feet in under nine minutes. With a maximum speed of 417 mph at that altitude, and armed with three 20-mm cannons mounted in the engine and wings, plus two 12.7-mm machine-guns in the fuselage, the "Centaur" was a lethal bomber-killer that could equally compete with top Allied fighters.
Its baptism of fire came on June 5,1943, when the first few G.55s assigned to the 20° Gruppo of the 51°Stormo at Capoterra, near Cagliari, decimated an RAF attack against Sardinia. In early summer, they were transferred to the 353rd Squadriglia, joining two dozen more Fiats in the 2nd Gruppo Caccia Terrestre at Veneria Real. In defending Rome from American bomber streams, the Centaurs scored heavily against B-17 Flying Fortresses, while dealing handily with P-51 escorts. When Marshal Badoglio declared an armistice with the Allies on September 8, just 1 of the 35 new Fiats that had been delivered flew south to join his Co-Belligerent Air Force. The rest became part of the ANR's Squadriglia Montefusco, in November 1943, operating from Piemonte.
G.55 production resumed in the north, resulting in another 97 specimens until March 29, 1944, when the Montefusco was absorbed by the 1st Gruppo and transferred to Veneto. By then, the redoubtable fighter had made such a name for itself among Anglo-American pilots, they organized a special raid aimed directly at curtailing its further existence by carpet bombing the city of Turin, where the Fiat plant was located, on April 25. Civilian casualties were high, and the plant was heavily damaged, but only 15 Centaurs-some near completion on the assembly lines, others ready for delivery to the factory airfield-were lost.
On recommendations of German observers from their Ruestungs and Kriegsproduktion Stab (the Armaments and War Production Staff), further G.55 manufacture was dispersed across Monferrato, enabling workers in various towns and villages throughout the area to construct different specific parts, which were then brought together for rapid assembly in Turin. German efficiency measures also reduced Centaur fabrication from 15,000 to 9,000 man-hours per finished airplane. In all, 274 of the latest Fiats were produced by war's end.
The Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana eventually became so powerful, it could afford to send the 1° Gruppo Aerotrasporti "Trabucchi" to serve beyond Italy in the Baltic, at Spilve, near Riga, from whence its crewmen defended Latvia against Soviet invasion, until they were virtually annihilated by late summer 1944. Several hundred ANR crews training on Messerschmitt Bf.109s and Fiat interceptors in Germany were prevented by the Third Reich's deteriorating military situation from returning to Italy, opting to defend its capital city during the climactic Battle of Berlin. From mid-March to early May 1945, some of the latest G.55 Centaurs and Macchi Greyhounds threw themselves against an immense enemy air fleet of bombers and fighters, much to the alarm of Soviet pilots.
ANR maritime attacks continued until very late in the war. After several successful raids against American forces pinned down at the Anzio beach head, the Gruppo Aerosiluranti "Buscaglia Faggioni" relocated to coastal Greece, where its Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparrowhawks menaced Allied shipping, sinking a 5,000-ton British transport north of Benghazi, Libya, and another enemy freighter out of Rimini as late in the war as February 5, 1945. Ten S.M.79 Sparviero bombers formed an antishipping unit based at Ghedi, in Lombardy, beginning in October 1944. They celebrated Christmas Day by attacking an Allied convoy near Ancona, torpedoing a 7,000-ton freighter.
Outstanding was the ANR's 1st Gruppo "Asso di Bastoni," which made its debut on January 3, 1944, with the destruction of four P-38 Lightnings, minus casualties. Before March, its crews claimed 26 combat victories, mostly over Americans, for the loss of 9 comrades. On the 11th of that month alone, a dozen more of the foe fell under their guns, at the cost of three Italian airmen. A week later, 30 Macchi Veltros were joined by 60 Messerschmitt Gustavs of JG.77 to intercept 450 Allied bombers and dozens more escorting fighters. That the Axis crews achieved four "kills" for the loss of just one of their own against such opposition was remarkable.
By late summer 1944, ANR pilots were confronted by almost overwhelming odds, as evidenced by the loss on August 25 of Corporal Teresio Martinoli, Italy's top-scoring ace, with 22 confirmed combat victories. Even so, it was less the aerial competition offered by their increasingly outnumbering enemies in the sky, than the Italians' own lack of sufficient replacement parts and especially aviation fuel that grounded ANR aircraft, leaving them sitting targets for AngloAmerican warplanes.
From Italy's June 10, 1940, declaration of war against the Western Allies until the Badoglio armistice of September 8, 1943, Regia Aeronautica air crews accounted for 2,522 combat "kills, plus 74 Soviet aircraft claimed by the Comando Aeronautica Fronte Orientate, losing 15 of its own on the Eastern Front, largely through accidents in Russia's icy conditions. An additional 265 Western Allied warplanes were shot down by Mussolini's Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana between December 1943 and April 1945 for the loss of 158 Italian crewmen. These figures do not, of course, include enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground, in excess of 1,000 warplanes. Regia Aeronautica and Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana bombers sank approximately 80 Allied warships and more than 200 freighters, damaging another 500 vessels of all types, many of them beyond salvage.
The measure of this achievement, plus the courage and skill of Italian crews, is self-evident in the technical inferiority of the aircraft they mostly flew against numerically superior opponents. Officially, both Italian air forces in World War II combined produced 100 aces, each one scoring a minimum of five "kills" in the air. These figures are misleading, however, as destroyed aircraft were not credited to individual pilots but instead to their own squadrillia until later in the war. Airmen who demonstrated exceptionally high skills were commonly reassigned from frontline service to become instructors or promoted into the Regia Aeronautica's command structure, a policy that explains the low number of kills credited to Italian flyers relative to the aces of other nations. Fascist Italy's most outstanding military aviators were not allowed to remain in combat operations for as long as their foreign contemporaries, and the "kills" they did make often went uncredited.
The last fighter missions on behalf of the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana were carried out by the 2nd Fighter Group "Gigi Tre Osei" on April 19, 1945, when, in a final gesture of defiance, its crews went down fighting against impossibly high numbers of the enemy, taking several Lockheed Lightnings, P-51 Mustangs, and Supermarine Spitfires with them into eternity. Nine days later, Mussolini was dead. Shortly before his arrest and execution by Communist partisans, he told a despairing colleague, "There is no shame in defeat. The only disgrace is cowardice. We have nothing to be ashamed of."
Sunday, March 13, 2016
Fiat CR42 downing a Gloster Gladiator
Immediately after the battle of Agordat on 1 February 1941, Gazelle Force was instructed to pursue the Italians towards Keren. The British were held up at the Barak river, where the Ponte Mussolini bridge had been partially destroyed. The main girders had been severely damaged and it was impossible to get motor transport over it. At this point the Barak was around 150 yards wide and consisted of a strip of very soft, deep sand that, without a temporary track, vehicles had no hope of crossing.
The Italians were not about to make even this difficult task easy for the British, as they had laid a large number of mines around the approaches to the bridge and were covering the minefield with machine-gun posts and an artillery piece. This small rearguard was quickly overwhelmed by field artillery, which allowed the British to lay their track, and by the evening of 2 February Gazelle Force, along with six light tanks and the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, was just five miles from Keren.
In the skies on 1 February, 1 SAAF Squadron’s fighters had broken up an attack by five S.79s near Agordat. By this stage the Italian Air Force was in a parlous state. Since the middle of January it had lost seventeen aircraft due to enemy action, three more had been destroyed in accidents and twenty-four more were out of commission until at least March, due to the severity of the damage. This now meant that the Italian Air Force in East Africa could muster just thirty-seven Ca 133s, fifteen CR.42s, fourteen CR.32s, seven S.79s, six S.81s, two Ro.37bis and one S.82. The Italians by this stage also knew that it was suicidal to launch Ca 133s against any Allied target unless they were protected by fighters. It was the view of the Italian command that if air activities continued at its present level of intensity for another fortnight the Italian Air Force would virtually cease to exist.
There was another Italian casualty on 2 February when a patrol of 3 SAAF Squadron Hurricanes flew a sortie to Afmadu. The pilots, Capt J.E. Frost and Lt Hewitson, saw nothing on their first sortie, but on their second they spotted a Ca 133 on the ground. Frost strafed it and set it on fire. By now 3 SAAF was based at Aligabe and was very much at the forefront of the push.
Meanwhile, on the ground, as Gazelle Force pressed on from Ponte Mussolini they encountered a good road heading north-east over rolling terrain. Ahead of them was an escarpment, literally the entrance into Eritrea. The escarpment seemed to stretch for miles, and indeed for the last few miles before Keren the road ran through a narrow valley, with the escarpment on the left and an enormous spur on the right. It would be in this valley and the surrounding heights that the battle of Keren would be fought. There were Italian observation posts all above the valley, some as high as 2,000 ft. During daylight hours nothing could move without being seen. The valley was bare; a handful of trees and some scrub and no other cover. The valley was wide; between half a mile and a mile and a half. The road itself ran along the south side of the valley as far as Mount Dologorodoc, where it turned sharply to the north over a bridge and then uphill to enter the Dongolaas Gorge, which was no more than 330 yards wide. Above was Fort Dologorodoc, and here was a wide part, known as the Happy Valley. The only entrance for real traffic was over the bridge.
In the north wall of the valley was the Acqua Gap, flanked to the east by Mount Zelale, known as the Sphinx due to its shape. Fort Dologorodoc, guarding the entrance to the gorge, was overlooked to the east by Mount Falestoh, to the north-east by Mount Zeban and to the north-west by Mount Sanchil. Fire could be brought down on the fort from any of these summits.
To the north-west of Mount Sanchil were a series of features that would play an important role in the battle – Brig’s Peak, Sugar Loaf, Saddle, Near Feature, Hog’s Back, Flat Top Hill, Mole Hill, Mount Samanna and Mount Amba. All of the mountains were steep, covered in boulders and scrub, there were no paths and some took as much as an hour and a half to climb.
The railway running from Agordat to Keren ran along the north side of the valley. When it reached Dongolaas Gorge it had climbed a third of the way up the lower slopes of Mount Sanchil. The railway would be of enormous use, particularly to the 4th Indian Division.
When Agordat fell, Keren was believed to have been held by just a single colonial brigade. The British believed that if they moved quickly they could overrun Keren before the Italians poured reinforcements into it. Unfortunately, intelligence revealed that by 2 February the Italians had in fact already reinforced Keren. A colonial brigade and part of a Grenadier division had been brought up from Addis Ababa.
By now the British were at the first major Italian roadblock in the Dongolaas Gorge. The Italians had sited units to cover the position. Any British that drew close to it came under immediate fire. A reconnaissance was sent out, and although the British tried to rush the roadblock on 3 February, they were unable to get past. The 2nd Camerons worked their way towards Brig’s Peak and secured Cameron Ridge. Meanwhile Skinner’s Horse was sent around the right flank, and units probed into the Happy Valley to try and find a way around the block.
Storming the Italian positions at Keren was not a task that the British could take lightly. Added to the natural strength of the Italian positions, the temperature was also rising daily. Both the British and the Italians knew that the engagement at Keren would be decisive. A surprise attack by the British was unlikely, as the Italians had good observation posts and the air force was still active. The British knew that this would not be an easy assault. Keren was indeed a tough nut to crack. Any casualties now would be incredibly difficult to replace.
The British hunted for a way past the block; in fact the 3rd Central Indian Horse hunted for a way through some sixty miles to the south, and reached Arresa, which No. 2 Motor Machine-gun Group of the Sudan Defence Force had reached. They found that Arresa was a possibility, but they could see how difficult the route was, as the Italians had abandoned nearly all their vehicles along here in their retreat from Barentu. It would take time to build a road through here, and every wasted hour would give the Italians an opportunity to move troops down and make Arresa as difficult as Keren.
The expected rains would also make the route impossible. The British hunted to the north and found nothing, and they came to the gradual realisation that only at Keren was there any real option.
On 3 February Hurricanes of 3 SAAF Squadron scrambled over the Dif area. Later Lt Marsh escorted Hartebeests of 41 SAAF Squadron on an attack on Afmadu. Marsh engaged one of five CR.42s that came up to intercept, but it evaded him in the clouds. Capt Frost, based at Aligabe, on his third sortie of the day, saw three Ca 133s bombing a British camp at Dif. He dived to attack, making a frontal attack on the third Ca 133. He was then bounced by two CR.42s. Frost evaded them and swung around to try and catch the Ca 133s again. As he came in for another attack the CR.42s tried to intercept him. He fired a burst of machine-gun fire into one of them. The CR.42 pulled up and then spun down, crash-landing in a ball of flames. Frost then turned to attack the bombers again. The Ca 133s broke formation, and as Frost closed with one of them the pilot baled out and the controls were taken over by the co-pilot, who managed to crash-land the bomber. Frost now tackled the second bomber, which burst into flames and crashed. He now moved on the third one, shooting at it in two passes and then seeing it crash-land. British ground troops took eleven Italian air crew prisoner.
Over Eritrea, six Gladiators of 1 SAAF Squadron landed at the new airstrip, codenamed Pretoria. They took off again at 1145 to attack Italian positions around Gondar. They spotted an Italian landing-ground near Azozo, and on it were five Ca 133s. The Gladiators came down and began strafing the Ca 133s, which were being refuelled and loaded with bombs. The Gladiator pilots claimed that they hit and blew up all five, but the Italians later only admitted to one.
Peeling away from the Italian airfield, the Gladiator pilots saw another airfield, with CR.42s taxiing to take off. Also on the ground were a number of S.81s. The Gladiators got in one strafing attack before the CR.42s engaged them. In the ensuing dogfight Capt Le Mesurier and Capt Boyle each claimed to have shot down a CR.42. In the fight Lt Smith’s aircraft was badly damaged and he had to make a forced landing at Azozo.
One of the CR.42 victims that day was Sergente Maggiore Enzo Omiccioli. Omiccioli was originally of 410 Squadriglia, but had been recently flying with 412 Squadriglia. He was shot down during the attack on Gondar, and was posthumously awarded the Medaglia D’Oro for his actions while flying a CR.32 on attachment to 411 Squadriglia, when he shot down Lt Rankin of 40 SAAF Squadron in a Hartebeest. He had also shot down two Blenheims when he was with 410 Squadriglia, and four when he was with 412 Squadriglia.
On 4 February, 1 SAAF Squadron launched three Gladiators and three Hurricanes for an attack on the airfield at Bahar Dar. As they approached the airfield they saw three Ca 133s on the ground. Capt Driver shot one up, and Lt White and Lt Coetzer claimed another one each.
Meanwhile, four more Hurricanes of 1 SAAF Squadron were on escort duty with Wellesleys to attack the area around Gura. They encountered three Blenheim IVs of 14 Squadron. Immediately the South African pilots took the Blenheims to be enemy aircraft and launched an attack, damaging one so badly that it had to crash-land at Port Sudan. The Hurricanes then peeled off to attack four CR.42s. Maj Wilmot attacked one at low level over Asmara, believing that he saw it crash among some buildings.
A pair of Blenheim IVFs launched an attack on Makale airfield from Aden. The pilots, Sqn Ldr J.M.N. Pike and Flt Lt Gethin of 203 Squadron, shot up three S.79s, and may well have badly damaged three others that were undergoing repairs. The Blenheims were then set upon by a pair of CR.32s of 410 Squadriglia, flown by Verones and Folcherio. The Italians hit both of the Blenheims, and one of them was forced to crash-land back at Aden.
There was considerable activity over Eritrea on 5 February. There were engagements between Hurricanes and Gladiators of 1 SAAF Squadron against as many as six CR.42s. In one of the engagements Capt Driver attacked a CR.42 and saw it crash-land close to Asmara. Meanwhile Lt Coetzer shot down another CR.42, while Capt Le Mesurier claimed a third.
Italian aircraft attacked the 5th Indian Brigade outside Keren on 6 February. From now on, 1 SAAF Squadron was assigned to provide cover for the ground troops over the area.
British bombers struck Keren and Assab, and on 7 February a CR.42 of 412 Squadriglia attacked and shot down a Hardy of 237 Squadron over Keren. The crew-members of the Hardy, Flg Off Taylor and Sgt Stowe, were both killed. The British lost a pair of Wellesleys flown by Flg Off Helsby and Sgt E.E. Blofield over Adi Ugri. The Wellesleys were attacked by CR.42s of 412 Squadriglia, and one of the kills was claimed by Maresciallo Soffritti. Pike and Gethin were active again on 6 February, and this time they attacked Alomata. They saw nine Ca 133s on the ground and shot up eight of them.
On the ground, the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade, less one battalion, was moved from Agordat to Keren. It was hoped that it could attack around the right flank of the Italian positions, through the Happy Valley and into the Acqua Gap. During the previous night the 3rd Battalion of the 14th Punjabis occupied Brig’s Peak, but was driven off on the afternoon of 6 February. The 1st Battalion of the 6th Rajputana Rifles occupied part of Cameron Ridge and held off vicious counter-attacks.
It was clear that the Italians were reinforcing the area. During the night of 7/8 February the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade moved into position in the Happy Valley, and in the early morning of 8 February the 4th Battalion of the 6th Rajputana Rifles launched an attack on Acqua Gap. It was wired and strongly held, and the battalion was only able to consolidate on a ridge just below it. It was a perfect target for the Italian Air Force.
Elsewhere, another attempt was made to secure Brig’s Peak, this time by the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Punjabis. It was to take it until 1500 on 10 February to succeed.
No. 14 Squadron launched four Blenheim IVs on 8 February to attack Asmara. One Blenheim was hit by anti-aircraft fire and shot down. Later in the day four Hurricanes of 1 SAAF Squadron launched a patrol over Asmara and were attacked by five CR.42s. Capt Driver managed to shoot one down and Lt Van Der Merwe damaged a second one.
There was disaster on Sunday 9 February when Agordat and the surrounding airfields were attacked by 412 Squadriglia. Five CR.42s were involved in the strafing and bombing runs. The Italians would claim five Hurricanes, five Hawker biplanes, two Wellesleys, two Gladiators and two other aircraft. In actual fact just two Wellesleys, two Hardies and two Lysanders were destroyed.
Throughout the period 10–12 February the Italians made numerous counter-attacks against Brig’s Peak and Cameron Ridge. The 3rd Battalion of the 1st Punjabis were driven off Brig’s Peak once again in the early hours. Meanwhile a second attack on the Acqua Gap was being launched. The 4th Battalion of the 11th Sikhs aimed to take Mount Zalale (the Sphinx) while the 4th Battalion of the 6th Rajputana Rifles attacked Hill 1565. Neither battalion was able to reach its objectives; in fact the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade was then pulled out. The second unsuccessful attack on the Acqua Gap made it clear to the British that shortage of transport, ammunition, rations and petrol was becoming a problem. The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade was pulled back to Barentu, and the rest of the 5th Indian Division was moved back to Subderat and Tessenei, where it could be more easily resupplied.
No. 1 SAAF Squadron was launching offensive patrols over Asmara on 10 February. Six Hurricanes got into a dangerous dogfight with five CR.42s in the cloudy skies. Capt Boyle managed to shoot down a CR.42, and Capt Driver, having chased a pair of CR.42s and then lost them in the clouds, shot at a third one and saw it burst into flames. Driver then received a number of hits and two CR.42s chased him, but he managed to evade and land safely at Agordat. In all probability, the Hurricane pilots had actually only shot down one Italian aircraft – a CR.32, almost certainly flown by Sergente Marlotti (412 Squadriglia). His body was found near the wreckage of his aircraft. His parachute had not opened.
No. 1 SAAF was determined to sweep Italian fighters from the skies over Keren, and on 11 February it launched no fewer than eleven fighters. On one of the patrols two Hurricanes were attacked by CR.42s. The CR.42s tried to slip away and were chased by Lt S. de K Viljoen. The South African pilot ran out of fuel and had to land near a village. He was lucky that the village was already in British hands; he managed to obtain some fuel, and took off the following morning, but promptly crashed. He returned to base on foot, and later his aircraft was recovered and repaired.
In all likelihood, the three CR.42s that had been encountered by the Hurricanes were being led by Capitano Mario Visintini. He was leading two young pilots. It was a disastrous sortie. Visintini was blown off course and was killed when he crashed into Mount Nefasit. The two young pilots had to make forced landings. Visintini was another desperate loss for the Italian Air Force. He had flown in the Spanish Civil War and had probably shot down a number of Wellesleys and Blenheims. In total he may have claimed fifteen to seventeen kills. Visintini was posthumously awarded the Medaglia D’Oro.
More aggressive combat patrols were launched once again on 13 February. Five Hurricanes engaged five CR.42s, and as one of the CR.42s tried to evade an onrushing Hurricane it began to belch smoke. It was attacked by Capt Boyle and set on fire. The pilot managed to bale out. Meanwhile Lt Duncan saw another CR.42 in trouble, and as he attacked it the pilot also baled out. In fact just one of the two losses was a CR.42 flown by Luigi De Pol (who was badly wounded and later died in hospital). The other aircraft was the last CR.32 in Eritrea, which was flown by Tenente Bossi. It was later claimed that Bossi had been machine-gunned while he was dangling from his parachute. In hospital he had to have an arm and a leg amputated, but he died as a result of his injuries.
An S.82 transporter was destroyed when the British raided Zula, and welcome reinforcements arrived with K Flight’s return from Egypt. The Gladiator flight was commanded by Flt Lt J.E. Scoular DFC. It would now be based at Mersa Taclai.