Saturday, September 1, 2012

Italians in the Battle of Britain

The Kingdom of Italy was a pioneer in aerial warfare, the first to use aircraft in combat and the first to theorize on the strategic use of aircraft for large-scale bombing. However, a lack of industrial development as compared to other powers and a shortage of resources meant that the Kingdom of Italy lagged behind some of the other European powers in the deployment of modern aircraft. When Mussolini and his Fascist Party came to power he made many promises about devoting greater attention to the Regia Aeronautica but delivered very little. When the Duce entered World War II by declaring war on France and Britain, most Italian aircraft were still out of date. Nonetheless, Italy had the experience, the talent and the determination to make a respectable fight for the air over the battlefields and soon after war began, received a new incentive to take to the skies. Only days after Italy entered the conflict a group of British Wellington bombers attacked Turin, intending on striking the headquarters of Fiat and the manufacturing center. They missed, however, in spite of encountering absolutely no resistance. There were no air raid alarms, no ground fire and no Italian planes to intercept them. Their attack missed its intended target but killed fourteen civilian men, women and children, and wounded thirty more before returning to France.

BR.20 Cicogna
The British also struck at Milan but with similar results. The Breda airplane factory, Pirelli tire factory and the steel mill were all undamaged but five bombs had hit a Catholic children’s home. Churchill had hoped that by getting in the first blow he would break the Italian will to fight but he could not have made a greater miscalculation. The Italian press labeled the raid as a “terrorist” attack since only civilians had been killed and injured and the whole public was outraged and support for the war skyrocketed as the people called out for revenge against the British. A retaliatory raid was launched on France within 24 hours but retribution against the British would have to wait until the conquest of France and the launching of the “Battle of Britain” by the German Luftwaffe. In September of 1940 the Corpo Aereo Italiano was dispatched to German-occupied Belgium for participation in the air war against Britain under the command of Air Marshal Rino Corso-Fougier. The force consisted of three Stormi of 87 fighters, 5 reconnaissance planes and 78 bombers. Later this was reinforced to include another Squadriglia of CANT Z.1007bi long-range triple-motor reconnaissance planes, a number of Caproni Ca.164 communication planes and one Savoia-Marchetti S.M.75 transport. They were based out of Melsbroek.

A great deal of nonsense has been written about the Italian participation in the Battle of Britain, mostly that it was of no consequence and that the Italians in their antique-looking planes were easily dealt with. In fact, they proved quite capable of holding their own and gave as good as they got. Of course, it was a modest contribution and no one was under any illusions as to the disadvantages Italy faced. However, because of that, their mission was a limited one and within the confines of that mission they were successful, overall, in accomplishing their goals. The aim of the Italian Air Corps was simply to bomb the harbor and port installations at Folkstone, Harwich, Foulness, Ramsgate, Margate and other areas on the south coast of England because it was clear from the start that the naval war effort was what kept Britain in the fight. In damaging these areas there was also the secondary goal of attracting British air resources away from the major cities and airfields that were under attack by the Luftwaffe.

CR.42 Falco
The Germans were initially not too impressed with their Italian allies but changed their opinion after being invited to test fly a Fiat Falco biplane which, despite its outdated appearance, they found to be quick, sturdy and extremely maneuverable. Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert Kesselring said that the plane was a “delight” to fly and quite capable of holding its own until Italian aircraft designers could produce something more modern. Still, there was no doubt that the Italians were at a great disadvantage. Their most dangerous enemy in the air was the Hawker Hurricane which was 102kph faster than the Falcos, more heavily armed and had a higher climbing rate. The British were able to intercept all Axis radio communications, alerting them when an attack was being launched and yet the Italian forces had trouble coordinating since the vast majority of their aircraft lacked radio equipment. However, by far, the biggest handicap suffered by the Italian fighters was their range and fuel capacity which often left them with as little as ten minutes of flying time over England before they had to turn back across the Channel to reach Belgium before exhausting their fuel. Nonetheless, they put up a hard fight in southern English skies though their first operation showed the effects of being unfamiliar with the area and lacking up-to-date navigational equipment.

After being prepared for action on October 22, Air Marshal Corso-Fougier launched the first Italian air attack three days later with eighteen Cicogna (Stork) bombers being sent to raid Felixtowne and Harwich just after dark. All the planes returned without suffering any losses and Italian newspapers trumpeted the success of their aircraft over Britain. A more serious attack was launched on October 29 in a daylight raid on Ramsgate. Fifteen BR.20 Cicogna bombers with fighter escort carried out the bombing attack successfully with only five Italian planes suffering damage from anti-aircraft fire. They flew very low in a tightly packed formation that amazed observers, especially as their Mediterranean paint jobs made them stand out against the dull sky of an English autumn. Later, on November 8, 22 G.50s on a patrol between Dungeness, Folkstone, Canterbury and Margate clashed with RAF fighters, putting up a spirited fight against veteran professionals so that neither side was able to claim any victories. However, that same day a flight of Hurricanes took a heavy toll on a group of Storks they picked up on radar approaching the coast.

On November 11 forty ‘Falcons’ escorted ten Storks in a daylight bombing raid on Harwich. However, there was bad weather which caused the force to be called off but they were still intercepted by the RAF. Three Falcons and three Storks were shot down with no losses for the British who were all veterans of heavy combat against the Germans. If there was any doubt about the sturdiness and reliability of the Italian aircraft these were disproved when a Canadian rammed a CR.42 with his propeller, beheading the pilot. In spite of this, the plane continued to fly straight back to Belgium to finally land in a field not far from its home base. On November 29, ten BR.20s took off for a daring nighttime raid on two critical British seaports, loaded with bombs and without a fighter escort. They avoided detection crossing the Channel and split up at the coast with half going to hit Lowestoft and the other half Great Yarmouth. At Lowestoft they hit Richards Shipyard and at Great Yarmouth they attacked the harbor works. All were under intense anti-aircraft fire but managed to score 61 hits on both installations, fighting off the belated RAF fighters sent to intercept them and all returned to Belgium without loss.

Air Marshal Corso-Fougier
By December the RAF was stretched to the limit and the Italian Air Corps returned to bomb Harwich almost without opposition though, as always, fire from the ground remained heavy. The British tried to counter-attack the Italian air base but had little effect. On January 2, 1941 Corso-Fougier sent a quartet of Stork bombers against Harwich for a nighttime raid but they ran into snow crossing the Channel, forcing two to turn back but the other two carried on, reached Harwich, catching the British completely off guard and delivering their bomb load, causing considerable damage to the port. That was to be the end though as only a few days later Italian air forces began pulling out of Belgium due to their being sorely needed in North Africa and other areas. Two squadrons still stayed behind until April 1941 but their mission was effectively over. They had dropped 54 tons of ordinance on the enemy, with 883 missions by the fighters alone and suffered a negligible 22% damage rate. Only 2 bombers had been lost to ground fire and only 10 Falcos had been shot down. In 1,800 hours of flying time with 1,076 operations carried out with a loss of only 21 airmen. For their total loss of 15 fighters and bombers they had taken down an equal number of superior British aircraft in the fight. In short, despite great disadvantages, they had done their duty and done it well.

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