After the disastrous battle of Caporetto, Balbo returned to the front, serving in another Alpini Battalion where he took command of the assault platoon. He courage in the face of the enemy eventually earned him one bronze and two silver medals for military valor as well as promotion to captain before the war ended. He studied in Florence after the war and he wrote a paper on “the economic and social thought of Giuseppe Mazzini”. He was, obviously, a republican at this stage but came to detest the socialists and the labor and trade unions they controlled because of their disorder and disrupting of the Italian economy and society. He was working as a bank clerk back in his home town when, in 1921, he became one of the first members of the National Fascist Party. He rose to be secretary of the Ferrara branch of the Fascist party and soon organized his own squad of Blackshirts which he led in raids on local socialist and communist groups as well as helping to break up strikes and protests organized by Marxists in the area. Balbo soon became known as one of the most active and forceful leaders in the Fascist movement.
|Balbo, second from left, with Fascist leaders|
The march, of course, turned out to be little more than a parade as political maneuvering had already secured the premiership for Mussolini before his Blackshirts ever entered Rome, however, Italo Balbo had secured his place as one the leading members of the Fascist hierarchy and was appointed one of the first members of the Fascist Grand Council in 1923. The following year he was named commander of the Blackshirt militia and in 1925 was made Undersecretary for National Economy. His real significance, however, came in 1926 when he was made Secretary of State for Air. Mussolini wanted to put a renewed emphasis on Italian aviation and Balbo was the man who would be in charge of this project. Balbo learned how to fly himself and set to work organizing what became the Regia Aeronautica. By 1928 he had been promoted to General of the Air Force, later Minister of the Air Force and, eventually, Marshal of the Air. Aside from organizing the military air branch, Balbo also encouraged exploration and endurance flights that would generate publicity for the air force, encourage more Italians to take an interest in aviation and raise the profile of Italy in the skies. As part of this campaign, Balbo himself led a trans-Atlantic flight in 1930 from Italy to Brazil and in 1933 all the way to Chicago where he was received with great fanfare and media attention. President Roosevelt even decorated him with the Distinguished Flying Cross.
When international tensions began growing over the threat of renewing the war in Abyssinia, Marshal Balbo began making plans for an invasion from his colony into Egypt-Sudan. If Britain decided to go to war with Italy over Abyssinia, or close the Suez Canal to Italian troop transports, Balbo wanted to lead the attack to force the vital chokepoint open. Ultimately, Britain did not intervene on behalf of Ethiopia but they did reinforce their military presence in the Mediterranean, however, there is reason to believe that had such a conflict occurred, Italy would have had a legitimate chance of success. At the height of the crisis, Balbo deployed his troops along the Egyptian border and due to the poor state of British military intelligence, they had no idea it happened and Balbo would have been in a perfect position to have launched an attack on Egypt and take the British forces completely by surprise. Britain only became aware of it all via Rome itself when Mussolini rejected the planned operation, which turned out to be unnecessary in any event.
Although it was hardly seen as a promotion, by being posted to Libya, Marshal Balbo actually had far greater autonomy than he would have otherwise enjoyed and used his position to circumvent the normal military bureaucracy to create his own elite unit of Libyan paratroopers. Balbo himself, along with his pilots, undertook reconnaissance flights over Egypt and the Sudan to familiarize themselves with the area in the event of war between Britain and Italy in north Africa. He was determined to be prepared for any eventuality. However, Balbo was also aware enough of the true state of affairs to oppose Italian involvement in World War II. In fact, he had come a long way from his days as a blackshirt leader and was increasingly conservative, realistic and even royalist. Balbo was the only leading member of the Fascist Party to openly oppose the racial laws aimed against the Jewish community and the only one to publicly denounce the Axis alliance with Adolf Hitler. As Italy moved closer and closer toward the prospect of world war alongside Nazi Germany, Balbo reversed his earlier republicanism and was grateful the monarchy had been preserved and hoped that the King would intervene to stop Mussolini from taking the country to war.
Some, then and now, believe that Mussolini set up the whole thing to get rid of Air Marshal Balbo because of his opposition to Fascist policies. However, there is no evidence to back that up and it certainly would not have looked good for Mussolini as such an action would have contradicted his boast that “Mussolini is always right” considering that he had earlier considered Balbo to be his successor as Duce. Balbo was buried near Tripoli but his body was moved to Italy in 1970 after the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi threatened to desecrate the bodies of all Italians buried in Libyan soil.