What's Happened to the Italian Air Force?

NOTE: Grateful acknowledgment is made to Coward-McCann, publishers, for permission to reprint excerpts on Douhet's Theory from the book, Command of the Air, by Giulio Douhet and translated by Dino Ferrari.

As the first month of this fateful year 1943 drew to a close, Italy's grand dream of an empire also faded before the resolute advance of Gen Montgomery's 8th British Army and, farther south, before the pincer-like junction of De Gaulle's Fighting French armies and those of Giraud's North African French. The great Italian dream had its inception long before the ascendency of Mussolini. In 1870, when the sunny kingdom was just nine years old, she purchased her first African colony; at the beginning of World War II, Rome ruled an empire of 1,239,112 square miles, an African territory more than ten times the size of the Italian mainland.

The greatest of these possessions were Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, the Libyan colonies that had been the breadbaskets of ancient Rome. Mussolini had done much to try to restore these lands to their former importance. But it is here that Italy's dreams are dying. It was here also that Italian hopes for mastery of her sunny skies crashed to earth many months ago. Il Duce's plans for an air armada were equally ambitious, and Italy went about the building of a great air force with the same resolve that was evidenced by the accretion of territories for her great empire.

The country might have been expected to enter into the war as one of the greatest of air powers, despite her weak war potential. From the time of Leonardo da Vinci, regarded by many as the father of flying, up to the time when Douhet brought forth his doctrine for aerial warfare, Italy has exhibited imagination and enterprise in her conquest of the air.

In the early part of 1908, almost a full year before the US Army purchased its first airplane, Lieutenants Calderara and Savoia made the first successful powered flights in Italy with a Wright airplane. The following year, several adventurous Romans went to France for flying instruction and piloted early Bleriot and Farman craft. It is not widely known that the Italians were among the first people to put the airplane to military use. During the course of the "forgotten war" in Libya in 1911, when Italy and Turkey clashed in dispute over the provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, they used Nieuport, Bleriot, Etrich, Farman, and Deperdussin aircraft for scouting and bombing. During these missions, several casualties were suffered as the result of Arab rifle fire, and Capt Alessandro Guidoni made several test flights in an armored Farman biplane. During the one-year war, which ended in victory for the Italians, several hundred flights were made over this hostile and difficult country — in all probability the first aerial reconnaissance operations.

By the time the Libyan War had ended, the air force had grown to fifty planes and 175 pilots. Seven airplane factories were in operation, and these included three manufacturers who are famous today — Macchi, Savoia, and Caproni. The Italians brought seaplanes into early usage; these proved useful because of the many lakes and the country's long coastlines. Throughout her participation in World War I, Italy's aviators acquitted themselves well on the side of the Allies. The war stimulated popular interest in aviation, and in 1919 Italy claimed to have the largest airline in Europe running between Venice, Milan, and Turin. Lighter-than-air craft were widely used until the famed Italia was overtaken by disaster in the Arctic in 1928.

Meanwhile, the country's aero researchers, headed by Guidoni, commenced a serious effort toward the development of speed planes for competition in the Schneider Cup races. No less than eleven different models and types were built for racing; of these, eight crashed and killed an equal number of Italy's finest airmen. This sweat and blood was not shed in vain, however. Maj Mario de Bernardi won the Schneider Seaplane Trophy in a Macchi seaplane in 1926 and retained the cup for two more years before being beaten by Britain's Stainforth. In 1933. Francesco Agello regained for his country the speed record with a 423 mile per hour dash. The following year he boosted the mark to 440.6 miles per hour in a beautiful Macchi-Castoldi low-wing seaplane powered by a Fiat tandem engine that turned contra-rotating propellers and developed some 2,800 horsepower. That was a lot of speed and plenty of horsepower in 1934; it is that even today. The mark stood for five years until it was broken in April, 1939, by a specially built German Messerschmitt landplane.

In the meantime, other quarters were expanding airlines and carrying out distance flights. The late Gen Italo Balbo led a formation flight of twin-hulled Savoia-Marchetti seaplanes across the South Atlantic in 1931, and two years later he undertook a mass flight over the North Atlantic with a larger number of improved Savoia-Marchetti SM-55X seaplanes. He gained world acclaim through this successful flight from Rome to Chicago and return.

In the meantime, other less peaceful pursuits were being followed at home. Clouds were gathering over Italy's usually sunny skies. Mussolini and fascism were in the ascendency. He believed in aviation and was himself a pilot of some ability. Il Duce's first move was the founding of Guidonia, a fair-sized city established for the furtherance of aeronautical research. A number of new plane designs were tested and put into production. To keep pace with this plane procurement the RUNA organization was subsidized by Mussolini and expanded into a nation-wide system for the training of youths in model building, gliding, and elementary flying. The Royal Italian Air Force came to be known as the Regia Aeronautica, and Gen Giulio Douhet's prescription for total air war influenced the air force reorganization and its tactics to a great extent.

Douhet's conception of air tactics have not been generally understood here in America, except by the military. The "failure" of the Douhet theory has been pointed out a number of times, in connection with the large-scale bombing of cities. His doctrine, as a whole, has not failed and it is being used in some modification or other by every staff who has a sizable air force at its disposal. He was mistaken only in certain aspects, and these were not so very many. Douhet was a visionary; his shortcomings resulted from the fact that he was more inclined toward ideas than practicability. Even so, the Allies may be thankful today that the Italians were never able to carry out his prescriptions fully. Evidence of his vision appeared in a 1910 Rome newspaper when he wrote, "The Army and Navy should not then see in the military airplane merely an auxiliary arm of limited usefulness. They should rather see in the plane a third brother, younger of course, of the powerful family of War."

In 1921, he gave to Italy a stern warning: "Unfortunately, Italy has not been able to find her way in the air, and much has already been accomplished abroad * * *. If we look on the map of Europe at the air lines in existence or projected, we can see how they circle about Italy, making her almost an obstacle to the aerial communications of the Old World. This situation cannot last, either from the point of view of our own interests or from that of national duty."

In 1926 he served additional warning: "We should think, for example, what would happen if an enemy were to conquer the command of our sky with his Independent Air Force, enabling him to rove at will over Piedmont, Lombardy, and Liguria, dumping great quantities of explosive, incendiary and poison-gas bombs on the most vital centers of these northern provinces. If we think of that, we must conclude that the resistance of our surface forces would soon be broken by the disruption of everyday life in those three provinces — a disruption brought directly about by air power. * * * One fine day one of our eventual enemies may decide to organize and employ his air forces as I would do myself."

Giulio Douhet's eleven principles for the constitution and employment of Italy's airpower, as set forth in 1926, make plenty of sense today.

  1. The purpose of aerial warfare is the conquest of the command of the air. Having the command of the air, aerial forces should direct their offenses against surface objectives with the intention of crushing the material and moral resistance of the enemy.
  2. We should seek no other purposes except the two described above if we want to avoid playing the enemy's game.
  3. The only effective instrument for carrying out these purposes is an Independent Air Force made up of a mass of battle units and an aliquot part of reconnaissance units.
  4. The Independent Air Force should embody the greatest power compatible with the resources at our disposal; therefore no aerial resources should under any circumstances be diverted to secondary purposes, such as auxiliary aviation, local air defense, and antiaircraft defenses.
  5. The efficacy of destructive materials should be increased as much as possible, because, other things being equal, the offensive power of an Independent Air Force is in direct proportion to the efficacy of the destructive materials at its disposal.
  6. Civil aviation so organized as to be utilized as a complement to military aviation in case of war. That organization should be in the direction of a powerful fleet of transports capable of immediate conversion into a powerful military air force. The latter should be reduced, in time of peace, to a simple organization for instruction and command.
  7. Aerial warfare admits no defensive attitude, only the offensive. Of two Independent Air Forces, the one stronger in combat units should neither seek nor avoid aerial combat; the weaker should try to avoid it. Both the stronger and the weaker should always be in readiness to act even before hostilities break out; and once action has begun, both should keep in action incessantly and with the utmost violence, trying to hit the enemy's most vital targets — that is, targets more likely to cause repercussions on his air power and moral resistance.
  8. Once an Independent Air Force has conquered the command of the air, it should keep up violent, uninterrupted action against surface objectives, to the end that it may crush the material and moral resistance of the enemy.
  9. An Independent Air Force should be so organized as to move as quickly as possible over its own territory with its own means, in order to be of the greatest use against any potential enemy.
  10. Aerial warfare will be fought and decided solely by aerial forces which are ready to act at the instant hostilities break out, because, owing to the great violence with which it will be fought, if the adversaries are fairly well matched in strength, it will be conducted and decided very rapidly.
  11. An Independent Air Force formed with all the resources a nation has at its disposal for its aerial forces, made up of a mass of battleplanes and an aliquot part of reconnaissance planes, acting decisively and exclusively on the offensive, will soon wrest command of the air from an enemy air force constituted, organized, and performing in a different way.

    (The Battleplane Douhet envisioned would find its 1943 application in a cross between an Italian Breda 88 and a Piaggio P-108C, a copy of our Flying Fortress, having the speed and maneuverability of the former and the range and firepower of the latter — most certainly a tough problem for a designer. But Douhet's conception was based on sound tactical principles. If the air force is divided into groups of fighters and bombers, in the event of enemy action, the air group's action will not be simultaneous but subsequent. The fighters would attack the enemy interceptors in the first phase of action — along with the bombers' gunners, of course. The bombing operation would constitute the second phase. Douhet's idea was to incorporate the fighter and bomber into a formidable Battleplane strong enough to fight off any enemy interference and still conduct the bombing operation. Our very latest Flying Fortress types come closer to being this type of Battleplane than anything Italy has in the air.)

Fortunately for the democracies, Mussolini's Regia Aeronautica was only influenced by Douhet's ideas, it was not patterned wholly upon these ideas. The reasons are probably that Douhet's theories were considered too radical in some Italian quarters, and secondly that the nation was too poor in finances and war potential to carry out such a project. As the Regia grew along more conventional pattern, it became apparent to military observers that something was afoot in Italy. Duce and his propagandists began the usual Axis business about the people needing space and colonies and maintaining the status quo in the Mediterranean. Then, in 1934, amid much show and chest thumping, Mussolini launched the unwarranted campaign of aggression against Ethiopia. The only ostensible reason — aside from the claims for need of colonies, which nobody believed because African territories already under Italy domination were only partly developed — was a belated move to avenge the disastrous defeat of the Italians at Adowa in 1896. Part of the Regia was dispatched to support the Army's operations. Allied conferees floundered around and then finally began talking of sanctions. The British Mediterranean Fleet steamed forth from Gibraltar.

At this point, Il Duce used the Regia as a means of blackmailing the Allies into relaxing the sanctions and the British Fleet retired to its bases along the Mediterranean that Mussolini called Mare Nostrum. He boasted loudly of 200 volunteers who would load their bombers and dive them upon the mightiest warships of Britain's Royal Navy. The Allies were impressed: they recalled the Roman air visionaries, Leonardo da Vinci and Douhet; they considered the splendid performance of Italian planes, that by this time had cornered forty-four world records; and they took into account the huge training program of the RUNA and the fine record of Italy's airline, Ala Littoria. Italy was, to all intents and purposes, one of the world's greatest air powers.

These considerations overshadowed the fact that Italy had the lowest war potential of any of the European powers. She lacked almost all of the raw materials vital to modern warfare, but she had as many, or more, weapons available at that time than any of the Allies. Her industrial equipment as a whole, and particularly the industrial mobilization, was impotent as compared to that of Britain, America, Russia, or even France. She was building her planes of wood and fabric while other countries were making theirs of metal. These facts were obscured by Duce's boasting and showmanship, but they became apparent after the Ethiopian campaign had been in progress six months.

The allegedly formidable Regia, operating from Eritrea and Italian Somaliland over the strange and dangerous Abyssinian terrain did not show to good advantage. The handful of French, British, and American pilots flying Haile Selassie's obsolete crates roamed back and forth on scouting or courier flights with little interruption by simply out-flying and outsmarting the Italian airmen. The latter contented themselves with bombing and strafing native villagers and dropping supplies to lost, isolated, or surrounded Army units. This was the business that Bruno Mussolini found such good sport that he wrote in his memoirs, "One group of horsemen gave me the impression of a budding rose unfolding as bombs fell in their midst and blew them up. It was exceptionally good fun."

The news that things were not going so well spread across Europe; the Regia Aeronautica was not so formidable after all, even when consideration was made for the difficult terrain over which it was operating. Things were no better at home. The campaign was requiring months longer than had been anticipated, and larder was being drained. The wives and mothers — many of the former, widows by this time — surrendered their wedding rings to bolster the fast-dwindling supply of gold. Finally, the Army of Italy occupied the capital and a few other towns in 1936. The hollow victory left Italy impoverished and without international credit. It was doubly hollow because they never really conquered the country; roving bands of partisans and tribesmen roamed the mountains and carried out continual harassing actions from that time until the country was liberated with the assistance of the British in 1941.

Mussolini's subsequent aggressions, equally unwarranted, upon Spain, Albania, and Greece proved the Italians to be darned poor Caesars in the air and on the ground.

In support of Franco's Axis-inspired revolt against the Spanish Republican Government in 1936, the Regia sent planes, pilots, and ground crews to Spain, surreptitiously at first, then openly. The young Spanish fliers, together with a few Russians, Americans, British and French airmen who came to their aid, proved the Italian aviators to be mediocre in ability and lacking in heart and will to fight. It was here that I first came into personal contact with the men of the Regia. In my very first combat, excellent training and good fortune enabled me to shoot down an Italian squadron leader. In subsequent engagements, we found them to be neither so well trained or courageous as the German pilots. Lack of heart was demonstrated time and time again when their Fiat fighters would turn tail when the odds were anything approaching even. When the Moscas (the Russian I-16 lighter) came into service, the Italians turned tail on several occasions when they outnumbered us.

The Fiat fighters were fairly good; the Savoia- Marchetti bombers were very good. With more skillful handling, the Italian aircraft might have done far more damage than they did. What success the Regia had in the closing months of the war was due to sheer numerical strength: they were ferried in large numbers right into Spain by way of Sardinia and the Balearic Islands.

After Il Duce stabbed France in the back, token forces of the Regia were sent over Britain with Luftwaffe units. Against the crack RAF men and planes, the Italians showed to the same poor advantage, and the few who survived were quickly withdrawn. In Mediterranean operations, and in the campaign in Libya, the sorry Regia, had to be bolstered by the more workmanlike Luftwaffe aviators and technicians. As is well known by now, Italian industry — aircraft and otherwise — has been taken over completely by the Germans. This virtual vassalship does not appeal to the Italian temperament, with the net result that even the few capable remaining pilots have little for which to fight.

The aerial equipment which is being used in Tunisia ranges from very poor to very good, but those in the latter category are still far inferior to German and Allied aircraft operating in that theater. Italy entered World War II with somewhere between 3,200 and 4,000 craft of all types: of this number a competent British observer estimated that only 2,100 were first-line aircraft. Mussolini lost an estimated 1,800 planes in Spain and left some 200 there with Franco after the civil war. These would have stood the Regia in good stead, in Libya or elsewhere, had they been available while the flying Caesars were in anything approaching a fighting mood. Some research — as is evidenced by the debut of the beautiful Caproni-Campini CC-2 jet-propulsion plane — is taking place, although the Nazis have been doing their best to adapt the few Italian plants to the manufacture of about four basic domestic types and an equal number of German models. Many of the new Regia planes have developed serious engine bugs and several types are being fitted with German engines.

Italy is not known to have any fighters that stack up against Allied combat planes. Our aircraft outperform and outgun Il Duce's latest and best. One of these is his Macchi C-202, an all-metal, low-wing monoplane single-seater which is powered by a German Daimler-Benz or Mercedes-Benz engine that develops 1,150 hp. This ship has a top speed of 335 mph at 22,000 feet and has a service ceiling of 35,000 feet. It has a 34-foot wing span and is 29 feet 6 inches long. The plane is armed with two synchronized 12.7 Breda-Safat machine guns and two wing-mounted 7.7 guns of the same make.

This arms combination — which is considered light when compared with that of Allied planes in first-line service — is also used on their new Reggiane 2001 and 2002 monoplanes. The older Fiat G-50 monoplane and Fiat CR-42 biplane are armed with two 12.7 guns. The Reggiane 2002 is Italy's newest and best fighter. Powered by a 1,150-hp Daimler-Benz engine, it has a top speed of slightly more than 360 miles per hour. The wing span is 36 feet 2 inches, overall length 25 feet 10 inches, and height 12 feet. The plane closely resembles our obsolete Seversky P-35 except for the cleaner nose that covers the liquid-cooled engine.

The best Regia heavy bomber is believed to be the Piaggio P-108C, a copy of our Boeing Flying Fortress. This ship carries a six-man crew and is powered by four 1,200-hp Piaggio radial engines that provide a top speed of 290 mph. It has a wing span of 108' 3", is 81' 6" long and weighs 59,000 pounds fully loaded. The bomber has a range of 2,500 miles.

The outstanding medium-reconnaissance bombers are the old standby Savoia-Marchetti SM-79 and the newer Cant Z-1007 bis. The former is powered by three Piaggio radials of 1,000 hp each and has a speed of 248 mph. The latter is what might be called a landplane version of the Cant Z-506 seaplane; it has a longer nose and larger engines than the seaplane.

Two types of dive bombers are in current use. One is the German Junkers Ju-87 Stuka which is manufactured in Italy as the Breda 210. The second is a domestic bird, and a very good one — the twin-engined high mid-wing Savoia-Marchetti SM-85, powered by 1,000-hp Piaggio radial engines and is probably the best of all Axis dive bombers. Top speed is 316 mph at 13,120 feet. Wing span is 52' 6", length 41' 3", and height 13' 3". Savoia is building a very good torpedo bomber in the SM-94 but no data are available on this ship. A version of the SM-79 bomber is also used as a torpedo plane.

In the big Cant Z-506B, the Italians have a good patrol bomber which may also be used as a torpedo plane. Mounted on large twin floats, the low-wing monoplane is powered by three 750-hp radials and has a top speed of 242 mph. A newer Cant seaplane is reported to be in production which is powered by two engines and carries a four-man crew at a speed of about 300 mph.

These are the outstanding Italian craft and models known to be in use in the Mediterranean and Tunisia. The question that asserts itself at this point is why these craft are not being put to better use. What has happened to the air force that, between 1934 and 1937, was probably the largest — with the exception of the Red Air Force — in the world?

There are at least two answers to this timely question. First of all, Italy was one of the first major powers to become thoroughly air-minded but her low industrial potential limited the size of her air arm just as it has limited her army and navy. Other nations have become air-minded and, favored by more vast resources, have passed Italy and left her far behind. Secondly, the Fascist airmen are probably as war-weary as the Italian populace generally. Finding themselves fighting against better-equipped and more expert Allied airmen and fighting with two Axis partners with which they have little in common, the men of the Regia Aeronautica have probably lost what little esprit de corps they possessed. They may also realize that they have taken part in criminal and wanton slaughtering of the Ethiopian, Spanish, and Greek peoples, people who have never harmed Italy in any way. This unjustified mass murder cannot go unavenged, and the recent visitations in force of the RAF and AAF and the fact that the Allies are poised in North Africa for a leap that seems aimed at Italy cannot make the Fascists feel any happier.

The sorry showing of the Italian Air Force is in no way permitting our strategists to eliminate it from consideration. They have available a number of these aircraft, enough of them to do plenty of damage to the Allied invasion forces even though the RAF and AAF planes and pilots can probably shoot them out of the sky at a rate exceeding ten-to-one.

It may be ironical, but it seems that the total air war and sustained bombings that were advocated by the Italian Douhet will be carried out closer to formula on his homeland than the Italian Air Force was ever able to carry out to his prescription.

This article was originally published in the March, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 2, no 3, pp 14-19.
The original article includes 9 photos.
Photos credited to Pictorial Publishing Company, British Combine, European, Schostal.