If you want to exterminate a bird species, shooting down all the birds will not do – there are still nests and eggs to be dealt with. Those were the words written in the 1920s by an Italian general Giulio Douhet.
Douhet was the author of a visionary air power doctrine, which saw the air force as an independent arm with a critical role in deciding the outcome of a war, rather than a vehicle for romantic aerial duels of the Great War. Douhet’s doctrine called for the bombardment of cities: they needed to be mercilessly pounded in order to break the people’s morale and then the time would soon come when, to put an end to the horror and suffering, the people themselves, driven by the instinct of self-preservation, would rise up and demand an end to the war - this before their Army and Navy had time to mobilize. However, air supremacy could only yield benefits in cooperation with the other services. All European air warfare doctrines created in Europe after World War I drew from Douhet’s work.
The Luftwaffe attempted to put Douhet’s vision into practice in the summer and fall of 1940. Having first focused their attention on British coastal shipping, factories and airfields, the German bombers proceeded to launch terror attacks on London in hopes of breaking the fighting spirit of the nation. Earlier the same fate befell the Basque city of Guernica, Warsaw and Rotterdam. In operations against England, it was the air force that was supposed to play the key role in preparation for the landings of the ground troops. Without air superiority German invasion plans were doomed. The Battle of Britain saw the use of Douhet’s doctrine in its purest form. The general’s fellow countrymen would also play a role in the battle, which this book will try to show.
On June 10, 1940 Italy declared war on Britain and France. It did not take long for France to fall and Mussolini could notch up his first success. Having sided with Hitler, the Italians immediately faced fighting on a number of fronts. The Fascists considered themselves equal partner’s to Hitler and Mussolini soon announced he was fighting a “parallel war”. Il Duce’s dream was the resurrection of the Roman Empire and his Regia Marina fought hard against the Royal Navy for supremacy in the Mediterranean. In September Marshal Graziani’s forces in North Africa stormed deep into Egypt and took Sidi Barrani. Far away, in East Africa, the Italian troops captured British Somaliland. A drive to take Kenya was stopped by bad weather. It may not have been the Blitzkrieg of the kind the Germans fought in Europe, but the campaign produced solid results and left the initiative firmly in the hands of the Italians. Then everybody’s eyes turned to England: how long before the nation breaks under pressure and begins peace negotiations? In the meantime the Italians grow in confidence and open up a new front – their attack on Greece is a reminder that they regard the Balkans as their area of influence.
However, there is a crack on this perfect picture, a real slap on the face of the Italian Empire. Drunk with the offensive spirit, Italy remains virtually defenseless against the RAF. Giulio Douhet’s countrymen made great efforts to build up their offensive power, but almost completely neglected their own air defense, including heavy anti-aircraft batteries capable of protecting Italian cities. The first British air raids against Turin and Genoa take place on the night of June 11/12, 1940. The following night over thirty Whitley bombers drop bombs on Fiat and Caproni factories in Turin and Milan. The British bombers cover the distance of 2 400 km to reach their targets! Both cities come under attack again on September 2 and once more the RAF bombers operate over Italy with impunity. The damage is not severe, but the image of the Duce suffers terribly. It is now clear that Regia Aeronautica, despite the commitments on multiple fronts, will have to find a way to show the British their place and launch retaliatory strikes against England.
Regia Aeronautica in 1940
Since 1923 Regia Aeronautica had been one of the three independent services of the Italian armed forces. The air arm was under command of the the Chief of Air Force General Staff with subordinated Superaereo (Air Force Command), located in Rome. Between March 3, 1939 and November 15, 1941 the Chief of Air Force General Staff was Gen di D.A. Francesco Pricolo.
Italian territory was split between three Air Fleets (Squadra Aerea) and one Territorial Zone (Zona Territoriale). Apart from the metropolis, there were five Air Commands (Aeronautica della Libia, Albania, etc.). Each operational unit consisted of Divisione (divisions) or Brigate (brigades), although those were only administrative bodies and not operational air units.
A fighter division (Divisione di Caccia Terrestre) consisted of four Stormo (regiments). The regiments were subdivided into two Gruppo di Caccia Terrestre (Land Aviation Fighter Squadrons). Fighter squadrons comprised from two to four (typically three) Squadriglie (flights), each fielding nine aircraft (during the war the strength was raised to 12 machines). Bomber and transport units were equipped with six aircraft per flight. The flights were further subdivided into three Sezione (sections) of three aircraft. A typical Regia Aeronautica squadron fielded some 35 – 36 aircraft. Each Gruppo operated a single type. Based on that structure fighters operated as Gruppo, while bombers as Stormo.
A British fighter squadron had slightly more aircraft than the Italian squadriglia, while an Italian bomber squadriglia closely resembled an RAF bomber flight. There were also autonomous (Autonomo) Gruppi and Squadriglie, which were directly subordinated to the commands of particular Squadra Aerea or Aeronautica. Semi-autonomous units (Gruppo Semiautonomo), although formally part of a regiment, were under direct command of the divisional HQ. The largest Fleets had three divisions: a fighter division and two bomber divisions.
Italian Air Force units used abbreviated forms, depending on their role. Here are a few examples that will be relevant in this book:
CT – Caccia Terrestre (land-based fighters), e.g. Stormo CT, Gruppo CT, etc.
BT – Bombardamento Terrestre (land-based bombers).
RST - Ricognizione Strategica Terrestre (land-based strategic reconnaissance aircraft).
I will use these abbreviated forms in the latter part of this book. Tactical markings consisted of a combination of numerals and were placed on the fuselages. For example, 363-9 denoted 363 Squadriglia and the aircraft’s individual squadron number.
In the 1930s Italian Air Force was considered to be among the strongest and largest air arms in the world. However, although the service had a large number of units, they fielded relatively small numbers of aircraft making the strength of the Air Force rather illusory. On the other hand Italian aircrew regularly won various international competitions, which seemed to be a solid proof of their capabilities.
In the early 1930s Italian Air Force command made a serious mistake: the brass believed that radial engines were superior to in-line powerplants and ordered all designs to be equipped with radial units. This put a stop to the development of in-line, liquid-cooled engines. Thus, on the eve of the war, Italian designers were stuck with radial engines, which were significantly less powerful than the powerplants used by the world’s leading aircraft manufacturers. In the mid 1930s the Italians were designing fighters powered by engines developing 800 – 850 HP, while elsewhere in the world 1000 HP powerplants were already available. It was not until 1939/1940 that Italians received the first examples of modern, liquid-cooled engines – the DB 601A. However, the license production of the powerplants suffered delays, which resulted in many new designs having to make do with obsolete radial engines.
One of the weaknesses of the Italian Air Force was the attempt to introduce a large number of new aircraft designs in a very short time. This had an impact on the number of aircraft being manufactured. Throughout the war new designs were being created and the air ministry officials did not have sufficient experience to select the ones worth developing. During the war the Americans introduced only 18 aircraft types for the Army and the Navy. On the other hand, German designers created 86 types, while the Japanese manufactured 90 different types in as many as 160 variants. Italian aircraft production was similarly diversified. Since all Axis nations put members of the military in charge of the aircraft selection, manufacturing economics was hardly ever taken into consideration. Italians lacked long-range bombers capable of reaching Gibraltar or Egypt. In order to be able to operate over England, the Italian Air Force had first to deploy its aircraft to the coast of the English Channel.
The Regia Aeronautica had its baptism of fire in the inter-war period. The Italian aircraft contributed greatly to the victories in Abyssinia and Spain. However, fighting against the weak adversaries kept some of the most critical weaknesses of the air arm undiagnosed. On June 10, 1940 the Regia Aeronautica had 33 air regiments with 235 squadrons. The air arm fielded 3296 aircraft and had 101000 regular personnel. At the outbreak of war the Italian aircrew could be considered experienced and the administrative structure of the air force was well-prepared for war. However, the aircraft strength only looked impressive on paper. Many of the machines were obsolete bi-planes (half of the fighters were Fiat CR.42s) and one half of the total strength were trainers. When the war began Italy had 1796 combat-ready aircraft stationed in bases in Italy, East Africa, Libya, Albania, Sardinia and Rhodes. [...]
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