Lictorian Fasces over England


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.

This Fiat CR.42 “Falco” M.M.5701  was flown by Serg. Pietro Salvadori from 95. Squadriglia CT. On November 11, 1940 Salvadori landed his aircraft in England following the engine malfunction. The fighter later underwent trials at RAF Martlesham Heath wearing British BT 474 serials. Note painted over Italian serials and national markings. The yellow quick identification paintwork on the engine cowling had been painted over rather sloppily. The RAF roundels and fin-flash had been added to the wings, fuselage and the vertical stabilizer. [Painting by Arkadiusz Wróbel]
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.

Fiat G.50 (M.M.5450) from 353. Squadriglia, 20. Gruppo, 56. Stormo CT, Munich, October 17 1940. The aircraft was en-route to its base at Ursel. The quick identification markings were yet to be added. [Painting by Arkadiusz Wróbel]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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