Fiat G.55 Centauro

Fiat G.55 Centauro

The participation of Italy in World War II was quite controversial, since at the beginning of the world conflict Italy joined its destiny to the German Reich when sealing its entrance in the Axis; in the middle of 1943 when the Allies began the invasion of Italy, Italians “moved” to the Allied side.

At the outbreak of World War II, Italy had the smallest air force among the Axis powers, despite having a large aeronautical park, although this theoretical advantage could not be exploited by technical characteristics (as we shall see later), nor by the limited capacity that presented the Italian war industry before the imminence of a conflict of the characteristics that possessed the Second World War.
The Regia Aeronautica (RA) as the Italian Air Force was called (Royal Aeronautic), presented a great precariousness in terms of modern combat aircraft, being the spearhead of them, the fighters MC200 and Fiat G.50. Accompanying these, were the CR.32 biplanes and above all CR.42, which were available in greater quantity. The main limitation of some and other models of aircraft, was that they had markedly worse performance both technical (less powerful and less aerodynamic engines, lower service ceiling, lack of radio in a large number of cases, etc) and weapons (the prototype armament in the RA consisted of two machine guns in the fighters, which would have been useful during the World War I, but during the World War II, any of its opponents had a greater number of machine guns or combinations of guns and machine guns, which caused an upper devastating effect).
It is undeniable the effort and good management that the Italians gave to their machines, apart from the value they showed when using them in combat on multiple battle fronts such as the Italian-French Alpine front, the Mediterranean, North Africa, Great Britain, the Balkans or the Soviet Union. Although they were successful on many occasions, the fact is that the RA always remained in the shadow of the powerful Luftwaffe. His last front was the Italic Peninsula itself and the defense of Sicily, although they represented the last actions of the RA, which after the Armistice ceased to exist as such. But soon a new Italian Air Force was born from the Regia Aeronautica: the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana (ANR).
As the war progressed, a new series of Italian aircraft emerged, which were characterized by improvements in the engine group, such as the Re 2000 and the Re 2002, but what really raised the level of the RA was the use of German engines or Italians under German patent as in the Re 2001 or especially the prototype fighter of the RA that was MC.202; although they still hadn´t enough “punch” in their armament because their main weapons still were machine guns not cannons. At the end of its existence in 1943, the RA had better German engines that allowed it to create the fighter aircraft 5 series, integrated by the excellent MC.205 “Veltro”, the Fiat G.55 “Centauro” or the Reggiane Re 2005 “Saggitario”, although due to the war events, they were manufactured in insufficient quantities and out of time for what the need of the Italian air defense required; so Italians used aircraft from several origins as German or French. This text is about one of these three fighters, the Fiat G.55 that soldiered both in the Regia Aeronautica and the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana.

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The situation of Italy in the World War was deteriorating, reaching a critical moment in the summer of 1943. And that on July 25, after some political maneuvers, Mussolini was dismissed on July 25, becoming in new Head of Government, Pietro Badoglio. From that moment the German Government stopped trusting the Italian and more when the first plan of the new Government was discovered, which was no other than to sign the capitulation before the Allies and to get Italy out of the war. Before this situation Hitler began a plan to keep Italy (or whatever it was from her) within the Axis.
The official announcement of the Italian surrender or Armistice was on September 8, although the signing of the capitulation act had occurred five days before. The German troops did not wait for a moment, taking their army by surprise, since they were going to lose total control of the country. Both King Victor Emmanuel II and Badoglio fled Rome, leaving much of the country to the fate of German control. At the same time, US troops landed in Salerno and British in Calabria and the Gulf of Taranto.
The news of the Armistice left out of place many of the Italian military that were in many parts of Europe at that time (Greece, Balkans, France, etc), which were completely abandoned to their fate. Some decided to “join” the Allied side and confront the Germans, others were simply taken prisoner by the Germans (as was the case of those who were far from Italy) or those who decided to continue alongside the Germans.

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On September 12, 1943 in an operation organized by General Kurt Student, and executed by a command of German paratroopers headed by the famous Otto Skorzeny, released after a risky and precise rescue operation (Operation Oak), to Mussolini from his prison in the hotel-refuge of Campo Imperatore in the Gran Sasso (in the Apennines). After being released, Mussolini was taken to Germany, where he would meet with Hitler, who drew the plans he had forged for him. Despite Mussolini’s initial reluctance to take power again, faced with the imminent possibility of installing a German military administration in Italy and considering Italy as an occupied country (and not as an ally as before), that caused he accepted. After installing its headquarters in Milan, on September 18 Mussolini declared that they would continue the war alongside their German and Japanese allies. On September 23 the Duce announced the formation of the ISR in the Italian territory under German control; a state that extended from the region of Salerno to the Alps (in the north of the country was where most of the Italian industry was located), and whose capital would be located in Saló, and not in Rome, due to the proximity of this with the battle front. Thanks to the ISR, the German troops in Italy would not be involved in a front that encompassed the entire Italian Peninsula and would not be surrounded in enemy territory. After the creation of the new state, it was necessary to give it an armed structure on which to build it, so that it will be Rodolfo Graziani (the only marshal who had remained faithful to Mussolini after the Armistice), and now Minister of Defense, the one who in October 10, 1944, officially created an Air Force. This little Air Force named Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana (ANR), managed to have a prominent participation in the coming combats in Italy.
The situation for the pro German Italy after the Armistice was very complicated, since the confidence of the Germans towards them was minimal, made understandable after the “betrayal” that they turned out to be the Armistice. So the Germans decided that their military relationship with Italy would be that of a chief with his servant, so they thought about the incorporation of the various Italian troops belonging to the ISR in the Wehrmacht, Waffen SS, Luftwaffe or in the Kriegsmarine, as combatants assimilated into the German combat units. Because of this fact, they were denied the provision of arms and more, since this had been requisitioned mostly after the Armistice with a regime of autonomous units from the German commands. Furthermore, German did not want an allied and autonomous air force but squadrons formed by Italian personnel under their direct orders.
This high tension between the German governments and that of the ISR, was the cause of very important discussions between the fascist giants and the German commanders in Italy (like Kesselring, Rommel and von Richtofen) about the possibility or not of allowing operational independence for Italian troops.

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At the birth of the Aeronatica Nazionale Repubblicana (ANR), the newly appointed Deputy Secretary of Aviation of Mussolini’s ISR, Lieutenant Colonel Ernesto Botto, a famous fighter and hero pilot during the Spanish Civil War (SCW), will play a key role. Botto was known as “Gamba di Ferro” or “iron leg” (he earned this nickname after losing a leg during the SCW despite the fact that he had continued flying in combat during 1940-43 and directing the training school of fighters in Gorizia before joining the ANR).
From as early as October 10 to October 12, 1943, Botto negotiated with the Luftwaffe commander after having reached an agreement in Berlin with Gen. Korten (newly appointed Luftwaffe chief of staff). Italy, Wolfram von Richthofen, the return to Italian lands of at least part of the more 1,000 aircraft that had been seized after the Armistice of September 8 to proceed to organize with them the air force of the ISR (it is estimated that towards the 1944 spring, the Group responsible for bringing aircraft from its German captors to the aerodromes of the ANR, had recovered about 1300 aircraft of all types, although at the cost of losing the lives of about 40 pilots due to the poor condition of the aircraft in many cases). Thanks to his intervention, he managed to recover some 75 fighters of various types from German hands (G 55. Re 2005 and MC 205). It will be with these aircrafts that will form the first nucleus of the ANR. Although if it was important to get airplanes, not less was it to recruit the personnel for the new air force. On the other hand, on October 12, taking advantage of his great fame in the world of aviation in Italy, he launched a radio proclamation to invite the ANR to the pilots and technical personnel who had previously served in the Regia Aeronautica. His power of convocation thanks to his heroic record, was able to attract dozens of members of the extinct RA for its incorporation into the ANR, many of which had already been dispersed throughout the country after the Armistice, especially the men of the combat units. It was thanks to this proclamation that on October 43, the first men showed up at the Turin Mirafiori airport.
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On October 15, Botto continued with the formation of information centers that gathered pilots and aircraft according to their respective specialties and indications. In this way the Bresso airport in Milan became the center of reference in fighters and aviation reconnaissance, while that of Varese gathered the torpedo-bombers in the airport of Venegono, the seaplanes went to the facilities of Sesto Calende, and Bergamo was the transport branch meeting point.
Botto´s call can be considered a great success, because not only there were enough men to build up a small air force, but also many of the pilots who came could be considered the best pilots of the RA. Possibly also the fact that the organization of the fighter force, on the ground, was carried out by the also famous and popular pilot Adriano Visconti, contributed in some way in which the elite of the pilots came before or after to join the rising ANR. This is reflected in the fact that about 40 RA fighter aces were part of the ANR fighter units, such as Gorrini, Visconti, Drago, Falconi, Marini, Veronesi, Tarantola, Torresi, Robetto or Malvezzio, to name a few.
The ANR was the only military branch of the ISR that operated regularly and with some success against the Allied forces, earning the respect not only of its German allies but in some cases even of the Resistance that operated against the Germans. The latter although it may seem pointless, could happen thanks to the tireless work of the fighters of the ANR to avoid the Allied bombing on the lands of northern Italy, which led sometimes even local pacts of non-aggression between groups of the Resistance and individual units of the ANR.
Finally the Armed Forces of the ISR will be born organically with a decree of the Head of the Republican State that promulgated on October 27, 1943, is destined to enter into force the following day.
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