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The bomber offensive that never took off: Italy's Regia Aeronautica in 1940.

When Italy entered the war alongside Nazi Germany on June 10,1940, the Regia Aeronautica had the third strongest force of multi-engined bombers in the world--amongst the belligerents the second strongest after Germany. (1) And whereas in most air forces fighter pilots were regarded as the aviators with the most glamour, in Italy it was the bombers that were considered the most glamorous branch of the service: Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini's son-in-law and foreign minister, was also a lieutenant colonel commanding a bomber group and Mussolini's son Bruno was a squadron leader in the same unit. Italy's most modern fighter aircraft, still outnumbered in the Regia Aeronautica by older biplane models, were unaerodynamic, underpowered and perhaps underarmed compared to the fighter aircraft of the Luftwaffe, Royal Air Force and Armee de VAir, but the greater part of the 783 bombers which the Regia Aeronautica had ready for immediate action in the Mediterranean theatre on June 11, despite the old-fashioned tri-motor configuration of most of them, were fully comparable in performance to those of Germany and Britain. (2) Yet by the end of the year this formidable aerial armada, though it had ranged from its European bases as far afield as Bahrain and Great Yarmouth, had failed to achieve--or even attempt--anything of real significance. This failure provides an important illustration of how unprepared, organizationally and intellectually, Italy's armed forces were for the ambitiously aggressive role that the Fascist regime had allotted to them.

Operational failure stemmed in part from a failure to impose any meaningful conceptual structure on Italy's strategic options. Hitler's war aims were chillingly straightforward. Britain and France had declared war on Germany, not the other way round, and Hitler's objective was to inflict on them a military defeat so crushing that they would be forced to acquiesce in the enslavement of Poland and (though he had not yet informed his military advisers of this) his intended invasion of Russia. The occupation of Denmark, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands was merely a consequence of the embroilment with Britain and France: the issue of territorial acquisitions in Western Europe was entirely secondary. Mussolini's aim in taking Italy into the war was even simpler, but without focus:

Italy will not truly be an independent nation so long as she has Corsica, Bizerta, Malta as the bars of her Mediterranean prison and Gibraltar and Suez as the walls....

Italy cannot remain neutral for the whole duration of the war without resigning her role, without disqualifying herself, without reducing herself to the level of a Switzerland multiplied by ten. (3)

What Mussolini aimed at was the domination of Southern Europe and the Mediterranean basin; but it was much more than a matter of Tunisia and Malta, for these were nothing in comparison to Poland or Hitler's earlier acquisitions, Austria and western Czechoslovakia. To compete with Hitler as the presiding genius of a dominant power Mussolini needed territory to annex in Europe: and the obvious candidates were Yugoslavia and Greece. This meant that while Nazi Germany could seek a resolution of the current war on a single three-hundred mile front on the north-eastern borders of France, Fascist Italy had to face simultaneously west against France, east against Yugoslavia and Greece and south against the French in Tunisia and the British in Egypt.

Fascist Italy had to (ace simultaneously west against France, east ... and south

The General Staffs of the Italian army, navy and air force had from June 1939 onwards prepared a war plan in accordance with Mussolini's views. The Regia Aeronautica's part of P.R.12, as this plan was designated, seemed at first sight reasonable, sensible and logical. It distinguished between two continental fronts, and a Mediterranean front to the south, rehearsed the territorial distribution and 'theatres of operation' of the four squadre (air fleets) in Italy and the four overseas air forces in other parts of the Mediterranean, and referred to these various commands' need to 'act in strict conformity' and to the necessity of moving frontline units around in order to operate in overwhelming strength on one or other front. (4) Authors like MacGregor Knox have suggested that the Regia Aeronautica was unduly influenced by the theories of Giulio Douhet regarding strategic air warfare and the independent employment of aviation against enemy centres of production and supply without reference to the operation of ground troops, but there is no indication of this in P.R.12. (5) It is even possible that by the mid-1980s the Italians had begun to lose interest in Douhet: for a period the ideas of General Amedeo Mecozzi, a minor Great War fighter ace who had been campaigning for a specialized ground attack force since the 1920s, semed to have more influence, though by 1937, Mecozzi had been relegated to the sidelines. (6) It is clear at any rate that the Regia Aeronautica despite having been established as far back as 1923 (eleven years before the French Armee de l'Air and twelve years earlier than the Luftwaffe) had never really engaged with the possibility that, because of Italy's geographical position, it might not be required to act principally in conformity with the operations of the land army, as was almost bound to be the case with the Armee de l'Air and the Luftwaffe facing each other as they did across a few hundred miles of campaigning country. An organization of centralized 'commands' (e.g. Bomber Command, Fighter Command, Coastal Command), as in Britain's Royal Air Force, might have made more conceptual and organizational sense, though since only RAF Fighter Command can be said to have made successful use of its organizational autonomy in the second half of 1940 (and then more or less lost the plot in 1941), the territorially based structure of the Regia Aeronautica may be taken as an indication of lack of conceptual vision rather than in itself necessarily an organizational disadvantage. (7) More relevant to the Regia Aeronauticas failure was the actual detail of the territorial distribution of combat units.

1a Squadra Aerea in the north of Italy, with headquarters at Milan, was the most powerful, with four stormi of Fiat B.R. 20 twin-engined bombers and two of Cant Z. 10070/s trimotors, the latter the most modern bomber in the Regia Aeronautical. (8) Both these designs carried heavier bomb-loads than the Savoia-Marchetti S.79, which was the most numerous type of bomber--indeed, the most numerous type of aircraft--in Regia Aeronautica service; their concentration in the north of the country, opposite the most powerful of Italy's potential enemies, France, was an indication of the importance given to the probability of conflict in the west. On the other hand the extremely mountainous nature of the Franco-Italian border, from Mont Blanc in the north to the 2000-foot mountains just inland from the coast, meant that it was unlikely that a decisive land campaign could be carried through on that front, and the Italians were perfectly aware of the weakness of the French bomber arm, which meant that there could never be an all-out contest for aerial superiority across the Maritime Alps, especially when the Arme de VAir needed to confront the greater strength of the Luftwaffe in the much more accessible countryside further north. In fact, during the two weeks of Franco-Italian hostilities in June 1940, the most serious French air raids, on Trapani and Palermo on June 22 and 23,1940, which resulted in forty-five civilian fatalities, were flown from bases in North Africa. (9)

2a Squadra Aerea, with its headquarters in Palermo and with five stormi of Savoia-Marchetti S.79s was at the other end of the country, opposite Tunisia and Malta and within practicable range of most of the coast of Italy's Libyan colonies.

3a Squadra Aerea, with headquarters at Rome, had three stormi of S.79s, 4a Squadra Aerea, with headquarters at Bari, on the heel of Italy, had a single stormo of Savoia-Marchetti S.81s, an out of date trimotor type with fixed undercarriage, mediocre range and a top speed of just over 200m.p.h., suitable only for night bombing or daylight operations where there was no likelihood of interception. There were also single stormi of S.81s in the Aeronautica dell Albania and in the Aeronautica dell'Egeo, based on Rhodes, at that time an Italian possession. LAeronautica della Sardegna had two stormi of S.79s. LAeronautica della Libia had four stormi of bombers, about two thirds of the planes S.79s, and the rest S.81s. (In Italian East Africa Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia--there were a further 130 or so bombers, but only twelve of them were S.79s: most of them were Caproni Cal33 trimotors, which were capable of utilizing short airstrips but which with a top speed of 174 m.p.h. were only suitable for employment where there were no enemy warplanes.)

The error of these dispositions only became apparent ... after the Germans occupied Paris

The error of these dispositions only became apparent to Italy's military leadership after the Germans occupied Paris and, with France about to drop out of the war, attention in Rome shifted to the problem of defeating Britain. On June 21,1940 the Stato Maggiore Generate, the Armed Forces High Command, ordered that Alexandria, Britain's principal naval establishment in the Mediterranean and base for three battleships, should be bombed exclusively by aircraft flying from Sicily so that lAeronautica della Libia could concentrate on supporting army operations against Egypt. The Stato Maggiore dell' Aeronautica responded that the round trip from Sicily to Alexandria and back, nearly 2000 miles, could not be flown with a useful bombload. (10) In fact the only major units capable of managing the distance, even with a negligible bombload, were the Cant Z.1007feis stormi in northern Italy. The Stato Maggiore dell' Aeronautica ordered instead that S.81s should bomb Alexandria from Rhodes. With the S.81's comparatively poor range, this left little margin for error in navigation or carburettor adjustment and one of the twelve S.81s sent out on the first mission, on the night of June 22-23, 1940, ran out of fuel on the return leg and ditched in the sea 45 miles short of home. (11) On June 25, at a Chiefs of Staff meeting, General Francisco Pricolo, the Capo di Stato Maggiore dell'Aeronautica proposed that S.79s, which had a longer range than the S.81, should be sent to Rhodes. Badoglio the Capo di Stato Maggiore Generate, agreed but warned, 'Alexandria comes second. At the moment what matters is to neutralize--sterilize as the Duce puts it Malta and to act against Gibraltar.' (12) 41[degrees] Gruppo with the S.79, later re-equipped with the even longer-ranged Z.1007bis, was duly transferred to Rhodes, but as its main priority it was assigned to attack the oil refineries at Haifa, where the western end of the 585-mile oil pipeline from Mosul was located, and most of the nine raids on Alexandria carried out by the end of October were night missions by S.81s. [(13)] Needless to say, like almost all small-scale night raids in 1940, they were quite ineffective.

With regard to Gibraltar ... the Regia Aeronautica was able to pull a fairly startling rabbit out of its hat

With regard to Gibraltar, which was even further from peninsular Italy than Alexandria was from Sicily, the Regia Aeronautica was able to pull a fairly startling rabbit out of its hat. The Savoia-Marchetti S.82, a new type as yet available in very small numbers, was essentially an ultra-long-ranged transport aircraft, capable of carrying useful loads of a couple of tons, even a dismantled Fiat C.R. 42 fighter plane, non-stop from Europe to Italy's Empire in the Horn of Africa: but it also had a bomb bay. During the night of July 17-18,1940 three of these lumbering trimotors, having taken off from Guidonia, north-east of Rome, each with four and a half metric tonnes of petrol and two tonnes of bombs, struck at Gibraltar, killing three civilians and a Royal Artillery gunner: two of the aircraft, running low on fuel landed in Sardinia but the third made it back to Guidonia, fourteen hours after setting out: a round trip of 3,525 km. On a second raid on the night of August 20-21, one of the two S.82s which attacked Gibraltar dropped three bombs which exploded in the harbour, before being shot down by an anti-aircraft battery, and the other, seventy-five minutes later, succeeded only in setting fire to scrub and damaging a telephone pole and a water pipe. (14)

Even more astonishing and futile was the bombing of Bahrain in the small hours of October 19, 1940 by three S.82s that had flown from Rhodes and later landed in Eritrea after a 4,200 km tri-continental flight lasting nearly sixteen hours: the bombs fell in wasteland half a mile from a refinery but so incensed the local Arabs that the one and only Italian in Bahrain, a missionaiy priest, had to be deported by the British to Bombay for his own safety. An installation belonging to the California Arabian Standard Oil Co. at Dhahran in Saudi Arabia was also hit, and 'slight damage was done to an oil and water pipeline.' Since both Saudi Arabia and the United States were neutral in 1940, this cannot be considered a major contribution to winning the war. (15)

After the capitulation of France, the most enterprising redeployment of Regia Aeronautica units was the transfer of a force designated Corpo Aereo Italiano (CAI), consisting of 80 bombers, mainly Fiat B.R. 20s from Ia Squadra, and 98 fighters to Belgium. The idea was to assist the Luftwaffe in the final stages of the Battle of Britain. The CAI arrived, needless to say, just as the Luftwaffe was giving up on its attempts to overwhelm the Royal Air Force in daylight battles, and when, on November 11, 1940, a raiding force of nine B.R. 20s and an escort of Fiat C.R.42 fighter biplanes was intercepted by two squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes east of Harwich, three B.R.20s and three C.R.42s were shot down, and most of the others returned home with bullet holes: two of the Hurricanes were hit by return fire but not seriously damaged. SUPERLATIVELY BRILLIANT DEEDS OF THE C.A.I. (Brillantissime azioni del C.A.I.) announced 11 Corriere della Sera in a three-column headline on November 13. (16) The one success of the Corpo Aero Italiano was to damage a Co-operative Wholesale Society canning factory in Lowestoft, killing three workers and injuring six others, on the night of November 29,1940. (17) It may also have been an Italian bomber which early the previous morning had wrecked several houses in Great Yarmouth, killed a housewife and seriously injured her husband. (18) By this stage the Regia Aeronautica was hard-pressed in Albania, following a poorly planned invasion of Greece a month earlier, and the B.R.20s of the Corpo Aereo Italiano might have been of much more use there.

Another striking feature of Italian bomber operations in 1940 was the failure to utilize available numbers

Another striking feature of Italian bomber operations in 1940 was the failure to utilize available numbers of aircraft even in areas where major units were deployed. The Italians had pioneered the mass use of aircraft in the First World war, on May 23,1917 employing no fewer than 109 assorted aircraft--including thirty-four Caproni trimotors--to bomb and strafe Austro-Hungarian positions in support of an offensive by the Italian Third Army.19 Between the wars Italo Balbo had made international headlines by leading a series of long-distance formation flights, culminating in the transit of twenty-four Macchi S.55 double-hulled flying boats from Italy to Chicago in seven legs, including a day-long crossing between Iceland and Labrador. In 1940, however, the largest single bombing attacks that the Regia Aeronautica put together seem to have been a raid by 40 S.79s on Mersa Matruh from bases in Libya on September 22,--the British counted thirty-five Italian bombers--a raid by forty-three S79.s on the same target thirteen days later--the British counted twenty attackers--and a raid by thirty-eight S.79s in four groups which bombed Malta on the afternoon of June 11,1940: an attack by fifty-five S.79s that morning was variously reported by Malt's anti-aircraft defences as consisting of ten, fifteen or 'about twenty planes' and one can only surmise that some of the raiders failed even to find the island. (20) In June of course the Regia Aeronautica units in Sicily also had the French in Tunisia to deal with, and on June 13, sent thirty-three S.79s to bomb aerodromes there: but the largest air raid on Malta in July, after the French had surrendered, consisted only of thirty S.79s. Considering that the Regia Aeronautica had 137 S.79s ready for action in Sicily on the day Italy entered the war, this very restrained level of activity is difficult to explain, especially when it is compared to the intensity of Luftwaffe attacks on Malta from January 1941 onwards. (21) The Regia Aeronautica's biggest effort in 1940 was on July 9, in the Naval Battle of Calabria (now generally referred to as the Battle of Punto Stilo) Shortly after the two battle fleets had broken off contact waves of Italian bombers began attacking the British fleet: during the course of almost four and a half hours 126 aircraft claimed to have attacked but the largest single formation according to the Italians consisted of twenty-two aircraft (according to the British only nine aircraft) and almost half the aircraft seem to have bombed the Italian fleet by mistake: anyway the British counted altogether only sixty attackers. (22) After the war General Santoro, the Sottocapo di Stato Maggiore dell Aeronautica, claimed that it was only possible to send out formations of reduced size because many of the pilots were insufficiently trained to be able to keep formation, but the trained crews could certainly have flown more missions than the four daylight and three night bombing raids on Malta in July 1940, and the four daylight and one night raid in August. (23) The Italians seem however to have satisfied themselves that they had indeed neutralized Malta--or sterilized it, in Mussolini's phrase--as an offensive base, but this was not the case: Vickers Wellington bombers arrived in Malta late in October and carried out their first raid on Naples on the night of October 31 and November 1, and on the night of November 12, 1940, a few hours after the successful carrier-launched air strike against Taranto, which put three Italian battleships out of action, a Wellington seriously damaged the railway station at Brindisi. (24)

Somewhat more energy was displayed by 41[degrees]Gruppo at Rhodes, especially after it had re-equipped with the Cant Z.1007bis In the five days September 5-9, two attacks were carried out on Haifa, one on Tel Aviv and one on shipping south of Crete, but the attacking formations comprised only half a dozen aircraft. (25)

The attacks mounted by the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain and the Blitz were of course on a vastly larger scale: 348 bombers in the attack on London docks on September 7,1940, and, by night, 449 bombers in the attack on Coventry on November 14. In China the Imperial Japanese Navy mounted raids involving up to one hundred twin-engined bombers; between August 9 and 20,1940 for example, despite three days on which bad weather prohibited operations, there were five air raids with up to ninety bombers on Chongqing and two on Liuzhou, each one involving flights of about six hours over hostile country as compared to the ninety minutes or so needed to complete an attack on Malta. (26)

Again, when the Vichy government decided to retaliate for the British attack on Dakar , fifty-nine twin-engined bombers of the Armee de l'Air, flying from bases in Morocco and Algeria, bombed Gibraltar in the afternoon of September 24,1940, and eighty-three aircraft in a raid on the following day. (27)

The British of course had given up the use of medium bomber formations in daylight, but by night operated on much the same scale and frequency as the Japanese did by day. RAF Bomber Command sent thirty-six Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys to bomb Turin on the night of June 11-12, 1940 but twenty-three of the aircraft were unable to gain sufficient altitude to cross the Alps in bad weather: Vickers Wellingtons and Handley Page Hampdens, somewhat shorter ranged, flew sixty-four other sorties that night. Two nights later the Royal Air Force's bombers carried out 163 sorties. On the night of August 13-14, thirtyfive Whitleys bombed Milan and Turin, while sixty-eight other bombers carried out other night missions. At this stage RAF Bomber Command normally attacked a number of different targets each night, but occasionally the experiment was made of concentrating on a single objective: on the night of September 23-24,1940,129 bombers were sent against Berlin, and on the night of December 16-17,1940 134 were sent against Mannheim. (28) Neither Berlin not Mannheim suffered much damage in these raids, but that was certainly not a matter of intention.

The British of course had given up the use of medium bomber formations in daylight

The principal justification the Italians had for not attacking in greater force was that they were aiming to destroy specific circumscribed targets: even the Governor of Gibraltar admitted, 'Italians have tried to direct their attacks against military targets only.' (29) Ninety-eight civilians died in the forty-nine day and twenty-nine night raids on Malta carried out by the Regia Aeronautica between June 11,1940, and January 15,1941, compared to 112 civilians --mainly Jewish settlers--killed in a single raid on Tel Aviv by six Cant Z.1007bis tri-motors from Rhodes on September 9, 1940. (30) But like other air forces in 1940, the Regia Aeronautica had difficulty in coming to terms with the inaccuracy of their air bombing; even the Royal Air Force was slow to adopt the formula that the more bombs one dropped, the more likely one was to hit something.

The raids on the oil refineries at Haifa by aircraft from Rhodes were perhaps the most successful of those carried out by the Regia Aeronautica in 1940, and the only ones that could be described as belonging to a Douhetian programme of strategic warfare. In an attack by ten Savoia-Marchetti S.79s of 41[degrees] Gruppo on July 15, one full storage tank at the Shell plant sustained a direct hit and eventually four others caught fire. Two more were damaged by shrapnel and blast; an empty storage tank also received a direct hit and high tension electricity equipment was damaged, cutting off power. On July 24, a raid by twelve S.79s, as well killing forty-six people (mainly Arabs) destroyed the main office of the Shell plant, a store containing 40,000 tins of aviation spirit, and store of kerosene and lubricating oil. The breakwater at the Palestine Electricity Corporation's generating station also received a direct hit and a bomb that fell near the police vehicle reserve depot killed a constable and wounded three others. On September 21,41[degrees] Gruppo, now re-equipped with the more powerful Cant Z.1107his, hit a storage tank, which set on fire two neighbouring storage tanks, severely damaged a battery charging plant and power and signal cables on the railway, and the cooling water pumping station of the electricity generating station, and temporarily cut off power to the city. At the refinery pipelines were hit and ignited, and the fire spread to the pump house of the benzene acid washery; a chemical store containing 600 tons of sulphur received a direct hit, and the resultant fire also burnt out an adjacent building. Forty Arabs were killed, allegedly because they had ignored the air raid warning; numerous leaflets in Arabic were dropped. (31)

In each of these three raids the damage was principally caused by half a dozen bombs, mostly of 100kg. After the July 15, raid '83 bomb craters were counted.' In the July 24, raid '43 hits were observed': it seems likely that the twelve raiders were carrying five or six bombs each, that is at least sixty in total. In the September 21, raid, the Cant Z.1107bis aircraft with which 41[degrees] Gruppo was now equipped probably carried eighteen 100kg bombs each, which with six bombers on the mission makes over a hundred bombs. Bearing in mind how extensive the Haifa refinery was, and the number of high structures contained within the perimeter, and the fact that, with the Cant Z.1007bis at least, the bombs left the bomb bay of each aircraft not one after the other, in a stick, but in salvoes of three or six, the bombing does not seem to have been remarkably accurate. This was in spite of the fact that there was not only no fighter opposition, there was also very little anti-aircraft fire. Haifa was defended only by a handful of out-of-date 3-inch anti-aircraft guns, and the Italian bombers were flying at a height of 14,000 feet or more, which was about the 3-inch guns' effective ceiling. On July 15, thirteen 3-inch rounds were fired, on July 24, twenty-nine and on September 21,151 rounds. (32) This is to be compared to the 2354 rounds fired by the four 3.7-inch gun batteries on Gibraltar during the French attack (admittedly of longer duration) on September 25,1940. (33)

The Italians were not completely unaware of the inaccuracy of their bombing: General Santoro, the Sottocapo di Stato Maggiore dell'Aeronautica, blamed it on the shortage of adequately trained crews and the resultant reduction in the size of the attacking formations, which of course reduced the spread of their bombing patterns. (34) There was also the problem with pattern bombing that if the lead bomber mistook the target, the rest of the formation followed suit. This happened just after four o'clock in the afternoon of September 9, 1940: the six attacking Cant Z.1007bis trimotors, which were apparently supposed to bomb the port facilities at Jaffa, unloaded their bombs over a residential area four kilometres to the north-east (JAFFA WAREHOUSES IN FLAMES -1 depositi di Giaffa in fiamme, trumpeted II Corriere della Sera in a five column front-page headline, above an aerial photograph of vast columns of smoke boiling up from the burning dockyards, which a caption in smaller print identified as the docks in London following the Luftwaffe's attack on 7 September. (35)) As in the First World War, Italy showed in the Second that when it came to small unit warfare there were in her armed forces men of skill and enterprise; the one success in the bombing of Malta in 1940, the sinking of a 40,000 ton floating dock in the Grand Harbour, was the work of a single S.79 making an individual bombing run in the dark, and on three separate occasions S.79s operating from Libya managed the extremely tricky feat of hitting manoeuvring British cruisers with torpedoes; one notes however that Massimiliano Erasi; the pilot who launched one of the torpedoes that hit H.M.S. Glasgow on December 3, 1940, was also the man who put H.M.S. Liverpool out of action on October 14, while Carlo Emanuele Buscaglia, who launched the other torpedo that hit H.M.S. Glasgow in December was very probably the man responsible for hitting H.M.S. Kent just before midnight on September 17, so that the successes of these two pilots out of half a dozen flying with what was then Italy's only specialist torpedo-bomber squadrons by no means allay doubts regarding the general skill levels of Regia Aeronautica crews. (36)

The Regia Aeronautica's efforts were not totally without effect of course--H.M.S. Kent and H.M.S. Liverpool were both out of action for a year. At Haifa following the two air raids in July 1940, the refineries reported 'local labour had been reduced by 80 per cent and output of those workers who still turned up was only 25 per cent of normal owing to their apprehensions.' (37) One might however have expected more from the third largest bomber force in the world. It could be argued perhaps that RAF Bomber Command was not achieving much more during this period, but at least it was training itself for future successes. For the Regia Aeronautica however, without the industrial resources behind it that Bomber Command enjoyed, or an adequate air crew training programme, there were to be no future successes. (38) By 1941 it had become, relative to the Luftwaffe and RAF, a very minor factor in the World War.


(1.) At this stage the Soviet WS had the largest number of bombers, possessing on 21 June 1941 no fewer than 8,400, mostly it seems SB-2 light bombers comparable to the Bristol Blenheim or Caproni Ca 313 but including at least 1,500 Ilyusihn Il-4s, a type with similar performance to the Savoia-Marchetti S.79: Christer Bergstrom, Barbarossa: the Air Battle July--Dec 1941 (Hersham, 2007) p. 131-2, Appendix 2. The Luftwaffe fielded 1,120 twin-engined bombers against France and the Low Countries in May 1940, and had more in Norway. The Japanese Navy and Army Air Forces had perhaps 600 multi-engined bombers between them, though the Japanese Navy had in addition an exceptionally strong force of single engine carrier-based bombers aircraft carriers could not accommodate twin-engined bombers at this period--and the Army a large number of single-engined fight bombers, out of date in concept but, in the case of the Mitsubishi Ki 51, of brand-new design. The Royal Air Force ranked fifth, followed at some distance by the U.S. Army Air Corps and France's Armee de l'Air.

(2.) Giuseppe Santoro, L'Aeronautica Italiana nella Seconda Guerra Mondiale (2 vols. Rome, 1957) vol. p. 88. A further 210 Cant Z.1007bis, Fiat B.R.20 and Savoia-Marchetti S.79 and S.81 bombers were with frontline units but were temporarily unserviceable.

Santoro, Sottocapo di Stato Maggiore dellAeronautica (Deputy Chief of Air Staff) during the war made very full use of the archival material available in Italy and is followed by all subsequent Italian authors writing about the Regia Aeronautica: slightly different figures were supplied by the Italian government to Britain's Royal Air Force in 1947 (e.g. 759 bombers ready for action)--see the National Archives Kew, London [TNA], AIR 20/6689 'Select documents on Air Operations 1940-1943 from the Italian Air Ministry Archives in Rome', p.23.

Cesare Gori, II Savoia Marchetti S.M. 79 nel Secondo Conflitto mondiale 1940-1943: con i Reparti di Bombardamento Terrestre, Ricognizione Strategica,Aviazione Sahariana (Rome 2004) has a wonderful collection of photographs, mainly but not exclusively of the S.79.

Britain's Royal Air Force was actually quite interested in acquiring Italian Caproni Ca 311s and Ca 313 bombers in the spring of 1940, though admittedly only for training purposes: TNA, AIR 2/5982--see especially minute by Air Vice Marshal Sholto Douglas, Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, 29 March 1940 AIR 2/5983, AVIA 15/264 and AVIA 15/265.

It is quite true that Italian fighters were underpowered though this was not because of technical backwardness--the Fiat A. 80 engines powering the Fiat B.R.20 bomber were the first eighteen-cylinder twin-row radiais to be used in a combat plane that was in serial production--but because the Regia Aeronautica failed to follow other air forces in the emphasis they gave to speed over manoeuvrability. As for the fighters being underarmed, the standard equipment of the Macchi M.C. 200 fighter was two 12.7 mm machine guns mounted about twenty inches apart above the engine with interrupter gear reducing their rate of fire to about 575 r.p.m each, and with ammunition for almost two thirds of a minute's firing (and a meter showing how much ammunition was left). The Royal Air Force's Hawker Hurricane I had eight 0.303inch machine guns each firing at 1,200 r.p.m mounted in the wings, the two innermost machine guns being about four yards apart. There was ammunition for a quarter minute's firing--say five three second bursts to the M.C. 200's twelve or thirteen--and no meter. A three second burst put twice the weight of bullets into the air as a three second burst from an Italian fighter but unless the target was at exactly the distance (usually 250 yards) at which the guns were 'harmonized' the bullets were spread out, and since they were one quarter the weight and with a smaller propellant charge behind them they had much less penetrative power than the Italian 12.7 mm ammunition.

(3.) Opera Omnia di Benito Mussolini (35 vols. Florence 195162) vol.29 p.365-6, 'Memoriale panoramico al re', 31 Mar 1940 cf. TNA FO 371/24943/R5872, Noel Charles to Viscount Halifax, 3 May 1940. See also MacGregor Knox, Mussolini Unleashed 193941: Politics and Strategy in Fascist Italy's Last War (Cambridge, 1982), though this gives a rather misleading account of the Regia Aeronautica p. 23-5.

(4.) Francesco Mattesini and Mario Cermelli, eds. Le Direttive Tecnico-Operative di Superaereo (2 vols. Rome 2002) vol. 1 pt 1, p.19-73, (plus four studi operative p. 74--136), summarized in Santoro, Aeronautica Italiana vol.l p. 78-83. The original has 'stretta concomitanza' but in English 'conformity' seems closer to the meaning than 'concomitance'

(5.) Knox, Mussolini Unleashed, p. 24

(6.) Thomas Hippier, Bombing the People, Giulia Douhet and the Foundations of Air-Power Strategy (Cambridge 2013) p. 217-48 and Giancarlo Garello, ll Breda 65 e I'aviazione d'assalto (Rome 1980) pp. 7-13 and 21-4, for Mecozzi's ideas and influence, cf. A.D Harvey, The Royal Air Force and Close Support ,1918-1940,' War in History vol. 15 (2008), p.462-486 at p. 479. Mecozzi's Scritti scelti sul potere aerea e l' aviazione d'assalto, 1920-1940. ed. F. Botti was published in 2 volumes in 2006 by il ufficio storico of the Aeronautica Militare. For Douhet, see not only his II Dominio dell'Aria (Turin, 1921, translated as The Command of the Air 1942) but also his article in La Gazzetta del Popolo of 12 December 1914 and his memo of 1916, printed in Diario Critico di Guerra (2 vols. Turin 1921) vol 2, p. 17. There is an extended discussion of his theories and the debate within Italian military circles in Hippier, Bombing the People, p.151-216.

(7.) It should however be acknowledged that the Regia Areonautica had responded to the needs of conditions in overseas colonial territories to a much greater extent than the Royal Air Force and, especially, L'Armee de l'Air: A. D. Harvey, 'A Slow Start: Military Air Transport at the beginning of the Second World War', Air Power History, vol.62, no. 1 (Spring 2015) p. 6-15 at p. 9-10. On the other hand, because or despite retaining control of naval aviation the Regia Aeronautica had been backward in retaining flying boats and multi-engined floatplanes as combat aircraft operating in areas where they would encounter much faster landbased aircraft, and on 10 June 1940 deployed 199 Cant Z.501 flying boat bombers and 95 Cant Z. 506B tri-motor floatplanes only 105 and 61 ready for action respectively. The French aeronavale had decided in 1939 to cancel a number of promising floatplanes projects and to concentrate on the employment of land planes over coastal waters: A.D Harvey, 'Floatplanes, Flying-boats and Oceanic Warfare, 1939-45', Air Power History vol. 57, no 4 (Winter 2010), p 4-19 at p. 18, note 14.

(8.) A stormo (flock) was the largest formation in the Regia Aeronautica normally operating a single type of aircraft. Stormi were usually sub-divided into gruppi of twelve or more aircraft, each gruppo being sub-divided into two squadriglie.

(9.) Giorgio Bonacina, Obiettivo: Italia (Milan, 1970) p.47.

(10.) Santoro, Aeronautica Italiana vol.l p.380, Stamage n.1/685.

(11.) Ibid p.380-381, Superaereo 13/14437.

(12.) Ibid p.381.

(13.) Ibid p.382.

(14.) Ibid p.377; TNA, WO 176/155 Appendix A items 30B and 34.

(15.) Santoro, Aeronautica Italiana vol.l p.388; British Library, London, India Office Records R/15/2/299, 'Administration Report of the Bahrain Agency and Trucial Coast for the Year 1940, p. 4; TNA, AIR 23/5312, telegram Air HQ Iraq 21 Oct. 1940.

(16.) John Foreman, Battle of Britain: the Forgotten Months: November and December 1940 (New Maldon 1988) p.69-77; II Corriere della Sera, 13 Nov. 1940 p.6a-c.

(17.) TNA, HO 199/81; Lowestoft Journal correspondence 19 and 26 October 1990. There are pictures of the damage in Ford Jenkins, Lowestoft: Port War: 1939-1945 (Ipswich [1946]) p.38.

(18.) TNA, HO 199/71.

(19.) Manlio Molfese, L'Aviazione da Ricognizione Italiana durante la Guerra Europea (Maggio 1915-Novembre 1918) (Rome, 1925) p.42; Basilio Di Martino, Mi Salle Trincee: ricognizione tattica ed osservazione aerea nell'aviazione italiana durante la Grande Guerra (Rome, 1999) p.113.

(20.) Santoro Aeronautica Italiana vol. 1, p.238 and 287; TNA, WO 106/2074, telegram Governor and C. Malta to War Office 1229 hours, 11 June 1940, telephone report by Major G.S. Simpson of MI 3c, 1145 hours, 11 June 1940, telegram Governor and C. in C. Malta to War Office 1418 hours, 11 June 1940; WO 106/2072, Middle East Command Situation Report no. 20 and 21, 23 and 24 September, 1940 and RAF HQ Mid East Report 6 October 1940--the two raids on Mersa Matruh killed nine soldiers and two Egyptian civilians and caused damage to buildings and vehicles..

(21.) TNA, CO 968/107/1. According to this summary there were 49 day and 29 night raids in the six months 11 June 1940 to 15 January 1941, in which 98 civilians were killed and 350 buildings destroyed or damaged, and 54 day and 88 night raids in the four and a half months 16 January to 31 May 1941 in which 197 civilians were killed and 1991 buildings damaged.

(22.) Santoro, Aeronautica Italiana vol. 1 p. 423-4. La Marina Italiana nella Seconda Guerra Mondial (18 vols. Rome 1951-1966) vol. 4, (by R. Giuseppe Fioravanzo) p.138-9, Malcolm Muggeridge ed. Ciano's Diary: 1939-1943 (London, 1947) p.276. TNA, ADM 53/112922, ships log of H.M.S. Orion 9 July 1940.

Of the 126 attacking aircraft, 24 were damaged by anti-aircraft fire and one was shot down. General Santoro suggests this was by Italian A A. fire. In the attack by Japanese bombers which sank the battleship H.M.S Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser H.M.S. Repulse on 10 December 1941 four out of 85 Japanese aircraft were shot down by A .A. fire and 28 damaged: twice the casualty rate of the Italian attack on 9 July 1940. Admittedly most of the Japanese aircraft pressed home their attacks at very low level because they were attacking with torpedoes, but on 9 July 1940 the British battle squadron, with three battleships and five cruisers and an aircraft carrier--and not counting the efforts of the destroyer screen--could put up almost three times the volume of heavy A.A. fire as the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, indicating that either the fire of the latter two ships was much more accurate or that the Italian bombers were much more careful to keep out of range.

On 8 July 1940, the day previous to the battle of Punto Stilo, during the course of attacks by 72 aircraft, the cruiser H.M.S Gloucester received a direct hit on the bridge, killing the captain, a commander and two lieutenant commanders, two sub-lieutenants and eleven other crew members: next day the ship was 'straddled by 2 sticks of bombs' but that seems to have been the closest the Italian bombers came on 9 July TNA, ADM 53/112346, ship's log of H.M.S. Gloucester.

(23.) Santoro, Aeronautica Italiana vol. 1 p.239. Britain's Royal Air Force, incidentally, despite planning to have more than 1400 heavy bombers bristling with defensive armament operating by daylight by April 1941, decided in December 1939 that '24 aircraft is the maximum that can be employed against one target at any one time': TNA, AIR 14/129, "Types of formation for Bombers', 8A "Extract from minutes of Group Commanders Conference,' 16 December 1939, para 32. Only the Germans in 1940 were near to engaging with the air traffic control problem of forming up the kind of wing-strength formations utilized by the U.SAA.F in 1944.

(24.) Bonacina, Obiettivo Italiana p.67.

(25.) Santoro, Aeronautica Italiana vol. 1 p.387.

(26.) TNA, FO 371/27624/F981 Wing Commander J. Warburton (air attache Chongqing) to Director of Intelligence, Air Ministry 1 Sept. 1940.

(27.) Christian-Jacques Ehrengardt and Christopher F. Shores, LAviation de Vichy au Combat (2 vols. Paris, 1985-7) p.51-2. These were the largest raids carried out by the French in 1940.

(28.) Martin Middlebrook and Colin Everitt, The Bomber Command War Dairies--An Operational Reference Book, 1939-1945 (London, 1985) p.51,52 ,73,85, 111.

(29.) TNA, WO 106/2074, Governor and C. in C. Malta to War Office, 22 July 1940.

(30.) Palestine Post, 11 September 1940,

(31.) TNA, CO 323/1787/54 (and also CO 733/432/6), High Commissioner's telegrams 24 and 25 July and 24 September 1940, WO 106/ 2072 Middle East Command Situation Report no. 19 and 20,22 and 23 September 1940. Situation Report no. 19 gives the casualties as 32 Arab dead and 68 injured.

(32.) Ibid.

(33.) TNA, WO 176/155 Appendix A, item 37. For the raids on Haifa as the only serious attempt by the Regia Aeronautica in 1940 to use aircraft along the lines recommended by Giulio Douhet cf. his Diario Critico di Guerra (2 vols.Turin 1921-2) vol.2 p.20-21: but note that only one gruppo was involved and it was often diverted to other targets.

(34.) Santoro, Aeronautica Italiana vol. 1 p.239. Britain's Royal Air Force had investigated pattern bombing before the war: R.S. Capon, Deputy Director of Research and Development (Armament), who had pioneered a theoretical approach to pattern bombing in the early 1920s, reported that "the probable number of hits obtained by individual attack will always be greater than in pattern bombing, whatever pattern is adopted': TNA, AIR 20/4149, p.1. 'Note on Pattern Bombing', September 1938 (also in AIR 2/2652 at 26c, but without the author being identified). In March 1940 Group Captain E.D. Davis, Bomber Command's Armament Officer concluded, 'in formation, success depends upon accurate station keeping, which I suggest is impractable': AIR 14/979. In November 1942 a 19 page mathematical paper entitled The Principles of Pattern Bombing' obtained a wide (confidential) circulation,: AIR 20/12962. In 1944 it was standard practice for British-operated medium bombers (Mitchell's and Boston's--i.e. North American B-25s and Douglas A-20s) to bomb from an altitude of 6-13000 feet either on the leader of a "box' of six or on the leader of a wave of three 'boxes', but by this stage of the war a principal consideration was to get all the aircraft over the target and out of flak range as quickly as possible: De Havilland Mosquito fight bombers on the other hand would attack fine astern at very low altitude and bomb individually, because at low altitude they would pass over the target's flak defences far more rapidly: AIR 37/16, Staff College lecture by Air Vice Marshal Basil Embry.

(35.) II Corriere della Sera, 11 Sept 1940,

(36.) Carlo Unia, Storia degli Aerosiluranti Italiani, (Rome, 1974) p.83-5.

(37.) TNA, CO 323/1787/54, High Commissioner's telegram 31 July 1940.

(38.) See generally Stephen Harvey, The Italian War Effort and the Strategic Bombing of Italy, History vol.70 (1985) p.32-45 passim.

Even though Italian torpedo bombers might be partially exempted from the claim that the Regia Aeronautica had no success after 1940, it should be pointed out that of the 385 Allied merchant and naval vessels sunk by air attack in the Mediterranean between 11 June 1940 and 8 September 1943 only 36 were sunk by the Regia Aeronautical the rest were sunk by the Luftwaffe: see Alberto Santoni, Francesco Mattesini, La Partecipizione Tedesca alia Guerra Aeronavale nel Mediterraneo (1940-1945) (Rome, 1980) p.597-8. To rub the point home, Luftwaffe Domier Do 217s sank the Italian battleship Roma with radio guided bombs on 9 September 1943, while it was on its way to surrender.

Since 1990 A. D. Harvey has contributed more than a dozen articles on air warfare to publications such as Journal of Contemporary History, War in History, RUSI Journal, Air Power History, and BBC History Magazine. Various aspects of air warfare are also discussed in his two books Collision of Empires: Britain in Three World Wars 1793-1945 (1992) and Arnhem (2001). This extends his article in RUSI Journal v. 154 no. 6, Dea 2009.
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Author:Harvey, A.D.
Publication:Air Power History
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Sep 22, 2016
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