Italian Air Force Tactics

February 3, 2010 0 Comments

Macchi M.C.202 Folgore: The answer to the lack of a suitable Italian engine was using a German one. The Folgore was a M.C.200 re-engineered to use a copy of the DB601A. The M.C.202 was still under armed, but it was superior to the Hurricanes and P-40's the allied were using in the Mediterranean. Inset: Fiat C.R.42 Falco: The C.R.42 was one of the best biplane fighters ever built, but this did not make up for the fact that it was already obsolete before its first flight in 1938. Nevertheless the C.R.42 provided the backbone of the Italian air force in 1940 and was exported to Belgium, Hungary and Sweden. Participation in the Battle of Britain was disastrous, but the production continued well into 1943. Even the German Luftwaffe used 150, as night attack aircraft! Over 1780 built. A C.R.42B with a 1100hp DB601 engine may have been the fastest biplane fighter ever flown...

 

Macchi M.C.200 Saetta: The M.C.200 originated from the same requirement as the Fiat G.50 looked very similar and suffered from the same vices -- the original design was armed with only one 12.7mm gun. Yet the M.C.200 was probably the most used Italian monoplane fighter, and it proved effective against older fighters like the Hurricane. Inset: Reggiane Re.2000 Falco I: This was a contemporary of the G.50 and M.C.200. The Re.2000 had obviously been inspired by the U.S. Seversky P-35 fighter, with its semi-elliptical wings and neatly cowled radial engine. Most of the about 170 built were sold to Sweden (60) and Hungary (70).

 

Italian Air Force tactics are if anything even less well documented than those of the navy. As with the navy, officers and enlisted men were an elite. As with the navy, that fact alone did not guarantee their effectiveness. Pricolo purged the senior ranks of the air staff and ministry upon his appointment in November 1939, but high air force commands thereafter rotated among a restricted circle of generals. 1 Below that level, attrition from the inherent hazards of air transport and combat made possible some renewal in the course of the war. But the air force's system for advanced officer schooling did not prepare its middle ranks to cope with the complexities of interservice cooperation. Nor did the air staff find it easy to fill mid-level command positions, which required flying skill, operational and tactical knowledge, and the ability to inspire others. Pricolo privately lamented in August 1940, after a number of officers had performed poorly in North Africa, that it was ``far from easy to ensure that only officers fully up to their tasks receive[d] unit commands.''2

 

Finally, the air force had failed to anticipate before the war the enormous combat attrition of crews - as well as of aircraft - that was coming. Its flight training schools, like those of the Luftwaffe, were already by autumn 1940 clearly inadequate to cope with losses unless the pace of operations slowed. By spring 1943, it was clear that the 800-900 pilots and proportionate numbers of crew and specialists the schools had turned out each year had not been anywhere near enough: ``the air force, in the space of three years, had had to consume the greater - and often the best - part of its human capital, and had worn out the remainder.'' Between June 1940 and June 1942 the air force trained only 1920 pilots while losing perhaps a thousand.

 

The quality of training was also far from adequate. Fuel shortages, financial constraints, and a high accident rate bedeviled the initial pilot training course, which did not provide enough flying time to allow graduates to make an easy transition to front-line aircraft and techniques. Nor did the air force perceive until 1941 the need for operational training units where that transition might take place without burdening combat units with on-the-job trainees. 3 Even pilots in line units did not fly enough at the outset, especially under adverse climatic conditions, to improve their proficiency; a survey conducted for Pricolo in 1940 determined that only 30 percent of the Regia Aeronautica's 5,000-odd pilots had reached a standard of training the air force leadership judged adequate.

 

Tactical communications were lamentably inadequate throughout the war. Two-way voice radio was slow to arrive even for bombers, and not until early 1943 did it become standard equipment on Italy's front-line fighters. 4 Up to that point virtually all fighter pilots communicated by hand signals, with at best a receiving set for ground-controlled interception. Despite German help, the air defense radar and communications systems for the peninsula deployed in 1942-43 were little help in warding off RAF and USAAF attacks.

 

 

The air force's tactical system was a curious patchwork. Bombers were the dominant arm at the outset, and trained to fight in close defensive formations with simultaneous release of bomb loads on the objective. In combat, these tactics apparently served well in maximizing what little accuracy the primitive Italian bombsights and navigational aids provided. 5

 

The Regia Aeronautica also did not disdain the combination of arms: from the beginning it was less Douhetian than the USAAF. Combat in Spain had taught the need for fighter escort for the bombers. 6 From the first operations against France in 1940, air force commanders therefore attempted wherever possible to provide escorts, although Italian fighters throughout the war lacked the necessary range and firepower. By late 1941 the air force had also discovered the synchronization of level bombers, dive-bombers, and torpedo aircraft. 7

 

Yet the air staff apparently placed little stress on surprise. Bomber units attacking well-defended targets such as Alexandria or Malta made little special effort to achieve it, even after the air force belatedly perceived in mid-1941 that the British had air defense radar. Pilots of the fighter bombers that the air force belatedly acquired were more imaginative. In June 1942 two Re2001s, equipped with specially designed heavy bombs, joined the landing circuit of the British carrier Victorious to deliver a ``brilliantly conceived and executed attack.'' Yet as so often in the history of the Italian armed forces, collective inadequacies in research and development cancelled out individual skill and valor. One bomb hit the carrier squarely, but its fuse had been sketchily tested, and it failed to explode. 8 The tactics of the fighter force, which by 1943 made up two-thirds of the Regia Aeronautica's front-line strength, rested initially on the prowess of the pilot as aerial matador: ``Vista, suerte . . . y al toro,'' acquired in Spain, was the Italian equivalent of ``tally-ho!'' Thereafter the air force's pilots, as Lucio Ceva has put it, ``rejected'' the monoplane fighter. Low wing loading made the twin-machine-gun wood-and-fabric biplane more maneuverable, more suitable for aerobatic display and individual virtuosity than the soulless and alien aluminum monoplane. No other air force clung so stubbornly to its biplanes; even the Japanese naval fighter pilots, who prized maneuverability as much as their Italian air force counterparts, opted for the monoplane in 1934 -37. Ultimately the total inadequacy of the FIAT CR42 biplane against Hurricanes and Spitfires forced change; brilliance in aerobatic single combat was largely useless against high-speed formation attacks out of the sun, coordinated with two-way radio, by RAF fighters that possessed enormous advantages in speed, high-altitude performance, and firepower even over the Regia Aeronautica's first monoplanes. The MC202, although undergunned, improved the fighter force's situation upon its arrival in the second half of 1941. But it was not until the first MC205s reached units in early 1943 that the Regia Aeronautica's pilots had a machine capable of executing the tactics long practiced by their enemies and ally. 9

 

The air force's support system was as inadequate tactically as it was operationally. Shortage of vehicles for transport of crew, water, fuel and ordnance limited dispersal of aircraft on the fields, and of units to satellite fields. 10 Unit maintenance and supply at the outset are best described by a pilot who deployed to Libya in 1940:

The aircraft flew primarily because they were brand new, and also because our ground crews made the most unheard-of deals with other units, with mysterious Arab traders, and with the scavengers preying on wrecked Italian and British aircraft. . . . The same thing, the same system of improvisation, was followed for the mess, the aid station, and the other vital necessities of men in the desert. We had high losses; not from the enemy, but from equipment difficulties. 11

 

Thereafter, even in Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia, the air force's ground organization and industrial backing proved unequal to the task of maintaining the high sortie rates that tactical as well as operational success required. Repeated shortages of torpedoes limited the effectiveness of the torpedo-bombers in 1941 and after, although the Comando Supremo had rightly given highest priority to their production. In the great Malta convoy battle of August 1942, the Regia Aeronautica's swan song, it committed 500 torpedo-bombers, bombers, fighters, and reconnaissance aircraft only with extraordinary difficulty. Within six months the adversaries of the Axis had well over 4,000 aircraft operating in the Mediterranean theater alone.

 

 

Notes:

 

1. Compare the incumbents of air staff key positions, comandanti di squadra aerea, comandanti di Z.A.T., comandanti aeronautica zonale, and army and navy auxiliary aviation commanders for 1940 with those for 1942 in Arena, Aeronautica, vol. 1, pp. 151-58; vol. 3, pp. 18-22.

 

2. Navy: USMM, L'organizzazione, vol. 1, pp. 279-80. Air force: Pricolo to Porro (air commander, North Africa), quoted in Knox, Mussolini, p. 24; also Felice Porro, ``La Quinta Squadra Aerea in Libia (10 giugno 1940-5 febbraio 1941),'' Rivista Aeronautica, 1948, no. 9, p. 533. Only the Scuola di Applicazione della Regia Aeronautica (Florence) provided advanced training for regular (but not reserve) line officers; on the inadequacies of its curriculum, see Arena, Aeronautica, vol. 1, p. 109.

 

3. Pricolo to Mussolini, September 1940; quotation: Fougier to Ambrosio, 15 April 1943, Direttive Superaereo, 1/1:243, 2/2:699; figures: Santoro, L'aeronautica, vol. 2, pp. 470, 473 (fuel shortages: pp. 474-76); Arena, Aeronautica, vol. 2, pp. 563±67; for similar German difficulties, see Murray, Luftwaffe, pp. 254-55, 277-78, 302-3, 312.

 

4. Arena, Aeronautica, 4:635.

 

5. Santoro, L'aeronautica, vol. 2, p. 265, in part quoting British accounts.

 

6. LTC Bruno Montanari, Appunti sull'impiego dei mezzi aerei (Caserta, 1941/42), NARA T-821/461/000188, 000206.

 

7. Peter C. Smith and Edwin Walker, The Battles of the Malta Striking Forces (Annapolis, MD, 1974), p. 91; also Santoro, L'aeronautica, vol. 2, pp. 380, 382, 391, 403-04.

 

8. Payne, Red Duster, White Ensign, p. 229; Arena, Aeronautica, vol. 3, pp. 463, 469-70, 715.

 

9. See particularly Ceva, ``Lo sviluppo degli aerei militari in Italia (1938-1940),'' Il Risorgimento 35:1 (1983), p. 32; on the cult of the ``pilot-hero,'' see also Alberto Rea, L'Accademia Aeronautica (Rome, 1977), pp. 134, 146.

 

10. Porro, ``La Quinta Squadra Aerea in Libia,'' 6:356-57, 8:534.

 

11. Giuseppe D'Avanzo, Ali e poltrone (Rome, 1981), p. 348.

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