Monday, March 9, 2015

Regia Aeronautica service in the Battle of Britain

A Fiat G.50bis of20 Gruppo, 51 Stormo based at Ursel, Belgium, in October 1940. Lack of range and poor armament severely restricted the type's participation in the Battle of Britain.

Mussolini led Italy into WW2 on 10th/11th June 1940. Italy posed a very real threat to British interests in the Mediterranean, but for reasons of propaganda (following RAF raids on the Caproni and Fiat factories on mainland Italy) Mussolini was particularly eager to join the assault on Britain itself. In July, he offered units of the Regia Aeronautica for service in the Battle of Britain, and was politely refused by Hitler and Goering. However, after repeated requests, Goering eventually agreed to the participation of a Corpo Aereo Italiano in mid-September.

The Corpo Aereo Italiano consisted of 80 Fiat BR20M 'Cicogna' medium bombers (43rd Gruppo), fifty Fiat CR42 'Falco' biplane fighters (18th Gruppo) and 48 Fiat G50 'Freccia' fighters (20th Gruppo). There were also a handful of CRDA Cant Z1007 'Alcione' medium bombers.

Eight bombers were damaged en route to their designated base at Melsbroek, Belgium, most by forced landings.

Sixteen BR20s took part in a night raid on Harwich on October 25. Two of the bombers ran out of fuel and the crews were forced to bale out over Belgium, whilst another BR20 had been damaged earlier on take-off. The daylight raid on Ramsgate on October 29 was conducted by 15 BR20s, accompanied by CR42s. This seems to have been executed without loss.

Apparently, the experienced German Luftwaffe fighter pilots detailed to act as escorts and trainers were less than enthusiastic about their assignment. Their irritation is understandable, given that the maximum speed of the BR20 was 267 miles per hour, and even the G50 'Freccia' fighter could only manage 293mph. It would have been quite perilous for fast German escorts to be chained to such slow aircraft. The Luftwaffe's Messerschmitt Bf109E fighter's maximum speed was 354mph, and the British Supermarine Spitfire Mk 1a's 362mph. Even the British Hawker Hurricane Mk II had a top speed of 345mph. RAF combat reports from the Harwich raid (see below) also reveal that the Italian machines flew in a tight 'vic' formations - visually impressive at peacetime airshows, but totally unsuited to combat flying. The RAF had themselves learnt this lesson the hard way some months earlier.

The final recorded raid of the Corpo Aereo Italiano took place on 11 November 1940 (most British sources arbitrarily date the end of the 'Battle of Britain' at 31 October). This raid of approximately 12 BR20s, 12 CR42s and some CR50s was picked by British coastal radar stations at 13.30 hours, heading for the Essex port of Harwich. Approximately 30 Hurricane fighters from RAF Martlesham and RAF North Weald were 'scrambled' to intercept. British squadrons involved were nos. 257, 17, 46, and (belatedly) 249. British combat reports from the day claimed 9 BR20s destroyed (plus 1 damaged), and 4 CR42s destroyed (plus 3 probably destroyed and 1 damaged), with 2 Hurricanes slightly damaged. In the confusion and heat of combat, over-claiming was rife on both sides throughout the Battle of Britain. A study in 1988 revealed that four BR20s and four CR42s were actually brought down. Among those captured were Sgt P. Salvadori, Sgt Major A Lazzoni, Picto Appani, and two other unidentified aircrew.

The 1988 study recorded only one Hurricane damaged - that of Flight Lieutenant Howard Blatchford (a Canadian) of 257 squadron, who, having run out of ammunition, brought down one of the CR42 fighters by carving up its upper wing with his own propeller. Amazingly, Blatchford survived this encounter unhurt, but did not survive the war, posted missing in action over the English Channel in 1943.

Sources: Francis K. Mason, Battle over Britain (London: McWhirter Twins, 1969) [there is a later edition], pp.470-473. John Foreman, Battle of Britain: The Forgotten Months, November and December 1940_ (New Malden, Surrey: Air Research Publications, 1988), pp.67-78. Kenneth G. Wynn, Men of the Battle of Britain (Croydon, Surrey, UK: CCB Associates, 2nd ed., 1999), p.50

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