The Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica Italiana) was the name of the air force of the Kingdom of Italy. It was established as a service independent of the Royal Italian Army from 1923 until 1946. In 1946, the monarchy was abolished and the Kingdom of Italy became the Italian Republic, whereupon the name of the air force changed to Aeronautica Militare.
Corpo Aeronautico Militare
The Italian Corpo Aeronautico Militare (Military Aviation Corps) was formed as part of the part of the Regio Esercito (Royal Army) on 7th January 1915, incorporating the Aviators Flights Battalion (airplanes), the Specialists Battalion (airships) and the Ballonists Battalion. Prior to World War I, Italy had pioneered military aviation in the Italo-Turkish War during 1911–1912. Its army also contained one of the world’s foremost theorists about the future of military aviation, Giulio Douhet; Douhet also had a practical side, as he was largely responsible for the development of Italy’s Caproni bombers starting in 1913. Italy also had the advantage of a delayed entry into World War I, not starting the fight until 24th May 1915, but took no advantage of it so far as aviation was concerned.
Italy entered World War I with an air force technologically comparable to a force on the Western Front in 1914. Lacking fighter aircraft, throughout the war the Italians resorted to airplanes supplied by the French either directly or built under license. The early air force was also woefully tactically deficient; basically, its fighter craft were scrambled into the air only when enemy planes were spotted overhead. However, the Caproni bombers developed to operational status, flying their first sorties on 20th August 1915.
After the war the Corpo Aeronautico Militare became the basis of the Regia Aeronautica, which became an air force independent of the Royal Italian Army on 28 March 1923.
Before World War I
Italy was a pioneer in pre-World War I military aviation, using aircraft in Libya during the Italo-Turkish War in 1911. It also had one of military aviation’s prophets within its army’s ranks, in Giulio Douhet. In June 1911, even before the fighting began in Libya, Douhet predicted that the most effective opponent of military aircraft would be other aircraft. He also predicted the greater vulnerability to enemy action of lighter-than-air machines.
The Libyan flight experiment may have delivered only four small bombs, but the potential of air power was explicit enough that both the Regio Esercito and the Regia Marina established air units in 1912. The naval air unit was dubbed the Sezioni Idrovolanti (Seaplane Section). The army’s Battaglione Aviatori (Aviation Battalion) for heavier-than-air craft was established on 27th June. On 28th November 1912, the two new units were collectively dubbed the Servizio Aeronautico Militare.
By September 1913, Douhet foresaw the future need for designing a single-seat plane with a forward-firing gun. Also in 1913, he ignored his superior officers’ wishes and collaborated with Giovanni Battista Caproni in the design of Caproni’s huge three-engined bomber. Douhet’s superiors, unhappy with this, exiled him to an infantry assignment.
On 28th July 1914, as part of the chain reaction of events opening World War I, Austria declared war on Serbia and requested Italian help. Italy maintained its neutrality due to the Triple Alliance being a defensive pact. On 24th May 1915, Italy declared war on Austria to join World War I. As of May 1915, Italy still had no single-seat scouts with a forward-firing gun. It did have 86 airplanes and 70 pilots organized into 14 squadrons to start its war.
World War I
The Corpo Aeronautico Militare (Military Aviation Corps) was formed as part of the part of the Regio Esercito (Royal Army) on 7 January 1915, incorporating the Aviators Flights Battalion (airplanes), the Specialists Battalion (airships) and the Ballonists Battalion. Meanwhile, the Regia Marina (Royal Navy) still had its own air arm, operating locally-built flying boats.
Italy’s aerial operations during World War I were split into three geographic areas.
First was the Adriatic coast. Although aircraft of the time were short-ranged enough to make flights over the central Adriatic Sea difficult, they could operate over the south or north ends where the sea was narrower. As a unique result, both the Italians and their opposing Austro-Hungarian aviation developed the only theater of war that featured seaplane bombers and fighters.
The second area, an internal one, was that covered by home defense aviation units to protect Italian cities from aerial bombing. These home defense squadrons would prove to be of little military value.
The last, and most active area, was northern Italy on the border, near and in the verge of the Alps, where Italian aircraft supported the Italian ground troops fighting along and near the Isonzo River in a series of 11 battles throughout the war. The climatic actions in this theater were the Battle of Caporetto, followed by the Battle of Vittorio Veneto.
Italy’s air war begins
First attempts to organize and use Italian aircraft to fight the Austro-Hungarian aerial invaders were dismal. Italian pilots were equipped with Nieuport 10s and deployed in a “scramble” mode instead of standing patrols. They soon found that their French-made two-seaters could not take off and climb quickly enough to bring an invader to combat, even when burdened by only a pilot. The lack of a net of ground observers and aircraft spotters to give early warning only compounded the difficulties. By the end of 1915, Italian Nieuports had succeeded in attacking Austro-Hungarian airplanes on seven occasions. The Austro-Hungarians reported two losses for the year. Also in 1915, the Caproni bomber came on line to begin long distance bombing missions. Its first sortie, on 20th August 1915, was a raid on Aisovizza. This was the start of a series of tit-for-tat raids on enemy cities launched by both Italy and Austro-Hungary that would carry on through war’s end.
On 18th February 1916, on a long range raid to Lubljana, Oreste Salomone earned the first aviation award of the Gold Medal for Military Valor for his valor. Six days later, the Austro-Hungarians hit Milan for their first bombing raid. This raid, as well as the ones that followed on other Italian cities and towns, provoked a considerable home defense effort by the Italians, who founded home defense squadrons to counter the attacks.
On 7th April 1916, the newly formed Italian fighter arm scored its first victories despite being handicapped by “scramble” tactics. Newly supplied Nieuport 11s, with their improved performance, made the difference. By May, in an attempt to replace casualties and expand its air force, 568 Italian pilots graduated from 20- to 24-week courses in the first five months of 1916. On 28th August 1916, Italy declared war on the German Empire. In August 1916 Italy began use of escort fighters accompanying its bombers to ward off Austro-Hungarian interceptors intent on foiling Italian bombing raids.
When the Battle of Asiago erupted on 14th May 1916 in an Austro-Hungarian attempt to attack the rear of the Isonzo Front, Italian air assets aided the Italian army in countering the attack. Italian aviation had a significant effect on the course of fighting on Mount Ortigara; its 61 bombers dropped 5.5 tons of bombs on Austro-Hungarian troops. The 84 escorts for this mission found little opposition, as the Austro-Hungarians could muster only three single-seat fighters and 23 two-seater reconnaissance craft against them.
By September 1916 Italian air assets came to 42 squadrons crewed by 369 pilots (140 officers, 229 enlisted), 162 observers, and 123 gunners. By the end of 1916, Italians fliers were credited with 56 aerial victories for the year.
The Battle of Caporetto
The ongoing stalemate of the Battles of the Isonzo drew more and more of Italy’s military forces northward to repel the invaders. By August 1917, the Italians could muster over 200 operational aircraft on its northern front on any given day. Their pressure on the invaders was considerable. In the early hours of 24th October 1917, the Austro-Hungarians having been supplemented by German troops, launched a devastating attack on the Italian lines centered on the Caporetto Valley. Shattered by the first use of poison gas on the Italian front and flung back by the ferocious assaults, Italian troops withdrew to the Piave River to establish a new defense line. Italian fighter aircraft flew several daily sorties apiece in support of their own troops during this battle. Demand for close air support was so insistent that the massive Caproni strategic bombers were diverted to the task. Naval seaplanes were even called in overland in support missions. After the Battle of Caporetto, Italian aviation assets had dwindled to 59 squadrons containing 378 craft, with slightly more than 100 being fighters. For aircrews, it could muster 497 pilots, 284 observers, and 152 gunners. It had also lost the use of 22 airfields, as well as other infrastructure that had fallen into enemy hands. The net effect of Caporetto was to set the Italian air effort back some one to two years. However, the Italian Air Force officially scored 170 aerial victories for 1917, in 700 combats.
The final offensives
Italian propaganda leaflet that Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio threw from his (Ansaldo SVA) airplane during his Flight over Vienna
The two armies in northern Italy lapsed into an exhausted pause until June 1918. During this pause, as part of the rebuilding process, the Italian Army accumulated both a “bomber mass” and a “fighter mass” to concentrate the power of its air force. On the 15th, the Austro-Hungarians along the Piave River launched their last offensive, which shortly fizzled. As usual, heavier ground fighting brought on increased air activity. Victory claims by Italian aviation were almost double that of its opponent. Although the Austro-Hungarians claimed victory over two Italian observation balloons and 43 airplanes, in turn, Italy claimed 72 airplanes and five balloons shot down. On the individual level, however, Italy had suffered greatly, as she lost the services of her leading ace, Francesco Baracca, as well as leading aces Flavio Baracchini and Silvio Scaroni.
On 26th October 1918, the Italians launched their final offensive, the Battle of Vittorio Veneto. Their ground troops were supported by a mass of 400 aircraft; though some were British or French, the majority were Italian. Within three days, the Austro-Hungarian military began to dissolve. The fighting on the front ended on 3rd November 1918. The Corpo Aeronautico Militare would be credited with 633 victories during World War I. Although it had not gone to the extreme offensive tactics of the Royal Air Force, it had achieved air superiority and vanquished its foe.
Early in the war, French aircraft had been brought in to defend Venice from air attack. In the wake of the Battle of Caporetto, four squadrons of the British Royal Flying Corps were dispatched to Italy to supplement the Italian aviation effort. Unbeknownst to either Italians or British, the Austro-Hungarians were beginning to suffer shortages of vital war materials on the home front; as a result, their aviation activities were seriously curtailed for the Winter of 1917. However, the RFC squadrons would claim 550 victories for their year in Italy.
In turn, the German Empire reinforced its laggard allies the Austro-Hungarians with air assets; however, they were also relatively inactive over the Winter of 1917–1918.
Italy produced 12,000 aircraft during the course of the war–this despite an economy that was based on agriculture rather than technology. However, much of this production capacity was wasted on the failed development of the SIA 7. Italian army fighter pilots mostly found themselves flying either French Spad VIIs, Spad XIIIs, or Nieuports, or Macchi’s knockoffs of Nieuports. The failure of the multi-purpose SIA 7 also left some Italian pilots flying obsolescent Farman and Voisin reconnaissance craft well into 1918, and paying the price in blood. Italian naval aviators, however, were supplied with seaplane fighters by Macchi, such as the M.5 or the M.7, that were the equals of landbound fighters.
Italy did better with producing larger aircraft. The Caproni was already in production even before World War I, and had such a progressive design that it would serve for the war’s duration. Macchi’s copies of an Austro-Hungarian Lohner flying boat captured on 24th May 1915 meant the Lohner design served both Austria-Hungary and Italy for the length of the war.
The Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica Italiana) was the name of the air force of the Kingdom of Italy. It was established as a service independent of the Royal Italian Army from 1923 until 1946. In 1946, the monarchy was abolished and the Kingdom of Italy became the Italian Republic, whereupon the name of the air force changed to Aeronautica Militare.
Founding of the Regia Aeronautica
The Italian air force became an independent service—the Regia Aeronautica—on March 28th, 1923. Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime turned it into an impressive propaganda machine, with its aircraft, featuring the Italian flag colors across the full span of the undersides of the wings, making numerous record-breaking flights. Between 1st April 1939 and 1st November 1939, Italian airmen established no fewer than 110 records, winning world championships in round trips, long-range flights, high speed and altitude flights. Possibly the most brilliant successes were the floatplane’s world speed record of 709 km/h (440.6 mph) achieved by Francesco Agello on the Macchi-Castoldi MC-72 in October 1934 and the long-range formation flight to the USA and back to Italy in 1933, a total of 19,000 km (11,800 miles) on Savoia-Marchetti S.55 flying boats. This pioneering achievement was organized and led by General of Aviation Italo Balbo.
During the latter half of the 1930s, the Regia Aeronautica participated in the Spanish Civil War, as well as the invasions of Ethiopia and Albania.
The first test for the new Italian Royal Air force came in October 1935, with the Ethiopian war. During the final stages of the war, Regia Aeronautica deployed up to 386 aircraft, operating from Eritrea and Somalia. The Italian aviators did not have any opposition in the air, as the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force had just 15 transport and liaison aircraft, only nine of which were serviceable. However the Regia Aeronautica lost 72 planes and 122 aircrew members while supporting the operations of the Regio Esercito, sometimes dropping poison gas bombs against the Ethiopian army. And after the end of hostilities, on 5th May 1936, for the following 13 months the Regia Aeronautica had to assist Italian forces in fighting Ethiopian guerrillas.
Spanish Civil War
During the Spanish Civil War Italian pilots fought alongside Spanish Nationalist and German Luftwaffe pilots as members of the Aviazione Legionaria (“Aviation Legion”). This deployment took place from July 1936 to March 1939 and complemented an expeditionary force of Italian ground troops titled “Corps of Volunteer Troops”. In Spain, the Italian pilots were under direct command of the Spanish Nationalists and took part in training and joint operations with the pilots of the German “Condor Legion”. Mussolini sent to Spain 6,000 aviation personnel as well as about 720 aircraft, including 100 Savoia Marchetti SM.79 bombers and 380–400 Fiat CR.32 biplanes that dominated the air, proving superior to the Soviet Polikarpovs of Republican Air Force. The Aviazione legionaria achieved approximately 500 air victories, losing 86 aircraft in air combat and about 200 flying personnel. But more important than the material losses were the wrong conclusions from air war in Spain. The Air Ministry, blinded by the success of the Fiat CR.32, persisted in its belief that the biplane could still dominate the sky in the following years, and ordered large production of Fiat CR.42, the last war biplane in history.
The Regia Aeronautica played a limited role during the Italian invasion of Albania.
World War II
In July 1939, the Regia Aeronautica was seen as splendid air arm, holding no fewer than 33 world records, which was more than Germany (15), France (12), the United States (11) Soviet Union (7), Japan (3), the United Kingdom (2) and Czechoslovakia(1). When World War II began in 1939, Italy had a paper strength of 3,296 machines. While numerically still a force to be reckoned with, it was hampered by the local aircraft industry which was using obsolete production methods. In reality, only 2,000 aircraft were fit for operations, of which just 166 were modern fighters 89 Fiat G.50 and 77 Macchi MC.200, both type slower than potential opponents as the Hawker Hurricane, the Supermarine Spitfire and the Dewoitine D.520. Still, Regia Aeronautica had no long-range fighters nor night fighters. Technical assistance provided by its German ally did little to improve the situation.
Battle of France
On 10th June 1940, during the closing days of the Battle of France, Italy declared war on France and the United Kingdom. On 13th June, Fiat CR.42s attacked French air bases and escorted Fiat BR.20s that bombed the harbour of Toulon. Two days later, CR.42s from 3° Stormo and 53° Stormo attacked again French Air Force bases and clashed with Dewoitine D.520s and Bloch MB.152s, claiming eight kills for five losses. But when on 15th June, a French small fleet shelled the Ligurian coast, the Italian air force was not able to prevent this action or to attack the French ships effectively, showing a lack of cooperation with the Regia Marina, Italian navy. The Regia Aeronautica carried out 716 bombing missions in support of the Italian invasion of France by the Regio Esercito. Italian aircraft dropped a total of 276 tons of bombs. Generale Giuseppe Santoro in his book published after the war criticized such unplanned use for the Air Force, which had not been prepared for operations against fortifications which were immune to aerial bombing. Only about 80 long tons (81 t) of bombs were dropped on the targets, with little effect. During this short war, Regia Aeronautica lost 10 aircraft in aerial combat and 24 aircrew personnel, while claiming 10 kills and 40 French planes destroyed on the ground.
After the war, there was a widespread rumour in France, especially between Paris and Bordeaux, of Italian aircraft strafing civilian columns, with many people claiming to have seen the tricolour roundels painted on them. Allegations of Italian aircraft attacking civilians have been disproved, as the Italian aircraft did not have the range to hit such distant targets and concentrated on short-range military objectives (Regia Aeronautica wing roundels had three fasci littori, having replaced the tricolour ones). It was concluded that this was nothing more of a myth, arising from the reaction to the Italian attack, the fame of the Italian air force and the heated and confused climate.
Regia Aeronautica aircraft were involved in the Middle East almost from the start of Italian involvement in World War II. During the Anglo-Iraqi War, German and Italian aircraft of “Flyer Command Iraq” (Fliegerführer Irak) stopped to refuel in the Vichy French-controlled Mandate of Syria as they flew to Iraq. These masqueraded as Iraqi aircraft and were painted as such en route. Continued concern over German and Italian influence in the area led to the Allies’ Syria-Lebanon Campaign.
In one of the lesser known incidents of the war, starting in July 1940, Italian aircraft bombed cities in the British Mandate of Palestine. This was to push the British back and retake the greater Mediterranean as was in Roman times. The bombing of Tel Aviv on September 10, killed 137 people. In mid-October, the Italians also bombed American-operated oil refineries in the British Protectorate of Bahrain.
In Italian East Africa the Regia Aeronautica performed better than in other war theaters. ln June 1940, the Italian Royal Air Force had here 195 fighters, bombers and reconnaissance aircraft, plus 25 transport planes. Some of these aircraft were outdated, but the Italians had Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 (12 examples) and Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 bombers and Fiat CR.42 fighters. In relative terms, these were some of the best aircraft on hand to either side at the beginning of the East African Campaign. In addition, the Italian aircraft were often based at better airfields than those of the British and Commonwealth forces. When the war began, Italian pilots were relatively well trained and confident of their abilities. At the beginning of the hostilities, Regia Aeronautica achieved aerial superiority and occasionally skilled Italian pilots, flying their Fiat biplanes, managed to shoot down even the faster and better armed Hawker Hurricane monoplanes. However, during the first three months, Regia Aeronautica lost 84 aircraft and had 143 aircrew personnel killed and 71 wounded, but the losses did not halt Italian operations. Cut off from Italy as they were though, problems with lack of fuel, munitions, spare parts and replacements became a serious problem and the Regia Aeronautica was worn down in a war of attrition. By 31st January, Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, reported that the Italian military forces in East Africa were down to 67 operational aircraft with limited fuel. By the end of February, the Regia Aeronautica had only 42 aircraft left in East Africa, and the British now had the upper hand. In March, surplus personnel of air force units had to fight as infantry. By the end of the following month, Italians had only 13 serviceable aircraft left in East Africa. At last, on 24th October 1941, about one month prior to the final Italian surrender, the last Italian aircraft of the campaign, a Fiat CR.42, was shot down.
Battle of Britain
On 10th September 1940, an independent air corps for supporting Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain was established. It was named Corpo Aereo Italiano, or CAI. It was under command of Generale Rino Corso Fougier. It comprised approximately 170 aircraft including 80 Fiat Br.20 bombers and 98 Fiat G.50 and CR.42 fighters. The transfer of the planes was completed by 19th October. The CAI was based in occupied Belgium. Bad weather and planes inadequate to that war theater hindered effective action by the CAI. The CR.42s clashed with British Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires just two times, in November. The Italians claimed five victories and nine probables, but five Fiat biplanes were shot down. The RAF, however, reported no losses. The 17 bombing raids carried out by the BR.20s did not cause much material damage, moreover aircraft were needed on the Greek front and in Cyrenaica so in January 1941 the bombers and CR.42s started to be withdrawn to Italy. Just two squadrons of G.50s remained until mid-April 1941. During this campaign, Regia Aeronautica lost 36 planes, (including 26 in accidents) and 43 aircrew personnel, without achieving a single confirmed air victory.
Initially, the Western Desert Campaign was a near equal struggle between the Regia Aeronautica and the British Royal Air Force (RAF). Early on, the fighters available to both sides were primarily older biplanes with Italian Fiat CR.32 and Fiat CR.42s flying against British Gloster Gladiators.
After the Italian disasters during Operation Compass and the arrival of General Erwin Rommel and his German Africa Corps, the Regia Aeronautica in the Western Desert fought side by side on the German Luftwaffe.
Although the air campaign in Libya was seriously limited because of desert conditions, the Italian Royal Air Force managed to retain a force of nearly four hundred airplanes. During the first British counter-offensive, the Regia Aeronautica had suffered heavy losses (over 400 aircraft) until the Axis attack on Greece began, when a major part of the British land and air forces were diverted there giving the Italian forces time to recover. New Italian aircraft and units were supplemented by the arrival of the German Afrika Corps, and the attached Luftwaffe contingent deployed almost 200 airplanes in Libya and another 600 in Sicily. Working with the Luftwaffe, the Regia Aeronautica performed better due to the exchange of tactical doctrine and the arrival of more modern aircraft. In mid-1942, during the Battle of Bir Hakeim (26th May 1942 – 11th June 1942) the new fighter Macchi C.202 outperformed all Desert Air Force’s fighters,achieving an unprecedented ratio kill/loss of 4,4/1, better than that of famed Messerschmitt Bf 109s (3,5/1) fighting the same battle.
During Rommel’s first offensive, the Italians managed to divert RAF attacks from Rommel’s forces and covered Rommel’s retreat during the British Operation Crusader while inflicting heavy losses on RAF bombers.
During Rommel’s second offensive the Regia Aeronautica and the Luftwaffe suffered considerable losses due to stronger Allied resistance during the air battles over El Alamein and the bombing raids over Alexandria and Cairo. The Regia Aeronautica, having suffered heavy losses in Egypt, was withdrawn progressively to Tobruk, Benghazi, Tripoli and, eventually, Tunisia.
The Regia Aeronautica participated in the air offensive on the British controlled island of Malta along with the German Air Force in an attempt to gain control of the Axis sea routes from Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy to North Africa. Up to the end of 1940, the Regia Aeronautica carried out 7 410 sorties against the island, dropping 550 tons of bombs, losing 35 aircraft. The Italians claimed 66 British planes, in these first six months of combact. But these claims were exaggerated. In 1941, Regia Aeronautica carried out further attacks on Malta, but less intensely than in 1940. The Italian airmen started to fear Maltese fighters and AA artillery, so much that the flight to the besieged island became known as the rotta della morte, the “route of death”. In 1942, for its operations against Malta, between 1st January and 8th November, Regia Aeronautica had to write off 100 more aircraft lost in action.
Malta suffered heavy loss of equipment, ship and vehicles and was to the edge of starvation. However the besieged island managed to withstand the attacks from the Italian and German air forces and claimed almost 1,500 Axis planes, three times the real losses: up to November 1942, Luftwaffe admitted to losing 357 aircraft and Regia Aeronautica 210. But, during the siege, the RAF’s losses were even heavier, amounting to 547 in the air (including some 300 fighters) and 160 on the ground, plus 504 aircraft damaged in the air and 231 on the ground.
The Regia Aeronautica began its attacks on the British crown colony of Gibraltar and its important naval base since July 1940. In 1942, Italian Piaggio P.108 bombers attacked Gibraltar from Sardinia, flying a number of long-range night raids. Up to October 1942, Regia Aeronautica carried out 14 raids with a total of 32 bombers.
The last raids on Gibraltar were done during the 1943 Allied landing in Algeria, when those bombers also made a successful strike on the port of Oran. The only unit of the Regia Aeronautica to fly the Piaggio P.108 was the “274th Long-Range Bombardment Group” which was formed in May 1941 as the first machines came off the assembly lines. Training and achieving full operation strength took far longer than anticipated and the 274th only became operational in June 1942.
Greece and Yugoslavia
When, on 28th October 1940, the Greco-Italian War started, Regia Aeronautica fielded 193 combat aircraft which initially failed to achieve air superiority against the Royal Hellenic Air Force, RHAF, that had 128 operational aircraft out of a total of 158. The poor infrastructure in Albania air bases hindered communications and movements between the Italian flying units. Only two airfields – Tirana and Valona – had macadam runways so autumn and winter weather made operations more difficult. There was also the usual lack of co-operation with the Italian Navy and Army. Finally, just few days after the start of the war, Italian pilots were confronted by No. 80 Squadron, led by the outstanding ace Marmaduke Pattle and equipped with Gloster Gladiators, by No. 30 Squadron, No. 211 Squadron and No. 84 Squadron with Bristol Blenheims and No. 70 Squadron with Vickers Wellingtons. Gradually, Italian air power (including Squadriglie flying from Italian air bases) grew to over 400 aircraft against the dwindling numbers of the Greeks. However, this advantage did not stop the Hellenic Army from forcing the Regio Esercito onto the defensive and back into Albania. In early 1941, the tide was turned as the German Wehrmacht launched its simultaneous invasion of Yugoslavia and of Greece.
For the 11 days campaign against Yugoslavia, Regia Aeronautica deployed 600 aircraft, claiming five air victories (plus 100 planes destroyed on the ground) and suffering five losses. However, from that point on, the role of the Regia Aeronautica in the Balkans Campaign was primarily that of support to the Luftwaffe. This support role continued during the occupation of Greece and the occupation of Yugoslavia that followed.
Regia Aeronautica claimed 218 aircraft shot down plus 55 probables against the RHAF and RAF, while the Greeks claimed 68 air victories (plus 23 probables) and the British 150 kills. Actually the air war against Greece cost the Italians just 65 losses (but 495 damaged) while RAF losses in the Greek campaign were 209 aircraft, 72 in the air, 55 on the ground and 82 destroyed or abandoned during the evacuation.
In August 1941 the Regia Aeronautica sent an Air Corps of 1,900 personnel to the Eastern Front as an attachment to the “Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia” (Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia, or CSIR) and then the “Italian Army in Russia” (Armata Italiana in Russia, or ARMIR) were known as the “Italian Air Force Expeditionary Corps in Russia” (Corpo Aereo Spedizione in Russia). These squadrons, initially consisting of 22° Gruppo CT with 51 Macchi C.200 fighters and 61° Gruppo with the Caproni Ca.311 bomber, supported the Italian armed forces from 1941 to 1943. They were initially based in the Ukraine and ultimately supported operations in the Stalingrad area. In mid 1942 the more modern Macchi C. 202 was introduced to operations in Russia. The CSIR was subsumed by the ARMIR in 1942 and the ARMIR was disbanded in early 1943 after disaster during the Battle of Stalingrad. The Air Corps pulled out of operations in January 1943, transferring to Odessa.
From 1944 to 1945, Italian personnel operated from the Baltic area and in the northern part of the Eastern Front under the direct command of the Luftwaffe under the name Air Transport Group 1 (Italian: 1° Gruppo Aerotrasporti “Terracciano” , German: 1° Staffel Transportfliegergruppe 10 (Ital)). This group was part of the National Republican Air Force of the Italian Social Republic.
By the time of the Tunisian Campaign, the Regia Aeronautica and the Luftwaffe rarely enjoyed parity let alone air superiority in North Africa.
Sicilian Campaign and before 8th September 1943
The Regia Aeronautica was put in a defensive role during the Sicilian Campaign. Italian pilots were constantly fighting against Allied efforts to sink Regia Marina ships. Just before the Allied invasion, a huge Allied bomber offensive struck the airfields in Sicily in an effort to gain further air superiority. This left the Regia Aeronautica very weak, but still alive as aircraft continued to arrive from Sardinia, southern Italy, and southern France. The last mission of the Regia Aeronautica before the truce with the allies was the defence during the (USAAF) bombing on Frascati—Rome on September 8th, 1943.
After the Italian armistice, the Regia Aeronautica was briefly followed by two new Italian air forces. Headquartered at Salerno, in southern Italy, the Royalist Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force (Aviazione Cobelligerante Italiana, or ACI) fought alongside the Allied forces. In northern Italy, the National Republican Air Force (Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana, or ANR) flew for the Italian Social Republic and the Axis. The first ANR fighter unit was the 101st Gruppo Autonomo Caccia Terrestre, based in Florence. Aircraft of the Royal and Republican air forces never fought each other. The ACI operated in the Balkans and the ANR operated in northern Italy and the area around the Baltic Sea.
From 10th June 1940 up to 8th September 1943, the Regia Aeronautica lost 6,483 aircraft (other sources report 5,201), including 3,483 fighters, 2,273 bombers, torpedo-bombers and transports, plus 227 reconnaissance planes. The Royal Italian Air Force itself claimed 4,293 enemy aircraft, including 1,771 destroyed on the ground. Personnel losses suffered during the conflict consisted of 3,007 dead or missing, 2,731 wounded and 9,873 prisoners of war.
Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana
This air force was tasked with defending the industrial areas of the region, intercepting Allied bombers en route to southern Germany and the allied and occupied territories of the Axis, and giving close support to German and Italian land forces. Later during the war various units served with German forces based at Spilve, near Riga (Reichskommissariat Ostland), on the northern Russian Front, amongst others in the central and south area (Crimea) on the front.
The ANR, after the 1943 armistice that divided Italy, received numbers of Italian aircraft, later augmented with their own local production, and further aircraft from Germany. This force was opposed to the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force (Aviazione Cobelligerante Italiana, or ACI, or Aeronautica Cobelligerante del Sud), the Italian pro-Allied air force, though they never actually met in combat.
Combat operations began in December 1943, leading, in the following January, to the attack performed by the 1st Squadriglia “Asso di Bastoni”, against a formation of US P-38 Lightnings, three of which were shot down. Starting from June 1944, ANR started to receive Messerschmitt Bf 109G-6s for its fighter force. From October 1944 to February 1945, when the 1st Fighter Group “Asso di Bastoni” returned from training in Germany, 2nd Fighter Group “Gigi Tre Osei” was the only ANR fighter unit active in the defence of the northern Italian territory. From mid-1944, the casualty ratio started to outbalance the victories of the Italian pilots. The last interception missions were carried out on 19th April 1945.
Bomber units included the Gruppo Aerosiluranti “Buscaglia Faggioni”, led by Carlo Faggioni and named after Carlo Emanuele Buscaglia who, at the time, was presumed dead but was instead held in an Allied Prisoner of War camp and later fought with the Aeronautica Cobelligerante. The unit, using old Savoia-Marchetti SM.79, performed several raids against the Allied bridgehead of Anzio. Its only two recorded victories were the sinking of a British transport ship north of Benghazi (at the time the group was based in Greece), and an enemy cargo vessel off Rimini on 5th February 1945.
Italian Co-belligerent Air Force
The Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force (Aviazione Cobelligerante Italiana, or ACI), or Air Force of the South (Aeronautica del Sud), was the air force of the Royalist “Badoglio government” in southern Italy during the last years of World War II. The ACI was formed in southern Italy in October 1943 after the Italian Armistice in September. As by this point the Italians had defected from the Axis and had declared war on Germany, the ACI pilots flew for the Allies.
A small part of the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) remained under German control. This was known as the National Republican Air Force (Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana, or ANR), ostensibly part of the forces of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist state in northern Italy, the Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana). The ANR pilots flew with the Axis.
By the end of 1943, 281 Italian warplanes had landed at Allied airfields, but most were no longer useful for combat. The crews of these aircraft were re-equipped with Allied aircraft and engaged in transport, escort, reconnaissance, sea rescue, and limited tactical ground support operations flying 11,000 missions from 1943 to 1945.
The ACI never operated over Italian territory, its objectives being always in the Balkans (Yugoslavia or Albania). This was to avoid any possible encounter between Italian-manned aircraft fighting on opposite sides. During the entire history of ACI, no encounter, let alone combat, was ever reported between ACI and ANR aircraft.
The ACI formed the basis of the post-war Air Force of the Italian Republic (Aeronautica Militare Italiana).
Italian Air Force
The Italian Air Force (Italian: Aeronautica Militare; AM) is the air force of the Italian Republic. The Italian Air Force was founded as an independent service arm on 28th March 1923 by King Victor Emmanuel III as the Regia Aeronautica (“Royal Air Force”). After World War II, when Italy was made a republic by referendum, the Regia Aeronautica was given its current name. Since its formation, the service has held a prominent role in modern Italian military history. The aerobatic display team is the Frecce Tricolori.
The birth of Aeronautica Militare and the Cold War
A popular vote by the people resulted in the end of the Kingdom of Italy and the establishment of the Italian Republic on 18th June 1946. Hence the Regia Aeronautica lost its “Royal” designation, and it became the Aeronautica Militare, a name that it has continued to hold ever since.
The Peace Treaty of Paris of 1947 placed severe restrictions on all of the Italian armed forces, but the establishment of NATO in 1949 with Italy as a founding member brought about the necessity for the modernization of all of the Italian armed forces, including the Italian Air Force. American military aid sent by the Mutual Defense Assistance Program brought about the introduction of American-made P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang propeller-driven fighter planes. In 1952, the Italian Air Force was granted jet fighters for the first time, American F-84G Thunderjets and F-86D Sabres, together with over 200 licence-built British de Havilland Vampires; these were followed by F-84F fighters and C-119 Flying Boxcar transport planes from the United States. The reborn Italian aviation industry also began to develop and produce a few ingenious aircraft designs of its own, such as the Fiat G91, the Aermacchi MB-326, the Piaggio Aero P.166 and the line of Agusta-Bell helicopters.
The first supersonic fighters added to the Italian Air Force were American-designed F-104 Starfighters that were produced by a group of several European aircraft companies, including Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm, Dornier, Fiat, Fokker and SABCA. During the 1970s, the Air Force acquired the Italian Aeritalia G222 and the modern American C-130 Hercules tactical transport planes, capable of carrying cargo or paratroopers. It also received the new Lockheed-Aeritalia F-104S Starfighter fighters for ground attack and air-defence purposes.
A push to expand the Italian aircraft industry led Italy into the huge trilateral project that developed the Panavia Tornado fighter-bomber and air-defence fighters along with West Germany and the United Kingdom. Tornado fighters were still in service with all three countries, plus a few more, as of 2019. Italian companies worked with the Embraer Company of Brazil in a smaller project to develop and produce the AMX International AMX aircraft.
From the end of the Cold War to present day
In 1990, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Italy joined the coalition forces, and for the first time in 45 years Italian pilots and aircraft were assigned to combat operations. Needing to replace the obsolete F-104 Starfighters, Italy joined with Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom in the development of the Eurofighter Typhoon, which was expected to enter the Italian Air Force in 2000. In 1994, with the Typhoon still some years from introduction to service, 24 Panavia Tornado Air Defense Variant (ADV) interceptors were leased from the United Kingdom for a period of 10 years. The ADV Tornados served as fighter-interceptors to supplement and then to replace the old F-104 Starfighters. However, delays in the production of the Typhoon forced the Italians to seek a supplement, and then replacement, for the leased Tornado ADVs. With the UK lease due to expire in 2004, the Italian government wished to avoid a costly lease extension and instead opted to lease 34 F-16 Fighting Falcon multi-role fighter planes on multi-year leases from the US. The last of these fighters was returned to the United States in May 2012, following the Italian Air Force’s acquisition of a sufficient number of Typhoons over a period of several years. The Typhoons are intended to replace all of the F-104, Tornado ADV and F-16 aircraft. The last of the Italian F-104s was withdrawn from service in 2004.
Armed conflicts in Somalia, Mozambique and the nearby Balkan Peninsula led to the Italian Air Force becoming a participant in multinational air forces, such as that of NATO over the former Yugoslavia, just a few minutes flying time east of the Italian peninsula. The commanders of the Italian Air Force soon saw the need to improve the Italian air defences.
The capability of the Italian Air Force as a transportation unit has been improved with the acquisition of 22 American C-130J tactical transports and 12 Alenia C-27J Spartans, which have replaced all of the G222s. In 2003, the Italian Air Force extended its capabilities to small-scale land warfare by small special-forces units. This was accomplished by forming the 17º Stormo Incursori (“17th Special Operations Wing”), also known as RIAM (Reparto Incursori Aeronautica Militare, “Air Force Raiders Group”), a unit that is primarily responsible for raids on land-based aeronautical compounds, forward air control missions and combat search and rescue operations.
As of 2014, the Italian Air Force operates a total active fleet of 557 aerial vehicles, including 209 manned and 12 unmanned combat aircraft, with eight more Eurofighter Typhoon on order and 75 more F-35s planned.
Eurofighter EF-2000 Typhoon Italian Air Force, 351st Flight, XII Squadron, Tiger Meet, 2018
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