Aeronautica Militare Italiana organization and units
Prima Regione Aerea - First Air Region (North Italy)
Regia Aeronautica Italiana
The Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica Italiana) was the name of the air force of the Kingdom of Italy (Regno d'Italia). It was established as a service independent of the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito Italiano) from 1923 until 1946. In 1946, the monarchy was abolished and the Kingdom of Italy became the Republic of Italy (Repubblica Italiana). The name of the air force changed to the Air Force of the Italian Republic (Aeronautica Militare).
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Italy was at the forefront of aerial warfare: during the colonization of Libya in 1911, it made the first reconnaissance flight in history on October 23, and the first ever bombing raid on November 1.
During World War I, the Italian Corpo Aeronautico Militare, then still part of the Regio Esercito (Italian: "Royal Army"), operated a mix of French fighters and locally-built bombers, notably the gigantic Caproni aircraft. The Italian Règia Marina ("Royal Navy") had its own air arm, operating locally-built flying boats.
The Italian air force became an independent service - the Royal Air Force (Règia Aeronautica) - on March 28, 1923. The Fascist regime of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini turned it into an impressive propaganda machine, with its aircraft, featuring red-and-buff "rising sun" livery on the wings, making numerous record-breaking flights. It reached its zenith when two fleets of flying boats, led by General Italo Balbo, crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1931 and 1933 respectively. During the latter half of the 1930s, the Royal Air Force participated in the Spanish Civil War, as well as the invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia).
During the Ethiopian campaign, the Regia Aeronautica performed massive poison gas bombings and sprayings over the Ethiopian country side (mustard gas and phosgene). Despite being inadequately equipped, the Regia Aeronautica managed to decimate Ethiopian forces and undertook massive bombings of Ethiopian cities (particularly Addis Abeba). The operations of the Regia Aeronautica were crucial for the success of the invasion of the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) and was enhanced by the near total lack of an opposing Ethiopian air force.
During the Spanish Civil War Italian pilots fought alongside Spanish Nationalist and German Air Force (Luftwaffe) pilots as members of the "Aviation Legion" (Aviazione Legionaria). This deployment took place from July 1936 to March 1939 and complimented an expeditionary force of Italian ground troops titled "Corps of Volunteer Troops" (Corpo Truppe Volontarie). 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".
The Italian Royal Air Force played a limited role during the Italian invasion of Albania.
World War II
When World War II began in 1939, Italy had the smallest air force among the three major Axis powers. With a paper strength of 3,296 machines only 2,000 were fit for operations, of which just 166 were modern fighters - the Macchi MC.200 and Fiat G.50 were still slower than their potential Allied opponents. While numerically still a force to be reckoned with, it was hampered by an inadequate local aircraft industry; technical assistance by its German ally did little to improve the situation.
In June 1940, during the closing days of the Battle of France, Italy declared war on France and Britain. The Regia Aeronautica carried out 716 bombing missions in support of the invasion of France by the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito). Italian aircraft dropped a total of 276 tons of bombs.
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 aircraft, pretending to be Iraqi, were painted as such en route. Continued concern over German and Italian influence in the area led to the Syria-Lebanon Campaign.
Destruction of Moslem graveyard and the Istiklal Mosque by Italian bombers during the bombing of Haifa, September 1940.
In one of the lesser known incidents of the war, starting in July 1940, Italian aircraft bombed cities in the British Mandate of Palestine. In mid-October, the Italians also bombed American-operated oil refineries in the British Protectorate of Bahrain.
ln June 1940, the Regia Aeronautica in Italian East Africa had between 200 and 300 combat ready aircraft. Some of these aircraft were outdated, but the Italians also had Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 and Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 bombers and Fiat CR-42 fighters. In relative terms, these were some of the best aircraft available 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. But, cut off from Italy as they were, problems with lack of fuel, munitions, spare parts, replacements started to rise eventually.
By 31 January, Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, reported that the Italian military forces in East Africa were down to 67 operational aircraft with limited fuel.
While the Regia Aeronautica in East Africa was worn down quickly by a lop-sided war of attrition, the Italian pilots held on to the bitter end. On 24 October 1941, about one month prior to the final Italian surrender, the last Italian aircraft of the campaign was shot down.
From October 25, 1940, some 170 Italian planes (including 73 Fiat Br.20 bombers) were sent to occupied Belgium to form the Italian Air Corps (Corpo Aereo Italiano, or CAI) to participate in the Battle of Britain. The CAI achieved very limited success. In December 1940, most of the CAI aircraft were withdrawn to Greece. The last Italian aircraft left Belgium by mid-April 1941.
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 tended to be older biplanes. The Italian pilots flew Fiat CR.32s and Fiat CR.42s while the British flew Gloster Gladiators. Later, the tide turned periodically as each side was able to obtain improved aircraft.
However, after the Italian disasters during Operation Compass and after the arrival of General Erwin Rommel and his German Africa Corps (Deutsches Afrikakorps, or DAK ), the fate of the Regia Aeronautica in the Western Desert became more and more dependent on the fate of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe).
Green line shows greatest extent of Italian control of the Mediterranean, in 1942.
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 suffered heavy losses (over 400 aircraft) until the German attack on Greece, when a major part of the British land and air forces were diverted to there giving the Italian forces enough time to deploy more units and strengthen their air forces. These were supplemented by the arrival of Rommel's Africa Corps, and the attached Luftwaffe contingent deployed almost 200 airplanes in Libya and another 600 in Sicily.
Next to the Luftwaffe, the Regia Aeronautica performed better due to the exchange of tactical doctrine between services and the arrival of more modern aircraft.
During Rommel's first offensive, the Italians managed to keep RAF fighters away from Rommel's forces. The Italians also covered Rommel's retreat during the British Operation Crusader while inflicting heavy losses on the RAF bombing airplanes.
During Rommel's second offensive the Règia 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 quickly retired to Tobruk, Benghazi, Tripoli and, eventually, Tunisia.
Bombing of Malta.
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. Although on the edge of starvation and suffering heavy losses, Malta managed to withstand the attacks from the Italian and German air forces, and inflicted losses of almost 1,500 planes.
The battle cost the RAF 800 planes and considerable numbers of transport ships, but the price was worth it: 60% of Axis supplies sent to Africa were sunk thanks to British aircraft, submarines, and destroyers based in Malta.
Mainly in 1942, Piaggio P.108 Italian bombers attacked Gibraltar several times from Sardinia. The most spectacular raids with the bomber P. 108 were flown in October 1942 when several night attacks against Gibraltar were undertaken from Sardinia. The last raids on Gibraltar were done during the 1943 Allied landing in Algeria, when those bombers hit successfully even the port of Oran.
The only Italian long-range bomber, the Piaggio P.108, ready to attack Gibraltar in 1942
The only unit of the Regia Aeronautica ever to fly the Piaggio P.108 was the "274th Long-Range Bombardment Group". This unit was formed in May 1941 around the first machines that came off the assembly lines. Training of the crews lasted far longer than anticipated and the 274th only became operational in June 1942.
Greece and Yugoslavia
In late 1940, the Regia Aeronautica enjoyed complete air superiority during the Greco-Italian War. However, this did not stop the Greek Army from forcing the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) onto the defensive and back into Albania.
In early 1941, the tide turned completely as the German Armed Forces (Wermacht) launched an invasion of Yugoslavia. From that point on, the role of the Regia Aeronautica in the German Balkans Campaign was primarily that of support to the German Air Force (Luftwaffe). This support role continued during the occupation of Greece and the occupation of Yugoslavia that followed.
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 31 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 German Air Force (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 (Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana, ANR) still loyal to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana, or RSI) in northern Italy.
By the time of the Tunisian Campaign, the Regia Aeronautica and the Luftwaffe rarely enjoyed parity let alone air superiority in North Africa.
The Regia Aeronautica was put in a defensive role during the Sicilian Campaign. Italian pilots were constantly fighting against Allied efforts to sink Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) ships. Just before the Allied invasion of Sicily, 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 United States Army Air Force (USAAF) bombing on Frascati - Rome in September 8, 1943.
After the Italian armistice, the Regia Aeronautica was briefly followed by two new Italian air forces. In southern Italy, the Royalist "Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force" (Aviazione Cobelligerante Italiana, or ACI) fought for the Allied forces. In northern Italy, the Fascist "National Republican Air Force" (Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana, or ANR) was still loyal to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana, or RSI). The first ANR fighter unit was the 101st Gruppo Autonomo Caccia Terrestre, based in Florence.
Aircraft of the ACI and the ANR never fought each other. The ACI operated in the Balkans and the ANR operated in northern Italy and the area around the Baltic Sea.
Losses suffered during the conflict consisted of 3,007 dead or missing, 2,731 wounded and 9,873 prisoners of war. Some 5,201 aircraft were lost, while Italian fighter pilots claimed 4,293 aircraft destroyed, including 1,771 destroyed on the ground.
Règia Aeronautica Aces (World War Two)
The Règia Aeronautica tended not to keep statistics on the individual level, instead reporting kills for a certain unit, attributed to their unit commander. However, pilots were able to keep personal log books, so the few that survived through World War II give individual statistics. Here is a list of the aces attributed with ten or more kills.
* Franco Lucchini - 26 kills
Italian aircraft production 1935 to 1945
* Ambrosini SAI.207
Heavy fighters and fighter-bombers
* Breda 65
A Fiat BR.20 on the ground between missions.
* Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero
Recon and/or Transport
* Caproni Ca.111
Training and Auxiliary roles
* Caproni Ca.100
Notable Members of the Règia Aeronautica
* Italo Balbo
The end of the Regia Aeronautica
The Italian Royal Air Force (Règia Aeronautica Italiana) officially ceased to exist when Italy became a republic on June 2, 1946. The Royal Air Force was succeeded by the Air Force of the Italian Republic (Aeronautica Militare).
This webpage was updated 24th February 2012
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