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Air Marshal Italo Balbo

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Italo Balbo was born in Quartesana (Ferrara) on 6th June 1896. At the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted in the Alpini. Balbo earned one bronze and two silver medals, and was promoted to the rank of Captain for his war merits. After obtaining a degree in Social Sciences in Florence, he came back to Ferrara and joined the Fascist Party. When he was offered the appointment as secretary of the local Fascist section he accepted it enthusiastically and quit his job as bank clerk. He soon proved to be a perfect commander and a zealous organizer of Fascist gangs. His unit was called “Celibano”, named after the mangling of “cherry brandy”, a spirit that its members used to drink while gathering in a local pub.

The “Celibano” became ill famed as ruthless executors of the orders of landowners against rural strikes and demonstrations. In Mesola, Copparo, Massa Fiscaglia and other centers around Ferrara, their violence was directed at socialists and communists and on seats of democratic parties, going so far as to storm the Estense Castle in Ferrara. Between 24th and 25th June 1921, Balbo invaded Portomaggiore with 4,000 thugs and commenced shooting, beating and killing people for two days, eventually leaving enormous devastation and unburied dead in the streets.

Group Photo of Celibano with Balbo in the middle

Similar actions were repeated in Ravenna, Modena and Bologna. While in Parma, the “Celibano” were stopped by barricades erected by communists in the city. During this period, Balbo’s “reputation” was so wellknown that when leading members of the Fascist Party united to discuss an attempt to seize power with a coup de main, they decided to nominate him quadrumvir of the March on Rome.

All being in favor of an armed insurrection, without any mediation. The fascists arrived in Rome without shooting a round, thanks to a silent agreement with the King, who refused to order that a state of seige existed (this would have allowed the Army to shoot at the demonstrators).

In 1923, Balbo was charged with the murder of Father Giuseppe Minzoni, parish priest of Argenta (Ferrara), who encouraged the local peasants to defend themselves against the blackshirts through associations and cooperatives.

The outcome of the trial was unfavorable to Balbo, who abandoned Ferrara and moved to Rome, becoming General Commander of the Militia in 1924, undersecretary to National Economy the year later and then undersecretary to the Air Force on 6th November, 1926.

The extraordinary development of aircraft technology during this time period gave Balbo an opportunity to pour out all his energy and will in adventure. Promoted on 10th August 1928 to Generale di Squadra Aerea (Marshal of the A.F.) and on 12th September 1929 as Minister of the Air Force, he organized the intercontinental flights that made him famous. On the first flight, from 17th December 1930 to 15th January 1931, twelve Savoia Marchetti S.55X left from Orbetello to face a 10,400 Km route to Rio de Janeiro; in the second, from 1st July to 12th August 1933, he comanded twenty-two seaplanes to the United States. He was welcomed like a hero and his triumph was almost unprecedented in history. The 7th Street in Chicago was named after him, President Roosevelt invited him to lunch, and the Sioux Indian tribe appointed him chief, with the name of “Flying Eagle”.

He received the same great honors upon his return. In Rome, he and his airmen paraded under Constantine’s Arch and Balbo was elevated to the rank of Air Marshal. It was at this moment that his political decline began. Mussolini and other VIPs in the Party most likely envied his achievements and his popularity, especially among young people; perhaps they were annoyed by his rough manners and irreverence. All of the above may be some of the reasons why he was sent to Libya as Governor in Jan. 1934. He also possessed an “unconventional” behavior. In fact, he shook hands instead of giving the expected Roman (fascist) salute and used the term “lei” instead of the prescribed “voi”. A little while after Hitler’s visit to Italy, he invited the Podestà (Mayor), Renzo Ravenna, a Jew to dinner at a famous restaurant in Ferrara, in which Hitler also attended.

In Africa, Balbo led a well-off life. He ordered the construction of a coast road that he pompously called “Balbia”, and did a lot to welcome the Italian families that tried to escape poverty by moving to the “Fourth shore”.

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  1. Growing up in the Chicago area, I have many times been on Balbo Drive where is passes through Grant Park. As for the friendly fire issue, I have no problems believing that the shooting down of his aircraft was strictly accidental. Friendly fire incidents between aircraft and ground forces were a frequent occurrence during the war.

    One of the more serious cases of friendly fire involving the Allies also occurred in the Mediterranean during the invasion of Sicily. On the night of 11 July, part of the 504th Parachute Regiment, US Army, was being flown from North Africa to Sicily to drop as reinforcements for the 503rd Regiment that had dropped on 9 July. The route of the 144 C-47 transports brought them over the area of the invasion and front line of the Allied forces near 2230. Despite being informed of the projected air drop, Allied anti-aircraft gunners opened fire. While one C-47 was believed to have been shot down by enemy fire, 22 others were shot down by Allied fire, and 37 aircraft were damaged, out of the 144 aircraft involved. Total casualties to the paratroops were 81 dead, 132 wounded, and 16 missing.

  2. My Grandfather, Antonio Lauricella, was at the landings of he air group when it visited Chicago before the war. He visited the aviators when they had an improptu reception in Grant Park, and shook hands with Balbo. When I was young (a long time ago) he used to tell me stories about the acheivement. He even had wood carved models of the aircraft he let me play with……but when the war came in earnest, my father (Santo Lauricella) and all of his brothers(Angelo and Salvatore) joined the US Navy in support of the country and my Grandfather and Grandmother took the oath of US citizenship in late 1941. So, I and my family have a connection to Balbo and the Century of Progress…..

  3. I remember reading an article as a child of 6 or 7 years old maybe, as classwork, and it was all about Balbo’s flight to Chicago for the ‘Century of progress’. It made a deep impression on me as it was as impressive to the U.S. and the rest of the world as Lindbergh’s flight was at the time. Only in the U.K. he was completely unknown, and it seems to the rest of the world too. On reading more about him many years later, I find him to be one of the most enigmatic and heroic men of 20th century Italian history. I am truly surprised a film hasn’t been made about his life story. -It should be. A man of true inspiration and a real hero. Balbo as ‘Il Duce’? one can only wish and wonder; ‘If only’………………..

  4. Herne the Hunter says:

    Howdy guys, does anybody know if Balbo had actually piloted those aircraft, or he was aboard only as a commander? And if he did, what types of aircraft did he fly himself? Was he actually the pilot of the leading S.55s on the large formation flights as well as of the S.79 he was killed with? What other types did he fly and was he involved in combat, and if he was which unit did he serve with?
    He certainly was one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century and one of the greatest pioneering adventurers, a true hero. I am an aviation enthusiast but I was unable to find the answers to my questions mentioned above, not a source had mentioned if he was actually the pilot or not and that I’d like to know. If he was, it would further add to his fame and my respect towards him.

    • I don’t know the answer to your questions, but know who could satisfy your query: Folco Quilici, the Italian reporter. His Father was Balbo’s co-pilot when he was brought down by an Italian anti-aircraft. From what I’ve read of his narrative, I think Balbo did pilot his Savoja Marchetti; but of course I’m not sure. I think you can contact Folco Quilici through internet.
      Godd luck!

  5. Paulo Lima says:

    First of all, I would like to say that I have a great admiration for Marshal Balbo. He was an authentic man, clever, rouhg when it was necessary, a man who took the name of Italy and the fascist regime very high all over the world. Balbo was also a great politician, he early had the perception that the Axis Roma-Berlino was a tremendous error,the anti-semitical politics imposed by Musolini only to please Hitler was another one, and the italian war declaration was suicide, cause Italy was not ready and the italian army was great for colonial warfare, but not prepared for a modern conflict. Balbo, much more than any other one, knew perfectly the italian weakness, the problems about lack of power and heavy armor of the italian aircrafts, and the deficiences of the Regio Esercito and the Regia Marina. He also knew that italian people would not agree for fighting as a german partner. Italy had fought against the austrians, who are germans too, to get united and afterwards, fought against them once more in WWI. As a popular and loved leader, Balbo was a danger for Il Duce cause he was the only fascist leader who could be the head of a victorious conspiration to get rid of Mussolini.
    Unfortunatedly, we will never know the truth about Balbo’s death, but we must agree that his accident or murdering was very, very usefull for Mussolini.
    Italo Balbo, a great commander, a great politician, a great pilot, a great italian, a graet man.