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.
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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