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The CAI – Corpo Aereo Italiano

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Italian FIAT BR 20 bombers.

When I read about the Italians’ lack of successful operations during the Second World War, I get much the same reaction I did when I first started looking into Operation Sea Lion. The Italians are ridiculed to such an extent that I get suspicious. Were things really like that? Were the Italians total amateurs? Did none of their equipment work? This is how they are portrayed by many sources, particularly the British. A typical case is the Italian air contingent, known as the Corpo Aereo Italiano or CAI, sent to Belgium in late September and October 1940 to assist the Germans in the air war against the British

Mussolini was very keen on showing the Italian colors over Britain, mainly for propaganda reasons. In spite of little interest on the German side, an agreement was nevertheless made that the Italian Air Force would establish a combined air fleet operating out of bases in Belgium within their own dedicated operational sectors. The force was officially established on September 10, 1940, with the following units:

Corpo Aereo Italiano – commanded by Generale sa A Corso-Fougier

13th Stormo BT

Commanded by Colonello Carlo di Capoa and based at Melsbroeck equipped with Fiat BR.20M bombers. Comprising:

11o Gruppo commanded by Maggiore G. Mini and split into 1st and 4th Squadriglia;
43rd Gruppo commanded by Maggiore G. Monteleone and split into 3rd and 5th Squadriglia.

43th Stormo BT

Commanded by Colonello L. Questra and based at Chièvres, equipped with Fiat BR.20M bombers. Comprising:

98th Gruppo commanded by Maggiore G. Tenti and split into 240th and 241st Squadriglia;
99th Gruppo commanded by Maggiore G. Battista Ciccu and split into 242nd and 243rd Squadriglia.

56th Stormo CT

Commanded by Colonello Umberto Chiesa.

18th Gruppo (known as 18./JG56 by Luftwaffe) commanded by Maggiore Ferruccio Vosilla and split into 83rd, 85th and 95th Squadriglia, based at Ursel and equipped with Fiat CR.42 fighters;

20th Gruppo (known as 20./JG56 by Luftwaffe) commanded by Maggiore Mario Bonzano and split into 351st, 352nd and 353rd Squadriglia, based first at Ursel and then later at Maldegem and equipped with Fiat G.50bis fighters.

179th Squadriglia

Commanded by Capitano C. Pirelli, at Melsbroeck and equipped with Cant Z.1007bis aircraft for tactical reconnaissance.

Seemingly a well-balanced force, the Corpo Aereo Italiano consisted at the planning stage of two wings of each 40 bombers and a similar number of fighters of the Fiat CR.42 and Fiat G.50bis types. For reconnaissance there were some three-engine Cant Z.1007bis, twelve Caproni 133Ts and one Savoia-Marchetti S.75, with nine Ca164s for communications. A Ju 52 was also loaned to the Italians to operate as a transport link between the main base in Belgium, Evere, and Rome. The bomber wings consisted of the Fiat BR.20M, in all approximately 200 aircraft.

Most of the bombers arrived at the Chievres airbase, Belgium on September 27th, 1940, the day of invasion if the decision had been made on the last practical day, September 17th. Three of the 40 aircraft of the 43rd Wing crashed en route due to icing and technical problems, and some made intermediate landings in Germany to fly on later. One of the 37 aircraft of the 18th Wing also crashed, and some others made fuel and oil stops on their way. In the afternoon there were 60 Italian bombers on Belgian soil.

Could these have made a difference in the upcoming air/naval battles around the south-eastern coast of England?

The fighter complement of the Corpo Aereo Italiano did not arrive in Belgium until a couple of weeks later, so the Italian bombers would have had to operate without their own dedicated fighter escort or with German escorts. That actually took place a couple of times during the fall. To operate without fighter escort against the enemy navy would be less risky than intruder missions over British territory as regards enemy fighter defense. Mainly because the Fighter Command would have problems with flying combat air patrols all the time, but also because it probably already would swarm with German planes from the dedicated anti-ship units (and others) around any enemy naval incursions. As it was the CAI did not fly its first mission before October 23, 1940, simply because its fighters were delayed from Italy, but that does not mean that their bombers could not have started independent operations in the case of an ongoing invasion. Both their bombers and reconnaissance planes could certainly have contributed to the total invasion effort, but the general opinion is that the Italians were totally useless, nothing more than sitting ducks for the RAF. A proper look into the subject shows that they performed as well, if not better, than their opponents’ bomber units at the time.

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  1. Thomas Kerr says:

    Well, it seems tp me that the Italian air forces should have been a branch of the Reggiamarine. Consider that from west to east they had bases in: Sardinia, Sicily. Pantelleria, Greece and Crete (after 1941) and the Dodecanese. With these assets, there was no real need for aircraft carriers provided that the air was part of the navy with appropriate training, communication, and etc.

    Mind you, the record of the RAF is no better so the RN had to have the support of the FAA. Nonetheless, the coopertion between the Italian air force and navy appears to have been woeful.


  2. The Fiat was strictly a level bomber, and had limited ability to hit ship targets from medium to high altitude. Against merchants ships traveling in convoy at moderate speeds, the Italian Air Force did achieve some success in hitting ships. Against rapidly moving and maneuvering naval vessels, such as the destroyers that the Royal Navy would have been using against any attempted German landing, the Fiat would have been pretty much useless. If used to attack the RN destroyers while they were in the midst of the invasion flotilla, the Fiats would have posed far more danger to the Germans than to the Royal Navy. There were also a reasonable number of cases of Italian aircraft attacking Italian navy vessels. Naval vessels being attacked by friendly aircraft were a continual problem during World War 2. No air force really had much success with medium to high altitude horizontal bombing against ship targets during the war.

    • Hi, Dale – not much new here! If anything, I should think the Axis bomber forces would primarily try to stop any RN units before they entered the Channel (except their dive bombing forces). As for mixing up friend and foe I don’t think I have seen more complaints than from RN personnel – even quite late in the war. That said, I have also seen comments from the same sources in the Med that, as level bombers go, the Italians weren’t that bad. Of course, it would always be a balance between altitude and hitting probability. In 1940 I should think none of the warring factions were as badly prepared for anti-ship operations as the RAF Bomber Command.

      • Is that so?

        Which sources? What were the successes then of Italian level bombers against moving ships, merchant or otherwise, in 1940/41?

        Whether Bomber Command was prepared for hitting ships is a red herring. They had Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm for that job. Both of them could hit ships, as they demonstrated, and some the reasons for the failure of Coastal Command to be more successful (lack of intel) would not have mattered in a fight against an invasion fleet, while others would have. Bomber command however did very well in its aerial mining campaign already early on.

  3. The Hampden had a higher bomb load:

    The Beaufort was a torpedo bomber, so it is hardly surprising it had a lower bomb load (i.e. none). You maybe thinking of the Blenheim, which was light bomber, and therefore in an entirely different class. You are also ignoring the Whitley, which was a contemporary medium bomber that could haul almost twice the payload of the Br.20.

    The Br.20 was a good enough machine. No more, no less.

  4. Interesting article…but I dont think British recording of the Italian efforts are as bad as you say. They are merely a record that the italians were there, basically ineffectual and that the mission was a propoganda effort by Mussolini – most of which isnt far from the mark. It was a bit of a pointless exercise – those fighters and bombers would have been invaluable in Africa.

    • Hi, peterg!

      We might have read different stories…:-)…..As for ineffectual they really should be compared with their opponents, the RAF, as implied by me in the article. The Bomber Command was not very effective at the time and had heavy losses when they tried to be. The Italian bombers surely could have achieved more than they did at the time and in the context of an invasion this force might have been of more use to the Germans than it was, as a crucial element would have been the Royal Navy’s eventual incursions into the Channel from the East. More than 100 extra well-placed Axis bombers in such a context could certainly have made a difference.


      • Only if they actually hit something. How many naval vessels were actually hit by level bombers in 1940? Did the Regia Aeronautica practice these kind of attacks with their level bombers at the time?