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.
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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