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Europe to Japan: An Italian Triumph

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Savoia-Marchetti SM.75 Marsupiale

The Italian High Command, Comando Supremo, suspected that the Allies had broken their international radio codes, and, as radio was the most vital means to communicate with their Axis partner of the Pacific; the Italians had to deliver new diplomatic code books to the Japanese to secure communications again. This was the motivation behind a tremendous wartime long-range flight, largely unsung in post-war histories.

The possibility to effect a stable air-link from Rome to Tokyo had been envisaged by the Regia Aeronautica since late 1941 and by 29 January 1942 a written report was presented to the Air-staff to determine the feasibility of this using three different routes with the new Fiat G.12 GAs (Grande Autonomia = Long Range). However, for the first experimental flight a Savoia Marchetti S.75 GA with Alfa Romeo 128 RC.18 engines was chosen.

The first S.75 GA (serial numbered RT MM.60537) was delivered on 17 March 1942, but it was decided to use it for a “symbolic” mission which consisted of dropping leaflets over Asmara, in the former Italian East African colonies.

This mission took place on 7 May 1942 starting from Guidonia (Rome) and, after a refueling stop at Benghazi, the aircraft took off on 8 May at 17.30 hrs, to drop its leaflets over Asmara at 03.00 on 9 May and then landing safely back at Roma-Ciampino on 21.30 hrs on the 9th.

The flight had lasted 28 hours without any problem, confirming the feasibility of the flights to Japan. Dr. Publio Magini was the navigator and co-pilot of that flight. At the time, Dr. Magini was considered one of Italy’s best pilots and was an expert in instrument flying. He had developed a celestial navigation system he called the ‘Star Altitude Curves’.

Unfortunately, the MM.60537 was badly damaged in an emergency landing only two days later. After their return to Guidonia, the crew of MM. 60537 were ordered to fly to Ciampino Airfield, a mere 12 miles away. Shortly after takeoff, all three engines quit and the aircraft had crash-landed. The pilot Captain Paradisi, and Dr. Magini escaped from the wreck before the fuel ignited and the plane blew up. Paradisi lost a leg in the mishap and Dr. Magini suffered a serious leg injury that grounded him for a month.

On 12 May the Savoia Marchetti was ordered to speed up the production of the second S.75 GA (MM.60539), as it was unofficially named like the former; “S.75 RT” (Roma-Tokyo), and on 24 May a third S.75 RT (MM.60543) was ordered to be built.

Due to several political and military problems, the flight was delayed and the load originally foreseen was steadily reduced until the aircraft had to leave with no load on board. The shear challenge and propaganda prestige (from the Italian perspective) now drove the continuation of the project.

At last, on 05.26hrs on 29 June 1942, the S.75 RT MM.60539 took off from Guidonia with the following crew: Ten.Col. Antonio Moscatelli, Cap. Mario Curto, Cap. Dr. Publio Magini (all pilots), S.Ten. Ernesto Mazzotti (radio-navigator), M.llo Ernesto Leone (Engineer). At 14.10 hrs the S.75 landed at Saporoshje, where the CSIR (Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia) had established a refueling and radio base. It was an uneventful trip to Saporoshje, where Dr. Magini and his fellow crewmembers decided not to risk starting the second leg of the trip in the afternoon in the hopes of avoiding interception. As a result, they spent the night at the airfield and took off on the following evening 20.06 hrs on 30 June.

Because of the load of fuel they carried, their aircraft could not get above 2500 feet and their airspeed was dangerously slow, making them a very vulnerable target. Pushing the aircraft threatened to overheat the engines and the crew watched anxiously as the temperature crept higher on the gauges.

It should be noted that Saporoshje was very near Rostov, where fierce fighting for control of the city was taking place. Soviet searchlights were everywhere, illuminating the night sky as the aircraft crossed the front. Almost immediately, they were spotted and beams of light fastened onto the aircraft. Streams of broken fire, Soviet anti-aircraft shells, rose up to greet their aircraft which must have appeared to be a slow easy target. Luckily for the crew, the Soviets scored no hits on the slow and low-flying aircraft. Dr. Magini and his crew mates endured the enemy’s AA fire for the next 100 miles of their trip – Dr. Magini understates it in his journal – “It was not at all pleasant.”

Eventually, the shooting stopped and the aircraft was all alone in the dark night. Their route took them north of the Caspian Sea, then the Aral Sea, and Lake Balkhash. As morning approached, they had reached the Altai mountain range which separates the USSR from China. Flying low in a long valley, they finally found themselves over the Gobi desert. For hours, they flew over the vast uninhabited sand and wasteland that is the Gobi. This is where Dr. Magini’s ‘Star Altitude Curves’ celestial navigation was vital, as the they had no aviation-coded maps of the Gobi desert.

Dr. Magini was of the opinion that they could have made it all the way to Japan but as they neared Japanese held territory, the Japanese had insisted that they land at Pao-Tow-Chen, located west of Peking, near the Yellow River. This was necessitated by the Japanese security measures imposed over Japanese airspace after the Doolittle Raid two months earlier. Fighters patrolled the home islands day and night, ready to shoot down any planes without the Japanese insignia on the wings.

The Italians had actually flown past Pao-Tow-Chen and were forced to turn back. As they did this, they found themselves in a torrential rainstorm and had difficulty finding their own position and finding the town. The storm let up long enough for Dr. Magini to determine the former and they were nearly gliding below the cloud cover when they encountered the latter.

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