Flown for the first time from the Fiat company airfield in Turin by Enrico Rolandi on 10 February 1936, the prototype (MM 274) of the Fiat BR.20 Cicogna (stork) immediately made a favourable impression. Before long this medium bomber was being publicised throughout the aeronautical world by the efficient propaganda machine of Mussolini's Fascist government.
The BR.20 was a cantilever low-wing monoplane, its slab-sided fuselage having a mixed covering of dural sheet and fabric. The wing had sheet metal covering and the fabric-covered tail assembly included twin fins and rudders. The main units of the landing gear retracted rearward into the engine nacelles, leaving the wheels partially exposed, and the fixed tailwheel had a streamlined protective fairing. The nose included a manually-operated gun turret and below it was a glazed section for the bomb-aimer/navigator. The pilot and co-pilot were seated side-by-side in an enclosed cabin forward of the wing leading edge, the wireless operator's compartment being just forward of the main access door which was on the port side of the fuselage, behind the wing trailing edge. The bomb bay, capable of carrying a weapon load of up to 3,527 Ib (1600 kg), was located in the forward fuselage between the pilots' cabin and the wireless operator's compartment. A retractable type DR dorsal turret (replaced by an MI turret from the twenty-first production BR.20 onwards) and a ventral gun position completed the defensive armament.
In the spring of 1937 two special BR.20A long-range civil aircraft appeared. They had rounded noses, were stripped of all military equipment and had no break in the fuselage underside as with the bomber. They were built especially to take part in the prestigious Istres-Damascus air race, in which they were able to gain only sixth and seventh places. One other civilianized BR.20 was built, the BR.20L Santa Francesco, first flown in early 1939. It had an elongated streamlined nose section and additional fuel tanks, enabling it to make a nonstop flight from Rome to Addis Ababa on 6 March 1939, the three-man crew led by Maner Lualdi achieving an average speed of 251 mph (404 km/h).
The first unit to equip with the BR.20 bomber was the 13° Stormo BT at Lonate Pozzolo, in the autumn of 1936. The original BR.20 remained in production until February 1940, a total of 233 being completed. Of these a single example went to Venezuela and 85 were sold to Japan. The Japanese BR.20s, known as the Type I, were based on the Chinese coastal areas and used to attack inland cities still in Chinese hands. According to reports the Imperial Japanese Army air force did not find its BR.20s particularly effective and, as soon as the long-awaited Mitsubishi Ki-21 (Type 97 Bomber) was available, surviving Fiats were quickly grounded.
A number of BR.20s operated with the Italian Aviazione Legionaria supporting the Nationalists in Spain. Arriving from the summer of 1937 they took part in day and night raids over the Teruel and Ebro fronts, frequently attacking troop and vehicle concentrations, as well as government-held cities. Nine BR.20s survived to take part in the Nationalist aviation victory parade at Madrid-Barajas on 12 May 1939. When the Italian personnel left for home, the BR.20s were handed over to Spain.
When Italy entered World War II on 10 June 1940, a new version of the basic design, the BR.20M (M for Modificato) had been in production for some six months. It differed from the original BR.20 by having a nose section of entirely new design and smoother outline. In all, 264 examples of the BR.20M were constructed, production ending in the spring of 1942 Regia Aeronautica BR.20s in service in June 1940 totalled 172 with a further 47 in reserve or under repair. The Fiat bombers took part in the brief campaign against France until 23 June 1940 and then 80 factory-fresh BR20Ms were allocated to the 13° and 43° Stormo and sent to Belgian bases to participate in the Italian effort against the UK as part of the Corpo Aereo Italiano, which supported the Luftwaffe in the later stages of the Battle of Britain. They were involved in day and night raids against the ports of Harwich and Ramsgate and the industrial centre of Ipswich, between October and December 1940, before being withdrawn to Italy.
BR20s participated subsequently in the campaigns in North Africa, Greece, Yugoslavia and in the attacks against Malta Some missions were flown in the long-range reconnaissance role and this type of operation became more usual as the war progressed, the BR.20s carrying out many such missions against partisan areas in the Balkans.
At the time of the armistice signed between Italy and the Allies in September 1943, 81 BR.20s were still with first-line operational units in Italy, Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece, but by that time most surviving aircraft were attached to bomber training schools. During the final war years a very few BR.20s remained in flying condition as trainers or transports.
Experimental versions tested included the BR.20C with a powerful 37-mm cannon in the nose section and another BR.20 flown with tricycle landing gear.
Final version to go into production was theBR.20bis, a complete redesign, with a rounded fully glazed nose, more graceful fuselage contours, a retractable tailwheel and pointed vertical tail surfaces. Main improvements, however, were in engine power and defensive armament. Between March and July 1943 15 BR.20bis aircraft were built, but there is no record of their operational use. Their two l,250-hp (932-kW) Fiat A.82 RCA2 radial engines gave a maximum speed of 286 mph (460 km/h) and a service ceiling of 30,185 ft (9200 m). Dimensions were slightly increased compared with those of the BR.20M, and maximum take-off weight rose to 25,353 Ib (11500 kg). Defensive nose and ventral positions retained single 7.7-mm (0.303-in) machine-guns, there were additional weapons of the same calibre firing through ports on each side of the fuselage and a 12.7-mm (0.5-in) gun mounted in a Breda Type V dorsal turret.
Initial production model, 233 built.
De-militarised conversion of two BR.20s for air racing.
Long ranged civil version, one built.
Improved bomber version with lengthened nose, 264 produced.
Single aircraft converted by Agusta fitted with 37 mm (1.46 in) cannon in revised nose.
Major re-design with more powerful engines (two Fiat A.82 RC.42 rated at 932 kW/1,250 hp each), increased dimensions and new, fully glazed nose.
Specifications (Fiat Br.20M)
* Crew: 5
* Length: 16.68 m (54 ft 8 in)
* Wingspan: 21.56 m (70 ft 8.75 in)
* Height: 4.75 m (15 ft 7 in)
* Wing area: 74.0 m² (796.5 ft²)
* Empty weight: 6,500 kg (14,330 lb)
* Max takeoff weight: 10,100 kg (22,270 lb)
* Powerplant: 2× Fiat A.80 RC.41 18-cylinder radial engine, 746 kW (1,000 hp) each
* Maximum speed: 440 km/h (273 mph)
* Cruise speed: 340 km/h (211 mph)
* Range: 2750 km (1,709 mi)
* Service ceiling: 8,000 m (26,250 ft)
* Guns: 3× 12.7 mm (.5 in) Breda-SAFAT machine guns
* Bombs: 1,600 kg (3,530 lb) of bombs