The military boastfulness of Benito Mussolini rested to a high degree on the prewar reputation of the Italian Air Force. Italian pioneering aviation in the first decade of flight lingered in international memory, as did for a narrower audience the 1920s theoretical work of Giulio Douhet on principles of strategic bombing. The Italian Air Force was original in another way in the 1930s: crop-dusting Abyssinian columns with poison gas during the Abyssinian War (1935–1936). The Regia Aeronautica had almost as many aircraft as Great Britain or France in 1940 when it entered the war, but most Italian models were woefully inadequate. Of its several thousand planes, half were biplane trainers and most of the rest were older model biplane bombers and fighters. In 1940 the Regia Aeronautica had only two fighter groups equipped with modern monoplane fighters. In all, it had just 129 frontline fighters and 454 medium bombers, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers. Over the next three years of war the structurally weak, and always resource- and finance-starved, aircraft industry produced only 7,183 new military aircraft, the equivalent of a single month of British production in 1943. The Italians also suffered from too few trained pilots and inadequate repair facilities. Nor did the Regia Aeronautica have effective fighting doctrine or reserves.
Despite these inadequacies, Mussolini insisted on sending several squadrons of obsolete biplane fighters to fly alongside the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Nearly 20 percent of the planes were lost to accidents en route. Many of the rest were easily shot down by “Spitfires” and “Hurricanes.” Italian air attacks were conducted against the Suez Canal and targets in North Africa, to no effect whatever. The Italian Air Force then sent several squadrons to fly on the Eastern Front from 1941 to 1943. Its main wartime achievements came in the Mediterranean, especially against British convoys making the run from Gibraltar to Malta. But even there, undersized bombs and primitive tactics led to minimal success against merchantmen. Almost nothing was achieved against enemy warships before new models of aircraft and bombs were introduced in 1942. Similarly, Italian Air Force ground support capabilities were limited in campaigns in East and North Africa. By mid-1943 the Regia Aeronautica had suffered such losses that it ceased to be a combat factor in any theater, including defending its home skies. Upon the surrender of Italy in September 1943, the Regia Aeronautica had only 447 planes still operating, while its total losses were nearly 5,300 aircraft.