Breda Ba.27 fighter in Chinese Service.
Like France, Italy, an early aviation pioneer, lagged behind Germany, Britain, and the United States in the design of military aircraft. Nevertheless, Italian designers were resourceful in compensating for deficiencies.
Savoia-Marchetti SM79. The Savoia-Marchetti SM79, Italy’s most important bomber, produced in a quantity of 1,330, used wooden construction to conserve scarce wartime metals and was configured as a trimotor, a design that compensated for the low power (780 horsepower each) of its Alfa Romeo 126RC34 engines. As with all Italian military aircraft, weight was further reduced by stinting on both armor and defensive armament (light machine guns only), which proved to be fatal flaws.
The SM79 was crewed by four to five, had a wingspan of 69 feet, and carried a bomb load of 2,755 pounds. After it was generally replaced by the larger (wingspan 81 feet 4 inches; bomb load, 6,615 pounds) CRDA (Cant) Z1007bis early in the war, the SM79 was reconfigured as a torpedo bomber. In this role, it proved quite successful. Top speed for the SM79 was 267 miles per hour, service ceiling was 21,235 feet, and range was 2,050 miles.
CRDA Z1007bis. Crewed by five, the CRDA Z1007bis was a trimotor, like the SM79. Its Piaggio P.XIbis RC40 engines produced 1,000 horsepower each, propelling the bomber to a top speed of 280 miles per hour and a service ceiling of 26,575 feet. Range, however, was limited. Whereas the SM79 had a range of 2,050 miles, the larger and heavier Z1007bis was limited to 1,650 miles, though its bomb load, at 6,615 pounds, was more than twice that of the SM75. About 660 of this aircraft were built.
Fiat BR20M. In between Italy’s two trimotors was the twin-engine Fiat BR20M, crewed by five or six and powered by 1,000-horsepower Fiat A.80 RC41 engines to a top speed of 267 miles per hour and a service ceiling of 24,935 feet. This medium bomber had a limited range of 1,243 miles but could carry more bombs than the three-engine SM79: 3,527 pounds. It was deployed in early raids against Britain in November 1940.
The Italians had only one 4-engine bomber, the Piaggio P.108. Designed by Giovanni Casiraghi, it entered service in May 1941 and was only intermittently used. It had a crew of 6, a maximum speed of 261 mph, and a range of 2,190 mi. Armed with 8 machine guns, it could carry 7,700 lb of bombs. Only 33 were produced, however, 8 of which went to the Germans for use as transports.
Italians flew five significant fighters during World War II, including one, the Macchi C202, that is considered a classic less for its performance than for its beautiful design. All Italian fighters were easily outclassed by the standard fighters of Britain and the United States.
Fiat CR 42. The CR 42 Falco (Falcon) was the last important biplane fighter of the World War II era. It was the product of the success of the CR 32 biplane in the Spanish civil war, and it entered flight testing in May 1938. Manufactured in greater numbers than any other Italian fighter, it was, of course, obsolete from its inception. Although it represented the pinnacle of biplane design—light on the controls and highly agile—it was a biplane, and, therefore, doomed to be outclassed by modern monoplane fighters. Nevertheless, it fought in Italy’s first World War II campaign, against targets in southern France in 1940. The German Luftwaffe also used the aircraft for night attack and as a trainer throughout the war. Belgian and Hungarian forces also flew the plane. During the Battle of Britain, Italy’s Corpo Aero Italiano (Italian Air Corps) contributed bombers, reconnaissance aircraft, and the CR 42 to the effort. Wingspan was 31 feet, and the power plant was a single Fiat A74 engine, developing 840 horsepower. The CR 42 carried two 220-pound bombs and had a pair of 12.7-mm machine guns. Top speed was 266 miles per hour at 13,000 feet.
Fiat G50 (bis). Introduced in 1939 as the G50 and subsequently upgraded in the “bis” version, this fighter was underpowered and was out-gunned by Allied machines, yet it served in every theater in which the Italians fought, most extensively in North Africa. It was powered by a single Fiat A.74 R1C.38 radial engine rated at 840 horsepower. Top speed was 292 miles per hour at 16,405 feet, and wingspan was 36 feet ¼ inch. Armament included two .50-inch machine guns.
Macchi C200. Predecessor to the more famous C202, the C200 was driven by a Fiat AA74 870- horsepower radial engine to a top speed of 312 miles per hour at 14,700 feet. With two machine guns, it could carry a 600-pound bomb load and had a range of 270 miles.
Macchi C202. The C200 was introduced in 1939 and the C202 in 1941. It was an airplane with beautiful lines and saw extensive service in North Africa, where it performed better than any other Italian fighter, which is not to say that it could outperform the Allies. Like the C200, it had a wingspan of 35.1 feet, but it was powered by a single Mercedes-Benz DB601 engine, which delivered more than 1,175 horsepower, giving the C202 a top speed of 370 miles per hour at 16,500 feet. The C202 outgunned its predecessor, with four rather than two machine guns, but it carried the same 600-pound bomb load. Range was reduced from 270 to 240 miles.
Reggiane Re 2001 (Caproni). The last Italian fighter to be introduced in World War II, its predecessor, the Reggiane 2000, had been developed in 1938, but the Italian Regia Aeronautica (Air Force) judged it underpowered and did not buy it. Refitted with a 1,175-horsepower Daimler Benz Bd 601 engine and redesignated the Re 2001, it entered service in 1942 after Caproni completed a series of improvements required by the Regia Aeronautica. Only 237 were built before Italy withdrew from the war.
Although designed as an interceptor, the Re 2001 always flew as a fighter-bomber or as a night fighter. It had a top speed of 349 miles per hour and a ceiling of 36,000 feet. Range was an impressive 684 miles. Armed with four wing-mounted machine guns, it could carry either a 220-pound or 550-pound bomb, but, against naval targets, it even carried a 1,412-pound bomb.
Further reading: Apostolo, Giorgio, and Giovanni Massimello. Italian Aces of World War II. London: Osprey, 2000; Gunston, Bill. An Illustrated Guide to German, Italian and Japanese Fighters of World War II: Major Fighters and Attack Aircraft of the Axis Powers. London: Salamander, 1980; Gunston, Bill. Japanese and Italian Aircraft. London: Book Sales, 1985.