During the 1930's Italian aviation was at its peak; famous distance flights and international records made Italy one of the most prominent of air-minded nations. The creative imagination of her designers was matched by the initiative and daring of her airmen. Despite the apprehension attending the growth of Fascism, it was all too easy to admire Marshall Balbo's aerial fleet droning overhead toward the Chicago World's Fair in 1933. This impressive display came in an era when aviation was just beginning to prove itself a dependable instrument of transportation.
Notwithstanding this apparent lead, the Regia Aeronautica was surprisingly ineffective when war finally came. The reasons were primarily economic and political. In spite of her Fascist government, Italy was not aggressive to the degree that made Germany and Japan such dangerous threats. Her conquests in Africa and exploits in Spain were comparatively easy exercises that led her to believe, in June 1940, that Fascism was triumphant and little further effort was called for to secure the spoils of victory. When the war began to turn decidedly against Italy, the weaknesses of her war machine became apparent. The Italian economy was never strong enough to support the air force envisaged by Mussolini; in addition, Italy had to export badly needed aircraft in return for raw materials vital to production. This fact, rather than the supposed outdated design practices, accounted for the predominant use of wood in Italian aircraft. More important, engine development lagged seriously behind world standards, further hampering designers.
All these factors proved fortunate for the Allies, as an examination of mid-1943 Italian designs will make quite clear. Fighters like the FIAT G.56 and Macchi C.205V and bombers like the Cant Z.1018 gave away little to their Allied counterparts in terms of performance. Many other aircraft, whether brilliant or mediocre in the final analysis, were of extremely imaginative and advanced concept.
Organization of the Regia Aeronautica
During the First World War, the Italian flying forces were known as the Corpo Aeronautico Militare. After that conflict military aviation in Italy dwindled rapidly, but with the advent of Benito Mussolini (himself an enthusiastic amateur aviator) a Commissariat for Aviation was established, and an autonomous air force, the Regia Aeronautica (literally Royal Aviation, or Royal Air Force), was formed in March, 1923. Aviation flourished in Italy during the late 1920's and 1930's, many propaganda and record flights enhancing Italian and (supposedly) Fascist prestige. The one-sided Ethiopian conquest and the successes of the Aviazione Legionaria in Spain added to an awesome display of power.
Because of Italy's limited industrial capacity, however, the Regia Aeronautica never possessed the large numbers of aircraft credited to 1t by many sources to the Second World War. Claims as high as 8530 aircraft had been made in 1939, but in actual fact Regia Aeronautica strength in Metropolitan Italy on June 10, 1940, the date of the Italian entry into the war, was only 3345 machines (1332 bombers, 1160 fighters and fighter-bombers, 497 reconnaissance and observation aircraft, and 49 military transports), plus 38 communications transports and about 2450 training aircraft. Equipment in A.O.1. (Africa -Orientale Italiana) totalled about 325 aircraft, mostly obsolete Ca 111, Ca 133, and SM.81 bombers, CR.32 fighters, and Ro 37 reconnaissance biplanes.
Italy was divided into three Squadre Aeree, with headquarters at Milan, Rome, and Palermo. A fourth unit was the 4a Zona Territoriale at Bari. Italian territories were served by the Aeronautiche delle Sardegna (Sardinia), Albania, Libia (Libya), and Egeo (Aegean Islands). The Squadra Aerea comprised two or three Divisioni (Divisions) or Brigate (Brigades), usually two of bombers and one of fighters. The Divisione usually comprised three Stormi (Groups). Organization of the smaller units was as follows:
Stormo = 2 Gruppi (Wings)
Gruppo = 2-3 Squadriglie (Squadrons)
Squadriglia = 3 Sezioni (Flights)
Sezione = 3 aircraft.
The Italian Army and Navy were further served by the Aviazione per la Regio Esercito and the Aviazione per la Regia Marina, respectively.
On June 10, 1940, operational strength of the Regia Aeronautica was 32 Stormi, plus an additional 13 Gruppi, 60 Squadriglie, and 4 Sezioni. The Italian aircraft industry was never able to keep up with wartime attrition; by September, 1943, only 1306 aircraft remained, little more than one-third of these in serviceable condition. The aircraft and crews which joined the Allied cause in the south were formed into the Co-Belligerent Air Force. In addition to 203 Italian aircraft, this force employed a number of Allied types. The remainder of the Regia Aeronautica came under the control of the Germandominated Republica Sociale Italiana, as the Aviazione della RSI. After the war, the new Italian Air Force was known as the Aeronautica Militare Italiana.