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On the first day Rome was bombed, Victor Emmanuel III watched the American bombers with his binoculars while standing on a portico of the Villa Savoia. He was greatly puzzled that not one Italian fighter plane took to the air to attack the American planes. An hour or so after the bombing, he and his retinue inspected the nearby Ciampino military airfield. What the King found was dispiriting.
In other words, the minute the bombers were sighted, everyone took to their heels. At least the reception from the base commander was better than the King’s reception at his previous stop – a neighborhood damaged by the bombs – there an angry mob had pelted him with stones.
In all fairness to the Regia Aeronautica, by this point in the war they had less than one hundred front line fighter planes. Italy had not the industrial base to build a large airforce and when the Kingdom entered the war the airforce claimed to field 1800 modern aircraft. It’s a stretch to label many of those aircraft ‘modern.’ British estimates put the number of Italy’s modern, combat capable aircraft at less than 800 at the beginning of the war. That number did not increase as the war went on.
Italian Regia Aeronautica Fiat BR.20
Italian Regia Aeronautica Macchi C.205
The Germans kept promising to send Italy some of their high performance single engine fighters but somehow they never arrived. Probably that was good. Italian pilots didn’t lack bravery or elan. They lacked training. (Much of this due to a major shortage of aviation fuel.) Most high performance German fighters were notoriously difficult to fly so it would not have been a good match.
The Italian Battleship Cesare firing her salvoes near Punta Stilo (Battle of Calabria) on 9 July 1940.
Although they were keen on doing a good job, the Regia Aeronautica rarely performed well. On 9 July 1940, in the Battle of Calabria, the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet, which included three battleships, engaged the Italian First and Second Fleets, which had one battleship between them. The Italian admiral in command on the scene radioed the Italian air force for help. That these two organizations barely acknowledged each other did not make it easy when a combined arms attack was needed.
The Regia Aeronautica put up one hundred twenty-six bombers. Seventy-six dropped bombs on the British fleet without inflicting damage. The other fifty Italian planes bombed the Regia Marina ships, once again not inflicting damage except to mutual trust. Admittedly, identifying ships from any sort of altitude was difficult and all sides bombed their own ships. (Because of this, most warships on every side in World War Two opened up on any aircraft which came with-in range.) Still fifty bombers dropping ordnance on their own fleet was a bit much.
Italian forces in World War Two rarely performed well. Much of this was due to a lack of interest in fighting alongside the Germans against the British and Americans. The rest was due to poor training and equipment. Given this, for the King and Mussolini to actually believe their forces could prevail in a stand-up battle with Anglo-American or Russian forces shows an incredible lack of understanding of the strength and weaknesses of the Royal Italian forces. And further, shows a callous disregard for the lives of the men who served in those forces.
The Battle for Rome: The Germans, the Allies, the Partisans, and the Pope, September 1943-June 1944 by Robert Katz (three stars).
Struggle for the Middle Sea by Vincent P. O’Hara (five stars).
The Oxford Companion to World War Two by I. C. B. Dear (Editor) and M. R. D. Foot (Editor).
[Images courtesy of Wikimedia.]