Corpo Aereo Italiano
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The "Italian Air Corps" (Corpo Aereo Italiano, or CAI) was an expeditionary force of the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) that participated in the Battle of Britain during the final months of 1940 during World War II. The CAI supported the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and flew against the British Royal Air Force (RAF). The CAI achieved limited success during its brief existence. In general, the corps was hampered by the inadequacy of its equipment.
On 10 September 1940, the CAI was formed, under the formal aegis of the 1a Squadra Aerea di Milano ("First 'Milan' Air Command"). Air Marshal (Generale sa) Rino Corso-Fougier was appointed Air Officer Commanding.
- Fiat CR.42 of 18° Gruppo, 56° Stormo. The Italian CR.42 was a manoeuvrable and fast biplane fighter. Despite its good manoeuvrability and speed (440+ km/h) it was technically outclassed by the faster Hurricane and Spitfire of the British Royal Air Force.
- Fiat G.50 of 20° Gruppo, 56° Stormo. The Italian G.50 monoplane fighter was restricted by its range of 400 miles (640 km) (roughly the same as that of Bf 109E models used by the Luftwaffe) and the lack of a radio unit in most participating aircraft.
- Fiat BR.20 bombers of 13° and 43° Stormo. The Italian BR.20 was a twin engined bomber capable of carrying 1600 kg (3,528 lb) of bombs.
On 25 September, the bombers arrived at their airfield in Melsbroek, Belgium after an eventful journey which saw several planes force land or even crash due to malfunctions and poor weather. The fighter element arrived later at Ursel, also in Belgium.
On the night of 24 October 1940, the CAI conducted its first raid, when eighteen BR.20s took off to attack Harwich and Felixstowe. Not all aircraft found their targets and three were lost in accidents or after becoming lost.
The next major operation of the CAI was on 29 October. This date is regarded by some historians as the last day of the Battle of Britain. In response to a raid on several northern Italian cities, fifteen BR.20s with a strong fighter escort bombed Ramsgate by day. The Italian bombers were sighted crossing Kent at a relatively low level. The bombers flew in formation, wing tip to wing tip. The open-cockpit, fixed-undercarriage fighter escorts accompanied them in a similar immaculate order. The Italian aircraft were painted pale green and bright blue. This was camouflage more suitable for a more exotic climate than that found in Britain in late October. Five Italian aircraft suffered damage due to flak. At least one of the bombers was seen at 16:40 hours in Deal, Kent that afternoon, some fourteen miles from Ramsgate and dropped three HE bombs, one just outside the Officers' Mess at the Royal Marines Depot, killing Second Lieutenant Nelson and Marines Drake, Girling, Lewis and Clemson, and one Private from the King's Shropshire Light Infantry. All but one were buried together in the Hamilton Road Cemetery, Deal.
The next few days saw several small raids.
On 11 November 1940, the day before the battle fleet of the Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) was attacked at Taranto, the CAI saw its first major combat against the RAF. Ten bombers were escorted by forty-two CR.42s, the G.50s, and some German Messerschmitt Bf 109s assigned to them. The mission was aborted due to bad weather. However, Hurricanes from 257, 46, and 17 Squadrons intercepted the aircraft and destroyed three bombers and three fighters. In addition, four bombers eventually force landed, two fighters were destroyed on landing, and another eight fighters landed with damage. One Hurricane sustained structural damage after it's pilot, Flight Lieutenant Howard Peter Blatchford, having run out of ammunition, had rammed an Italian fighter in the action. The British losses were reported to be two fighters.It had been a difficult encounter, with one British pilot reporting that:
We made tight turns, climbing turns and half rolls until it seemed we would never stop. The Italians could certainly fly.
One of the Fiats was repaired by the British and subsequently evaluated. Of the Italian fighter aircraft, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill later wrote, "They might have found better employment defending the fleet at Taranto."
Fighter to fighter combat was no more successful for the CAI. On 23 November, the Italian biplanes were "bounced" by Spitfire Mk.IIs and two were shot down by Archibald Winskill with several others damaged, in return for one Spitfire damaged.
Further bombing raids were carried out by the CAI, mainly on the Ipswich and Harwich areas.
Near the beginning of January 1941, all of the bombers and biplanes were redeployed. This left the CAI with only the Fiat G.50s, which remained until mid-April 1941, when they too were redeployed.
The first operation by the CAI was on 28 October. As late as 4 November, a Time magazine article only indicated that there was a possibility that an Italian air force unit might be sent to participate in the Battle of Britain.
Biplane versus monoplane
Although the main fighter used by the Corpo Aereo Italiano was a biplane, which, in purely technical terms, would be outclassed by more modern monoplanes, this was not the case all the time. On 11 and 23 November 1940, CR.42s flew two raids against Great Britain as part of the Corpo Aereo Italiano. Although the German Luftwaffe aircraft had difficulty flying in formation with the slower biplanes, the Falcos, though slower, and with an open cockpit, no radio, and armed with only two machine guns (a 12.7 mm/.5 in and a 7.7 mm/.303 in Breda-SAFAT), could easily out-turn Hurricanes and Spitfires, making them difficult to hit. "The CR 42 turned to fight using all the aeroplane's manoeuvrability. The pilot could get on my tail in a single turn, so tightly was he able to pull round." As the RAF intelligence report stated, the Falcos were hard targets. "As I fired he half rolled very tightly and I was completely unable to hold him, so rapid were his manoeuvres. I attacked two or three more and fired short bursts, in each case the enemy aircraft half-rolled very tightly and easily and completely out-turned me. In two cases as they came out of their rolls, they were able to turn in almost on my tail and opened fire on me."
Against British monoplanes, the CR.42s were not always outclassed. "I engaged one of the British fighters from a range of between 40 to 50 metres (130–165 ft). Then I saw a Spitfire, which was chasing another CR.42, and I got in a shot at a range of 150 metres (500 ft). I realised that in a manoeuvered flight, the CR.42 could win or survive against Hurricanes and Spitfires, though we had to be careful of a sweep from behind. In my opinion, the English .303 bullet was not very effective. Italian aircraft received many hits which did no material damage and one pilot even found that his parachute pack had stopped a bullet."
- Hough, Richard, and Richards, Denis, The Battle of Britain, page 305
- Enemy Communiques
- Fiat CR.42 Aces of World War 2, Hëkan Gustavsson, Richard Caruana, Ludovico Slongo, p. 32, Osprey Publishing, 2013
- Hough, Richard, and Richards, Denis, The Battle of Britain, page 304
- "Air Commodore Sir Archibald Winskill". The Telegraph. 15 August 2005. Retrieved 1 August 2013.
- Time Magazine, Daily Damage
- Mrazek, Group Captain Karel in Wings of war 1983, p. 91.
- Haining 2005, p. 86.
- Haining 2005, p. 160.
- Gunston, Bill (2001), The Illustrated Directory of Fighting Aircraft of World War II, Salamander, ISBN 1-84065-092-3
- Haining, Peter The Chianti Raiders The Extraordinary Story of the Italian Air Force in the Battle of Britain London Robson 2005 ISBN 1-86105-829-2
- Hough, Richard, and Richards, Denis, The Battle of Britain, W.W. Norton Company, New York and London, 1989, ISBN 0-393-02766-X
- Mondey, David (1984), The Concise Guide to Axis Aircraft of World War II, Chancellor Press, ISBN 1-85152-966-7
- Townshend Bickers, Richard (1990, The Battle of Britain, Salamander, ISBN 0-86101-477-4