World War II: Italian Air War (1940-45)

World War II Luftwaffe in Italy
Figure 1.--Hitler at the most critical point in World War II, with victory still a real possiblility in the Soviet Union, decided to begin shifting elements of the Luftwaffe south to the Meditteranean. The first Luftwaffe bombers arrived in Sicily (September 1941). The target was the tiny British outpost of Malta which the British were using to interdict Italian supply convoys to Libya (primarily Tripoli). Here Luftwaffe men on Sicily or southern Italy (Calabria and Puglia) have their photographs taken with some of their Italian allies, probably in 1942. The 'M' on the boy's shirt stands for Mussolini, it is the Balilla sports uniform.

The Regia Aeronautica Italiana (Italian Royal Air Force--RAI) was the air force of the Kingdom of Italy. It had operated as a unit of the Royal Italian Army during World War I, but was created as a independent service (1923). The RAI played a major role in the Italian invasion of Ethiopian (1935), primarily by using poison gas in the country side and bombing cities, especially Addis Ababa. The RAI was poorly equipped in European terms, but Ethiopia had no air force with which to oppose the Italians. Without these terror operations, it would have taken much more time for the Italians to occupy Ethiopia. The RAI along with the Luftwaffe was deployed in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). At the onset of World War II (1939), the RAI had an impressive 3,300 aircraft, but only about 2,000 were operational and most were obsolete types. The RAI was the smallest and most poorly equipped of the three Axis air forces. The RAI had, for example, only 166 modern fighters. The Macchi MC-200 and Fiat G-50 were the best Italian fighters, but were slower than Allied fighters. The RAI's primary fighter was the obsolete Fiat CR-42 biplane. The RAI was ill prepared for a modern European war. And the small national aircraft industry was unable to improve that situation during the War. Not only was the Italian aviation industry small, but it used inefficient production methods. Their German allies offered technical assistance, but this did not materially improve the situation, in part because the Italians did not want to admit their technical inferiority. Fortunately for Italy, the Germans at the time Italy declared war had largely defeated France which had a modern air force, but this left Britain to contend with. Despite its small size and inferior aircraft types, the RAI could have played an important role in the War if it had been effectively used to support the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean sea battles with the British Royal Navy (1940-41). It was not. There were no effort to train with the Regia Marina (Royal Italian Navy-RM)before the War. And much of the RM was destroyed before such cooperation could be improved. And the obsolete RAI aircraft could offer little support to the Italian Army in the Western Desert when it attacked (September 1940). The RAI did not even protect RM naval bases, such a Taranto which was struck by British carrier aircraft (November 1940). The importance of Malta soon became apparent in the Axis effort to take Egypt. Malta threatened the critical supply convoys to Italian-occupied Libya. The RAI began bombing Malta, but had little impact. This changed after the Germans inserted ground forces to prevent the British from taking Libya (March 1941). This was followed by the deployment of the Luftwaffe to southern Italy, Sardinia, and Sicily. The first Luftwaffe bombers arrived in Sicily (September 1941). The main focus became Malta and the protection of convoys supplying the German and Italian forces in the Western Desert. This meant reducing the ability of the Luftwaffe to support the critical Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union. Mussolini followed Hitler's declaration of war on the United States which meant that the RAI now faced the rapidly expanding American air forces (December 1941). Hitler used Italian air bases when he ordered the Luftwaffe instead of supporting the Stalingrad pocket was to rush German troops to Tunisia (October 1942). The fall of Axis air bases in North Africa meant that the United States could begin bombing Italy. The RAI was unable to offer effective resistance. After the Italian surrender (September 1943), the United States used Italian bases to both bomb the Romanian oil fields (Germany's primary source of petroleum) and the Reich itself, opening a new front in the strategic bombing campaign.

Regia Aeronautica Italiana

The Regia Aeronautica Italiana (Italian Royal Air Force--RAI) was the air force of the Kingdom of Italy. It had operated as a unit of the Royal Italian Army during World War I, but was created as a independent service (1923). Fscist dictator Benito Musolinu put one of his most important associates in charge if the RAI, Italo Balbo (1926). The flaboyant Baldo became an energetic spokesman for the RAI and Italian aviation in general. Eventually Mussolini exiled Balbo to Libya because he began to see him as a rival.

Ethiopia (1935)

The RAI played a major role in the Italian invasion of Ethiopian (1935), primarily by using poison gas in the country side and bombing cities, especially Addis Ababa. The RAI was poorly equipped in European terms, but Ethiopia had no air force with which to oppose the Italians. Without these terror operations, it would have taken much more time for the Italians to occupy Ethiopia.

Spanish Civil War (1936-39)

The RAI along with the Luftwaffe was deployed in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

Aircraft

At the onset of World War II (1939), the RAI had an impressive 3,300 aircraft, but only about 2,000 were operational and most were obsolete types. The RAI was the smallest and most poorly equipped of the three Axis air forces. The RAI had, for example, only 166 modern fighters. The Macchi MC-200 and Fiat G-50 were the best Italian fighters, but were slower than Allied fighters. The RAI's primary fighter was the obsolete Fiat CR-42 biplane. The RAI was ill prepared for a modern European war. Allthe major beligerent powers (America, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union). Italy was the only major beligerent country that did not Prouce high performance aircrft. Other European countries allied with Germany used German arcraft instead of designing nd building their on airctaft. The Italians attenpted to buildheir own aircraft and wound up with an airforce that was uncompetitive with he American and British aircraft they had to face. The Italiansappear ti have been unaware of this before declaring war, but were quickly made aware of this when they joined the Germans in the Battle of Britain.

Aviation Industry

And the small national aircraft industry was unable to improve that situation during the War. Not only was the Italian aviation industry small, but it used inefficient production methods.

German Technical Assistance

Their German allies offered technical assistance, but this did not materially improve the situation, in part because the Italians did not want to admit their technical inferiority.

Outbrerak of War (June 1940)

Fortunately for Italy, the Germans at the time Italy declared war had largely defeated France which had a modern air force, but this left Britain to contend with. Despite its small size and inferior aircraft types.

Mediterranean Naval Battles (1940-41)

The RAI could have played an important role in the War if it had been effectively used to support the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean sea battles with the British Royal Navy (1940-41). It was not. There were no effort to train with the Regia Marina (Royal Italian Navy-RM)before the War. And much of the RM was destroyed before such cooperation could be improved. The RAI did not even protect RM naval bases, such a Taranto which was struck by British carrier aircraft (November 1940).

Toranto: Operation Judgement (November 1940)

The Mediterranean became an active theater of war when Italy entered the war (June 1940). The Supermarina (Naval Head Quarter) was not anxious to challenge the Royal Navy at the onset of the campaign. Much of the fleet, especially its battleships were kept in port, primarily at the Toranto naval base. The Regia Marina primary strategy was to maintain a a Fleet in being. This forced the British to deploy in the Mediterranean that were badly needed in the vital struggle against the U-boats in the North Atlantic. The British with Operation Judgemen tstruck at the RM at Taranto (November 11-12, 1940). A Royal Navy forced commanded by Rear Admiral Lyster, the carrier Illustrious launched 21 obsolete Swordfish bi-wing aircraft in two waves against the Italian ships in port. The British caught six Italian battleships, nine cruisers, and eight destroyers entirely unprepared. The battleship Conte di Cavour was sunk in port. The battleship Littorio was hit by three torpedos and severly damaged. The battleship Caio Diulio was hot by one torpedo. The heavy cruiser Trento was also severly damaged. Several destroyers were also sevrly damagd. Shore support facilities were also hit. The resulkt was the striking power of the RM was bsharply reduced as critical naval buildings for r=the Mediterranean were being fought. Operation Judgement was thfirst Royal Naby all-aircraft attack. It provided the hard-pressed Royal Navy just the margin it needed to prevail in a series of climatic naval battles. The Italians had detected Allied reconnaissance flights around Taranto, but took no heed. The British suffered minimal losses, two Swordfish aircraft were struck down by anti-aircraft fire. The Toranto attack occurred just after President Roosevelt moved the American Pacific Fleet forward from San Diego to Pearl Harbor as a dterent to futher Japanese agression. Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto stufied the British Toranto attack to see if a carrier attack in the shallow Pearl Harbor waters was feasible and he had a much more potent carier force than the British.

The Western Desert (1940-42)

And the obsolete RAI aircraft could offer little support to the Italian Army in the Western Desert when it attacked (September 1940).

Malta

The importance of Malta soon became apparent in the Axis effort to take Egypt. Malta threatened the critical supply convoys to Italian-occupied Libya. The RAI began bombing Malta, but had little impact. This changed after the Germans inserted ground forces to prevent the British from taking Libya (March 1941). This was followed by the deployment of the Luftwaffe to southern Italy, Sardinia, and Sicily. The first Luftwaffe bombers arrived in Sicily (September 1941). The main focus became Malta and the protection of convoys supplying the German and Italian forces in the Western Desert. This meant reducing the ability of the Luftwaffe to support the critical Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union.

War with America (December 1941)

Mussolini followed Hitler's declaration of war on the United States and declared war on Ameica (December 1941). The Pearl Harbor news reached Rome at the same time as bad news of British victories in East Africa and Libya. Italian Foreign Miister Count Ciano writes in his diary that his German counterpart, Von Ribontrop, called during the night and describes him as 'joyful' as he delivered the news of Pearl Harbor attack (December 8). Nodoubt adopting Hitler's view of the news. Ciano was preoccupied with obtaining Bizerte from Vichy, but wrote with the clarity lacking with the NAZI hierarchy, "I am not sure about the advantage [of war with America]. One thing is now certain: America will enter the conflict, and the conflict itself will be long enough to permit her to put into action all her potenial strength." [Ciano, p. 416.] Two days later Ciano writes, "News of the amazing Japanese naval victories continued to arrive. Against this the land fighting in Libya and in Russia is not going well. Such are the incredible surprises of war." (December 10) [Cianop. 417.] Mussolini from his Palazzo di Venezia balcony spoke to a large crowd (December 11). Ciano decribes the reaction of those listening was not very enthusiastic, because they were hungary and cold. [Ciano, p. 417.] Italians were not all that excited about fighting the British, most except for fervent Fascists were absolutely mistifiied why they were now fighting not only the Soviet Union but America as well. Most Italians admired America and many had lived there or had relativds who had emigrated to America and rote home in glowing terms about their new homes. Even Italians with no real knowledge of military affais knew that America was a large powerful country. A few hours later, Ribbontrop called to suggest a joint Axis declaration of war on America. This meant meant that the RAI now faced the rapidly expanding American air forces (December 1941).

Tunisia (November 1942-May 1943)

Hitler used Italian air bases when he ordered the badlybover-streached Luftwaffe instead of supporting the Stalingrad pocket to rush German troops and supplies to Tunisia (November 1942). The Luftwaffe unlike the United states had a very limited air-lift capacity and was still using the German version of the venerable Ford Tri-motor. ThevItalian had virtully no air-lift capacity. This effort not only reduced the avility of the Luftwaffe to supply Stalingrad, but transformed a minor Germn defeat at El Alamein involving a relatively small German force to a major capitulation in Tunisia. He did buy Mussolini and Fascist Italy a few extra months.

Bombing Italy (1940-44)

Italy with France preparing to surender joined NAZI Germany and entered the War (June 10). Italy unlike Germy was not set in th middle of Eutope, It was a peninsula and thus vulnerable to naval and air attack. Mussolini did not consider this. He thought that the War was won. The British begn bombing Italy early in the War with a raid on Turin in the north (June 11, 1940). The British bombed Palermo in the south (Sicily) with bombers from Malta (June 23). These were pin pricks. Naples was struck for the first time (November 1, 1940). This was a more imprtant raid by RAF and Fleet Air Arm Bristol-Blenheim twin-engine light bombers flying out of Malta. It was part of a coordinated British effort to reduce the supply of Italian forces in North Africa. Naples and Brindisi were important ports used by the convoys to Tripoli. Strategic bombing in earnest did not begin until America entered the War anbd the massive build up of Allied air forces. The fall of Axis air bases in North Africa after El Alamein meant that the United States could begin bombing Italy (1943). And by this time the entry of America into the War was massively increasing the striking power of Allied air forces. The RAI had played a major role in bombing Malta which was protected by only a small force of British fighters. The badly outclassed RAI was unable to offer effective resistance to the massive air power being assembled by the Allies. One of the major targets was Naples, the largest port in southern Italy and important for getting supplies through to the shrinking Axis bridgehead in Tunisia. The fall of Tunisia and then Sicily further increased the ability of the Allies to bring the War home to Italy. Many Italian cities were bombed. Heavy raids started with the American bombings as the 0th Air Force became established. Naples was struck on force (December 4, 1942). The American sent the long range B-24 Liberators. The first raid killed 900 people. They were daylight raids so the bombers could find the port and other targets. Compared to the British raids on Italy the American raids were massive. Naples aqnd other Italian cities were not well-prepared for such intense air-raids. Most of the al anti-aircraft fire cane from ship-mounted guns at the port. There were air-raid shelters, but only because a network of underground train stations, quarries and caverns already existed. (photo, left), including sections of the old Roman aqueduct. One author writes, " The honeycomb of caverns and passageways below were converted into air raid shelters under Mussolini's UMPA or civil defense program. Whole families spent weeks below ground, often emerging into daylight to find their homes and entire neighborhoods turned to rubble ... so they returned to the cavernous shelters to survive. Evidence of DC battery power, showers and crude health and kitchen facilities can still be seen in many of the shelters." [Ray] Foggia was another important target vecause of the major air base there. The Allies also bombed Rome with several raids before the Italians surrendered (1943). The Germans also bombed Rome to a much lesser extent as the Luftwaffe was ovrealmed by Allied air power. Hitler appear to have ordered the detruction of the Vatican. The Allies flew 110,000 sorties against Rome. Some 600 aircraft were lost and 3,600 air crew members died. Some 60,000 tons of bombs were dropped. Pope Pius XII suceeded in having Rome declared an open city, through negotiations with President Roosevelt via Cardinal Francis Spellman. Rome was declared an open city (August 14, 1943). The Allied bombing of Zadar, an Italian enclave in Dalmatia (Yugosalvia) is a little known acrion in the air war (November 1943 - October 1944). While a relatively small city, it is noitable bcause of the intensity of the bombing. There is no defenitive accounting on the impact and results vary substantially. The Allies report 30 raids. The Itlians claim that there were 54. Reports of the fatalities also vary from 1,000-4,000 people. Zadar only had 20,000 inhabitants. American bombings of Italy never took on the massive scale of the strategic bombing campaign against Germany, but they dd wreak considerable damage on Italian cities.

Sicily


Allied Air Operations in Italy (1943-45)

The Allies invaded Italy (September 1943). The Italians surrendered and the German seized control of most of the country. One of the early prizes was the developed Italian air base at at Foggia in the South. The United States used the Italian bases. Allied air forces were reorganized. The two major commands were the 12th and 15th Air Forces. Jimmy Doolittle temporarily commanded the new 15th Air Force before going to England to command the 8th Air Force. The 12th Air Force transferred all of its heavy bomb groups and its B-26 Marauder medium bomb groups to the 15th Air Force and the 12th became strictly a tactical air force and the 15th became a strategic air force (November 1, 1943). Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz, the previous Northwest African Air Forces (NAAF), 12th Air Force, and 8th Air Force commander, took over the new United States Strategic Air Forces (USSTAF) consisting of Doolittle's 8th Air Force and Twining's 15th Air Force. Cities in southern Germany also now came within the range of Allied bombers. This opened a new front in the strategic bombing campaign. Spaatz often used the the 15th in Italy for long-range strategic bombing of European targets when inclement weather in England prevented the 8th Air Force from flying missions against the Reich. Havy bombers took off from Italy, bombed German targets, and landed in England. Similarly, some flew the opposite route. A few overnight stops in Russia were also made by some of the long-range bombers of the 8th and 15th Air Forces. Targets ib the Reich were not the only target. The highest priority target was the the Romanian oil fields (Germany's primary source of petroleum). This complicated the Luftwaffe's problems in defending the Reich ajnd defending Ploesti became impossible. Attacks on the vital Ploesti oil fields would be much shorter range attacks that tghe 9th Air Force operating from North Africa had been forced to conduct. Ira Eaker who had commanded the 8th Air Force was given command of the new 15th Air Force.

Sources

Ray, Larry.






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