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A brief history
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Italy was at the forefront of aerial warfare: during the colonization of Libya in 1911, it made the first reconnaissance flight in history on October 23, and the first ever bombing raid on November 1.
During World War I, the Italian Corpo Aeronautico Militare, then still part of the Royal Army (Regio Esercito), operated a mix of French fighters and locally-built bombers, notably the gigantic Caproni aircraft. The Italian Royal Navy (Règia Marina) had its own air arm, operating locally-built flying boats.
The Italian air force became an independent service - the Royal Air Force (Règia Aeronautica) - on March 28, 1923. The Fascist regime of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini turned it into an impressive propaganda machine, with its aircraft, featuring red-and-buff "rising sun" livery on the wings, making numerous record-breaking flights. It reached its zenith when two fleets of flying boats, led by General Italo Balbo, crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1931 and 1933 respectively. During the latter half of the 1930s, the Royal Air Force participated in the Spanish Civil War, as well as the invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia).
When World War II began in 1939, Italy had the smallest air force among the three major Axis powers. With a paper strength of 3,296 machines only 2,000 were fit for operations, of which just 166 were modern fighters - the Macchi MC.200 and Fiat G.50 were still slower than their potential Allied opponents. While numerically still a force to be reckoned with, it was hampered by an inadequate local aircraft industry; technical assistance by its German ally did little to improve the situation.
During the Ethiopian campaign, the Italian Royal Air Force performed massive poison gas bombings over the Ethiopian soldiers. Despite being inadequately equipped, the Royal Air Force managed to decimate Ethiopian forces and undertook massive bombings of Ethiopian cities (particularly Addis Abeba). The operations of the Royal Air Force was crucial for the success of the invasion of the Royal Army (Regio Esercito) and was enhanced by the near total lack of an opposing Ethiopian air force.
Spanish Civil War
During the Spanish Civil War Italian pilots fought alongside Spanish Nationalist and German Air Force (Luftwaffe) pilots as members of the "Aviation Legion" (Aviazione Legionaria). This deployment took place from July 1936 to March 1939 and complimented an expeditionary force of Italian ground troops titled "Corps of Volunteer Troops" (Corpo Truppe Volontarie). In Spain, the Italian pilots were under direct command of the Spanish Nationalists and took part in training and joint operations with the pilots of the German "Condor Legion."
Battle of France
In June 1940, during the closing days of the Battle of France, the Royal Air Force carried out 716 bombing missions in support of the Italian invasion of France. Italian aircraft dropped a total of 276 tons of bombs.
Royal Air Force aircraft were involved in the Middle East almost from the start of Italian involvement in World War II. Before and during the Anglo-Iraqi War, German and Italian aircraft flying to Iraq stopped to refuel in the Vichy French-controlled Mandate of Syria. These aircraft, pretending to be Iraqi, were painted as such en route. Continued concern over German and Italian influence in the area led to the Syria-Lebanon Campaign.
In one of the lesser known incidents of the war, starting in July 1940, Italian aircraft bombed cities in the British Mandate of Palestine. In mid-October, the Italians also bombed American-operated oil refineries in the British Protectorate of Bahrain.
ln June 1940, the Royal Air Force in Italian East Africa had between 200 and 300 combat ready aircraft. Some of these aircraft were outdated, but the Italians also had Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 and Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 bombers and Fiat CR-42 fighters. In relative terms, these were some of the best aircraft available to either side at the beginning of the East African Campaign. In addition, the Italian aircraft were often based at better airfields than those of the British and Commonwealth forces. When the war began, Italian pilots were relatively well trained and confident of their abilities. But, cut off from Italy as they were, problems with lack of fuel, munitions, spare parts, replacements started to rise eventually.
While the Royal Air Force in East Africa was worn down quickly by a lop-sided war of attrition, the Italian pilots held on to the bitter end. On 24 October 1941, about one month prior to the final Italian surrender, the last Italian aircraft of the campaign was shot down.
Battle of Britain
From October 25, 1940, some 170 Italian planes (including 73 Fiat Br.20 bombers) were sent to occupied Belgium to form the Italian Air Corps (Corpo Aereo Italiano, or CAI) to participate in the Battle of Britain. The CAI achieved very limited success. In December 1940, the most of the CAI aircraft were withdrawn to Greece.  The last Italian aircraft left Belgium by mid-April 1941.
Intially, the Western Desert Campaign was a near equal struggle between the Italian Royal Air Force and the British Royal Air Force (RAF). Early on, the fighters available to both sides tended to be older biplanes. The Italian pilots flew Fiat CR.32s and Fiat CR.42s while the British flew Gloster Gladiators. Later, the tide turned periodically as each side was able to obtain improved aircraft. However, after the Italian dasasters during Operation Compass and after the arrival of General Erwin Rommel and his German Africa Corps (Deutsches Afrikakorps, or DAK ), the fate of the Italian Royal Air Force in the Western Desert became more and more dependent on the fate of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe).
Although the air campaign in Libya was seriously limited because of desert conditions, the Italian Royal Air Force managed to retain a force of nearly four hundred airplanes. During the first British counter-offensive, the Italian Royal Air Force suffered heavy losses (over 400 aircraft) until the German attack on Greece, when British forces had to divert a major part of their land and air forces thus giving the Italian forces enough time to deploy more units and strengthen their air forces. These were supplemented by the arrival of Rommel's Africa Corps, and the attached German Air Force (Luftwaffe) contingent deployed almost 200 airplanes in Libya and another 600 in Sicily.
Next to the German Air Force, the Italian Royal Air Force performed better due to the exchange of tactical doctrine between services and the arrival of more modern aircraft. During Rommel's first offensive, they Italians managed to keep RAF fighters away from Rommel's forces. The Italians also covered Rommel's retreat during the British Operation Crusader while inflicting heavy losses on the RAF bombing airplanes.
During Rommel's second offensive the Règia Aeronautica and the Luftwaffe suffered considerable losses due to stronger Allied resistance during the air battles over El Alamein and the bombing raids over Alexandria and Cairo.
The Italian Royal Air Force, having suffered heavy losses in Egypt, was quickly retired to Tobruk, Benghazi, Tripoli, and,, eventually, Tunisia.
The Italian Royal Air Force participated in the air offensive on the British controlled island of Malta along with the German Air Force in an attempt to gain control of the Axis sea routes from Sicily, Sardinia, and Italy to North Africa. Although on the edge of starvation and suffering heavy losses, Malta managed to withstand the attacks from the Italian and German air forces, and inflicted losses of almost 1,500 planes. The battle cost the RAF 800 planes and considerable numbers of transport ships, but the price was worth it: 60% of Axis supplies sent to Africa were sunk thanks to British aircraft, submarines, and destroyers based in Malta.
Greece and Yugoslavia
In late 1940, the Royal Air Force enjoyed complete air superiority during the Greco-Italian War. However, this did not stop the Greek Army from forcing the Royal Army (Regio Esercito) onto the defensive and back into Albania.
In early 1941, the tide turned completely as the German Armed Forces (Wermacht) launched an invasion of Yugoslavia. From that point on, the role of the Italian Royal Air Force in the German Balkans Campaign was primarily that of support.
The Italian Royal Air Force squadrons sent to the Eastern Front as an attachment to the "Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia" (Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia, or CSIR) and then the "Italian Army in Russia" (Armata Italiana in Russia, or ARMIR) were known as the "Italian Air Force Expeditionary Corps in Russia" (Corpo Aereo Spedizione in Russia). These squadrons supported the Italian armed forces from 1941 to 1943. They were initially based in the Ukraine and ultimately supported operations in the Stalingrad area. The CSIR was subsumed by the ARMIR in 1942 and the ARMIR was disbanded in early 1943 after disaster during the Battle of Stalingrad.
From 1944 to 1945, Italian personnel operated from the Baltic area and in the northern part of the Eastern Front under the direct command of the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) under the name Air Transport Group 1 (1° Gruppo Aerotransporti "Terracciano" ). This group, known also as 1° Staffel Transportfliegergruppe 10 (Ital) by the Germans, was part of the National Republican Air Force (Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana, ANR) still loyal to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana, or RSI) in northern Italy.
The Royal Air Force was put in a defensive role during the Sicilian Campaign. Italian pilots were constantly fighting against Allied efforts to sink Italian Royal Navy (Regia Marina) ships. Just before the Allied invasion of Sicily, a huge Allied bomber offensive struck the airfields in Sicily in an effort to gain further air superiority. This left the Royal Air Force very weak, but still alive as aircraft continued to arrive from Sardinia, southern Italy, and southern France.
Nortern Italy and the Balkans
After the Italian armistice, the Royal Air Force was briefly followed by two new Italian air forces. In the south, the Royalist "Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force" (Aviazione Cobelligerante Italiana, or ACI) fought for the Allied forces. In the north, the Fascist "National Republican Air Force" (Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana, or ANR) was still loyal to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana, or RSI).
Aircraft of the ACI and the ANR never fought each other. The ACI operated in the Balkans and the ANR operated in northern Italy and the area around the Baltic Sea.
Aircraft of the Règia Aeronautica
Fighters and fighter-bombers
- Ambrosini S.A.I.207
- Fiat CR.20
- Fiat CR.32
- Fiat CR.42 Falco
- Fiat G.50 Freccia
- Fiat G.55 Centauro
- Macchi C.200 Saetta
- Macchi C.202 Folgore
- Macchi C.205 Veltro
- Reggiane Re.2000 Falco I
- Reggiane Re.2001 Falco II
- Reggiane Re.2002 Ariete
- Reggiane Re.2005 Sagittario
- Caproni Vizzola F.5
Heavy fighters and fighter-bombers
- Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero
- Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 Pipistrello
- Savoia-Marchetti SM.82 Canguro
- Savoia-Marchetti SM.84
- Fiat Br.20 Cicogna
- CANT Z.1007 Alcione
- CANT Z.1018 Leone
- Caproni Ca.101
- Caproni Ca.135
- Piaggio P.32
- Piaggio P.108
Recon and/or Transport
- Caproni Ca.111
- Caproni Ca.133
- Caproni 309/310/311/313/314
- IMAM Ro 37
- IMAM Ro 43/44
- CANT Z.501 Gabbiano
- CANT Z.506 Airone
- Fiat RS 14
- S.M. 73/74/75/83
- Fiat G. 12
Training and Auxiliary roles
- Ambrosini S.A.I.403 Dardo
Règia Aeronautica Aces (World War Two)
The Règia Aeronautica tended not to keep statistics on the individual level, instead reporting kills for a certain unit, attributed to their unit commander. However, pilots were able to keep personal log books, so the few that survived through World War II give individual statistics. Here is a list of the aces attributed with ten or more kills.
- Franco Lucchini- 24 kills
- Teresio Martinoli- 23 kills
- Leonardo Ferrulli- 22 kills
- Franco Bordoni-Bisleri- 19 kills
- Luigi Gorrini- 19 kills
- Mario Visintini- 17 kills
- Ugo Drago- 17 kills
- Mario Bellagambi- 14 kills
- Luigi Baron- 14 kills
- Luigi Gianella- 12 kills
- Attilio Sanson- 12 kills
- Carlo Magnaghi- 11 kills
- Angelo Mastroagostino- 11 kills
- Giorgio Solaroli di Briona- 11 kills
- Mario Veronesi- 11 kills
- Fernando Malvezzi- 10 kills
- Giulio Reiner- 10 kills
- Giuseppe Robetto- 10 kills
- Carlo Maurizio Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa- 10 kills
- Massimo Salvatore- 10 kills
- Claudio Solaro- 10 kills
- Ennio Tarantola- 10 kills
- Giulio Torresi- 10 kills
Notable Members of the Règia Aeronautica
- Italo Balbo
- Francesco Baracca (precursor)
- Ettore Muti
- Pier Ruggero Piccio, founding Chief of Staff
- Umberto Nobile
- Vittorio Revetra
- Servizi Aerei Speciali
- List of Italian Air Force Trainers (WW2)
- Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana
- Aeronautica Cobelligerante del Sud
- Anglo-Iraqi War
- Apostolo, Giorgio, "Italian Aces of World War II", Osprey Publishing, London, 2000. ISBN 1-84176-078-1
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It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Regia Aeronautica".