Friday 22 March 2019

Regia Aeronautica in the Battle of Britain Corpo Aereo Italiano - Operation Cinzano 11 November 1940,

" 11 November 1940 - today we have brought down more enemy aircraft than on any previous day. Among them for the first time were at least eight Italian machines. The PM chuckled with joy when I reported this information to him..."

 John Colville, Churchill's private secretary.

Hoping to participate in the 'invasion' of Britain the Italians dispatched a hastily assembled expeditionary force of some 200 aircraft to the Channel coast. The so-called Corpo Aereo Italiano transferred to Belgium (Ursel) between 27 September and 19 October 1940 and would 'participate' in the tail end of the Battle of Britain; the Cant. Z 1007 of 172 Squadriglia RST (Ricognizione Strategica Terrestre, above) was one of five sent to Belgium, while the Fiat CR.42 Falco fighters of 18 Gruppo seen setting out from Milan for Belgium on 6 October 1940 (below) were part of a contingent of some fifty of the type.  The transfer from Italy was something of a fiasco - as a result of poor weather, lack of fuel or technical faults no fewer than 19 Fiat BR.20 bombers had to make emergency landings while a further four bombers and three Fiat G.50s were posted missing! After stops in Munich and Brussels the Italian detachment finally reached Ursel on 19 October!

While a comparatively strong force on paper  it took a mere handful of familiarisation flights for the realisation to dawn that the Fiat fighters- the CR. 42 in particular - were totally unsuited to 'winter' conditions in north-west Europe. Many of the aircraft had no seat armour nor functioning radio equipment, pitot tube heating was insufficient to prevent them freezing and the Fiat CR. 42 Falco biplane fighters with their open cockpits were hardly suited to missions over the UK in winter.  Among other items the pilots had to procure lifebelts from the Luftwaffe. The Italians were operating from Belgium as the Luftwaffe leadership had refused to allow them to operate from their airfields in northern France, which considerably hampered their radius of action (the endurance of the CR.42 was 775 km and the Fiat G.50 445 km), allowing them barely ten minutes over southern England. In addition, of the 200+ Italian pilots only five had received instrument or blind flying training.

 Regia Aeronautica Fiat G. 50 seen in Belgium during the Battle of Britain. 

11 November 1940 was a hard day for the forces of the Regia Aeronautica stationed in Belgium on the North Sea coast. The Italians had planned a raid over the UK under the code name 'Cinzano' - a bombing raid on Harwich  by ten Fiat BR. 20s escorted by 40 Fiat CR.42s and G.50s and a diversionary attack on London by the five Canz Z. 1007 bombers in concert with the Luftwaffe. However everything that could go wrong, did go wrong...the G.50s turned for home unable to locate the bombers, the bombers, late for their rendezvous, arrived unescorted over Harwich and the RAF was able to claim eight Italian machines shot down - in reality three BR 20M bombers and three CR.42 biplanes were lost. Falco coded '95-13' flown by Sergente Pietro Salvadori  put down on the beach at Orford Ness in Suffolk with an over-heating engine as a result of a ruptured oil line - the aircraft today displayed at the RAF Museum, Hendon. The Italians claimed nine Hurricanes shot down in the engagement - the RAF reported three Hurricanes damaged..M.llo Giuseppe Ruzzin was credited with a Hurricane shot down for his fifth victory following his four confirmed in Spain. To compound the mission's lack of success and running short of fuel, no fewer than nineteen Falcos made emergency landings along the Belgian coast with ten of these machines subsequently written off.

The second and final confrontation with RAF fighters for the CAI took place on 23 November - 12 Spitfires of 603 Sqn intercepted 23 Fiat CR.42s on a 'free-hunt' over the south Kent coast in the vicinity of Folkestone. After attempting to chase some Hurricanes the twenty-four Fiat G.50s of 20 Gruppo flying the mission had already turned for home. According to Luigino Caliaro (in 'Avions' 227) the Fiat pilots threw their maneuverable biplanes into the combat with alacrity and claimed five Spitfires shot down in the space of just a few minutes - the Spitfires made claims for nine Fiats. In reality two Fiats were shot down and three made forced landings in Belgium for one Spitfire damaged. With winter setting in the Falcos and Freccias made just one more sortie over southern England (28 November) without encountering the RAF. During December the Fiat CR 42s were recalled from Belgium to be sent to Africa and departed a snow-bound Ursel on 10 January 1941...

Below; Fiat BR.20M 242-3/MM22267 lost on 11 November 1940.

Further reading;

Luigino Caliaro's multi-part series on the Fiat CR. 42 in 'Avions' magazine. The latest issue No. 228 discusses CR.42 operations in the Med, Greece and East Africa
PDF extracts for all Lela Presse publications on their web site