Yet in World War II, the Italian air force was found wanting. When Italy entered the war in June 1940, its air force had almost 1,000 front-line aircraft, backed by about 2,000 second- and third-line aircraft. But these figures were deceptive. Italy had a few high-performance planes—those that had set a number of aviation records—but most of the aircraft were, in fact, obsolete.
The chief of staff and undersecretary of the Regia Aeronautica, General Giuseppe Valle, commanded the air force. Italy was organized into three air zones, with several regional commands and army-air cooperation units and land- and sea-based naval reconnaissance units. The air force retained control of all pilots, and coordination between the three military branches was poor at best. The lack of a coherent air philosophy and an effective building program compounded the problem.
General Valle was relieved of his command on 31 October 1939, charged with responsibility for the poor state of the air force when it was mobilized at the beginning of the war. He was placed on trial, and although he was later freed, the public mistakenly held him responsible for the state of unpreparedness. General Francesco Pricolo commanded the air force from 31 October 1939 to 14 November 1941, when he was, in turn, replaced by General Rino Corso Fougier until 26 July 1943.
Italy joined the war in June 1940 and only fought in the Battle for France for several weeks, after which it received some French aircraft. Later, Mussolini insisted on sending aircraft to Belgium to assist in the Battle of Britain. The Germans thought the planes would be far more useful in North Africa. They proved hopelessly inadequate in the skies over Britain and had to be withdrawn. In 1941, Italy sent a more effective air contingent to fight in the Soviet Union.
In the Mediterranean Theater, the Italian air force was invoked in air strikes against Malta, targeted on British merchant ships and naval units operating near Italy. It also conducted raids against Gibraltar and Palestine and even as far afield as the Persian Gulf. However, the Italians soon learned that aircraft that had been successful against stationary merchant ships docked in harbors during the Spanish Civil War were ineffective in high-altitude bombing attacks against warships. Indeed, early in the war, the aircraft occasionally attacked Italian warships by mistake, although recognition improved as the war unfolded. But not until March 1941 did the air force place liaison officers on board warships at sea.
The Italian air force was more successful in fighting in the Balkans, against Greece and Yugoslavia. It also fought in the Western Desert from 1940 to 1943, as well as in Ethiopia. When fielding modern machines—the later models with German engines—the air force was effective. But despite the fact that the Italian air force had operated in Libya since 1911, its aircraft still lacked dust filters on the eve of war, and its tactics were reminiscent of World War I acrobatics.
With the exception of three fighters embarked on two battleships late in the war, the only sea-based air effort (apart from ship-launched reconnaissance aircraft) involved the crash conversion of two passenger ships into aircraft carriers. Neither was completed by the armistice. The failure to develop aircraft carriers seriously affected Italian naval operations in the war, largely because of the short range of Italy's land-based fighters.
On the whole, Italy's aviation industry was badly organized and inefficient, producing a wide variety of aircraft types in small numbers. The various companies involved resisted manufacturing each other's more successful designs, and the almost artisan production methods resulted in production times that were more than 50 percent longer than for comparable German aircraft. The Italian air force largely depended on radial engines, but these low-powered machines seldom exceeded 1,000 hp. Adoption of the bulkier but much more powerful German-designed Daimler-Benz in-line engine helped solve that problem.
The fact that the CR-42, a wood-and-canvas biplane fighter with nonretractable landing gear, was still in production in 1944 (and a serious candidate for the Daimler-Benz engine) reveals the sad state of Italian aircraft production. Italian fighters were almost all underarmed, due to financial considerations and poorly designed, weak wings. Radios were not installed in all aircraft until 1942; fuel was stored in thinly lined, leaking tanks; most airfields were dirt runways; and pilots were slow to adapt to closed canopies. On any given day, operational efficiency was rarely higher than 70 percent. Ground-support aircraft, based on precepts developed by General Amadeo Mecozzi, were so poorly designed that early in the war, Italy simply retired its ground-attack planes and purchased 159 Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers from Germany.
One area in which the Italian air force excelled was the torpedo-bomber. Although use of this plane was hindered by interservice rivalry before the war, the torpedo-bomber was deployed to units by late 1940. German air units later successfully emulated Italian torpedo-bombing tactics and purchased torpedoes from Italy. Yet the Italians chose simply to adapt a three-engine SM-79 level bomber for torpedo bombing rather than design a true torpedo-bomber.
Although Italy formally embraced the concept of strategic bombing developed by General Giulio Douhet, it did not practice it. Ironically, Douhet had more influence on British and U.S. air policies then at home. Italy did produce a partially successful four-engine bomber, the P-108, but only in small numbers. With the armistice in September 1943, there were two Italian air forces: one for the Fascist state in the north and another, utilizing many different Allied aircraft, that fought for the Allied government in the south.
Arena, Nino. La Regia Aeronautica, 1939–1943. 4 vols. Rome: Uffico Storico, 1982–1986.; Dunning, Chris. Courage Alone: The Italian Air Force, 1940–1943. Aldershot, UK: Hikoki Publications, 1998.; Greene, Jack, and Alessandro Massignani. The Naval War in the Mediterranean, 1940–1943. London: Chatham Publishing, 1998.; Rastelli, Achille. La portaerei italiana. Milan, Italy: Mursia, 2001.; Shores, Christopher. Regia Aeronautica. 2 vols. Carrolton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1976.