Corpo Aero Italiano – The Italian Contribution

The Italian contribution

“A large force of Italian bombers raided London (sic) during the night. They have returned bearing the marks of combat, but with the glorious certainty of great victory”

Rather optimistic Italian press report on Harwich raid, 25 October 1940

Mussolini brought Italy into the war in June 1940. Convinced of an Axis victory and not wishing to miss out on the spoils of war he ordered the Italian Air Force – Regia Aeronautica – to form an air expeditionary force. The Corpo Aereo Italiano (CAI, Italian Air Corps) was composed of three Stormi (Wings), some 200 aircraft. They operated against the United Kingdom in support of an unenthusiastic Luftwaffe from bases at Melsbroek, Chievres, Maldeghem and Ursel in Belgium. The Fiat C.R.42 was one of the last biplanes to see extensive combat. Although obsolescent by the time war was declared experienced pilots were on occasion able to hold their own against their more experienced RAF counterparts. The entire expedition was plagued by the poor weather of late autumn and winter in northern Europe.

CAI operations began at the close of the Battle of Britain, with an unsuccessful night raid around Harwich on 24 October 1940. This was the first daylight mission, bombing Deal, on 29 October, followed by an unopposed fighter sweep over Canterbury on 1 November.

Offensive fighter sweeps along the channel continued until 28 November 1940 and mainly night bomber raids on Felixstowe, Lowestoft, Ipswich and Harwich until 7 February 1941, On 11 November 1940, with an overheating engine, Sergente Pilota Pietro Salvadori's aircraft 'MM5701' force landed on the shingle beach at Orfordness, Suffolk, gently nosing over on the shingle. Salvadori was taken prisoner and was apparently very proud of his landing. His aircraft is now displayed here at RAF Museum London. with defensive/patrol fighter sorties continuing until the same month, the CAI CR.42s and BR.20s then returned to Italy, although two squadrons of G.50bis aircraft remained in Belgium until April 1941 on local coastal patrols.

Despite numerous claims, the CAI shot down no British aircraft but lost two dozen in a relatively ineffectual campaign that caused little damage having suffered from limited experience and training, using outdated aircraft and tactics.