Savoia Marchetti SM.79-II

There’s a persistent myth about Italy not fielding any effective aircraft in World War II. But that really isn’t true on any level.

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After the jump, a quick look at a very capable torpedo bomber that sank many British warships during the war.

In the 1930s Italy was an established and respected producer of civil and military aircraft.  The SM.79 Sparviero (Sparrowhawk)  was successful in both of those markets.  It started life as a high speed light duty airliner, but quickly was developed into a fast medium bomber.  With a top speed of nearly 300 mph it claimed 26 international speed records in the mid 1930s.  During the Spanish Civil War it would be the one bomber type that did not need fighter escort.  Except for the Russian I-16 no other fighter could catch it.

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The SM.79 is an interesting design, very different from most allied aircraft.  Its structure was mostly plywood, covered in fabric.  Only the forward fuselage was a more modern aluminum.  The Italians made extensive use of the tri-motor configuration, since they were slow to develop engines above 1000 hp.  The Sparviero had three Alfa-Romeo radials of 860 hp.  The bomb bay carried bombs vertically, like most German aircraft.  This proved more restrictive on maximum bomb size than the horizontal stowage used by most other combatants.  The bombardier’s position is in a ventral gondola near the rear of the fuselage.

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Notice the one heavy machine gun mounted directly above the cockpit, this is for keeping heads down on a targeted ship. Another heavy machine gun is in a flexible mount directly behind it on the “hump”. It is shown here with its aerodynamic fairing in place, the rear of the hump opens up for actual use of this gun. The bare aluminum fixture just below the cockpit is a wind driven generator. There was no alternator on the engines, so all power for instruments, radios and navaids came from this generator.

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Although the SM.79 could carry two torpedoes, it would only mount one on a combat mission. Also note the forward machine gun is visible above. This is above the propeller arc so no synchronization gear is required.

As World War II started the SM.79 was still seen as a fast medium bomber.  But gradually, as they ran up against more Hurricanes (Malta, North Africa, Greece) it became obvious it could no longer depend on its speed to escape interception and fighter escort would be required.

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The large white stripe on the fuselage was used for a while on all Italian aircraft operating in the Mediterranean. Visible just forward of the stripe are the two defensive light machine guns. The fuselage is narrow enough here that only a single gunner was carried to use both guns.

The SM.79-II shown here is an early World War II modification of the basic design.  The bomb bay was sealed off and used for an extra fuel tank; racks were added to the belly for carrying larger bombs or torpedoes.  As torpedo bombing became the type’s primary function the bombardier position was usually blanked off, although the gondola remains for the lower gun position.  It could carry two torpedoes for transport, but only used one on strike missions due to the impact on performance.

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Good view of the ventral gondola. On bomber versions of the plane, the bomb sight was located at the front part of the gondola. There is also a light machine gun at the rear. Like the “hump”, this aerodynamic fairing opened up when the gun was needed. Later versions of the Sparviero did away with the gondola.

Although the SM.79 no longer had the great speed advantage it held in the 1930s, the switch to torpedo bombing was fortuitous.  Especially since the Gloster Gladiator bi-plane was still the standard British carrier fighter at the start of the war.  Another plus was that Italian torpedoes were outstanding.  Easily the best in the European conflict (worldwide, only Japanese torpedoes were better than Italian), they could be dropped at nearly 200 kts.  This meant the SM.79 could keep its speed up throughout an entire torpedo run.  This is something other combatants could not do.  It was enough of an advantage that the Germans operating in the Mediterranean often used Italian torpedoes.  And it led to the British rushing more modern fighters to Mediterranean based aircraft carriers (Fulmer, Sea Hurricane).

Early in the war, most British bases around the Mediterranean basin were defended by Gloster Gladiator bi-planes.  The Sparvario could run away from these.  But through 1941 the Gladiators were replaced by Hawker Hurricanes, and SM.79 losses increased rapidly.

Early in the war, most British bases around the Mediterranean basin were defended by Gloster Gladiator bi-planes. The Sparviero could run away from these. But through 1941 the Gladiators were replaced by Hawker Hurricanes, and SM.79 losses increased rapidly.

The SM.79 was very effective in its role as a naval strike aircraft.  Especially in 1941-42, the Italians inflicted massive shipping losses on the British.  They nearly cut off the island of Malta from any resupply, and sank merchant and warship alike during the bloody Greek and Crete campaigns.  Italy may be the only European combatant who celebrated its torpedo bombing pilots and their successes more than their fighter pilots.

Later SM.79 missions were escorted by C.202 fighters whenever possible.

Later SM.79 missions were escorted by C.202 fighters whenever possible.

This subject is from the Trumpeter kit.  This is an early kit of theirs, and it is crude by modern standards.  I feel like I fought it every step of the way!  Surface detail is good, but fit is poor.  It is also fiddly with a lot of little parts (hey, never mold one part when 17 are just as good!).  I’d also mention Italian camouflage is difficult!  I used a lot of liquid mask to get the result here, and I would definitely try something different if I try a similar scheme again.

A formation of Sparvieros. Notice the upper rear gun positions are open, ready for action!

Related Post
Macchi C.202 Folgore

~ Up Next: Vought F4U-1 Corsair 

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About atcDave

I'm 53 years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I've been an air traffic controller for 30 years; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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8 Responses to Savoia Marchetti SM.79-II

  1. Pretty neat tidbit about the fan generator. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that on pre WWII aircraft. Which order did you paint the camo in? Did you mask the blots or the spaces in between?

    • atcDave says:

      Yeah I thought it was an interesting way of adding an electrical system to an older design. Just one more of those ways technology was advancing very fast in the 1930s!

      I painted the Light Sand first, then brushed on the squiggle pattern with liquid mask, then painted green and masked again for brown.
      For the record, it was a lousy plan. Removing the liquid mask was brutal! I’m still finding little fleks from this project all over my model shop!
      Next time I try a similar scheme I think I’ll try poster putty instead. I didn’t do that here because of the way it tends to round off corners so much, and the pictures I had showed more sharp, odd angles. But I think with a knife and some patience I can get the putty to do what I want it to. And in the end it will be easier than removing that liquid mask. Ugh!

  2. terry Brodin says:

    Very admirable work, even though I was never a big fan of the SM 79.
    The rear fuselage looked “clunky” compared to the rest of the aircraft — like someone mixed up the blueprints of the rear end of a totally different design with those of the SM 79. The front fuselage/wings had a much more steamlined look — even waith that third enine.

    • atcDave says:

      Its composite construction, and definitely a little passed its prime in WWII.

      And sometimes I really like a little bit of ugly!

  3. terry Brodin says:

    I wonder is that “little bit ugly” an attractiveness in its own right or simple a uniquness?

    • atcDave says:

      I don’t know. I do like unique and unusual aircraft just for those traits. I think its an aesthetic all its own. There’s no doubt something like a Mustang or Mosquito is beautiful in a more traditional way (pleasing shapes and proportions). But I do like ugly too (errr, at least with airplanes!)

  4. Dave, I just came across this kit, it is excellent. The camouflage for the Sparviero isn’t east but you have done a first rate job. The kit looks as professional as I have seen in and IPMS show. beautiful job. Rich.

    • atcDave says:

      Thanks as always Rich. I do enjoy the more complicated schemes, and Italian camo is always fascinating!

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