The main Italian fighter in service at the start of World War II was definitely more the ultimate expression of a past era than anything modern.
Let’s take a look.
We’ve looked at several examples so far of biplanes that remained in service into the War years. In most cases they were restricted to secondary duties, but in the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force) the CR.42 was a new design just entering service.
In the Spanish Civil War the Fiat CR.32 proved to be one of the more capable fighters in use. So it should come as no surprise that an improved version was built. The CR.42 started as a private venture by Fiat, a simple attempt at improving on the CR.32; it was more streamlined, more powerful (850 hp), very maneuverable and structurally very strong. With a top speed of 274 mph it was fast for a bi-plane too.
Make no mistake, the Italians were not stupid about this. Their modernization plan in effect at the time called for new monoplane fighters too. New designs by Fiat (G.50) and Macchi (C.200) were also being ordered. But as with all new things developing and de-bugging would take some time. So the CR.42 was ordered as an interim type; it was expected to be ready quicker and still offer real improvement over the CR.32. Hungary, Belgium and Sweden all saw promise in the design and also ordered Falcos.
Italy entered World War II on June 10, 1940. This was sooner than Mussolini had wanted, but with Hitler rolling through France he feared if he waited too long he would miss out on spoils and glory. Their ground forces were held by the French right near the border. The air force maybe did better, Falcos claimed eight kills over French fighters for five losses.
The Italians also played a small role in the Battle of Britain, BR.20 bombers escorted by CR.42 fighters. But they were late to the party (November) and did not fair well.
The CR.42 would become best known for Mediterranean operations. The early battles over Malta involved CR.42 against Gladiator and Hurricane. British Hurricane pilots were horrified to discover how easily the CR.42 could outmaneuver them. Fairly quickly it was determined the Hurricane’s strength against the Falco was speed, and to avoid turning fights with them. Of course, much like they found again in the Pacific, this put them in relatively the opposite position from when they fought the Germans, so tactics had to be fluid and situational.
In North Africa and Ethiopia the CR.42 saw its greatest success. One pilot, Mario Visintini became the top biplane ace of the War with 16 kills over the British in Ethiopia.
Three Gruppo of 127 total Falcos fought in North Africa. When that campaign got going summer of 1940 it was mostly against British Gladiators, the largest biplane on biplane combat of the War. Many of the Italian pilots were Spanish Civil War veterans, their experience and moral were high and they performed quite well. The top Allied biplane ace of the War also emerged at this time, Pat Pattle had 15 kills in a Gladiator (I will have more of his story soon!).
The comparison between Gladiator and Falco shows two pretty closely matched types. The Falco was more powerful and faster with less wing area and a constant speed propeller. But the Gladiator was more maneuverable and operationally more reliable. The Falco had heavier guns, 2 x 12.7 mm; but the Gladiator had a much higher rate of fire with 4 x .303 cal. Records from this period are a bit of a jumble, but it appears the Gladiator came out on top with a kill ratio somewhat better than 1:1, but probably less than 2:1.
The Falco had a clearly positive kill ratio over Greece. And was most successful with the Hungarian Air Force, flying against the Soviets on the Eastern Front. With 1800 examples built it was the most numerous Italian aircraft of the War.
Ultimately the CR.42 was eclipsed by a new generation of monoplanes coming into action, on both sides. The CR.42 transitioned to more close support missions and less air to air. It continued in this role until the Italian Armistice. After which the Luftwaffe took a number for their close support units, at least for several months. By the end of the War it only remained in service as a trainer.
This particular aircraft was a part of the Summer 1940 battles over North Africa. On August 8 it was being flown by Tenente Enzo Martissa. He was an experienced pilot who flew in the Spanish Civil War. He had shot down a Blenheim bomber some weeks earlier, but on August 8 he got into a dogfight with Gladiators. He claimed one, but was himself shot down. He was injured and trapped in the wreckage for two days. During this time he found morbid humor in that the Griffon on the wheel spat had been shot through the head, while he himself was left to suffer… He was finally rescued by an Italian patrol. He was sent home to recover from his wounds and saw no further success in the War. The aircraft was recovered and returned to service.
This is the Italeri kit. It is a good example of kit design from an earlier age. And I do mean good, it offers reasonable detail, good surface textures and fits reasonably well. However, the top wing is brutal! It is attached by 20 struts with 30 attachment points! This was a bear to align and I decided to strengthen every join with CA once the initial plastic cement dried in good alignment. This added a week in between painting and decaling, normally those are adjacent steps! I was quite happy the external rigging was so simple on this plane, just two wires securing the outermost struts. I also refined my technique some on the rigging this time; I secured it to the bottom wing then pulled the other end through a hole on the upper wing. This was quite easy to thread and secure, although it did mean refinishing part of the upper wing afterwards to hide the holes.
Overall a decent kit of a very important, if lesser known, type.
I like the design – but those struts!
As with the Hurricane pilots over Malta, the Spitfire pilots in the Battle of Britain found the manoeuvrability of the Fiat fighters extremely difficult to deal with.
Like catching a squirrel!
Fascinating reading. There something to be said about a biplane, both the Falco and the Gladiator standing their ground reasonably well under the circumstances.
Especially when they had pilots who could use them to best advantage.
This kind of reinforces my “that fought with what they had when the war started” theory of several theaters. While in England and Northern France state of the art fighters and bombers are clashing, in the desert last generations biplanes are still in service. Still, they were apparently effective fighters well past their time (in terms of the pace of aircraft development in the 30’s and 40’s).
They were quite effective against, or at least equal to, Britain’s 2nd rank (too old for the home front). And that’s not really fair, they also did acceptably against the Soviets.
As with all such things, pilot quality is the first consideration. And the Italians did have a number of Spanish Civil War veterans who were as experienced and capable as any nations’ “first team”. Yet clearly the CR.42 was a step behind and did them no favors when facing experienced pilots using state of the art equipment.
I think they “fought with what they had” is exactly right.