In July 1943, a coup ousted Mussolini from power. He was made captive by his enemies but rescued in a daring mission the following September 12 by German commandoes. The Duce thereafter reestablished himself in the north, at the town of Salo, where he set up the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI), the Italian Social Republic. Its chief purpose was to continue the fight against the Anglo-American invaders by creating a new armed forces, including the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana. Members of the former Italian Air Force responded virtually en masse to his call for volunteers. For example, of 66 Macchi MB.205 fighters still in service, all save half a dozen were flown away from the south. Less than 200 men out of the Regia Aeronautica’s 12,000 officers and 160,000 NCOs flew for Marshal Badoglio’s puppet Co-Belligerent Air Force (the Aeronautica Cobelligerante del Sud) operating at the behest of the Western Allies. In short order, most of these volunteers became disenchanted with their new superiors, who re-assigned them to transport duties on behalf of Tito’s Communist partisans in Yugoslavia.
Meanwhile, the ANR’s unexpected influx of volunteers fleshed out into one fighter group (the Gruppo Caccia Asso di Bastoni) composed of three squadrons, a bomber group (the 2° Gruppo Caccia “Gigi Tre Osei”) of three squadrons, a torpedo-bomber group (the Gruppo Aerosiluranti Buscaglia Faggioni), the supporting Squadriglia complementare cl’allarme “Montefusco-Bonet,” and the 2° Gruppo Aerotrasporti “Terraciano” for training. The Gruppo Caccia Asso di Bastoni defended industrial areas controlled by the RSI, intercepted enemy aircraft en route to southern Germany, offered close support for Italo-German land forces, and carried out missions outside the Salo Republic’s immediate sphere of influence.
The ANR’s ex-Regia Aeronautica warplanes were augmented by factory replacement production, provided especially by Turin’s Fiat plant, and arrivals from Germany in the form of Fieseler Storch liaison planes, Dornier Do.217 medium-bombers, Messerschmitt Bf 109 interceptors, and Bf-110 ground-attack “destroyers:’ In all, the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana operated no less than 56 different types of aircraft, from doddering CR.32 biplane veterans of the Ethiopian War to another Fiat, the finest of World War II. Described by Oberst Hans Petersen, inspection officer of the Luftwaffe’s aircraft evaluation department, as “the best fighter in the Axis;’ the G.55 was powered by a liquid-cooled inverted V-12, 1,475-hp Fiat R.A 1050 Tifone engine (a license-built Daimler-Benz DB 605A-1), enabling the sleek Centauro to climb almost 23,000 feet in under nine minutes. With a maximum speed of 417 mph at that altitude, and armed with three 20-mm cannons mounted in the engine and wings, plus two 12.7-mm machine-guns in the fuselage, the “Centaur” was a lethal bomber-killer that could equally compete with top Allied fighters.
Its baptism of fire came on June 5,1943, when the first few G.55s assigned to the 20° Gruppo of the 51°Stormo at Capoterra, near Cagliari, decimated an RAF attack against Sardinia. In early summer, they were transferred to the 353rd Squadriglia, joining two dozen more Fiats in the 2nd Gruppo Caccia Terrestre at Veneria Real. In defending Rome from American bomber streams, the Centaurs scored heavily against B-17 Flying Fortresses, while dealing handily with P-51 escorts. When Marshal Badoglio declared an armistice with the Allies on September 8, just 1 of the 35 new Fiats that had been delivered flew south to join his Co-Belligerent Air Force. The rest became part of the ANR’s Squadriglia Montefusco, in November 1943, operating from Piemonte.
G.55 production resumed in the north, resulting in another 97 specimens until March 29, 1944, when the Montefusco was absorbed by the 1st Gruppo and transferred to Veneto. By then, the redoubtable fighter had made such a name for itself among Anglo-American pilots, they organized a special raid aimed directly at curtailing its further existence by carpet bombing the city of Turin, where the Fiat plant was located, on April 25. Civilian casualties were high, and the plant was heavily damaged, but only 15 Centaurs-some near completion on the assembly lines, others ready for delivery to the factory airfield-were lost.
On recommendations of German observers from their Ruestungs and Kriegsproduktion Stab (the Armaments and War Production Staff), further G.55 manufacture was dispersed across Monferrato, enabling workers in various towns and villages throughout the area to construct different specific parts, which were then brought together for rapid assembly in Turin. German efficiency measures also reduced Centaur fabrication from 15,000 to 9,000 man-hours per finished airplane. In all, 274 of the latest Fiats were produced by war’s end.
The Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana eventually became so powerful, it could afford to send the 1° Gruppo Aerotrasporti “Trabucchi” to serve beyond Italy in the Baltic, at Spilve, near Riga, from whence its crewmen defended Latvia against Soviet invasion, until they were virtually annihilated by late summer 1944. Several hundred ANR crews training on Messerschmitt Bf.109s and Fiat interceptors in Germany were prevented by the Third Reich’s deteriorating military situation from returning to Italy, opting to defend its capital city during the climactic Battle of Berlin. From mid-March to early May 1945, some of the latest G.55 Centaurs and Macchi Greyhounds threw themselves against an immense enemy air fleet of bombers and fighters, much to the alarm of Soviet pilots.
ANR maritime attacks continued until very late in the war. After several successful raids against American forces pinned down at the Anzio beach head, the Gruppo Aerosiluranti “Buscaglia Faggioni” relocated to coastal Greece, where its Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparrowhawks menaced Allied shipping, sinking a 5,000-ton British transport north of Benghazi, Libya, and another enemy freighter out of Rimini as late in the war as February 5, 1945. Ten S.M.79 Sparviero bombers formed an antishipping unit based at Ghedi, in Lombardy, beginning in October 1944. They celebrated Christmas Day by attacking an Allied convoy near Ancona, torpedoing a 7,000-ton freighter.
Outstanding was the ANR’s 1st Gruppo “Asso di Bastoni,” which made its debut on January 3, 1944, with the destruction of four P-38 Lightnings, minus casualties. Before March, its crews claimed 26 combat victories, mostly over Americans, for the loss of 9 comrades. On the 11th of that month alone, a dozen more of the foe fell under their guns, at the cost of three Italian airmen. A week later, 30 Macchi Veltros were joined by 60 Messerschmitt Gustavs of JG.77 to intercept 450 Allied bombers and dozens more escorting fighters. That the Axis crews achieved four “kills” for the loss of just one of their own against such opposition was remarkable.
By late summer 1944, ANR pilots were confronted by almost overwhelming odds, as evidenced by the loss on August 25 of Corporal Teresio Martinoli, Italy’s top-scoring ace, with 22 confirmed combat victories. Even so, it was less the aerial competition offered by their increasingly outnumbering enemies in the sky, than the Italians’ own lack of sufficient replacement parts and especially aviation fuel that grounded ANR aircraft, leaving them sitting targets for AngloAmerican warplanes.
From Italy’s June 10, 1940, declaration of war against the Western Allies until the Badoglio armistice of September 8, 1943, Regia Aeronautica air crews accounted for 2,522 combat “kills, plus 74 Soviet aircraft claimed by the Comando Aeronautica Fronte Orientate, losing 15 of its own on the Eastern Front, largely through accidents in Russia’s icy conditions. An additional 265 Western Allied warplanes were shot down by Mussolini’s Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana between December 1943 and April 1945 for the loss of 158 Italian crewmen. These figures do not, of course, include enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground, in excess of 1,000 warplanes. Regia Aeronautica and Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana bombers sank approximately 80 Allied warships and more than 200 freighters, damaging another 500 vessels of all types, many of them beyond salvage.
The measure of this achievement, plus the courage and skill of Italian crews, is self-evident in the technical inferiority of the aircraft they mostly flew against numerically superior opponents. Officially, both Italian air forces in World War II combined produced 100 aces, each one scoring a minimum of five “kills” in the air. These figures are misleading, however, as destroyed aircraft were not credited to individual pilots but instead to their own squadrillia until later in the war. Airmen who demonstrated exceptionally high skills were commonly reassigned from frontline service to become instructors or promoted into the Regia Aeronautica’s command structure, a policy that explains the low number of kills credited to Italian flyers relative to the aces of other nations. Fascist Italy’s most outstanding military aviators were not allowed to remain in combat operations for as long as their foreign contemporaries, and the “kills” they did make often went uncredited.
The last fighter missions on behalf of the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana were carried out by the 2nd Fighter Group “Gigi Tre Osei” on April 19, 1945, when, in a final gesture of defiance, its crews went down fighting against impossibly high numbers of the enemy, taking several Lockheed Lightnings, P-51 Mustangs, and Supermarine Spitfires with them into eternity. Nine days later, Mussolini was dead. Shortly before his arrest and execution by Communist partisans, he told a despairing colleague, “There is no shame in defeat. The only disgrace is cowardice. We have nothing to be ashamed of.”