Raid on the Rock – Tribute to the Crews of the Regia Aeronautica by Ivan Berryman. The only four engined heavy bomber to serve with the Regia Aeronautica, the Piaggio P. 108 was built in too few numbers to have any significant effect in the Italian air campaign in World War Two, but was a worthy aircraft with several innovative design features, not least the remotely controlled gun barbettes in the outer engine nacelles. Most notable of the P. 108’s achievements were a number of daring night time.
The Piaggio P.108 first: the decision to use the four-engined bomber against the British target was put into practice in the summer of 1942. On 26 June at least seven P.108s of the 274a Squadriglia Bombardamento G.R. (Grande Raggio = Long Range) left Pisa airfield for Decimomannu airfield in Sardinia.
From there five P.108s took off at 21.00 hrs of 28 June to effect a night bombardment against Gibraltar. One of them was forced to come back early due to engine troubles, while the other four reached their objective and dropped 66 bombs of 100kg and 6 of 250kg from a height comprised between 4.000 and 4.300 meters. Though attacking singularly over a span of 35 minutes no bomber was hit by the enemy a/a fire. The return route however turned out to be a dramatic adventure due to an unforeseen high fuel consumption. Only the P.108 flown by T.Col. Castellani managed to come back to Decimomannu after over nine hours of flight. The plane of Cap. Balletta was forced to land at Palma de Maiorca and, avoiding being interned, managed to refuel and take off again next morning. The P.108 MM.22001 of Ten. Sassi was instead compelled to crash-land at 05.30 hours on the Spanish coast, near Valencia, with the plane damaged beyond repair and the crew captured. Same destiny for the P.108 MM.22005 flown by Ten. Sotgia, badly damaged while trying to land without fuel at Los Alcazares airfield (near Cartagena).
The mission was tried again on the night of 3 July with only one P.108 (MM.22601) flown by Cap. Balletta, but ended in tragedy: the plane probably crashed into the sea for unknown reasons since it was never heard anymore, bringing with him the pilot and seven crew members.
A period of reorganization and training ensued, while also studying the problem of high fuel consumption. On the night of 24 September 1942 two P.108s flown by Cap. Semprini and Cap. Grassi effected a new bombing mission against Gibraltar. The mission was performed faultlessly and the two bombers came back safely to Decimomannu. A new action was thus planned for the night of 20 October: four Piaggio took off but one (MM.22002) was forced to come back and was destroyed in the landing. The other three bombers however, effected the mission safely and came back home; on the following night the mission was repeated by three more P.108s, but the one flown by Ten. Rossi was compelled to crash-land on the Algerian coast near Bona, destroying the MM.22602. The crew managed to reach Bona’s airfield and were then taken to Tunis, coming back to Italy only a few days before the Anglo-American landings…
Those events stopped the bombardments of Gibraltar and in the following months the 274a Sq. employed its P.108s for long range reconnaissance flights but mainly for night bombardments against the Algerian area occupied by the Allied troops. Maison-Blache, Philippeville, Bona airfields were the target as well as the ports of Bona, Algiers, Bougie… high losses were suffered and by the summer of 1943 the 274a Sq. had been virtually wiped out.
Let’s now turn to the Savoia Marchetti S.79: a new mission against Gibraltar was attempted on 19 June 1943 using the latest version of the S.79, equipped with new A.R.128 R.C.18.
The mission requested a long study of the routes and the ten S.79s chosen for the mission had to take off from the French airfield of Istres, nearer to the objective. Even in this way, the flight was foreseen to last 10 hours of which only 30 minutes for the attack.
On midnight of 19 June 1943, nine S.79s took off overloaded with 5,000 litres of fuel, led by T. Col . Carlo Unia and comprising the best Italian torpedo-bomber pilots, like Magg. Casini, Magg. Melley, Cap. Marini, Cap. Cimicchi, Cap. Magagnoli, Cap. Di Bella, Cap. Faggioni, Cap. Amorosu. Only the S.79 of Cap. Graziani was unable to participate due to damages sustained in the training phase.
At a quote of 2,000 metres the planes followed the Spanish coastline, but one after another, all had to abort the mission for the most different technical problems: only two S.79s, flown by Cap. Cimicchi and Cap. Faggioni, managed to reach Gibraltar, finding the bay full of ships and fully illuminated. Both dropped their torpedoes, but were unable to see the results.
The S.79 of Cap. Cimicchi was the only to came back at Istres at 09,40 hrs of 20 June, while Faggioni’s plane was compelled to land in Spain due to excessive fuel consumption.
These were the Italian air operations led against Gibraltar before the Armistice.
No Piaggio P.108 was ever flown by the ANR, let alone used operationally on the Eastern front. Although a second Italian transport unit (Gr. “Trabucchi”) was being trained in Germany with its Savoia Marchetti S.82s, only the Savoia Marchetti S.81 of Gr. “Terracciano” were employed on the northern part of the Eastern front for a few months between March to August 1944.
The only four-engine heavy bomber to see operation with Italian forces during World War II, the Piaggio P.108 was an interesting design. Long established in Italy as engineers and shipbuilders, Piaggio had entered aviation during World War I, producing some aircraft and components under subcontract. Developed from an earlier P .50-11 design for a four-engine bomber, the P.108 was a cantilever low-wing monoplane of all metal construction, with retractable tailwheel landing gear and power provided by four Piaggio P.XIIRC.35 radial engines, two on each wing, in nacelles at the wing leading edges. Four versions were planned, but only the P.108 Bombardiere, which was first flown in prototype form during 1939, was built in any quantity. The variants, built only as prototypes or in small numbers, comprised first the single P.108A Artiglieri anti-shipping aircraft which, converted from the P.108 prototype, had its standard armament supplemented by the installation of a 102-mm cannon. Captured by German forces at the time of the Allied-Italian armistice, it was impressed for service with the Luftwaffe. The P.108C Civile was a civil transport version with increased wing span and a redesigned fuselage to accommodate 32 passengers. A total of 16 was built, including one prototype, but these were modified for use as military transports accommodating 56 troops, and about 24 P.108Bs were also converted to this configuration. One P.108T (Trasporto) military transport prototype was built as a conversion from a P.108C, from which it differed primarily by incorporating side loading doors and a ventral hatch. Proposed variants included the P.108M (Modificato), a development of the P.108B with the single machine-gun in the nose turret replaced by four guns and a 20-mm cannon; and the P.133, an advanced version of the P.108B with uprated engines and an increased bombload.
The P.108B was first deployed in night attacks on Gibraltar during early 1942, and the type saw service subsequently in the Mediterranean theatre of operation. A total of 163 was built, but heavy losses meant that less than five per cent survived after the armistice with the Allies.
Production totals of the P108C and T are unclear, but combined there were approximately 16 built, with most of the P108Cs subsequently converted to the transport version.
Prototype : MM 22001
Series 1 : MM 22002—22008, MM 22601—22604
Series 2 : MM 24315—24326
Series 3 : MM 24667—24678
Anti-shipping version. One built.
Heavy bomber version. 24 built.
Civil transport version. Uncertain number built, but probably six.
Intended modification of P.108B with heavier armament. None built
Transport version. More than 12 (including converted P.108Cs).
Advanced version of the P.108B with better engines and increased bombload. Not completed.
Specifications (Piaggio P.108B)
Crew: 6 or 7
Length: 22.30 m (73 ft 2 in)
Wingspan: 32.00 m (105 ft)
Height: 6.00 m (20 ft)
Wing area: 135.0 m² (1,453 ft²)
Empty weight: 17,325 kg (38,195 lb)
Max takeoff weight: 29,885 kg (65,885 lb)
Powerplant: 4× Piaggio P.XII RC.35 radial engine, 1,120 kW (1,500 hp) each
Maximum speed: 430 km/h (267 mph)
Range: 3,520 km (2,187 mi)
Service ceiling: 8,500 m (27,187 ft)
5 × 12.7 mm (.5 in) Breda-SAFAT machine guns
2 × 7.7 mm (.303 in) Breda-SAFAT machine guns
3,500 kg (7,700 lb) of bombs