The Plan to Topple Mussolini and the Airmen Who Made It Happen
Author: Alex Fitzgerald-Black
Alex Fitzgerald-Black is a published author and military historian. He has a Master of Arts in Military History from the University of New Brunswick and is a Master of Arts in Public History candidate at the University of Western Ontario. His research interests include air power in the Second World War, with a particular focus on the Mediterranean, and Canadian military history. Alex lives in Canada with his beautiful wife, Lindsay, and their adorable mini-poodle, Chase.
The Macchi MC200 Saetta (Lightning) was the Regia Aeronautica’s primary monoplane fighter early in the Second World War. The Italians introduced the aircraft in small numbers before entering the war in June 1940. By 1942-1943, the MC200 was obsolete. They replaced it in the fighter interceptor role with the newer MC202 and MC205. It proved a decent fighter-bomber, supporting the defence of the islands of Pantelleria and Sicily. Only 33 of the type remained serviceable when Italy withdrew from the Axis on 8 September 1943. The Italians used them as training aircraft into the early post-war period.
Type: single-seat fighter/fighter-bomber
Powerplant: one 649kW (870hp) Fiat A.74 RC.38 14-cylinder two-row radial engine
Performance: maximum speed 503km/h (312mph); climb to 5000m (16,405ft) in 5 minutes 51 seconds; service ceiling 8900m (29,200ft); range 870km (541 miles)
Weights: empty 2019kg (4451lb); normal take-off 2339kg (5597lb)
Wingspan: 10.58m (34ft 9in)
Length: 8.19m (26ft 10in)
Height: 3.51m (11ft 6in)
Armament: two 12.7mm (0.5in) fixed forward-firing machine guns in the upper part of the forward fuselage, plus an external bomb load of 320kg (705lb)
The following Regia Aeronautica units flew the MC200 in the defence of Sicily:
A captured Ju 88 crew noted that their unit had arrived in Italy with 43 crews and was now down to nine. Replacement crews were untrained in nighttime flying and were therefore being returned to Germany.
The Junkers Ju 88 was probably the most versatile German aircraft of the Second World War. During Operation HUSKY, Luftwaffe units used these aircraft for level and dive bombing. The Ju 88R was a night fighter variant while the Ju 88D and Ju 88H offered the Germans long-range reconnaissance services.
In response to their ejection from the continent of Africa, the Luftwaffe established a new bomber command (Fernkampffuehrer Luftflotte 2) to control all long-range bombers based in Sicily, Italy, and southern France. The bulk of these aircraft were Ju 88s, although Dornier Do 217s and Heinkel He 111s rounded out the order of battle. Allied strikes on airfields in close proximity to the front line meant that these units were largely unable to concentrate for decisive effect during the Battle of Sicily.
Specifications (Junkers Ju 88A-4)
Type: four-seat high-speed, level and dive-bomber
Powerplant: two 999kW (1340hp) Junkers Jumo 211J-½ 12-cylinder engines
Performance: maximum speed 470km/h (292mph); climb to 5400m (17,715ft) in 23 minutes; service ceiling 26,900ft (8200m); range 2730km (1696 miles)
Weights: empty 9860kg (21,737lb); maximum takeoff 14,000kg (30,865lb)
Wingspan: 20.00m (65ft 8in)
Length: 14.40m (47ft 3in)
Height: 4.85m (15ft 11in)
Armament: one 7.92mm (0.31in) fixed or trainable forward-firing machine gun in windscreen, one 13mm (0.51in) or two 7.92mm (0.31in) forward-firing machine guns in nose position, two 7.92mm (0.31in) machine guns in rear of cockpit, and one 13mm (0.51in) or two 7.92mm (0.31in) trainable rearward-firing machine guns in rear of undernose gondola, plus a bomb load of 2500kg (5511lb)
The following Luftflotte 2 units flew the Junkers Ju 88 during Operation HUSKY:
The Hawker Hurricane, famous for its service in 1940 during the Battle of Britain, was obsolescent by 1943. Another famous use of this aircraft was as a fighter-bomber with the Desert Air Force in 1941-1942. The Hurricane IIC had a four 20mm cannons, but this was not enough firepower to destroy enemy tanks. The Hurricane IID swapped its 20mm cannons for a pair of 40mm cannons. This new “Hurribomber” quickly earned a reputation as a tank buster; the first IID-equipped squadron became known as the “Flying Can Openers”.
For Operation HUSKY, the Hawker Hurricane saw very limited action. Most Hurricane squadrons would eventually swap these aircraft for Supermarine Spitfires. One notable use of the Hurricane in support of the Sicilian invasion was in the intruder role. A detachment of Hurricanes at Malta flew around the coast of Sicily at night shooting out Axis searchlights in support of Allied night bombers and the airborne landings. Some Hurricanes also remained in service as fast courier aircraft.
Specifications (Hawker Hurricane IID)
Type: single-seat tank buster
Powerplant: one 1088.5kW (1460hp) Rolls-Royce Merlin XX 12-cylinder Vee engine
Performance: maximum speed 518km/h (322mph); climb to 6095m (20,000ft) in 12 minutes 24 seconds; service ceiling of 9785m (32,100ft); range 1448km (900 miles)
Weights: empty 2586kg (5700lb); normal take-off 3493kg (7700lb); maximum take-off 3674kg (8100lb)
Wingspan: 12.19m (40ft)
Length: 9.81m (32ft 3in)
Height: 3.98m (13ft 1in)
Armament: two 40mm (1.57in) fixed forward-firing cannon under the wing, and two 7.7mm (0.303in) fixed forward-firing machine guns in the leading edges of the wing typically armed with tracer ammunition
The following Mediterranean Air Command units flew the Hawker Hurricane:
The Douglas A-20 Havoc (or Boston for Commonwealth aircrews) was a light bomber that served with the Northwest African Tactical Air Force’s tactical bomber force. Targets for these aircraft included Axis gun positions, lines of communication, and troop concentrations. In particular, these tactical bombers. On rare occasions, Boston crews with night flying training and experience served as pathfinders for USAAF medium bomber crews who had limited experience operating at night.
Specifications (A-20B Havoc/DB-7B Boston III)
Type: four-seat light attack bomber
Powerplant: two 1193kW (1600hp) Wright GR-2600-A5B Double Cyclone radial engines
Performance: maximum speed 515km/h (320mph); initial climb rate 609m (2000ft) per minute; service ceiling 7470m (24,500ft); range 1996km (1240 miles) with reduced bomb load
Weights: empty 5534kg (12,200lb); normal take-off 8959kg (19,750lb); maximum take-off 9789kg (21,580lb)
Wingspan: 18.69m (61 ft 4in)
Length: 14.48m (47ft 6in)
Height: 6.36m (17ft 7in)
Armament: four 7.7mm (0.303in) fixed forward-firing machine guns on the sides of the forward fuselage, two 7.7mm (0.303in) trainable machine guns in the dorsal position and one 7.7mm (0.303in) trainable machine guns in the ventral position, plus an internal bomb load of 907kg (2000lb)
The following Mediterranean Air Command units flew the Havoc/Boston light bomber. Notice the South African Air Force (SAAF) squadrons:
Toward noon 105 bombers came and destroyed the Jagdgruppe Vibo Valentia, which had about 80 aircraft. Not a machine was left intact, not even the [Junkers] which had just landed. Fuel trucks, hangars, aircraft, autos, everything was burning. The German fighters in Italy have been wiped out.
The Messerschmitt Bf 109 was the primary German fighter throughout the Second World War. Initially produced in 1937, the Luftwaffe began the war with the Bf 109E or “Emil” variant. The Bf 109F replaced the Emil in mid-1941, which was subsequently replaced by the Bf 109G or “Gustav” in mid-1942. The Gustav was the model German (and some Italian) fighter pilots flew in Sicily. The aircraft also served as a fighter-bomber on some occasions.
Specifications (Bf 109G)
Type: single-seat fighter
Powerplant: one 1100kW (1474hp) Daimler-Benz DB 605AM 12-cylinder inverted-Vee engine
Performance: maximum speed 386mph (621km/h); climb to 5700m (18,700ft) in 6 minutes; service ceiling 11,550m (37,890ft); range 1000km (621 miles)
Weights: empty 2673 (5893lb); maximum take-off 3400kg (7496lb)
Wingspan: 9.92m (32ft 7in)
Length: 8.85m (29ft 1in)
Height: 2.50m (8ft 3in)
Armament: one 20mm (0.79in) or 30mm (1.18in) fixed forward-firing cannon in an engine installation, and two 13mm (0.51in) fixed forward-firing machine guns in the upper part of the forward fuselage, plus an external bomb load of 250kg (551lb)
The following Luftflotte 2 and Regia Aeronautica units flew Messerschmitt Bf 109s in defence of Sicily:
The room was thick with pipe smoke as the men sat around the dinner table at a villa in Algiers. Lieutenant General Carl A. Spaatz was hosting the commanders of the Allied air forces in the Mediterranean as they put the final touches on a new command structure for the theatre. As staff removed empty dishes and refilled glasses, the senior officer present and the overall commander of Mediterranean Air Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, addressed his officers:
You know, we British are intensely proud of our Air Force. We think it is the very best in the world, and that it saved England and the world–all of us. We have our own ways of doing things and I suppose we feel we are justified in keeping these ways. But we also know that you Americans are equally proud of your splendid Air Force, of your magnificent aeroplanes and as well you are. However, it will be the fusion of us, the British, with you, the Americans, that is going to make the very best Air Force in the world. (Arthur Tedder, With Prejudice, 398)
The Mediterranean Air Command was the combined result of Operation TORCH and the westward advance of the Desert Air Force after the Second Battle of El Alamein in autumn 1942. The United States Army Twelfth Air Force supported the Anglo-American invasion of North Africa and established bases in Morocco and Algeria. Commanders needed to coordinate the operations of these two air forces. Spaatz’s Northwest African Air Force combined three major combat commands: the Coastal Air Force, the Strategic Air Force, and the Tactical Air Force. The Northwest African Air Force (NAAF) also included an Air Service Command (NAASC), a Training Command (NATC), a Troop Carrier Command (NATCC), and a Photographic Reconnaissance Wing (NAPRW).
The Northwest African Coastal Air Force (NACAF) included a mix of day fighters, night fighters, antisubmarine warfare bombers, and maritime reconnaissance and strike aircraft. Air Vice Marshal Sir Hugh Lloyd, former Air Officer Commanding in Malta between 1941 and 1942, led NACAF.
The Northwest African Tactical Air Force (NATAF) included the fighters and fighter-bombers of the Desert Air Force and US XII Air Support Command. It also included a Tactical Bomber Force combining American and British light and medium bombers. Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, the former commander of the Desert Air Force, led NATAF. He later went on to command the RAF Second Tactical Air Force for the victory campaign in Northwest Europe. His deputy (at least until the end of the Tunisian Campaign) was Brigadier General Laurence S. Kuter, whose career made him one of the key architects of American air power in its formative years.
The Northwest African Strategic Air Force (NASAF) included American medium and heavy day bombers in addition to British medium night bombers. The force also contained P-38s, the only long-range Allied escort fighter in the theatre. Major General James H. Doolittle, of Tokyo raid fame, led NASAF. He later went on to command the US Army Eighth Air Force out of the United Kingdom in 1944 and 1945.
Each of these formations reported to Spaatz, who later commanded the US Strategic Air Forces in Europe in 1944 and 1945. In turn, Spaatz reported to Tedder at Mediterranean Air Command, streamlining communications. Tedder commanded all Allied air forces resources in the Mediterranean. This included the remaining commands in the region (Air Headquarters Malta, Middle East Command, and RAF Gibraltar). The idea was to have one command to coordinate all Allied air power in the Mediterranean. Tedder reported to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander. The pair later went on to become Deputy Supreme Allied Commander and Supreme Allied Commander respectively for the victory campaign in Northwest Europe.
The Mediterranean Air Command stood up on 18 February 1943. These command relationships served the Allies for the remainder of the Tunisian Campaign, Operation HUSKY in Sicily, Operation BAYTOWN in Calabria, Operation AVALANCHE at Salerno, and Operation SLAPSTICK at Taranto. Although Mediterranean Air Command was renamed the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces in December 1943, the functional tri-force model of tactical, strategic, and coastal commands remained.
Tedder, Spaatz, and their senior airmen fleshed out all these details. It would not be a perfect marriage. There would be stumbles along the way. Sometime later, in an effort to formalize the organization, Tedder ruffled Spaatz’s feathers. Drawing up a detailed structure led to questions about ranks, seniority, and a return to national prejudices. Tedder told Spaatz bluntly:
If you want a divorce, you can have one here and now, repeat now! (Tedder, 399)
The pair agreed to cancel all attempts to formalize the organization and the marriage remained healthy.
Back in Spaatz’s villa, Tedder completed his speech:
And now, gentlemen, this is the last time I shall ever speak of “us”, the British, and “you”, the Americans. From now on it is “we” together who will function as Allies, even better than either of us alone. (Tedder, 398)
While the Allies and the Germans would reorganize some Italian air units to support their efforts in the Mediterranean, the Regia Aeronautica largely collapsed in disorder following the armistice, having been practically shot from the skies by late July 1943.
The Macchi MC205 Veltro (Greyhound) was a development of the earlier MC202 Folgore (Lightning) fighter. During Operation HUSKY, the MC205 was a relatively new piece of kit, having started operational service in February 1943. Although it was arguably one of the finest single-engine fighters of the war, it arrived too little, too late to make a significant difference for the Italian war effort. By the time of the armistice, the Regia Aeronautica had only accepted approximately 150 of these aircraft. After the armistice, a handful of examples served with the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force while a few dozen served with II Gruppe/Jagdgeschwader 77 as the German fighter wing rebuilt in autumn 1943. The Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana (Italian Social Republic Air Force) also used surviving aircraft and the remaining production run of the Macchi plant in Northern Italy into 1944.
Specifications (MC205V) Type: single-seat fighter
Powerplant: one 1100kW (1475hp) Fiat RA.1050 RC.58 Tifone 12-cylinder inverted-Vee engine
Performance: maximum speed 642km/h (399mph); climb to 5000m (16,405ft) in 4 minutes 47 seconds; service ceiling 11,000m (36,090ft); range 1040km (646 miles)
Weights: empty 2581kg (5691lb); normal take-off 3224kg (7108lb); maximum take-off 3408kg (7514lb)
Wingspan: 10.59m (34ft 9in)
Length: 8.85m (29ft)
Height: 3.04m (10ft)
Armament: two 12.7mm (0.5in) fixed forward-firing machine guns in the upper part of the forward fuselage and two 20mm (0.79in) forward-firing cannon in the leading edges of the wing, plus bomb load of 320kg (705lb)
The Macchi MC205 served in limited numbers with the following Regia Aeronautica fighter wing based in Sicily, Calabria (the Italian toe), and Puglia (the heel). These units also flew Macchi MC202s.