When a fighter pilot shot down a minimum of 5 planes (kills), he (in the case of Russians it could also be she) could claim the status of Ace. Of the main combatants in the west, pilots such as Don Gentile, ”Pips” Priller, “Sailor” Malon and of course Erich Hartman come to mind. What about the Italians? There was nothing available in the English language press about Italians planes, fighter pilots and most everything Italian regarding WW2. It was not until the last few years that we have begun to see more light shed on the Italian Armed forces of the Second World War.
Information on Italian aces is scanty at best and confusing at worst. For instance, if one were to look at five different sources you might find five different top 10 aces. Confusing to say the least. Further, there appears to be confusion over Regia Aeronautica kills and Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana (ANR) kills. Some authors appear to include them in the final tally while others differentiate between them. Incredibly Giovanni Massimelo reports the final tally’s differently in his excellent work Italian Aces of World War 2 (Osprey 2000) and an excellent article written for Aero Fan ( 1999).
Given the circumstances I have chosen to include both RA and ANR kills for a given pilot (if applicable). I have attempted to cross reference as many sources as I could to find. As a result, the top ten Italian aces listed below are the ones most listed.
The Problem with Identifying Italian Aces
In short, there are some principal issues that address the lack of information on Italian aces:
In Italy unlike most of the other warring nations, the idea of hero worship was frowned upon, unless of course it was directly related to the Fascist party and in that case you usually had to be martyred. Hence kills were generally awarded to units rather than the individual and more so to a leader of the specific action. Researchers are misled as to who did what when they read action reports stating “Unit X” reporting kills for a specific action led by “Unit Commander Y”.
Dunning, in his authoritative work “Courage Alone”, further notes that the idea of recognizing the group above the individual was done to “prevent loss of moral by the less able pilots and crews”. However individual pilots were able to note scores in their personal logbooks.
Often times these are missing, which is understandable for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the outbreak of a full-blown civil war in 1943. For the most part, the missing log books will never be found and when they do turn, they are much sought after by collectors. For instance, one had recently come up on eBay and had a starting bid of 800 Euros and was reaching into the 1,000.
The new government has censured fascist Italian history. Giovanni Massimello in his article “Gli Assi Italiani” Aero Fan N69 April 1999 notes that “It is a well-known fact that contrary to WW1 the Italian government did not release an official list of Aces”. Only in 1962 did the Air Force Historical Office release a partial list of Aces – 19 in total. In short, 19 aces were identified by cross-referencing military awards for bravery with the actions they were associated with.
Including the Spanish Civil War
Should we include or footnote Spanish Civil War kills? Most sources I have checked have footnoted these kills. For example, Dunning, Massimello & Apostelo have split up kills between the Spanish war, the war “proper”, ANR kills ( Salo Government) & Co-Belligerent kills.
As a final note, I would like to discuss aircraft training & weapons.
Most major air forces at the time had a dedicated fighter pilot training program. However, the Regia Aeronautica did not. A pilot was dispersed to his unit after flight school where the unit commander would give basic instructions on dog-fighting and air to air combat. Often times there just wasn’t the time needed to accomplish this most important aspect of combat flying. During flight training, a candidate was limited to a couple of strafing runs at ground targets and that was it.
The main weapons of the Italian fighter aircraft were:
- 12.7mm Breda Safat Machine Guns 700 Rounds Per Min.
- 7.7mm Isotta-Fraschini Machine Guns 800 Rounds Per Min (Dunning 1998).
The heavier 127mm Breda, while being the same caliber of the American 50, was inferior in terms of rate of fire and muzzle velocity. Christopher Shores writes “The muzzle velocity and rate of fire were poor (12.7mm), and available ammunition relatively ineffective. Most shells were constructed to rip the fabric off aircraft though impact explosion. By the outbreak of war, most nations had converted to metal clad aircraft. Such ammunition did little damage to these types of aircraft. The Breda gun was installed in the nose of the fighter because it was too heavy and large for wing mounting. Since the guns were synchronized through the propeller, it lowered the rate of fire. The mounting also imposed servicing problems in the field.
Most aircraft prior to the “05” series mounted twin Bredas over the engine cowling and perhaps a pair of wing-mounted 7.7mm machine guns. The aircraft were slow, the MC202 and 05 series being the exceptions, but very agile and the skilled pilots flew aggressively. So why this disparity in kills?
Comparing Aces with other Forces
Lastly, the reader will inevitably compare and contrast the kills between Allied and Axis air forces. Allied Top Guns were nearly double that of Regia Aeronautica pilots but were eclipsed by an incredible proportion of Luftwaffe pilots. This will inevitably mislead some to the wrong conclusion, as is the case of one author who describes Italian pilots as “conservative by nature”.
Italian aircraft lacked the knockout punch in bringing down opponents, that is not in dispute. One has only to read basic aircraft profiles to see what the Italian fighter pilot was up against. The lack of logistical support such as petroleum, oil, lubricants, aircraft equipment, and replacement parts also compounded the issue. As Chris Dunning notes, the one thing the Italian pilot did not lack was courage.
And now the Top 10 Aces.
Top 10 Italian Aces
|Franco Lucchini||Capitano||24*||Killed 10 July 1943|
|Teresio Martinoli||Sargento Maggiore||23||Killed 28 August 1944|
|Leonardo Ferrulli||Sottotenete||22*||Killed 05 July 1944|
|Franco Bordoni-Bisleri||Tenente||19||Survived War|
|Luigi Gorrini||Maresciallo||19||Survived War|
|Mario Visintini||Capitano||17||Killed 11 February 1941|
|Ugo Drago||Capitano||17||Survived War|
|Mario Bellagambi||Maggiore||14||Survived War|
|Luigi Baron||Sergente Maggiore||14||Survived War|
|Luigi Giannella||Capitano||12||Survived War|
* includes Spanish Civil War Kills
Article: Eddy Cassin
Dunning 1998: Courage Alone: The Italian Airforce 1940-1943 Hikoi Publications
Massimello & Apostolo 2000: Italian Aces of World War 2: Osprey Publishing
Aero fan; Storia Di Ali Italiane Anno 17-N.69-Apr-Giu. 1999.
“Gli Assi Italiani” Giovanni Massimello
Shores: The Italian Airforce Squadron Signal Publications
Various Internet Sources