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Savoia Marchetti SM.81 Pipistrello

by Giulio Poggiaroni

During the first half of the 1930s, Italian aircraft producer SIAI Marchetti gave birth to the three-engine low monoplane design for bombers that characterized most of the airplanes serving in the Regia Aeronautica for years to come. The first aircraft of this type was the Savoia Marchetti SM.73 and the Savoia Marchetti SM.81 Pipistrello

The Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 Pipistrello in flight.

The Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 Pipistrello in flight.

Background on the Savoia Marchetti SM.81 Pipistrello

The Savoia Marchetti SM.81 was the militarized version of the SM.73 and mounted three Alfa Romeo radial engines, model 125 RC.35, capable of 680hp each. Its construction was a mix of wood and metal and had a fixed landing gear. The SM.81 made its first appearance in 1935 and soon ordered into production by the Regia Aeronautica. Given the lack of Alfa Romeo engines, several SM.81s were fitted with Piaggio P. IX and P X engines and also French Gnome-Rhone 14k capable of 1000hp.

Service History Prior to WWII

After 1935, the SM.81s joined bomber squadrons of the Regia Aeronautica, replacing the older Caproni 113. It saw its first action during the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1935-1936. In this theatre the SM.81 was unopposed and able to act in complete freedom over the skies of Ethiopia.

The Savoia Marchetti SM.81 Pipistrello during the Spanish Civil War.

The Savoia Marchetti SM.81 Pipistrello during the Spanish Civil War.

Shortly afterward, the SM.81 saw again action thanks to the breakout of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 with the Aeronautica Legionaria supporting nationalist forces. Around 65 SM.81 took part in the Spanish conflict. Thanks to the nationalist air dominance, they were able to freely operate in that theatre. It was during the Spanish Civil War that the SM.81 obtained the name “Pipistrello” (Bat) given their extensive use during night operations. However, the appearance of the newer and faster SM.79 revealed the limits of the SM.81.

One Savoia Marchetti SM.81 Pipistrello was chosen by Benito Mussolini to act as his personal air transport, painted in white and named “Tartaruga” (turtle).

Service History in WWII

When Italy joined World War Two, around 300 SM.81 were still operational in several squadrons of the Regia Aeronautica deployed in Eastern Africa, the Aegean Sea, Albania, and Libya. One SM.81 flew the very first mission against the British on the 11 June 1940, bombing Port Sudan.

The Pipistrello was rapidly aging and progressively removed from frontline service. The aircraft were replaced by the much more effective SM.79. The aircraft was relegated to transport duties and continued to operate until the end of the war.

They took part in dangerous air transport missions flown between Italy and Tunisia, trying to sustain the remaining Axis forces in North Africa. A handful of airplanes were sent to the Soviet Union as part of the air contingent supporting the Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia (CSIR).

After the fall of Greece, the Savoia Marchetti SM.81 Pipistrello remained the main bomber/recognizance aircraft deployed in the Aegean islands controlled by Italy.

An SM.81 that crashed in a river.

An SM.81 that crashed in a river.

Very few SM.81 were left on the Italian mainland by the time of the armistice in 1943. Because of this, no exact numbers are available. Four airplanes continued to serve in the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force while the rest served with the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana performing transport duties.

The Luftwaffe seized roughly 20 “Pipistrelli” and incorporated them in the Transportgruppe 10, operating on the Eastern front. In June 1944 this unit transported technical personnel to Finland destined to reinforce the Finnish Air Force.

A handful of Savoia Marchetti SM.81 survived the war and remained in service in Italy until 1950.


Model Savoia-Marchetti SM.81
Crew 6
Pilot, Co-Pilot, Flight Engineer/Gunner, Radio Operator, Bombardier, Rear Gunner
Powerplant (3) A Alfa Romeo 125 RC.35 radial engine
680 hp each
Maximum Speed 211 mph (340 km/h)
Max Ceiling 22,965 ft (7,000 m)
Range 1,200 miles (1,930 km)
Length 60 ft (18.31 m)
Height 14ft 6 in (4.47 m)
Wingspan 78 ft 9 in (24 m)
Armament (6) 7.7 mm (0.303 in) Breda-SAFAT machine guns
Bombs: 2,000 kg (4,409 lb) internal bomb load
Weight Empty: 14,991 lb (6,800 kg)
Max: 20,503 lb (9,300 kg)

Angelucci E., Matricardi P., Aerei da combattimento della Seconda Guerra Mondiale (2001).
Civoli M., Aereoplani: Regia Aeronautica-Aeronautica Militare 1923-2003 (2002).
Sgarlato N., La Regia Aereonautica nella Seconda Guerra Mondiale (2000).

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