Home » The Italian Air Force in Russia, July 1941-March 1942

The Italian Air Force in Russia, July 1941-March 1942

by Giulio Poggiaroni

On June 22, 1941, Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. For political, diplomatic, and prestige reasons, Mussolini decided not only to declare war against the USSR but also to send an Expeditionary Corps of the Army (the C.S.I.R.), supported by a small air contingent with tactical and defensive support functions for the ground troops. This decision not only deprived Italy of fresh forces that could have been used in the Mediterranean theatre, but also forced the Italian Air Force (Regia Aeronautica), already struggling with chronic shortages of equipment, spare parts, fuel, and lubricants, to engage on an overly extended front, with tasks and functions absolutely beyond its capacity and against an infinitely more numerous and stronger adversary, the Soviet Air Force. This was somewhat similar to what had happened between 1940 and 1941, with the deployment of the Italian Air Expeditionary Corps (C.A.I.) in Belgium, with little to no results achieved in the Battle of Britain.

In July 1941, the 61,700 officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers of the C.S.I.R. reached the Dnieper front after a long journey, where the Italian Expeditionary Corps was integrated into the German 11th Army. In August 1941, an air force of about 85 aircraft, including fighters, bombers, reconnaissance planes, and transports, was also transferred and stationed at several airfields west of the Dnieper. But let’s look in more detail at the composition, military strength, and operations conducted by the Italian Air Corps.

The C.S.I.R. Aviation Command was officially established on July 29 at Tudora, along the border separating the Soviet Union and Romania. On August 12, the 22nd Fighter Group, consisting of 51 Macchi MC200s (Squadrons 359, 362, 369, and 371), arrived from Italy at this airport. The interceptors were accompanied by two Savoia Marchetti SM81 three-engine transport and logistics support planes and three smaller Caproni Ca133 three-engine transport planes. Four days later, the 61st Air Observation Group, mounted on 32 Caproni Ca311 twin-engine planes and a large Savoia Marchetti SM82 three-engine transport and support plane, also landed at Tudora. The formation of the C.S.I.R. Air Corps was completed with the assignment of all the technical and military ground services necessary to ensure the operational readiness of the flight units. Specifically, six sections of heavy AA Breda 20-millimeter machine guns with personnel were assigned for airfield defense, along with a motor pool of about 300 vehicles of various types. Initially, the C.S.I.R. Aviation personnel comprised about 1,900 men (140 officers, 180 non-commissioned officers, and 1,500 soldiers, including specialists and government aviators), plus 90 specialized workers.

Figure 1 MC200 Saetta of the 22° group

Figure 1 MC200 Saetta of the 22° group

After re-organizing the units and refurbishing and resupplying the aircraft, a first contingent of the Italian Air Corps was moved to the front line where, on August 11, the Italian troops had their first clashes with the Soviets. On August 27, the Macchi MC200s of the 22nd Group inaugurated their operational cycle by engaging in combat with several squadrons of Russian planes (Polikarpov I-16 fighters and Tupolev SB-2 “Katyusha” medium bombers). In the encounter, Italian pilots shot down six bombers and two enemy fighters without suffering any losses. At the end of August, following the breakthrough of the enemy front and the rapid advance eastward of German, Romanian, and Italian forces, the entire Italian Air Corps moved from Tudora to Krivoi Rog. In September, eight Savoia Marchetti SM81s from Italy arrived there, forming the 245th Transport Squadron along with the two three-engines already at the Russian airport. On September 22, after the intense battles fought by the C.S.I.R. in the Petrikovka area, the Italian units achieved a brilliant result by capturing Stalino, one of the most important urban and industrial centers in the Donetz Basin. A success that forced the 22nd Group and a reconnaissance squadron mounted on Caproni twin-engine planes to move again eastward to Zaporižžja on the left bank of the Dnieper.

Meanwhile, the early Russian autumn quickly turned into one of the harshest winters recorded in recent years. The violent rains, followed by snowstorms and a frighteningly rapid drop in temperatures (down to minus 30), severely tested not only the C.S.I.R., which was absolutely unprepared in terms of equipment to fight in these extreme conditions but also the personnel and equipment of the Italian Air Corps. Between October and November, they were engaged in continuous and feverish efforts to clear the snow-covered runways and to clean and repair the engines and onboard weapons damaged by ice and frequent Russian bomber raids.

On November 5, the new 246th Transport Squadron arrived from Italy at Stalino, followed four days later by the 371st Fighter Squadron at the same airport, strengthened at the end of December by a second Macchi MC200 interceptor unit. In early December, just before the major Russian winter counteroffensive, the C.S.I.R. still found the strength, despite heavy losses, to advance eastward, capturing the centres of Grossny and Sech Savielenka. But on Christmas Eve, the feared Soviet offensive was unleashed, forcing the German divisions of the Southern Army (which included the C.S.I.R.) to retreat from the large center of Rostov, which was occupied by the Russians.

Figure 2 Italian aircraft at Stalino in early 1942

Figure 2 Italian aircraft at Stalino in early 1942

The powerful Soviet manoeuvre, supported by numerous divisions with hundreds of T34 tanks, also forced the Italians, almost entirely lacking effective anti-tank weapons, to withdraw to more secure positions. The retreat was carried out with the air support of the ever-present Macchi MC200s, which repeatedly attacked the thick columns of Soviet infantry with their Breda Safat 12.7 machine guns and 50-kilogram wing bombs, also engaging in numerous dogfights with Russian fighters and medium bombers. In this regard, by the end of December, the exhausted Italian fighter units could claim the downing of 12 Soviet planes against the loss of only one Macchi.

After a relatively long period of partial inactivity (from December 1941 to January 1942, the harsh weather conditions, polar temperatures, excessive snowfall at airfields, and fuel shortages forced almost all Italian units to significantly reduce combat operations), on February 4, the fighter squadrons began to take off again for new and demanding interdiction, escort, and assault missions. On February 5, several dozen Macchi MC200s from the 22nd Group swooped down on the Soviet airfield at Kranyi Liman, thoroughly strafing and putting out of action at least 15 Russian fighters and medium bombers without suffering any losses. After this brilliant action, the Macchi returned to the attack, carrying out numerous strafing and bombing raids on enemy air installations between March and April, hitting the fields of Luskotova and Leninsklij Bomdardir.

Meanwhile, the Caproni Ca311 reconnaissance and light bombers were also employed in offensive actions in the enemy rear, culminating in the successful attack on March 22 against Russian motorized columns and troop concentrations. In the spring of 1942, realizing the excessive width of the front and the small number of air units supporting the C.S.I.R., the Regia Aeronautica decided to reinforce the Expeditionary Corps with new aircraft, fuel, and supplies from Italy and substantial contingents of pilots and specialists, anticipatingof the arrival of additional Italian divisions in Russia and the upcoming German summer offensive.

Sources

Grienti, V., Verde, P., (2024), La Regia Aeronautica nella Campagna di Russia (1941-1943)

Rosselli, A., Breve storia del Corpo Aereo Italiano in Russia 1941-1943

Malizia N., (1987) Ali sulla Steppa, la Regia Aeronautica nella Campagna di Russia

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