If you want to exterminate a bird species, shooting down all the birds will not do – there are still nests and eggs to be dealt with. Those were the words written in the 1920s by an Italian general Giulio Douhet.
Douhet was the author of a visionary air power doctrine, which saw the air force as an independent arm with a critical role in deciding the outcome of a war, rather than a vehicle for romantic aerial duels of the Great War. Douhet’s doctrine called for the bombardment of cities: they needed to be mercilessly pounded in order to break the people’s morale and then the time would soon come when, to put an end to the horror and suffering, the people themselves, driven by the instinct of self-preservation, would rise up and demand an end to the war - this before their Army and Navy had time to mobilize. However, air supremacy could only yield benefits in cooperation with the other services. All European air warfare doctrines created in Europe after World War I drew from Douhet’s work.
The Luftwaffe attempted to put Douhet’s vision into practice in the summer and fall of 1940. Having first focused their attention on British coastal shipping, factories and airfields, the German bombers proceeded to launch terror attacks on London in hopes of breaking the fighting spirit of the nation. Earlier the same fate befell the Basque city of Guernica, Warsaw and Rotterdam. In operations against England, it was the air force that was supposed to play the key role in preparation for the landings of the ground troops. Without air superiority German invasion plans were doomed. The Battle of Britain saw the use of Douhet’s doctrine in its purest form. The general’s fellow countrymen would also play a role in the battle, which this book will try to show.
On June 10, 1940 Italy declared war on Britain and France. It did not take long for France to fall and Mussolini could notch up his first success. Having sided with Hitler, the Italians immediately faced fighting on a number of fronts. The Fascists considered themselves equal partner’s to Hitler and Mussolini soon announced he was fighting a “parallel war”. Il Duce’s dream was the resurrection of the Roman Empire and his Regia Marina fought hard against the Royal Navy for supremacy in the Mediterranean. In September Marshal Graziani’s forces in North Africa stormed deep into Egypt and took Sidi Barrani. Far away, in East Africa, the Italian troops captured British Somaliland. A drive to take Kenya was stopped by bad weather. It may not have been the Blitzkrieg of the kind the Germans fought in Europe, but the campaign produced solid results and left the initiative firmly in the hands of the Italians. Then everybody’s eyes turned to England: how long before the nation breaks under pressure and begins peace negotiations? In the meantime the Italians grow in confidence and open up a new front – their attack on Greece is a reminder that they regard the Balkans as their area of influence.
However, there is a crack on this perfect picture, a real slap on the face of the Italian Empire. Drunk with the offensive spirit, Italy remains virtually defenseless against the RAF. Giulio Douhet’s countrymen made great efforts to build up their offensive power, but almost completely neglected their own air defense, including heavy anti-aircraft batteries capable of protecting Italian cities. The first British air raids against Turin and Genoa take place on the night of June 11/12, 1940. The following night over thirty Whitley bombers drop bombs on Fiat and Caproni factories in Turin and Milan. The British bombers cover the distance of 2 400 km to reach their targets! Both cities come under attack again on September 2 and once more the RAF bombers operate over Italy with impunity. The damage is not severe, but the image of the Duce suffers terribly. It is now clear that Regia Aeronautica, despite the commitments on multiple fronts, will have to find a way to show the British their place and launch retaliatory strikes against England.
Regia Aeronautica in 1940
Since 1923 Regia Aeronautica had been one of the three independent services of the Italian armed forces. The air arm was under command of the the Chief of Air Force General Staff with subordinated Superaereo (Air Force Command), located in Rome. Between March 3, 1939 and November 15, 1941 the Chief of Air Force General Staff was Gen di D.A. Francesco Pricolo.