The Fascist Italian state in the 20’s and 30’s wanted to be seen as a modern, industrial power with prestige rivaling any other nation on Earth. One way in which Mussolini and his officers attempted to create that image is through the use of airplanes, a relatively new invention that was just beginning to see use in everyday life. By making and flying airplanes that set new standards for the industry, Italy could appear modern without having to spend too much money or occupy too much of their industry, and with the help of Italo Balbo, that is just what Mussolini did. Through large formation cruises across great distances, record-setting flights by prototype airplanes, and simply the swagger and personality of Balbo himself, Italy enhanced its image through propagandistic aviation.
Italy has a strong history for aviation, despite its lack of industrial power. The Italo-Turkish War of 1911 saw the first ever use of airplanes in war as Italy was conquering Libya. (Segre 150) Mussolini had a keen interest in aviation, and he specifically wanted Fascism and flight to be as linked in the minds of the world as possible. (Segre 148) This effort was helped by the Italian Futurists, artists devoted to the romance of industrial progress and machines. The Futurist Marinetti penned a “Manifesto of Aeropoesia” in 1931 that codified the goals of poetry devoted to airplanes and flight, going along with the existing Futurist aerial music and painting. (Bohn 207) In the theater, Giannina Censi performed Aerodanze, or aerial dances, in the 1930’s which chronicled aeronautic experiences through dance. (Klock 397) Italian designs won the Schneider Trophy, a highly publicized international seaplane race, three of the eleven times it was ever held. Famous air power theorist Giulio Douhet also hailed from Italy, cementing the country’s reputation as a country obsessed with flight and developing its myriad uses in civil and military matters.
Italo Balbo, above any other individual, promoted the use of Italian aviation for propagandistic cruises and record-setting flights. As Minister of Aviation from 1929 to 1933, Balbo led two transatlantic flights of flying boats, using his talent for showmanship for the glory of Mussolini’s government. These cruises created incredible excitement everywhere Balbo’s flights landed. When he landed in Chicago after a transatlantic flight, a column was dedicated in his honor, and even today one can come cross Balbo Avenue in the city. The flight also earned him America’s Distinguished Flying Cross from President Roosevelt himself, and the Sioux Indians made him an honorary Chief, naming him “Flying Eagle.” The word “Balbo” came to mean a large formation of airplanes in English, and the Marx Brothers even parodied him in their film “A Night at the Opera.” (Segre 146)
The Regia Aeronautica (or Royal Italian Air Force) was one of the first independent air branches in the world, and it became dominant among great powers in the 20’s and early 30’s, at least on paper. Italy could claim to hold the second-largest air force in the world, behind France, over that period. (Segre 150) Italian-designed planes could also reach top speeds that could easily compete with any top fighter of World War II, if they could only put them into mass production. Industrial issues and bureaucratic failures would cost them that advantage later on.
Even after Balbo moved on from his aviation post to become Governor of Libya, the Aeronautica continued to make pioneering technological advancements. Balbo’s seaplane flights set a number of long-distance speed records which stood for decades. (Segre 161) In fact, between 1927 and 1939 Italian planes would set 110 aviation records, though few of them were held for a significant period of time. (Segre 162) Most interestingly, Italy claimed in 1940 to have flown the first jet aircraft, the Caproni Campini N.1. Though the aircraft was generally underpowered and did not use a true jet engine, the achievement was publicized at the time as yet another Italian first in the aviation world. (Pavelec 5) It would later become known that Germany had flown a jet aircraft a year prior to Italy without making the event public. Italy was so focused on propagandistic achievements as opposed to actual military development that they created an underpowered and generally impractical “jet” aircraft simply to be first, making their progress public while the other great powers secretly developed on their own.
Despite all this quantifiable success, the Italian air force would still find itself outclassed in actual warfare when it eventually came in 1940. The Aeronautica had made so many technological leaps under his tenure, yet they still sent out squadrons full of regressive biplanes during the failed invasion of Greece. Perhaps more disastrously, Italy had completely failed to develop their own torpedo planes, carrier-based aircraft (or carriers for that matter, the RM Aquila remaining unfinished at war’s end), or dive-bombers. (Sadkovich 130) Their air force was also woefully short of strategic bombers, yet another important piece of other modern air forces.
Many historians would give blame for the Aeronautica’s wartime failure to the use of aviation as propaganda, and even contemporaries of Balbo shared this view. The Aeronautica’s Chief of Staff Francesco De Pinedo went straight to Mussolini with his condemnation of Balbo’s spending. (Segre 161) Even Luigi Federzoni, a Fascist politician and friend of Italo Balbo, said the Aeronautica had become too superficial and too focused on technical development without actually making developments feasible. (Segre 146) Balbo himself criticized the air force before he took over, saying “Our Aeronautica was nothing more than an office for propaganda… now it is necessary to begin building military aviation and its weaponry has not even been studied.” (Segre 152) Although he certainly made the Aeronautica more war-ready than it had been in 1925, his legacy was still undoubtedly one more aligned with propaganda than true military engineering or development.
Italy’s industrial capacity may have been unable to sustain a modern air force regardless of how it was led, however. Although Giulio Douhet once proposed that air power was a cheap alternative to other military solutions and therefore one his native country could support, by World War II this was no longer the case. (Segre 153) Italy’s dominance in the air would not last as other nations mobilized. Between 1940 and 1943, Italy produced 10,000 aircraft in total while in the same period the United Kingdom produced twice as many Spitfires alone. (Sadkovich 130) Though Italy had brilliant aircraft designers, the country’s raw material base could not support serious production levels, and the country’s domestic market was not large enough to support the industry alone. Italian researchers attempted to make the country’s industry self-sufficient by attempting to use tar as a source for airplane fuel, but the experiment was unsuccessful. Raw materials were simply unavailable, and Fascist laws against buying raw materials abroad further starved Italy’s industry. (Segre 168)
Engine design plagued Italy for this entire period, as the same Italian companies that designed record-setting engines for individual planes and prototypes completely failed to develop a mass-produced engine for Italy’s fighters and bombers. (Segre 166) Thus, Italian warplanes were forced to either use seriously underpowered Italian designs or German imported engines.
A number of minor errors and inefficiencies further plagued the air force’s production numbers. A contract to provide armaments for Italian planes went unfulfilled for two entire years in the late 20’s because the manufacturing plant had simply not yet been built. (Segre 151) In 1938, the Regia Aeronautica held a competition to find the design for their next primary fighter. The Reggiane 2000 was deemed best, yet the next production order only mandated that twelve of them be produced, compared to 200 biplanes and a significant number of monoplanes with demonstrated critical design issues. (Sadkovich 133) The Aeronautica thus neglected to actually implement the new design, instead relying on a number of ones they already knew were inferior.
Italo Balbo himself had no faith that Italy would win any upcoming war, and he particularly disagreed with Mussolini’s decision to join Germany. (Segre 147) He did not consider the air force or any other branch of Italy’s military to be ready for modern combat, and he would remark in a letter to Mussolini’s mistress and biographer that he could write an article for her called “How we are getting ready to lose the future war.” (Segre 157) The Aeronautica’s budget was limited, and as other nations geared up for war, Italy was stuck at the same maximum production levels, falling further behind the allied powers. Italy quickly slipped from second to fourth among great powers’ air force strength as war approached, falling behind more and more every year. (Segre 159)
The characteristically Italian use of aviation for propaganda was thus likely not the major cause of their weak air force showing in World War II. Like most other parts of the country’s war machine, industry was the primary weakness holding Italy back, along with a number of inefficient low-level command decisions. The propaganda, whether or not it was truly useful in popularizing Fascism throughout the world, at least left a lasting legacy that is only somewhat tainted by the totalitarianism behind it. Italo Balbo and the Regia Aeronautica can claim to be reasonably important pioneers during aviation’s golden age, helping to popularize flight at a time when its future everyday use was not a certainty.
Claudio G. Segre, Italo Balbo: A Fascist Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 143-289.
James J. Sadkovich, “The Development of the Italian Air Force Prior to World War II,” Military Affairs Vol. 51, No. 3 (Jul., 1987) pp. 128-136.