When Italy attacked mainland Britain

The WW2 ‘Battle of Britain’ is etched deep in the collective memory of Brits, whether alive at the time or not. As everyone knows, it was an intense struggle between the RAF “few” and the massed aerial fleets of Germany’s Luftwaffe.

What most people, including me, don’t know or have forgotten, is that it wasn’t just the Luftwaffe who were bombing England. Italy’s Regia Aeronautica played a role too.

This short paragraph in Graham Smith’s Suffolk Airfields in the Second World War, caught my eye recently:

After all the fury of the Battle of Britain, the next flurry of action for the Hurricane squadrons came on the 11th November [1940] when Hurricanes from Nos 46, 249, and 257 squadrons were sent up to intercept a daylight raid on Harwich by units of the Regia Aeronautica – the Italian Air Force. Just ten Fiat BR 20 bombers, escorted by 40 Fiat CR 42 fighters took off from airfields in Belgium in a vain attempt to aid the Luftwaffe bombing offensive. Basically the Italian aircraft were no match for the Hurricanes and indeed the Italian pilots, though brave, were sadly ill-trained. On this ill-fated operation seven of the bombers were shot down as well as four fighters without a single Hurricane being lost. Later in the month there were two more small Italian raids on Harwich and Ipswich but very little damage was sustained.

Interesting stuff!

And once you start delving into it, there is a fairly rich seam of information available on that particular attack.

For a start, one of the bombers wound up in Bromeswell near Woodbridge, where it was filmed by a Pathe News unit.

Fiat BR.20 wreckage
Soldiers open a hamper found on board the BR.20 bomber shot down near Woodbridge.

Another example is this account from the Lowestoft Aviation Society of what happened to one of the CR.42 fighter pilots, Sergente Majori (Flt Sgt) Antonio Lazzari from Milan.

His Fiat CR 42 fighter with its bright Mediterranean colour scheme marked the arrival in Britain of the very first Tuscan invaders to land here since Roman times. Mussolini’s Corpo Aero Italiano were based in Belgium, and their one and only large-scale daylight attack took place on this date. 12 Fiat BR 20 bombers escorted by 22 CR 42s set out for Harwich but they were met off the coast by Hurricanes and in the resulting melee (dubbed ‘the spaghetti party’) by the RAF, three BR 20s and three CR 42s were lost. 

Notice the discrepancy in the numbers?

Taking part: Twelve BR.20s, not ten. Twenty-two CR.42s not forty.
Shot down: Three BR.20s, not seven. Three CR.42s not four.

So, what were the numbers?

The best authority I can find on the raid is Håkan Gustavsson who covers the Regia Aeronautica Battle of Britain campaign in detail. There were 10 bombers and 42 fighters, but there should have been more – 46 Fiat G50 fighters (monoplane) and some Messerschmitt bf109s turned back because of bad weather!

Anyway, Håkan answers my key question: Where were the Italians based in Belgium?

That’s what peaked my interest. Is there any trace of the Regia Aeronautica in Belgium still remaining?

Perhaps not at Melsbroeck airfield (codename ‘Dedalo’), now better known as Brussels Airport!

Nor at the codename ‘Icaro’ airfield, now the U.S. Air Force base at Chièvres!

But if you know different or have any more details, let me know below.

Images: Fiat CR.42 fighters – CC Wikimedia/Unknown
                BR.20 wreckage – Untraced/Public Domain

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