The Survivors: Fiat CR.42 Falco – Maneuverable But Outgunned!

The Fiat CR.42 Falco (“Falcon”) fighter aircraft was an Italian sesquiplane variant of  the biplane design, where the lower wing was not more than half the surface of the upper wing. Introduced into Italian Regia Aeronautica service in 1939, the fighter was already obsolete in the World War Two era of modern, faster monoplane aircraft such as the French Dewoitine D.520 and British Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire.

The Fiat A.74 RC38 14 cylinder radial engine fitted to the CR.42 produced a maximum speed of 441 km/h (274 mph) at altitude. Contemporary Allied fighters were capable of speeds between 530 km/h to 590 km/h! Despite this performance disparity approximately 1,819 were produced until the fall of Fascist Italy in 1943. This was the most of any Italian designed fighter during the war. Only 4 are known to survive today.

Fiat CR.42 of the 162nd Squadron 161st
Italian Fiat CR.42 of the 162nd Squadron 161st “Autonomous Terrestrial Fighter Group”, Aegean Islands 1940 (photo via Wikipedia)

Italian Service

The Italian Regia Aeronautica first used the type in combat during the latter stages of the Battle of France in the summer of 1940. They scored a number of aerial victories over French aircraft including the Dewoitine D.520, plus numerous aircraft claimed destroyed on the ground but lost 7 aircraft in the process.

This limited success in France lead to them being operated with the Corpo Aereo Italiano (CAI) – a force of some 203 aircraft which included 50 CR.42’s flying out of bases in Belgium in support of the Luftwaffe during October to November 1940 in the last stages of the Battle of Britain. Italian pilots flying them had little success due to the limitations of their aircraft including low speeds, weak armament, a limited fuel range, not being fitted with radios (which obviously hampered communication in combat) and bad weather (open cockpits in cold weather was not ideal!). Engagements with the RAF were few but they suffered at the hands of British pilots flying Hawker Hurricanes (3 CR.42’s were shot down and in return it is reported the Italians only damaged 2 Hurricanes).

Italian Regia Aeronautica Fiat CR.42 Falco fighters
Italian Regia Aeronautica Fiat CR.42 Falco fighters with a pilot being assisted by a ground crew member

Even though it was slower than modern Allied fighters, the British praised the exceptional airframe strength and maneuverability of the CR.42 (the designers kept the airframe weight down by omitting a radio and armour!), stating it was a good dog fighter and hard to hit (they could out maneuver the faster monoplanes) but lacked punch as it had a very weak armament of just two Breda machine guns – early variants had 1 x 12.7 mm (.5 in) and 1 x 7.7 mm (.303 in) Breda SAFAT machine guns above the engine (this was to save weight and increase manoeuvrability). This weaponry was more or less like a World War One biplane, which would have been fine in an era of canvas and wood opponents but totally inadequate in an age of all metal and armoured aircraft!

The later CR.42bis variant was fitted with 2 x 12.7 mm Breda SAFAT machine guns above the engine and the close support CR.42AS “Africa Settentrionale” first used in North Africa, had an additional 2 x 12.7 mm Breda SAFAT machine guns fitted in underwing pods. The CR.42ter variant had 2 x 12.7 mm machine guns plus 2 x 12.7 mm machine guns mounted in blisters under the wings.

A large formation flight of Italian Regia Aeronautica Fiat CR.42 Falco fighters
A large formation flight of Italian Regia Aeronautica Fiat CR.42 Falco fighters
Italian Regia Aeronautica Fiat CR.42AS Falco circa 1942
Italian Regia Aeronautica Fiat CR.42AS Falco over Ravenna, Italy circa 1942 – note the wheel fairings have been removed from the undercarriage – perhaps to reduce weight? (photo via Asisbiz.com)

As the war progressed the CR.42 was used for air defence by the Regia Aeronautica in Italy and also in combat over Greece, North Africa, East Africa and over Malta. Skilled Italian pilots could use the fighters maneuverability to their advantage and were credited with victories over the contemporary Gloster Gladiator and the superior Hawker Hurricane but as attrition continued it was obviously obsolete.

Interestingly despite a lack of radar from 1940 the Falco also served with the Italians as a night fighter. This variant was designated CR.42CN. It was fitted with spotlights in underwing gondolas and elongated engine exhausts to dampen visible flames.

Italian Fiat CR.42CN Falco night fighter circa 1941 - note the elongated exhausts to dampen flames
Italian Fiat CR.42CN Falco night fighter circa 1941 – note the elongated exhausts to dampen flames (photo via Asisbiz.com)
An Italian CR.42 “Bombe Alari”

As the air defence role was taken over by more modern fighters, field modifications were made to older aircraft to allow them to be used in the ground attack role by adding underwing pylons for 2 x 50 kg bombs. Some aircraft were also converted into two-seat communications and liaison aircraft.

In an experiment to boost the speed of the Falco, a Daimler-Benz DB 601A inline engine was fitted to one aircraft. Designated CR.42DB, this variant reportedly reached a maximum speed of around 520 km/h which was almost 80 km/h faster than the original Fiat engine but damn it was ugly! Despite the performance boost no other aircraft were converted.

Two-seat CR.42 converted for communications and liaison work, and the experimental CR.42DB Falco fitted with a Daimler-Benz DB 601A inline engine which reportedly boosted performance by almost 80 km/h
Two-seat CR.42 converted for communications and liaison work, and the experimental CR.42DB Falco fitted with a Daimler-Benz DB 601A inline engine which reportedly boosted performance by almost 80 km/h

I have nothing but the utmost respect for the Italian pilots who despite its short comings, got the most out of the Falco. No doubt in the early days of Italy’s involvement in the war, numerous fighter pilots would have had prior combat experience gained from service during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), which would have helped give them an edge in the air. The majority though would not have had any combat experience at all and would have been going up against experienced RAF pilots who had tussled with the best the German Luftwaffe had to offer!

In October 1943, following the Italian armistice, the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force was formed in southern Italy. They fought on the side of the Allies and operated the CR.42AS close support aircraft amongst other aircraft captured by the Allies.

I like the look of the CR.42. It is quite streamlined for an open cockpit sesquiplane biplane. The most famous survivor on display today can be found at RAF Museum Hendon. This example (MM5701) was built in Italy in 1940. I first saw this aircraft in person in 1994 and again in 2012 in the Battle of Britain Hall at the museum. Quite a cool piece of aviation history.

Fiat CR.42 Falco (
Fiat CR.42 Falco (“Falcon” – MM5701) of the Italian Regia Aeronautica at RAF Museum Hendon during my visit in 2012

During a sortie to escort Italian bombers, prior to any combat and with an overheating engine due to a broken engine oil pipe, Regia Aeronautica pilot Pietro Salvadori’s Fiat CR.42 Falco (MM5701) force landed on the shingle beach at Orfordness, Suffolk on November 11th, 1940, gently nosing over on the shingle. The aircraft suffered only minimal damage. Salvadori was taken prisoner and was apparently very proud of his landing! Post war he would rejoin the Italian Air Force but sadly died in 1953 following an accident flying a Republic F-84G Thunderjet.

With an overheating engine, Sergente Pilota Pietro Salvadori's Fiat CR.42 Falco 'MM5701' force landed on the shingle beach at Orfordness, Suffolk, gently nosing over on the shingle. Salvadori was taken prisoner and was apparently very proud of his landing on November 11th, 1940 (Photo Source: Imperial War Museum)
With an overheating engine, Sergente Pilota Pietro Salvadori’s Fiat CR.42 Falco ‘MM5701’ force landed on the shingle beach at Orfordness, Suffolk, gently nosing over on the shingle. Salvadori was taken prisoner and was apparently very proud of his landing on November 11th, 1940 (Photo Source: Imperial War Museum)

Now in British hands, it was repaired and returned to flying condition. Flown to RAE Farnborough in late November 1940, it was tested over a few flights and remained there until transferred to No. 1426 (Enemy Aircraft) Flight RAF, Duxford at the end of April 1941. The Air Flight Development Unit (AFDU) at Duxford tested the aircraft with RAF markings, including in mock combat with RAF Hurricane and Spitfire fighters, and Royal Navy Fairey Fulmar and Grumman Martlet (F4F Wildcat) fighters to develop air combat tactics from April 29th, 1941 to October 1942. Fortunately in 1943 it was put into storage for preservation and was relocated to the museum in 1978.

The captured Italian CR.42 Falco in RAF markings at RAF Duxford
The captured Italian CR.42 Falco in RAF markings at RAF Duxford (RAF Photo)
The same Fiat CR.42 Falco (Falcon) of the Regia Aeronautica
Fiat CR.42 Falco (“Falcon” – MM5701) of the Italian Regia Aeronautica at RAF Museum Hendon during my visit in 2012
Fiat CR.42 Falco (
Fiat CR.42 Falco (“Falcon” – MM5701) of the Italian Regia Aeronautica at RAF Museum Hendon during my visit in 2012

Other Axis Operators

Other major Axis CR.42 operators during World War Two included Croatia, Germany and Hungary. The Hungarians operated them during the brief 1941 Yugoslavian campaign and then mainly on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union, achieving initial success against Polikarpov I-16 Rata fighters but later being relegated to the ground attack role until the end of 1941 and then training roles. With attrition from combat, Allied strikes on air bases and accidents, of the 72 aircraft delivered to Hungary, none survived the war.

Luftwaffe Fiat CR.42LW Falco night attack / harassment aircraft circa 1944 (photo via WW2 in Color)

Following the 1943 Italian armistice, Germany incorporated many Regia Aeronautica aircraft into the Luftwaffe including a number of CR.42’s. They decided to produce 200 new airframes designated as the CR.42LW (LW = Luftwaffe) for use in the night attack / harassment role behind enemy lines in Italy and for anti-partisan operations in France and the Balkans. A number were also used in training roles.

150 of the CR.42LW variant were completed by 1944 with only 112 entering Luftwaffe service. They were armed with 2 x 12.7 mm machine guns, had bomb racks for 4 x 50 kg bombs and elongated exhaust pipes to dampen engine flames during night operations.

Although not part of Axis, Spain was closely aligned to the fascist powers and also operated the CR.42 Falco. For an obsolete design, it certainly got plenty of use in the modern air age of the 1940’s!

Unexpected Falco Operators

Belgium who received up to 30 CR.42’s between March and May 1940 (from a 1939 order of 40 aircraft), reportedly shot down a number of German Luftwaffe aircraft during the May 1940 invasion, including the prized scalp of two Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters before the country capitulated! Only 5 Belgian CR.42’s survived and were later found by the Germans in France.

A Belgian Air Force Fiat CR.42 Falco at Nivelles, Belgium in 1940
A Belgian Air Force Fiat CR.42 Falco at Nivelles, Belgium in 1940 (photo via Asisbiz.com)

Sweden also received deliveries of the CR.42 to bolster their air defences to protect the nation’s neutrality as war broke out around them (they sourced aircraft from Italy as their own industry was not ready to produce enough combat aircraft for a couple of years into the war and aircraft from Allied nations were not available). They received 72 from Italy between 1940 to 1941 and designated the fighter as J 11.

The original 12 J 11 fighters were actually purchased using funds from a nation wide collection for use by the Swedish volunteer unit F 19 in Finland during that nations Winter War with the Soviet Union in 1940 but they were not delivered in time to take part in that conflict. They were then used in Sweden in a reconnaissance role – the pilot used a hand-held camera. The other 60 aircraft were used for air defence but the low-speed of the aircraft could make interception of aircraft into Swedish airspace difficult. The CR.42/J 11 differed from Italian operated aircraft as it had a radio and light armour added, and could be fitted with skis for winter operations but the open cockpit was not ideal in such a cold climate! By 1943 they began to be replaced by more modern fighter aircraft.

Swedish Air Force Fiat CR.42 / J 11 Falco
Swedish Air Force Fiat CR.42 / J 11 Falco (photo via Pinterest Japan)

Despite being well obsolete and losing approximately 30 CR.42/J 11 aircraft due to accidents and mechanical failures, the type was not retired from Swedish service until 1945. With some thought to the future, one CR.42/J 11 (Fv 2543) was put into storage for preservation and today can be seen at the Swedish Air Force Museum (Flygvapenmuseum) near Linköping. This aircraft was delivered in May 1942 and was one of the last to be retired in May 1945. I was lucky enough to see it in person in November 2017 and it is in great condition!

Swedish Air Force Fiat CR.42/J 11 Falco (Fv 2543) at the Swedish Air Force Museum (Flygvapenmuseum) near Linköping
Swedish Air Force Fiat CR.42/J 11 Falco (Fv 2543) at the Swedish Air Force Museum (Flygvapenmuseum) near Linköping – November 2017
Swedish Air Force Fiat CR.42/J 11 Falco (Fv 2543) at the Swedish Air Force Museum (Flygvapenmuseum) near Linköping
The Swedish Air Force Museum Fiat CR.42/J 11 Falco (Fv 2543) entered service in 1942 and was one of the last retired in 1945 – November 2017
Swedish Air Force Fiat CR.42/J 11 Falco (Fv 2543) at the Swedish Air Force Museum (Flygvapenmuseum) near Linköping
The open cockpit would not have been much fun in a Swedish winter!Swedish Air Force Fiat CR.42/J 11 Falco (Fv 2543) at the Swedish Air Force Museum (Flygvapenmuseum) – November 2017
Swedish Air Force Fiat CR.42/J 11 Falco (Fv 2543) at the Swedish Air Force Museum (Flygvapenmuseum) near Linköping
Although essentially the same as Italian operated Fiat CR.42 fighters, the Swedish J 11’s were equipped with radios, 20-mm armour plate behind the pilot and could be fitted with ski landing gear for winter operations – Swedish Air Force Museum November 2017
Swedish Air Force Fiat CR.42/J 11 Falco (Fv 2543) at the Swedish Air Force Museum (Flygvapenmuseum) near Linköping
Swedish Air Force Fiat CR.42/J 11 Falco (Fv 2543) at the Swedish Air Force Museum (Flygvapenmuseum) – November 2017

The other two surviving aircraft also have origins in Sweden. The one at the Museo Storico dell’Aeronautica Militaire, Italiana, Vigna di Valle in Italy is a composite aircraft that is 2/3 original with parts recovered from France, Italy and Sweden (included parts from Fv 2539) and is displayed as “MM4653”. The other, a Swedish J 11 (Fv 2542) which crashed in 1942 and was not recovered until 1983, is in the United Kingdom and under restoration to flight by The Fighter Collection. I hope to see them some day too!

 

References

Preserved Axis Aircraft

RAF Museum Hendon – Fiat CR.42 Falco

Swedish Air Force Museum

The Falco and Regia Aeronautica in the Battle of Britain

WW2 in Color – Fiat CR.42LW

Wikipedia – Fiat CR.42 Falco

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