Italian designed but heavily inspired by the late 1930’s era American designed Seversky P-35 (see my previous post), the Reggiane Re.2000 Falco I all metal, monoplane fighter was produced in Italy and first flew in 1939. One of the chief designers of the Re.2000, Roberto Longhi had apparently spent some time in the United States working with Bellanca and Curtiss-Wright. Although lightly built, with good performance (top speed up to 530 km/h / 329 mph) and highly maneuverable, it was already an outdated design when it began to enter service in 1940.
The Re.2000 fuel tanks were seen as a major design issue for Italy’s Regia Aeronautica as they were placed entirely in the wings and unlike contemporary fighter aircraft, were not self sealing. This was seen as making the aircraft highly vulnerable to enemy gun fire and at risk of fuel leakage. As such this – 5 Re. 2000 Serie I aircraft including the prototype, 9 Re.2000bis Serie II and 12 Re.2000GA Serie III long-range fighters with increased fuel capacity, which saw limited service and success in the Mediterranean theatre including attacks on Malta (only one aerial victory was recorded against an RAF Bristol Blenheim bomber).
Although similar to Italian aircraft of the time, armament was also very light with just 2 x 12.7mm Breda machine guns in the engine cowling. The Achilles heel of the Re.2000 was its unreliable Piaggio P.XI RC 40 14 cylinder, 986 hp radial engine which were difficult to maintain and limited aircraft serviceability. Some performance improvements were made to the few Re.2000bis variants that did enter Italian service with a more powerful P .XI bis RC 40D 1020 hp radial engine but by September 1942 the remaining Re.2000 aircraft were relegated to experimental test flight duties until the Italian surrender in September 1943 (the last 3 were destroyed following the surrender).
The Italian Navy (Regia Marina) operated 12 Re.2000 “Catapultabile” aircraft, modified and strengthened for catapult launch from Italian Regia Marina capital ships (they would land at air bases following the launch). They were intended for aerial defence of the battleships and for reconnaissance purposes. By the September 1943 Italian Armistice only 6 were still in operation but 2 were demolished on the ground, 2 were lost at sea during the German attacks to sink the remaining Italian battleships and the others were lost in crashes.
Given the limited interest from the Regia Aeronautica, Reggiane looked to export orders instead for the Re.2000 Falco I. The company took a risk and proceeded with a cancelled Italian pre-production order of up to 188 aircraft and soon found buyers in Hungary and Sweden, who then became the major operators of the type.
The Reggiane Re.2000 Falco I did lead to more successful 2000 series fighter aircraft that were more widely used by the Italian Regia Aeronautica:
The Re.2001 Falco II fighter-bomber/night fighter was introduced in 1941 with 237 produced. It was fitted with a licence-built Daimler Benz DB601Aa inline engine and had a top speed of 542 km/h (337 mph). Armament was still relatively light with 2 x 12.7mm Breda machine guns above the engine cowling and 2 x 7.7 mm Breda machines guns in the wings and some variants could carry a bomb payload up to 640 kg. The Re.2001CN night fighter also carried 2 x 20mm MG151 cannons in underwing gondolas. Re.2001 losses were high with only 33 remaining by the Italian Armistice of September 1943. Typical of Italian aircraft at the time, it was highly maneuverable but serviceability was an issue.
The radial engine Re.2002 Ariete (Ram) fighter-bomber was introduced in 1942 with 225 produced but only around 50 were operational with the Italians by the time the Allies invaded Sicily on July 9th, 1943. From 1943 the German Luftwaffe also operated 60 Re.2002 aircraft for operations against French partisans from 1943 (40 were built new for the Luftwaffe). Inline Daimler Benz engine supplies were limited, hence the installation of a Piaggio P.XIX RC 45 1,175 hp radial engine providing a top speed of 530 km/h (329 mph) – it looked very similar to the Re.2000. Armament remained the same as the Re.2001 with a 650 kg (1,430 lb) bomb payload.
8 Re.2001 Falco II and around 40 Re.2002 Ariete fighters were also operated by the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force of the Royalist government in southern Italy, who were aligned with the Allies. The air force was formed in September 1943 with commandeered aircraft after the Italian Armistice.
Probably the best Italian design to originate from Reggiane during World War Two was the inline engine Re.2005 Sagittario (“Sagittarius”). Introduced in 1943 with only 48 produced, powered by a licence built Daimler Benz DB605A-1 1,455 hp engine, it was fast with a top speed of 628 km/h (390 mph) and well armed with 2 x 12.7 mm Breda machine guns above the engine cowling, 1 x 20 mm MG151 cannon firing through the propeller hub and 2 x 20 mm MG151 wing mounted cannons. 12 of these were captured and used by the German Luftwaffe within Italy after the 1943 Italian Armistice.
The Royal Hungarian Air Force ordered 70 Reggiane Re.2000 Falco I fighters from Italy in 1939 but modified them with a more reliable Hungarian Manfred Weiss WM K-14 radial engine (a licence built Gnome-Rhône 14K) and increased armour. They were designated as the MÁVAG Héja I (“Hawk”). The modified type first flew in 1940 and were fully in service by 1941 (with V.4 series numbers painted on fuselage).
Hungary received relatively limited fighter supplies from Germany, so they also licence built approximately 200 more aircraft as the MÁVAG Héja II (“Hawk II”) with the differing engine, additional armour and new Gebauer 12.7mm machine guns. The top speed of this variant was 485 km/h (301 mph). The latter began entering service in 1942 with the last built by August 1944 (with V.5 series numbers painted on fuselage)..
A limited number of Hungarian aircraft were deployed in combat against the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front from 1941 until early 1943 (where they saw some success against early Soviet aircraft) but were mostly used for air defence over Hungary and in training roles. The landing gear of the Re.2000 design was not rugged, landing and take-off accidents were apparently common on rough Russian airfields and engine serviceability was an issue. One notable Hungarian pilot, Flight Lieutenant István Horthy, the Vice Regent and eldest son of Hungarian Regent, Miklós Horthy (37), died in an accident on his 25th operational sortie flying a Heja fighter of 1/3 Fighter Squadron Royal Hungarian Air Force over Russia on August 29th, 1942.
By 1943/44 they were obviously inferior to modern Soviet and USAAF fighters but were still used to intercept bombers over Hungarian territory. Despite some success in knocking bombers down, Hungarian aircraft losses were heavy. No MÁVAG Héja I/II survive today.
The Swedish Air Force (Flygvapnet) purchased 60 Reggiane Re.2000bis Falco I fighters from Italy between 1941 and 1943 as an emergency fighter to defend the nation’s neutrality during World War Two. These aircraft were fitted with the more powerful Piaggio P.XI bis RC 40D 1020 hp radial engine (interestingly the fact sheet at the Swedish Air Force Museum / Flygvapenmusem, lists the top speed at only 500 km/h). They were designated as the J 20 and stationed with the F 10 wing at Bulltofta in Malmö in the air defence role of Southern Sweden from 1941 to 1945.
Interestingly the Re.2000/J 20 flew alongside the Seversky EP-106, designated as the J 9, the Swedish P-35A! The Swedes liked the Seversky design as it was faster than their other aircraft at the time and had an enclosed cockpit (great for winter!) but a US arms embargo in 1940 cut their deliveries of the EP-106 from 120 to 60. Hence they looked to Italy to provide fighter aircraft and the Re.2000 was so similar, it must have seemed an ideal solution.
Swedish J 20 fighters were used to intercept hundreds of German and Allied aircraft that entered southern Swedish air space. F 10 conducted some 28,0000 scrambles by the time the war ended in 1945. They would also escort foreign aircraft to suitable airfields when they needed to make an emergency landing – this was mostly completed by USAAF Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers.
One Swedish J 20 (No. 31, MM2231) was shot down with the unfortunate loss of 22 year old pilot Sgt. Harry Nordlund, during an intercept of a German Luftwaffe Dornier Do 24 flying boat on April 3rd, 1945. Normal Swedish Air Force protocol was to fly alongside or diagonally in front of the intercepted aircraft, waggle the fighters wings and indicate the direction to leave Swedish air space (or land depending on the circumstance) and that would be it. On this occasion, for some reason the German gunner opened fire, Nordlund sent a communication to base saying he had taken fire and had to bail out – the J 20 was seen plummeting to the ground, billowing smoke and sadly he had not bailed out. He became the first Swedish pilot to be killed from enemy fire over Sweden.
Although the performance of the Re.2000/J 20 was appreciated, unfortunately serviceability was apparently a major issue and the remaining 37 were retired by the end of World War Two in 1945 (all but one was scrapped – in addition to the one shot down, if the original aircraft, 16 were lost in accidents and up to 18 had been heavily damaged during the war). The Seversky J 9 on the other hand continued in the fighter role until 1946, with the last operating in recon/training roles until 1952. Perhaps spares from the Re.2000 helped keep them flying?
Once again this is a very rare aircraft with just two Re. 2000 airframes left in the world, one in Sweden and the other in Italy. The Swedish survivor can be found at the Swedish Air Force Museum in Malmen near Linköping. I saw the Swedish example in person in November 2017 but have regrettably not been to any aviation museums in Italy.
The Italian Re.2000 survivor is located at the Museo dell’Aeronautica Gianni Caproni in Trento and is on loan from the Italian Air Force Museum (neither museum website shows a photo of the aircraft but the Caproni museum does briefly mention that it has the Re.2000 and the rear fuselage section of the only Re.2005 fragment left. Axis Classic Wings has a photo of the Re.2000 fuselage here). This example is the unrestored fuselage of MM8287, one of the modified and strengthened Italian Navy Re.2000 “Catapultabile“ aircraft, that were in service with the Italian Navy by 1943 (12 aircraft had been converted for this purpose with only 6 still operational by the 1943 Italian Armistice).
The aircraft, piloted by Marshal Luigi Guerrieri took off from the land base at Luni-Sarzana (La Spezia) for a reconnaissance mission on April 16th, 1943 but experienced abnormal fuel consumption resulting in an emergency landing on the water from which the pilot was recovered safe and sound. The aircraft wreckage was discovered almost 70 years later by divers off the Portovenere (La Spezia) coast in north-western Italy in April 2012 and recovered under commission for the Italian Air Force for preservation in December 2013 (it underwent an immediate desalinization process).
The surviving Swedish example of the Re.2000/J 20 (Work Number 405, FV 2340) was delivered in August 1942 and served with the F 10 wing at Bulltofta in Malmö until the war ended in 1945. It is uniquely displayed with the starboard side of the aircraft in cutaway form – this is from its post war days as an instructional ground airframe at Malmö, before it was sent to the Flight Historical collection at Malmen for preservation.
The aircraft is displayed in wartime camouflage livery and marking of the F 10 wing. It appears to be a very well restored and preserved aircraft.
The Swedish aircraft is the only complete example of the two survivors. The similar lines of the nearby EP-106/J 9 are very evident. Ideally the J 9 and J 20 would be displayed side by side for comparison but just to see such rare aircraft in person more than suffices for this!
FlyPast Magazine (May 2016) – Reggiane Re.2000 – Waging Neutrality