Introduced in Italy in 1933, the Fiat CR.32 was a compact, maneuverable biplane fighter, with a fixed undercarriage that had a good rough field capability (sometimes referred to as the Freccia or Arrow in Italian service). The aircraft was developed by aeronautical engineer Celestino Rosatelli (hence the CR designation). Despite being an obsolete, lightly armed biplane fighter, the CR.32 had a surprisingly long military career particularly with Italy and Spain, from the Spanish Civil War, into World War Two and beyond!
Four variants were produced. The CR.32 (fighter), CR.32bis (close support fighter with an upgraded engine), CR.32ter (“ter” = third, an improved CR.32bis variant, that was lighter and fitted with a new gun sight and instruments) and CR.32quater (“quater” = fourth, a reduced weight CR.32ter development fitted with a larger water-cooled radiator and a radio which had previously been optional).
The standard engine of the CR.32 was a water-cooled 600 hp Fiat A.30 RA upright V-12 that interestingly ran on an unusual fuel mix of 55% petrol, 23% alcohol and 22% benzol rather than standard aviation fuel. The CR.32bis was fitted with a more powerful A.30 RA-bis engine that was able to provide a short thrust augmentation. The top speed of the Fiat CR.32 was 360 km/h (224 mph), which was respectable for a 1930’s era biplane (the Spanish Air Force Museum informational signage indicates a top speed of 375 km/h).
As mentioned armament was very light on the standard Fiat CR.32, with initially just 2 x 7.7 mm (0.303 inch) Breda-SAFAT machine guns mounted above the engine cowling (to be fair though, this was consistent of most aircraft produced in that era). Later aircraft were upgraded with 2 x 12.7 mm (0.50 in) Breda-SAFAT guns. The CR.32 relied on its high maneuverability and sturdy airframe to be competitive in the air and proved highly successful during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) in particular.
The CR.32bis close-support fighter had 2 x 12.7 mm (0.50 in) Breda-SAFAT guns mounted above the engine and 2 x 7.7 mm (0.303 inch) Breda-SAFAT machine guns mounted in the lower wings (the latter were often removed to save weight and improve maneuverability). This variant could also carry up to 100kg (220lb) of underwing bombs. The wing guns were removed from the CR.32ter variant.
Operators of the Fiat CR.32
Austria ordered 45 CR.32bis in 1936 and by 1938 these were incorporated into the German Luftwaffe. 36 remaining aircraft were soon transferred to Hungary.
Hungary ordered 76 CR.32 between 1936 and 1937 plus the aircraft later received from Germany. They saw combat with some success and small losses, against Slovakia in 1939, then Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union in 1941. 69 were still operational prior to the conflict with the Soviet Union. The remaining aircraft were then relegated to training duties.
Italy operated all variants of the CR.32 and ordered 1,080 aircraft. A number of these were allocated to Hungary and Spain. They were in service with the Regia Aeronautica from 1933 to the armistice in 1943. Aircraft also served with the Italian Co-belligerent Air Force alongside the Allies.
Nationalist China ordered 24 CR.32 in 1933 but ultimately only 16 were delivered. They were fitted with Vickers 0.303 machine guns rather than Breda-SAFAT guns. Obtaining suitable fuel and parts was an issue and by 1936 only a few were still operational and by 1937 all had been lost in combat with the Imperial Japanese.
Paraguay ordered 10 CR.32quater variants in 1938 but apparently only received 4-5 of them. They flew into the 1940’s.
Spain operated both Fiat CR.32 aircraft delivered from Italy for use during the Spanish Civil War (up to 131 aircraft were delivered to the Spanish Nationalists from 1936) and between 1939 and 1942, approximately 100 CR.32quater were licence-built as the Hispano HA-132-L Chirri (apparently Chirri or cricket relates to the Spanish pronounciation similarity to the Italian CR). 49 original CR.32’s from the civil war were also rebuilt as HA-132-L Chirri variants and 40 were converted from 1942 into two seat C.1 aerobatic trainers which were not retired until 1953.
Venezuela ordered 9 CR.32quater variants in 1938. They were fitted with larger radiators for tropical conditions and the last was not retired until 1943.
Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)
The Spanish Civil War was fought between the Republican government and the fascist Nationalist rebels commanded by General Franco from 1936 to 1939 (the latter won and Franco ruled Spain until his death in 1975). Fiat CR.32 fighters saw extensive combat during the war in both the hands of the Spanish Nationalists and their Italian allies (around 376 were operated there by Italy and Spain).
The Nationalists and Italian Aviazione Legionaria (an expeditionary force of the Regia Aeronautica) used the aircraft effectively to help gain air superiority against Spanish Republican forces, who mostly flew Soviet fighter aircraft such as the Polikarpov I-15 Chaika (Seagull) biplane (introduced with Soviet volunteer pilots in 1936 and then flown by the Spanish Nationalists from 1937) and the significantly faster Polikarpov I-16 Rata (Rat) monoplane fighters – known as a Mosca (Fly) to the Republican pilots (introduced into the war in 1936). The CR.32 was dubbed the Cricket in Spanish service and became the most widely used aircraft in the conflict.
The Republican Polikarpov aircraft had their own advantages and disadvantages over the Fiat CR.32 but as always a good pilot could get the best out of their aircraft. The Soviets apparently tested a captured CR.32 in 1937 and were not impressed with its performance but it proved popular with both Italian and Spanish pilots.
The confirmed air to air victories during the Spanish Civil War seem to vary enormously but are significantly in favour of the fascist Nationalist forces. The leading Nationalist Spanish ace of the war, Major Joaquín García Morato, scored 36 of his 40 air to air victories flying CR.32 “3-51”. He died just after the end of the war, when on April 4th, 1939, in that same aircraft he crashed whilst performing low-level aerobatics. Other Nationalist aces also had great success flying the CR.32 during the conflict.
The Republican I-15 Chaika was highly maneuverable, had a top speed of 370 km/h and was armed with 4 x 7.62mm machine guns but the CR.32 had a better low altitude performance and the CR.32 was said to be a more stable gun platform in air combat. The I-16 Rata was much faster with a top speed of 455 km/h but could be out maneuvered by the CR.32 and initially had a very light armament. The I-16 Type 5 variant delivered in 1936 was only armed with 2 x 7.62mm machine guns, the Type 6 had 3 machine guns (the extra gun was mounted in the bottom of the fuselage). Later Type 10 variants had 4 x 7.62mm machine guns.
Both Polikarpov fighters could also climb more quickly but the CR.32 could perform a faster dive and successfully pull out of long dives (useful for disengaging from an unsuitable combat situation). A CR.32 pilot could also enter a controlled spin and halt it within a few turns, to gain a more favourable position in air combat. Aircraft engine shortages, serviceability issues and mechanical problems with engines and the like, also seem to have been an issue for the Republican Polikarpov aircraft during the war.
Post war, 100 I-15 Chaika or “Chatos” as they were known to the Spanish, that had been produced for the Republicans in Spain, entered service with the Spanish Air Force (Ejército del Aire – established October 7th, 1939) and served until 1953. Post war the Spanish Air Force also operated 22 captured I-16 fighters and 30 newly built aircraft until 1953.
World War Two
Due to the success of the Fiat CR.32 in the Spanish Civil War, Italian authorities expected the biplane fighter to perform well against Allied aircraft in World War Two but by 1939 the age of the biplane was well and truly over. Fast and well armed monoplane fighters, such as the Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane and Messerschmitt Bf 109 were the future. This was a huge problem for the Regia Aeronautica which in 1939 was made up of a majority of obsolete CR.32 fighters! From 1939 they had also introduced the maneuverable Fiat CR.42 Falco sesquiplane fighter, a development of the CR.32 with a more powerful engine and aerodynamic improvements, which soon after was also obsolete.
As with many Italian aircraft in the early part of the war, they lacked speed and firepower but the aircraft maneuverability in the hands of good pilots could give them an edge over Allied fighters in air combat and this was the case for the CR.32 in North and East Africa, and the Mediterranean theatres. By mid 1941 though they were completely outclassed by Allied fighters and were relegated to training duties.
Of 1,200+ Fiat CR.32 produced in Italy between 1934 and 1936, and 100 licence-built in Spain between 1939 and 1942, just two original CR.32 aircraft survive today. Both are predominately Spanish licence-built Hispano HA-132-L Chirri examples.
Spanish Air Force Museum, Madrid
Fiat CR.32 (262, “31-2”, C1-262) is mostly a licence-built Hispano HA-132-L Chirri but has the tail of the CR.32 (“3-51”) flown and crashed in 1939 by Spanish air ace Major Joaquín García Morato. It is displayed in Spanish Nationalist livery and markings from the civil war.
One of only two surviving Italian designed Fiat CR.32 fighters – actually a licence-built Hispano HA-132-L Chirri (CR.32quater) – Spanish Air Force Museum, Madrid (December 2016)
Italian Air Force Museum, Vigna di Valle
Fiat CR.32 (328, MM4667, C1-328) is actually a Spanish built Hispano HA-132L Chirri. It is also displayed in Spanish Civil War livery and markings. I have never been to this museum but I hope to get there some day as it has an incredible collection of Fiat and Macchi fighters from World War Two!
History of War – Fiat CR.32 – Rickard, J (16 November 2010), Fiat CR.32
Spanish Air Force Museum, Madrid