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|Role||Medium bomber, torpedo bomber|
|First flight||28 September 1934|
|Primary users||Regia Aeronautica|
Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana
Forţele Aeriene Regale ale României
Spanish Air Force
|Role||Medium bomber, torpedo bomber|
|First flight||28 September 1934|
|Primary users||Regia Aeronautica|
Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana
Forţele Aeriene Regale ale României
Spanish Air Force
The Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero (Italian for "Sparrowhawk") was a three-engined Italian medium bomber with a wood and metal structure. Originally designed as a fast passenger aircraft, this low-wing monoplane, in the years 1937–39, set 26 world records that qualified it for some time as the fastest medium bomber in the world. It first saw action during the Spanish Civil War and flew on all fronts in which Italy was involved during World War II. It became famous and achieved many successes as a torpedo bomber in the Mediterranean theater. The SM.79 was an outstanding aircraft and was certainly the best known Italian aeroplane of World War II. It was easily recognizable due to its distinctive fuselage dorsal "hump", and was well liked by its crews who nicknamed it Gobbo Maledetto ("damned hunchback"). It was the most widely produced Italian bomber of World War II, with some 1,300 built, remaining in Italian service until 1952.
The SM.79 project began in 1934 and was conceived as a fast, eight-passenger transport capable of being used in air-racing (the London-Melbourne race). Piloted by Adriano Bacula, the prototype flew for the first time on 28 September 1934. Originally planned to use the 597 kW (800 hp) Isotta-Fraschini Asso XI Ri as powerplant, the aircraft reverted to the less powerful 440 kW (590 hp) Piaggio P.IX RC.40 Stella, a license-produced Bristol Jupiter on which many Piaggio engines were based. The engines were subsequently replaced by Alfa Romeo 125 RC.35s (license-produced Bristol Pegasus).
The prototype (registration I-MAGO) was completed too late to enter the London-Melbourne race, but flew from Milan to Rome in just one hour and 10 minutes, at an average speed of 410 km/h (260 mph). Soon after, on 2 August 1935, the prototype set a record by flying from Rome to Massaua, in Italian Eritrea, in 12 flying hours (with a refuelling stop at Cairo). The SM.79 was by far the most important Italian offensive warplane of World War II, and one of the very few Italian aircraft to be produced in substantial quantities. Production started in October 1936 and continued until June 1943, totalling 1,217 machines. Some were constructed by Aeronautica Umbra of Foligno, makers of the AUT.18.
The SM.79 was a cantilever low-wing monoplane trimotor, with a retractable taildragger undercarriage. The fuselage was made of a welded tubular steel frame and covered with duralumin in the forward section, duralumin and plywood on the upper fuselage surface, and fabric on all other surfaces The wings were of all-wood construction, with trailing edge flaps and leading edge slats (Handley-Page type) to offset its relatively small size. The internal structure was made of three spruce and plywood spars, linked with plywood ribs with a skin of plywood. The wing had a dihedral of 2° 15'. Ailerons were capable of rotating through +13/-26°, and were used together with the flaps in low-speed flight and in takeoff. Its capabilities were significantly greater than its predecessor, the SM.75, with over 1,715 kW (2,300 hp) available and a high wing loading that gave it characteristics not dissimilar to a large fighter.
The engines fitted to the main bomber version were three 582 kW (780 hp) Alfa Romeo 126 RC.34 radials, equipped with variable-pitch, all-metal three-bladed propellers. Speeds attained were around 430 km/h (270 mph) at 4,250 m (13,940 ft), with a relatively low practical ceiling of 6,500 m (21,330 ft). Cruise speed was 373 km/h (232 mph) at 5,000 m (16,400 ft), but the best cruise speed was 259 km/h/161 mph (60% power). The landing was characterized by a 200 km/h (120 mph) final approach with the slats extended, slowing to 145 km/h (90 mph) with extension of flaps, and finally the run over the field with only 200 m (656 ft) needed to land (2,050 rpm, 644 Hg pressure). With full power available and flaps set for takeoff, the SM.79 could be airborne within 300 m (980 ft) then climb to:
The bomber version had 10 fuel tanks (3,460 L/910 US gal). Endurance at full load averaging 360 km/h (220 mph) was 4 hours 30 minutes. The maximum ferry range, at best cruise speed, was unconfirmed; in order to reach Addis Ababa with non-stop flights from Libya, aircraft specially modified to carry more fuel were able to fly over 2,000 km (1,243 mi). The range (not endurance) with 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) payload was around 800–900 km (500–560 mi).
It had a crew of five, or six in the bomber version, with cockpit accommodation for two pilots, sitting side-by-side. Instrumentation in the central panel included oil and fuel gauges, altimeters for low and high altitude (1,000 m/3,280 ft and 8,000 m/26,250 ft), clock, airspeed and vertical speed indicator, gyroscope, compass, artificial horizon, turn and bank indicator, rev counters and throttles.
The SM.79 was a good performer, its wooden structure being light enough to allow it to stay afloat for up to half an hour in case of water landing, giving the crew ample time to escape, and the front engine giving some protection against anti aircraft fire. It was also capable of a relatively quick climb, had a good turn-of-speed for its time, and its rugged structure and responsiveness allowed the aircraft be to looped (with care).
Effective torpedo bombing range was between 500 and 1,000 m (1,640 and 3,280 ft)from the target. SM.79s often flew at low level above the ships before the aerial torpedo was launched, and so were targeted by every weapon available, from infantry small arms to heavy artillery.
The Sparviero had several advantages compared to British torpedo bombers, including a higher top speed and greater range. Neither the Blackburn Skua nor Gloster Gladiator presented a real threat to the Sparviero, being 90 and 10 km/h (60 and 6 mph) slower respectively. Soon however, the Sparviero faced the Hawker Hurricane and the Fairey Fulmar, which was faster but still quite slow in relation to other escort fighters. Beaufighters were fast and well-armed, and as well as being effective long-range day fighters, were successful night interceptors and late in the war often chased Sparvieros in night missions. Eventually, P-40s, P-38s, Martlets and Spitfires made their début in the Mediterranean, preventing Sparviero operations during the day.
The SM.79's defensive armament consisted of four and later five Breda-SAFAT machine guns. Three were 12.7 mm (0.5 in) guns, two of which were in the dorsal "hump", with the forward one (with 300 rounds) fixed at an elevation of 15°, and the other manoeuvrable with 60° pivotal movement in the horizontal, and 0–70° in the vertical plane with the third 12.7 mm (0.5 in) machine gun located ventrally. Each gun except for the forward one was equipped with 500 rounds. There was also a 7.7 mm (0.303 in) Lewis Gun in one of a pair of "waist" mounts, not unlike what the B-17 Flying Fortress possessed, on a mount that allowed rapid change of side of the weapon. This Lewis gun was later replaced by two 7.7 mm (0.303 in) Bredas in the waist mounts, which were more reliable and faster firing (900 rounds/min instead of 500), even though there was only sufficient room in the fuselage for one man to operate them. Despite the low overall "hitting power", it was heavily armed by 1930s standards, the armament being more than a match for the fighter aircraft of the time, not usually fitted with any armour. By World War II, however, the Sparviero's vulnerability to newer fighters was significant, and it lost its reputation of "invulnerability" gained over Spain.
No turrets were ever fitted to SM.79s, giving its guns a limited range of fire. Of all its weapons, the dorsal one was the most important: with the shift to low-level attacks, the Sparviero was attacked almost exclusively from the rear and above.
The cramped layout of the ventral gondola, with the bomb-aiming instruments located in front and the weapon in the rear, made it impossible to perform both bomb-aiming and rear defence simultaneously, so its usefulness was compromised. Because of this, in the later versions which were used exclusively for torpedo-bombing tasks, the ventral weapon and nacelle were removed. The fixed forward Breda, more suited to offensive tasks and aimed by the first pilot, was seldom used defensively, and was often removed or replaced with a smaller calibre gun or mock-up, with an associated gain in speed and range due to the reduction in weight. The rear ventral gondola on the Sparviero was somewhat similar to the almost identically located Bola emplacement on the Heinkel He 111 German medium bomber, which was only used as a ventral defensive armament mount on the German aircraft.
Defensive weapons in the rear gondola and the rear hump were protected by aerodynamic shields and only opened in case of attack, however, an incoming aircraft could attack the Sparviero unseen, so the defensive positions were usually left open even though this reduced maximum effective speed.
The bomb bay was configured to carry bombs vertically, preventing large bombs from being accommodated internally. The aircraft could hold two 500 kg (1,100 lb), five 250 kg (550 lb), 12 100 kg (220 lb) or 50 kg (110 lb) bombs, or hundreds of bomblets. The bombardier, with an 85° forward field of view, had a "Jozza-2" aiming system and a series of bomb-release mechanisms. The machine gun to the rear of the gondola prevented the bombardier from lying in a prone position, and as a result, the bombardier was provided with retractable structures to support his legs while being seated.
From 1939 onwards, torpedoes were carried externally, as were larger bombs, when two hardpoints were fitted under the inner wing. Theoretically, two torpedoes could be carried, but the performance and the manoeuvrability of the aircraft were so reduced that usually only one was carried. The SM.79's overall payload of 3,800 kg (8,380 lb) precluded carrying 1,600–1,860 kg (3,530–4,100 lb) of bombs without a noticeable reduction of the fuel load (approximately 2,400 kg/5,290 lb, when full). The standard torpedo, a 1938 Whitehead design, had a weight of 876 kg (1,931 lb), length of 5.46 m (17.9 ft) and a 170 kg (380 lb) HE warhead. It had a 3 km (1.86 mi) range at 74 km/h (40 kn), and could be launched from a wide range of speeds and altitudes: 40–120 m (130–390 ft) and up to 300 km/h (186 mph) maximum. It took over 10 years to develop effective torpedo-bombing techniques; consequently, with the failure of the SM.84 (its intended successor) and the lack of power of the Ca.314, only the SM.79 continued to serve as a torpedo bomber until 1944, despite trials with many types of aircraft, including the Fiat G.55S.
Despite Italy's failure to win the Schneider Trophy, support for aeronautical feats continued as part of Benito Mussolini's propaganda campaign to promote fascist Italy, and following two initial successes, further Sparvieros were modified to set speed records. The SM.79 prototype I-MAGO was modified to carry 6,100 kg (13,448 lb) bombs internally, enabling it to attempt records while carrying a payload, and on 23 September 1935 flew for 2,000 km (1,240 mi) with a 2,000 kg (4,410 lb) load at an average speed of 389.61 km/h (242.09 mph), breaking six world records.
Like on the prototype, the "hump" was not fitted to some of the first production aircraft, being transformed into performance aircraft known as the SM.79CS. One of them set further records in 1937: with three Piaggio P.XI RC.40 engines (for a total of 2,237 kW/3,000 hp) it averaged 423.618 km/h (263.224 mph) over 1,000 km (620 mi) with a 2,000 kg (4,410 lb) payload. The record then improved to 444.115 km/h (275.960 mph), while another SM.79 achieved 428.296 km/h (266.130 mph) in the 2,000 km (1,240 mi)/ 2,000 kg (4,410 lb) category. Unofficially, a speed of 472 km/h (293 mph) was later achieved in the same category.
Five SM.79CSs went on to enter the Paris-Damascus–Istres race, where I-CUPA, I-FILU and I-BIMU took the first three positions, while the other two were placed sixth and seventh. The latter was heavily damaged in Damascus. Two Fiat BR.20s also competed, but achieved only a joint sixth (with a SM.79) and an eighth place. Three of the SM.79CSs were modified to cross the Atlantic Ocean and reach Brazil. They took off on 24 January 1938 and landed in Dakar 11 hours later, then headed for Rio de Janeiro arriving at 22:45 local time on 25 January. One faulty aircraft, however, landed at Natal, where it remained and was later donated to the Brazilian Air Force.
The SM.79 saw action for the first time when serving with the Aviazione Legionaria, an Italian unit sent to assist Franco's Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. The Sparviero started its operational service at the end of 1936 when 8° Stormo B.T. (Bombardamento Tattico), with Gruppi XXVII° and XXVIII°, under the command of Tenente Colonnello Riccardo Seidl, was sent to Spain. Deployed to the Balearic Islands, the unit named "Falchi delle Baleari" (Balearic Falcons) and operated over Catalonia and the main cities of western Spain, attacking the Second Spanish Republic. During the three years of the civil conflict, over 100 SM.79s served as bombers and only four were lost. Due to the experience gained in Spain the SM.79-II, introduced in October 1939, went on to form the backbone of the Italian bomber corps during World War II.
Favourable reports of reliability and performance during the Spanish Civil War led to the 1938 Kingdom of Yugoslavia's order of 45 aircraft generally similar to the SM.79-I variant, designated the SM.79K. They were delivered to Yugoslavia in 1939, but most were destroyed during the 1941 Axis invasion by their crews or by advancing Axis forces. During several sorties against German and Italian forces they managed some success in Kačanik Gorge. Some of these aircraft escaped to Greece, carrying King Peter Karadjordjevic and his entourage. A few survived, one to be pressed into service with the pro-Axis forces of the NDH, and four which became AX702-AX705 in the RAF.
In 1937, the Bucharest government ordered 24 twin-engined SM.79B bombers fitted with 746 kW/1,000 hp Gnome-Rhône Mistral Major 14K radial engines. These aircraft, however, proved to be underpowered. Consequently, in February 1940 Romania ordered from Italy eight machines equipped with two Junkers Jumo 211 inline engines of 1,200 hp (890 kW) each. These aircraft were designated JIS 79 (J for Jumo, I for Italy and S for Savoia) and were delivered in 1941-2. A further 72 SM.79s were built under licence by the Industria Aeronautică Română (IAR) and designated JRS 79B (J for Jumo, R for Romania, S for Savoia). Another version was the JRS 79B1, armed with a 20 mm Ikaria cannon and with an enlarged cockpit for a fifth crew member. Due to its role in low-level attacks, it suffered heavy losses.
Almost 600 SM.79-I and –II aircraft were in service when Italy entered World War II, and these aircraft were deployed in every theatre of war in which the Italians fought. The 12° Stormo (Wing) was the first to be equipped with the SM.79, starting in early 1936. 12 Wing was involved in the initial evaluation of the bomber, which continued throughout 1936. The Wing went operational on 1 May 1936 with the SM.79 successfully completing torpedo launches from a target distance of 5 km (3.1 mi) in August 1936. The torpedo bomber variant was much more unstable and harder to control than the civilian version (and much less precise than its successor, the SM.81). Its capabilities were still being explored when the Spanish Civil War broke out, and a number of SM.79s were dispatched to support the Nationalists. By 4 November 1936, there were only six SM.79s with enough crew to fly them operating in Spain. At the beginning of 1937, there were 15 SM.79s in total, and they went on to be used in Spain throughout the conflict, with very few losses. Around 19 of the total sent there were lost. Deliveries to 12 Wing and other units involved numbered at least 99 aircraft.
The first recorded interception of an SM.79 formation took place on 11 October 1937 when three aircraft were attacked by 12 Polikarpov I-16s. One of the SM.79s was damaged but its defensive armament prevented close-up attacks. All bombers returned to base, although one had been hit by 27 bullets, many hitting the fuel tanks. Other interceptions occurred in the conflict without any SM.79s being lost.
Combat experience revealed some deficiencies in the SM.79: the lack of oxygen masks for high altitude operation, instability, vibrations experienced at speeds over 400 km/h (250 mph) and other problems were encountered and sometimes solved. General Valle, in an attempt to answer some of the criticisms about the ability of the aircraft to operate at night, took off from Guidonia and bombed Barcelona, a journey of six hours and 15 minutes. On this occasion the aircraft proved it had a useful range (around 1,000 km/620 mi with eight 100 kg (220 lb) bombs, for a total gross weight of around 1,000 kg/2,200 lb). SM.79s operated from the Balearic Islands and later from mainland Spain. Hundreds of missions were performed in a wide range of roles against Republican targets. No Fiat CR.32s were needed to escort the SM.79s, partly because the biplane fighters were too slow.
After serving in the Spanish Civil War, the Sparviero came into use with 111° and 8° Wing. By the end of 1939, there were 388 Sparvieros in service, with 11 wings partially or totally made up of this aircraft. They also participated in the occupation of Albania in autumn 1939.
By the beginning of World War II 612 aircraft had been delivered, making the Sparviero the most numerous bomber in the whole of the Regia Aereonautica, assigned to a total of 14 wings (8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 30, 32, 33, 34, 36, 41 and 46). Not all of these wings had Gruppi (groups) entirely equipped with the SM.79. Every squadron had around nine to 10 aircraft, but this included second line aircraft, so the force of each squadron consisted on average of around seven to eight bombers, and every wing had around 30 bombers. Among these units; 8, 9, 11, 12, 30, 32, 36, 41 and 46 Stormi (Wings) were based in Italy, and participated in the Battle of France. They were equipped with a total of around 350 SM.79s, including those used in training squadrons.
It was on the fortress-island at the centre of the Mediterranean in June 1940 that the SM.79s started to lose their reputation of invulnerability, when Gloster Gladiators and Hawker Hurricanes were encountered. The first of many Sparvieros shot down over Malta fell on 22 June. That day a reconnaissance mission Sparviero M.M.22068 of 216a Squadriglia piloted by Tenente Francesco Solimene took off at 18.15 to check the eventual targets on the island. Two Gladiators were scrambled, one piloted by Flt Lt George Burges. Over Sliema and Valletta Burges attacked the Sparviero from superior height, shooting off the port engine. The SM.79 caught fire and crashed in the sea off Kalafrana. The pilot, Solimene, and1° Aviere Armiere Torrisi, were rescued from the sea, but the other four crew members were lost. A "Sparviero" was the first plane to fall on Maltese soil in World War II: on 10 July 1940, an estimated twenty SM.79s without escort arrived to bomb the dockyard, Manoel Island, Tarxien and Żabbar. But they were attacked by Gloster Gladiators and the bomber piloted by Sottotenente Felice Filippi from 195a Squadriglia, 90° Gruppo, 30° Stormo Bombardamento Terrestre, came down in flames just behind the Knight's watchtower east of Fort San Leonardo. The air victory was credited to Flying Officer Frederick Taylor. At least one Italian bailed out with his parachute on fire but did not survive.
A small number operated in Ethiopia. On the western side of Italian East Africa was 44° Gruppo, based at Diredawa, consisting of the 6a and 7a Squadriglie, with 12 Savoia SM.79s each. Italy also had six SM.79s as part of the reserve forces but two of them were under repair.  The Sparviero was the only type present that had not participated in the Second Italo-Abyssinian War. The SM.79s of Italian East Africa first saw action on 13 June 1940. That day, nine Savoia Marchetti of 44° Gruppo based on Diredawa took off to attack Aden. The SM.79 flown by Sottotenente Ruffini was hit by anti-aircraft fire from a British warship and crashed. Then, two Gloster Gladiators intercepted the remaining bombers. Pilot Officer Stephenson's Gladiator attacked the "Sparviero" of Capitano Serafini, damaged by anti-aircraft fire, but the Gladiator was hit by the SM.79's dorsal gunner, forcing it to crash-land. Serafini managed to land at Assab, but his aircraft was a write-off. Another Savoia Marchetti was damaged, but landed at the same base.  These few aircraft were later reinforced by others which were modified to fly at an economical speed over Sudan for the hazardous ferry flight of over 2,000 km (1,240 mi). They could not, however, do much to help Italian forces in Ethiopia, which were forced to surrender in spring 1941. The same period saw the five Iraqi SM.79Bs and the 45 SM.79Ks in Yugoslavian service unable to mount a successful defence in both Iraq and Yugoslavia.
During the North African campaign, around 100 SM.79s served in 10, 14, 15 and 30 Wings, bombing mainly non-strategic targets in the desert.
The British offensive in December hit the Regia Aeronautica hard and many wings (a total of nine until May 1941) were phased out because of losses. The losses caused by Hurricanes and ground fire increased, so at the beginning of 1941 only around 40 SM.79s were still present in Libya and by the end of 1941 only one operational squadron remained. In the Second Battle of El Alamein many Sparvieros were used for defensive tasks, such as countering SAS teams in the desert, and in anti-ship role.
From autumn 1940, SM.79s were used against the Kingdom of Greece, then Yugoslavia. They continued to be hampered in their operations by the Royal Air Force, but also by poor weather conditions. Over the Mediterranean, the Sparvieros were used in reconnaissance missions and anti-ship attacks.
The Sparviero began its torpedo bomber career on 25 July 1940 when a new unit was established after several years of experiments. The "Special Aerotorpedoes Unit" was led by Colonel Moioli. After having ordered the first 50 torpedoes from Whitehead Torpedo Works, on 10 August 1940 the first aircraft landed at T5 airfield, near Tobruk. Despite the lack of an aiming system and a specific doctrine for tactics, an attack on shipping in Alexandria was quickly organized. There had been experiments for many years but still, no service, no gear (except hardpoints) and no tactics were developed for the new speciality. This was despite previous Italian experiments into the practice of aerial torpedoing in 1914, 26 years earlier.
The first sortie under way on 15 August 1940 saw five SM.79s that had been modified and prepared for the task sent to El Adem airfield. Among their pilots were Buscaglia, Dequal and other pilots destined to become "aces." The journey was made at an altitude of 1,500 m (4,920 ft) and after two hours, at 21:30, they arrived over Alexandria and began attacking ships, but unsuccessfully. The departure airport had only 1,000 m (3,280 ft) of runway for takeoff, so two of the fuel tanks were left empty to reduce weight, giving an endurance of five hours for a 4.33 hour journey. Only Buscaglia and Dequal returned, both aircraft damaged by anti-aircraft fire. Buscaglia landed on only one wheel, with some other damage. The other three SM.79s, attacking after the first two, were hindered by a fierce anti-aircraft defence and low clouds and returned to their base without releasing their torpedoes. However, all three ran out of fuel and were forced to jettison the torpedoes which exploded in the desert, and then force-landed three hours after the attack. Two crews were rescued later, but the third (Fusco's) was still in Egypt when they force-landed. The crew set light to their aircraft the next morning, which alerted the British who then captured them. These failures were experienced within a combat radius of only about 650 km (400 mi), in clear contrast with the glamorous performances of the racer Sparvieros just a few years before.
Many missions followed, on 22–23 August (Alexandria), 26 August (against ships never found), and 27 August (Buscaglia against a cruiser). The special unit became known as the 278th Squadriglia, and from September 1940 carried out many shipping attacks, including on 4 September (when Buscaglia had his aircraft damaged by fighters) and 10 September, when Robone claimed a merchant ship sunk. On 17 September, after an unsuccessful day attack, Buscaglia and Robone returned at night, attacking the British ships that shelled Bardia. One torpedo hit HMS Kent, damaging the heavy cruiser to the extent that the ship remained under repair until September 1941. After almost a month of attacks, this was the first success officially acknowledged and proven. After almost a month of further attacks, a newcomer, Erasi, flew with Robone on 14 October 1940 against a British formation and hit HMS Liverpool, a modern cruiser that lost her bow and needed 13 months of repair. After several months, and despite the losses and the first unfortunate mission, the core of the 278th was still operating the same four aircraft. The last success of this squadron was at Souda Bay, Crete, when Buscaglia damaged another cruiser, HMS Glasgow, despite the anti-torpedo netting surrounding the ship, sending it out of commission for nine months while repairs were made. The aircraft continued in service until a British bomb struck them, setting off a torpedo and a "chain reaction" which destroyed them all.
The year started out badly, but improved in April when many successes were recorded by SM.79s of the 281st and 280th . They sank two merchant ships, heavily damaged the British cruiser HMS Manchester (sending it out of service for nine months) and later also sank the F class destroyer HMS Fearless. However, one SM.79 was shot down 25 nmi (46 km) north west of Gozo on 3 June, landing in the sea and staying afloat for some time. Further Italian successes came in August, when the light cruiser HMS Phoebe was damaged. The large merchant ship SS Imperial Star (10,886 tonnes/12,000 tons) was sunk by a SM.79 in September. The 130th and 132nd Gruppo were also active during the autumn. On 24 October, they sank the Empire Pelican and Empire Defender, on 23 November they sank the Glenearn and Xhakdina, and on 11 December they heavily damaged the Jackal.
The year ended with a total of nine Allied ships sunk and several damaged. The Italians had lost fourteen torpedo bombers and sustained several damaged in action. This was the best year for the Italian torpedo bombers and also the year when the SM.84, the SM.79's successor was introduced. Overall, these numbers meant little in the war, and almost no other results were recorded by Italian bombers. Horizontal bombing proved to be a failure and only dive bombers and torpedo-bombers achieved some results. The damaging of the British cruisers was the most important result, but without German help, the Italians would have been unable to maintain a presence in the Mediterranean theatre. The 25 Italian bomber wings were unable to trouble the British forces, as the Battle of Calabria demonstrated. Almost all of the major British ships lost were due to U-Boat attacks, with the damaging of HMS Warspite, and the sinking of HMS Barham and Ark Royal. The British fleet was left without major ships in their Mediterranean fleet leaving the Axis better situated to control the sea.
The Axis' fortunes started to decline steadily during 1942. Over 100 SM.79s were in service in different Italian torpedo squadrons. In addition to its wide-scale deployment in its intended bomber-torpedo bomber role, the Sparviero was also used for close support, reconnaissance and transport missions. In the first six months of 1942, all the Italo-German efforts to hit Allied ships had only resulted in the sinking of the merchant ship Thermopilae by an aircraft flown by Carlo Faggioni.
The Allies aimed to provide Malta with vital supplies and fuel through major convoy operations at all costs. Almost all Axis air potential was used against the first Allied convoy, Harpoon. 14 June saw the second torpedoing of Liverpool, by a 132nd Gruppo SM.79, putting it out of action for another 13 months. Regardless of where the torpedo struck, (amidships in the case of Liverpool, aft as for Kent, or forward as happened to Glasgow) the cruisers remained highly vulnerable to torpedoes, but no Italian air attack managed to hit them with more than one torpedo at once. On the same day the merchant ship Tanimbar was sunk by SM.79s of the 132nd, and finally the day after HMS Bedouin, a Tribal-class destroyer, already damaged by two Italian cruisers, was sunk by pilot M. Aichner, also of 132nd Gruppo. For years this victory was contested by the Italian Navy, who claimed to have sunk Bedouin with gunfire.
August saw heavy attacks on the 14 merchant ships and 44 major warships of the Operation Pedestal convoy, the second Allied attempt to resupply Malta past Axis bombers, minefields and U-boats. Nine of the merchant ships and four of the warships were sunk, and others were damaged, but only the destroyer HMS Foresight and the merchant ship MV Deucalion were sunk by Italian torpedo bombers. Although damaged, the tanker SS Ohio, a key part of the convoy, was towed into Grand Harbour to deliver the vital fuel on 15 August 1942 to enable Malta to continue functioning as an important Allied base, a major Allied strategic success.
By winter 1942, in contrast to Operation Torch, 9 December was a successful day when four SM.79s sank a Flower class corvette and a merchant ship, with the loss of one aircraft. Carlo Emanuele Buscaglia, another prominent member of the Italian torpedo-airforce who was credited with over 90,718 tonnes (100,000 tons) of enemy shipping sunk, was shot down the day after he said "we would probably all be dead before Christmas". The risks of attempting to overcome the effective defences of allied ships were too great to expect much chance of long-term survival, but he was later rescued from the water, badly wounded.
Despite the increased activity in 1942, the results were considerably poorer than those of the previous year. The efforts made by the bombers were heavily criticized as being insufficient. Many debated the possibilities of torpedo manufacturing defects or even sabotage: the first 30 used in 1940 had excellent reliability, but a number of later torpedoes were found to be defective, especially those made at the Naples factory. During Operation Harpoon, over 100 torpedoes were launched with only three hitting their targets.
The year opened with attacks against Allied shipping off North Africa, but still without much success. In July, the Allies invaded Sicily with an immense fleet. The Sparvieri were already obsolete and phased out of service in bomber Wings and its intended successors, the SM.84 and Z.1007, were a failure, while the latter were not produced in enough numbers. As a consequence, the latest version of the Sparviero was retained for torpedo attacks, being considerably faster than its predecessors.
Before the invasion, there was a large force of torpedo aircraft: 7 Gruppi (groups), 41, 89, 104, 108, 130, 131 and 132nd equipped with dozens of aircraft, but this was nevertheless an underpowered force. Except 104th, based around the Aegean Sea, the other six Gruppi comprised just 61 aircraft, with only 22 serviceable. Almost all the available machines were sent to the Raggruppamento Aerosiluranti. But, of the 44 aircraft, only a third were considered flight-worthy by 9 July 1943. Production of new SM.79s continued to fall behind and up to the end of July only 37 SM.79s and 39 SM.84s were delivered. Despite the use of an improved engine, capable of a maximum speed of 475 km/h (295 mph), these machines were unable to cope with the difficult task of resisting the invasion. The size of these aircraft was too large to allow them to evade detection by enemy defences, and the need for large crews resulted in heavy human losses. In the first five days, SM.79s performed 57 missions at night time only and failed to achieve any results, with the loss of seven aircraft. Another three aircraft were lost on 16 July 1943 in a co-ordinated attack with German forces on HMS Indomitable. that was eventually hit and put out of combat for many months.
SM.79s were not equipped with radar, so the attacks had to be performed visually, hopefully aided by moonlight, while the Allies had ship-borne radar and interceptor aircraft. Despite their depleted state, the Regia Aeronautica attempted a strategic attack on Gibraltar on 19 July with 10 SM.79GAs, but only two managed to reach their target, again without achieving any result.
The last operation was in September 1943, and resulted in the damaging of the LST 417, on 7 September 1943. On 8 September, when the Armistice with Italy was announced, the Regia Aeronautica had no fewer than 61 SM.79s, of which 36 were operational.
Following the Armistice, the SM.79s based in southern Italy (34 altogether) were used by the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force as transports in support of the Allies; those that remained in the North (36) continued to fight along German forces as part of the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana or were incorporated into the Luftwaffe. A small number of SM.79s remained in service in the post-war Aeronautica Militare, where they served as passenger transports into the early 1950s.
After the Armistice, the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI) decided to continue using the SM.79s as torpedo-bombers. But only 15 more Sparvieri were built after the armistice, while five were overhauled by the Reggiane factories. Counting the aircraft taken over from the Regia Aeronautica, new deliveries and aircraft in workshops and depots, the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana (ANR) had 73 SM.79 at its disposal. They were mostly SM.79-III type. This version featured strengthened armament and had no ventral "bathtub" turret. They were based mostly in Venegono. Two secondary bases were Merna di Gorizia and Perugia, in Umbria.
The first missions attempted to oppose the Anzio landings, where the US VI Corps had landed on 22 January 1944. On the evening of 10 March six ANR SM.79s attacked Allied merchant ships near the Anzio-Nettuno beachhead. One Sparviero was lost. On the night of 13–14 March five SM.79s repeated the attack.
The Gruppo Buscaglia suffered heavy losses on 4 April, when 13 unescorted SM.79s, during a ferry flight from Lonate Pozzolo to Perugia, were bounced by P-47s: five Sparvieri were shot down and 27 crew members were killed. According to other sources, this encounter occurred on 6 April and four out of seven SM.79s were shot down, while the other three crash-landed. During one of the missions on Anzio, Comandante Carlo Faggioni was killed. On 10 April 1944 four SM.79s took off to attack the Anzio bridgehead. Capitano Faggioni's aircraft was hit by AA fire and crashed into the sea. Only one Sparviero returned to base. Capitano Marino Marini took command of the torpedo-bomber group and in a short time he planned a mission over Gibraltar. For this mission, 12 SM.79 bis models were used. They had enhanced engines, armoured shields for the lateral machine guns, an additional 1,000 L (264 US gal) fuel tank in the bomb bay, and had the bombardier's nacelle removed. Even these modifications could not provide sufficient range to achieve the necessary distance that the mission required, and so all weapons except one were removed, one member of crew was left behind, and the fuel load was increased to 5,000 L (1,320 US gal). To reach Gibraltar, it was necessary to take off from Istres, in Southern France, and then fly for a total of 2,700 km (1,680 mi). Of the 12 aircraft that departed from Istres on 5 June 1944, 10 reached their target (according to other sources, ten SM.79s took off on 4 June and nine reached the target). The defenders were taken by surprise, and all the aircraft successfully launched their torpedoes, but three SM.79s ran out of fuel and were forced to land in Spain. Initial claims by the Italians were four ships sunk, totalling 27,216 tonnes (30,000 tons). German observers in Algeciras, in Spain, reported that four ships, totalling 30,000 tons were badly damaged and that two others had been hit. British sources however stated that no ships were lost, due to an effective system of defence. Regardless, this was the largest enemy incursion over Gibraltar in four years of war and this operation demonstrated the flying skill of the Republican torpedo airmen.
The following data shows the decline in effectiveness of the SM.79 as a torpedo bomber:
In July 1944, several SM.79s were transferred to Eleusis/Athens base to carry out sorties in the Eastern Mediterranean. Their crews achieved some successes then and came back to Lonate Pozzolo on 12 August. In October, this formation was renamed Gruppo O.M. Carlo Faggioni. After a time, the RSI torpedo-bombers based in Ghedi in October 1944 became operative again, with 10 aircraft. On 25 December 1944 they attacked a convoy in Adriatic sea off Ancona, and Capitano Bertuzzi hit a 7,000-ton freighter with a torpedo. The following day, a formation of Republic P-47 Thunderbolt destroyed 14 "Sparvieri" on Lonate Pozzolo airfield. The only two serviceable SM.79s left flew the last operational mission of the group and sank a 5,000-ton ship in the Adriatic off the Dalmatian coast.
In 1942 General Ferdinando Raffaelli came up with the idea of packing an SM.79 with explosives and a radio control device. On 12 August 1942, as the Operation Pedestal convoy was steaming off the Algerian coast, a SM.79 drone, a Z.1007bis guide plane and an escort of five FIAT G.50 fighters flew out to intercept it. Once the pilot of the SM.79 had set his aircraft on a course toward the Allied ships he bailed out, leaving the Z.1007bis crew to guide the flying bomb the rest of the way by radio. The radio controls malfunctioned and with nothing to guide it the SM.79 drone cruised along until it ran out of fuel and crashed into Mount Khenchela on the Algerian mainland. Raffaelli later developed a simpler single-engined guided bomb, the Ambrosini A.R.4, which was tested in June 1943, but the armistice intervened before it could go into production.
Among the men who became famous through serving in the Regia Aeronautica, the Sparviero crews became even more renowned than fighter aces because of the initial records set, the successful raids in Spain, especially those made by the "Green Mice" (I sorci verdi), and the torpedo missions carried out during the war which became the subject of fascist propaganda. Among the men famous for serving in Sparvieri were:
Even if SM.79s were considered overall to be quite sturdy and well-developed aircraft, they had their share of misfortune.
In Spain, SM.79 MM.28-16 (with a total crew of 17) was destroyed in the air on 12 April 1938, when one of its bombs detonated in the bomb bay. MM.28-25 (again with a crew of 17) was lost when another SM.79 damaged by anti-aircraft guns collided with it on 23 March. A further SM.79, MM.28-16 was damaged by an anti-aircraft shell, and landed with dead and wounded on-board (4 January 1939). On 30 June 1939 two of the aircraft, 13-6 and 13-7, both carrying a full fuel load, collided and crashed, with the entire crew of nine killed on impact.
At the beginning of World war II, on 13 June 1940, six Sparvieros of 9th Wing bombed Ghisonaccia airfield, but one was shot down by anti-aircraft guns and became the first Sparviero downed in World War II.
The 9th Stormo continued to suffer heavy losses in Africa. Initially used to harass light forces operating in the desert, the Sparvieros were subsequently sent against the British advanced columns in Operation Compass. On 16 December 1940, six Sparvieros were sent over As Sallum to counter enemy armoured units, but before they could reach their target, three of the lead section were shot down with the loss of 16 men, including Commander Mario Aramu. The wing was put out of action and the personnel were sent back to Italy aboard the RM Città di Messina, but on 14 January 1941 the ship was sunk by submarine HMS Regent, with the loss of 432 men, including 53 members of the 9th. The wing was later re-formed with Z.1007s.
A major safety issue in the operation of the SM.79 was the difference between the calculated and effective range figures, which led to several mishaps. Two accidents highlight the deficiencies in range of the Sparvieros.
One such incident befell MM.23881 of the 278th, which took off at 1725 hours on 21 April 1941, captained by Oscar Cimolini, with the intention of searching for enemy shipping near Crete. The SM.79 carried out an attack at around 20:00 hours, and then began the trip back to its base near Benghazi. The crew became disoriented and unable to locate their exact position, missing their airfield in bad weather conditions. Their radio was broken and they were unable to communicate. They were also unaware that they had reached the African coast. The fuel supply was exhausted at around 23:00, and the aircraft made a forced landing some 500 km (310 mi) away from its base. Most of the crew of six had suffered some injuries, but one crew member, Romanini, was able to leave to search for help. He walked for over 90 km (60 mi) in the desert, and finally was overcome and died only a few kilometres from a road, where his remains were found in 1960. Subsequent searches led to the discovery of the SM.79 and the remains of the rest of the crew.
Another example was the ferry flight of 27th Gruppo. This unit was transferred from Alghero to North Africa. The 16 Sparvieros took off at 11:50 of 4 April 1941, but one of the eight aircraft of the 18th Squadriglia in the first wave had an accident and crashed on the airport strip. The other eight from 52nd Squadriglia could only take off 40 minutes later, while the first seven circled over the airfield. The 15 Sparvieros flew together until reaching Misurata, but the 18th squadriglia had flown for much longer and was short of fuel. Subsequently, its SM.79s crashed one after the other with only two landing safely. At least two were completely destroyed, and three damaged. On that day, on a simple ferry flight of 1,100 km, the 18th lost five Sparvieros and at least one crew, with many wounded. The flight of 52nd Sq lasted for 4 hours and 45 mins but 18th Sq flew for 5h and 15 mins, without any payload, at an average speed of only 210 km/h.
The total number of reconnaissance, bomber and torpedo bombers downed in these two years by naval fighters was, not counting aircraft heavily damaged and eventually lost, 24 aircraft, 2% of total production.
Data from
One of the ex-Lebanese aircraft is now on display at the Museo Storico dell' Aeronautica Militare Italiana at Vigna di Valle, north of Rome. A second one is on display at the "Museo dell'Aeronautica Gianni Caproni" at Trento.
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