La Regia Marina:
The Italian Flying Fortress
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Italy entered the Second World War with an outstanding reputation
for aircraft design and a generation of excellent pilots.
But most of the aircraft turned out to be underpowered and
not a match for British- and American-made planes, nor were
they up to the standards of Italy’s German allies.
By 1941 this had changed with the introduction of the German-made
Daimler-Benz DB.601 power plant, and the licensed version
built in Italy by Alfa Romeo. Italian fighters now met international
standards, but for the most part bombers lagged behind. These
carried radial engines of much less power than the liquid-cooled
The P.108, main production version.
Most Italian bombers were two-engined types for tactical use,
or three-engined like the very good Savoia-Marchetti SM.79.
But Italy also had an outstanding four-engined strategic bomber
available. Despite the Italian origins of strategic bombing
theory through the writings of Giulio Douhet, the Piaggio
P.108 languished on the war’s sidelines, seeing very
The P.108 project began in the late 1930s, with an air ministry
request for a long-range strategic bomber. Piaggio designer
Giovanni Casiraghi returned from the United States, where
he’d worked at Waco designing airliners, and took over
leadership of the Piaggio design team. Piaggio built the most
powerful engines in Italy, big radials that generated impressive
horsepower but had a well-earned reputation for mechanical
failure. In some ways, four engines thus became necessary
when using the Piaggio power plants, but Casiraghi wanted
to build on the concepts of the American Boeing B-17 and surpass
that plane’s performance.
The first test version, the P.50, appeared in 1938. This plane’s first
version had its engines mounted in tandem, but the second
went to a more conventional four-mount arrangement. This plane
had the Piaggio P. XI radial engine, generating 1,000 horsepower
The P.108 appeared in 1939, with P.XII engines of 1,350 horsepower
each. It met Casiraghi’s goals of surpassing the B-17.
Four prototypes competed, and the P.108 came in second to
the Cant Z.1014, another four-engine design. But the Cant
plane cost twice what the P.108 did, and Piaggio won the contract.
Their all-metal plane featured long range, a powerful armament
(seven 12.7mm machine guns, two of them remote-controlled)
and sleek modern lines.
Soon afterward, the plane crashed and a new prototype was
not ready until the next spring. Engine failures slowed training
of the new 274th BGR (long-range bombardment) squadron equipped
with the plane, and these missions came to a complete halt
when Capt. Bruno Mussolini, Il Duce’s beloved son, died
at the controls of a P.108 on 7 August 1941. His father never
truly recovered from the loss, though his squadron eventually
did so and undertook its first war mission in June 1942 with
a night raid on Gibraltar. Other raids on Algeria and against
enemy shipping followed.
In all 163 planes were built, but they did not have the
impact they could have thanks to poor engine reliability and
the political implications of Bruno’s death. With their
long range, heavy bomb load and impressive defensive armament
the planes could have had a sizeable impact on the Mediterranean
naval war. Instead, they remain a curiosity.
One variant had a 102mm modified naval cannon mounted in the
nose, for attacks against enemy shipping. This was not a unique
concept; several nations mounted large cannon in their airplanes
for similar purposes (notably the North American B25 Mitchell
with its 75mm gun). Things didn’t go quite as planned:
the first aerial test shot nearly vaporized King Vittorio
Emanuele III, while the gun’s recoil almost tore the
plane’s nose off. The project went no further than one
As an airliner, the P.108C had air-conditioning and a pressurized
cabin for its 36 passengers. Its long range allowed it to
easily handle trans-Atlantic routes. The very similar P.108T
transport lacked pressurization and had two 12.7mm machine
guns. Both planes had a widened fuselage to increase carrying
The follow-on version, called the P.133, had even more powerful
P. XV engines and correspondingly greater range and bomb load.
Defensive armament climbed to six 20mm cannon and three 12.7mm
machine guns. The plane had not entered testing when the program
reached an abrupt end.
The bomber’s production came to a halt on 31 August
1943, when a massive Allied bombing raid destroyed the Pontedera
plant in Tuscany where it was built. After the war, Piaggio
re-tooled the small starter motor used on the big P. XII radials
of the P.108 and used it to power the Vespa scooters it now
builds in the re-built Pontedera plant.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.