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La Regia Marina:
The Italian Flying Fortress
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
October 2016

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 DB.601.


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 little use.

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 each.

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.


The P.108 Artigliere

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 test plane.

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 capacity.

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.