Nothing weird in your mail this Saturday. Just a family of Italian warplanes flown over four continents.
Probably the only weird thing about this glorious family is its lifespan, starting soon after the Great War and fading away in WWII air battles. These biplanes, once listed among the world's most advanced fighters, were a sad oddity in 1942.
Their story begins with two prototypes of the Fiat CR.1 biplane fighter, designed by Celestino Rosatelli (hence the CR prefix), were flown in 1923, and the type was selected for large- scale production for the newly formed Regia Aeronautica.
First deliveries of an eventual 240 production aircraft, designated CR.1, began in 1925. During the 1930s many Italian CR.1s were given more powerful Isotta Fraschini engines, and these were to continue in service until 1937. Nine aircraft were exported to Latvia. The Fiat CR.2, CR.5 and CR. 10 were variants of the basic aircraft fitted with different engines, usually on an experimental basis.
The Fiat CR.20, first flown in 1926, represented an intermediate step from the early biplane CR.1 and the later, successful series CR.30/CR.32/CR.42. For the new aircraft, Rosatelli used a traditional sesquiplane configuration. The engine was a V Fiat A.20 providing (306 kW/410 hp), with liquid cooling.
Major variants were the CR.20 Idro, a pontoon floatplane, and the CR.20 Asso, using a more powerful (336 kW/450 hp) Isotta-Fraschini engine. CR.20bis, produced from 1930, differed from the original version only for the addition of a more advanced landing gear.
At its peak in 1933, the CR.20 equipped 27 squadrons of the Italian Regia Aeronautica. The aircraft was used against Libyan rebels and in the early stages of the Second Italo-Abyssinian War in the attack role. The CR.20s remained in service with the Regia Aeronautica in the aerobatics and training until the 1930s. In 1933, Italy sold five CR.20s to Paraguay, which was fighting the Chaco War against Bolivia, these serving as Paraguay's only fighters through to the end of the war.
The Fiat CR.30 was a new design by Celestino Rosatelli for a single-seat fighter. Four prototypes were built with the first flight occurring in March 1932. The CR.30 was a biplane with W-form interplane struts and a fixed tailwheel landing gear. The aircraft was powered by a 447 kW (600 hp) Fiat A.30 RA Vee piston engine. Two prototypes were entered into an international meeting at Zurich in July 1932 and won the speed circuit contest at average speeds of 340 km/h (210 mph) and 330 km/h (210 mph). The impressive performance led to orders from the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force) for 121 aircraft.
Two of the prototypes were converted into two-seaters designated CR.30B for use as refresher trainers and liaison aircraft. A large number of single-seaters were converted into two-seaters as they were replaced with more modern equipment.
The air force later ordered an additional 20 new-build CR.30Bs. Two aircraft were converted to seaplanes with the designation CR.30 Idro. The aircraft was also operated by other European air forces with the Hungarian Air Force being the largest foreign operator, using two CR.30s from 1936 and one single-seater and 10 CR.30bs from 1938.
The Fiat CR.30 was soon superseded by the more refined CR.32, which made its appearance in 1933. It was considerably faster than the CR.30 and much more manoeuvrable. Delivery of the first series (383 aircraft) began in 1935, this being followed by 328 examples of the improved CR.32bis. Two more variants, the CR.32ter (100 aircraft) and CR.32quater (401) were produced, these differing in armament and airframe detail.
Total production of the CR.32 consequently amounted to 1212 aircraft, making it numerically the most important biplane of its era. It was used extensively in the Spanish Civil War and in the early months of World War II in Greece and East Africa.
Often compared in concept and design with the Gloster Gladiator, against which it frequently fought in 1940-1, the Fiat CR.42 Falco (falcon) biplane did not first fly until 1939, however, and such an anachronism is difficult to understand. Employing the same Warren truss system of interplane struts as the 1933 CR.32, from which it was developed, Celestino Rosatelli's CR.42 was powered by a 626kW Fiat A74 R1C 38 radial and had a top speed of 441km/h.
By September 1939 the Falco equipped three stormi and, while the RAF was hurriedly reducing its Gladiator strength, the Regia Aeronautica was increasing its CR.42 inventory, so that when Italy entered the war in June 1940 there were 330 in service with four stormi in the Mediterranean plus two squadriglie in Italian East Africa.
The Falco first saw combat in the brief French campaign, and later 50 aircraft accompanied the Corpo Aero Italiano to bases in Belgium for attacks on southern England at the end of the Battle of Britain, suffering heavily to the guns of RAF Hurricanes.
In the Middle East the Falco fared better, however, being more of a match for the widely used Gladiator; during the Greek campaign one gruppo of three CR.42 squadriglie was committed and, except on a few occasions, acquitted itself well; but when Hawker Hurricanes eventually arrived the Italian biplane losses mounted steadily.
In East Africa 51 crated CR.42s were received to supplement the 36 aircraft delivered to the 412a and 413a Squadriglie, but in due course they were destroyed in the air or on the ground, although they took a heavy toll of the antiquated aircraft of the RAF and SAAF.
In the Western Desert CR.42 fighters were joined by the CR.42AS fighter-bomber version adapted to carry two 100kg bombs, and these continued in service with the 5°, 15° and 50° Stormi Assalti until November 1942.
A total of 1,781 CR.42s was built (some serving in Sweden and Hungary), but at the time of the Italian armistice in September 1943 only 64 remained serviceable.