The Last Biplane Fighters by F.I.A.T.

The biplanes CR.32 and CR.42 represented an evolutionary phase in the development of a new generation of fighter planes. While the CR.32 saw action during the first phase of World War Two, as it represented the first phase of the evolution, the CR.42 saw action on all fronts and in a variety of roles throughout the conflict. Soon, the need for faster fighters, even though they would be less maneuverable, made everyone aware that the era of the biplane had come to an end.


A direct evolution of the CR.20 and CR.30, the CR.32 was the best OF the Italian aeronautical engineer Rosatelli’s design work, and it IS distinguishable from its predecessors for the reduced wing area and a more aerodynamic design.
The CR.32 was a biplane fighter with a metallic frame covered by aluminum and fabric. The engine, a FIAT A.30, produced 600 HP driving a dual-blade propeller. Armament included two 12.7 mm Safat machine guns nested on top of the engine cover.

After a period of testing, the prototypes were followed by the first order from the Italian Air Force (Regia Aeronautica Italiana), and by May 1939 there were already 1052 planes of version “bis”, “tris” and “quarter” in service. The popularity of the aircraft was not limited to Italy; FIAT received orders from many European countries, and non-European ones, including China, which ordered 24 aircraft.

Italy’s support for General Francisco Franco’s forces brought about the CR.32’s participation in the Italian “legionary” air force in Spain. Here, the new fighter achieved brilliant success, establishing an immediate aerial superiority over the enemy air forces, which was equipped with a heterogeneous collection of poorly performing French and British airplanes. The situation changed quite noticeably with the arrival of the new Russian airplanes in the theater of operations; The CR.32 defended itself quite well, but since it was slower and less armed than the enemy aircraft, many were lost. Of the 500 CR.32 serving in Spain, 72 were lost.

Having completed the Spanish experience, FIAT began adapting the plane to new roles. One version had elongated exhaust manifolds for night operations. With the beginning of the hostilities, the CR.32, although dated and antiquated, was tossed into the fray. The first operational deployment took place with the 50th Stormo in Libya in an assault role against mechanized vehicles, and even as a bomber utilizing some of the accuracy acquired during the Spanish conflict.

The CR.32 were also deployed in Greece (160 th Stormo), Crete (163 Squadrone), and Sardinia (3rd Gruppo Caccia) with the role of intercepting enemy aircraft. After May 1941, the diminishing numbers of available planes, and the alternating fortunes of the Italian armies in North Africa, recommended the utilization of the plane only for training purposes, a role in which the plane remained even after September 8th.

FIAT CR.42 “Falco” (Hawk)

Toward the end of the 30’s, the need to modernize the Regia Aeronautica’s CR.32 was quite evident, and also recognized. Although the new monoplanes FIAT G.50 and Macchi C200 were already in advanced stages of testing, it was decided to give room to a new version of an improved biplane, the CR.42. This project gave birth to a new biplane with non-retractable landing gear and full metallic frame, propelled by an 840 HP FIAT A.74 engine. The Regia Aeronautica immediately ordered 200 new planes, and in May 1939 the first 39 aircraft reached their squadrons.
Meantime, the CR.42 obtained some popularity overseas, and FIAT received orders from Belgium, Hungary and Sweden. At the outbreak of the hostilities, the CR.42 participated in missions in southern France obtaining good results in encounters with French fighters. Later, the CR.42 participated in the Battle of England taking off from Belgian airports in escort missions over the English Channel where it encountered Hurricanes and Spitfires.

The largest deployment took place in North Africa where the CR.42, arriving disassembled aboard tri-motors SM-82, were used in strafing missions. Later on, the number of airplanes reached over 100. In September, with the Italian advance in North Africa, the CR.42 were widely used against enemy vehicles and armored vehicles, and also in escort missions in support of SM.79 bombers. The CR.42 were also used in promising night actions utilizing supplemental fuel tanks. Other war theaters and events saw the CR.42 always present despite increasing losses, accidents, and shortage of fuel and spare parts.

In October 1942, the CR.42 were involved in violent fighting during the Battle of El Alamein in support of Rommel’s attempt to arrive at the Nile’s delta. The following year, following the Axis’ retreat, the remaining 82 CR.42 were deployed in Tunisia from which they were later sent back to Italy. Another front, which saw the CR.42 in action in the Mediterranean, was the offensive against Malta. Here, with the planes taking off from Sicily, the CR.42 conducted ground attack missions as well as escort ones. Eventually, activity petered off with the arrival of the new and modern MC.202 and RE.2001.

Another activity in which the CR.42 saw intense use was the escort of Italian convoys to Libya, taking off from airports on the islands of Pantelleria and Lampedusa. The CR.42 was also used for dive-bombing attacks on naval targets with good results during Operation Harpoon, and even better ones during Operation Pedestal.

The evolution of the conflict saw the CR.42 operate from Sicilian airfields as a night fighter. The armistice of September 8th left few planes in the south (under Allied control), while the larger number, mostly aircraft fresh from the factory, fell into German hands. Part of these planes was sent to Germany, while the remaining served in the “Repubblica Sociale” (Mussolini’s) Air Force. After the war, very few aircraft were left and they served in training schools.
It was the end of the glorious life of the last Italian biplane, which, even if lacking speed, was able to gallantly fight on all fronts and in multiple roles.