The Italian Front: The Air Battle

When Italy entered the Great War on May 1915, she found herself on the ropes almost immediately. The country’s vaunted army, although poorly trained and even worse stocked, (at the time of war Italy could muster thirty five frontline divisions) were suppose to overwhelm their main opponent, Austria-Hungary which only had twenty five deployed divisions along their common border. If a battle will to take place, the Italian Alps will most likely be the battle ground, so went the Italian military thinking at the time. The largely Italian Alpine frontier was manned by four army groups deployed on the Cadore, Carnia, Isonzo and Trentino sectors. All of the sectors, it was on the Isonzo combat area were the Italian deployed the bulk of its armed forces, fourteen divisions strong plus seven more on tactical reserve. Although the Italians possessed a clear man power superiority over the Austrians, they did lagged behind their opponents in the number of field artilleries deployed. A critical aspect on those days. Meanwhile, in the air, Italy’s Aeronautica del Regio Eserciti (Royal Army Air Service) RAAS; was better prepare than its army counterpart to take on their new task. Equipped with fourteen fully maned and equipped squadriglie fitted with Nieuports, Bleriots and Murice Farmans; they could more than hold their own against a perceived undermanned and under-equipped Austrian-Hungary air force.

When the Italians finally marched on toward war, it was their reconnaissance squadrons that paved the way for their initial success on the field. As the fight began to settled in, most of it on the eastern flank of the Isonzo River, the RAAS not only provided the army with much needed information on enemy troop and equipment movements, but it also commenced to assert itself on the air. At this time of the battle, the Italians meet little, if any at all, organized resistance from the Austrians. They controlled the air from day one. After achieving air dominance, Italian planes began to bomb and harass their enemy on the ground at regular bases. Its not coincident that it was in this sector of the front that the Italians made their biggest gains during the first months of fighting. Unfortunately for the them, the series of major defeats suffered by the embattle Russian army at Galicia, left the door open for the Austrian to redistribute their forces towards the Isonzo thus commencing the what is viewed as the second battle for that important river bank. This time around, the Austrian air force was augmented by newly received German Rumplers and Aviatik C-1s planes, which provided their field artillery batteries with excellent spotting and targeting information. Meanwhile, the Italian air force had been reorganized to, not only provide valuable reconnaissance data, but to interdict more directly on the ground with concentrating bombing and strafing missions. For this types of missions, the Italians depended heavily on their inventory of Macchis, Caudrons and Farmans. By the spring of 1916, the Italians had reduce the strength of their scout or fighting squadrons and concentrated their efforts on developing dedicated bombing units. In the accordance with the important of the Isonzo front, only two squadriglie of Nieuport 11s were deployed to defend the Santa Caterina and Aquileia sectors, while the rest were assigned to the Isonzo theater of operations. It was on this, the beginning of the second Isonzo Battle, that the Italians first encountered real Austrian opposition in the air. The Austrians, embolden by the arrival of a few number of Fokker E-I monoplanes and a growing number of Lohner and Lloyds reconnaissance platforms, began to challenge Italian air dominance. Those planes were supplemented by an infusion of Fokker B-II, D-I and D-II. The D-I, known simply as the “Star-Strutter” by its pilots, would become the symbol of the whole Austrian air effort over the Isonzo. Their main squadron, Fliegerkompanie Number 12, lead by the charismatic Austrian ace Godwin Brumowski; was assigned the task of preparing the Austrians to engage the Italians on an even base for the first time. A task he took with pride. In just a few months, Brumowski had develop the tactics that would serve the Austrians and some Germans pilots, for the rest of the war on the Italian theater. His Italian strategic counterpart, Francesco Baracca, also had develop a series of formations and tactics that enable him to lead all Italian pilots with thirty four confirm air victories. His efforts paved the way for Italy’s bombing campaign along the river bank. He died while flying a mission on June 18th 1918. For his brilliant exploits the RAAS employed his combat emblem after his death. In fact, the Cavallino Rampante, Baracca’s pride symbol, is still in use by the Italian air force today. A testament to Baracca’s contribution, not only to the war effort, but to Italy’s overall air force structure.

During the winter of 1916-17, the morale of the Italian ground troops plumed to an all time low. That particular winter brought with it one of the most unforgiven and coldest seasons ever experienced in Italy. Hundreds of troops died of frost bites, pneumonia and other weather-related illnesses. Adding to this misery was the sad state of the Italian army. Troops were exhausted, supplies were running short and the much needed equipment was constantly beaking up. In sum, the Italians were on the brink of collapsing. The Austrians were not fearing that well either. Their major operation at Bainsizza took a heavy toll on their now overextended army. The end result of the battle for the strategic Plateau not only decimated the ranks of the Austrian army but prompted the introduction of German combat troops into the Italian sector. As a direct result, a massive German buildup all along the Isonzo front caused the defeat of the Italian army at Caporetto on October 1917. The defeat at Caporetto brought the entire Italian-held front to the brink of collapsing. The situation was so critical that the situation forced the Allies to sent precious resources, both human and materials, to bolster the front. Eleven British and French first line divisions were rushed to Italy. Their air assets combined four British Royal Air Force squadrons with three French escadrilles. They arrived just in time. Their combine might, added to the extraordinary bravery of the Italian troops, help the Allies to fend off the Germans and Austrians at Piave. Meanwhile on the, air the fighting turned from tough to brutal. By this time the Italians had again reorganized its forces around the scout squadriglie. Eight Hanriot HD-1, four SPAD S.VII and three Nieuports not fully manned squadrons were forced into the battle. The Italians also deployed fourteen squadriglie fitted with Caproni bombers. In January 1918, what was probably Italy’s best light bomber platform of the war, the much anticipated Ansaldo bomber; began to arrive to the front in large numbers. Italian pilots, most noticeable, Baracca, made a career taking up their Austrians counterparts above the Isonzo during the later stages of 1917. On the other side of the front, Brumowski had changed his Fliegerkompanie’s aircraft from D-I to the more robust and better armed Albatross D-III. He and fellow Austrian ace, Julius Arigi, who would rack up thirty two kills before the war ended; were also engaging the numerical superior Italians with somewhat of a lesser success ratio. All of them scored the majority of their victories during the Caporetto offensive.

After Caporetto, the Italians, now embolden by an ever increasing number of Allied troops and aircraft; began a series of major offensive attacks that finally broke the back of the Austrian army at Isonzo. It took eleven major battles to decide the outcome of Isonzo, but in the end, the Italians and their Allies proved their worth. After August 1917, no Austrian major attempt was ever orchestrated against Italy’s Isonzo flank, freezing up Italian troops to be re-deployed to other war fronts. The end of Caporetto also marked the end of the bulk of the air battles over Isonzo. Several minor actions did take place, but they paled in comparison to other previous encounters. The battle toll for the Italians was enormous. Nearly 40,000 were killed, 108,000 wounded and 18,000 more taken prisoners. The Austrians lost 10,000 killed, 45,000 wounded and 30,000 were taken prisoners. A high toll for both side, but a bigger number for the already stretched thin Austrians.

– Raul Colon

More information:
Battles of World War I, Martin Marix Evans, The Crowood Press 2004
The Encyclopedia of 20th Century Air Warfare, Editor Chris Bishop, Amber Books 2001
World War I, Ian Westwell, Hermes House 2005