Italian dictator Benito Mussolini The Conflict – Iraq Syria & Iran 1941
The Italian Colonel
During the late 1930s, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was fond of putting on impressive
shows to demonstrate his country’s martial capabilities. For displaying Italian air power,
his weapon of choice was a large attack bomber with a hefty fuselage and single radial engine. To foreign observers prior to World War II, the Breda Ba.65 was the dominant symbol of Italian air power.
Before the type Ba.65 saw service, a number of Ba.64s were built for the Regia Aeronautica, since Breda was already working on an improved model, the Ba.65. Two Ba.64s were purchased by the Soviet Union in 1938. One was delivered to General Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces in June 1937 and saw brief service during the Spanish Civil War.
After Italy entered the conflict, the Ba.65 would continue to serve as a symbol of Italian aerial impotence. The ill performance of the Ba.65 developed as a result of the notion for which aircraft designers frequently strive but seldom achieve; a flying military jack of all trades. In Italy such a requirement was formulated by Colonel Amadeo Mecozzi as he set about procuring a modern ground attack plane for the Regia Aeronautica. For Meccozi, the ideal military airplane was one that would be able to perform a wide variety of functions-fighter, light bomber, army cooperation and photo reconnaissance.
The fundamental problem with the original Ba.64 was its size in relation to its power plant -a wingspan of 39 feet, a length of 31 feet 6 inches, a height of 10 feet 5 inches, an empty weight of 3,291 pounds and a loaded weight of 5,489 pounds. With a maximum speed of 220 mph, the new aircraft lacked the performance to be a very effective attack or reconnaissance plane, let alone a successful fighter.
The first production Ba.64s reached Rome’s Ciampino airfield in the summer
of 1936 and were regarded as a profound disappointment by their pilots. The Ba.64′s mediocre speed and heavy handling characteristics were anything but fighter like, and its tendency to go into a high-speed stall-an unnerving surprise to pilots accustomed to more forgiving biplanes caused several fatal crashes. None the less, the type was to advance to the production Ba.65 aircraft that eventually saw action with the RIAF in May of 1941.
The Conflict – Iraq Syria & Iran 1941
By mid-May 1941, the British were dealing with myriad of separate campaigns throughout the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. In the Balkans, the German invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece had necessitated a British withdrawal to Crete, which was about to be attacked from the air, while in North Africa Rommel had advanced from El Agheila to the Egyptian border in less than a month and was laying siege to the port of Tobruk. At the same time the campaign in East Africa, although close to victory, continued to demand attention. As if Wavell did not have enough on his plate as C-in-C Middle East, he also faced severe problems in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. The British/Imperial forces under his command were seriously overstretched.
The crisis in Iraq – a nominally independent country containing British garrisons – began in late April 1941 when Rashid Ali, the pro-fascist prime minister, objected to the arrival of the lath Indian Division, sent to secure the oilfields around Basra. When his objections were ignored, he ordered his troops to surround the British airbase at Habbaniya, about 50 miles west of Baghdad.
Among the Iraqi aircraft that attacked the RAF base at Habbaniya were some of the 13 Ba.65 machines that had been delivered to Iraq in 1938 and assigned to No. 5 Squadron, RIAF (now IqAF). Although three British aircraft were destroyed on the ground in the initial strike, subsequent Iraqi sorties were disrupted by Habbaniya’s defenders.
On 2 May RAF bombers hit the Iraqi positions (see map below), after which Habbaniya came under artillery fire. Wavell, under intense pressure from London, reluctantly agreed to commit troops to the relief of the airbase, although it was not until 11 May that “Habforce”, created from units of the 1st British Cavalry Division in Palestine, began to move into Iraq. They arrived at Habbaniya on 18 May, having crossed desert terrain in temperatures of over 120°F, only to find that the Iraqis were already withdrawing.
Over the ensuing week, damage from aerial opposition and ground fire, combined with inadequate maintenance facilities and an insufficient supply of spare parts, eventually grounded all the Iraqi aircraft.
“Habforce” moved on to take Baghdad, while 10th Indian Division pacified the area around Basra. Rashid Ali fled to Persia (Iran). Despite some desultory aid from the Germans and Italians, the Iraqis failed to drive out the British, who were soon invading Iraq. On May 30, Rashid Ali fled the country. An armistice was signed the next day, ending the Iraqi revolt and the fighting career of the Breda Ba.65.
Meanwhile, the Free French, under General Charles de Gaulle, had been exerting pressure on the British to support an invasion of Lebanon and Syria, parts of the French Empire now under the control of the collaborationist government at Vichy. Again, Wavell (for understandable reasons) was not keen, but was overruled by Churchill, who recognized the strategic implications of possible German deployment to the Vichy-controlled territories.
In late May, Wavell earmarked 7th Australian Division (less one brigade) and elements of 1st Cavalry Division to Operation Exporter, which began on 8 June when about 34,000 British/Imperial and Free French troops advanced along the coast road toward Beirut and, further inland, across mountains into Syria. Initially, some success was achieved, but by 13 June the advance had bogged down, enabling the Vichy-French forces to mount a counterattack, principle around Merjuyun, which led to heavy fighting. Nevertheless, Allied strength proved superior and, as Beirut came under heavy air bombardment, the Vichy-French began to lose the initiative. Reinforced by “Habforce” and 10th Indian
Division from Iraq, and by two brigades of the British 6th Division from Palestine, the Allies resumed the advance on 23 June, by which time the Vichy authorities had decided to abandon Damascus, As defensive positions to the south of Beirut fell, a ceasefire was negotiated. On 14 July the Acre Convention officially ended a campaign that had cost the Allies about 4700 soldiers but secured the strategically important area to the rear of British positions in Egypt.
A Dubious Place in History
Over the next two years, the Regia Aeronautica assigned the Ba.65′s ground-attack tasks to other aircraft-medium bombers like the Savoia-Marchetti S.M.79, converted fighters like the Macchi M.C.200, or imports like the Junkers Ju-87B Stuka. Even back in the mid-1930s, the Breda attack planes failed to live up to the promise suggested by their advanced appearance. During World War II, while some aircraft designs like the Supermarine Spitfire and the Messerschmitt Me-109 were good enough for improved versions to fight throughout the conflict, the Breda Ba.65 did not survive its first year. Ill-conceived from its very inception, the plane’s brief combat career ensured it a dubious place in history as arguably the worst attack plane of World War II.