Developed from an airliner, the SM.79 trimotor torpedo bomber emerged as Italy’s most important attack aircraft in the Mediterranean.
As the struggle between Allied and Axis forces for control of the Mediterranean Sea reached its climax in August 1942, the British Royal Navy launched one of the most formidable efforts to resupply the besieged island of Malta. Although continuously under assault, Malta was Britain’s main base in the central Mediterranean, and from this strategic position the Royal Navy launched countless submarine attacks against Axis convoys headed for North Africa. Operation Pedestal, however, was heavily disrupted from the outset by Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 torpedo bombers, which inflicted severe damage on the British supply ships and escorts.
SM.79 pilot Captain Giulio Ricciardini recalled the hard fight that took place during Pedestal: “I started my attack and at about 800 meters range I dropped the torpedo just as a burst of 20mm cannon fire struck my aircraft. I initially thought that it had hit the right engine, but as soon as I saw the right wing fuel tank on fire, I ordered my co-pilot Tenente Nicola Tiri to pull out the fire extinguisher as a precautionary measure, but the blaze soon grew in intensity and I decided to ditch at once.”
Although several SM.79s were downed by accurate British anti-aircraft fire during Pedestal, the torpedo bombers still managed to carry out 110 sorties, dropping 87 torpedoes and scoring several hits on merchant shipping while sinking the 1,880-ton destroyer HMS Foresight. The battle ended in a stalemate, but it furthered the Axis campaign to cordon off this most vital British base.
Originally developed as a commercial airliner, the SM.79 Sparviero (Sparrowhawk) became one of the most formidable weapons of Italy’s air force, the Regia Aeronautica, during World War II. The original 1936 prototype was based on three 610-hp Piaggio radial engines and could accommodate eight passengers. With war clouds looming, the airplane was converted into a medium bomber. The cockpit cabin was extended with a bulging top fuselage position that gave the bomber its nickname, Gobbo Maledetto (damned hunchback), and five machine guns were mounted in various fuselage positions. Finally, the plane was retrofitted with an offset rack under the fuselage so that it could carry a 450mm Whitehead torpedo. Further retrofit work was conducted during the war, enabling the aircraft to carry two torpedoes.
The military version of the SM.79 was a large, low-wing trimotor of metal and plywood construction. Its Piaggio engines, generating approximately 1,000 hp each, gave it a top speed of almost 300 mph. In 1943 the torpedo bomber’s Piaggios were swapped for new Alfa Romeo 128 engines, and its ventral gondola was removed, further improving performance.
Between 1940 and 1943, the SM.79 stormi (wings) based in Sicily, Sardinia and Libya were constantly in action against British warships and merchant vessels. In fact, they participated in all major air campaigns in the Mediterranean, providing pinpoint bombing during the Axis invasions of Crete and Greece, the siege of Malta and the North African campaign, including the Battle of El Alamein. Torpedo-armed SM.79s either sank or damaged 20 warships, and 19 enemy merchant ships were put out of action and their cargo destroyed. It is estimated that SM.79s were responsible for destroying as much as 320,000 tons of enemy shipping, a remarkable achievement even in comparison to the tally of larger torpedo bomber fleets.
When carrying a torpedo, the SM.79 had a top speed of only about 200 mph and was thus vulnerable to being shot down by enemy fighters. Nevertheless, Allied naval units feared the Sparvieri. The torpedo bombers generally attacked at dawn or dusk to make a low and unobserved approach toward the target. During the first year of the war, the Italian torpedo bombers attacked individually, but by 1942 several planes flying at a comparatively close range would attack together. A flight of five SM.79s, escorted by Macchi C.200 fighters, would press home an attack by launching up to 10 torpedoes at their targets. Often the flight commander would lead the attack by targeting the largest enemy naval vessel, while the remaining members of the unit would target both navy and merchant ships.
The Sparviero saw its greatest successes in 1940-42. It was first deployed on the night of August 15, 1940, when a team of five SM.79s raided British ships stationed at the port of Alexandria, Egypt. Due to the Sparviero’s limited endurance (five hours) and the pilots’ inexperience in ranging and firing torpedoes, that first mission ended in failure. Nevertheless, the pilots had gained valuable experience and would shortly thereafter score their first hits.
On the night of September 17, Captain Carlo Emanuele Buscaglia and another pilot carried out an attack against British ships that were besieging the Italian fortress of Bardia. As the two SM.79s began their descent toward the enemy ships, they were illuminated by a full moon and the British naval crews opened up with a hellish machine gun and artillery fire. The Italians managed to avoid the enemy shots and continued their descent. They released their torpedoes from approximately 700 meters out, striking HMS Kent. The blast killed 32 crewmen, and damage to the 9,850-ton heavy cruiser was so severe that it was placed out of service for more than a year.
“We had a low torpedo-bomber attack on our starboard beam,” recalled Lt. Cmdr. George Blundell, who was aboard Kent that night. “I saw the splashes, enormous ones, as the torpedoes were dropped. Shortly afterwards there was a tremendous blow aft. The whole ship reeled, then suddenly went dead, and we could feel on the bridge as if her tail had dropped—a sort of bending, dragging feeling. The ship wouldn’t steer. We were then machine gunned by aircraft that came in from ahead. I didn’t realize what it was at first, except that there were loud cracks, just like one hears when standing in rifle butts, whilst red worms seemed to fly all around us. At first I thought they were sparks from the funnel. It was too fascinating to be in the least frightening, but when I realized they were bullets I knelt down to present a smaller target.” The British naval officer’s testimony reveals the twin threat of the Sparviero attacks: torpedoes followed by machine gun fire as the planes overflew the enemy ship.
After the daring maneuver at close range against Kent, SM.79 pilot Captain Massimiliano Erasi made three unsuccessful attempts to close with HMS Liverpool on October 14 before he finally emerged from the clouds and pounced on the cruiser. His torpedo struck below the ship’s tower, triggering a series of explosions that badly damaged the vessel. Thus, in less than two months, a handful of pilots had inflicted more damage on the Royal Navy than the Italian navy would achieve in a year of fighting in the Mediterranean.
As the leader of the first successful torpedo bomber operation, Buscaglia, captain of the Reparto Speciale Aerosiluranti (Special Torpedo-Bomber Detachment), became closely associated with the SM.79. Buscaglia had in 1939 been one of the first pilots to fly the Sparviero. After his successful strike on Kent, he badly damaged the cruiser HMS Glasgow with a pair of torpedoes on December 3, 1940. The following year Buscaglia led a joint Italian/German strike against HMS Illustrious, which was hit by several SM.79s and German Junkers Ju-87 dive bombers. In less than two years, Buscaglia became one of the most respected pilots of the Regia Aeronautica, earning six Silver Medals of Military Valor and the German Iron Cross second class. On August 12, 1942, Italian leader Benito Mussolini personally promoted him to major.
Promotions and daring missions had made Buscaglia a well-known national figure. Thus it was with great apprehension that the Italian people learned on November 12, 1942, that his plane had been shot down by a Supermarine Spitfire and that Buscaglia was missing. Declared killed in action, he was awarded a Gold Medal of Military Valor. But while Buscaglia had been wounded and badly burned, he survived and was captured by Allied troops. Sent to a prisoner of war camp in the United States, he later flew for the Allies, only to die while attempting to take off in a Martin Baltimore on August 23, 1944.
The Battle of El Alamein in October 1942, which resulted in the defeat of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee, along with Buscaglia’s capture, signaled a shift in the war in the Mediterranean as the Allies gained the upper hand. From November 1942 onward, Axis forces would only experience retreat and defeat. Meanwhile, Italian torpedo bombers continued to desperately fight on to stave off the final collapse.
The Sparvieri’s swan song was the daring raid against the British base of Gibraltar on June 20, 1943. Two of nine torpedo bombers managed to penetrate the harbor defenses and strike its facilities. The raid proved to be a great morale boost for an Italian military whose fortunes were rapidly declining.
Despite its many strengths, the SM.79 became less successful as the war progressed, especially after the Allies introduced more technologically advanced fighters. The Royal Navy also conducted extensive training for its gunners to spot, identify and shoot down the torpedo bombers.
Some of the plane’s major flaws were never addressed during the war. The Sparviero lacked stabilizing gyroscopes and modern electrical devices for the pilot and the bombardier to communicate with each other during an attack. If the bombardier wanted to talk with the pilot, he was forced to crawl up to the cockpit. This rather cumbersome system of communication caused delays that often led to unsuccessful operations. Due to poor communications during the Battle of Calabria, for example, several torpedoes were dropped on the Italian fleet rather than on the enemy ships. The Italians also lacked adequate service facilities, and it was not unusual at any given time during the war for up to a third of the Sparviero fleet to be unfit for military operations. Lack of spare parts and slow production rates of new SM.79s also greatly limited the Italian war effort.
In spite of the Sparviero’s design flaws and poor service capabilities, Allied intelligence continued to issue reports warning naval personnel about the dangers posed by the Aerosiluranti. U.S. intelligence reports on Axis torpedo squadrons, for example, singled out the SM.79 as one of the most powerful aircraft deployed by the Regia Aeronautica and noted that its pilots had the highest morale of any unit in the Italian military. Their effectiveness against enemy ships was recognized even by the better-equipped Luftwaffe, which in 1941 had dispatched bomber pilots to Italy for instructions in torpedo tactics. Several German bomber squadrons used SM.79s.
The SM.79 was eventually rendered obsolete by the Italian industry’s failure to design and manufacture a faster torpedo bomber and by Italy’s capitulation on September 8, 1943. Following the Italian surrender, many SM.79s continued to see action against the Allies with the pro-German Repubblica Sociale Italiana, although they suffered heavy losses. By then, the Sparviero’s heyday was clearly over.
Paolo Morisi has dedicated himself to academic and military studies research and has published books, articles and book reviews on European and military history. Further reading: Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparviero Torpedo-Bomber Units, by Marco Mattioli; and Courage Alone: The Italian Airforce 1940-1943, by Chris Dunning.
This feature originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Aviation History. Subscribe here!