Though the Italian general Giulio Douhet is often considered the father of strategic bombing, his theories were not heard by the Italian air force after World War I, and by the mid-1930s, when America and Great Britain were developing four engine long range bombers, Italy had none.
In 1937 the Piaggio company set out to change this with a usual wooden, four-engine bomber — the P.50-1, which had its four engines mounted in two nacelles, one tractor “puller” in the front and one “pusher” in the rear. It was a resounding failure but, undaunted, Piaggo’s designer Giovanni Casiraghi pushed on to a larger machine, the P.108.
The P.108 was more conventional, a low-wing, all metal monoplane with its four Piaggio 1,350 horsepower radial engines in conventional nacelles.
The first prototype P.108B (Bombardiere) flew on Nov. 24, 1939, and performed well enough to be immediately ordered into production. Deliveries in 1941 began to the 274a Squadriglia (Squadron), commanded by Bruno Mussolini, the son of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
The P.108B carried a crew of eight and had two unique features for bombers of this era. First was an extended lower nose to house the bombardier, an extension that made it look like the bomber was sticking out its lip.
Though unusual looking, it allowed the nose turret to be set further back and left its gunner free to move while the bombardier concentrated on the bomb run. Allied bombers had the bombardier and nose gunner in the same position, making it very crowded on the bomb run.
The P.108B’s main defensive armament was also unique — two unmanned hydraulically powered turrets with two .50 caliber guns each mounted in the outer-engine wing nacelles.
The turrets were controlled by two gunners in bubble blisters in the fuselage, similar to the much later American B-29.
The P.108B’s performance was close to the B-24 or B-17 but the Italian bomber had vastly inferior altitude performance, with a practical ceiling of 20,000 feet (versus the B-17’s and B-24’s 36,000 feet) because its engines lacked superchargers.
Production and deliveries were slow, and on Aug. 7, 1941, 274a Squadriglia suffered a major blow when its commander, Bruno Mussolini, flew a P.108
into a house near Pisa and was killed.
P.108Bs were intended for long range night bombing raids and were not sent into combat until June 28, 1942, on a night raid against the British stronghold of Gibraltar. This first raid involved five bombers, but while four hit the target (causing little damage) all but one had to divert to other bases after the mission.
This was the first sign of the main problem with the P.108B: reliability. The powerful engines were basically two smaller engines in tandem and proved prone to failure.
The complex hydraulic gun turrets rarely worked, and, most importantly, the Piaggio company and its suppliers were not able to produce spare parts fast enough.
After the abortive raid on Gibraltar, crews began an intensive three-month program of long range mission training then began a series of small, long-range raids against Gibraltar and Oran, Algeria. These missions produced limited results, and as Allied night fighters improved, the P. 108B losses steadily increased, soon reaching about 33 percent a month.
Because Piaggio was only capable of building the large aircraft slowly, the 274a — the only squadron equipped with the P.108 — normally had only about eight serviceable aircraft and even in its most productive period flew less that 30 sorties a month.
At the same time, American and British bombers were proving Douhet’s theories. When the Allied-Italian armistice was declared on Sept. 8, 1943, only nine of Italy’s heavy bombers remained, most of which were sabotaged so as not to fall into
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