If wars were won with pluck and dash alone, in the way that the movies teach you, then Italy would have romped home to victory at a canter during World War 2. For every Doolittle Raid or Dam-Buster on the allied side there is a tale of ingenuity and bravery from Italian men at arms which, while delivering little to turn the tide of the war, leaves one with a profound respect.
One such tale is that of the bombing of Bahrain.
Through the second half of 1940, after Mussolini launched his attempt to wrest control of the Mediterranean from British and French influence, things were going somewhat disastrously awry for the Italian armed forces.
To start with he sent an invading force of 700,000 men to mop up southern France. The north of the country was already over-run and Dunkirk evacuated, but the Italian forces were still held back by a force of 32,000 French troops – the route to the Côte d’Azur famously being defended by a single NCO and seven men.
Mussolini also planned to charge across the Sahara to Cairo and take control of Suez. Once again an inferior number of British troops pegged the Italian advance at Sidi Barrani, sparking the long war of attrition in the Western Desert.
Even at sea, where Mussolini had invested in the construction of a superior naval force to the British fleet, things did not go to plan. Admiral Cunningham took great exception Mussolini’s belief that the Mediterranean would become mare nostrum (our lake), and duly battered the Italian navy at the Battle of Matapan. Shortly afterwards he would send Swordfish biplanes to mine and torpedo the remainder at anchor in Taranto harbour.
The Regia Aeronautica, Mussolini’s air force, had meanwhile launched an assault on Malta. This key outpost lay just 60 miles away from Sicilian shores but 800 miles away from the nearest British reinforcements and was woefully under-prepared. Yet the bombing did not provoke the hoped-for Maltese revolt against their British colonists, meanwhile might of the Regia Aeronautica was held at bay by a handful of Gloster Gladiator biplanes.
Thus after these opening exchanges, Italy’s military position was fast becoming an embarrassment and the Italian people – who had no great territorial ambitions anyway – were likely to start asking il Duce some rather searching questions before long.
So it was that a number of spectacular and daring raids were prepared to win as much propaganda value as they did military success. The use of midget submarines and small high speed boats to mount lightning raids bore fruit, meanwhile the Regia Aeronautica hatched a truly ambitious plan.
Pre-war Italian civil aircraft were particularly good for long range flights and so several capacious Savoia Marchetti SM82 Cangaru (Kangaroo), tri-engined airliners were hastily converted into bombers which could fly much further than the regular types in the Regia Aeronautica’s front line. They became known as the 41st Gruppo.
Next a suitable target was required which provided both strategic importance and enormous kudos to Mussolini’s strength and ingenuity. After much strenuous planning, the decision came to attack the American-owned oil fields in the British protectorate of Bahrain: a vital source of supply to British forces across the Empire, and the attack would be made in mid-October 1940.
The 41st Gruppo’s aircraft, meanwhile, were being put into action elsewhere. It’s inspirational leader, Tenente Colonello Muti, and his men would bomb British enclaves in Palestine and even the previously impregnable rock of Gibraltar. Then on 13 October, Muti led a flight of five aircraft from their base at Rome-Ciampino to the airport of Gadurrà in Rhodes.
Once in place, Muti and his men finalized the plan for their marathon 4,000km flight. They would take off from Rhodes and fly east, skirting Cyprus before making landfall on the Lebanese coast, crossing Syria and then turning onto a more southerly heading to avoid the heaviest British concentrations in Jordan and Iraq until they reached the Arabian Gulf and the run-in to the target.
The plan was to set the wells, refineries and port ablaze, and if they managed to do so then they would undoubtedly be intercepted by the Royal Air Force on their return. Their escape route was therefore over Saudi Arabia – providing them with the secondary target of the oil fields at Dammam – before flying out over the vast emptiness of the Arabian desert, eventually reaching the Red Sea and then safe haven in Italian colony of Eritrea.
In all, the plan took two months to agree and prepare for. In the end four of the SM.82s would be used, stripped of all defensive armament and fitted with additional fuel tanks for the marathon flight. Their load was 1.5 tons of incendiary and explosive bombs made up of 15, 20 and 50 kg bombs – and they were finally for take-off as dusk began to settle on December 18 1940.
The fifth aircraft was flown off directly to the airfield at Zula in Eritrea where the escaping bombers would finally touch down again. This aircraft carried a huge store of supplies in readiness to go out and assist any bombers which were forced down over the desert.
Overloaded with an all-up weight of 19,500kg, the aircraft struggled to get airborne. They were galvanized by the barnstorming Tenente Colonello Muti in the lead aircraft, however, who had demonstrated with his crew of Maggiore Giovanni Raina and Capitano Paolo Moci that it was possible – albeit inadvisable – to take off in an SM.82 laden with 21,000kg.
The remainder of the flight was crewed by Tenente Colonello Fortunato Federici, Capitano Aldo Buzzaca and Tenente Emanuele Francesco Ruspoli in the second aircraft, Capitano Giorgio Meyer, Tenente Adolf Rebex and Sergente Maggiore Aldo Carrera in the third and Capitano Antonio Zanetti with Tenente Vittorio Cecconi and Sergente Maggiore Mario Badii in the fourth.
Muti was able to keep formation by painting large white diamonds on the upper surface of his wings, which were dimly lit to allow the rest of his ‘flock’ to follow in their allocated position. The formation observed radio silence as their aircraft laboured to reach 19,000 feet to cross the hinterland of Jordan and Syria and onward throughout the entire journey.
The formation held throughout the outward leg, but at the last minute the number 2 aircraft of Tenente Colonello Federici lost sight of the leader and fell out of the formation. Rather than risk a collision with his unseen colleagues or arrive too late and draw anti-aircraft fire, he set course for Dammam and let the remaining trio of bombers close in on Bahrain.
At 02:20 on 19 December all was calm in Bahrain. In Muti’s lead aircraft, major Raina found the target easy to spot from his bomb aimer’s position, saying that the refinery and the port were well illuminated. The three aircraft swept in at only a few hundred feet, completely disorientating the people below as they began to unleash their payload.
For obvious reasons, reports differed as to the effectiveness of the bombing. The British reported that most bombs fell into the sea and only one hit the land, blowing up on a mountain of spoil from the drilling activity with a broken leg as the only casualty. The Italians meanwhile claimed to have set six wells ablaze with secondary fires seen burning in the storage areas.
The bombers meanwhile escaped and made their long slog across the great empty girth of the Saudi desert without problem. The three aircraft landed almost in unison at Zula in Eritrea at 08:40 after flying for more than 4000km and 15 and a half hours.
After a few days of celebration, recuperation and propaganda duties, the five SM.82s once again lifted off from Zula and headed for the Italian strongholds in Libya, from where they made their last leg back to Rome-Urbe airport.
The bombing of Bahrain was an astonishing feat of airmanship by Ettore Muti and his men. Although limited by the small number of bombers and the small load they carried, the attack was a huge blow to British morale and required them to pull back a squadron of fighters and significant anti-aircraft defences to defend Bahrain’s oil supply.
The loss of the fighters and defences significantly weakened the rest of the British presence in the Middle East, in part prompting the Axis-leaning prime minister of Iraq, Rashid Ali, to try and expel the British forces there. A brief and bitter campaign was waged in the spring of 1941 as a result.
Even today, Bahrainis talk of the giant barrage balloons which hung in the sky through the war years as a result of Ettore Muti’s audacity. The man himself was duly promoted out of the front line and ended up working in intelligence, where he made a formidable enemy in the former Chief of Staff, Pietro Badoglio.
Muti discovered that Badoglio’s record in the field left a lot to be desired, and when Badoglio successfully ousted Mussolini from power in 1943 his first job was to assassinate the man who had masterminded the Regia Aeronautica’s barnstorming long-distance bombing campaign.