The Fiat CR.42 was probably the best biplane fighter aircraft ever produced, but it didn’t make its maiden flight until 1938, by which time it was already verging on obsolescence.
The CR.42 had very similar wings to the CR.32, with a very slight increase in wing span, but retaining the overall shape, the larger upper wing and the 'W' shaped Warren struts. The fuselage was nearly three feet longer, and the tail was largely redesigned. Construction was similar, with a metal frame and a mix of light metal and fabric covering. The cockpit was moved a little forward, and the main undercarriage wheels were reduced in size. The biggest different was the use of a Fiat radial engine in place of the inline engines used on the CR.1, CR.20 and CR.32. This gave the new aircraft 840hp, a big increase on the 600hp of the CR.32, and helped increase the top speed of the aircraft by over 40mph.
The CR.42 was ordered into production late in 1939. At this time Italy was attempting to reequip its air force. Plan 'R' called for the production of 3,000 new modern aircraft, many of which were to be high performance monoplanes. The CR.42 entered production for two reasons. The first was a general lack of capacity in the Italian aircraft industry that made it unlikely that a suitable number of the new Macchi MC.200 or Reggiane Re.2000 fighters could be produced. In contract the CR.42 was so similar to the CR.32 that it would be easy to put into production. The second reason was that many highly skilled Italian fighter pilots preferred the manoeuvrability of the biplane fighters, while the Air Ministry believed that the fighting in Spain had proved that agile biplanes still had a role. Eventually the CR.42 would be built in larger numbers than any of its more modern monoplane competitors.
The CR.42 is often compared to the Gloster Gladiator, but it was actually a much later design than that aircraft. The Gladiator made its maiden flight in 1934 and was phased out of first line service in 1941. In contrast the CR.42 made its maiden flight on 23 May 1938, was still in full production in 1941 and remained in front line use in some form until May 1945!
The CR.42 was in full production from February 1939 until late in 1942, and a batch of 150 night harassment aircraft was produced after the Italian armistice of 1943. Production actually began after that of the Fiat G.50 monoplane, which with the same engine reached a top speed of 293mph, 25mph faster than the CR.42. A total of 1,781 CR.42s were produced.
There were 272-290 CR.42s in front line service when Italy entered the Second World War in June 1940, with another forty aircraft temporarily out of commission and forty more about to be delivered. Three Stormi had the type in Italy, a fourth operated it in Libya and two squadrons (413th and 414th) operated it alongside the CR.32 in Italian East Africa.
The CR.42 made its combat debut during the short Italian involvement in the invasion of France in June 1940. Aircraft from the two Stormo (fighter wings, each containing two groups (Gruppi) of three squadrons (Squadriglie) in northern Italy took part in raids over southern France, running into stiff opposition, at least at first. The loss of five CR.42s was admitted before opposition began to fade away.
Fifty CR.42s of the 56th Stormo formed part of the Corpo Aereo Italiano that moved to Belgium in the autumn of 1940 to take part in the Battle of Britian. The CR.42s were too slow to cooperate properly with German Bf 109s, and lacked the same radio equipment. They were used to escort a raid on Harwich on 11 November and in a sweep over Margate and Folkestone on 23 November. The Italians admitted to losing five CR.42s in these raids, but claimed an exaggerated fourteen victories. Soon after this the experiment came to an end, and most of the aircraft returned to Italy in January 1941, although two squadrons remained behind until April.
Although the experiences over Britain should have shaken Italian confidence in the CR.42, early events in North Africa went some way towards restoring it. At first the Falco was up against a very mixed bag of second-line aircraft, with the Gloster Gladiator the main fighter British fighter aircraft. During this phase of the war the CR.42 took part in the Italian offensive that saw them capture Sidi Barrani, and in the British counterattack that pushed the Italians out of Cyrenaica.
The situation began to change for the worse once significant numbers of Hawker Hurricanes arrived in North Africa. The CR.42 was now fighting at a serious disadvantage, and began to be replaced by newer Italian monoplanes, beginning with the Fiat G.50. Increasingly the CR.42 was used as a ground attack aircraft. The first aircraft to be equipped as fighter-bombers appeared in the spring of 1941, and the Cr.42 proved to be effective in this role for the rest of 1941 and most of 1942. This only really changed after the Allied breakthrough at the Battle of El Alamein, and only 82 CR.42s survived to return to Italy in January 1942.
A similar story developed in Greece. When Italy invaded Greece in October 1940 a mix of aircraft were committed to the fighting, including two groups with the Fiat CR.32, two with the Fiat G.50 and one with the CR.42. The Greeks had an even more mixed bag of aircraft, including Polish, Czech, British and French fighters. The Italians did well against their Greek opponents in the air (if not on the ground), but struggled when more modern British aircraft joined the battle. Eventually it was the arrival of German forces that decided the battle.
The CR.42 was also important in Italian East Africa, which was soon cut off from the rest of the Italian empire. Thirty six CR.42s arrived before the Italian entry into the war, and they were joined by 51 aircraft that were transported across Africa in one of the most impressive airlifts of the war. This involved 330 5,000 mile return trips flow by Savoia-Marchetti SM.82 three-engined transport aircraft, flying for long distances over enemy territory. This air lift began in August 1940 and lasted for nine months, but it wasn’t enough to keep the two squadrons in East Africa equipped. The last two CR.42s were lost in November 1941.
The CR.42 remained in use in minor roles until the end of the war. A small number were used as night fighters from bases in Italy, but the last aircraft to see combat were some of 150 night-harassment aircraft produced for the Luftwaffe by Fiat in northern Italy. These aircraft were used to launch attacks on the Allies from bases in Italy, Yugoslavia and Austria, and remained in use until May 1945.
Belgium ordered either 34 or 40 aircraft in September 1939. The first arrived in March 1940 and 24 had been taken on charge by 10 May and the start of the German invasion. Most were destroyed on the ground by the Luftwaffe.
Hungary ordered either 42 or 68 CR.42s in 1939-1940. They were delivered late in 1940 and used during the invasion of Yugoslavia and the early stages of the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. The Hungarian CR.42s were used as ground attack aircraft in Russian, before being withdrawn at the end of 1941.
Sweden ordered seventy two CR.42s. The first arrived in February 1940, the last in September 1941. They were designated the J 11 in Swedish service and used to equip Flygflottilj 9 at Gothenburg. The Swedish CR.42s were declared obsolete in 1945.
This was an early conversion to allow the aircraft to carry a 440lb bomb load, with either two 110lb or 220lb bombs carried under the wing. The CR.42 AS was more common.
CR.42 AS (Africa Settentrionale)
The CR.42 Africa Settentrionale (North Africa) combined the bomb carrying capability of the AS with a tropical carburettor and dust filter. It entered production in May 1941 and was used in Libya.
CR.42 CN (Caccia Notturna)
The CR.42 was a night fighter variant, equipped with a two-way radio, searchlights carried under the wings and exhaust flame dampers.
The CR.42 DB was a single aircraft that was given a Daimler Benz DB601E engine. It made its maiden flight in March 1941 and had a top speed of 323mph, but no further development took place.
The ICR.42 was a floatplane version of the CR.42, developed by Fiat's CMASA subsidiary in 1940. A single prototype was produced.
The CR.42 LW was the night harassment version produced for the Luftwaffe by Fiat after the Italian armistice. A total of 150 were produced.
Engine: Fiat A.74 R1C 38 14-cylinder radial engine
Wing span: 31ft 10in
Length: 27ft 1.5in
Height: 11ft 9.25in
Empty Weight: 3,929lb
Maximum take-off Weight: 5,060lb
Max Speed: 267mph at 16,405ft
Service Ceiling: 33,465ft
Range: 482 miles
Armament: Two fixed forward firing .5in machine guns
Bomb-load: None on standard aircraft; up to 440lb on some versions