One of the biggest problems faced by the Italian aircraft industry at the start of the Second World War was the lack of an advanced aircraft engine. The generation of fighter aircraft developed before the war were all powered by small radial air cooled engines, with limited potential for further development.
In 1939 the most advanced engines available were liquid cooled inline engines such as the Rolls Royce Merlin or Daimler Benz DB601. The quickest way to develop an improved Italian fighter aircraft was clearly to match the existing aircraft with the DB 601. This would improve the performance of the new aircraft in two ways. Most obvious was the increased power offered by the DB 601. This provided 1,175hp at takeoff, an increase of nearly 20% on the engine used in the Re.2000. Second, inline engines could be built into a streamlined nose, significantly reducing the drag caused by the large flat front of the air cooled radial engines.
Reggiane began work on installing the DB 601 in their Re.2000 Falco in July 1939 and the first prototype flew on 14 July 1940. Other than the change of engine, it was very similar to the Re.2000, retaining the flawed wings with their vulnerable fuel tanks. In official tests at the Regia Aeronautica test base at Guidonia, near Rome, the Re.2001 achieved a top speed of 352.9 mph at 18,000 feet, winning it a production order.
Despite its much improved performance, the Re.2001 was not destined to be produced in large numbers. In August 1940 the Macchi C.202 flew for the first time, and achieved a top speed of 375mph. It too used the DB 601 engine, and would go on to be the most successful Italian fighter of the war.
The main limit on production of both aircraft was the engine. Germany needed every engine Daimler Benz could produce. Italian supplies were dependent on Alfa Romeo, who produced the engine under license as the RA 1000 R.C. 41-Ia Monsonie (Monsoon). When their production ran into problems, priority for the limited number of engines produced went to Macchi.
Work on improving the Re.2001 continued during 1940. The final design included an improved wing, with armoured fuel tanks, which made the aircraft much less vulnerable to sudden disaster. The second prototype, with the new wings, entered testing in December 1940, suffering a fatal crash in March 1941. Despite this, the Regia Aeronautica still placed an order for 300 Re.2001s on 31 October 1940.
This order was repeated altered. Early in 1941 it was reduced to 120 aircraft, of which 50 were to be modified to allow them to be used from the two aircraft carriers then under construction. Eventually only fourteen were built with carrier use in mind.
Thirty nine were completed as Re.2001 CBs (Caccia Bombardiere – Fighter Bomber) – with a bomb rank capable of carrying a single bomb of up to 551lbs (250kg) under the fuselage. Another 34 were built as night fighters (some sources give the much higher figure of 124), carrying two 20mm cannon in gun pods under the wings (when supplies allowed). Standard firepower was provided by two 12.7mm Breda-SAFAT machine guns in the nose and one 7.7mm machine gun in each wing.
Squadron deliveries began in September 1941. By the time the Reggiane factory was destroyed by an allied air raid on 8 January 1944, somewhere between 237 and 252 (sources vary) Re.2001s had been completed.
The three squadrons that made up the 2nd Gruppo C.T. (Land-Fighter Group) of 6th Stormo (Wing) received the Re.2001 by the end of 1941. On 10 May 1942 they were redeployed to Sicily, to aid the Axis attack on Malta, and on the same day took part in their first mission. The Re.2001 proved itself to be a capable fighter in the skies over Malta during the summer of 1942, holding its own even against the Spitfires by then based on the island.
The fighting over Malta had been the highpoint of the Re.2001’s career. The time of the war in the Mediterranean was turning against the Axis powers, and Italy would soon be threatened. By July 1943 only 71 Re.2001s remained serviceable to oppose the Allied invasion of Sicily, and half of these aircraft were lost between then and the Italian armistice of 8 September 1943.
After the Italian armistice a number of Re.2001s remained in use by both the allied co-belligerent air force and by the Repubblica Sociale Italiana, the rump state set up in Northern Italy under German control. The allied aircraft were finally retired in May 1944. The Re.2001 was further developed into the Re.2002 Ariete and Re.2005 Sagittario.
Engine: Alfa Romeo RA.1000 RC.41-Ia Monsone
Horsepower: 1,175 at takeoff, 1,050 continuous at 4,100m
Span: 11m (36ft 1in)
Length: 8.36m (27ft 5in)
Max Speed: 545 km/h at 5470m (338mph at 17,950 feet)
Cruise: 469 km/h (291 mph)
Ceiling: 11,000m (36,089ft)
Range: 1040 km (646 miles)
Armament: two 12.7mm and two 7.7mm Breda-SAFAT machine guns, plus one bomb of up to 250kg