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Fiat G.55 Centauro

When they first appeared in the mid-World War II years, Fiat G.55 Centauros matched up surprisingly well against Allied aircraft like P-47 Thunderbolts, P-51 Mustangs and Supermarine Spitfires, which would become their adversaries in the skies over Italy, North Africa and the Mediterranean. 

Featuring long streamlined fuselages, cockpits set slightly aft of center, and large engine compartments for their robust power plants, the Fiat designed and built aircraft were used by the Regia Aeronautica (RA) and the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana (ANR) between 1943 and 1945. 

Thanks to their enviable performance and lethal armaments, after competitive trials against venerable aircraft like Messerschmitt Bf 109s and the Focke-Wulf 190s, many Luftwaffe pilots regarded them as among the best Axis fighters. 

But though multiple variants were produced, in the end they were built in such small numbers that they had little impact on the outcome of the war.  

By comparison, America produced about 15,000 Mustangs, Britain built 20,000 Spitfires, and Germany produced more than 30,000 Bf 109s.

Design

Due to budget constraints and a relatively small aircraft industry, Italy kept a number of outdated biplanes in service into the early war years, but even by the late ‘30s it was evident that they were all but obsolete for most combat roles. 

Hence, aircraft manufacturers began designing new monoplanes, many of which swapped radials for more streamlined and powerful liquid-cooled engines. 

G.55s were nearly 31 feet long (9.4 m), had wingspans approaching 40 feet (12.2 m) and were capable of taking off at a maximum weight of 8,200 pounds (3,720 kg).

Power came from inverted V-12 Fiat RA.1050 R.C.58 engines, which were license-built versions of Daimler-Benz’ DB 605A-1. 

With more than 1,450 horsepower turning 3-bladed propellers, power was sufficient to propel early G.55s to a top speed of approximately 390 miles per hour (625 km/h) and a service ceiling of nearly 42,000 feet (12,800 m). 

G.55s were initially armed with a single 20 mm Mauser cannon positioned between the engine and cockpit, resulting in the long barrel resting between the engine banks and firing through the center of the propeller hub. 

Though complex, this layout made the cannons easier to aim than wing-mounted guns which were angled “toe-in.” 

Later variants got four additional .50 caliber (12.7 mm) machine guns housed in the upper and lower engine cowlings that fired through the arc of the propeller with help from an interrupting gear which ensured that the projectiles didn’t hit the blades. 

In addition, some were equipped with underwing hardpoints for bombs and drop-tanks, while others were purpose-built torpedo bombers. 

Development & Trials

The first prototype flew at the end of April in 1942 and immediately solidified itself as an aircraft with great promise. 

Thrust into trials against other promising Italian fighters like the Macchi C.205V Veltro and Reggiane Re.2005 Sagittario which were collectively referred to as Series 5 aircraft, each shared the same license-built Daimler engine. 

The competition demonstrated that Centauros were either at or near the top in a number of categories including the strength of their airframes and their ability to perform well at various altitudes. 

One drawback however was that they exhibited pronounced leftward pull or yaw during takeoff due to the engine’s abundant torque. 

This was common among single-engine aircraft, and was easily remedied by offsetting the vertical stabilizer slightly. 

Like all aircraft, each of the Series 5 machines had inherent design flaws and unorthodox handling characteristics, but the G.55 and C.205’s were deemed to be the best, and both were ordered into production.  

German Involvement

Between December of 1942 and February of 1943 a number of exploratory commissions including Luftwaffe officers and technical personnel visited Italy to assess the Series 5 fighters, and they brought Fw 190 and a Bf 109 fighters with them to test the new airplanes in mock dogfights. 

In addition to determining their strengths and weaknesses, Hermann Göring championed the idea of increasing Axis aircraft production through standardization.

Overall the Germans were impressed with the Centauro’s firepower and performance, the latter of which was largely attributable to their larger wing surface area.

The Luftwaffe liked the Re.2005 as well, though it was significantly more time consuming and expensive to produce. 

The Macchi C.202 didn’t perform well above 26,000 feet (7,924 m), and it’s assortment of relatively light .30 and .50-caliber machine guns lacked the knock-down power of the G.55’s cannons. 

All told G.55s were considered more than a match for any aircraft they might face in combat, and though it would never come to fruition, the Germans tentatively agreed to produce them in their own country where manufacturing was much more efficient. 

Aside from positive test results, German interest stemmed from the aircraft’s inherent development potential. 

Since they were larger than their contemporaries, G.55s were perfect candidates to receive even heftier and more powerful DB 603 engine variants that couldn’t be stuffed into Bf 109 airframes no matter how hard engineers tried. 

Germany acquired three airplanes for additional evaluation prior to the proposed production run, though the project was later abandoned because it would have interfered with the high-demand frontline fighters already being built. 

Production

Though originally envisioned as a dogfighter, by 1943 Allied bombing raids over Italy had reached a fevered pitch, and there wasn’t a high-altitude interceptor in the stable that was capable of dealing with them effectively. 

To combat this growing threat, Fiat received an order for 1,800 G.55s, and the number was later upped to 2,400. 

Initially, 34 pre-production units were produced which included minor upgrades that improved handling and performance and allowed the planes to carry two 350-pound (160 kg) bombs or two 100-US gallon (378 L) droptanks on hardpoints under the wings, but by the summer of 1943 only 19 had actually been built.  

Then on July 25, 1943 dictator Benito Mussolini was voted out of power and arrested as he departed from a meeting with King Vittorio Emanuel, and less than a month later representatives from the Kingdom of Italy, Britain and the United States signed the Armistice of Cassibile.

In mid-September Nazi commandos freed Mussolini from the hotel in which he’d been imprisoned, after which Germany routed Italians forces in a number of offensives and ultimately established the Italian Social Republic as a puppet state.  

Meanwhile the King, the government and most of the Navy escaped to territory occupied by the Allies. 

After these events, nearly all G.55s served with Mussolini’s new fascist air force, the ANR.

Manufacturing took place at Fiat’s factory in Turin, but G.55s were barely trickling off the assembly line, and after a particularly heavy bombardment at the end of April in 1944 production ground to a halt. 

Afterword by decree from German authorities, production was decentralized, after which only final assembly took place in Turin, and by the following September the remaining aircraft were abandoned in various stages of completion.

It took Fiat approximately 15,000 man-hours to manufacture one G.55, while German factories could produce Bf 109s in about 5,000, so building the former no longer made sense considering how similar the aircraft were.    

Operational History

The first Centauros entered service in early 1943, and just a few months later many were busy intercepting Allied bombers and the escort fighters like Mustangs, Thunderbolts and P-38 Lightnings that were tasked with protecting them.  

But following Operation Husky – the invasion of Sicily in July of 1943 – the Allies finally had a relatively secure foothold and the bombing stopped when Rome was declared an “open city.”

This designation meant that the city had abandoned all defensive efforts, which is sometimes invoked in hopeless military situations to avoid needless death and destruction, and in accordance with international law the Allies were forbidden from further bombing. 

Some Italian pilots surrendered themselves and their aircraft to Allied Forces in the south, while dozens more were commandeered by the Luftwaffe and the ANR.

By that time however, less than 150 aircraft were in service, and maintaining them had become increasingly difficult.

Most Axis-aligned forces were reequipped with Bf 109s, though Italian pilots preferred the G.55, perhaps more out of national pride than anything else.

One Centauro was spirited away to Britain in the summer of 1944, when test pilot Serafino Agostini defected with a recently freed RAF officer sitting on his lap in the cramped cockpit. 

Variants

In the early war years Italy had a number of outdated torpedo bombers like the trimotor SIAI-Marchetti SM.79 that had inflicted significant losses on Allied shipping, but by 1942 they had largely outlived their usefulness. 

Aereo Savoia Marchetti SM 79 Sparviero in volo
Aereo Savoia Marchetti SM 79 Sparviero in volo

To replace them, Axis brass came up with the idea of building a dedicated single-engine aircraft to deliver torpedoes, in a concept known as the torpedo fighter. 

It was theorized that such aircraft stationed along the coast could travel hundreds of miles out to sea at high speeds and launch 1,500-pound (680 kg) torpedoes, after which they’d be able to confront Allied fighters on relatively equal terms. 

The G.55 fit the bill, though it would be redesignated G.57 and have its liquid-cooled Daimler-Benz engine swapped out for a 1,250-horsepower Fiat radial that was more fitting for the application.

Later, after the G.57 project was dropped, standard G.55s were modified to carry even larger torpedoes.  

To provide more cooling, the engine’s radiator was divided into two units, each of which was mounted near a wing root to improve airflow. 

In addition, the tailwheel was strengthened and lengthened to provide adequate clearance for the bulky torpedo during takeoff. 

Now called the G.55/S, the new planes first flew in August of 1944 

Despite the cumbersome external load, performance was generally good and the ANR ordered 100 aircraft, but the end of the war spelled the demise of the project after just a few had been built.

Another variant was the G.56, which was essentially a G.55 with a beefed up Daimler-Benz engine. 

Two prototypes were built, and flight tests in March of 1944 determined that the moderate increase in horsepower resulted in a big jump in top speed to approximately 440 miles per hour (700 km/h). 

G.56s got two additional 20 mm cannons, though again, German authorities canceled the roject before production began.

Post-War

Additional upgrades were made in the post-war years, and the new and improved Centauros were flown by a number of countries including Argentina, Egypt and Syria.

Early versions used the license-built DB 605 engines, but these became increasingly scarce following Germany’s defeat, and later surplus Rolls-Royce Merlin engines were added.

These Centauros flew into the early ‘50s as both attack aircraft and trainers, the latter of which were two-seaters. 

Had G.55s been a German design from the outset they may have been produced in the thousands, but in the end only about 275 were built during the war, while another 75 followed in subsequent years when nearly all piston-engine aircraft were being replaced by jets.   

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