|VILLACIDRO: A WARTIME AIRBASE IN SARDINIA.
A few months before Italy's entry into W.W.2 a number of auxiliary
airfields were established m Sardinia, among them one at Villacidro, near
A large part of a plain existing on the spot was leveled, some 10 km
(about 6 miles) off the little town. A large airstrip was created that
allowed take-offs and landings to be carried out in any directions. The
result was the largest airfield in Sardinia throughout W.W.2.
On 3 June 1940,8° Stormo B. T. (land-based bombers), led by colonnello
pilota Vittorio Ferrante, and which formed - together with 32°Stormo based
at Decimomannu - the 10 a Brigata Aerea under generale Cagna, was flown
into the new air base from Alghero.
8° Stormo was formed by two Gruppi: 27°Gruppo with 18° and 52° Squadriglie
and 17 aircaft, and28° Gruppo with 10° and 19° Squadriglie and 15
aircraft, their equipment consisting of S.79 three-engine bombers. Its
personnel included 429 men, among them 43 CO and 38 NCO pilots.
Facilities were quickly procured and arranged to make the base fully
operational. The main runways featured lengths ranging from 1,300 to
nearly 2,000 m (about 1,421 and 1,830 yds., respectively), plus a number
of decentralized airstrips had been mode available where aircraft could be
parked. In summer, however, wind and taxiing aircraft lifted clouds of
dust, whereas in winter the clayey ground melted and sensibly hampered
aircraft ground movements.
By 10 June 1940 the air base was fully operative. From there, in the
following days, the S.79s took off and attacked French targets in Corsica
(airfields at Valinco, Ajaccio and Calvijand the Bizerte harbor in
Tunisia. The mission over the last target found the harbor fully lit, so
the Italian bombers could carry out their jobs easily and, undisturbed.
On night missions, all aircraft took off individually, so that no mass
attacks were carried out.
After France surrendered, the units starting from this base were able to
cause heavy losses among British ships sailed from Gibraltar in attempts
at bringing supplies to beleaguered Malta.
In the afternoon of 21 June, 52° and 10° Squadriglie under Generale Cagna
took off from Villacidro and succeeded in sinking a British warship.
On 9 Juny, Italian secret agents operating in Spain reported that the
British "H Force" had left Gibraltar bound for the eastern Mediterranean.
The formation included battleships Hood, Revenge and Valiant, aircraft
carrier Ark Royal and 16 miscellaneous destroyers and heavy cruisers.
On 9 July, about 07.00 p.m., 40 bombers from lOa Brigata, including 8°
Stormo from Villacidro and 32° Stormo from Decimomannu, led by generale
Cagna intercepted the British naval force near the island of Ma/orca and
for more than one and half hours, attacking in successive waves, bombed
the enemy units. Battleship Hood was heavily damaged, aircraft carrier Ark
Royal had its flying deck heavily hit with the loss of 7 aircraft aboard.
Some escorting destroyers were also heavily hit. One S. 79 was shot down,
5 others were damaged but the rest could be flown back to their bases. For
this exploit, 8° Stormo was awarded a silver medal.
On Is August, lOa Brigata, led by generale Cagna, took off bound for the
island of Formentera to intercept a British convoy mode up of three
battleships, two aircraft carriers and 16 cruisers and destroyers. Out of
8° Stormo, 18°, 52° and 10° Squadriglie took part in the attack.
Battleship Resolution and a destroyer were hit.
Some S.79s, including the one with generale Cagna aboard, were shot down
with the loss of their crews.
One week later the air base command was transferred from colonnello
Ferrante to colonnello Bonini. In the next month the 10" Brigata
command moved to Cagliari and 8° Stormo was deployed elsewhere. The air
base was practically demobbed and a small force led by a lieutenant was
left to guard its facilities.
But less than two months later the s.79s of 28° Gruppo, 8° Stormo B.T.,
reappeared and maggiore Michele Banchio was appointed the new base
In April 1941 all refitting works to the already existing facilities were
resumed and erection of new buildings was started, while28°Gruppo was
being moved to another air base.
Only a few aircraft were left on the spot and the base activity dropped to
a minimum. Maggiore Banchio was replaced by tenente Gasole. In the
meantime 51° Gruppo, equipped with three engine Cant Z 1007 bis had been
flown in. In November the air base command was entrusted to maggiore
Bonacossa, the former leader of 51 ° Gruppo A.O. (Eastern Africa) equipped
with 10 Ro.37 recce machines from 28°Squadriglia.
In January 1942 the base command was entrusted to tenente colonnello
Manenti, who had arrived there with 51° Gruppo B.T./R.S. (R.S.standing for
strategical reconnaissance unit), made up of 212° and 213" Squadriglie,
both equipped with Cant Z 1007 bis. In the following months the Villacidro
airfield was temporarily made the base of famed units, such as 9°, 11°,
32" and 37° Stormi. These units successfully took part in the famous
air-sea battles waged in mid-June and mid-August 1942.
The 51° Gruppo carried out, in both encounters, reconnaissance and
shadowing missions against the British air and sea forces.
Its activity was fiercely opposed by British fighters, which shot down
many aircraft in the course of hard clashes.
Part of the Italian crews involved could escape with difficulty, but
casualties were nevertheless high.
On 12 August a strange aircraft wholly yellow-painted was taken of from
Villacidro. This was a special one-off crewless radio-controlled flying
bomb in the history of aviation. It was being guided towards the British
fleet but, owing to a defective capacitor, the pilotless aircraft went out
of control and ended up crashing against the Little Atlas mountains. The
bewildered local French authorities in vain searched for the corpses of a
crew among the wrecks.
Throughout 1942 Luftwaffe units began increasingly pouring in Villacidro,
in particular Ju 88-equipped KG.26, 60 and 77 (KG stood for Combat Wing),
although the base command was left in Italian hands. Italian and German
crews jointly operated against enemy forces.
In December 88" Gruppo B.T. joined the air base, but more and more
aircraft were missing from their missions while the German presence was
growing increasingly pressing.
January 1943 saw the Germans taking everything in their hands and starting
the project and execution of new works. Then more German units poured in:
KG.30 and 60 permanently, other units only occasionally. At this point,
the Allies started to seriously consider the elimination of that airfield.
On 17 February two American medium bombers formations were bound for
Villacidro airfield. One of them, 17th Bombing Group, personally led by
Tokyo raid-famous general Doolittle, reached the air base but could not
bomb it because of bad visibility. The other unit, 310th Bombing Group
mistakenly flew into another valley and bombed the built-up area of
Gonnosfanadiga, where its fragmentation bombs caused several casualties
On 16 March, 88° Gruppo left Villacidro and on 31st of the some month
several B-17 Flying Fortresses dropped over 3,000 fragmentation bombs and
caused heavy damage. More similar raids followed on 15 and 27 April, on
11,19, 20, 21, 26, 27 May and on 7 and 18 June. In that month about 1,500
German flyers were staying at Villacidro.
On 10 July the Germans, both because of their increased distrust towards
their Italian allies and for fear of possible landings by American
commando units in Sardinia, began burying mines all over the airfield. On
10 September, before loading men and equipment aboard their trucks, the
Germans had their mines blasted, thus making all runways useless.
In November the first American ground personnel of 17th Bombing Group and
the engineers of 51st Service Squadron began arriving at Villacidro.
Runways were restored and both bombers - the B-26 Marauders - and their
crews started pouring in.
January 1944 saw the arrival of French air units. These were the 31e,
first, and the34e, later, Escadres de Bombardement Moyen. Both units were
armed and supplied by the Americans and under the 42nd Bombing Wing.
Both American and French bombing units started a systematic destruction
work aimed at bridges and railway junctions all over northern Italy in
order to disrupt the supply lines of the Germans, who were effectively
hampering the Allied armies' advance along the Italian peninsula. Among
others, 17th Bombing Group took part in the bombing of Montecassino abbey
and the support of allied landings at Anzio. Precision bombing missions
were also carried out against targets in Florence and some areas in Rome.
On 19 May 1944 general De Gaulle reviewed Free France troops camped near
the air base.
The airfield structures and facilities were generally improved and
everything was taken care of to make living easier to the new occupants.
In September and October 1944 both Americans and Frenchs left the
Villacidro air base and moved to other bases closer to thefront line.
Sardinian shepherds and peasants repossessed the airfield area, and today
very little has been left in memory of the fervent activity that had
developed there only half a century before.
Throughout W.W.2 Italian bombers were plagued by the lack of reliable bomb
aiming devices, the availability of big-calibre bombs and poor
On the basis of these considerations, colonnello Ferdinando Raffaelli
conceived an unusual solution, consisting in loading the highest possible
quantity of explosives aboard a single crewless aircraft and
radio-controlling it onto its predetermined target, that was thus to be
destroyed by a direct impact.
This solution offered many advantages: it allowed a crew to be spared, and
a higher load of explosives to be carried since no fuel was needed for a
return flight. Moreover, old machines nearing the end of their useful life
could be advantageously used to this purpose.
Two aircraft were made available for this unusual type of mission.
Initially, two S.79s were chosen, one as the flying bomb (and therefore
called A.R.P. for radio-controlled aircraft) and the other as the
remotely-guiding aircraft (in turn called E for radio-controlling
aircraft). Later, the P.-machine was replaced by a Cant Z 1007 bis.
The procedure to be adhered to was as follows: the A.R.P. was taken off
and set on its pre-determined route by a pilot who subsequently abandoned
the aircraft and parachuted to the ground. The P. machine followed at a
distance of About 500 m (1,650 ft) that grew to 4,000 m (13,120 ft) in
proximity of the intended target. The flight was to have been carried out
at speeds between 320 and 370 km/h (200 to 230 m.p.h.) at an altitude of
6,000 m (20,000 ft) over a range of about 1,200 km (750 miles).
To improve the visibility of the A.R.P. from the R-aircraft, the former
was painted yellow overall, hence the "Canary" nickname.
A particular care was taken in the choice and installation of the
appropriate sending and receiving devices. On 12August 1942, at 01.00 p.m.
the two aircraft took off from the Villacidro air base. Maresciallo Badii
took off on the A.R.P., set it on its planned route, then parachuted to
safety. Colonnello Raffaelli followed with its CantZ 1007 bis
radio-controlling the S. 79 flying bomb, bound for the British fleet near
the Tunisian coast.
But off the island of La Galite, probably on account of a defective
capacitor on the S.79, the latter escaped the radio-control from the
R-aircraft, began turning westward, flew beyond Tunisian borders and
crashed on the sides of a Little Atlas mountain at an altitude of 1,800 m
(6,000 ft) and 70 km (43 miles) off the town of Philippeville. Following
this failure, the P-aircraft had to be hurriedly flown back to its base.
Disconcerted French authorities in vain searched, on the following day,
for the corpses of the crew and concluded that. all people aboard must
Later, specific drones were designed and built, to be directed by Macchi
C.202 fighter. In the spring of 1943 a few examples of the A.R. had been
made ready by Aeronautica Lombarda. A first use was planned by August
1943, but no attempt was mode since the armistice with the Allies was at
(translation by R. Abate)