Italian Stukas dive-bombers, commonly known as “Picchiatello”, played a significant role in the Mediterranean theatre, notably in attacks on Malta. Although effective in ground attacks, the vulnerability of the Ju 87 to the defending fighters and anti-aircraft fire over Malta resulted in substantial losses for the “Regia Aeronautica.”
By Richard J. Caruana
The fast Luftwaffe victories over most of Europe were highly publicised by Germany and its allies, and as the weapon of the Blitzkrieg, the Ju.87’s capabilities were overestimated. Whether impressed by such publicity or perhaps due to a complete failure on the part of the Italian aircraft industry to produce an equal, the Regia Aeronautica insisted on the procurement of a number of Ju 87B-2s. Between July and August of 1940, a team of Italian pilots and groundcrew performed a conversion training course on the type at Graz in Austria and some of the personnel returned with 15 brand new aircraft to Italy on completion of the course.
By August 22, these aircraft were at Comiso, Sicily, after staging through Rome (Ciampino), Naples (Capodichino) and Catania (Fontanarossa). Five more aircraft arrived during the last week of the same month, and the aircraft began to form up into the 236ª and 237ª Squadriglie with the 96º Gruppo. In the afternoon of September 2, the Italian Stukas – nicknamed Picchiatello in Italian service – went through their baptism of fire in the Mediterranean when they attacked a naval formation just outside Maltese waters (Operation Hats).
The first wave took off from Comiso at 1040hrs but returned to base without making contact, as they could not find their target. Five aircraft performed another sortie, leaving Comiso at 1425hrs led by Comandante Ercolano Ercolani. On sighting the ships, the aircraft went into action, with a hit being observed on one vessel. On their return to base, four more aircraft took off and attacked another formation of ships- during this attack, one Ju 87 was slightly damaged.
The first direct attack on Malta was performed on September 5, Italian reconnaissance reported a large ship in Grand Harbour which the five Ju 87s, however, did not find. As an alternative target, they hit Delimara, where they released their 500kg bombs. But it was on the 15th of that month that attacks against Malta began to weigh significantly. Twelve aircraft from both Squadriglie of the 96º Gruppo, escorted by Macchi C200s of the 6º Gruppo (on their first operational mission), performed a text-book dive-bombing attack on Hal Far airfield, to the south-west of the Island, with significant results. Defending Gladiators and Hurricanes did their best to chase them off after the attack.
Two days later, during a repetition of this raid (this time, against Luqa), one of the Italian dive-bombers fell to the Hurricanes’ guns while another returned to base with a dead gunner in the rear cockpit. During this raid, the Ju 87s were escorted by CR 42s of the 23º Gruppo. One of the escorting biplanes flown by Sottotenente Cavalli received a direct hit in the engine from ground anti-aircraft fire. The pilot had enough time to bale out before the aircraft exploded in a ball of flames: Cavalli was taken prisoner. In time it became obvious that the Ju 87 was easy meat to the defending fighters once the dive-bomber had released its load.
Both 236ª and 237ª Squadriglie suspended their operations against Greece. Their place in Sicily was taken over by the formation of two new units flying the same aircraft: the 238ª and 239ª Squadriglie within the 97º Gruppo. After a short operational debut against Allied shipping around Malta on November 28, 1940, this unit was also called away to help in the Greek operations which by that time had taken a bad turn.
Malta became a target once again when the 96º Gruppo returned to Sicily on January 8, 1941. A heavily defended Allied convoy was sighted, and plans were made to attack it as soon as it came within range. The first action was a nuisance raid over Marsaxlokk Bay on January 9, when the Ju 87s were escorted by 12 CR 42 biplanes. The following day marked the prelude to a continuous sea chase, in a desperate effort to sink HMS Illustrious. In the afternoon, Ju 87s from the 237ª Squadriglia scored a direct hit on the aircraft carrier which was forced to leave the convoy formation and head towards Malta for shelter and repairs.
During its stay at Malta, Illustrious was subjected to a concentrated attack, the likes of which the Island had not witnessed until that time. Malta’s docks, situated in a densely populated area, became prime targets, and civilian casualties during these attacks were high. With the arrival of the German air contingent in Sicily (Fliegerkorps X) with orders to “wipe Malta off the map”, the Italians were sent to North Africa and the Greek front.
With Fliegerkorps X‘s withdrawal from Sicily towards the end of May 1941 the Picchiatelli returned making convoys carrying vital supplies to Malta and Alexandria, their main targets. It was only in August that these aircraft returned to bomb targets over Malta. These operations started on August 7 and involved night raids by aircraft of the 238ª and 239ª Squadriglie, followed by similar raids on 11, 15, and 16 of that month. Particularly detailed are the units’ operational records for September 2. During a raid over Grand Harbour that day, Sergente Maggiore Valentino Zagnoli was credited with the destruction of a tanker.
Two of his companions could not complete the raid, as one had engine problems and made a forced landing short of home base while another ran out of fuel and had to turn back. Picchiatelli attacks against Maltese targets continued on and off during September (8,26,27). After a short lull, the Picchiatelli returned to night operations against Malta on the nights of October 15 and 16. But a major effort was mounted on November 5, when 13 aircraft from 208ª, 238ª and 239ª Squadriglie attacked naval targets in Grand Harbour. During the ensuing battle, two Ju 87s were shot down by anti-aircraft gunners and defending fighters. This cycle of operations by Italian Stukas against Malta ended on the night of November 10.
But the aircraft were to reappear in June 1942. Targets this time were the airfields at Luqa and Hal Far. The raid of June 24 accounted for the loss of the Ju 87 flown by Sottotenente F. Papalia, with two more losses occurring on the 28th. After these raids, the Ju 87 units turned their attention again towards maritime supply routes and went for an operational cycle flying from Gela and Castelvetrano. Night raids against Malta resumed during the last week of July, and towards the end of August the 239ª and 209ª, revitalised with the arrival of new crews, turned their attention towards the radar stations on the Island, paying a heavy price for their efforts.
The end of the Ju 87’s operations from Sicily began on November 5, 1942. Whilst on a training flight, the wing of a Ju 87 started to vibrate violently. On close inspection of the aircraft, and all the others in the Gruppo, it was found that these aircraft were well past their operational life; their wings could not take the strain of dive bombing any longer. The unit was asked to return all aircraft to Lonate Pozzolo in November where the crews converted to Ju 87 D-3 version.
As in any other theatre, the Ju-87s flown by Italian crews earned the reputation of being easy prey to a determined fighter pilot. Hurricane and Spitfire pilots flying in the defence of Malta recall that their only preoccupation when chasing down a Ju.87 was the treacherous barrage put up by the Island’s anti-aircraft gunners, which they had to brave. Though causing extensive damage on Malta, the cost to the Regia Aeronautica was extremely high in Ju 87 aircraft and crews.