Single engine, single seat fighter aircraft
Urgently looking for modern fighter equipment in the few years preceding the second World War, the Belgian Government turned to Fiat Aviazione, one of the few companies able to provide aircraft in quantity and in short notice, to acquire some 40 Fiat CR.42 biplane fighters. Although not a major improvement over the Fairey Firefly fighters of II Fighter Group they had to replace, the CR.42’s were extremely maneuverable and had a good range. Knowing that the Belgium government had only limited options in their quest for new equipment, Fiat had set the unit price for the CR.42 at 66.000$, which was a staggering 30% higher than the more modern Brewster Buffalo’s the Government had recently ordered in the USA. In December 1939 an order for 40 Fiat CR.42 fighters and 8 spare engines was signed for a total amount of 2.640.000$ (Contract 39/581). First deliveries at the Etablissements de l'Aéronautique at Evere started on March 6th, 1940. After assembly, test flights and reception at Evere the fighters were swiftly delivered to Squadron 3/II/2Aé (Red Cocotte) and 4/II/2Aé (White Cocotte) based at Nivelles. The Belgian CR.42’s already delivered (the name “Falco” was not used in Belgian service) were registered R-1 to R-30 (most probably the construction numbers were in the N.221 to N.260 range).
By the time Germany invaded Belgium on May 10th 1940, 30 aircraft had been delivered of which one was lost during combat training (R-9), a second aircraft was damaged on delivery and being repaired at Evere (R-10) and 2 aircraft (R-2 and R21) were undergoing 50 hours inspections at Nivelles. Fiat R-15 was also at Evere with engine/propeller vibration problems as well as R-19 which was in the final stages of being assembled. These last two aircraft however were delivered to Brustem airbase on May 10th. In the early hours of that 10th May the two Fiat squadrons left Nivelles for Brustem airbase. After suffering problems with some aircraft (R-14 and R-27) at Nivelles, twenty-two Fiats finally managed to deploy to Brustem were they were later joined by R.15 and R.19 from Evere. Upon arrival at Brustem R-30 flipped on its back due to the bad condition of the airfield. During airfield protection patrols, 1Sgt Roger Dellanay was shot down while facing between 10 and 15 Bf109’s of the Luftwaffe’s I./JG1. Number 4 Squadron managed to camouflage its aircraft in an adjacent apple tree orchard, but the Fiat’s of N°3 Squadron remained in the open. By 14h40 Brustem airbase was attacked for the first time by BF109’s while shortly afterwards a Do17 bomber overflying the base was attacked and shot down by Lt. Werner de Mérode who was returning from a reconnaissance mission. Ten minutes later Stuka’s from I./Stg 2 sealed the fate of N° 3 Squadron Fiats which had remained in the open. When smoke cleared, no less than 14 Fiats were destroyed leaving II Group with only 8 aircraft of N° 4 Squadron. On May 11th, the remaining Fiats redeployed to Grimbergen and later on the day to Nieuwkerken-Waas. During further combat operation the Fiat of Adjudant Elie Français (R-22?) was hit and had to be abandoned in a field near Nivelles. On 16 May II/2Aé moved with all its remaining equipment (6 Fiats and 8 Firefly’s) to Chartres in France where the Fiats would take up defence of the base. On May 19th R-26 was destroyed in an attack by three Do 17’s on Chartres. In the meantime II/2Aé received three more Fiats (R-31, R-32 and R-33) which had been delivered in crates by rail from Italy together with a fourth aircraft (R-34). The aircraft were rerouted to Bordeaux-Merignac but due to a technical problem with an Italian railway car, R-34 had to be abandoned at Ingelmunster. A special team was sent to Bordeaux were the three new aircraft were assembled in record time and flown to Chartres. Two more Fiats (R-23 and R-28) were lost during another Do 17 attack on June 3rd at Chartres. As the German forces approached Chartres by June 11th, 1940 the Belgian Fiats moved to Bordeaux-Merignac and later on to Montpellier where the last remaining aircraft (R-24, R-29, R-31, R-32 and R-33) were taken over by the French Armistice Commission on August 27 1940 but not after the aircraft’s engines were sabotaged by the Belgians. On November 28th, 1940 the aircraft were taken over by the Germans authorities and their fate after that remains unclear, but it is likely that these were the Fiat’s that were subsequently employed as fighter-trainers by Jagdgeschwader 107 at Toul.
Although nearly obsolete in 1940 and despite technical problems with the synchronizing gear and ammunition, the Fiat CR.42 was the most successful Belgian fighter in wartime operations, claiming 5 aerial victories and 6 probables for the loss of only two Fiat's in combat. (D. Brackx)