25 February 2010

Several weeks after the disastrous Munich Pact was signed in 1938, the British Air Ministry initiated a massive expansion of the Royal Air Force in anticipation of the coming war. As the planned expansion was beyond the capacity of British aircraft factories at the time, the Air Ministry also looked abroad at foreign sources of aircraft to meet the needs of an expanding RAF. In January 1939, Air Ministry representatives visited the Caproni factory in Milan, Italy to examine the Caproni Ca 310 light twin which had potential as a crew trainer. Surprisingly, in light of the European tensions at the time, the visit by the British was officially sanctioned by the Italian government.

Though no contracts were signed, the interest was significant as high-ranking officials with the Air Ministry visited Caproni again in December of that year (and I should note that the Second World War had already started in September 1939 but Italy had yet to declare war on the Allies) and informed Count Caproni himself that the RAF wished to acquire 200 Ca 310s and a further 300 examples of a more powerful derivative under development, the Ca 313. The French had already placed orders for 200 Ca 313s in September 1939.

In January 1940, an Italian delegation from Caproni arrived at the Air Ministry's headquarters in England to finalize the purchase of the Caproni twins. The RAF submitted a series of changes they wanted on their aircraft and in exchange, RAF representatives were dispatched to the Caproni factory to oversee the RAF-specific modifications. The purchase was confirmed by the end of that month and the aircraft were to be partially-completed in Milan and then shipped to France where the RAF operated out of the airfield at Istres. At Istres the Caproni aircraft would be completed, flight tested, and flown to the UK.

If things weren't surreal already with this deal, the Italian government notified the Nazis that Caproni had a sizeable order on the books with the French and British and if there were any objections in light of the close relationship between Mussolini and Hitler. Surprisingly, the Germans in March 1940 indicated that they had no objections to the deal! However, a month later the Germans indicated that the contracts should be canceled. Count Caproni himself met with the heads of the Air Ministry and arranged for the aircraft ordered to be "completed" by Caproni's subsidiary in Portugal and the UK would then "buy" the aircraft from Portugal instead of the Italians.

However, on 10 June 1940, with France near defeat, Italy declared war on Great Britain which effectively canceled what at the time was the largest aircraft contract ever received by the Italian aircraft industry. It proved to be fortuitous for the Royal Air Force, though. Sweden did take delivery of a substantial number of the Caproni Ca 310/313s and found them to have unreliable engines and poor build quality. The fuel lines to the engines ran right next to the exhaust stacks for the engines which resulted in the Caproni twin having a reputation for being highly flammable. After local modifications to hold the aircraft over until replaced by Saab designs, the Caproni twin was quite robust, but nearly fifty Flygvapen personnel lost their lives in accidents due to the technical deficiencies of the Ca 310/313.

Source: Air Enthusiast, Volume One, William Green, managing editor, Gordon Swanborough, editor. Pilot Press Ltd, 1971, p95-99.

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