CHAPTER 3

Black Shirt

Italo Balbo was born in 1896 in Ferrara, Italy, three years after the first Chicago Fair ended. Ferrara had once been quite important in Italy’s history as the seat of the powerful d’Este family during the Renaissance. Its location, on the Po River between Venice and Bologna in a fertile area called the Emilia, ensured it would remain a town of some significance, if not necessarily brilliance. Balbo’s parents were schoolteachers. But there was a martial tradition, as well as a faded aristocratic lineage, on both sides of his family tree. One of his great-grandfathers had served under Marshal Murat in Napoleon’s Russian campaign, and had fought his way across the Berezina River during the famous retreat of 1812.1 His maternal grandmother was a contessa. For the young Italo Balbo, the desire to reawaken the past glories of his family and his town fed his ambition. Later, an English journalist would describe Balbo as a “reincarnation of the militant and magnificent Italian princes of medieval days.”2 It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Italo Balbo would have fully embraced this description. He was, if nothing else—and from quite an early age—a romantic. It was this quality more than any other that would define his future path. Without it, he would never have achieved what he ultimately did.

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As a student, Italo Balbo imbibed the mythology of his country’s founding: the near messianic zeal of Giuseppe Mazzini; the swashbuckling exploits of Giuseppe Garibaldi in his cape, fez, and red shirt of revolution and Risorgimento. The republican values of secularism and democracy (albeit in the imperfect form of a constitutional monarchy) were the Founders’ heritage to Balbo’s generation. There was much to take pride in, but there was also the shame of the undeniably massive outflow of Italian emigranti, primarily to the United States. Too poor to make a go of it in modern Italy, between 1900 and 1914 there were an estimated 400,000 emigrants per year.3 For many Italians, America, not Italy, was the land of opportunity. Cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Chicago would soon boast Italian populations to rival those of Naples or Rome. This was not part of the grand vision of nineteenth-century romantics and progressives such as Mazzini and Garibaldi. Italy, late to the game of nationhood and great power relations, would need to test itself in Europe and abroad to prove itself to its own people.

Balbo’s father hung maps throughout the family’s home. This meant that Italo and his brothers and sisters were keenly aware of the world’s geography. Countries such as the United States and Brazil (another prime destination for emigranti), for instance, were not mere abstractions to them. Their worldview was expansive and grounded in knowledge. But patrie, love of homeland, was emphasized even more by their schoolteacher father.

The Darwinian worldview popularized by the followers of Herbert Spencer and Friedrich Nietzsche would also become part of the youthful Balbo’s education. This dark vision justified the domination of the weak by the strong. Or perhaps, to put it more accurately, the domination of the ordinary by the extraordinary. It had earlier roots in romanticism, certainly. But this was now wrapped in a pseudo-scientific analysis that attracted many influential figures, including the poet and playwright, Gabriele D’Annunzio, as well as the fiery socialist journalist, Benito Mussolini. The flamboyant D’Annunzio found in the exploits of aviators such as Frenchman Louis Blériot something that transcended man’s less admirable qualities, as he saw them: the petit bourgeois inclinations toward material comfort and safety, the casual acceptance if not embrace of corruption (both monetary and moral), and the weakness (both physical and moral) of faint hearts. In the waning years of the Belle Époque, these men seemed to welcome some sort of crisis that would allow them, and those like them, to rise in fulfillment of this prophetic vision. The teenage Italo Balbo was equally moved by this new race of flying men. In 1910, he had avidly followed the successful attempt by the Peruvian pilot, Geo Chavez, to fly over the Alps. He mourned Chavez’s loss—a result of an accident that occurred when he was descending to land his plane in Milan. The following year, Balbo helped tend one of the signal fires for an air race between Bologna and Venice. And in 1913 he penned a pamphlet to immortalize the life and death of the young Ferrarese pilot, Roberto Fabbri. Balbo’s heartfelt words in eulogy of Fabbri would prove to be eerily prophetic regarding his own life: “to salute from on high his beautiful sleeping city and awaken it with the thunder of his powerful motor, making his white aircraft soar around the manly towers of the Castello D’Estense.”4

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The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, triggered a series of events that led to a cataclysmic war. Europe, divided into two alliances, brought all of the awful power harnessed by the Industrial Revolution against itself. Italy, initially allied with Imperial Germany, at first stayed out of the terrible conflict. Though technically bound to the German kaiser and his ally Franz Joseph, the aged emperor of Austria-Hungary, Italy’s position in 1914 was more ambiguous than it appeared at first glance. Though it had conflicting interests in North Africa with France on the Allied side, it had larger unresolved territorial issues with the Austrians that harkened back to the eighteenth century, even earlier in fact. Thus Italy’s “natural” opponent was its ally’s ally. The consensus in the summer of 1914 was to sit it out. In fact, if public opinion had been paramount, this is what Italy would have done (much like Spain, its neighbor across the Mediterranean, did—and profited handsomely). However, social and political pressures channeled by a vocal and truculent minority created a climate for intervention that became increasingly difficult to resist. Italo Balbo agitated in support of it. Why? It seems that he was driven primarily by a desire to see Italy engage in a great struggle for its own sake and to regain its “unredeemed” territories on the Adriatic Sea and in the Tyrol from their Austrian overlords. The former speaks to his fundamental immaturity at the time. To the eighteen-year-old Balbo, war was an opportunity to test oneself, and one’s values, rather than a horrific and avoidable waste of human life. This talented but restless student was genuinely stirred by the call to arms. Benito Mussolini, thirteen years Balbo’s senior, was also stirred to act. It was partly a political calculation on his part, but it was also ideologically driven. Mussolini was attracted by the futurist credo of poets such as D’Annunzio and F. T. Marinetti, calling for men of action to lead the way in the age of machines. These powerful creator-scientist-revolutionaries would be the living, breathing expression of Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Bound by no moral code or bourgeois notions of the rights of mankind, these “superior” men would lead and the inferior masses would follow. War would open the path to this new order.

Ultimately, the louder, more violent minority got its way (a lesson Mussolini learned very well), and the government negotiated with the Allies for Italy’s entry into the war in May 1915 (on quite favorable terms). Italo Balbo volunteered almost immediately. D’Annunzio and Mussolini would also serve.* Balbo had studied mathematics, science, and Latin and had passed his examinations for the Lyceum diploma in 1914, thus singling himself out for officer candidate school and a posting to an elite Alpine regiment.5 As Italy entered the charnel house of trench warfare in the peaks above the Isonzo River, the savagery loosed against the Austrian enemy following the near-fatal disaster at Caporetto in 1917 created a new kind of man. Shock troops and trench raiders known as the Arditi would strip naked and paint their bodies black before swimming the frigid Piave River to kill via sudden strangulation or thrusts with a dagger. These young men—some of them ex-convicts released specifically for this sort of duty—loved war, relished violence, and respected no one. Their banner was a black flag bearing a skull and crossbones; their slogan, Me ne frego (literally “I don’t care!” and in spirit, “Fuck it all!”)6; their future in postwar Italy, uncertain.

Italo Balbo distinguished himself in battle in the final great offensive of the war on the Italian Front—the offensive that ultimately broke the back of the Hapsburg Empire at Vittorio Veneto. For his actions in the bloody assault on the Monte Grappa, and the follow-on assault on Monte Valderoa in late October 1918, he received two silver medals and one bronze medal.7 In light of his future political and military career, this is important. Balbo led men, successfully, in bloody fighting to achieve an objective. His future chief, however, had not. Benito Mussolini volunteered for an elite Alpine unit, and was posted to the Isonzo Front, but saw no combat. He was not an officer, and though wounded, it was as a result of an accidental explosion during a training exercise, not enemy fire. For months after being released from the hospital, he continued to use the crutches he’d been given. In fact, he used them long after he actually needed them. These two were different men. However, their experience of the war and disillusionment with the peace would bring them together in a shared purpose.

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Woodrow Wilson promised a new order in Europe based on self-determination, enforced by an international peacekeeping organization. Rome welcomed him, initially, and was moved by his insistence on paying homage to Mazzini. But the good feelings did not last long. For Gabriele D’Annunzio and Benito Mussolini, the Versailles Treaty represented a “mutilated” peace where the victor (Italy) was treated as a second-rate country. Postwar economic chaos and the rise of Bolshevism in Russia created a climate of crisis on the streets of Milan, Rome, and other cities and towns. Veterans and police battled deserters and peasants waving the banner of the Red Leagues. Into this political and social maelstrom, Balbo (veteran of the ferocious assaults on Monte Grappa in 1918) inserted himself as a champion of veterans and patria in his hometown of Ferrara. It was in the cafés of Ferrara and Milan, Turin and Siena, that fascism as a distinct political philosophy was born. The Arditi were its willing shock troops; the skin-headed D’Annunzio, now wearing an eyepatch said to mask a wound incurred in combat, was its bard; and Mussolini, its political genius.

The Adriatic port of Fiume became the first flashpoint in the struggle against this new internationalist order. Awarded by treaty to the new state of Yugoslavia, Fiume’s status was not recognized by Italian ultranationalists. They marched on the city (whose population contained a sizeable Italian minority) with D’Annunzio at their head, snorting cocaine, preaching free love, and endorsing the revivifying qualities of the use of violence.8 D’Annunzio, in many respects the real progenitor of fascism, had early on grasped the power of flight in the realization of Nietzsche’s “superior man” and had transferred from a torpedo-boat squadron to the Ministério da Aeronautica during World War I. In one of the most daring feats of the entire war he flew over Vienna, dropping leaflets on the city’s residents demanding their immediate surrender.9 This convergence of aviation, propaganda, and the cult of the superman was a powerful political weapon. Others would take note.

Benito Mussolini, the savvy and connected ex-journalist, humored D’Annunzio’s grandstanding in Fiume until the city ran out of food.* Then he returned with vigor to the task of building an actual political party out of the movement spawned by the war and the unsatisfying peace that followed it. The Fascist Party, posturing as the only force able and willing to stand up to Bolsheviks and bandits, adopted the black shirts of the Arditi and sought battle in the streets and power in Parliament. Though only a relatively small minority, men such as the charismatic and handsome Italo Balbo were able to impose their will on the majority, and win. In 1922, they launched a putsch grandiosely named the “March on Rome.” In the event it was more publicity stunt than coup d’état, but it had the same effect. On October 29, the king invited Mussolini to form a government. The ugliness of the trenches, the chauvinism of nationalist bullies, and the roots of a cult of personality had been brought into the highest chambers of government. Italo Balbo had personally beaten fascism’s opponents with his bare fists, and with clubs. He had burned their homes and businesses. He had forced them to drink enough castor oil to simulate drowning, and then laughed as they shit their pants.* His star, too. would rise.

Two years after the March on Rome, Mussolini’s henchmen murdered his most vocal critic, the Socialist politician, Giacomo Matteotti. Historian Max Gallo later explained the context that led to this violent act:

When he [Mussolini] went out, he used a red sports car that he drove fast and recklessly, and in these simple satisfactions that he allowed himself one could already discern the man drunk on his own success, amazed to have made his dream an even larger reality than his imaginings, astonished at being the equal of the greatest. The feeling of being the incarnation of destiny, already quite intense in him, became a firm conviction, shored up by the opinions of the most varied notables and by newspaper campaigns—and those not only in Italy. In such a climate, such a man, with such a past and his aspirations for totalitarian power, could no longer tolerate opposition and opponents.10

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The March on Rome. Benito Mussolini in the center; Italo Balbo second from right (October 29, 1922).

Matteotti was a brave and principled patriot who very publicly exposed the Fascists’ systemic voter fraud and voter suppression tactics that had allowed them to gain more power in Parliament. There was much debate then, and much since, over whether Mussolini actually ordered the “hit” or simply in a Henry II–like lapse of judgement had a “Will no one rid me of this priest!” type of moment on which his violent, sycophantic lackeys were only too eager to act. Matteotti’s decapitated, naked corpse was discovered by the roadside. The outrage over this murder was widespread and deep. Mussolini himself, momentarily paralyzed by events, expected Parliament to move against him. The monarchy wavered in its support. But nothing happened. Parliament lacked the cohesion and the leadership to remove Mussolini from power. And the king was timid. Once Mussolini realized he wasn’t going to be arrested—the thought of resigning in disgrace over the murder of this decent man never seemed to have seriously entered his head—he then moved to turn the tables on his parliamentary opponents, and rammed through a special election law that “legally” allowed a minority (the Fascists) to govern as the majority. Democracy in Italy was effectively dead.

Italian writer Ignazio Silone documented what these new political realities meant in his novel, Bread and Wine: “Either we had to submit to it or be crushed by it, either serve it or rebel against it. Once upon a time there were middle ways. But after the war, for our generation, those ways were shut.”11 One of the notable characteristics of Fascist brutality in its Italian incarnation was its use of sexual violence against the wives and sweethearts, sisters and daughters of Socialists, Communists, and liberal, democratic-minded opponents of the regime. Silone recounts a gang rape of the wife of a leader of the Red Leagues that took three hours.12 Why raise this issue? Did Italo Balbo perpetrate crimes such as these? Given what is known about the character of the man (and much was written about him, and by him), it is difficult to imagine him doing so. On the other hand, he attached his star to the movement that enabled—even encouraged—actions such as these. What responsibility, then, does he have? This is an important question if one is going to look honestly at Italo Balbo’s role in aviation history, and twentieth-century history more broadly. Robert Wohl of the University of California, Los Angeles argued that for most people, it was “easier to ignore him than to grapple with his contradictions.”13 The late Balbo biographer, Claudio Segrè, was even more explicit:

I have tried to bring my subject to life and to do him justice. As his contemporaries found, and as my sources, written and oral, testified, he was a likeable man blessed with intelligence, charm, courage, enthusiasm, and humanity. He was also a pillar of a corrupt and cynical regime, the friend and collaborator of a demagogue who led his nation to catastrophe. In these pages, the reader may at times succumb to Balbo’s charm and fascination as I did. Nevertheless, I have not forgotten the real nature of the regime that Balbo promoted and served so well—and I hope the reader does not either.14

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The 1920s then represented a watershed in Italian history—the “choice” Ignazio Silone had articulated wasn’t really a conscious choice at all, but rather simply acclimating oneself to the new order. For its opponents, it was a cruel time. For Italo Balbo, however—one of the chief architects of fascism’s rise to prominence and then dominance in Italy—the Twenties were a time full of unique opportunities. With Mussolini firmly ensconced in power, and increasingly looking the part,* Balbo eagerly assumed his new post at the Ministério da Aeronautica in Rome (first as undersecretary, then as general of an air fleet, and finally, air minister). Initially, the appointment was greeted with a degree of curiosity, not unmixed with skepticism. Balbo possessed great energy, but he was not known as a pilot. In fact, it was not a given that he would—or would need to—learn how to fly in order to direct the air ministry. To his credit, Balbo made a concerted effort to master the skies. Like his hero Garibaldi, he was a “man of action.” And it fit perfectly with his Fascist credo; as Italian journalist Guido Mattioli put it, “Every aviator is a born fascist.”15 But perhaps more importantly, flying spoke to him as a man—as a human being.

Fascist Italy had already produced an aviator par excellence in Francesco De Pinedo, who on his own piloted a Rome–Melbourne–Tokyo–Rome flight in 1925. This round-trip air journey of 34,000 miles captured the public’s attention. The desire for speed, as well as distance, pushed the Ministério da Aeronautica to achieve victory in the popular Schneider Trophy seaplane races in 1926, with Italian pilots flying the distinctive Macchi M.39 and besting their American counterparts.16

Balbo demanded much of himself and of his subordinates. Pilots whose individual skills were notable, but whose egoism or social transgressions were also notable, were cashiered. He appreciated De Pinedo’s wealth of experience in organizing long-distance air voyages, but not his insistence on solo enterprises of this nature. What Balbo wanted was a professional Aeronautica that worked like a well-oiled machine. Unlike almost all of the other giants of aviation’s golden age, Balbo emphasized groups of planes conducting long air voyages, working as part of a team, rather than the lone eagle. The military application of this type of coordination was lost on no one involved in aviation. Yet, there was a sense of adventure to it all that appealed strongly to Balbo’s sensibilities as well. His vehicle would be the twin-hulled flying boat with its cockpit directly below its giant propeller. The commercial possibilities of sea-based air travel also played a part in his thinking. Today, land-based jet-engine aircraft dominate commercial air travel. That future was by no means foreordained in the 1920s. Looking at these giant seaplanes, it is not difficult to imagine why many once believed the future of commercial aviation belonged to them.

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Savoia-Marchetti S.55 Flying Boat. Notice the Fascist symbol painted on the tip of each hull.

In 1928, Balbo led the first of the four aerial cruises that would make his name in aviation history. Cruising the western Mediterranean after departing his base at Orbetello, located on a lagoon bounded by a mountainous and densely wooded peninsula on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea, Balbo demonstrated his aeronautical principles in action and in so doing became a willing tool of Fascist propaganda. Sixty-one seaplanes carrying over two hundred pilots and airmen demonstrated a coordination and skill that impressed everyone who witnessed them in action—taking off, flying overhead, and landing gracefully as twin hulls parted the waves. Balbo himself understood his limitations as a pilot, and made it standard procedure to fly with more experienced men in the event he felt overmatched by conditions. But he loved flying! What had started as a position, had become a passion. This first cruise took the Italians to the Spanish naval base at Los Alcazares via Sardinia and Mallorca, then a return leg via Puerto Alfaques and Berre on France’s Côte d’Azur. An undertaking of this scale, with all Europe watching, was a major test for Balbo. Mussolini was willing to give him the opportunity to realize his aeronautical ambitions—after all, they suited Mussolini’s vision for his Italy, and their realization would be his success—but failure would be Balbo’s alone. And it nearly struck. As aviation historian Robert Wohl later recounted:

Several of Balbo’s technical advisors had warned him against undertaking such a foolhardy enterprise. . . . And indeed a storm at the normally calm base of Los Alcazares near Cartagena nearly fulfilled their prophecies. Only after an Olympian struggle of nearly four hours were Balbo and his men able to secure their planes amidst swells that reached nine feet and winds of sixty miles per hour.17

The following year Balbo cruised the eastern Mediterranean, with the Soviet port of Odessa as his final destination. This was a longer air voyage, with a fleet of seaplanes scaled back from sixty-one to thirty-five aircraft. Balbo and his men flew via Taranto, Athens, and Istanbul up the Black Sea coast, and then crossed into Soviet airspace. The fact that fascism had been, at least partly, birthed as an antidote to communism could not have been lost on someone like Balbo. A career black shirt and ex-Squadristi leader, Balbo had personally engaged in violent acts against “reds” back home. Now he was the futuristic leader of an expedition sent to make contact with a mysterious and alien pariah regime. Russia had always represented a bit of the unknown to western Europeans, but this was now enhanced tenfold since the frightening revolution and bitter civil war there. It was interesting that the Soviets reciprocated the Italians’ desire to meet, however fleetingly, in that ancient port city. Balbo viewed his Bolshevik hosts more sympathetically than he had anticipated, remarking on their shared disgust with liberal democracies. On the other hand, as his biographer Claudio Segrè explained:

He was also glad to see traces from time-to-time of pre-revolutionary Russia. They allowed him to escape from the “oppressive atmosphere of bolshevik uniformity” that gave the city a barracks-like air; he wondered at the “perverse mania” that the revolution had for rendering life “uncomfortable, ugly, squalid.”18

This visit to Stalinist Russia was an odd interlude that proved that even the most extreme ideological polarization was no match for the excitement of heroic aviation. No one better exemplified this heroic streak more emphatically than the American pilot, Charles Lindbergh. The year before Balbo’s first Mediterranean cruise, Lindbergh had successfully piloted an airplane he called the “Spirit of St. Louis” across the Atlantic Ocean to France, alone. News of his accomplishment stunned an increasingly jaded world soaked in alcohol and fueled by speculative fortunes. The combination of knowledge, skill, bravery, and audacity that Lindbergh displayed made the champagne taste a little sweeter, for a time.

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The great hero of the age: Charles Lindbergh, with his famous airplane (1927).

Lindbergh was no fascist, yet. However, to many he was the purest embodiment of Nietzschean philosophy. His reception at Le Bourget airport in Paris on the night of May 21, 1927, touched off a wild celebration that degenerated into hysteria bordering on anarchy. For his part, Lindbergh demonstrated remarkable restraint and ease of manner in the face of a press and diplomatic crush that would have overwhelmed even more experienced and sophisticated men. His visit to the Arc de Triomphe to pay silent homage at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier rekindled the flame of Franco-American relations that had gone cold in the haggling over repayment of debts incurred during the 1914–1918 war. Lindbergh seemed to many to have elevated himself above the masses, both figuratively and literally, by his actions. As Robert Wohl explained, “The Superman had passed from the philosophical and literary imagination into technological fact.”19 The future was now.

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In Chicago, the Twenties had roared particularly loud. And the champagne had been supplied by a brutal, enterprising son of Italian emigranti named Al Capone. To many Americans, when one thought of Italy, one thought of columned ruins, Renaissance artworks, and the pope. But when one thought about Italians, one thought of Al Capone. The pride some Italian Americans found in Capone’s ability to operate with impunity in Chicago was offset, however, by the shame of having their most famous son be a gangster, bootlegger, and murderer. But Italo Balbo provided an alternative. For Italians and Italian Americans, he embodied a new, more dignified, and heroic Italian identity, one that was based on science and technical skill, not violence (it goes without saying that his earlier transgressions in support of Mussolini certainly weren’t emphasized by his admirers).

Balbo’s refashioning of the Ministério da Aeronautica as a modern, forward-leaning institution was convincingly on display at the air ministry’s new headquarters located in Rome’s Castro Pretorio district. Learning from his time in America, and his discussions with Henry Ford, Balbo insisted on open, bright workspaces where glass replaced walls whenever possible. Efficiency, professionalism, and transparency were the watchwords of the day for the 1,200 employees working under his scrutinizing eye. The Mediterranean tradition of lunch at home, followed by a brief nap before returning to work, was replaced by an elegant, if severe, canteen where everyone had to eat standing up. There were no chairs! No cubbyholes either, so work that was piling up couldn’t be hidden from supervisors.20 Coughing, sneezing, blowing one’s nose, all were frowned upon in the workspaces and in the canteen. Employees were expected to brush their teeth before returning to their duties (Balbo was even thoughtful enough to provide a toothbrush and toothpaste, just in case one didn’t get the hint). It all smacked of the martinet. Yet it also pointed to someone refusing to run a casual workplace—someone who was aiming to be serious about all aspects of what he was trying to do, and to be taken seriously by the world.

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Air Marshal Italo Balbo. Alamy Images.

On a more somber note, the handsome ministry building featured a list soon after it was inaugurated of the names of all the Italian airmen who had died in accidents, or in combat. The names were etched in stone in the large arched main entryway to the building, leading to its inner courtyard. Anticipating sculptor Maya Lin’s later Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, the names are simply listed in chronological order of when each airman was lost. There is no designation for rank, or hierarchy of fame—De Pineda, Italo Balbo, Mussolini’s son, are indistinguishable from their brother airmen. This, to a very large extent, embodied the collective ethos that Italo Balbo was trying to instill in the Ministério da Aeronautica. The tradition has been maintained ever since. It’s quite moving to see it in person. There are a lot of names. Too many.*

In 1930, Italo Balbo organized his most ambitious aerial cruise to date. The plan was to fly, via Africa, nearly five thousand miles from his base at Orbetello to visit the great coastal cities of Brazil: Salvador de Bahia and Rio de Janeiro. The distance across the Atlantic from Africa to Brazil was daunting, but this had already been traversed. No, it was the scale of his conception—twelve giant Savoia-Marchetti S.55 flying boats—that captured the imagination of the public, and of his boss, Il Duce.

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The Aeronautica Building in Rome. Note the ancient Roman ruins in the foreground—the building is located in the Castro Pretorio neighborhood, which has seen a continuous military presence on the site since the days when the emperors’ Praetorian Guard had barracks there. Courtesy of the Aeronautica Militare.

The air route from Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco, then down the western coast of Africa to Dakar, had already been established by the famous French air company, Aeropostale, in the 1920s. Known simply as La Ligne (“the Line”) by its employees, it made the delivery of intercontinental air mail, if not ordinary, at least regular. Ultimately, it expanded its service to South America, delivering mail via express steamers across the Atlantic to Brazil where its pilots then flew the mail down the coast to Uruguay and Argentina. By the late 1920s service had reached Paraguay and crossed the Andes to deliver mail to Chile. The pilots of La Ligne became legendary in their own time. Perhaps the most famous of these was Antione de Saint Exupéry. This was largely though not exclusively due to the beautiful, spare prose he wrote about his experiences in Africa and South America. He is best known to modern readers for his novella, The Little Prince (set in a desert after an aviator is forced to make a crash landing). Within La Ligne itself though, it was his counterpart, Jean Mermoz, who was lionized above all others for his skill and bravery in delivering the mail. And it was Mermoz who pioneered the direct delivery of air mail from Senegal to Natal on the northeastern coast of Brazil in 1930, in a flight of over nineteen hours’ duration. Mermoz would later lend his celebrity to the French variant of fascism by joining the Croix-de-Feu political movement. Saint Exupéry himself would flirt with fascistic ideology, if not its politics, throughout the 1930s before rejecting it altogether. Mermoz’s death at sea in 1936, in what would have been his twenty-fourth trans-Atlantic crossing, stunned the world of aviation. He was greatly mourned. It was this same route that Italo Balbo hoped to exploit to bring an “armada” of Savoia-Marchetti S.55s to Brazil.

There was a business angle to Balbo’s ambitious plans as well. Italy’s aircraft industry hoped to make inroads into the new markets of Latin America. The “flying boats” with their twin hulls, allowing room for both passengers and mail, could compete for lucrative potential contracts with businessmen in Rio and Santos, Montevideo and Buenos Aires. In fact, the plan was to sell the Savoia-Marchettis and leave them in South America, returning by ship back to Europe once the locals had been suitably impressed.

On December 17, 1930, Balbo’s much reduced armada of twelve sea-planes (with two additional planes and their crews in reserve) and fifty men left their secluded base at Orbetello and headed west across the Tyrrhenian Sea. Balbo, impatient to be off, had ignored warnings of a cyclone in their path and nearly lost the expedition before it started. He and his pilots battled through a storm that gave a savage beating to the Savoia-Marchettis. The air voyage would take four days before resuming the cruise. Balbo had learned a crucial lesson regarding meteorology.21 Better to wait until conditions improved and be delayed than to go ahead, weather be damned, and not arrive at all.*

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Antoine de Saint Exupéry (left), and Jean Mermoz (right). DR / Succession Saint Exupéry–d’Agay

After jumping off from Los Alcazares to cross from Spain to Africa, the Italians made their way down the coast of Morocco, then to Senegal, and finally to Boloma in the Portuguese colony of Guiné. For Balbo’s seaplanes to reach Natal without being forced to make a water landing en route required each to carry a fuel load far greater than those they had previously carried. In addition, of course, the engines powered by this fuel would need to get the aircraft into the air carrying the men, supplies, water, and the weight of the aircraft itself. Trans-Atlantic crossings had been achieved both before and after Lindbergh’s pioneering solo nonstop flight. Far more, however, had failed. And none of them had involved this many planes of this large a size. As daunting as the 1,864 miles of ocean ahead of them were, it was the takeoff that caused the greatest consternation. This was not for the faint of heart. Balbo intended to leave in the early morning hours to take advantage of the moonlight and the more favorable cooler temperatures for liftoff. But on the date set (January 5, 1931), clouds veiled the moon and in the tropical blackness the pilots had to rely on their altimeters to tell them where they were relative to the ocean they were leaving below. It was then that tragedy struck, when one of the seaplanes, its engine overheating due to the tropical temperatures and the strain of lifting so much weight into the sky, exploded in the darkness below. Four airmen and their craft vanished without a trace off the coast of Africa. Two seaplanes still remained to take off. Letting the motors cool first, they attempted to gain the sky, but one of the planes lost airspeed and slammed into the sea, killing another crewman. Twelve planes were headed west into the night, while two that had flown with them through the cyclone and down the African coast would not. Five brave Italian airmen were dead. This night would bring home to Italo Balbo and his men the grim truth that what they were doing might very likely kill them.

The strain of that journey into the darkness, knowing the ocean that they couldn’t see was ever-present below them, must have tried the nerves of every man involved. Training, technical knowledge, and skill all played a role, certainly—but will cannot be underestimated when calculating the factors that led to success. Fuel powered the powerful engines, but will powered the men. Six hours into the journey, the sun began to shed its first rays from behind them to the east. As it so often does, the sunrise buoyed the spirits of Balbo and his men. Ultimately two more aircraft had to make emergency landings at sea due to overheating. The Italian government had had the foresight to assign vessels as minders for the seaplanes in the event of an SOS call. One of these was towed to Natal to join its sister planes, but the other sank in the South Atlantic. This time, fortunately, there was no loss of life. Too many had already died.

Reaching the coast of Brazil brought a great sense of relief and accomplishment, but it was bittersweet. Cameramen filming the expedition captured a pensive Balbo standing aboard the wing of his craft, his dark black hair cropped close on the sides, wearing a black shirt and suspenders, a cigarette dangling from his mouth above his now-famous Vandyke beard.22 He looked every bit the swashbuckling adventurer, missing only perhaps an earring to complete the effect. Brazil lay at his feet; his fame was now of the intercontinental, not just European, variety. The ten remaining Savoia-Marchettis would prove to be more than sufficient to make an impression in the land of samba.

chpt_fig_001

The appearance of the giant white formations in the azure tropical skies caused a sensation in the Brazilian public and press. For Italian Brazilians, the wonder was complemented by a sense of buoyant national—Italian—pride. The staggering tide of impoverished Italian emigranti who had left Italy beginning in the 1880s had not only gone to North America; they had also come to Brazil and Argentina in large numbers. Vast coffee plantations—the source of much of Brazil’s wealth—had begun the transition from slave labor to hired hands in the late nineteenth century as the country finally moved toward emancipation. But this was labor-intensive work. The Italians were in for a shock when they realized they were trading poverty for back-breaking serfdom. They brought with them radical political ideologies and eventually were seen as undesirable, and ungovernable, by the country’s elites, but they were there to stay. The coffee barons eventually looked east to Japan for agricultural laborers, to replace the unruly Italians. One of the scions of the coffee nobility was the pioneering aviator, Alberto Santos-Dumont. Once the toast of Paris, Santos-Dumont had retreated into reclusive anonymity as he struggled with the effects of a debilitating illness. Thus, Brazil possessed a national context for the arrival of Italian aviators and appreciated them for who they were, and what they had accomplished.

Wearing black shirts underneath their flight suits, the aviator-celebrities were also a potent symbol of fascism. It is important to note that this was long before wars of aggression and genocide had irrevocably discredited this ideology. In 1931, fascism seemed to many the world over, including in America, to be the antidote to Bolshevism. It was seen as a more virile, modern solution to the world’s problems than the fusty old parliamentary and democratic institutions championed by the now-dead Woodrow Wilson. With the rise of the authoritarian Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas, Fascist Italy anticipated a strong relationship with the giant country where so many of their long-lost brothers and sisters lived.

The journey southwest down the coast became one long spectacle, as then almost all of Brazil’s major cities were located along the route. The white sand beaches, swaying green palms, and towns and cities with buildings of white stucco and orange tiled roofs swept past below as the cheering crowds looked skyward at their new heroes. With stops in Pernambuco and Bahia, the Italians had some opportunity to taste the sweet Southern Hemisphere midsummer air. But Rio de Janeiro, Cidade Maravilhosa,* was the main, and final objective. No city in the world can boast a more stunning natural topography than Rio, with its necklace of beaches along Guanabara Bay and Botafogo Bay, its lush tropical headlands and mounts rising like jeweled green breasts from the sea. Balbo’s seaplanes, gleaming white above the famed Pão de Açúcar, made one of the most viscerally beautiful landings in aviation history as they came to rest amid the calm waters of Botafogo Bay.23 It was like poetry. And no one appreciates a poet like a Brazilian. Robert Wohl recounted Balbo’s impressions, which were much in line with his hosts’:

Their arrival, Balbo later wrote, was an apotheosis in brilliant golden sunlight and empyrian blue worthy of Dante . . . Balbo was so overcome by the spectacle of this “paradise on earth” that he felt it transcended the fantasy of the greatest painters and poets who had tried to imagine paradise in the world to come. “Perhaps in creating the bay of Rio, God wanted to demonstrate that all art derived from him.”24

Rio was then still the capital of Brazil, and its grand public buildings and thoroughfares were more reminiscent of Paris than the rest of South America (with the possible exception of Buenos Aires). Noted for its beautiful women, fast nightlife, and haunting music, the city provided endless distractions for the Italian airmen. As he had in Russia, Italo Balbo proved himself adept at representing his country in the public eye. Receptions, reviews, parties, and balls all required the optimum mixture of charm and dignity. In Brazil, a country settled by the Portuguese, the population felt a kindred spirit in Balbo, a fellow Latin with a Latin soul. Much later on, when Mussolini was flattered by Hitler’s insinuations that Italians were also Aryans, Balbo, proud of his heritage, would have none of it. And perhaps he remembered his history books that he had read as a boy, recounting how his hero, Garibaldi, had come to Brazil and met his great love and fought beside the famed gaúchos for their freedom. Balbo would write about his experiences during the cruise in his book, Stormi in volo dell’Oceano, adding an important contribution to the literary genre produced by the aviators themselves during aviation’s golden age.

In Brazil, in 1931, Balbo was indeed the man of the hour. But there was another, older figure, who also appealed strongly to Brazilians, one who more closely resembled their national hero, Santos-Dumont, in his worldview, and in his view of the role aviation could play in that better world. His name was Hugo Eckener.

Footnotes

* D’Annunzio would participate in some of the most daring Italian exploits of World War I. Mussolini was injured in an accident, and was never in combat.

* D’Annunzio’s farewell speech in Fiume on December 31, 1921: “The night is dark, but each of us has a flame in his hand. . . . Soon the new year will begin. . . . A death’s head crowned with laurel clenches its teeth over the naked dagger and stares fixedly from its deep eye-sockets into the unknown. To whom does the unknown belong? To us—a noi” (quoted in Gallo, Mussolini’s Italy).

* Castor oil is made from castor beans, a powerful laxative.

* His personal wardrobe was now stocked with multiple uniforms of various hues.

De Pinedo’s mechanic accompanied him, but did not pilot the aircraft.

* According to Italian aviation historian Gregory Alegi, “In Balbo’s time, an airman died every 1,000 hours of flying. In an often overlooked measure of the progress, fatalities have dropped to less than one per 100,000 hours. Probably less fascinating than breaking a speed record, but much firmer grounding to make aviation universally accepted.” Alegi, “Ninety Seconds over Tobruk,” Aviation Historian no. 13, October 15, 2015.

* Later, when stuck in Iceland en route to Chicago in 1933, Balbo showed he had learned this lesson well by not continuing the cruise until the weather permitted.

* Brazilian writer Coelho Neto had given the city its nickname—the Marvelous City—after his experiences living there in his youth.

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