Fiat G.55 Centauro (Centaur) Fighter / Fighter-Bomber Aircraft
The inline Fiat G.55 Centauro proved a major upgrade for the preceding radial-powered Fiat G.50 Freccia.
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Undoubtedly, the Fiat G.55 Centauro (Centaur) served as Italy's best fighter design of World War 2. The type made use of a license-produced version of the excellent German Daimler-Benz DB 605A series inline engine and featured an enclosed cockpit - the latter a rarity among Italian fighter aircraft of the war. Production was delayed until 1943 but 274 total examples were ultimately produced during wartime, joined by a further 75 examples after the war. The G.55 proved an excellent fighter design, mating an advanced streamlined and aerodynamic airframe with a powerful engine to produce a robust and reliable gun platform. The G.55 was a major improvement over the radial-engined, open-air cockpit G.50 Freccia fighter series.
Fiat's Giuseppe Gabrielli
Design of the G.55 was credited to Giuseppe Gabrielli. Gabrielli served as an aeronautics engineer within Fiat and had already garnered valuable experience in the field, including design of the preceding G.50. Gabrielli would gone on to complete some 142 total aircraft designs during his stellar career including that of the first Italian jet fighter - the Aeritalia G.91 - and the impressive G.222 universal military transport aircraft.
Gabriell's G.55 design was a combination of smooth lines and aerodynamic refinement. Selection of the German Daimler-Benz inline only benefitted the type and immediately made her the best fighter mount Italy could field. Prior to the war, Italian pilots generally preferred their fighters with open-air cockpits for the excellent visibility and freedom but high-altitude and high-speed flight necessitated an enclosed canopy - something these "romantic" Italian airmen would have to accept moving forward. Her design was such that care was given to support speedy production methods meant to get as many G.55s into Italian fighter groups as quickly as possible. Three prototypes were eventually constructed with the first of these (both the first and second were unarmed) becoming airborne on April 30th, 1942. The third prototype served as the invaluable gun test platform. Even while the prototypes were under evaluation in operational settings, the Italian government had already contracted the type for full-scale production.
In practice, the G.55 proved a strong airframe, able to withstand a good deal of punishment and get her airmen back home. Visibility was noted as excellent thanks to the raised cockpit and spacious canopy while her engine made her a stellar performer when pitted against her Allied contemporaries. Handling was reportedly excellent as well and made for a superior dogfighting platform to the extent that Italian pilots (and Luftwaffe pilots for that matter) greatly respected the G.55. Armament was equally impressive and formed from a collection of powerful cannons and machine guns.
The G.55 saw first combat in March of 1943 and were used in the defense of Rome itself with the 353 Squadriglia. In September of 1943, Italy officially capitulated to the advancing Allies with only 16 examples of the pre-production G.55/0's and 15 examples of the production-level G.55/1's having been completed. Despite Italy's surrender, factories still under Fascist control continued production that ultimately resulted in 274 total Centauros - many of these now being delivered to relocated Italian forces in the north. The National Republican Air Force (ANR) was set up in Fascist-held Northern Italy under Italian dictator Benito Mussolini after 1943 to continue Italy's war against the Allies. Despite their presence along this front, the G.55s in service suffered heavily from the regular Allied strikes - many G.55s being lost while on the ground. The G.55s still under fascist control were fielded by the Squadriglia "Montefusco" out of Venezia Reale. Three further G.55s squadriglias formed the 2 Gruppo Caccia Terrestre. The German Luftwaffe thought highly enough of the G.55 to field it within its own ranks from 1944 to 1945. In capable German hands, the G.55 was more than a match for even the best of the Allied fighters.