When discussing the famous fighter pilots of the Great War, names like Manfred von Richthofen, Werner Voss and Billy Bishop are familiar to many people. Rarely do the aces of the Italian Air Force receive recognition, even though around 42 of them qualified for ‘ace’ status. When Italy finally entered the war in May 1915, they joined forces with the British and French, initially fighting against the Austro-Hungarian empire. Without suitable fighter designs of their own, they used older, or licence built French designs, but their air force was woefully ill-prepared for war and suffered from poor organisation and tactics. They had to learn fast and the newly trained Italian pilots proved to be some of the most accomplished aviators of the Great War.
At the head of this group was Francesco Baracca, son of a wealthy landowner and former cavalryman. Qualifying as a pilot in 1912, Baracca was already an accomplished airman by the time Italy entered the war and despite the fact he was flying older French designed aircraft, he managed to claim Italy’s first aerial victory of the war on 7th April 1916. Baracca’s aircraft carried his personal emblem on the port side of the fuselage, a black prancing horse, which was the Arms of the Baracca family and in recognition of his time as a cavalry officer.
Duty and compassion were driving forces in his life and he found it difficult to cope with life away from his Squadron – he would, however, make a point of visiting injured airmen he had engaged in combat, or laying a wreath at the grave of those who perished. As with many of the great aces of WWI, Baracca would not survive the conflict, falling to ground fire whilst strafing enemy trenches on 19th June, 1918. His score of 34 aerial victories earned him the title of Italy’s ‘Ace of aces’ and celebrated national hero, whilst also becoming one of the highest scoring aces of the Great War.