The Piaggio P.108 Bombardiere was an Italian heavy bomber used during World War II. The only heavy bomber used by Italy during the conflict, it first flew in 1939. The P.108 could carry up to 3,500 kg of bombs. Coustruction was limited to a maximum of 163 examples.
One variant had a 102mm modified naval cannon mounted in the nose, for attacks against enemy shipping. This was not a unique concept; several nations mounted large cannon in their airplanes for similar purposes (notably the North American B25 Mitchell with its 75mm gun). Things didn’t go quite as planned: the first aerial test shot nearly vaporized King Vittorio Emanuele III, while the gun’s recoil almost tore the plane’s nose off. The project went no further than one test plane.
As an airliner, the P.108C had air-conditioning and a pressurized cabin for its 36 passengers. Its long range allowed it to easily handle trans-Atlantic routes. The very similar P.108T transport lacked pressurization and had two 12.7mm machine guns. Both planes had a widened fuselage to increase carrying capacity. The follow-on version, called the P.133, had even more powerful P. XV engines and correspondingly greater range and bomb load. Defensive armament climbed to six 20mm cannon and three 12.7mm machine guns. The plane had not entered testing when the program reached an abrupt end.
The bomber’s production came to a halt on 31 August 1943, when a massive Allied bombing raid destroyed the Pontedera plant in Tuscany where it was built. After the war, Piaggio re-tooled the small starter motor used on the big P. XII radials of the P.108 and used it to power the Vespa scooters it now builds in the re-built Pontedera plant.
The P.108 project began in the late 1930s, with an air ministry request for a long-range strategic bomber. Piaggio designer Giovanni Casiraghi returned from the United States, where he’d worked at Waco designing airliners, and took over leadership of the Piaggio design team. Piaggio built the most powerful engines in Italy, big radials that generated impressive horsepower but had a well-earned reputation for mechanical failure. In some ways, four engines thus became necessary when using the Piaggio power plants, but Casiraghi wanted to build on the concepts of the American Boeing B-17 and surpass that plane’s performance.
The first test version, the P.50, appeared in 1938. This plane’s first version had its engines mounted in tandem, but the second went to a more conventional four-mount arrangement. This plane had the Piaggio P. XI radial engine, generating 1,000 horsepower each.
The P.108 appeared in 1939, with P.XII engines of 1,350 horsepower each. It met Casiraghi’s goals of surpassing the B-17. Four prototypes competed, and the P.108 came in second to the Cant Z.1014, another four-engine design. But the Cant plane cost twice what the P.108 did, and Piaggio won the contract. Their all-metal plane featured long range, a powerful armament (seven 12.7mm machine guns, two of them remote-controlled) and sleek modern lines.
Soon afterward, the plane crashed and a new prototype was not ready until the next spring. Engine failures slowed training of the new 274th BGR (long-range bombardment) squadron equipped with the plane, and these missions came to a complete halt when Capt. Bruno Mussolini, Il Duce’s beloved son, died at the controls of a P.108 on 7 August 1941. His father never truly recovered from the loss, though his squadron eventually did so and undertook its first war mission in June 1942 with a night raid on Gibraltar. Other raids on Algeria and against enemy shipping followed, but the aircraft did not have the impact they could have, thanks to poor engine reliability and the political implications of Bruno’s death. With their long range, heavy bomb load and impressive defensive armament the planes could have had a sizeable impact on the Mediterranean naval war. Instead, they remain a curiosity.
Specifications for the Piaggio P.108B Heavy Bomber
- Country of Origin: Italy
- Manufacturer: Piaggio - Italy
- Initial Year of Service: 1942
- Production: 163
- Crew: 6 or 7
- Length: 74.28 ft (22.64m)
- Width: 106.69 ft (32.52m)
- Height: 19.98 ft (6.09m)
- Empty Weight: 38,160 lbs (17,309 kg)
- Max Take off Weight: 65,826 lbs (29,858 kg)
- Powerplant: 4 x Piaggio PXII RC.35 radial piston engines delivering 1,500 horsepower each.
- Maximum Speed: 267 mph (429kmh; 232kts)
- Maximum Range: 2,185miles (3,516 km)
- Service Ceiling: 28,301 ft (8,626m; 5.4miles)
- Rate-of-Climb: 0 feet per minute (0m/min)
- Hardpoints: 0
- Armament Suite: (P.108A "Artiglieri"): 1 x Ansaldo 1941 Model 90/53 cannon, 1 x torpedo held externally centerline and 2 x torpedoes held externally underwing (P.108B "Bombardiere"): 1 x 12.7mm Breda-SAFAT heavy machine guns in remote-controlled left outer engine gondola, 1 x 12.7mm Breda-SAFAT heavy machine guns in remote-controlled right outer engine gondola, 1 x 12.7mm Breda-SAFAT heavy machine gun in nose position, 1 x 12.7mm Breda-SAFAT heavy machine gun in retractable ventral aft turret, 1 x 7.7mm Breda-SAFAT machine guns in left fuselage beam position and 1 x 7.7mm Breda-SAFAT machine gun in right fuselage beam position, plus up to 7,709 lbs of internal stores.