There is an old design maxim that is often applied to aviation engineering:
“If it looks right, it is right”. (Dorothy Draper)
However, there is an even older maxim:
“Every rule has its exception”. (Anon)
And I would say that the Breda Ba.88 Lince is a classic example of this because it was, despite its sleek looks, a complete and utter failure.
Which is somewhat surprising because initially it was a design that seemed to offer huge potential.
The Breda Ba.88 originated from an Italian 1936 requirement for a new twin-engine multirole aircraft that could perform in reconnaissance, attack and heavy fighter roles, essentially in line with similar aircraft under development such as the French Bréguet 693 and the Dutch Fokker G.I.
The Italian Air Ministry wanted the new aircraft to be capable of a top speed of at least 470km/h (c.290mph) and have an armament of four 12.7mm heavy machine guns or else two machine guns and two 20mm cannon, as well as be capable of carrying a bombload. All of Italy’s aircraft manufacturers were invited to tender, but Breda’s design appeared so advanced that it was the only one ordered for construction.
The first prototype, designated as the MM.302, was completed in short order, with first test flights conducted in October 1936.
The aircraft appeared extremely sleek, with twin radial engines and a superficial resemblance to the later Grumman F-7 Tigercat. Construction was of all-metal, with the Ba.88 being built using a steel-tube framework covered in aluminium alloy skin that provided the aircraft with an extremely solid build. Adding to the effort at streamlining the whole undercarriage, including the tail wheel, was retractable, a feature which didn’t generally become standard for most combat aircraft for several more years.
And initial flight tests showed promise, with the aircraft achieving a top speed of 322mph (518 km/h). The prototype was sent for further modification, receiving more powerful Piaggio P.XI engines that would be fitted on the production aircraft and which produced 1,000hp each and having the tail modified from a single fin to twins.
In December 1937 this demonstrated a top speed of 345 mph (555 km/h), broke a couple of world records for speed over set distances carrying loads and as a result was widely trumpeted by the Fascist government of Mussolini. The impressive performance certainly caught the attention of the Italian Air Force and in 1938 they began their own testing program with the intention of bringing the Ba.88 into service.
And they found that Breda’s wonder machine, when not carefully calibrated for test runs, had some severe issues. Wing loading was extremely heavy and the aircraft was hard to maneuver. They also found that the cockpit couldn’t be opened in flight – hardly ideal in an attack aircraft that would have a good chance of the pilot wanting to bail out of.
Additionally, the aircraft was not capable of repeating its record-breaking performance in standard operation, instead demonstrating an average top speed of 290mph (464 km/h) in military testing, which was completely inadequate and only got worse when armament and military equipment was installed.
So, the order for the aircraft was cancelled.
Except there was a problem. The Italian’s still needed an aircraft to fill the role, plus the Fascist propaganda machine had already been singing the praise of the Ba.88 to the entire world, going to the extent that they had stated that the aircraft was a standard model in service already with the Royal Italian Air Force. Indeed, active efforts were underway to sell the aircraft abroad, none of which proved successful, for reasons that shall become apparent.
So, against the better judgement of the Air Force testers, a production run of Ba.88’s was authorized in April 1939. Eighty were initially built by Breda and another twenty-four by IMAM, and a follow up order in 1940 saw another forty-three produced, though these – spoiler alert – all apparently went straight to the scrapyard for salvaging usable materials.
The aircraft were armed with three 12.7mm machine guns in the nose and a single 7.7mm machine gun operated by the observer covering the rear of the aircraft. Payload was theoretically a maximum of 1,000kgs (2,200lb) bombs carried semi-recessed in the under-fuselage bay, but in reality this was beyond the aircraft’s capability and the maximum practical load carried was two 250kg (550lb) bombs. For the same reason one of the heavy machine guns was often taken out to try to improve the aircraft’s marginal performance.
Despite their worryingly poor capabilities, the Ba.88 was in service with several squadrons of the Royal Italian Air Force when Italy entered the war in June 1940. They were employed on several attacks on airfields in Corsica in the final days before the French capitulation, where the complete lack of opposition meant they could be used to an extent.
The next phase of the aircraft’s career was not so forgiving and showed just how awful the Ba.88 was.
In August the 7th Grupo was dispatched to North Africa to fight the British, though they weren’t ready for action until September because of the modifications needed for the Ba.88s to be able to operate in the desert. And these modifications, principally the fitting of sand filters to the engines, turned the Ba.88’s from being of minimal value as combat aircraft to essentially unusable.
In their very first planned attack, aimed at the British airfield at Sidi El Barrani, three Ba.88s were dispatched carrying 250kg (550lb) of bombs each. One failed to take off at all, the second took off and then immediately returned to the airstrip because the aircraft couldn’t maintain altitude while the last, flown by the unit commander, managed to get airborne but eventually also had to turn back because it also became apparent that the aircraft wasn’t going to make it.
In operations the top speed for the aircraft was reported as just 155mph (250 km/h) – a frankly pathetic figure which obviously did little to endear the crews to the aircraft.
Attempts to improve the Ba.88 and pick up their dreadful performance saw them fly without the rear gunner and weapon and reduced fuel loads, but the aircraft still largely failed to accomplish their missions and proved to be complete lemons.
By November 1940 the remaining Ba.88s in North Africa were grounded, stripped of all useful components and weaponry and dispersed around airfields as diversionary targets for British air raids. Yes, one of the most modern aircraft available to the Italians in the theatre proved its most useful as a decoy target.
You would think that this would be the end of the Breda Ba.88, but somewhat unbelievably it was to keep staggering on as desperate attempts were made to salvage something from it were made. Because truth be told, dire though it was the Italian Air Force was soon in such bad straits that they had to consider ways of getting the remaining Ba.88s in Italy up to some sort of combat standard. In 1941 an attempt was made to convert four of the aircraft into a dive bomber, with the intention to convert all existing examples should trials prove successful. These saw their engines switched out for less powerful but much lighter A74 radials, the rear gunner position removed and the fuel load greatly reduced, as well as the installation of dive brakes.
The aircraft were then handed over in early 1942 to units for testing, which proved that the changes made effectively no difference to the Ba.88, which remained awful. In fact, the units involved apparently went back to using the Fiat Cr.42 for their ground attack missions; yes, an aging biplane fighter was considered more suitable for ground attack than the “improved” Ba.88s.
There followed one final attempt which was made in mid-1942 when seven aircraft were converted into a new configuration; the Ba.88M. This sought to once again cut down weight, even replacing some of the metal wing panels with wooden ones, as well as switching the engines for the A74, increasing the wingspan to try to alleviate the heavy wing loading and reducing the armament to a single 12.7mm machine gun.
Again intended to act as a dive bomber, the Ba.88M’s were issued to an independent bombing squadron in August 1943. Here they – probably fortunately – never got to see any action before the Italian armistice the following month, and so these few aircraft fell into German hands. They, quite sensibly, recognized the Ba.88 as the waste that it was and scrapped the lot, though one example apparently went on to serve with the Italian Fascist forces for a period, though in what role is unclear.
That concludes the story of the Breda Ba.88; an aircraft that offered so much promise, indeed being an actual record breaker, but which ended up being completely and utterly useless once converted for military use.
And it is kind of odd that it transpired that way. Yes, the airframe was very heavily built, and the use of a tube frame combined with metal skin was essentially redundant. But weight wise, the Ba.88 was in the same category as the Bf110-C with which it was broadly contemporary, with similar engine power and maximum takeoff weights.
But where the Bf 110 was to provide years of useful service and prove able to adapt to changing circumstances, the Ba.88 was an out-and-out dog and one which I am sure the unfortunate crews would have hoped to have become a forgotten aircraft much sooner than it did.