In my previous two articles I have been exploring the Italian attempts – and failures – to field a decent twin-engine heavy fighter/attack aircraft during the Second World War. First there was the Breda Ba.88 Lince, a complete fruit basket of an aircraft that was amazing as a prototype, terrible in service and then somehow managed the impressive feat of just getting worse and worse.
Second was the IMAM Ro.57; an aircraft that actually looked reasonably promising when first flown in 1939 and probably would have been fairly useful, but which didn’t actually become available to squadrons in the field until 1943.
As a result, the Ro.57 also has a somewhat impressive record in not only failing to see any service, but actually having basically the entire available inventory of the type wiped out in a single bombing raid.
The most notable common feature shared by these aircraft was the inability of Italian industry to equip them with powerful and/or reliable enough engines that may have allowed them to be viable. But that was actually rectified in the aircraft we are going to examine today; The IMAM Ro.58.
The failure of the Ba.88 had led to an order for the Ro.57bis dive bomber to be developed and built, but this was recognised as by that point a limited design with negligible development potential and so in early 1942 the IMAM team set about to create a suitable successor. And this time, it does seem like they may have got it right.
The Ro.58 was based off experience with the Ro.57, using the same construction technique of steel-tube framework to form the aircraft structure, then skinned in aluminium alloy. But the Ro.58 featured a whole range of changes that made it a thoroughly modern and capable design. Most notably was that the crew was changed from the single pilot to a two-seater by adding a hump along the spine, with an observer/rear-gunner sitting at the rear.
The power plant was hugely improved, with the old Fiat A.74 radials of the Ro.57 switched out for two Daimler-Benz DB 601s that produced 1,175hp each – quite a jump from the A.74’s 840hp.
The tail was also changed, being switched from a single fin to twins in a pattern reminiscent of the Messerschmitt Bf 110.
Additionally, the armament was boosted massively. Where the Ro.57bis carried twin 12.7mm heavy machine guns, which could be switched out for two MG151 20mm cannon, the -58 had no less than five of the formidable cannons, with three in the nose and two in the belly, with the rear gunner also having a pintle-mounted heavy machine gun for rear defence.
I suspect that the aircraft would also have been configured to carry a bombload as well, and because I am saying that you are probably getting the sense that things didn’t work quite as hoped for the Ro.58.
The aircraft was completed in early 1942 and in May of that year began testing. This showed that the aircraft had great promise but did have some aerodynamic issues with the rear fuselage and tail which needed to be remedied.
Once this was resolved the aircraft was transferred to the Italian Air Force test centre for trials, where it was flown off against the Me 410, the comparable German combat aircraft which was certainly a very capable machine. Conclusions were that at low and medium altitudes the Ro.58 was superior to the Messerschmitt, which considering that design’s far more powerful engines was an impressive achievement, though concerns were expressed that the Italian aircraft suffered from high wing loading and as a result was only suitable to be flown by the most experienced pilots.
Top speed was recorded as 378mph (605km/h) and all in all the Ro.58 looked like it might turn into a promising heavy fighter and attack aircraft.
But Italy was in dire straits and time, as is often the case with the aircraft I cover, was very much not on the side of the Ro.58. Despite its potential more development was needed, but it was now 1943 and Italy was faltering. Getting existing aircraft into service in numbers was pushing the country’s abilities to their limits and spare capacity to bring the Ro.58 into production and service was difficult to find.
Time dragged on and then, in September 1943, the Italians signed an Armistice with the Allied powers. Italy was occupied by the Germans, and this spelt the end for the Ro.58, just as it did for its Ro.57 predecessor.
The one prototype built vanished into the chaos, though reports say the engines were stripped at some point in the summer of ’43 to repair damaged fighters, and that was it for the Ro.58 and, indeed, Italian wartime aircraft development; another abrupt ending for an aircraft that looked, certainly in the early stages it reached, to be shaping up into a rather formidable machine.