The last but by no means least of the season's Army twins is this magnificent イ-shiki ju (I-type heavy bomber - Fiat Br.20) model made by Rob Ronconi from the 1/72 Italaeri kit which has been going strong since 1972 and was re-released again in Battle of Britain guise only last year. Rob's model represents an aircraft of Hiko Dai 12 Sentai as operated over China during 1938-39.
Rob observes that some of the mouldings in the kit reflect its vintage appeal but that nevertheless it was a pretty fun build and relatively straightforward. He replaced all the machine guns with more scale-appropriate weaponry and added a wire antenna loop before completion with an aftermarket PrintScale decal sheet which worked very well. Rob decided to paint over the passenger fuselage windows but was not sure about the accuracy of that choice.
The Japanese operated Fiat had been purchased as the result of an initiative by the Japanese air attaché in Italy Lt Col Seizo Arisue as an interim measure to provide heavy bomber support in China as Type 97 (Ki-21) bomber production would be behind schedule for the Army's pressing operational needs. The type proved fairly rugged in long range unescorted sorties, suffering most from unserviceability issues and a poor ordnance weight to range ratio compared to the Type 97, requiring a reduction in payload from 500 kg to 300 kg in order to reach Chinese targets from its bases. Although defensive armament was considered to be superior to the Type 97 it was deemed to catch fire too easily. That vulnerability was improved with later aircraft variants delivered resulting in several instances of heavily damaged aircraft being able to return to base. For example on 20 February 1939 Lt Tsunesaburo Nishio's 98th Sentai aircraft returned from a raid against Lanchow with 110 bullet strikes from Chinese fighters, whilst on 23 February Lt Koichi Ohmura's aircraft returned from Lanchow to a crash landing with 153 strikes, including a bullet lodged in Ohmura's seat parachute pack. The bomber had been forced to leave formation with one undercarriage down and was set upon by Chinese fighters in a long running battle where the gunners expended all their ammunition. Ohmura had then put the badly damaged aircraft into a crash dive considered fatal but managed to recover at low-level. Of the ten I-shiki losses during operations only five were shot down by fighters whilst the others were force landed with damage or engine failures, including Maj Fujita's aircraft (see below).
The I-shiki was operated by Hiko Dai 12 Sentai from January 1938, with a planned 24 bombers in four Chutai, and by Hiko Dai 98 Sentai from August 1938, formed from the 3rd and 15th independent squadrons. The 3rd had been operating the Italian bomber against railway targets from May to June 1938. The 12th Sentai deployed to China with three Chutai each of four bombers from September 1938 and engaged in long range attacks against Lanchow during the winter of 1938-39 in tough weather conditions. Lanchow was a major hub for Soviet aid to China, especially in aircraft, and therefore a strategic target. The 98th were engaged in operations over central China but participated in the Lanchow operation during February 1939. By the end of November 1938 the 12th had 9 aircraft serviceable from a strength of 19 whilst the 98th also had 9 serviceable from a strength of 38. In February 1939 Maj Yuzo Fujita of the Army Test Centre had attempted a flight from Tachikawa in Japan to Hankow to demonstrate that the I-shiki could achieve longer range flights but became lost due to cloud cover and had to force land 100 km west of the city. He and his crew encountered Chinese troops on their walk back to Japanese territory and were all killed in the ensuing gun battle. This incident had an adverse if unwarranted effect on Japanese confidence in the bomber's long range capability.
The Japanese purchased 72 of the Fiat bombers which were delivered unassembled and by ship in batches of 12. What happened to the survivors when they were replaced by the Type 97? Well at least 13 of them ended up parked neatly on the apron at Shinchiku airfield in north-west Formosa where they were photographed during a 14th AF strike on 25 November 1943, presumably being used as decoys.
With special thanks to Rob for sharing these images and details of the build,
References: Japanese Army Heavy Bomber Units by Yasuho Izawa (unpublished translation); Le Fiat BR.20 by Yves Domange (Lela Presse, 2004); Fiat BR.20 by Pawel Babinski (Wydawnictwo Militaria, 1999); Flight in the China Air Space 1910-1950 by Malcolm Rosholt (Rosholt House, 1984).
Image credit:- All photos © 2021 Rob Ronconi.