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The Balbo Monument in Chicago, USA

 

This account of the exploits of a pre-war Italian airman has only a tenuous connection to the Battle but is nevertheless interesting in its own right.


Early combat reports in the Battle period often refer to large formations of German aircraft as a “Balbo”. This was a hangover from 1933 when Mussolini’s Minister of Air, Italo Balbo, planned and executed a display of Italian air strength that impressed the world. It involved building twenty-five specially equipped twin-hulled Savoia-Marchetti SM.55X flying boats and then flying them in formation across Europe, across the Atlantic to the United States, on to the Chicago World’s Fair (landing on Lake Michigan near the fairgrounds) and then back to Rome.


Italo Balbo was born in 1896. He served as an officer during World War I and, after the war, joined the Italian Fascist movement, quickly rising to a leadership position. In 1922, Balbo was one of the quadrumvirate instrumental in bringing Benito Mussolini to power. Mussolini first appointed Balbo as minister of the air force, the Regia Aeronautica, in 1926 despite the fact that Balbo had no previous flying experience. He learned quickly, however, and the flight from Italy to the Century of Progress fair was one of the crowning achievements of his career.


Balbo and the squadron of sea-planes left Italy on June 30, 1933 and arrived in Chicago on July 15 after making several short stops in Canada and elsewhere along the way. Balbo even agreed to carry airmail on the flight, and letters carried on the trip still survive to this day.


In honour of his journey to the Century of Progress, Chicago renamed 7th Street Balbo Drive. However, the street name is not the only lingering reminder of Balbo's visit. In an additional gesture of generosity, Mussolini plundered a Roman column, dating from the second century A.D., from a portico near the Porta Marina of Ostica Antica, the ancient port city of Rome. The column was shipped to Chicago and erected in front of the Italian pavilion of the Century of Progress fair in 1934, after Balbo’s flight.


Today the Balbo Monument, as it is known, can be found in lonely isolation in Burnham Park, near the lakefront bike trail just east of Soldier Field. The 2,000 year-old column from Ostica Antica stands on a travertine marble base with a fading inscription in both Italian and English. The inscription reads (in translation);

THIS COLUMN
TWENTY CENTURIES OLD
ERECTED ON THE SHORES OF OSTIA
PORT OF IMPERIAL ROME
TO SAFEGUARD THE FORTUNES AND VICTORIES
OF THE ROMAN TRIREMES


FASCIST ITALY BY COMMAND OF BENITO MUSSOLINI
PRESENTS TO CHICAGO
EXALTATION SYMBOL MEMORIAL
OF THE ATLANTIC SQUADRON LED BY BALBO
THAT WITH ROMAN DARING FLEW ACROSS THE OCEAN
IN THE ELEVENTH YEAR
OF THE FASCIST ERA

Mussolini appointed Balbo as the governor-general of Libya shortly after Balbo's triumphant return to Italy from his Chicago flight. He served as Libya's governor-general until 1940 when, returning from a patrol, his plane was shot down by “friendly fire” near Tobruk, Libya after Balbo supposedly failed to give the correct recognition signal for his plane. He was 44 years old.

 

(Above) The inscription is now much weathered.


(Above) A stylised Fascist emblem at each corner of the monument.

Fasces: set of rods bound in the form of a bundle which contained an axe. In ancient Rome, the bodyguards of a magistrate carried fasces. The word fasces means "bundle" and refers to the fact that it is a bundle of rods, which surrounded an axe in the middle.

The fasces were a symbol of authority, but the precise meaning is unknown.


In the eighteenth century, the fasces received a second life, when the young United States and republican France started to use ancient Roman symbols. Both were progressive revolutionary nations that imitated the Roman republican constitution.


The use of fasces by the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini is quite another story. In 1921, he called his political movement Fasci di combattimento, fascio being the Italian word for peasant organizations and labor unions. When 'il Duce' chose the ancient Roman fasces as symbol of the fascist party, he was at the same time playing with the similarity of the words fascio and fasces, chosing an ancient symbol, and drawing a parallel between fascism and progressive movements of the past.

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The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago holds one and possibly two Battle relics. Spitfire P9306 was sent to 74 Sqn at RAF Hornchurch, marked 'TRINIDAD' code ZP-? on 6 July 6 1940. This aircraft claimed 1 Me109 destroyed and 1 damaged when flown by P/O PCF Stevenson on 10th July 1940 and claimed 1 Me110 destroyed over Harwich with Sgt Kirk code ZP-H on 11th August 1940.


They also have Ju87B Stuka which may well have been on action in the Battle before its unit moved to North Africa. It is a Ju87B-2/Trop, Werk Nr 5954, coded A5+HL, of I/StG1. Captured in North Africa in 1941, it was taken to the USA during the war.




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