July 1933: when Derry went Italian for six memorable days

We go back 89 years to when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s air armada - led by General Balbo - landed in Derry en route to the Centennial Exhibition in the USA

For six unforgettable days during the summer of 1933, Derry had ‘gone Italian’, writes Sean McLaughlin.

It was in July of that year that twenty-four Savoia-Marchetti twin-hulled flying-boats, the pride of Benito Mussolini’s Italian Air Force, lay at anchor on the River Foyle at Lisahally, en route to the Centennial Exhibition in Chicago in the USA.

The planes had only a limited flying range and refuelling stops were set up at Amsterdam, Reykjavik, St John’s (Newfoundland), as well as Derry, so they could land safely on Lake Superior.

General Italo Balbo meets with Derry civic leaders during his visit to the city in the summer of 1933.

The commander, General Count Italo Balbo, dressed in a sky-blue uniform, dripping with gold braid, was a strong supporter of Il Duce, though it is said he disapproved of his meetings with Adolf Hitler.

He had become Secretary of State for Air in 1926 and the Chicago expo offered an ideal opportunity to demonstrate the power and elegance of Fascist Italy.

The Italian fliers were treated like royalty in Derry and took part in a round of photocalls on the steps of the Guildhall where they were greeted by Mayor, Sir Dudley McCorkell, and Town Clerk, Sir Henry Miller.

Some members of the local Italian community wore the black shirts of the Fascisti movement and paraded with young girls dressed in traditional Italian costume.

General Balbo is greeted by members of the local Italian community on his arrival in Derry.

Derry Italians, in the person of Vittorio Fiorentini, presented gifts to the visitors.

At that time, the paddle steamer, Seamore, plied between Derry and Moville, partly as a pleasure boat but more often to take Irish emigrants to the transatlantic liners that lay at the head of Lough Foyle.

The ‘Journal’ reported that the wash of the Seamore paddles caused the twenty-four Italian planes to ‘dance elegantly’ as it passed by and the rush of passengers from port to starboard as it circled the anchorage was said to have caused the ship to cant to that side, lifting the opposite paddle clear of the water.

On Friday, July 7, the weather had improved sufficiently for the air armada to take flight for Iceland.

A section of the crowd which gathered in Guildhall Square to greet an Italian air force delegation led by Italo Balbo.

The sight of those giant birds taking off was said to be as impressive as that of their landing.

They turned into the wind and, flying over Inishowen Head, set out for Reykjavik to refuel. The last drone of their engines disappeared and Derry settled back into its characteristic daily life.

Balbo was later made governor of the then Italian colony of Libya but, in 1940, was killed in an air plane brought down by “friendly” anti-aircraft fire from Italian shore batteries located near Tobruk.

General Balbo pictured in his personal aircraft.
Italo Balbo (centre) with Italian military commanders.