IF ‘Amelia Earhart Airport’ now looks unlikely, ‘City of Derry Italo Balbo’ was never going to fly, Fascist icons no longer so much in vogue in Londonderry.
But it wasn’t always thus. Back in 1933 just over a year after the US aviatrix crashed into history in Ballyarnett, the red carpet was rolled out for one of Benito Mussolini’s right hand men who stopped here on an epic propaganda flight to the US.
The RAF performed celebratory loop-the-loops as they escorted, Fascist General Italo Balbo, and his 24 seaplane Italian Armada into Lough Foyle at around noon on July 2, 1933.
He was on his way from Rome to Chicago to attend a Century of Progress event for Italy and Fascism.
Thousands of people apparently turned out to greet the Armada both at its moorings near Culmore and in Guildhall Square and Brooke Park which were bedecked with flags and bunting to greet his arrival.
Forty buses were laid on to Culmore Point and the Lough Swilly Railway ran a special service to allow the citizenry see the planes but despite the extra provision motorcades still lined both sides of the Foyle as far as the Lough as people tried to catch a glimpse of the Armada.
Meanwhile, up the road in Londonderry the great and the good had assembled to greet Balbo’s arrival with Lord Mayor Dudley McCorkell, Minister of Commerce John Milne Barbour, City High Sheriff Sir Basil McFarland and Town Clerk Henry Miller joined by local fascists and thousands of citizens for the reception.
Who exactly were they waiting for? “His Excellency General Italo Balbo, the 38-year-old leader of the Italian air armada...one of the most popular figures in Fascist Italy and was one of the prominent leaders of the Fascist revolution,” was how this newspaper described him.
He was the great driving force behind every Italian massed flight who by his “wonderful personality, inspiring lead and ability has raised the prestige of the Italian air force to its present state,” we reported.
After 25,000 Blackshirts marched on Rome in 1922 Balbo continued as Commandant of the Fascist Militia.
Later nominated as Italian Under-Secretary of State for National Economy, Under-Secretary of State for Air, Balbo had risen to the position of Secretary of State for Air upon his arrival in Londonderry.
Now an established statesman Balbo was no longer engaged in force feeding his political opponents castor oil in order to purge them of their ideas and on that sunny summer day of 1933 was swept up the River Foyle on a wave of enthusiasm.
“There was a hearty cheer when General Balbo’s speed-boat drew near the landing stage, and as he stepped on it he was given a rousing welcome by the great crowd on the Quayside,” reported the Sentinel.
Members of the Italian consulate gave the Fascisti salute whilst “a pleasing feature of the welcome here was the showering of General Balbo with rose petals by the young people’s Fascisti group.
“As General Balbo and his officers approached the Guildhall square where a guard of honour from the 2nd Battalion the Leicestershire Regiment was drawn up, cheering broke out amongst the crowds in the Square and on the City Wall,” the paper reported.
A military band played as Balbo greeted the adoring crowd of many thousands. In a statement he addressed them: “I am very pleased to be in Londonderry and I am most impressed by the warmth of the Irish welcome you have given me and my comrades.
“My seaplanes are performing splendidly and I do not anticipate that we hall have any trouble between Londonderry and Chicago.
“We met some difficult weather conditions but Ireland has given us sunshine as warm as her welcome. I thank you very much for all you have done to make our voyage easy.”
Accompanied by his second-in-command, General Pellegrini, a Colonel Longo and other officers General Balbo then “laid a beautiful wreath on the City War Memorial in honour of the men of the British Navy, Army and Air Force who fell in the Great War.
“This simple gesture of he Italian aviators in honouring the city‘s glorious dead was one which was deeply appreciated.
“Brilliant sunshine favoured the solemn ceremony, and the route from the Guildhall to the Diamond as thronged with crowds of interested spectators, while others assembled at windows of business premises in the Diamond and along Shipquay Street to watch the procession and ceremony,” this newspaper told readers.
It was inscribed in Italian: ‘La Squadra Aerea Italiana ai Valorosi Cadui in Guerra” indicating the Italian fliers’ tribute to the glorious dead who fell in the war.
The delegation then marched back to the Guildhall and lunched in the Northern Counties Hotel.
Apart from the local notables’ civilities congratulations were also sent from King George V and Eamon De Valera whilst Balbo phoned Mussolini from the city to let him know how he was getting on.
Equally, the Air Minister Lord Londonderry flew from England in an RAF seaplane and said he was very glad to come over to welcome General Balbo.
“Although, we would like him to stay for a long time we know his desire is to get off as quickly as possible, and I am sure we all wish him the best of good fortune on his flight, a successful journey, and a happy and safe return,” he said.
Later at Troy Hall Roman Catholic Bishop Bernard O’Kane passed along a line of Fascist officers who were standing to attention and was introduced by General Balbo.
The Bishop chatted with each officer as he went along gave them his blessing and wished them all success on their enterprise.
The tone of the Londonderry Sentinel’s coverage of he event was gushing but this was also reflected in the Derry Journal report of the festivities.
“After waiting impatiently for a month, Derry at long last had an opportunity of venting its excitement yesterday, with the eagerly awaited Italian Air Armada arrived.
“And well did the people rise to the occasion, General Balbo and his men making their triumphant entry into the city amid great enthusiasm and scenes that will be memorable,” the paper reported.
“Throughout the day General Balbo and his men were cheered everywhere, great crowds being assembled in the streets even at midnight last night when the party set out for their sleeping apartments,” noted the Journal.
This ecstatic reception was even noted across the pond by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of all papers.
“Londonderry gave the Italian fliers a stirring ovation. Four Royal Air Force (RAF) planes flew out to meet them over the Irish sea between Ireland and Scotland.
“They returned hovering above the Italian fleet and looping the loop over the Lough in welcome. Londonderry first sighted the fleet as it appeared over the northern horizon of Lough Foyle, a two mile long ribbon of men and machines.
“The armada flew in eight triads of three planes each in V-formation. It sped down the length of the lake and then shot over the ancient walled city. Giant fire crackers thundered a welcome the square outside the Guild Hall from the walls.
“The roar of 48 motors broke Sabbath services and people streamed out of churches into the streets. Long lines of automobiles streamed toward the lake, 10 miles north of the city.
“Crowds packed to await the official welcome. As soon as the last plane had landed at 1.10pm, there was a rush of small launches toward the fleet,” the paper recorded.
Clearly we were all still on very friendly terms with Italian Fascism over a decade after Mussolini had risen to power in Italy and still just a few months after Hitler had eroded the Reichstag in what was fast becoming Nazi Germany.
We were not alone in this. When Balbo went on from Londonderry to the United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited him to lunch and presented him with the Distinguished Flying Cross.
He was greeted by a cheering mass in Madison Square Garden and addressed, “Be proud you are Italians. Mussolini has ended the era of humiliations.”