The story of this remarkable biplane began on April 28, 1932, when the first experimental CR.32 (the letters “CR” stand for the name of the aircraft’s chief engineer, Celestino Rosatelli) completed its first 30-minute flight. It was immediately clear that this lightweight and slightly smaller version of the CR.30 would outshine its predecessor. Orders soon came pouring in, and the first batch of the new Fiats was shipped to China in 1935, promising the revenue that Italy desperately needed. Unfortunately, the insufficient technical skills of the Chinese pilots and mechanics of the time meant that they were forced to quickly give up hopes of using these cutting-edge Italian vehicles. On the other hand, the Italian pilots instantly appreciated the Fiat’s qualities. By the end of 1935, CR.32s made up the lion’s share of Italy’s fighter fleet. The various models of the CR.32 were also in demand around the world. Starting in the mid-1930s, besides being exported to China, the Italian biplane was ordered by Hungary, Austria, Paraguay, and Venezuela, while Franco’s CR.32quater planes that arrived in Spain during the civil war were produced under license under the designation HA-132-L.
The initial CR.32 model was released in 1935 and was equipped with a pair of 7.7 mm synchronized Vickers machine guns on the fuselage. The modification that followed, the CR.32bis, was put into production in 1936, and had enhanced armament in the form of four 7.7 mm machine guns (two of which were later replaced with the 12.7 mm Breda-SAFAT). It was also fitted with an upgraded engine capable of brief thrust augmentation. The third modification, the CR.32ter (“ter” for third), came in 1937. It was lighter than the CR.32bis and had improved onboard equipment. From the third model onward, the aircraft’s main armament comprised two synchronized large-caliber Breda-SAFAT machine guns on the fuselage. The final modification, put into production at the end of 1937, was the CR.32quater (“quater” for fourth), which gained a larger water-cooling radiator and the ability to carry small bombs. Between 1935 and 1939, a total of 1,211 CR.32 fighter aircraft were produced, 159 of which were exported to other countries.
The aircraft’s battle debut came in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War. On August 20, the Italian CR.32 shot down the Republican NiD 52. The Italian aircraft were initially only up against the outdated ragtag band that comprised the Republican aviation fleet, so success seemed inevitable – however, by autumn, the tables had turned. The Republicans acquired the incredibly fast SB Soviet bombers, and the Italian CR.32s had no hope of matching their speed. The new Soviet I-15 and I-16 fighters soon appeared, surpassing the Italian CR.32s and the German He 51s in virtually every flight characteristic. The Italian pilots fought tooth and nail in their clashes with the Soviet fighters, and in January 1938, the Spaniards also took a liking to the CR.32s, giving them the nickname the “Cricket.” The Spanish Cricket became the most widely used aircraft throughout the whole civil war (375 CR.32s were supplied to Spain) and became a de facto symbol of the conflict.
By the start of the Second World War, most of the old CR.32s had been repurposed as training aircraft, although they continued to be used in secondary combat areas until the spring of 1941.