Biplane fighter aces

The Commonwealth

Wing Commander Robert Somerset Blake, RAF no. 37274

Blake was born on 13 October 1913 and was from Pretoria, South Africa.

He lived in Parktown, Johannesburg before joining the RAF on a short service commission in September 1935.

He was promoted to Flying Officer in November 1938 and Acting Flight Lieutenant on 24 May 1939. In this rank he served as a flight commander in 54 Squadron.

On 9 May 1940 he relinquished his acting rank and was granted special leave in South Africa. Here he was seconded to the SAAF as a Flight Lieutenant, accompanying 1 SAAF Squadron to Kenya in June 1940 when Italy entered the war.

In August 1940 the 1 SAAF Squadron was operating from Wajir in Kenya against the Italians in East Africa.

On 3 August 1940, an Italian Caproni Ca.133 bomber from 8a Squadriglia, 25o Gruppo, approached the airfield on reconnaissance. Three Hawker Furies were ordered off. Lieutenant Pannell’s Fury ‘206’ failed to start but the other two, with Flight Lieutenant Blake (Fury ‘203’) and Second Lieutenant Patrick Rushmere (Fury ‘205’) both almost naked as they had been sunbathing, scrambled and attacked the Italian aircraft. Almost at once Rushmere’s guns failed, but Blake made a number of frontal attacks, firing a long burst into the cockpit, whereupon the Capitano piloting the aircraft attempted to land, but crashed in the bush seven miles from Wajir, the aircraft bursting into flames. All the crew perished apart the pilot, who was pulled out by rescuers. Badly burned and injured in the crash, he gallantly attempted to rescue his crew, but was forced back by the flames and died later. It was considered that Rushmere’s burst of fire had hit home before his guns failed, and this victory was therefore credited to him and Blake jointly.

When 2 SAAF Squadron formed on 30 September 1940 from 1 SAAF Squadron’s two Flights in Kenya, Blake was one of the pilots transferred to this new Squadron.

In October 1940 Hurricanes were borrowed from 3 SAAF Squadron.

During the evening of 24 October Blake and Lieutenant D. H. Loftus of 2 SAAF Squadron borrowed two of 3 SAAF Squadron’s newly arrived Hurricanes and flew them up to the forward strip at Lokitaung, near Lake Rudolph), where a raid was expected. Next morning sure enough three S.81s of the 29o Gruppo from Yavello approached, led by Capitano Tito Zucconi, the other being flown by Sottotenente Argento and Sottotenente Titi. They had been ordered to take photographs and to bomb Lodwar, and also see if the reported arrival of Hurricanes in the area was correct. Near Lokitaung Zucconi, busily searching the ground, led the formation into a 360o turn which gave the Hurricanes, which scrambled at 10:45, time to intercept the bombers right over the heads of Imperial troops on the ground. Blake attacked and shot down Argento’s aircraft, the pilot being killed immediately. The co-pilot, a Sergente, tried to land the blazing aircraft, but touched down at too high speed, crashing into some large trees. The wireless operator, Signorelli, leapt out through the fuselage door and survived, but the rest of the crew was killed in the crash. Meanwhile Lieutenant Loftus had at the same time attacked Titi’s aircraft until his guns jammed. His third burst smashed the instrument panel in the cockpit and with two engines out of action and fuel pouring into the fuselage from the punctured tanks, Titi hastily jettisoned his bombs and force-landed on the bed of a dried up river at Lokitaung. As they went down the Hurricane flew alongside, Loftus saluting them as he passed. The crew swiftly set fire to the petrol-soaked Savoia and set off for the frontier, but was taken POW’s by British police, who arrived on the scene in three cars. While these two bombers were falling, Blake had also attacked Zucconi’s aircraft, claiming to have badly damaged it, and it was later reported to have force-landed. This was not the case however, for it managed to reach its base safely. When the Hurricanes were inspected after landing it was found that only one of their combined total of sixteen 0.303in machine guns had not jammed, and as a result less than fifty percent of their ammunition had been expended!

By mid December 1940, Blake was in command of ‘B’ Flight of 2 SAAF Squadron and during the month he led four Hurricanes on detachment to Ndege’s Nest.

In the afternoon on 18 December 1940 Tenente Romano Palmera, commander of 110a Squadriglia RT, made a reconnaissance over the El Wak area in a Ro37bis. He saw a column of vehicles and also a Hurricane, flown by Blake, which was just beginning its take-off run from Ndege’s Nest landing ground. Palmera swooped down to attack the Hurricane, which was hit by three bullets. He then made off, using the speed he had gained in his dive to escape at low level before the Hurricane could get fully airborne and attack him. Blake thought his attacker had been a CR.42, which had underestimated his take-off speed.

On the evening of 29 December 1940, four Hurricanes of ‘B’ Flight, 2 SAAF Squadron, led by Flight Lieutenant Blake (Hurricane V7283) and including Lieutenant J. A. Kok (Hurricane R4104), Captain A. Q. Masson and Lieutenant A. M. Colenbrander raided Bardera airfield. During the attack one S.81 was set on fire and two more were possibly badly damaged.
Three CR.42s, which were at a satellite strip, were scrambled. Tenente Franco De Micheli and Sottotenente Osvaldo Bartolozzi got off first, but Sergente Strano had to wait for the dust they had raised to subside before he could follow. This same dust brought the Hurricanes down on him as he begun his run and one attacked him, firing two bursts. The first of these hit the left side of the aircraft and put 17 splinters into his body, also damaging the throttle control, while the second burst struck the right side, puncturing the compressed air cylinder. Strano continued his run, however, taking off under attack. Without compressed air he was unable to operate his guns and had to manoeuvre wildly to escape being shot down. He later landed with the tyres flat and the fabric stripped completely from the rear fuselage. The Hurricanes meanwhile continued their strafing, unaware that two CR.42s had already got into the air. Flying cover, Blake saw the Italian fighters climbing up, but as the Hurricanes were not as this stage fitted with radio, was unable to warn either his wingman, Lieutenant J. A. Kok, or the other Hurricane pilots who were now making their third strafe. Although Blake made a dummy pass on Kok’s aircraft in an effort to attract his attention, the latter did not catch on in time, and Tenente De Micheli was enable to engage Kok in a dogfight, while Bartolozzi similarly engaged Blake. The fight continued, according to observers on the ground, for around seven to nine minutes, De Micheli then shooting down Kok’s Hurricane in flames; the pilot baled out and became a prisoner, having been slightly wounded. Bartolozzi finally managed to get a good burst into Blake’s Hurricane from below, wounding the pilot in the foot and setting fire to the fuel tank. Burned around the waist and legs, Blake was unable to climb out of his cockpit, so he turned his aircraft on its back and fell out at 700 feet. On landing by parachute he was almost immediately surrounded by ‘banda’, followed soon after by an Italian officer, and taken prisoner. Blake was removed to the airfield sick quarters where Sergente Strano just had been brought in. Blake was now in bad shape from his wounds and was later moved to the town hospital for more extensive treatment, as the wound to his foot was quite severe. He remained in the hospital for some time.

He was released when East Africa fell to Commonwealth forces.

He later became Wing Commander whilst serving in the Middle East.

Blake ended the war with 1 shared biplane victory and a total of 1 and 1 shared destroyed.

During his career Blake was awarded an AFC.

Kill no. Date Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  03/08/40 1/2 Ca.133 (a) Shared destroyed Fury ’203’ 7m from Wajir 1 SAAF Squadron
1 25/10/40 1 S.81 (b) Destroyed Hurricane ’285’ 10m SE Lodwar 2 SAAF Squadron
  25/10/40 1 S.81 (c) Damaged Hurricane ’285’ 10m SE Lodwar 2 SAAF Squadron

Biplane victories: 1 shared destroyed.
TOTAL: 1 and 1 shared destroyed, 1 damaged.
(a) Ca.133 from 8a Squadriglia, 25o Gruppo. The crew perished.
(b) S.81 from 29o Gruppo flown by Sottotenente Argento. The crew perished except for the wireless operator, Signorelli.
(c) S.81 from 29o Gruppo flown by Capitano Tito Zucconi, which wasn’t badly damaged.

Air Enthusiast Quarterly/Three kindly provided by Börje Henningsson
Dust Clouds in the Middle East - Christopher Shores, 1996 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-898697-37-X
Springbok Fighter Victory: East Africa Volume 1 1940 – 1941 – Michael Shoeman, 2002 African Aviation Series No. 11, Freeworld Publications CC, ISBN 0-958-4388-5-4
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Those Other Eagles – Christopher Shores, 2004 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-904010-88-1

Last modified 09 March 2021