Biplane fighter aces

The Commonwealth

Flight Lieutenant Richard Nigel 'Ape' Cullen DFC, RAF no. 39967

Nigel Cullen was born in Newcastle, New South Wales, on 5 June 1917, but lived in England, in the London suburb of Putney.

He was known as "Ape" due to his physique and raced Norton motorcycles at Brooklands in 1934. He joined the International Brigade in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, fighting on the Republican side. He was wounded in the stomach and returned to England.

Back in the U.K., he joined the RAF and was promoted to Pilot Officer on probation on 24 August 1937 (with seniority of 9 August). Promotion to Pilot Officer followed on 31 May 1938.

On 31 December 1939, he was promoted to Flying Officer.

He was sent to the Middle East as a ferry pilot. He was incorporated into 167 Squadron when it was formed from the Communication Flight there in August 1940. Cullen managed to get a posting to 80 Squadron the following month and to fly fighters.

At 15:30 on 9 October, Flying Officer Cullen (Gladiator K7892) of the 80 Squadron was on a lone flight south of Sidi Barrani searching for missing army personnel in the area east of El Khamsa. He met five Breda Ba.65 ground attack aircraft from 159a Squadriglia, 12o Gruppo in Vee formation. He climbed to 10,000 feet and dived down on them from dead ahead out of the sun. He fired on the enemy leader, using approximately 400 rounds and reported that it went down with smoke coming from the engine cowling. The other four aircraft immediately went into a tight left hand bank. Cullen was able to get many deflection shots on them but could not see any results. He reported that the Italian aircraft didn’t seem to fire from their rear cockpits at all. They all did one quarter attack on him before disappearing by diving into clouds to the west. He gave chase but was outdistanced.
He then continued his search for the missing army personnel and observed a burnt out wreckage by a well in the vicinity. On return, he was credited with a probably destroyed.
According to Italian sources, all six aircraft returned to base.

The squadron then moved to Greece, where he was to make many claims.

During the morning on 30 December Larissa was under an air raid alert and at 10.40 three 80 Squadron Gladiators were scrambled, but one had to return early due to a lack of oil pressure. At 11.15 another hostile was reported approaching from the north-east, and at that point ten Gladiators from the units detachment at Athens passed overhead, and were signalled to continue to search for the enemy aircraft. Flying Officer Cullen (which was one of the three which had taken off from Larissa) then spotted a trimotor out to sea west of the Kassandra peninsula, which he identified as an S.81. He attacked and one engine caught fire after his first attack and after several more the aircraft dived into the sea and disintegrating - this is believed to have been a bomber from the 38o Stormo B.T.

On 28 January, Squadron Leader Edward 'Tap' Jones led 15 Gladiators from 80 Squadron on an offensive patrol between Kelcyre and Premet.
At 14.20 four 37o Stormo BR.20s and five 35o Stormo Z.1007bis were sighted, and Flight Lieutenant 'Pat' Pattle’s section of three (Pattle, Sergeant Charles Casbolt and Pilot Officer Eldon Trollip) engaged one of the latter unit's new aircraft in a line-astern attack, which fell in flames, only two members of the crew managing to bale out. Casbolt then attacked a second Cant, while Pattle and Trollip went after one of the BR.20s. The Fiat was seen to go down gushing smoke from its starboard engine, disappearing into the clouds covering the mountains near Premeti and was claimed as a probable. Flying Officer Cullen also reported shooting down a Z.1007bis, which exploded in midair, but as only one was actually lost it is presumed that he also fired at the aircraft shot down by Pattle’s section. One other Cant in another formation was damaged and returned with three wounded aboard - presumably the second bomber attacked and claimed damaged by Casbolt.

At 10:30 on 9 February 1941, Squadron Leader "Tap" Jones led off 14 of 80 Squadron's Gladiators on an offensive patrol over the Tepelene area. They took off in four sub-flights led by Jones, Flight Lieutenant "Pat" Pattle, Flying Officer 'Shorty' Graham and Flight Lieutenant "Timber" Woods. During the take-off Flying Officer W. B. Price-Owen, in the last section, experienced engine stoppage as his Gladiator became airborne and he was forced to glide back to the airfield.
Near Tepelene a trio of S.79s were seen, but lost in cloud. It is however possible that Pilot Officer William Vale claimed that he damaged one of these since he did claim one damaged during the day.
Jones took the Squadron round in a wide arc just north of Kelcyre and led them back towards Tepelene. His engine had been running rough for the last fifteen minutes and now it was beginning to vibrate. He called Pattle over the radiotelephone and told him to take over the lead. Then he throttled right back to ease the shuddering. Within a few seconds he was joined by Flying Officer Wanklyn Flower, who was also having trouble with his engine and together they flew back to Yanina.
Meanwhile, the Squadron continued their patrol and just before midday five CR.42s were seen far away off the port beam by Pattle, followed by many more, 30-40 being reported. In fact there were just 16 fighters of the 150o Gruppo, led by Capitano Edmondo Travaglini, commander of the 365a Squadriglia. The Italian pilots also overestimated the opposition, identifying the eleven Gladiators as 20 strong.
Many individual dogfights developed between Tepelene and Argyrokastron. Pattle shot down one Fiat CR.42, which crashed into the ground at speed on the outskirts of Tepelene, while Flying Officer Cullen put four bursts into another and reported seeing it crash into the hillside and burst into flames. The Squadron returned to claim four definitely shot down and three probables, but the Greek authorities provided confirmation next day that all seven had crashed, and victories were credited to Flight Lieutenant George Kettlewell, Pilot Officer Vale, Pilot Officer C. H. Tulloch, Sergeant Donald Gregory and Sergeant Charles Casbolt, as well as Pattle and Cullen.
Pilot Officer Vale reported:

"I was slightly behind the main formation … I observed about six or more formations of five CR42s [each] above us and so I gave ‘Tally-ho!’ and I immediately climbed. A dogfight started and from my position the policy of the e/a seemed to be diving attacks and gaining height straight away. One CR42 dived on me from above but I managed to evade his fire by pulling round and up towards him. I fired a short burst, which seemed to scare him away. I then saw a CR42 diving down on another Gladiator and so carried out a diving quarter attack and he pulled away, which left me in an astern position close in. I carried on firing until the e/a turned over on its back and the pilot left the machine. I saw his parachute open and so gained height and fired a long burst at a CR42, which dived down on me from above. I then broke away from the combat and owing to shortage of ammunition and fuel returned to base with F/O Cullen, who came up and formatted with me. We landed at 1240 and on inspecting aircraft found no damage.
The initial claims had been nearer the truth, for four CR.42s were in fact hit. Sergente Romano Maionica (365a Squadriglia) and Sergente Danilo Birolo (364a Squadriglia) both failed to return, the latter being believed to have baled out (Maionica was KIA and Birolo landed in Yugoslavian territory), while Tenente Enzo Rovetta (364a Squadriglia) was wounded and crashed while attempting to land at base, and Capitano Travaglini force-landed near Tirana. In return, the Italians claimed four Gladiators destroyed and nine damaged. 364a Squadriglia pilots Tenente Alberto Spigaglia, Sottotenente Pasquale Faltoni and Maresciallo Ugo Guidi were each credited with a victory.
Flying Officer F. W. Hosken baled out of Gladiator N5811, wounded in one leg, when his controls were shot away and he came down near Tepelene. Flight Lieutenant Kettlewell force-landed Gladiator N5858 some 50 miles north of Yanina due to lack of oil pressure, but with his aircraft undamaged. Both returned to Yanina aided by the Greek army.

On 10 February Italian bombers of all types made sustained attacks on Yanina. Fighters of both the EVA and the RAF patrolled and intercepted in a series of rather confused engagements. During the morning three formations of 47o Stormo Z.1007bis and five S.79s from the 104o Gruppo attacked Yanina. The latter formation were escorted by 154o Gruppo CT G.50bis fighters, led by Maggiore (CO) Eugenio Leotta. This formation was intercepted by a trio of 21 Mira Gladiators, but the escort were on them like a shot, Maggiore Leotta claiming one shot down and his pilots a second in collaboration. The Greek unit only lost one aircraft when Anthyposminagos (Second Lieutenant) Anastassios Bardivilias was shot down and killed.
Three Gladiators of 80 Squadron ('Pat' Pattle, Greg Graham and P. T. Dowding) had chased five Z.1007bis bombers during mid morning (probably a formation from 47o Stormo), but could not gain sufficient height to make an effective attack. Nevertheless they saw their fire strike two of the bombers, Flight Lieutenant Pattle claiming one damaged. During these morning raids bombs fell on the west and north sides of the airfield, but little damage was caused other than to one staff car.
The afternoon was practically a continual air raid alarm. Four S.79s of 104o Gruppo attacked under escort by a dozen 154o Gruppo G.50bis, the escort claiming a further Gladiator shot down when a single Allied fighter of this type intercepted. Ten more 47o Stormo Z.1007bis crews reported attack by ten Gladiators and seven PZLs, claiming four Gladiators shot down. However seven of the bombers were hit, one of them badly, and a number of aircrew were wounded. Fourteen RAF Gladiators, 12 from 80 Squadron and two from 112 Squadron, undertook defensive patrols, during one of which Flying Officer Cullen chased away one formation of five trimotors, then attacked five more head-on (identified as S.79s) and chased these out to sea, claiming to have shot one down into the sea south of Corfu. Another formation identified as BR.20s, but almost certainly the 47o Stormo Z.1007bis, was intercepted by Flight Lieutenant Pattle, Flight Lieutenant 'Timber' Woods and Sergeant Charles Casbolt, each of these pilots claiming one damaged, while Pilot Officer William Vale caught another which he reported crashed some 15 miles south-west of Yanina. At least five formations raided the airfield during the afternoon, an estimated 150 heavy bombs falling on or near the base. Three 80 Squadron Gladiators were damaged and one 21 Mira fighter was destroyed. In the nearby town much damage was caused and many civilians killed or injured.

On 14 February, his war substantive rank of Flight Lieutenant (as of 31 December 1940) was gazetted.

Early in the afternoon on 20 February 1941 eight Gladiators of 80 Squadron and nine of 112 Squadron flew up to Paramythia from Yannina. At 14:45 15 of these Gladiators took off in five sections of three aircraft flying in vic formation, echeloned to starboard and led by Squadron Leader H. L. I. Brown, to escort two Wellingtons of 37 Squadron, flown by Flight Lieutenant M. J. Baird-Smith and Sergeant R. T. Spiller, each carrying about one and a halt tons of supplies. A Greek Ju 52/3m accompanied the Wellingtons and their mission was to drop the supplies to the troops near Kelcyre. Low cloud and rain made the flight difficult, and near Korouode five hostile aircraft were seen, but these did not approach. The supplies were dropped successfully, and the three aircraft were escorted back to Paramythia. The fighters then returned to the frontline to patrol.
Soon after the supply-droppers had gone, 17 Blenheims (eight of 84 Squadron, six of 211 Squadron and three of 30 Squadron) commenced taking off for a bombing attack on Berat. One of the 84 Squadron aircraft suffered an engine failure and belly-landed, but the remaining 16, with an escort of six Hurricanes led by Flight Lieutenant 'Pat' Pattle (Hurricane Mk.I V7724), arrived over the target, their bombs falling on the town, supply dumps, and demolishing a bridge carrying the main road over the River Osem. AA fire was experienced and Fiat G.50bis from the 361a and 395a Squadriglie, 154o Autonomo Gruppo C.T. were scrambled from Berat airfield. As the Blenheim formation, which had completed its attack, was turning a few miles to the north of the target the climbing Italian fighters were spotted by the escorting Hurricanes.
Pattle's section took on four of the attackers and Pattle shouted to Flight Lieutenant 'Timber' Woods and Sergeant Charles Casbolt to attack individually. Pattle selected the leading G.50 as his own target. As he approached, the dark green Fiat pulled away into a steep turn, but he managed to hold it in his sights until he came into range. When he opened fire the Italian fighter exploded and disintegrated. Woods (Hurricane Mk.I V7138) claimed another and Casbolt claimed two destroyed in this combat. The crews of the Blenheims under attack verified these claims. Pilot Officer Cox's Blenheim L8542 of 211 Squadron was badly shot-up, but two Hurricanes shot down their attacker. Pilot Officer Geary, gunner in Squadron Leader Gordon-Finlayson's aircraft, reported:

'A G 50 came for us and in a flash a Hurricane just shot it off our wingtip. It simply rolled over, went on fire, and dived into the mountain. It was wizard.'
Other Fiats followed the Blenheims as they withdrew. One of the 30 Squadron Blenheims had its starboard engine shot out, but Sergeant Ratlidge managed to get it back to Paramythia. As the formation neared the front, the patrolling Gladiators of 80 and 112 Squadrons spotted the pursuing Italian fighters and engaged them. Flying Officer Cullen (Gladiator Mk.II N5817) reported:
'The leader came into close range and then flicked over on its back and dived down. I did a half-roll and got into position dead astern. Four long bursts and the enemy caught fire and crashed into a snow-covered hill. Then engaged another G.50 and got in some good deflection shots. Saw two formations of biplanes, thought they were Glads and went to take a look at them. They were CR 42s. Got on the tail of one, gave him a burst, and he went over on his back, and the pilot baled out. The others made off at once. Just as well- I hadn't any ammo left.'
Cullen's Gladiator received some damage during these combats and one bullet furrowed the knuckles of his right hand, but he returned to Yannina without further incident. Three G.50s were claimed damaged by 112 Squadron pilots Flight Lieutenant R. J. Abrahams, Flying Officer Edwin Banks and Pilot Officer Jack Groves. Flight Lieutenant George Kettlewell (Gladiator Mk.II N5917) of 80 Squadron also claimed a G.50, but did not see it crash (thus it was only credit as a probable) whilst Pilot Officer Eldon Trollip claimed another probably destroyed.
The Italian fighters had claimed one Blenheim shot down and one fighter identified as a 'Spitfire'. Despite the many RAF claims, it seems that only two Fiats were actually lost. Tenente Alfredo Fusco of the 361a Squadriglia was shot down and killed, while Tenente Livio Bassi of 395a Squadriglia was wounded and while attempting to force-land his damaged aircraft at Berat, the Fiat flipped over and caught fire. Bassi, credited at this time with seven victories, was to linger for 43 days before dying in hospital in Rome. A third G.50bis, flown by Sergente Gambetta, was damaged. Both Bassi and Fusco were subsequently awarded posthumous Medaglia d'oro al valor militare.

Nigel Cullen (right) with a visiting Army Officer in Greece 1941.

At 10.30 on 23 February Flying Officer Cullen was sent off to search for a Z.506B from 191a Squadriglia, 86o Gruppo B.M. forced down by Blenheim IFs from 30 Squadron (Squadron Leader Milward and Flying Officer Davidson) during the previous morning, which was believed to be on the sea ten miles south of Parga with engine trouble. Obviously the crew had been able to repair the damage inflicted by Milward and Davidson for as Cullen flew south he saw it at the southern end of Antipaxoi Island, trying to take of. Diving down he fired a burst and it came to a halt a white cloth being waved. As he circled overhead it attempted to take off again and he attacked, his fire being returned even though the white cloth was still flying. The stricken aircraft then began to sink, and he flew to Paramythia to report. Later a second Gladiator confirmed that the aircraft was ashore on Akra Novare Island, where the Greek hospital ship Andros later rescued four survivors and collected two bodies. Subsequently one of 30 Squadron's Blenheims reported that the aircraft was half submerged, its floats sticking up out of the water.

The unit received a number of Hurricanes, one of which he was allocated to fly.

At 15:00 on 27 February, nine Blenheims, six from 211 Squadron and three from 11 Squadron, set off to bomb Valona, escorted by five 80 Squadron Hurricanes and four more from 33 Squadron. An hour later, as the formation arrived over Valona, 13 CR.42s of the 150o Gruppo attacked as the Blenheims were bombing. Although the Hurricane escort engaged them at once, some got through to the bombers and damaged five of them, including all three of the 11 Squadron machines. Two of these (N5379 and T2399) would crash-land on return to Paramythia, both having suffered heavy damage to their hydraulic systems and both were written off. The Hurricanes meanwhile had become involved in a heavy battle with the Fiats during which seven of the Italian fighters were claimed shot down, and two more were reported to have collided with each other after being attacked by Sergeant Edward Hewett and crashed. Claims were made by Flight Lieutenant 'Pat' Pattle, Flying Officer Cullen, Sergeant Hewett (two), Flying Officer Richard Acworth, and Flying Officer Wanklyn Flower, who shared one with a 33 Squadron pilot, believed to have been Flying Officer H. J. Starrett. The seventh claim was believed to have been made by 33's Flight Sergeant Leonard Cottingham.
In the event it seems that only two CR.42s were lost but it hit the 364a Squadriglia, which had scrambled three fighters since both of them were from the unit. Sottotenente Pasquale Faltoni, the formation leader, baling out after suffering wounds, as did Sergente Osvaldo Bertolaccini, who was almost dead when he hit the ground. Sergente Bertolaccini later succumbed to his wounds. The Italians made no claims and believed that their attackers had been Spitfires (this indicates that Bertolaccini actually shot down two Blenheims and thus made an ace before dying). Pattle’s Hurricane suffered a single bullet through the petrol tank - the only damage recorded to the British fighters. A further CR.42 of the Gruppo's 364a Squadriglia was destroyed on the ground by the Blenheims’ bombs, and several others were damaged. A dozen drums of fuel went up in flames, and two airmen were wounded.
Pilot Officer Geary, gunner in Blenheim L1481 of the 211 Squadron, recorded his impressions of the raid:

“I had a grandstand view of the whole affair. It was lovely bombing - direct hits all over the aerodrome and on buildings. A large formation of CR42s took of to intercept us. One got on my tail, so I put a burst into him, and he fell away. Then two Hurricanes appeared in a flash, and well, he just fell to pieces. The Hurricanes wheeled and proceeded to deal with the others. The sky was full of crashing aircraft - and they were all enemy. We had a most pleasant tour home, and the scenery looked more lovely than ever.”

On 28 February HQ 'W' Wing ordered that all available aircraft should patrol between Tepelene and the coast between 15:30 and 16:30, since Intelligence sources indicated the operation of large numbers of Italian aircraft in that area at that time. Hence during the morning all available Gladiators of 80 and 112 Squadrons were flown up to Paramythia in preparation for this action. Patrols were flown during the morning by flights of Hurricanes but nothing was seen.
At about 15:00 Squadron Leader H. L. I. Brown and Squadron Leader Edward 'Tap' Jones led of eleven Gladiators of 112 Squadron and seven of 80 Squadron to patrol over the designated area; they were accompanied by the 'W' Wing leader, Wing Commander ’Paddy’ Coote, flying an 80 Squadron Gladiator. Fifteen minutes later Flight Lieutenant 'Pat' Pattle in Hurricane V7589 led Flying Officer Cullen (V7138), Flying Officer Wanklyn Flower (V6749) and Flying Officer Richard Acworth (V7288) to the same area, while Flight Lieutenant Young led four 33 Squadron Hurricanes to patrol near the coast. Here some S.79s were seen and chased over Corfu, two being claimed damaged, one of them by Pilot Officer D. S. F. Winsland (Winsland was later during the war shot down by Bernardino Serafini). These were probably 105o Gruppo B.T. aircraft, which reported being attacked by Spitfires, one Savoia landing at Tirana with one member of the crew dead.
Meanwhile Pattle’s section spotted BR.20s of 37o Stormo B.T. flying south from Valona; they identified the ten-strong formation as comprising 15 aircraft, while the bomber crews reported being attacked by 18 ‘Spitfires'! Pattle selected one on the starboard flank of the formation, and after three short bursts it broke into flames and went down; a second bomber likewise burst into flames following a further attack by Pattle, and his windscreen was covered in oil from this doomed aircraft. Reducing speed, Pattle attempted to clean the screen with his scarf, but he was then attacked by five G.50bis which dived on him. After a brief skirmish he managed to get away and returned to Paramythia. Both Flower and Acworth also claimed BR.20s. although the latter thought his victim may have been a Z.1007bis. Flying Officer Cullen reported considerable success in the run of claims which was to bring him the award of an immediate DFC. He later recalled:

“The battle extended right across Albania. First I found four Breda 20s (sic). I got one, which went down in flames Then we found three formations of S.79s. I took on one and aimed at the starboard engine. It caught fire, and crashed in flames. I climbed and dived on the next - and he too crashed in flames. Then we attacked ten CR.42s, climbing to get above them. I got behind one, and he caught fire and went down in flames. Up again immediately, dived, fired into the cockpit, and another took fire, rolled over and crashed. I had to come home then - no more ammo.”
Three BR.20s were in fact shot down during this combat and a fourth force-landed near Otranto; others returned with wounded crewmembers aboard, plus one dead.
By now the Gladiators had joined the fighting, as had CR.42s of 160o Gruppo and G.50bis of 24o Gruppo. A single Hurricane of 33 Squadron arrived late on the scene. Flying Officer Newton having scrambled from Paramythia when news of the heavy fighting came through. On arrival over the battle area he promptly attacked a CR.42, only to find that it was an 80 Squadron Gladiator! A 112 Squadron Gladiator then got on his tail, obviously taking the Hurricane for a G.50bis, and inflicted damage on his aircraft, chasing him back towards Paramythia. A few of the Gladiators made contact with the bombers, Pilot Officer William Vale claiming an S.79 shot down, whilst Flying Officer Edwin Banks and Pilot Officer R. H. McDonald of 112 Squadron each claimed damage to a BR.20. The Gladiators’ main claims were for nine CR.42s and two probables, plus six G.50bis and three probables after that the rest of the Gladiators made contract with the Italian fighters. 80 Squadron made following claims – Squadron Leader Jones (2 CR.42s), Wing Commander Coote (1 CR.42), Warrant Officer Richens (1 CR.42), Pilot Officer Vale (1 S.79 and 1 G.50bis), Flight Lieutenant Kettlewell (1 probable CR.42 and 1 probable G.50bis), Pilot Officer Trollip (1 probable CR.42) and Flying Officer Dowding (1 probable G.50bis). 112 Squadron also made a number of claims – Squadron Leader Brown (1 G.50bis), Flight Lieutenant Fraser (1 CR.42 and 1 G.50bis), Flight Lieutenant Fry (1 CR.42 and 1 G.50bis), Flight Lieutenant Abrahams (1 G.50bis), Flying Officer Cochrane (1 CR.42), Flying Officer Banks (1 and 1 damaged CR.42 and 1 damaged BR.20), Pilot Officer Jack Groves (1 CR.42), Sergeant Donaldson (1 and 1 probable G.50bis), Flying Officer Smith (1 damaged CR.42) and Pilot Officer McDonald (1 damaged BR.20).
Squadron Leader Brown recorded that the G.50bis he attacked turned sharply to starboard on its back and fell away in an inverted spin; he thought he had hit the pilot. Flight Lieutenant Fraser claimed that his victim flew into a mountainside, while the pilot of the CR.42 he claimed baled out, but his parachute failed to open; Sergeant Donaldson’s victim was seen to crash on the seashore. Flight Lieutenant Abrahams, after his victory, was attacked by another G.50bis - believed to have been flown by Tenente Mario Bellagambi - and was shot down near Sarande. He recalled:
“The old Glad suddenly went all soft. Nothing would work. I sat there and then decided I had better get out. I couldn't, so I sat there with my hands on my lap, the aircraft spinning like mad. Then, eventually, I did manage to get out. It was so pleasant sitting there in the air than I damn nearly forgot to pull the ripcord. I reckon I did the record delayed drop for all Albania and Greece. I landed, and no sooner had I fallen sprawling on the ground than I was picked up by Greek soldiers who cheered and patted me on the back. I thought I was a hell of a hero until one soldier asked me. "Milano, Roma?" and I realized that they thought I was an Iti. They didn't realize it was possible for an Englishman to be shot down. So I said "Inglese", and then the party began. I was hoisted on their shoulders, and the "here the conquering hero comes" procession started. We wined and had fun. Jolly good chaps.”
Following his initial combats, Pattle had returned to Paramythia, landed, and taken off again ten minutes later in another Hurricane (V7724). Returning to the battle area, he spotted three CR.42s in formation, heading back towards Valona:
“I got behind them and put a long burst into all three. One went down vertically at once, but in case it was a trick I followed him. He was in difficulties, that was most obvious, and when it looked as if he was going straight into the sea I decided to go and see what the other two were up to. As I climbed again I was most surprised to see tow parachutes float down past me.”
On his return, Pattle claimed two destroyed, those from which he had seen the pilots come down by parachute, and one probable for that which he had followed down. Just before he got back to Paramythia for the second time at 17.40, Flying Officer Flower, who had returned an hour earlier, also took off for a second patrol over the area after his Hurricane had been refuelled and rearmed. There was nothing to be seen - the battle was over.
On the Italian side, the CR.42s of 160o Gruppo had been escorting four S.79s of 104o Gruppo in the Kuc area, between Tepelene and Himare, when British fighters identified as Spitfires, Hurricanes and Gladiators, were encountered. Two Gladiators were claimed shot down and one as a probable, a ‘Spitfire’ also being claimed. Sottotenente Raoul Francinetti of 394a Squadriglia landed back at base wounded in one leg, and Sottotenente Italo Traini of 394a Squadriglia was shot down and killed. Gunners in the S.79s also claimed two Gladiators shot down, as did the G.50bis pilots of the 24o Gruppo, the latter also claiming two more as probables. Tenente Bellagambi, following his combat with Flight Lieutenant Abrahams, was then shot down and wounded in one arm: he force-landed near Tirana airfield. Capitano Ettore Foschini's aircraft was also hit and he was wounded, also coming down at Tirana.
This day was recorded as RAF’s most successful during the Greek campaign. During the large engagements RAF made claims for 5 and 2 damaged BR.20s, 3 and 2 damaged S.79s, 13 destroyed, 3 probable and 1 damaged CR.42s and 6 and 3 probable G.50bis. In fact 4 BR.20s of 37o Stormo B.T. were lost with several damaged, 1 S.79 of 104o Gruppo was damaged, 1 CR.42 of 160o Gruppo and 2 G.50bis of 24o Gruppo were lost. Regia Aeronautica claimed 6 and 2 probable Gladiators and 1 ‘Spitfire’ while in fact only 1 Gladiator of 112 Squadron was lost.

On 3 March two Hurricanes from 80 Squadron were ordered up on patrol at 1025, flown by Flying Officer Cullen and Pilot Officer William Vale, while a third, flown by the attached 112 Squadron pilot Flying Officer Richard Acworth, was sent up on an air test. As these got into the air ten Cant Z.1007bis bombers of 50o Gruppo Autonomo B.T. from Brindisi approached the area in two formations of five each, while other such aircraft from 47o Stormo B.T. were also over Greece at this time. The 50o Gruppo aircraft bombed the earthquake-shattered town of Larissa, and were on their way home by the time the Hurricanes were vectored onto them. Flying Officer Acworth was first on the scene, soon joined by the other pair, and he reported:

“Took off to test aircraft - before leaving heard that ten enemy aircraft heading towards Preveza. I flew in that direction and saw bombing in progress, and although I had not enough speed to catch the first section of bombers, I finally got near enough to second section - attacked No 5 and shot it down in flames - witnessed by Flying Officer Cullen, who shot down No 4. I saw one crew member leaving No 5 but afterwards, apart from an empty chute floating down, no trace of him was found. Both mine and Flying Officer Cullen’s first bomber crashed into the sea five miles south-west of Corfu.”
Cullen continued to attack and returned to claim a total of four Cants shot down and one probable, although his Hurricane was badly damaged by return fire, one bullet passing through his flying boot and grazing his shin; he reported seeing 18 parachutes in the air at one time. Pilot Officer Vale also claimed a bomber shot down, but identified his victim as an S.81.
It seems however that the 50o Gruppo formation lost only the first two bombers shot down; the crews reported that they were pursued initially by two Greek PZLs, both of which the gunners claimed to have shot down. They were then attacked south of Corfu by ‘seven Spitfires’, claiming two of these shot down also. The second formation reported encountering intense AA fire over Preveza and returned with three aircraft damaged, while a 47o Stormo Z.1007bis was also hit and one member of the crew wounded.

During the morning on 4 March five Italian warships identified as two cruisers and three destroyers, sortied down the Albanian coast and commenced shelling the coastal road near Himare and Port Palermo, under cover of a strong fighter escort of G.50bis and CR42s from the 24o Gruppo C.T. The flotilla actually comprised of the destroyer Augusto Riboty, the torpedo boat Andromeda and three MAS boats.
An immediate strike was ordered by RAF units, 15 Blenheims being ordered off. Nine 211 Squadron aircraft and five from 84 Squadron (a sixth failed to start) were led to the area by Squadron Leaders Gordon-Finlayson and Jones, escorted by ten Hurricanes, followed by 17 Gladiators, 14 from 112 Squadron and three from 80 Squadron. Four 80 Squadron Hurricanes led by Flight Lieutenant 'Pat' Pattle flew on the starboard flank of the bombers, with four from 33 Squadron to port, and two more above as ‘weavers’. At 15:00 the warships were seen ten miles south of Valona, and the Blenheims went in to bomb in line astern; several near misses were seen, but no hits were recorded.
At this point six G.50bis dived on the Hurricanes, shooting down V7801 in flames; 24-year-old Warrant Officer Harry J. Goodchild DFM (RAF No. 517435) was killed. It seems that the Italian fighters did not see the bombers, for they reported only single-engined types - ten ‘Spitfires’, three ‘Battles’ (obviously Hurricanes) and 20 Gladiators. Once the Blenheims had completed their run and were on their return flight, Pattle ordered the Hurricanes to hunt in pairs over the warships, where a number of Italian fighters were seen. At once a lone G.50bis attacked Pattle and his No 2 - on this occasion Flying Officer Cullen - but Pattle promptly shot this down and watched it spiral into a mountainside just north of Himare. At this moment a second Fiat ‘jumped’ Cullen (Hurricane V7288) and he was not seen again; his aircraft crashed near Himare, and the Australian ‘ace’ was killed.
Pattle flew on towards Valona, and was attacked by another lone G.50bis which he reported went into the sea south-west of Valona harbour after a brief combat. He then became involved with a third such fighter over Valona harbour and claimed to have shot this down into the sea in flames on the west side of the promontory. Nine CR.42s were then seen below and he dived on these, reporting that one went into a spin with smoke pouring from its engine; he claimed this as a probable. Sergeant Edward Hewett was also heavily engaged, claiming one G.50bis shot down near Himare and three of eight CR.42s near Valona. The only other claim by a Hurricane pilot was made by Pilot Officer William Vale, who claimed another G.50bis.
Meanwhile the Gladiators, led by Squadron Leader H. L. I. Brown, tangled with a reported ten G.50bis and five CR.42s. Flight Lieutenant Joseph Fraser led the third section after some G.50bis which entered clouds, but he claimed one shot down and a second shared with Brown, Pilot Officer Jack Groves and Pilot Officer D. G. H. McDonald. Flying Officer Richard Acworth was about to attack another when he came under fire himself and was driven down to 2000 feet. He got in a few deflection shots, saw smoke issue from his opponent’s engine before being attacked by another, and thus only claimed a probable. Flying Officer Edwin Banks attacked a G.50bis which went into a spin; as he saw a parachute in the vicinity he also claimed a probable, and two more such claims were made by Flight Lieutenant Charles Fry and Sergeant 'Paddy' Donaldson, while four more aircraft damaged were claimed by Groves, Brown, McDonald and Flying Officer Homer Cochrane.
In return the 24o Gruppo pilots claimed four Gladiators, one ‘Spitfire’ and one ‘Battle’ shot down. Sottotenente Nicolo Cobolli Gigli of 355a Squadriglia, who was flying a CR.42 on this occasion, and Sergente Marcello De Salvia of 354a Squadriglia were both shot down and killed, while Tenente Francesco Rocca of the latter unit was wounded. No losses by other CR.42 equipped units have been discovered. Cobolli Gigli and De Salvia were both awarded posthumous Medaglia d’Oro al valor militare.

'B' Flight of 80 Squadron at Yanina, Greece, who together shot down more than 100 enemy aircraft.
(Left to right): Sergeant Casbolt, Sergeant Barker, Sergeant Gregory, Pilot Officer Vale, Flight Lieutenant Pattle, Pilot Officer Cullen.

At his death Cullen had claimed 6 biplane victories and a total of 16.

Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  09/10/40   1 Ba.65 (a) Probable Gladiator I K7892 S Sidi Barrani 80 Squadron
1 30/12/40   1 S.81 (b) Destroyed Gladiator II N5786 W off Kassandra Penisula 80 Squadron
2 28/01/41   1 Z.1007 (c) Destroyed Gladiator II N5817 Kelcyre-Premet 80 Squadron
3 09/02/41 10:30-12:40 1 CR.42 (d) Destroyed Gladiator II N5817 near Tepelene 80 Squadron
4 10/02/41   1 S.79 (e) Destroyed Gladiator II N5810 S Corfu 80 Squadron
5 20/02/41   1 G.50 (f) Destroyed Gladiator II N5817 near Kelcyre 80 Squadron
  20/02/41   1 G.50 (f) Damaged Gladiator II N5817 near Kelcyre 80 Squadron
6 20/02/41   1 CR.42 (f) Destroyed Gladiator II N5817 near Kelcyre 80 Squadron
  23/02/41   1 Z.506B (g) Destroyed on the water Gladiator II   off Preveza 80 Squadron
7 27/02/41 16:00 1 CR.42 (h) Destroyed Hurricane I V7137 Valona 80 Squadron
8 28/02/41   1 BR.20 (i) Destroyed Hurricane I V7138 S Valona 80 Squadron
9 28/02/41   1 S.79 (i) Destroyed Hurricane I V7138 S Valona 80 Squadron
10 28/02/41   1 S.79 (i) Destroyed Hurricane I V7138 S Valona 80 Squadron
11 28/02/41   1 CR.42 (i) Destroyed Hurricane I V7138 S Valona 80 Squadron
12 28/02/41   1 CR.42 (i) Destroyed Hurricane I V7138 S Valona 80 Squadron
13 03/04/41   1 Z.1007 (j) Destroyed Hurricane I   SW Corfu 80 Squadron
14 03/04/41   1 Z.1007 (j) Destroyed Hurricane I   SW Corfu 80 Squadron
15 03/04/41   1 Z.1007 (j) Destroyed Hurricane I   SW Corfu 80 Squadron
16 03/04/41   1 Z.1007 (j) Destroyed Hurricane I   SW Corfu 80 Squadron
  03/04/41   1 Z.1007 (j) Probable Hurricane I   SW Corfu 80 Squadron

Biplane victories: 6 destroyed, 1 probable, 1 damaged, 1 destroyed on the water.
TOTAL: 16 and 1 shared destroyed, 2 probables, 1 damaged, 1 destroyed on the water.
(a) Claimed in combat with Ba.65s of the 159a Squadriglia, 12o Gruppo, 50o Stormo Ass., which didn’t suffer any losses.
(b) Believed to be S.81 of 38o Stormo B.T.
(c) Claimed in combat with BR.20s from 37o Stormo and Z.1007bis from 35o Stormo. 80 Squadron claimed 2 destroyed, 1 probable and 1 damaged. It seems that one Z.1007bis was lost and one was damaged.
(d) Claimed in combat with the 150o Gruppo, which claimed 4 Gladiators destroyed and 9 damaged while losing 4 CR.42s. 80 Squadron claimed 7 CR.42s while losing 2 Gladiators.
(e) Claimed in combat with S.79s of 104o Gruppo and Z.1007bis of 47o Stormo.
(f) 80 and 112 Squadrons claimed six destroyed and two probables in this combat while 154o Autonomo Gruppo C.T. lost two G.50s (Tenente Alfredo Fusco of 361a Squadriglia was killed and Tenente Livio Bassi of 395a Squadriglia was later to die from wounds sustained) and got one damaged (Sergente Gambetta). 154o Gruppo claimed one bomber and one fighter but RAF only got one fighter and one bomber damaged.
(g) Cant Z.506B from 191a Squadriglia, 86o Gruppo B.M. destroyed. Two of the crew was killed and four were taken POW.
(h) Claimed in combat with CR.42 of 150o Gruppo. 80 and 33 Squadrons claimed seven Fiats shot down and two more were reported to have collided with each other and crashed. 150o Gruppo lost only two CR.42s when Sottotenente Pasquale Faltoni and Sergente Osvaldo Bertolaccini (DFW) were shot down, both pilots baling out. The Italian aircraft didn’t claim anything and the British aircraft didn’t suffer any losses.
(i) During this large engagements RAF made claims for 5 and 2 damaged BR.20s, 3 and 2 damaged S.79s, 13 destroyed, 3 probable and 1 damaged CR.42s and 6 and 3 probable G.50bis. In fact 4 BR.20s of 37o Stormo B.T. were lost with several damaged, 1 S.79 of 104o Gruppo was damaged, 1 CR.42 of 160o Gruppo and 2 G.50bis of 24o Gruppo were lost. Regia Aeronautica claimed 6 and 2 probable Gladiators and 1 ‘Spitfire’ while in fact only 1 Gladiator of 112 Squadron was lost.
(j) Claimed in combat with Z.1007bis from 50o Gruppo B.T. 80 Squadron claimed 6 and 1 probable while only 2 were in fact lost.

53o Stormo - Marco Mattioli, 2010 Osprey Publishing, Oxford, ISBN 978-1-84603-977-5
Ace of Aces: M T StJ Pattle - E C R Baker, 1992 Crécy Books, Somerton, ISBN 0-947554-36-X
Aces High - Christopher Shores and Clive Williams, 1994 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-898697-00-0
Aces High Volume 2 - Christopher Shores, 1999 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-902304-03-9
Air war for Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete - Christopher Shores, Brian Cull and Nicola Malizia, 1987 Grub Street, London, ISBN 0-948817-07-0
Fiat CR.42 Aces of World War 2 - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2009 Osprey Publishing, Oxford, ISBN 978-1-84603-427-5
Fighters over the Desert - Christopher Shores and Hans Ring, 1969 Neville Spearman Limited, London
Ministero della Difesa
Shark Squadron - The history of 112 Squadron 1917-1975 - Robin Brown, 1994 Crécy Books, ISBN 0-947554-33-5
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
The London Gazette
Additional information kindly provided by Csaba Becze, Giovanni Massimello and Ludovico Slongo.

Last modified 06 April 2014