Flight Lieutenant Peter Townley 'The Keg' Dowding, RAF no. 41784
Dowding was granted a short service commission in the RAF in March 1939, and was serving with 102 MU in Egypt before being posted to 80 Squadron.
When the war started in North Africa on 10 June 1940, 80 Squadron was commanded by Squadron Leader R. C. Jonas and based at Amriya. It had 22 Gladiators (mainly Mk.Is) and one Hurricane Mk.I (L1669 – nicknamed Collie’s Battleship) on hand. Its main role was the defence of Alexandria. The pilots were divided into three Flights.
‘A’ Flight included Squadron Leader R. C. Jonas (CO), Flight Lieutenant Edward Jones, Flying Officer George Kettlewell, Pilot Officer Anthony Hugh Cholmeley,Pilot Officer Ernest Mason, Pilot Officer Arthur Weller, Pilot Officer Johnny Lancaster, Pilot Officer Dowding, Sergeant Donald Gregory, Flight Sergeant T. C. Morris and Sergeant J. C. Hulbert.
At 17:00 on 8 August, Maggiore Carlo Romagnoli (CO of the 10o Gruppo) took off from El Adem T3 airfield with 15 other aircraft from the 9o and 10o Gruppi to patrol along the Egyptian border and to give indirect cover to five SM 79 bombers and a single reconnaissance Ro.37, which were out to patrol the same area. The five SM 79s were a formation from the 44a Squadriglia, 35o Gruppo, led by Capitano Giuseppe Pagliacci, which were out to bomb enemy vehicles and aircraft in the Bir El Chreigat area.
Participating pilots were Romagnoli, Capitano Giuseppe D’Agostinis (CO 91a Squadriglia), Tenente Enzo Martissa (91a Squadriglia), Sergente Aldo Rosa (91a Squadriglia), Tenente Giovanni Guiducci (CO 90a Squadriglia), Sergente Maggiore Angelo Savini (90a Squadriglia), Capitano Luigi Monti (CO 84aSquadriglia), Tenente Vittorio Pezzè (CO 73a Squadriglia), Tenente Valerio De Campo (73a Squadriglia), Sottotenente Carlo Battaglia (73a Squadriglia), Sottotenente Alvaro Querci (73a Squadriglia), Maresciallo Norino Renzi (73a Squadriglia), Sergente Maggiore Enrico Dallari (73a Squadriglia), Sergente Antonio Valle (73a Squadriglia), Sergente Santo Gino (73a Squadriglia) and Sergente Lido Poli (73a Squadriglia).
Immediately after take-off, Romagnoli started to climb, keeping the sun in the back. At 2500 meters over Gabr Saleh (around 65 kilometres south-east of El Adem and 35 kilometres east of Bir El Gobi, well inside the Italian territory) when the Italian formation was still climbing, Tenente Pezzè saw two formations of Gloster Gladiators higher and, after giving the alarm to the gruppo commander, tried to attack the enemy fighters frontally and from below.
Then, completely unseen by Pezzè and the other Italian pilots a third formation of Glosters attacked the 73a Squadriglia formation from above (the surviving Italian pilots estimated that each British formation was nine planes strong so, after the combat, they assessed that they fought against 27 enemy fighters for fifteen minutes).
The Gloster Gladiators were from 80 Squadron (‘C’ Flight had arrived at Sidi Barrani during the day, led by the commanding officer, Squadron Leader ‘Paddy’ Dunn). At 17:40, 14 Gladiators from the Squadron flew an offensive patrol in the neighbourhood of El Gobi since it had been reported by observers that large formations of CR.42s had been patrolling a triangle between El Adem, Sidi Omar and El Gobi fairly regularly twice a day at about 07:00 and 18:15 and it was decided to attempt to destroy a portion of this patrol. The mission had been suggested by Squadron Leader Dunn to the HQ as a reprisal and to re-establish “the moral superiority already gained previously by other Squadrons” after the gruelling engagement on 4 August. Tactics had been carefully discussed by Dunn and his Flight Commanders on the agreed assumption that if the engagement could be controlled for the initial two minutes, a decided advantage would be with the side in control. To do this, it was arranged (as it was expected to be seen as soon as, or even before being able to see the Italians) that a Sub-Flight of the formation (Sub-Flight one) should fly low (at 8,000 feet) and slightly in front to act as bait. These three Gladiators were flown (after that lots had been drawn) by Dunn (leader) (Gladiator K8009), Flying Officer Peter Wykeham-Barnes (K7916) and Pilot Officer 'Heimar' Stuckey (K8022). The rest of the formation, divided in three Sub-Flights of three fighters with an independent aircraft between the lower Sub-Flights, would be stepped at 10,000, 12,000 and 14,000 feet. The independent machine was that of Flight Sergeant Trevor Martin Vaughan (K7903), who attacked with Sub-Flight one. It seems that Pilot Officer Anthony Hugh Cholmeley flew a fourteenth Gladiator but that he was forced to turn back early, probably with engine problems.
Sub-Flight two included Flight Lieutenant Ralph Evers-Swindell (leader) (L8010), Flying Officer Wanklyn Flower (K8011) and Flying Officer Dowding (K7912). Sub-Flight three included Pilot Officer Harold Sykes (leader) (K8003), Sergeant Donald Gregory (K8051) and Flying Officer Sidney Linnard (K8017). Sub-Flight four at 14,000 feet included Flight Lieutenant 'Pat' Pattle (leader) (K7971), Flying Officer Greg Graham (L8008) and Flight Sergeant Sidney Richens (K7892). The plan was for Sub-Flight one to engage (or being engaged) by the Italians, do what it could until Sub-Flights two, three and four would be ordered to enter the combat on seeing the trend, the overall control being given to Sub-Flight four. All formations flew in a broad vic and it was the first time that the 80 Squadron operated at full operational strength.
Just after 18:00, the Squadron crossed the frontier south of Sidi Omar, and immediately changed course to head north towards Bir Taieb el Esem. At 18:25, as they were approaching Bir el Gobi, a formation of CR.42 flying in echelons was spotted by Flight Lieutenant Pattle. The Fiats were flying approximately parallel but reciprocal to the course of the British formation and they were at 2 o’clock and slightly (500 feet) below the lower Sub-Flight. With a careful turning on the right, ordered by radio, Pattle put the 80 Squadron’s formation behind the Italian one, up-sun and between it and its base at El Adem, then a full boast and throttle stern chase began to catch up with the fast cruising (in fact climbing) Italian fighters. Pilots in the lower Sub-Flights now began to see their opponents, dead ahead and lower. The ideal attack position! Squadron Leader Dunn counted 18 of them in four formations of seven, five, three and three; he was very close to the truth but later Sub-Flight four reported that an additional Italian formation of nine planes was present and it was incorrectly assessed that the Italians were 27, flying in nine sections of three aircraft. After an unobserved astern chase Sub-Flight one engaged the starboard flank of three aircraft and shot down all of them (they were probably part of the 73a Squadriglia). Squadron Leader Dunn later reported:
“(…) I followed my first target down, who rolled over slowly on to his back with smoke coming out: Observed P/O. Stuckey’s (No. 3 on my left) quarry in much the same condition and gave him a burst of my own, then pulled up and across the rear of the formation of 18 that was beginning to peel-off.”Flying Officer Stuckey experienced a very successful combat:
“(…) our C.O. led the first Flight and attacked the right hand enemy flight.The third CR.42 of the section probably fell victim to Flight Sergeant Trevor Martin Vaughan. Flying Officer Peter Wykeham-Barnes confirmed the shooting down of all three Italian CR.42s of the section. Wykeham-Barnes seems to have claimed the first Italian aircraft, witnessed by Flight Lieutenant Evers-Swindell.
I was No. 3 of the C.O.’s Flight and managed to get in a long burst with full deflection as my opposite aircraft stall turned out of his formation. (later the C.O. said that he followed this aircraft down giving it bursts and saw it crash.
Immediately after I attacked No. 3 aircraft of the farthest flight and gave it a short burst before that flight broke up as well.”
“(…) A C.R.42 did a steep diving turn away from his formation and I was easily able to give him a full deflection shot for about 8 seconds, he continued in a dive with smoke issuing from him but as the formation of 18 was approaching around about me with advantage of number and height, it was impossible to pursue him. I claimed it definitely shot down and consider it to be one of the five observed on the ground by Sub 4 before entering. Then followed a long period of loose play in which numerous targets offered themselves.In the end, Dunn was credited with two confirmed victories and 1 probable and reported that the Sub-Flight gained five confirmed victories and two unconfirmed.
At the same time large numbers of enemy aircraft attacked me, chiefly from straight ahead and beam but not driving home determinedly. In one of them I throttled back and stall turned on the attacker’s tail before he was quite past me, he then rolled on to his back and dived down in the second half of a loop. I followed and gave this aircraft what I thought was an effective burst with the result that he did not recover and continued down with bluish smoke issuing from him.
The other flights had by now entered and attacked their opponents, and the number of enemy aircraft thinned down. Two or three enemy aircraft were still about ; I pulled up steeply to avoid one in particular who was dangerously near to my tail, having chased me down in the dive from the port quarter. In the ensuing black-out I have little knowledge of what he did but at the top of what was the first half of something like a rocket loop, I found myself going in the opposite direction with the aircraft climbing rapidly past me on my left and below, he then appeared ahead of me and did a slow roll, unfortunately, I was too surprised and failed to get him in my sight, whereupon he half rolled and dived out; another stall turn brought me on his tail, but he did a rapid dive, turned to the left and streamed off like a homing rabbit - next stop El Adem.
I engaged one more enemy aircraft but my guns failed to fire (after 300 rounds approx.) I tried to clear them but was only able to get one more short burst. I left the fight, gained height at 12,000 feet and returned to witness a dog-fight between three aircraft two of which were Gladiators. I then set off home and picked up two other Gladiators.”
“I was then attacked from about 2 o’clock by the two flights that had already broken; I pulled away and down from them, and as I came up in a climbing turn saw a CR 42 following one of our Gladiators in a loop. While it was going up I gave it a long burst and saw it fall away and dive, the pilot jumped almost as soon as I attacked him. Another 42 came straight towards me while I was circling the parachute but I made a quick turn in the opposite direction and he passed just under my port wings. I then saw a 42 with a Gladiator on its’ tail and as I flew in on a beam attack the 42 flick rolled two or three times and continued doing so in a dive. I followed it all the way in a steep turn and dive giving a lot of short bursts and saw it crash. I was then at only about 3,000’ and when I had climbed to about 5,000’ joined in a dog-fight that ended when the 42 dived away and headed for Bir El Essem.”Form 541 of 80 Squadron ORB credited Stuckey only with a single confirmed victory, probably his first victim was credited to his Commanding Officer who finished it off while of the last biplane he saw hitting the ground he wrote “(…) seen to crash but believed hit before I attacked it”. However, it seems that he later was credited with two destroyed and one probable.
“(…) I saw the leading formation attack the right hand formation of 9 E.A: so I put my sub flight into line astern expecting the E.A. to break up which they did as soon the first machine was shot down by No.2 of the leading formation. I led my sub flight into the centre formation of nine E.A. which by then were scattered all over the sky. I did a diving quarter attack on an E.A. up to about 50 feet, it turned over on its back and went down in a steep spiral. I was then attacked head on by another E.A. after this I looked down and saw the first one crash in flames. The pilot still in the cockpit. I managed to manoeuvre myself on to the tail of a third and after having given him a longish burst, saw him go down in the same way as the first, but was unable to follow him down as an explosive bullet took away one of my port flying wires and another burst on the starboard side of the instrument panel. I got in two more quick burst on two different E.A. but don’t think I did any damage. My engine then started to pour out smoke and soon afterwards cut out. I glided down in a series of steep turns and found no E.A. following. I looked round and saw nine a/c burning on the ground and one pilot coming down by parachute. I glided for about three miles and at about 200 feet the engine seized up I did not have time to inspect the engine so set the aircraft on fire (…).”Evers-Swindell was credited of two unconfirmed victories. Flying Officer Wanklyn Flower was able to claim a probable, he reported:
“(…) I picked out a CR 42 flying in left hand turn ahead of me. I dropped in behind and fired three long bursts at close range – I last saw the aircraft diving vertically downwards. At this moment another C.R 42 fired a burst into my machine damaging the engine. I got away from him and, as there were no more enemy machines in sight, made for home (…)”Flying Officer Dowding also claimed a probable:
“(…) Before we had reached them they had already been broken up before we joined amongst them.Pilot Officer Sykes led his Sub-Flight into the right flank of the Italian formation:
I then saw a CR.42 coming towards me on port beam, it pulled its nose up and did a half roll to the left. I got my sights on to it, as it started to pull its nose up, and followed it round as it did the half roll, giving it a longish burst. It went into a spin, and went down a long way until I lost sight of it.
When I looked again there was an aircraft burning on the ground at approximately the position where the one went down, but I cannot say for certain whether it was the same as the one I saw go down.
I also saw at least four other aircraft burning on the ground, and three people descending by parachutes (…)”
“(…) I was leading sub 3 flight and putting the flight into echelon right turned on to their right flank. The enemy aircraft suddenly reeled of from their echelon formation probably owing to the fact that the leading flight had come into firing range and had opened fire. A general dog fight then commenced, I engaged a CR.42 which commenced a steep climbing turn, I commenced firing at the beginning of the climb and continued until I saw him fall and commence a flay spiral. I saw fragments or splinters falling from the centre section or the cockpit and saw the aircraft drop about 4-5000 feet and then engaged another which I followed in a steep turn firing all the time. This enemy aircraft went into a spin suddenly and saw one of our own aircraft follow it down. There were no more enemy aircraft in sight. During the action I saw several parachute open and several aircraft burning. I landed back on our aerodrome at 1915. One aircraft in my flight was forced to return just before the action because all its guns stopped.”Sykes was credited with two unconfirmed victories. The returning aircraft was flown by Sergeant Gregory, who had had tested his gun before the attack, but found them all jammed and had been forced to withdraw. Flying Officer Linnard was more successful:
“(…) We were given R/T instructions by the top flight to enter the fight.Linnard was credited with two confirmed victories.
I slipped under my leader to the left and found myself in a mass of milling aircraft. I went to attack a CR.42 which was on a Gladiator’s tail when another CR.42 passed in front of me. I gave him deflection burst and got on to his tail – he pulled up in a loop. I followed him around giving him bursts and when he was upside down in the loop he baled out dropping past me, his parachute opening just below me. My range would be about 50 yards or less. I got on to another CR.42 and practically the same thing happened as before except that I did not get him and my engine cut as I was following him in the loop when I was in the vertical position. I saw the enemy aircraft diving past me but I was so close to him that he could not fire at me. I pushed my nose down and got my engine started and then saw a CR.42 diving down on me from vertically above but he did not hit me. I then saw a CR.42 practically head-on. I gave him a burst at very close range. The enemy aircraft turned over to the right on its back and went into a flat spin. I was at about 4,000 feet at this time. I watched the aircraft spin for about 1000 feet and then heard gunfire which I thought was from behind but there were no enemy aircraft within range of me. I then looked for the spinning aircraft but all I saw was an aircraft in flames on the ground beneath me. Another CR.42 dived past going very fast. I gave him a quick burst and saw some black smoke coming from him, but he kept straight on diving as fast as he could go towards Bir-el-Gobi. I did not follow him down. I then turned back towards where the fight had been but saw only one aircraft a Gladiator (P/O. Stuckey). We hung around a bit and then made for home. I caught up with F/Lt. Pattle and F/O. Graham and returned with them. I landed at 1910. I sustained no damage to self or aircraft except for one Fabric panel torn out.
I saw altogether 6 aircraft burning on ground and 4 parachutes dropping.”
“(…) I saw no’s 2 and 3 sections engage and before I brought my section into the fight I saw five crashed aircraft on the ground , three of which were in flames.Pattle’s two claims were confirmed by Flying Officer Graham, who claimed one victory (later downgraded to a probable). Flight Sergeant Richens claimed one probable while confirming Graham’s claim.
My own section then engaged those E.A. who were attempting to reach their own base and immediately became engaged in separate combats.
I engaged a CR 42 and, after a short skirmish, get into position immediately behind him. On firing two short bursts at about 50 yards range the E.A. fell into a spin and burst into flames on striking the ground. The pilot did not abandon his aircraft.
I then attacked 3 E.A. immediately below me. This action was indecisive as after a few minutes they broke away by diving vertically for the ground and pulling out at very low altitude.
Whilst searching for other E.A. I saw two more aircraft crash and burst into flames. Owing to the widespread area and the number of aircraft engaged it was impossible to confirm what types of aircraft were involved in these crashes or who shot them down.
The sky seemed clear of 42s’ although several Gladiators were still in the vicinity. I was about to turn for our base when a 42 attacked me from below. With the advantage of height I dived astern of him and after a short burst he spun into the ground into flames. As before the pilot didn’t abandon his aircraft. Flying Officer Graham confirms both my combats which ended decisively.
Seeing no further sign of Enemy Aircraft over the area, I turned towards our base. On my way home F/O Graham and P/O Linnard joined me in formation and my section landed at 19.10 hrs.”
“(…) set the aircraft on fire. First removing the water bottle and Very pistol. I walked for three hours away from the sun and then lay down to sleep. I slept till about 01.00 hours finding dense fog and myself wet through. I then dug a hole in some soft sand and buried my self. There I stayed till daylight. At about 06.30 next morning when the fog started to lift I started to walk into the sun until 15.00hrs. when I saw three armoured cars on the horizon. I fired three very light cartridges, the next thing I remember I was lying in the shade of the armoured car the crew told me I was about five miles from the wire.”He had been picked up by three armoured cars of the 11th Hussars.
Martissa, who was initially missing, had force-landed his CR.42 with a hundred bullet holes in it, only 15 kilometres from El Adem. The wounded pilot claimed the individual destruction of two Gladiators (not confirmed in the official documents of his unit but later credited to him by post-war studies). In fact, Martissa was awarded with a third Medaglia d’argento al valor militare (in as many months) for this action. The official motivation of the award stated that he: ”shared in the destruction of five enemy planes together with other pilots”. He survived his ordeal by drinking dewdrops at dawn but after two days, he was becoming to expect the worst. One of the bullets, which had hit his aircraft, had pierced the griffin's head of Squadriglia's badge on the port wheel cover and Martissa wrote with a knife on the white background disc of the badge:
“You, little griffin, have been struck in the head. I would have suffered less if I had been likewise! I'm not mortally wounded, but I shall pass away, since I can't walk for 10-20 km to reach a track. And it will be by hunger and thirst.”Martissa was found on 10 August by the XXII Compagnia Bersaglieri Motociclisti, led by Tenente Domenico Raspini, which was patrolling 80 km south of Tobruk. Raspini recalled:
"We saw an aircraft in the desert. We approached and found Tenente Martissa under a wing, with a leg almost torn off by an explosive bullet from a British fighter. We rescued him. He told us that if we didn't come [to save him], he'd shoot himself in the head with his gun, because he was dying of thirst.
We rescued the pilot and left the aircraft."
The Fiat CR.42 flown by Martissa (MM4306) was recovered and, in September 1940, assigned to the 84a Squadriglia of the 10o Gruppo as “84-4”.
Tenente Guiducci was also awarded with a Medaglia d’argento al Valor militare for this combat.
The Italians totally lost four aircraft while four more force-landed (it seems that all were later recovered). In return the Italian pilots claimed five Gladiators (three shared amongst the pilots of 10o Gruppo and two shared by the surviving 73a Squadriglia pilots) and two probables (the 90a Squadriglia’s Diary reported six victories). Remembering the combat for the press, the Italian leader (obviously Maggiore Romagnoli) recalled that even if the attack of the Gladiators was possibly the deadliest he had ever seen, the reaction of his pilots was ”miraculously immediate”. He had just heard the first bullets whistling around him when his right wingman already was breaking with a zoom. Then he saw in his gunsight, the belly of a Gladiator and shot this down (most likely Flight Sergeant Vaughan, who had overshot during the first bounce).
For this exploit, 80 Squadron received the Press honours as well as written congratulations from the RAF HQ Middle East. Dunn and his pilots had exploited the strong points of the Gladiator over the CR.42 to the maximum extent especially the radio equipment, which had permitted a coordinated attack, being also crucial for obtaining the initial surprise and the Gladiators superior low altitude overall performances.
During the combat, the Gladiator demonstrated another interesting characteristic: a markedly superior horizontal manoeuvrability over its opponent. On regard of this point, it is interesting to report the impressions of Flying Officer Stuckey and Flying Officer Linnard.
“With trimming gear slightly back, found I could easily out manoeuvre a/c attacking from rear. No blacking out.”After this combat, morale, particularly among the 9o Gruppo’s pilots suffering their first African experiences, fell considerably. The 73a Squadriglia was considered the top gun unit of 4o Stormo, its pilots (notably among them Enrico Dallari, Renzi, Valerio De Campo and Vittorio Pezzè) were mostly part of the last Italian aerobatic team, which had performed with great success in Berlin Staaken on 23 June 1939, in honour of the returning Condor Legion’s pilots. However, this air battle demonstrated clearly, even in a pure biplane dogfight, that good tactics and sound flight discipline, enhanced by R/T communications were better than the pure aerobatic skill. However, despite this heavy beating, operations for the 9o Gruppo restarted the next day.
“No difficulty in keeping astern of enemy aircraft. Enemy invariably looped for evasive action.”
During the morning on 17 August, the Mediterranean Fleet was out for a raid in support of the Army. The battleships HMS Warspite, HMS Ramilles and HMS Malaya, supported by the cruiser HMS Kent and three flotillas of destroyers bombarded Bardia harbour and Fort Capuzzo, starting at 06:45 and continuing for 22 minutes. As the vessels headed back towards Alexandria a series of bombing attacks were launched against them by the Regia Aeronautica.
The RAF and the FAA provided escort for the fleet. HMS Eagle's Fighter Flight of three Sea Gladiators had been flown to Sidi Barrani airfield in Libya, and from here patrolled over the Fleet. 'B' and 'C' Flights of 80 Squadron provided air support with flights of four Gladiators over the ships from dawn to dusk. ‘A’ Flight of 112 Squadron was positioned at Z Landing Ground (Matruh West) while ‘C’ Flight of 112 Squadron was based at Y LG about 18 kilometres further west and they also took part in the covering missions.
At 08:20, Flying Officer Peter Wykeham-Barnes and his three-aircraft section (Pilot Officer Frankie Stubbs as no.2 and Pilot Officer Dowding as no. 3) from ‘B’ flight of 80 Squadron took off on patrol over the fleet and climbed to 16,000 feet. At 09:10, they spotted a Cant Z.501 flying boat over Tobruk. The British pilots formed line astern and attacked from above and behind, using No. 1 Fighter attack. Wykeham-Barnes dived down through the clouds to attack it. As he was about to open fire his starboard gun came unmounted and ripped through the fuselage, severing a strut and damaging the leading edge of the tailplane. The Gladiator started to roll but he reacted quickly, put on full aileron to hold the mainplane and then continued the attack. It seems that Wykeham-Barnes had killed the gunner on the Italian flying boat since no more return fire was experienced. The three pilots made two passes each and the flying boat eventually fell in flames, crashed into the sea and sank immediately. The pilots returned to base at 10:00.
The Italian flying boat was a 143a Squadriglia Z.501 from Menalao, flown by Sottotente Cesare Como with Sottotenente di Vascello Renzo Monselesan as observer that was shot down; the crew perished.
At 07:55 on 3 November, three Gladiators from 80 Squadron were sent out to attack a motor transport concentration near Garn. Two of the aircraft, Squadron Leader William Hickey in N5823 and Flying Officer George Kettlewell in N5858 attacked whilst Pilot Officer Dowding (N5854) stayed above. The attack was most successful and much damage was done. Flying Officer Kettlewell reported that he suffered stoppage to two guns. The three pilots returned to base between 09:20 and 09:35.
Dowding later accompanied the unit to Greece.
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 Nigel 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.
“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 6 April Germany declared war on Yugoslavia and Greece and immediately attacked.
At 15.00 Flying Officer Dowding was scrambled as a reconnaissance Ju 88D from 2(F)/123 (4U+EK) approached Athens. Sighting the intruder, he chased it out over the Gulf of Corinth, exchanging fire with the gunners. The Hurricane received a few minor hits before he delivered the mortal blow, the German machine falling into the sea off Patras, with the loss of Unteroffizier Fritz Dreyer and two of his crew.
At daybreak on 19 April Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft spotted Australian, New Zealand and Greek troops retreating across the Thessaly Plain when they were near Pmokos. Soon some 40 Ju 87s arrived, bombing and strafing, and causing much damage and confusion, and many casualties.
Seven Hurricanes of 80 Squadron, led by Flight Lieutenant William Woods, arrived in the area and promptly claimed four of the Stukas shot down before escorting Bf 109Es of II/JG 27 could intervene. Cheering troops reported seeing at last three of these crash; two were claimed by Pilot Officer William Vale (Hurricane V7134), and one each by Flying Officer Dowding and Flight Sergeant Rivalant.
Apparently two Ju 87s were lost, one from Stab/StG 2, crewed by Oberleutnant Sebastian Ulitz and Oberfeldwebel Emil Kuklau, which crashed south-west of Elasson with the death of the crew (recorded by the Germans as having been on 18 April), and one of I/StG 3, which crash-landed near Kozani, Leutnant Herbert Wingelmayer being killed and his gunner wounded. The escorting Bf 109s then attacked, two Hurricanes being claimed shot down, one each by Oberleutnant Wilhelm Wiesinger and one by Unteroffizier Alfred Heidel. In fact only Sergeant Charles Casbolt’s aircraft was hit, and he was able to return to Eleusis without undue trouble. Casbolt claimed to have damage one of the Bf 109s, and Flying Officer Eldon Trollip to have shot down one, but no Messerschmitts were hit on this occasion.
After 80 Squadron had reformed on return to Egypt, Dowding flew over Syria against the Vichy French during the campaign in June and July.
Five LeO.451s of GB I/31 were off at 17:55 on 14 June to attack British cruisers off the Syrian coast. The bombers were escorted by six D.520s from of GC III/6, led by Sous Lieutenant Pierre Le Gloan. An 80 Squadron Hurricane had been sent off half an hour earlier on a reconnaissance over Beirut, but as Flying Officer The Honourable David Coke approached his target, he received a request over the R/T to undertake an immediate patrol over the fleet. On arrival, he saw four of the bombers in the act of unloading their cargo, but before he could attack, he was ‘jumped’ from out of the sun by three fighters, which he took to be MS.406s. Turning, he climbed into the sun and attacked the rear aircraft from below, reporting that he saw strikes on the tail; the other then attacked him, but at that point, another Hurricane joined him.
Indeed, three more Hurricanes had taken off at 18:10 for a patrol, arriving to see three D.520s. Flying Officer Dowding at once got on the tail of the left-hand aircraft and opened fire, reporting that his opponent half-rolled and dived away pouring smoke at 18:30. Four bombers were then spotted and Sergeant Hancock, who had fallen behind, saw Coke alone and joined him, as already noted. He then attacked but the Dewoitines at once turned on him; Hancock returned claiming one probable, while Dowding’s victim was confirmed by the Navy to have crashed into the sea.
This was not the case, however. Le Gloan, Sous Lieutenant Brondel and Sergeant Chef Mertzisen had been involved in the fight, and Dowding’s opponent had obviously been Brondel. The latter, his aircraft badly damaged by his opponent’s fire and the ships’ AA, reached land, where he attempted a wheels-down landing, but the aircraft flipped on to its back, No. 368 being a write-off. Le Gloan and Mertzisen returned their aircraft showing numerous signs of this engagement, each claiming to have hit opponents, and each being credited with a probable victory.
On the unit’s resumption of operations over the Western Desert during late 1941, he was promoted to Flight Lieutenant in November.
During the afternoon on 24 November 1941, nine Hurricanes from 80 Squadron (take off at 15:30 and landing 17:10) covered by P-40 Tomahawks of 4 SAAF Squadron, were ordered off to attack tanks which had broken through at Sidi Rezegh and were threatening Fort Maddalena. While on this mission, they saw below them twelve Bf 110s of III/ZG 26 travelling in the same direction as the Hurricanes, in high speed. Both formations were taken by surprise, the British diving and the Germans climbing to give battle, but at this moment more Hurricanes from 1 SAAF Squadron appeared on the scene and in a swift action five Bf 110s were claimed shot down with three more damaged north-west of Maddalena. Lieutenant V. A. "Viv" Greenberg and Lieutenant Y. Visser from 4 SAAF Squadron claimed one shared at 16:15, Captain ‘Snowy’ Moody (AN376) and 2nd Lieuteant R. A. B. Thorpe (AN369) (Both of 4 SAAF Squadron a second shared Bf 110 at 16:15 while Lieutenant Roy Edwin Chadwick (4 SAAF Squadron) claimed one shared with Sergeant Alexander Comfort (80 Squadron/Hurricane Z4764) at 16:15. Lieutenant Melville Duff-Richardson (4 SAAF Squadron) shared a third with an unknown pilot (possibly Flying Officer Tulloch of 80 Squadron) at 16:20. Sergeant Russell Foskett (Z4744) of 80 Squadron shot down a fifth, which crash-landed, no less than four people getting out of it. Foskett also reported that most of the Bf 110s appeared to be in European camouflage and he thought they were just flying in from Crete. Flight Sergeant P. W. Wintersdorff (Z4426), Flight Lieutenant Dowding (Z4931) and Flight Lieutenant David Coke (Z4833), all from 80 Squadron, each claimed one of the three damaged Bf 110s. 80 Squadron initially reported the loss of four Hurricanes when Flying Officer Tulloch was seen being shot down in flames and killed. Sergeant N. Crouch made a forced landing at Tobruk while Sergeant Foskett and Flight Sergeant Ekiel (Z4801) landed away at Sidi Barrani but both returned the next day.
4 SAAF Squadron lost one Tomahawks when Lieutenant Thorpe failed to return. Thorpe was picked up by armoured cars and saw action with them before returning on 26 November. A second Tomahawk (AK518) was damaged when Lieutenant “Doug” Rogan was hard hit, having his leg almost severed. Loosing blood heavily, he managed to apply a form of tourniquet and got back to base. Despite his efforts, he subsequently lost the leg by amputation but he later returned to operational flying with an artificial limb.
III./ZG 26 claimed four P-40s and three Hurricanes between 16:00 and 16:18. The P-40s were claimed by three pilots from 7 Staffel; Unteroffizier Karl Emsbach (south of Bir el Hacheim at 16.12), Oberfeldwebel Helmut Haugk (two at Trigh el Abd at 16.13 and 16:16) and Unteroffizier Heinz Golisch (Trigh el Abd at 16.18). The Hurricanes were claimed by Oberleutnant Dieter Bidlingmaier of 8./ZG 26 (El Gubi at 16:00), Leutnant Alfred Wehmeyer of 9./ZG 26 (Bu Malitza at 16:08) and Oberfeldwebel Richard Heller of 8./ZG 26 (20 miles south of Gobi at 16:09). Losses were Leutnant Herbert Gassner and gunner Gefreiter Reddig of 8 Staffel (Bf 110 WNr 3410) and Oberleutnant Hans Kolle, with gunner Obergefreiter Jürgen Luckmann of 9 Staffel (Bf 110 WNr 3326), which were all taken prisoner. Oberfeldwebel Richard Heller of 8 Staffel was attacked by twelve Tomahawks, and wounded, carrying out a belly-landing. His gunner, Unteroffizier Mühlbrodt, has given the following colourful report of the combat:
"The sun was just rising but already the Bf 110s were hovering over the British columns. Our Rotte has discovered a new column on the march. Suddenly I see one, two, three, four black dots to the right. They are approaching. I shout: "Fighters!" My pilot curves in and at the same moment the fighters zoom over us and we can see the blue ring of their cockades. They turn in again. The sky above is full of black specks and I count twelve or more fighters. It seems as if we have fallen right into the midst of a strong formation.
We try to escape in a frantic dive, because it is hopeless to fight such an overwhelming crowd, but we cannot escape. The Curtiss are too high and over-take us in the dive. Our engines scream and I shout to the pilot: "First attack!" Exactly behind us appears the snout of a Curtiss; a right turn is useless because to left and right of the attacking fighter two more Curtiss are flying. Out of the wings of the Curtiss come flashes of all colors. Then it rattles in our aircraft as if someone were knocking a milk churn. The next Curtiss is attacking, while the first is hovering over us like a satisfied bird. Second attack, so quickly, that I can scarcely warn the pilot. The hail of bullets comes down like a shower. There is no escape. We are in the trap. The fighters relieve each other as if on a shooting range. Both engines stutter, the right one is smoking. We have only one chance: belly-landing in the Desert! I see the ground approaching. At the same moment a Curtiss is closing in for an attack. The Bf 110 glides towards the ground very softly, but the Curtiss is diving like a meteor. The cannon and gun burst are whistling around us, splinters whizz through the cabin. Heller holds the stick with the left, and with the right hand holds the gun sight. I myself seize the machinegun, because we will touch down at any moment. While gliding, the Bf 110 hits a heap of stones, there is a mighty jerk, and I land between the drum magazines. For a moment I sit benumbed in the cockpit, but then I jump up. It is high time, as from both sides flames are blazing into the cabin. I jump out and run for cover. The Curtiss disappear. Heller's left hand is bleeding, it was hit between thumb and forefinger. I tie up his arm and make a sling. After a short march we are found by German soldiers who take us to the next airfield. We ask about our wingman, but he had more luck and has landed safely at home despite some damage."
On 12 December, the 6o Gruppo saw the first action in North Africa. Ten MC.202 (six from the 79a Squadriglia and four from the 81a Squadriglia), led by Tenente Colonnello Vezio Mezzetti, had taken off at 13:10 for a free sweep in the Gazala-Tobruk-El Adem area. The Macchis were divided in two pairs in echelon right and two vics, weather was cloudy. At 13:30, at the height of 3000 m., they met a formation of around 50 enemy fighters (Curtiss P-40s and Hurricanes), flying west.
The Macchis attacked even if outnumbered and every pilot was engaged by many enemy fighters.
Back at base at 14:00, Capitano Guido Beggiato claimed a P-40 and Maresciallo Natalino Stabile claimed a Hurricane. 20 more enemy fighters were claimed damaged (twelve P-40s and eight Hurricanes), many of these were seen to flee emitting smoke trails (1603 rounds of ammunition had been used). Sergente Saiani was obliged to force-land in friendly territory but was obliged to burn his plane to avoid its capture and Capitano Camarda came back with his fighter so damaged that it had to be written off.
It seems that Hurribombers of 80 Squadron were out to attack axis vehicles near Derna with twelve Hurricanes of RNFS (Royal Navy Fighter Squadron), which had taken off at 13:00, provided close cover with a top cover of nine Tomahawks of 250 Squadron (they recorded the take off at 12:00 but this is probably wrong). At 2000 feet, between Tmini and Gazala, after the ground attack, the escort fighters reported to have met several Bf 109 and twelve MC.202. Cloud cover was 7/10.
250 Squadron pilots claimed one Bf 109 (Pilot Officer Geoffrey Ranger) and one MC.202 (Sergeant Richard Nitschke) together with two probables and two damaged against the loss of the Curtiss of Second Lieutenant Norton who was wounded and ended up in Tobruk hospital. 80 Squadron lost four Hurribombers flown by Flying Officer Dowding, Pilot Officer Reynolds, Sergeant White and Sergeant Holliwell. All these pilots were taken PoWs. Strangely enough, the ORB of RNFS didn’t report any combat.
Ten Hurricanes of 1 SAAF Squadron were also in action over Gazala. Led by Major Hosler, they had arrived in Sidi Rezegh coming from LG 124, during the morning. After having taken off at 13:10, they met five Bf 109, claiming one shot down, two probables and two damaged while losing Lieutenant Seccombe.
Some Messerschmitt were also in action in the same area and Oberleutnant Erbo Graf von Kagenek of 9./JG 27 claimed two victories over Tmini, one of them at 13.46.
From the available records, it seems that the combat of 1 SAAF Squadron was different from that of 80 and 250 Squadrons but it is likely that all the different units mixed together. This could explain the “fifty fighters” recorded by the Italians and the Messerschmitts seen by Commonwealth units.
Dowding ended the war with 1 shared biplane victory and a total of 3.
|Kill no.||Date||Time||Number||Type||Result||Plane type||Serial no.||Locality||Unit|
|08/08/40||18:00-||1||CR.42 (a)||Probable||Gladiator||K7912||El Gobi||80 Squadron|
|17/08/40||08:20-10:00||1/3||Z.501 (b)||Shared destroyed||Gladiator I||K8021||off Tobruk||80 Squadron|
|28/02/41||1||G.50bis (c)||Probable||Gladiator||N5832||Tepelene-coast||80 Squadron|
|1||06/04/41||1||Ju 88D (d)||Destroyed||Hurricane||Gulf of Corinth||80 Squadron|
|2||19/04/41||1||Ju 87 (e)||Destroyed||Hurricane||Pmokos area||80 Squadron|
|3||14/06/41||1||MS406 (f)||Destroyed||Hurricane||off Syrian coast||80 Squadron|
|24/11/41||15:30-17:10||1||Bf 110 (g)||Damaged||Hurricane||Z4931||NW Maddalena||80 Squadron|
Biplane victories: 1 shared destroyed, 2 probables.
TOTAL: 3 and 1 shared destroyed, 2 probables, 1 damaged.
(a) Claimed in combat with 9o and 10o Gruppi C.T., which lost 4 CR.42s, 4 fighters force-landed (it seems that all were later recovered) and one pilot KIA while claiming 5 and 2 probable Gladiators. 80 Squadron claimed 14 and 6 probably destroyed while losing 2 Gladiators and 1 pilot.
(b) Z.510 from the 143a Squadriglia Z.501 from Menalao, flown by Sottotente Cesare Como with Sottotenente di Vascello Renzo Monselesan as observer shot down with the loss of the crew.
(c) 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.
(d) Ju 88D (4U+EK) from 2(F)/123 shot down with the loss of Unteroffizier Fritz Dreyer and two of his crew.
(e) Claimed in combat with Bf 109Es from II/JG 27 and Ju 87s from StG 2 and StG 3. 80 Squadron claimed four Ju 87s and one Bf 109 and one damaged while getting one Hurricane damaged. Apparently two Ju 87s were lost, one from Stab/StG 2 (Oberleutnant Sebastian Ulitz and Oberfeldwebel Emil Kuklau both killed) (recorded by the Germans as having been on 18 April) and one of I/StG 3 (Leutnant Herbert Wingelmayer being killed and his gunner wounded). The escorting Bf 109s claimed two Hurricanes and all of them returned without damage.
(f) Actually a D.520 of GC III/6 flown by Sous Lieutenant Brondel, hit by Dowding’s fire and ships’ AA; force-landed very badly damaged and flipped over onto back.
(g) Claimed in combat with Bf 110s from III./ZG 26. Commonwealth units claimed 5 destroyed and 3 damaged while losing 3 fighters. III./ZG 26 claimed 7 destroyed while losing 3 Bf 110s.
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
Ace of Aces: M T StJ Pattle - E C R Baker, 1992 Crécy Books, Somerton, ISBN 0-947554-36-X
A History of the Mediterranean Air War 1940-1945: Volume One – Christopher Shores and Giovanni Massimello with Russell Guest, 2012 Grub Street, London, ISBN 978-1908117076
Air war for Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete - Christopher Shores, Brian Cull and Nicola Malizia, 1987 Grub Street, London, ISBN 0-948817-07-0
Desert Prelude: Early clashes June-November 1940 - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2010 MMP books, ISBN 978-83-89450-52-4
Dust Clouds in the Middle East - Christopher Shores, 1996 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-898697-37-X
Fighters over the Desert - Christopher Shores and Hans Ring, 1969 Neville Spearman Limited, London
GORIZIA ed il QUARTO STORMO
Gloster Gladiator - Alex Crawford, 2002 Mushroom Model Publications, ISBN 83-916327-0-9
Gloster Gladiator Home Page - Alexander Crawford.
Hurricanes over the sands: Part One - Michel Lavigne and James F. Edwards, 2003 Lavigne Aviation Publications, Victoriaville, ISBN 2-9806879-2-8
Hurricanes over Tobruk - Brian Cull with Don Minterne, 1999 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-902304-11-X
Le Giovani Aquile – Antonino Trizzino, 1972 Longanesi, Milano, (narration by Guglielmo Biffani at GORIZIA ed il QUARTO STORMO) kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Luftwaffe Claims Lists - Tony Wood
Quelli del Cavallino Rampante - Antonio Duma, 1981 Editore Dell'Ateneo, Roma, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
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 Desert Air War 1939 – 1945 – Richard Townshend Bickers, 1991 Leo Cooper, London, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Those Other Eagles – Christopher Shores, 2004 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-904010-88-1
Additional information kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro, Michele Palermo and Ludovico Slongo