Biplane fighter aces

The Commonwealth

Flight Lieutenant Charles Burton Gaden, RAAF no. 289

12 May 1916 – 13 December 1940

Gaden was born on 12 May 1916 and was from Ascot, Queensland, Australia.

He was an educated engineer and married to his wife Barbara Evelyn.

Before the war, he was a member of Citizen Air Force.

In July 1940, he served with 3 RAAF Squadron.

On 15 July 1940 3 RAAF Squadron embarked on RMS Orontes at Sydney for service overseas.
At this time the unit consisted of the following flying personnel:
Squadron Leader Ian McLachlan (CO).
“A” Flight:
Flight Lieutenant Gordon Steege (OC), Flying Officer Alan Gatward, Flying Officer Alan Boyd, Pilot Officer Peter Turnbull and Pilot Officer Wilfred Arthur.
“B” Flight:
Pilot Officer Gaden (OC), Pilot Officer L. E. Knowles, Pilot Officer V. East, Flying Officer Alan Rawlinson and Flying Officer B. L. Bracegirdle.
“C” Flight:
Squadron Leader P. R. Heath (OC), Flight Lieutenant Blake Pelly, Pilot Officer J. M. Davidson, Flying Officer John Perrin and Pilot Officer M D. Ellerton.
Totally the squadron had 21 officers and 271 of other ranks on 24 July.

On 7 August RMS Orontes arrived at Bombay and the unit was transhipped the same day to HT Dilwara.

HT Dilwara sailed on 11 August and arrived at Suez on 23 August where the squadron disembarked.

Gaden was promoted to Flight Lieutenant (Temporary) as of 1 September.

3 RAAF Squadron received a signal from H.Q.M.E. on 16 September advising that it had been decided to re-arm the squadron with two flights of Gladiators and one flight with Lysanders.
In order to carry out this re-arming, the unit was to move from Ismailia to Helwan on 23 September, where the Gladiators were to be taken over from 33 Squadron.
In view of the fact that the propellers and air cleaners had still not been received for the Lysanders, and that stores from overseas were still being received at Ismailia, it was decided that the main portion of the unit would proceed to Helwan on 23 September, whilst the remainder of the unit would remain at Ismailia to complete the erection of six Lysanders and for the sorting of stores. These last remainders moved to Helwan on 9 October.

On 18 September an advance party from 3 RAAF Squadron proceeded to Helwan by road to commence taking over Gladiator aircraft and other equipment from 33 Squadron.
The party consisted of Squadron Leader P. R. Heath, Flight Lieutenant Gaden, Flying Officers John Perrin, Alan Boyd, B. L. Bracegirdle, M. D. Ellerton and Alan Gatward and 14 other ranks.
During 21 to 23 September the advanced party took over four Gladiators from 33 Squadron and the pilots were put on daily stand-by for operational duty, which was defence of Cairo against air attack.
Eleven more personnel followed on to Helwan on 20 September while the rest of the squadron prepared for the move which was made on 23 September.

3 RAAF Squadron’s stand-by duty was discontinued on 24 September and the pilots were able to carry out flying training.
An intensive period of training followed and the training was complemented with exercises with 6th division AIF and air fighting tactics with Blenheims from 84 Squadron. The pilots also visited Haskard range for artillery co-operation training on 4 October. This training period continued up until 31 October.

On 2 November 1940, squadron headquarters and ground personnel of ‘B’ and ‘C’ Flights of 3 RAAF Squadron moved by road from Helwan to Gerawla. The move started at 08:15 and was completed at 17:15 the next day.
Squadron Leader Ian McLachlan, Flying Officer Alan Gatward, Flying Officer M. D. Ellerton, Flying Officer Alan Boyd, Flight Lieutenant Gaden, Flying Officer B. L. Bracegirdle, Flying Officer Peter Turnbull and Flying Officer Wilfred Arthur moved from Helwan to Gerawla by air on 3 November.
Flight Lieutenant Gordon Steege, Flight Lieutenant Blake Pelly and Flying Officer Alan Rawlinson left their attachments to 208 Squadron and rejoined 3 RAAF Squadron at Gerawla while Flying Officer John Perrin, Flying Officer L. E. Knowles and Flying Officer J. M. Davidson, who also had been attached to 208 Squadron returned to ‘A’ Flight at Helwan.
15 Air gunner/Wireless operators from 3 RAAF Squadron were attached to 208 Squadron.
After the completion of these movements the disposition of the squadron was that at Gerawla there were: Officers: 13 pilots, 1 crew, 6 non-flying and 2 (attached) air intelligence liaison.
Airmen: 185 non-flying, 6 (attached) air intelligence liaison and 1 (attached) Royal Corps Signalist.
Aircraft: 10 Gladiators and 4 Gauntlets (two Gauntlets had been left at 208 Squadron, Qasaba, being unserviceable and awaiting spares).
At Helwan (‘A’ Flight):
Officers: 3 pilots and 1 crew.
Airmen: 5 crews and 32 non-flying.
Aircraft: 6 Lysanders and 2 Gladiators (in reserve for ‘B’ and ‘C’ Flights).
Attached to 208 Squadron:
Officers: 2 crew.
Airmen: 5 crew and 15 non-flying.
Attached to 6 Squadron:
Airmen: 6 crew and 14 non-flying.
At Hospital:
2 airmen.
At Abu Sueir (on anti-gas course):
2 airmen.

At 06:35 on 10 December, five Gladiators from 3 RAAF Squadron took off from ALG 74 on an offensive patrol in the area south of Sidi Barrani. The patrol encountered a Ro.37 and attacked it, the enemy aircraft finally being shot down by Flight Lieutenant Gaden. The Ro.37 was seen to burst into flames on striking the ground. No other enemy aircraft were encountered on this patrol and the Gladiators returned to base at 09:05.

On an early morning patrol on 13 December, six Gladiators (Flight Lieutenant Gordon Steege, Flight Lieutenant Gaden, Flying Officers Lex D. Winten, Flying Officer Alan Boyd, Flying Officer Wilfred Arthur and Flying Officer Alan Gatward) from the Advanced Detached Flight of 3 RAAF Squadron took off at 08:00 to fly an offensive fighter patrol over Sollum – Fort Capuzzo – Halfaya area. They came across five SM 79s bombing troops at Sollum escorted by a reported eight CR.42s. Diving in to attack Flight Lieutenant Steege shot down one of the bombers and claimed a second as a probable. Before the Gladiators could reform for a second attack, the escorting CR.42s intervened. Flight Lieutenant Gaden (Gladiator N5765) was killed when his aircraft was shot down and crashed into the desert. It was believed that Gaden was shot down by rear gunners of the SM 79s. Flying Officer Winten was hit in the right hand by an explosive bullet and baled out. Flying Officer Boyd claimed two CR.42s before his aircraft had its port flying wire shot away causing him to force land. Flying Officer Gatward was also forced down. Flying Officer Arthur's Gladiator (N5752) was shot to pieces and he decided to bale out. As he clambered out of the cockpit, he became entangled in his oxygen tube. He managed to break free only to be caught up in the interplane bracing wires. Unable to free himself he waited for the inevitable, when at about 1,000 feet he was thrown clear and parachuted to the ground. Later back in the mess he produced from his pocket the ripcord of his parachute, which meant that he did not have to buy drinks all round. Flight Lieutenant Steege was separated from the remainder of the flight, ran out of ammunition and returned to base at 10:30.
The Italians seems to have consisted of five SM 79s from the 60a Squadriglia, 33o Gruppo Autonomo BT, which had taken off from Z1 at 07:30. The formation was led by Tenente Colonnello Ferri Forte, who flew as second pilot in Capitano Loris Bulgarelli’s (CO of the 60a Squadriglia) SM 79 and they had been briefed to attack British troop concentrations in a desert area south of Sollum. The pilot of another bomber was Tenente Pastorelli and among his crew of five was Aviere Scelto Armiere Guido Reggiani. The bombers were escorted by ten CR.42s from the 9o Gruppo. The SM 79s were the first bombing effort of the day by the 5a Squadra and attacked a group of 30 British vehicles along the road Sollum-Buq-Buq at 08:45 and immediately after this, another group of 60 armoured vehicles south-east of Halfaya. The escort was led by Capitano Antonio Larsimont Pergameni (temporary CO of the 9o Gruppo since 10 December) and included the 73a Squadriglia (Tenente Valerio De Campo, Tenente Pietro Bonfatti, Tenente Giuseppe Oblach, Sottotenente Giulio Reiner, Sergente Maggiore Sergio Stauble and Sergente Enrico Dallari) and the 97a Squadriglia (Capitano Ezio Viglione Borghese, Sergente Franco Sarasino and Sergente Maggiore Otello Perotti). After 45 minutes of flight, between Sidi Omar and Sollum, they spotted a formation of Gladiators that soon attacked the SM 79s. Aviere Scelto Armiere Reggiani recorded that after the bombing the formation was attacked by a group of ten Gloster Gladiators. The gunners of the Savoias claimed the shooting down of two of them before they were dispersed by a squadriglia of the 4o Stormo’s fighters. Capitano Larsimont chased the leader but, while shooting at him from a short distance, he collided with a British wingman that was trying to avoid his bursts. In the collision, the Gladiator lost its wings and fell. Larsimont, whose aircraft was badly damaged in the fuselage and rudders, made an emergency landing on the Menastir M airfield; unfortunately the airstrip was already abandoned by the Italians due to the proximity of the British infantry so Larsimont had to abandon his damaged plane, which became a total loss. It seems possible that Larsimont’s victim (the Gladiator surprised while chasing the Savoias and observed to fall minus its wings) was Flying Officer Arthur who later recalled:

”(...) I was chasing some Italian bombers, Savoia-Marchettis I think they were. They were quite a lot faster than our aircraft were which meant you only chance of really catching them was to cut the corner if they were foolish enough to turn very much. In...also, if you’re chasing somebody like that you’re concentrating very much on that and you are a sitting duck for somebody else. And, in fact, that’s what happened to me. Chasing these Savoias I suddenly realised I was being attacked by an Italian aircraft which almost immediately ... a shell went into the top mainplane – do you know what I mean by the top mainplane where it was a biplane - the top main plane tore straight away and swung back towards the tail and the bottom main plane sort of followed it but a bit behind and I had no control at all, just completely loose control column. So I got out quickly (...)
Arthur remembered that the whole affair lasted a short time:
”Probably only fifty seconds or seventy or something like that. I got out of the cockpit quite quickly but by that time the thing was nearly vertically downwards and I got stuck underneath one of the main planes that had folded back against the fuselage and I couldn’t get out of that. I was kicking and trying to get myself free when I was very close to the ground and finally did get free but hit the ground very hard because...well, because I hadn’t had enough time to slow up, I suppose (...)”.
Wilfred Arthur hit the ground facing the wrong way and got dragged for quite a while with the parachute because there was heavy wind. After collapsing the parachute and freeing himself again, he was circled by two Italian aircraft, which he thought would shoot at him but in fact they didn’t. After the two Italian left the area, he started walking and after only a couple of hours was found and picked up by a long-range desert patrol.
Viglione fired at several Glosters and claimed one of them (the British pilot was seen parachuting by Bonfatti) while Perotti claimed another in a head-to-head attack (not verified with the Squadriglia diaries). Sarasino claimed damage to several Gladiators. Meanwhile, another formation of Gladiators jumped the 73a Squadriglia from above but these had been alerted and could react properly and a long and harsh dogfight began. Bonfatti, Oblach and Stauble claimed one each, while De Campo, Reiner and Dallari claimed one probable each. Several other Glosters were claimed damaged. Reiner’s, Bonfatti’s and Oblach’s aircraft were slightly damaged in combat but returned to base safely.
The 60a Squadriglia suffered no losses but Capitano Bulgarelli was hit in the head and killed by a burst of fire from one of the Gladiators. The same burst of fire also wounded Tenente Colonnello Forte. The dead Bulgarelli fell over the controls and only after the help of Tenente Pier Luigi Meroni, who managed to rise Bulgarelli body, thus keeping it clear from the controls, was Ferri Forte able to nurse back the damaged Savoia. Meroni remained all the time in front of the broken skull of Bulgarelli with blood and pieces of brain close to his face. (After the war, Meroni became a pilot in civil aviation and was the pilot of the plane in which the then famous football team of Turin (winner of many Italian championships) crashed against the hill of Superga on 4 May 1949; the greatest tragedy in the history of Italian sport). Bulgarelli was a highly regarded leader and during the last days was always at the head of the 33o formations attacking the advancing British troops. He was awarded a posthumous Medaglia d’Oro al valor militare for bravery in this and previous actions. During the landing, back at base Bulgarelli’s SM 79 and another one suffered additional damage and were classified RD.
Boyd’s force-landed Gladiator was possible to repair on site and he returned to Gerawla at 11:10 with Gatward sitting on his knee.
Out of the six Gladiators that took part in the combat, four were lost and the remaining two were damaged but repairable in the unit.
Flight Lieutenant Gaden was found dead in the cockpit of his Gladiator by the 7th Hussars while they were on the march. He was buried by Lieutenant J. Napier.
It was one of the hardest day of the war for the Australians and Flight Lieutenant Peter Jeffrey, then the Signals Officer of the unit but later to became its CO remembered it this way:
“(…) we had a very bad day on 13th December, it was over Salum (…) we had an extraordinary bad day – ran into a very big lot of CR42s and Flight Lieutenant Gaiden [Gaden] was killed but Arthur, “Wilf” Arthur was shot down (…). Lex Witton [Winten] had an explosive round in one hand and he bailed out. Gatwood [Gatward] and Boyd both crash-landed. So we had five, and that was a really very bad day for the Squadron (…) It was a very traumatic sort of experience but the Squadron was very resilient and picked up very quickly and the people who’d – apart from Witton who was a casualty because of his hand - the others were back flying again next day or in a few days’ time. To a certain extent, you know, you expected these things but that was just a bit bigger than we normally expected. And seeing as we’d had so much success prior with virtually no casualties it hit us a bit hard for a start. But it was only a few days later on the 26th when we got our revenge back (…)”.
In the meantime Larsimont, finding Menastir deserted, reached the nearby Balbia road and while waiting for a passing truck to stop, was shot at by a low flying Hurricane and had a narrow escape. After the collision, he was presumed dead by his pilots and so on the evening a message of condolences arrived from the HQ in Rome. In fact, he rejoined his unit the same day and at 15:05 was again at the head of his men.
It seems that another Italian fighter took part in this mission since Sottotenente Giuseppe Bottà of the 82a Squadriglia, 13o Gruppo, who was out on a “solo” reconnaissance over the front, discovered four Gladiators. These were attacking a patrol of SM 79s and he claimed to have forced the British fighter to disengage from the bombers with his intervention.

At the time of his death, Gaden was credited with 1 biplane victory, this one being claimed while flying Gloster Gladiators.

Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
1 10/12/40 06:35-09:05 1 Ro.37 Destroyed Gladiator   S Sidi Barrani 3 RAAF Squadron

Biplane victories: 1 destroyed.
TOTAL: 1 destroyed.

Australian War Memorial
Desert Prelude: Early clashes June-November 1940 - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2010 MMP books, ISBN 978-83-89450-52-4
Fighters over the Desert - Christopher Shores and Hans Ring, 1969 Neville Spearman Limited, London
Gloster Gladiator Home Page - Alexander Crawford.
National Archives of Australia
Quelli del Cavallino Rampante - Antonio Duma, 1981 Editore Dell'Ateneo, Roma, kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Additional information kindly provided by Russell Guest, Stefano Lazzaro and Ludovico Slongo.

Last modified 06 February 2011