Biplane fighter aces

The Commonwealth

Flying Officer Anthony ‘Tony’ Gray-Worcester, RAF no. 33338

1917 – 18 July 1940

Anthony Gray-Worcester was born in 1917 and his parents lived on Cyprus.

He was granted a short service commission in the RAF on 24 June 1938, although he appears initially to have been an entrant into the RAF College, Cranwell.

He was promoted Acting Flying Officer on 17 November 1938.

On 16 May 1939, Flying Officer Gray-Worcester was posted to 112 Squadron when this unit was formed aboard HMS Argus in Portsmouth, Hampshire.

112 Squadron was sent to Egypt and arrived on 25 May 1939.

He received a full promotion to Flying Officer on 7 January 1940.

When the war started in North Africa on 10 June 1940, 112 Squadron was commanded by Squadron Leader D. M. Somerville. It was based at Helwan 15 miles south of Cairo and solely responsible for the defence of Egypt’s Capital. It probably had between 13 to 21 Gladiators and five Gauntlet Mk.IIs (among these were K5292, just received from 6 Squadron) left in Egypt. When the unit reached Egypt at the end of May 1939 for a “6 months temporary duty” it had 24 Gloster Gladiator Mk.Is (all used machines coming from 72 Squadron). Flying Officer Joseph Fraser remembered a slightly superior number: around 30. Since then only one machine was known to be lost before the beginning of the war. This was the CO Gladiator whose engine caught fire on 15 March 1940 during a training flight. Somerville was badly hurt in the accident and Squadron Leader A. R. G. Bax temporarily took command of the Squadron. The Squadron was organised in three flights:
‘A’ Flight was commanded by Flight Lieutenant W. C. Williams and included Flying Officer H. C. Worcester, Flying Officer W. B. Price-Owen, Pilot Officer Ross, Pilot Officer Richard Acworth, Pilot Officer Davison, Pilot Officer Smither, Pilot Officer Gray-Worcester, Pilot Officer Harrison, Pilot Officer Peter Wickham, Pilot Officer Peter Strahan and Pilot Officer Van der Heijden.
‘B’ Flight was commanded by Flight Lieutenant Savage but this unit had been ordered to Sudan on 2 June (with 10 Gladiators – 8 aircraft according to the memories of the Adjutant, Flying Officer Fraser) to act as a detached unit, subsequently known as ‘K’ Flight. This flight was finally detached from 112 Squadron on 31 August 1940.
‘C’ Flight was commanded by Flight Lieutenant Charles Fry and included Flying Officer R. H. Smith, Flying Officer Joseph Fraser (Adjutant of 112 Squadron), Pilot Officer Clark, Pilot Officer Chapman, Pilot Officer Duff, Pilot Officer de la Hoyde, Pilot Officer R. J. Bennett, Pilot Officer Homer Cochrane, Pilot Officer Butcher and Sergeant George Millar Donaldson.

On 4 July 1940 Flying Officer Gray-Worcester and Flying Officer W. B. Price-Owen of 112 Squadron was sent to 33 Squadrons 'A' Flight at Sidi Barrani to gain battle experience.
In the evening on the same day, at about 18:00, six 33 Squadron Gladiators flying in two sections escorted a Lysander from 208 Squadron flown by Flying Officer Brown over the Capuzzo-Bardia area. Nine CR.42s were seen taking off from Menastir Landing Ground west of Bardia and the Gladiators dived to attack. The No. 2 section, led by Flying Officer Gray-Worcester and including Flight Sergeant Cottingham and Pilot Officer Eric Woods, attacked just as the enemy fighters left ground and Gray-Worcester shot down four of them while Cottingham claimed two and Woods claimed one. The remaining two CR.42s made good their escape.
The British pilots reported that the Italians scrambled more fighters and five CR.42s were attempting to get airborne just as the other three Gladiators, all flown by 112 Squadron pilots (Flying Officer Price-Owen, Flying Officer R. H. Smith and Flying Officer R. J. Bennett), decided to join the fray. Taking the barely flying CR.42s by surprise Smith and Bennett each claimed one shot down.
Price-Owen was forced to leave his aircraft (Gladiator II N5751) after an explosion in the fuselage over Buq-Buq. He parachuted safely and came down 15 miles inside the Egyptian Border. Post war British studies suggested that his aircraft was possibly hit by own anti-aircraft but it seems this was not the case. In fact, Flight Lieutenant Joseph Fraser reported:

“During July 1940, pilots from 112 Squadron, on detachment at Sidi Barrani, were gaining operational experience rapidly and many dogfights resulted around the bay of Sollum between Gladiators and CR 42s, for the CR 42 pilot had not yet learnt to respect the Gladiator – his senior, with its greater manoeuvrability. It was during one of these flights that F/O Price-Owen was badly shot up, though uninjured himself, and then decided to bale out. However, unfortunately, he was wearing a parachute belonging to a friend of far greater stature and on pulling the rip cord, the loose harness gave him a very severe jerk between his legs which almost cost him his manhood – a very serious matter with Price-Owen. He was incapacitated for some time and posted from the Squadron.”
Here it is also interesting to note how the British pilots had quickly learned what were the advantage of their machine over the Italians, they however greatly overestimated the speed of their opponent: “(We tried) to get to grips with CR 42s who declined a fight with the feared and more manoeuvrable Gladiator which was outpaced at full throttle by a good 50 mph (!)”
The Italians reported that at 18:05, five CR 42s scrambled against a reported nine Gloster Gladiators that were already orbiting over the airstrip of Menastir. The Italian pilots were Capitano Franco Lavelli, Sottotenente Nunzio De Fraia and Sergente Maggiore Trento Cecchi from the 94a Squadriglia and Tenente Domenico Bevilacqua and Sergente Maggiore Agostino Fausti from the 93a Squadriglia. The Italian pilots started in a helpless position considering the height advantage of the Glosters and the fact that at sea level the Gladiator II had better overall performances than the CR.42, being more manoeuvrable with a top speed (flat) of 346 Km/h against the 342 Km/h of the Italian fighter and with a slightly higher climbing rate (in 1 minute and 25 seconds the Gladiator reached 1184 metres of height while in the same time the CR 42 only reached 1000 metres). In quick succession, Cecchi was shot down and killed and De Fraia was obliged to bale out, wounded, from his burning aircraft. Lavelli was the next to fall and then Bevilacqua, who, although slightly wounded, disengaged and landed a heavily damaged aircraft. Only Fausti remained in flight, fighting against the whole RAF formation. From ground it was seen that his fire hit two enemy fighters that were obliged to leave the combat area (no victories were claimed but one of them seems highly likely to have been Price-Owen) but the other Gladiators didn’t give him a chance, hitting his plane while he (probably already wounded) was trying a last evasive manoeuvre diving in westward direction towards the fading sun. Fausti died in his burning plane (Fiat CR.42 MM5543). His proposal for an Medaglia d’argento al valor militare from June was subsequently changed to a posthumous Medaglia d’Oro al valor militare for bravery. Again it was reported that almost all the fighters of the Italian formation suffered gun-jamming during the fight, in particular the plane of Capitano Lavelli was observed not to fire even when he reached very favourable positions. After landing back at base, Bevilacqua told that his guns had ceased to fire almost immediately; he had only managed to fire 57 rounds.
Capitano Lavelli, Sottotenente De Fraia and Sergente Maggiore Cecchi had just escorted a formation of Bredas over the front, landing back at 17:45. Together with a scramble they made at 15:55, this was their fourth mission of the day.
This was the blackest day of the whole war for the 8o Gruppo C.T. and totally they lost seven CR.42s destroyed and one more damaged, three pilots were killed, two were taken prisoners and two wounded.

On 18 July, Flying Officer Gray-Worcester, was killed while leading a formation down through cloud. He was probably flying Gladiator K6130, which was lost during the day when it hit a hill obscured by a cloud at Qaret el Naga.
Gray-Worcester was already the rising star of the Squadron and was sorrowfully missed by its colleagues. Joseph Fraser remembered him this way:

“(At the beginning of the war) No.33(F) Squadron were fighting a hard game against greatly superior numbers of Italian fighters at Mersa Matruh during June and July and so sections of 4 were detached from 112 and 80 Squadrons for a fortnight at a time to help out 33 Squadron and to give the former squadrons operational experience before they moved to the desert as a whole. The first four pilots to leave 112 Squadron were led by F/O Tony Worcester – a Cranwell graduate of exceptional flying ability. Tony led his section of Gladiators away from Helwan up to Sidi Barani in the early days of July, like a pack of hounds that had been released after months in their kennels. Hardly had they time to refuel at Sidi Barani before they were led over the barbed wire by pilots of 33 Squadron. Now at this stage in the war the landing grounds between Alexandria and Sollum could be counted on two hands with ease and these were frequently visited at night by the Italian bombers, for there was no night fighter organization possible. What success could a Gladiator with H/F have of intercepting a bomber at night without observer screen or RDF screen? However, it was Tony Worcester who led the first attack onto an enemy occupied aerodrome near Fort Capuzzo [on 4 July]. No one knew then what anti-aircraft defences the Italians had organized, what tactics they would employ or how their fighters compared in speed and manoeuvrability with the already obsolete Gladiator. Out of the clear blue sky came Tony and his three Gladiators in formation, down onto the aerodrome from which the Italian CR 42s were already climbing into battle. Then, for ten minutes, three Gladiators got stuck into an ever- increasing number of Italian fighters. Tony’s tactics, manoeuvrability and firing were superb, for in less than 10 minutes four Italian fighters had crashed down onto their own aerodrome from Tony’s guns – a mere four, .303 machine guns – in full view of the Italians and back came the Gladiators to Sidi Barani almost without a bullet hole in them. The rest of the fortnight was spent chasing Savoia 79s – three engine bombers, which being 40 mph faster than the Gladiator, were able to draw away from them out to sea whenever attacked (….) Back came Tony to Helwan with his Gladiators, the first hero of the Western Desert, having proved correct all his theories of tactics and firing and inspired in all the superiority of British pilots and aircraft over Italian.
Towards the end of July, Tony set out for Sidi Barani with another three pilots and finding his first port of call covered in low cloud, he ordered his section to circle above the cloud while he went down to investigate. He never came up again and his section managed to land by a near-by landing ground; a search found Tony crashed into a sand dune. He had gone down through the cloud to see if it was safe to take his section through but the cloud was lying on the ground and he must have hit the ground and killed himself before he had seen the danger. In this land of clear blue skies, more experienced pilots have killed themselves through feeling their way down through belts of mist over the Delta and coastline than any other reason.”
Worcester was leading the vanguard of his Squadron to the frontline thus ending the period of the Detachment to 33 Squadron. Fraser remembered:
“The last of these detachments returned to Helwan towards the end of July and nearly all the Squadron’s pilots had found their Battle Wings, got over the nervousness of meeting their first enemy aircraft and pressed their button, with and without success, at an enemy aircraft. The theoretical tactics of peacetime training were revised by experience in combat to practical tactics; so for all this most valuable fighting experience, only two Gladiators were lost, both pilots having landed safely by parachute and the Squadron was credited with 8 confirmed enemy aircraft. The Squadron had received orders to relieve 33(F) Squadron at GERAWLA, near Mersa Matruh. The Squadron was like a pack of hounds with a dozen tails apiece.”

Flying Officer A. M. Ross became temporary Flight Commander until the arrival of Flight Lieutenant Lloyd Schwab, who arrived on 23 July.

At the time of his death, Gray-Worcester was credited with 4 biplane victories, these being claimed while flying Gloster Gladiators.

Claims:
Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  1940                
1 04/07/40 18:00 1 CR.42 (a) Destroyed Gladiator   Menastir att. 33 Squadron
2 04/07/40 18:00 1 CR.42 (a) Destroyed Gladiator   Menastir att. 33 Squadron
3 04/07/40 18:00 1 CR.42 (a) Destroyed Gladiator   Menastir att. 33 Squadron
4 04/07/40 18:00 1 CR.42 (a) Destroyed Gladiator   Menastir att. 33 Squadron

Biplane victories: 4 destroyed.
TOTAL: 4 destroyed.
(a) Claimed in combat with CR.42s of the 8o Gruppo, which didn’t claim anything but lost four CR.42s and got a fifth damaged (three pilots killed and two wounded). 33 Squadron claimed nine shot for the loss of one Gladiator (F/O Price-Owen safe).

Sources:
2o Stormo - Note storiche dal 1925 al 1975 - Gino Strada, 1975 USSMA, Rome, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
112 Sqn "Shark Squadron" 1939 - 1941 - Andre R. Zbiegniewski, 2003 Miniatury lotnicze 15, Kagero, Lublin, ISBN 83-89088-55-X
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 Aces - Andrew Thomas, 2002 Osprey Publishing, London, ISBN 1-84176-289-X
Gloster Gladiator Home Page - Alexander Crawford.
Hurricanes over Tobruk - Brian Cull with Don Minterne, 1999 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-902304-11-X
L’8oGruppo caccia in due conflitti mondiali - Giuseppe Pesce, 1974 S.T.E.M. Mucchi, Modena, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Shark Squadron - The history of 112 Squadron 1917-1975 - Robin Brown, 1994 Crécy Books, ISBN 0-947554-33-5
Stormi d'Italia - Giulio Lazzati, 1975 Mursia, Milan, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
The Desert Air War 1939 – 1945 – Richard Townshend Bickers, 1991 Leo Cooper, London, ISBN 0-85052-216-1, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Those Other Eagles – Christopher Shores, 2004 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-904010-88-1
Woody - A Fighter Pilot's Album - Hugh A. Halliday, 1987 Canav Books, Toronto, ISBN 0-9690703-8-1
Additional information kindly provided by Vincent Biondi and Ludovico Slongo




Last modified 07 November 2010