Biplane fighter aces

The Commonwealth

Lieutenant (A) Kenneth Lloyd Keith DSC, RN

1915 – 26 June 1941

Kenneth Keith was born in 1915 and was a Canadian from Calgary.

He joined the RAF in May 1936, undertaking his pilot training at 11 FTS.

He joined 25 Squadron on 10 January 1937 where he was confirmed as a Pilot Officer two months later.

Early in 1939 as an Acting Flying Officer, he transferred to the Fleet Air Arm when it was separated from the RAF, receiving the rank of Lieutenant (A).

As a member of 815 Squadron he served aboard HMS Eagle during 1939 and was still aboard the carrier in summer 1940.

He was one of the two Swordfish pilots (the other was Lieutenant (A) P. W. V. Massy) to be trained by Commander Charles Keighly-Peach in the use of one of the four Gloster Sea Gladiators, which Keighly-Peach had collected on Malta. This trio provided the early fighter defence of the Mediterranean Fleet until the arrival of HMS Illustrious.

Frequently in the air, the flight claimed eight aircraft shot down, or probably so.

First combat for Keith was on 11 July when after the naval battle off the coast of Calabria, the British ships retreating towards Alexandria was discovered by a reconnoitring Italian flying-boat early in the morning.
Immediately IIa Squadra Aerea sent out Sicilian based SM 79s from the 30o, 34o and 41o Stormo and Z.506Bs from the 35o Stormo at Brindisi. These attacked from 10:30 to 16:45 in ten separate waves for a total of eighty-one bombers releasing a total of 175 250-kg and 186 100-kg bombs. One SM 79 of the 195a Squadriglia, 90o Gruppo, 30o Stormo, claimed hits on a carrier.
The Italian bombers reported interceptions by Fairey Fulmars together with Gladiators, but the defenders were in fact only HMS Eagle's tiny handful of Sea Gladiators, flown by Swordfish pilots. Charles Keighly-Peach in N5517 (‘6-A’) and Lieutenant (A) Keith in N5513 (the latter pilot a Canadian from Calgary) had been on patrol for about twenty minutes at 13,000 feet, when at 14:15 they spotted a flight of five SM 79s approaching 2,000 feet below. Keighly-Peach attacked the aircraft on the left of the formation while Keith went for one on the right, both fighters diving vertically from above. Keighly-Peach made three dives, firing from 300 yards to 50 yards. The bomber dropped back and below the formation, emitting black smoke from the port wing. This soon turned to flames and the aircraft span into the sea, the crew being seen to bale out although they were never found. Return fire hit the Sea Gladiator, one bullet passing through the lower wing longeron to the starboard of the cockpit, going through the diagonal strut immediately above, and then braking up, one fragment entering Keighly-Peach’s thigh (it was finally recovered in 1976 when the old wound began to fester). Keith reported hits on his target, but did not see any result before anti-aircraft fire from the Fleet forced the fighters to break away.
The Sea Gladiators had clashed with sixteen SM 79s from the Sicilian 30o Stormo, composing the seventh wave of attackers, which reported being attacked by enemy fighters over the fleet at 13:30 and claimed four shot down in exchange for the loss of a SM 79 of the 194a Squadriglia, 90o Gruppo flown by Sottotenente Ciro Floreani and his crew (Sergente Maggiore Massimo Boldi, Primo Aviere Armiere Raffaele Corbia, Primo Aviere Montatore Timo Ranzi, Aviere Scelto Motorista Salvo Bacchilega), which all perished when the bomber crashed after having been shot down by Keighly-Peach.
Libyan based aircraft also attacked the British ships and twelve aircraft of the 33o Stormo attacked at 14:35. The aircraft flown by Colonnello Giuseppe Leonardi (CO 33o Stormo) was shot down reportedly by AA fire. It appears that its crew was discovered the day after by a Z.501 of the 186a Squadriglia RM from Augusta piloted by Sergente Mario Spada. Spada tried to land near the wreck of the SM 79 but he failed and the flying boat sank causing his death. Maresciallo marconista Antonio Piva, part of the SM 79 crew tried to reach the men of the Cant to help them but in doing so he drowned. The surviving airmen were later rescued by a Z.506 flying-boat of the 506a Squadriglia RM from Syracuse. It seems that Leonardi was (at least temporarily) replaced by Colonnello Attilio Biseo as the CO of the 33o Stormo. Two times “Atlantico”, Biseo was one of the most famous record breakers from the thirties.
At 18:10 twelve aircraft of the 15o Stormo attacked the ships.
No hits were recorded on any of the British ships during the day.

The skirmishes over the Mediterranean Fleet continued during the next two days and on 13 July the fleet again was shadowed and six raids followed. Four raids were flown by a total of 20 S.81s from the Aegean-based 39o Stormo. SM 79s from the 34o and 41o Gruppi made two attacks at 12:15 and 16:05 respectively.
HMS Eagle's Sea Gladiator Flight was up three times. Commander Charles Keighly-Peach in N5517 making first contact at 07:50 when he reported sighting a lone SM 79 ahead of the fleet. Making three diving attacks from out of the sun, he reported that flames issued from the port wing and the aircraft span into the sea, none of the crew being seen to bale out. This was possibly a Savoia Marchetti S.75 of 604a Squadriglia T that had been employed temporarily as a reconnaissance aircraft and which was lost during the day. The aircraft coded I-TUFO and with the individual number 604-3 was piloted by Sergente Mario Ballan and Sergente Giuliano Giuliani. Aboard the aircraft was also Tenente di Vascello and Osservatore Giuseppe Ghidini of the Lero based 145a Squadriglia R.M. (an officer of the Navy part of the crew to better spot enemy ships).
At 11:15, to the south of Crete Keighly-Peach (N5517) and Lieutenant (A) Keith (N5513), saw three Savoias - identified again as SM 79s - 5,000 feet below, approaching from the direction of Rhodes. Keith attacked first, firing on the left-hand aircraft, and this was then attacked by Keighly-Peach, who made three more attacks on the same bomber, which fell into the sea in flames. Two men baled out, one being picked up by HMS Hereward. Keith attacked the other two without obvious result. Keighly-Peach’s and Keith’s claim was almost surely an wrongly identified S.81 since at 11:20 five S.81s from the 39o Stormo attacked and a machine of the 200a Squadriglia, 92o Gruppo, flown by Sottotenente Enrico Carapezza, was shot down by enemy fighters, although defending gunners in the bombers claimed one fighter shot down.
Finally, at 14:50, Keith (again in N5513) saw five SM 79s at 8,000 feet, making a beam attack followed by a stern chase on one. This finally caught fire, turned on its back and spun into the sea, no one being seen to bale out. This claim was probably made against a group of three SM 79s of the 15o Stormo, which attacked at 14:30 as the only raid of the Va Squadra Area for the day. These Italian pilots were the only who reported being attacked by fighters (apart from the 39o Stormo at 11:20) and they claimed two shot down by their return fire for no losses. It seems that they shot down a Bristol Blenheim Mk.IF of 30 Squadron (K7181) that was patrolling over the fleet together with two colleagues. The three Blenheims reported that at 14:43 they discovered a formation of three SM 79s at 13,000 feet. One Blenheim was left to guard over the fleet while the other two attacked, claiming that the fire from the leader, Flying Officer Le Dieu (Blenheim K7177), silenced the rear gunner of the Italian leader while the combined fire of the two Blenheims hit the number three of the Savoias, which was seen to dive away with smoke pouring from the starboard engine but was not seen to crash. One of the Blenheims was lost. The crew of the Blenheim fighter (22-year old Pilot Officer Derryk Austin Lea (RAF no. 41432) and 20-year-old Sergeant Christopher Frederick Burt (RAF no. 539698)) perished. According to the pilot in the third Blenheim, Flight Lieutenant Alfred Bocking, Pilot Officer Lea was seen to bale out successfully but so great was the submarine menace that the convoy just sailed past him. Credit for the shot down Blenheim went to Aviere scelto Armiere Ornani of the 20a Squadriglia, 46o Gruppo.
During the last two days of bombing, even if no direct hits were achieved, the British ships were badly shaken by several near misses that caused splinter damage on many ships (including HMS Eagle and the destroyer HMS Vampire) and killed some sailors aboard the cruiser HMS Liverpool. In particular, on 12 July, HMS Warspite sustained damage from a near miss from an estimated 50kg bomb, which burst abreast of the flying deck on the starboard side and minor damage to structure was again caused by splinters. Back at Alexandria, the ship required two days of dock for permanent repairs.

On 29 July, a S.79 was lost north of Sidi El Barrani. Together with 40 other bombers of the 10o, 14o and 33o Stormi it was trying to attack a British naval group that was shelling Bardia. Its unit is unknown but it was part of the 33o or 14o Stormi because the 10o Stormo didn’t suffer any loss on this occasion.
This loss was most probably caused due to that Alexandria’s fleet was out south-west of Crete to give partial cover to a convoy that was heading for Alexandria and the carrier HMS Eagle was part of the fleet. Between 27 and 29 July the ships were attacked many times by Dodecanese and Libyan based aircraft; HMS Liverpool was hit by a bomb which penetrated two decks without exploding and HMAS Sydney suffered bomb splinter damage that wrecked its spotter aircraft and wounded a few of its crew.
HMS Eagle's little band of fighters were again engaged on 29 July 1940. Lieutenant Keith and Lieutenant (A) Patrick Wilfred Villiers Massy were on patrol when two flights of three S.79s were seen at 15,000 feet. Keith attacked the left-hand aircraft in one flight, which broke formation at once and fled for home, apparently without dropping its bombs. He then attacked that on the right, this jettisoning its cargo and losing height rapidly to disappear in the clouds (Keith was credited with one damaged S.79). Meanwhile Massy was after the right hand machine of the other flight. After five separate attacks it caught fire and dived into the sea, an explosion being seen in the rear fuselage just before it went into the water. Two members of the crew baled out, one of them was picked up alive by HMS Capetown. By now Massy was some way from the convoy and almost out of fuel. He was obliged to ditch near HMAS Stuart, one of the escorting destroyers, and was picked up safely.
Massy’s victim was most likely the Libyan S.79 lost this day even if Italian records claimed it was shot down by AA fire.

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.
The attacks on the Royal Navy began when, at 10:40 five SM 79s were seen at 12,000 feet, heading in from the north-east. Over the fleet there were, on standing patrol, at least the Gladiators of ‘A’ Flight 112 Squadron (probably six of them), the three Sea Gladiators of HMS Eagle’s Fighter Flight and a single Hurricane from ‘A’ Flight 80 Squadron flown by Flying Officer John Lapsley (P2641). They intercepted the Italian bombers and altogether claimed six of them; one by Flight Lieutenant Lloyd Schwab, one by Pilot Officer Peter Wickham, (both from 112 Squadron) and three by Lapsley. Two Sea Gladiators flown by Lieutenant (A) Keith (N5513) and Lieutenant Anthony Young (N5567) attacked several formations. Young attacked one in company with a 112 Squadron Gladiator flown by an unknown pilot. Keith joined the attack and the port wing of the bomber burst into flames, two members of the crew bailing out before the Savoia crashed into the sea. Commander Charles Keighly-Peach (N5517) became separated, and realizing the futility of chasing the fleeing bombers alone, headed back over the Fleet in time to see to more formations attacking (totally 25 SM 79s were counted). He made three attacks on one bomber, seeing numerous pieces fall off and it went into a shallow dive. One man baled out, but as the aircraft lost height rapidly, it disappeared into cloud. He attacked another twice but without result.
The Italians lost four bombers and claimed seven Gladiators shot down in return (it seems that all the seven claims were submitted by the gunners aboard the Savoia bombers, two of them by 10o Stormo gunners). In fact only the Gladiator of Pilot Officer Richard Acworth was seriously damaged when he attacked an SM 79s, but although wounded himself Acworth was able to fly back to base where he crash-landed and the aircraft was written-off.
In 1942, Joseph Fraser remembered:

“During August, the Squadron’s C.O. Slim Somerville was still non-operational, recovering from extensive burns which he had received getting out of a Gladiator on fire while practicing aerobatics at Helwan. The Flights were commanded by F/Lt C. H. Fry and Algy Schwab, the latter had just been posted in Wally Williams place as O.C. “A” Flight. A number of patrols were carried out during August between Sollum and Mersa Matruh and a couple more victories were credited to the Squadron. F/O Acworth was badly injured by shrapnel in the leg during a dog-fight off Sidi Barrani but he managed to get his aircraft back to Gerawla, landing downwind and finishing up at the opening of the medical tent. The medical officer was infuriated at this demonstration, until he realized Acky was unable to get out of the cockpit and that it had saved him carrying Acky some hundreds of yards. A dozen or more splinters were taken out of Acky’s leg, two weeks sick leave in Alex. and he was back in the cockpit again.”
John Lapsley told a newspaper about this combat:
“I arrived just as five S 79’s had dropped their bombs, all well astern of the fleet, and were making off. One immediately went down in flames – evidently hit by anti-aircraft fire from the battleships. I picked on the leader and gave him about eight short bursts. He fell away, obviously in difficulties. Actually he landed his aircraft in our lines – there were six hundred bullet holes in it [probably ’56-9’ flown by Tenente Lauchard of the 56a Squadriglia].
Then I picked on another and had just got a second burst into him he went up in flames. I was about one hundred yards away and the planes were much too close for comfort so I swerved away just as the crew of the S 79 ‘baled out’.
The third remaining S 79 by this time was quite close to the coast and he was diving like mad for a cloud. I gave him three or four long bursts, and with one engine smoking he disappeared. I think he went into ‘the drink’.
These Italian aircraft seem to be built of ply-wood. At any rate you have to dodge the pieces that come flying back at you when you fire your guns.
There didn’t seem to be much more doing, so I came home. Even then I had some ammunition left.”
Italian units participating in the attack were the 10o Stormo with ten aircraft and the 15o and the 33o Stormi with another 16 aircraft. The Italians arrived over the target in consecutive waves. There is a lack of details of the attack of the 15o and the 33o Stormi but they suffered no losses even if it seems that the bombers from the 15o Stormo were intercepted by the British fighters. Primo Aviere Antonio Trevigni of the 53a Squadriglia, 47o Gruppo, although seriously wounded in both legs, kept firing against them until his aircraft was able to escape, claiming two victories in the process. Trevigni was awarded with a Medaglia d’Oro al valor militare but was never able to recover and finally died in an Italian hospital on 23 October 1942.
The 10o Stormo aircraft were a first group of five Savoias of the 58a Squadriglia and a second group under the command of Capitano Musch and composed of four aircraft of the 56a Squadriglia and one of the 57a Squadriglia. The 58a Squadriglia took off from Derna N1 at 07:55 and arrived over the Royal Navy ships at around 10:00 where they unloaded forty 100 kilos bombs. A group of seven Gladiators tried to intercept after the bombing but was left behind while AA was reported as extremely intense and precise.
The second group led by Capitano Musch arrived over the fleet just to find all the enemy fighters already alerted and ready for the interception. Attacked by the Gladiators and Lapsley’s Hurricane the first to go down was aircraft ‘57-7’ flown by Tenente Visentin, and Sottotenente Sartore (crew; Maresciallo Fasce, Primo Aviere Radiotelegrafista Pian, Aviere Armiere Vitolo, Aviere Scelto Motorista Innocenti). It was shot down while losing height rapidly to force-land after having been damaged when it was attacked by several Gladiators. The crew was all killed. The second aircraft to go down was the aircraft of Sottotenente Mussi of the 56a Squadriglia with the loss of the crew. The third to be shot down was ’56-9’ flown by Tenente Arturo Lauchard of the 56a Squadriglia, which was seriously damaged. With all the crew dead inside the second pilot Tenente Vittorio Cèard (Lauchard was wounded) made a forced landing on a beach. The beach was in Egyptian territory and the two pilots were taken prisoners. The plane of Lauchard was later recovered and, taken to Alexandria, was exposed as a war prize on Ismailia Square. Lauchard left a realistic narration of his capture where he told that he was transported to the airport of Sidi Barrani where he was taken to the Officer’s Mess where an Intelligence Officer examined him. Lauchard told him only his name and rank and the amused British Officer showed him a chart where all the units of Regia Aeronautica were recorded with airbase, number of planes and names of the crew chiefs. There his name already was, written on a tag that the Intelligence Officer removed. Later the RAF officers offered a drink to him and he met a young Flight Lieutenant that around ten days before had been shot down by Italian fighters and obliged to bale out. The British pilot told Lauchard that while descending in his parachute an Italian fighter pointed on him but instead of opening fire he passed near him weaving with his arm. It seems that the pilot was almost surely Flight Lieutenant 'Pat' Pattle.
The two surviving Savoias ran for home but only Capitano Musch arrived back at Derna, with the aircraft damaged and a wounded crewman (Primo Aviere Motorista Falzoni). The other SM 79 flown by Sottotenente Venosta and Marsciallo Breda was almost shot down by the fighters when a cloud saved them. They were however obliged to force-land at T3 where the plane was written off as a consequence of the damage suffered. The 10o Stormo’s records reported that three of their numbers were shot down by a single Hurricane that, hidden inside the Gladiator formation, attacked with quick passes of its guns but always remaining out of range of the Italian return fire.

He was Mentioned in Despatches on 11 September 1940.

On 27 March 1941 Lieutenant Keith and Sub Lieutenant R. W. M. Walsh delivered Sea Gladiators N5509 and N5538 to Maleme, Crete. Both pilots were retained by 805 Squadron on a brief attachment before being sent back to Dekheila on 6 April in a Bombay from 216 Squadron.

On 17 April Lieutenant Keith and Sub Lieutenant Walsh brought a further two Sea Gladiators, N5535 and N5568, to Maleme from Egypt. During the ferry flight the two pilots spotted a lone He 111, they gave chase but lack of fuel forced them to break off and head for the airfield. As they came into land the defences opened fire but, fortunately their fire was not very accurate and the aircraft landed safely. Keith was kept on detachment but Walsh was sent back via a departing Bombay to collect another Sea Gladiator – only to find that no more were available.

Keith was later sick and taken to hospital suffering from dysentery and he was still at the hospital when German airborne troops attacked Crete.
Even if he was still ill he assisted in hunting down some German paratroopers.

He was evacuated from Crete aboard Jaguar or Defender on 24 May, returning to duty at Dekheila.

In June 1941 he was still assigned to HMS Eagle and 813 Fighter Flight. However during this time he was seconded to an ad hoc RN unit comprising a mixture of Buffaloes, Fulmars, Sea Gladiators and borrowed RAF Hurricanes with pilots drawn from 803, 805 and 806 Squadrons, which was based at Dekhelia near Alexandria. The unit was tasked mainly with escorting convoys between Mersa Matruh and Tobruk. Most of the sorties were uneventful.

On 17 June 1941, he was shot down flying an 805 Squadron Brewster Buffalo (AX813) while on a lone fighter patrol over HM ships north-west of Sidi Barrani. Although wounded, Keith survived the crash and was rescued by a German patrol, but he subsequently died of his wounds on 26 June 1941. Most probably he was shot down by Oberfeldwebel Hermann Förster (totally 13 victories) of 2./JG 27 who claimed a ‘Brewster’ in the area at 19:10.

A DSC for the Crete operations was gazetted on 8 January 1942 and awarded to his next-of-kin.

At the time of his death Keith was credited with one biplane victory.

Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  11/07/40   1 S.79 Damaged Sea Gladiator N5513   HMS Eagle
  13/07/40 11:15 ½ S.79 (a) Shared destroyed Sea Gladiator N5513 S Crete HMS Eagle
1 13/07/40 14:50 1 S.79 (b) Destroyed Sea Gladiator N5513 S Crete HMS Eagle
  29/07/40   1 S.79 (c) Damaged Sea Gladiator N5513 nr Alexandria HMS Eagle
  17/08/40 10:40- 1/3 S.79 (d) Shared destroyed Sea Gladiator N5513 Bardia-Alexandria HMS Eagle

Biplane victories: 1 and 2 shared destroyed, 2 damaged.
TOTAL: 1 and 2 shared destroyed, 2 damaged.
(a) Possibly a S.81 from the 200a Squadriglia, 92o Gruppo, flown by Sottotentente Enrico Carapezza, which was shot down by enemy fighters.
(b) Possibly claimed against a group of three S.79s of the 15o Stormo, which reported being attacked by fighters claiming two shot down by defensive fire for no losses.
(c) Claimed in combat with S.79s from the 10o, 14o and 33o Stormi.
(d) RAF and FAA claimed six S.79s and 1 probable for one damaged Gladiator. The 10o Stormo aircraft lost three S.79s and got two more damaged.

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
Fighters over the Desert - Christopher Shores and Hans Ring, 1969 Neville Spearman Limited, London
Fleet Air Arm Aircraft, 1939-1945 - Ray Sturtivant kindly provided by Mark E. Horan
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
Malta: The Hurricane Years 1940-41 - Christopher Shores and Brian Cull with Nicola Malizia, 1987 Grub Street, London, ISBN 0-89747-207-1
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Those Other Eagles – Christopher Shores, 2004 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-904010-88-1
Additional information kindly provided by Mark E. Horan and Ludovico Slongo.

Last modified 26 November 2015