Biplane fighter aces

The Commonwealth

Lieutenant O. J. Roger Nicolls, RN

806 FAA Squadron was formed on in February 1940, with eight Blackburn Skuas and six Rocs. The Squadron was to provide the fighter component on the new carrier HMS Illustrious, which was completing in Vickers Yard in Barrow-in-Furness as the first of a class of carriers to be fitted with an armoured flight deck.
The CO was Lieutenant Commander Charles Evans while the section leaders were Lieutenant Roger Nicolls, Senior Pilot, and Lieutenants Colin Campbell-Horsfall and Bill Barnes.

During the great air strike against Rhodes on 4 September 1940 by Swordfishs from HMS Eagle and HMS Illustrious he took part in the Fulmar patrols off the island. At 13.45 he led Red Section in an attack on two S.79s at 7,000 feet 50 miles south of Castello Point. He closed to 100 yards and saw bits fly off the starboard wing of one he attacked but the bombers escaped serious damage.

On 12 October, Regia Aeronautica was out in strength to attack the Mediterranean Fleet.
At 11:45, a Z.501 shadower was shot down, victim of Sub Lieutenants Jack Sewell and Roberts of 806 Squadron. They chased it from 3,000 feet down to sea level were it ditched. They strafed it, but saw no sign of life.
Later a total of 31 SM 79 bombers from Sicily attacked the Mediterranean Fleet, finding the Fulmars from HMS Illustrious up and ready to intercept. The first formation of twelve bombers from 34o Stormo attacked HMS Eagle and the bombs fell so close to the old British carrier that the shock waves were critical in damaging it sufficiently to miss the upcoming Taranto operation for defects in the fuel system. All the bombers came back in damaged conditions caused by AA and possibly by the attacks of Lieutenant Nicolls' Red Section of 806 Squadron, which at 12:30 sighted twelve SM 79s at 14,000ft. Lieutenant Nicolls (Fulmar N1876) carried out a beam attack on the second section of three and then a stern attack on a lone aircraft. He saw white smoke pour from the starboard engine, and pieces flying off. It was considered unlikely that it could get home.
The subsequent formation composed by ten SM 79s of the 36o Stormo was also attacked by the Fulmars, which this time shot down two machines of the 108o Gruppo (Tenente Alberto Soldati and his crew MIA.) and the 109o Gruppo (Tenente Francesco Tempra and his crew MIA). These were almost surely victims of Blue Section of 806 Squadron, which attacked five SM 79s at 13:50, attacking these at 16,000ft. Lieutenant Commander 'Crash' Evans led Sub Lieutenants Graham Hogg and I. L. F. Lowe into beam attacks, claiming one shot down in flames and forcing a second to ditch; both aircraft were credited as shared by the three pilots. Another SM 79 returned damaged with one dead crew member and two wounded while another SM 79 of the 109o Gruppo, flown by Tenente Giorgio Pieri crashed on Mount Etna while coming back to base and was reputed damaged by the British reaction. In general the Italian crews were unable to claim any hits on the British ships because of the heavy opposition experienced.
A third formation of seven SM 79s of the 34o Stormo attacked Italian ships in error, luckily without causing damage, the commander of the Italian formation was removed from his position at the end of the mission.
Fourteen Ju 87s of the 96o Gruppo and SM 79s of the 105o Gruppo Aut. B.T. failed to find their targets.
It is reported that Sunderland L2164 of 228 Squadron, flown by Flight Lieutenant McCall saved the crew of a shot down Italian Cant Z.501 seaplane. It was reported that after a two hours search, three Italian airmen (2nd pilot a Sergeant Major, observer a naval officer and the wireless operator) were found in a rubber boat, the pilot and the gunner were unable to escape from the sinking plane and were drowned The Z.501 was the one claimed by Fulmar pilots (Sub Lieutenants Jack Sewell and Roberts) during the day and although there is little doubt that it was indeed shot down, it is still unidentified.

On 6 November 1940 two convoys sailed for Malta, one from Gibraltar and one from Alexandria, the later with codename MB.8. To provide cover for MB.8 directly and for the other vessels indirectly, four Mediterranean Fleet battleships, two cruisers, HMS Illustrious and thirteen destroyers put to sea. Because considerable aerial action was expected, the carrier also embarked two or three of HMS Eagle’s Sea Gladiators (at least N5513 and N5523) as reinforcements for 806 Squadron’s Fulmars on this occasion. First action came on 8 November, and it was two of the Sea Gladiators that made the first “kill”. At 12:30, Lieutenant Nicolls and Sub Lieutenant Jack Sewell, flying two Sea Gladiators, caught and shot down a Cant Z.501 of the 186a Squadriglia RM. The Italian aircraft was flown by Tenente Paolo Primatesta (observer Sottotenente di Vascello Paolo Bacchione) and had left its base at Augusta at 09:00. Three of the crew were rescued by a Sunderland while Primatesta and the engineer Salvatore Calafiore died.

Nicholls ended the war with one shared biplane victory and another probable while flying Fulmars.

Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  04/09/40   1 S.79 Damaged Fulmar I N1879 S Castello Point 806 Squadron
  12/10/40 12:30 1 S.79 Probable (a) Fulmar I N1876 Gibraltar-Malta 806 Squadron
  08/11/40 12:30 ½ Cant Z.501 (b) Shared destroyed Sea Gladiator N5549 Alexandria-Malta 806 Squadron
Biplane victories: 1 shared destroyed.
TOTAL: 1 shared destroyed, 1 probable, 1 damaged.
(a) Probably from 34o Stormo, which didn't suffer any losses even all aircraft were damaged.
(b) Cant Z.501 of 186a Squadriglia R.M., flown by Tenente Paolo Primatesta (KIA) (observer Sottotenente di Vascello Paolo Bacchione).

Desert Prelude: Early clashes June-November 1940 - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2010 MMP, ISBN 978-83-89450-52-4
Fleet Air Arm Aircraft, 1939-1945 - Ray Sturtivant, kindly provided by Mark E. Horan
Flying Sailors at War: Volume 1 – Brian Cull with Bruce Lander and Mark Horan, 2011 Dalrymple & Verdun Publishing, Stamford, ISBN 978-1-905414-14-7
Malta: The Hurricane Years 1940-41 - Christopher Shores, 1987
Additional information kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo.

Last modified 05 February 2014