Flying Officer W. B. Price-Owen , RAF no. 39829
On 1 January 1940 Flying Officer W. B. Price-Owen was posted to 112 Squadron. This unit was at the time equipped with Gloster Gladiators and served in Egypt.
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 Price-Owen, Pilot Officer Ross, Pilot Officer Richard Acworth, Pilot Officer Davison, Pilot Officer Smither, Pilot Officer Anthony 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 Anthony Gray-Worcester and Flying Officer 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 (!)”
On 18 August 1940 he was transferred from 112 Squadron and was to serve in 80 Squadron during the Greek campaign.
On 28 November 1940, six Gladiators from 80 Squadron's 'A' Flight flew a fighter mission led by Flight Lieutenant ’Tap’ Jones. Over Delvinakion they reported meeting 20 CR.42s. This was in fact ten aircraft of 150o Gruppo C.T. led by Capitano Giorgio Graffer, CO of the 365a Squadriglia.
In the ensuing dogfight Flying Officer H. U. Sykes (Gladiator N5812) and Sergente Corrado Mignani collided, both pilots being killed. Flight Lieutenant Jones, after claiming two CR.42s shot down off the tails of fellow pilots, had Gladiator N5816 badly shot-up, his instrument panel smashed, and a bullet wound in his neck. He was escorted back to Yanina by Sergeant Donald Gregory, where he managed to land safely. Sergeant Gregory claimed three destroyed CR.42s in this combat. Flying Officer Wanklyn Flower was also shot-up in N5854, but believed he had shot down one CR.42 first. Gladiators N5788 flown by Flying Officer Price-Owen and N5786 flown by Flying Officer F. W. Hosken were also damaged, but both pilots also claimed one probable CR.42 each.
Apart from Mignani, two more CR.42s were actually lost, Graffer - one of the most successful Italian fighter pilots of the war thus, with five victories credited to him - being killed, while Sergente Achille Pacini baled out. Maresciallo Guglielmo Bacci's and Sergente Bruno Zotti’s CR.42s were damaged and both pilots were wounded but managed to return to base. Four Gladiators and one probable were claimed shot down.
At 10:30 on 21 December 1940, 80 Squadron took off from Yanina for the front in Greece. They were led by Squadron Leader William Hickey and flew in three sections. The first comprised four aircraft and was led by Hickey, the second of three was led by Flight Lieutenant ’Pat’ Pattle and the third trio was led by Flying Officer Sidney Linnard.
Near Argyrokastron three enemy trimotor bombers were seen. They were identified as S.79s, and then three more aircraft with twin tails were seen, recognized in this case as Fiat BR.20s. All six were in fact Cant Z.1007bis aircraft from the 47o Stormo B.T. from Grottaglie. The Italian bombers were attacked by the Gladiators and Pattle believed that he had hit one.
At this moment however 15 CR.42s of the 160o Gruppo appeared on the scene. Maggiore Oscar Molinari, the Gruppo commander, was leading these Italian aircraft on an offensive reconnaissance over Yanina, Paramythia and Zitsa. Seeing the bombers under attack by an estimated 20 Gladiators, the Italian attacked, joined by six other CR.42s from the 150o Gruppo led by Capitano Luigi Corsini so that 80 Squadron pilots assessed the number of their opponents at 54!
After 25 minutes, the air battle broke up and eight of the British pilots returned to claim eight confirmed and three probables. Pilot Officer ’Bill’ Vale claimed three, one of them in flames (according to Pattle this was the fighter that shot down Flight Lieutenant Ripley). Vale’s own aircraft was riddled by explosive bullets during the combat. Vale reported:
‘At 1050, ten Gladiators took off from Yannina on an offensive patrol, flying in three flights of four, three, and three aircraft. I was flying in No.3 in the third flight led by F/O Linnard.Sergeant Charles Casbolt claimed one CR.42 during the combat, which blew up and another, which spun down (later downgraded to a probable). Sergeant Donald Gregory claimed another two, again one in flames, but his own aircraft was badly shot up with the engine and the undercarriage damaged by a series of frontal attacks from a CR.42s that had also wounded him in the right eye and was barely able to save himself from a “desperate position”. He however managed to return to Yanina and reproted:
On reaching the patrol line “Tally-ho!” was immediately given for three bombers seen going from west to east. The leading flight led by S/L Hickey immediately went into action. At the same moment three more bombers were seen approaching from our port beam. The leader of the second flight, F/L Pattle, immediately turned left and carried out a head-on attack, and my flight leader followed.
I was able to get in a short burst before breaking away. On turning to follow, I observed a large formation of CR42s diving down from above. We immediately climbed to attack and a general dogfight started. I singled out one enemy aircraft who tried to dive away and dived down firing a burst at long range. He pulled up and I got in a full deflection shot from underneath and noticed flames coming from underneath his engine. The enemy aircraft went down out of control and finally hit the ground in flames. I then noticed a single Gladiator low down in a valley being attacked by five CR42s. I dived down and engaged two of them and managed to get behind one and fire a long burst until it suddenly spun out of control and crashed into the valley.
I was then attacked by more CR42s who carried out frontal quarter attacks on me with the superior speed that could out-climb me. I carried out one evasive action and noticed that the Gladiator below me was on fire and spinning down out of control [this was Sqn Ldr Hickey’s aircraft]. I dived down towards it and saw the pilot leave the aircraft and use his parachute. I was again fired at by a CR42 from above who carried out his attack and then headed away north. When I again looked down I saw the Gladiator in flames on the ground with the pilot going down in his parachute. At the same time I saw a CR42 dive on the pilot and twin streams coming from behind his aircraft. I dived down and managed to get in a surprise attack as he pulled away from the parachutist. I got on his tail and fired a long burst from a single fuselage gun until he turned over out of control and went straight down to crash in the valley.
As I pulled up another CR42 came down very close to my machine, out of control, and crashed quite near to the burning Gladiator. I gained altitude and saw another Gladiator circling above me, and as I was short of ammunition I joined formation and found the other pilot to be F/S Richens, who had shot the CR42, which went past me. I noticed the position of the crashed Gladiator in respect to Argyrokastron and then returned to base.
On landing I inspected my aircraft and found that my lower and upper starboard mainplanes had been hit twice by explosive bullets, one of which had entered the wing ammunition tank and had exploded inside but had done no apparent damage to the structure of the mainplane. The fuselage was hit in several places but with no structural damage.’
‘Turning round in a stall turn I observed the leader [of the 42s] diving vertically whilst the remaining two had split, No.2 going up, No.3 down. As I had the advantage over the lower aircraft I decided to attack this first. He attempted to come up under me but as I was near to stalling, I had no difficulty in bringing my sight round to get in a deflection shot and then turn astern on him. Followed him down. At the same time I observed the leading aircraft crash on a hill and burst into flames. This dive was very steep, so much so, that I very nearly hit the ground with the 42. When I pulled up sharply out of this dive the third 42 came past and then pulled up underneath me into such a position that we could both get in quick deflection shots.Sergeant Gregory was recommended for an immediate DFM. Pattle and Warrant Officer Sid Richens also claimed one CR.42 each, Pattle reporting that his victim fell in flames, whilst Flying Officers Price-Owen and F. W. Hosken both claimed probables. However Flight Lieutenant Henry Derek Ripley (RAF no. 70575) in N5854 was seen to be shot down in flames and killed, while Squadron Leader Hickey was spotted bailing out of N5816; sadly his parachute caught fire, and he died from injuries soon after reaching the ground. Greek troops recovered the bodies of both pilots. Of Hickey’s death Vale reported:
This happened three times and each time we missed colliding by inches, so that after each attack I had to find him again. Quite naturally this developed into a head-on attack, the first of which I slid out of. As the following attack was also head-on I became rather worried. I brought him into my sights, fired, ducked down behind my engine for cover, at the same time pulling back on the control column.
Immediately after this my right eye became warm and I found I had lost my sight in this eye. It took me some seconds to get used to this, as I would try to look towards the rear on the right side, but all I saw was the extensive damage to the centre section, starboard lower plane and a flying wire that had broken. I seem to remember at this point that he came at me from below and we had another deflection shot at each other, but as I had seen him so often in this position it may have stuck in my mind. However, I do remember I decided that my position was desperate and I weighed up the ground that was to receive me below. When I was overcome by a wave of determination, possibly due to the fact that when I was hit and saw the blood I turned my oxygen on at full strength. I pulled up in a loop and rolled off the top into a tight turn back into the direction I had come from. I looked at my compass but it seemed blurred. Although I could see the sun, I could not convince myself which direction to fly.
Diving down into the valley seemed to be the only means of escape. I was unable to look behind, as this brought on pain in my eye. At one period my sight was so blurred that I could not decide whether I was being chased by CR42 or if it was AA fire. Fortunately it was the latter. I discovered my position to be ten miles north of Valona at four thousand feet. As I could use only sixteen hundred revolutions due to damage to the rocker arm, causing excessive vibration, it took forty minutes to return to base where a landing was made under difficulties due to damage to eyesight and to undercarriage.’
‘The Gladiator was flat-spinning too. Suddenly the pilot hurled out of the cockpit like a black ant and the white burst of his parachute spreading in a puff … the parachute burst into flames and the sudden black smudge as its slow speed became a lightning streak of charred smoke and the black figure of the Gladiator pilot hurtling two thousand feet down to the black earth.’Linnard’s aircraft (N5834) was also badly hit and he was hit in the left calf by an explosive bullet and was taken to hospital after landing at Yanina. Flight Lieutenant Pattle noted:
‘Enemy fighters used a definite plan of attack. Attacking from superior height they maintained that height by attacking the Gladiators singly and in quick succession and climbing after each attack, the Gladiators, forced to evade, were unable to climb.’And also
‘for fully five minute I was kept on the defensive without being able to fire a shot in return.’In return the 160o Gruppo pilots claimed six Gladiators, two each by Maggiore Molinari and Tenente Edoardo Crainz (in CR.42 '394-7'), and one apiece by Tenente Eber Giudici (his aircraft was damaged by enemy fire) and Capitano Paolo Arcangeletti. Probables were claimed by Tenente Torquato Testerini, Sergente Maggiore Francesco Penna and Sergente Maggiore Domenico Tufano. The 150o Gruppo pilots claimed two more Gladiators when Capitano Luigi Corsini claimed one Gladiator and a probable while Sergente Maggiore Virgilio Pongiluppi claimed one Gladiator; both pilots were from the 364a Squadriglia. The 47o Stormo gunners claimed one more and a probable. As in the case of the British fighters, actual Italian losses totalled only two aircraft, Tenente Mario Gaetano Carancini and Tenente Mario Frascadore of the 160o Gruppo being lost, while Maggiore Molinari was wounded in the right foot and force-landed near Tepelene in a dry river-bed with a damaged engine (it seems that the aircraft was written off).
At 10:30 on 9 February 1941, Squadron Leader "Tap" Jones led off 14 of 80 Squadron's Gladiators on an offensive patrol over the Tepelene area. They took off in four sub-flights led by Jones, Flight Lieutenant "Pat" Pattle, Flying Officer 'Shorty' Graham and Flight Lieutenant "Timber" Woods. During the take-off Flying Officer Price-Owen, in the last section, experienced engine stoppage as his Gladiator became airborne and he was forced to glide back to the airfield.
Near Tepelene a trio of S.79s were seen, but lost in cloud. It is however possible that Pilot Officer William Vale claimed that he damaged one of these since he did claim one damaged during the day.
Jones took the Squadron round in a wide arc just north of Kelcyre and led them back towards Tepelene. His engine had been running rough for the last fifteen minutes and now it was beginning to vibrate. He called Pattle over the radiotelephone and told him to take over the lead. Then he throttled right back to ease the shuddering. Within a few seconds he was joined by Flying Officer Wanklyn Flower, who was also having trouble with his engine and together they flew back to Yanina.
Meanwhile, the Squadron continued their patrol and just before midday five CR.42s were seen far away off the port beam by Pattle, followed by many more, 30-40 being reported. In fact there were just 16 fighters of the 150o Gruppo, led by Capitano Edmondo Travaglini, commander of the 365a Squadriglia. The Italian pilots also overestimated the opposition, identifying the eleven Gladiators as 20 strong.
Many individual dogfights developed between Tepelene and Argyrokastron. Pattle shot down one Fiat CR.42, which crashed into the ground at speed on the outskirts of Tepelene, while Flying Officer Nigel Cullen put four bursts into another and reported seeing it crash into the hillside and burst into flames. The Squadron returned to claim four definitely shot down and three probables, but the Greek authorities provided confirmation next day that all seven had crashed, and victories were credited to Flight Lieutenant George Kettlewell, Pilot Officer Vale, Pilot Officer C. H. Tulloch, Sergeant Donald Gregory and Sergeant Charles Casbolt, as well as Pattle and Cullen.
Pilot Officer Vale reported:
"I was slightly behind the main formation … I observed about six or more formations of five CR42s [each] above us and so I gave ‘Tally-ho!’ and I immediately climbed. A dogfight started and from my position the policy of the e/a seemed to be diving attacks and gaining height straight away. One CR42 dived on me from above but I managed to evade his fire by pulling round and up towards him. I fired a short burst, which seemed to scare him away. I then saw a CR42 diving down on another Gladiator and so carried out a diving quarter attack and he pulled away, which left me in an astern position close in. I carried on firing until the e/a turned over on its back and the pilot left the machine. I saw his parachute open and so gained height and fired a long burst at a CR42, which dived down on me from above. I then broke away from the combat and owing to shortage of ammunition and fuel returned to base with F/O Cullen, who came up and formatted with me. We landed at 1240 and on inspecting aircraft found no damage.The initial claims had been nearer the truth, for four CR.42s were in fact hit. Sergente Romano Maionica (365a Squadriglia) and Sergente Danilo Birolo (364a Squadriglia) both failed to return, the latter being believed to have baled out (Maionica was KIA and Birolo landed in Yugoslavian territory), while Tenente Enzo Rovetta (364a Squadriglia) was wounded and crashed while attempting to land at base, and Capitano Travaglini force-landed near Tirana. In return, the Italians claimed four Gladiators destroyed and nine damaged. 364a Squadriglia pilots Tenente Alberto Spigaglia, Sottotenente Pasquale Faltoni and Maresciallo Ugo Guidi were each credited with a victory.
Price-Owen ended the war with 2 probable victories, these being claimed while flying Gloster Gladiators.
|Kill no.||Date||Time||Number||Type||Result||Plane type||Serial no.||Locality||Unit|
|28/11/40||1||CR.42 (a)||Probable||Gladiator||N5788||Delvinakion||80 Squadron|
|21/12/40||10:30-||1||CR.42 (b)||Probable||Gladiator||Argyrokastron area||80 Squadron|
2o Stormo - Note storiche dal 1925 al 1975 - Gino Strada, 1975 USSMA, Rome, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
53o Stormo - Marco Mattioli, 2010 Osprey Publishing, Oxford, ISBN 978-1-84603-977-5
112 Sqn "Shark Squadron" 1939 - 1941 - Andre R. Zbiegniewski, 2003 Miniatury lotnicze 15, Kagero, Lublin, ISBN 83-89088-55-X
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
Fiat CR.42 Aces of World War 2 - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2009 Osprey Publishing, Oxford, ISBN 978-1-84603-427-5
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.
L’8oGruppo caccia in due conflitti mondiali - Giuseppe Pesce, 1974 S.T.E.M. Mucchi, Modena, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Royal Air Force Aircraft L1000-N9999 - James J. Halley, 1993 Air-Britain (Historians) Ltd, Kent, ISBN 0-85130-208-4
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 Desert Air War 1939 – 1945 – Richard Townshend Bickers, 1991 Leo Cooper, London, ISBN 0-85052-216-1, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
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