Biplane fighter aces


Lieutenant Commander Alfred Jack Sewell DSC, RNVR

‘Jackie' Sewell served as a Sub Lieutenant Fulmar pilot on HMS Illustrious in the Mediterranean during 1940-41 usually flying with Leading Aircraftman Denis J. Tribe as his observer.

His first claims came on 2 September 1940 when he claimed two S.79s of 235a Squadriglia, 59o Gruppo BT (this is probably wrong since 235a Squadriglia belonged to 60o Gruppo BT) west of Malta. Denis Tribe recalls:

“We claimed two shot down but in the action caught up with fire from the enemy (turret and single machine-guns). From the rear seat it was difficult to see except for tracers coming at us – a row of holes in my perspex cover; the glycol coolant pouring into my cockpit. Also the intercom was damaged and out of action. I thought I was badly hit as whenever I moved I could see blood. I was greatly relieved to find it coming from a flesh wound under my right forearm. Although Jackie Sewell had armour-plated glass in front of him I thought he must have been hit because the plane seemed out of control. I could not communicate owing to the damage and I could not open my sliding cover. Fortunately he recovered control and with damaged engine we made quite a good landing at Hal Far – guided by Lt. Barnes who also landed at Hal Far. I had first aid locally and in the early evening we were picked up by one of our Swordfish from ‘Illustrious’.”
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 10.30 Lieutenant Barnes and Sub Lieutenant Sewell of Yellow Section engaged four S.79s, these escaping after each pilot had inflicted damage on them. The same pilots met two more of these aircraft at 11.05, the pair attacking down to 80 yards, shooting one down in flames and damaging a second, while Sub Lieutenant Godfrey damaged the engine on a third. The Italian aircraft shot down was a S.79 of 201a Squadriglia, 92o Gruppo BT flown by Tenente Nicola Dell’Olio. Three more S.79s of 92o Gruppo were also hit during this combat, two of them severely, and they landed with two dead and five wounded aboard.

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 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 O. J. Roger Nicolls' Red Section of 806 Squadron, which at 12:30 sighted twelve SM 79s at 14,000ft. Lieutenant Nicolls (Fulmar N1879) 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 Sewell and Roberts) during the day and although there is little doubt that it was indeed shot down, it is still unidentified.

On 1 November 1940 patrolling Fulmars from HMS Illustrious were vectored onto ‘shadowers’ and Sewell with L/A Tribe in Fulmar ‘Y’ intercepted two Z.506Bs. They shot one down in flames while the other escaped in a damaged condition.

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 as reinforcements (at least N5513 and N5523) 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 O. J. Roger Nicolls and Sub Lieutenant Sewell 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.

At 12:20 on 10 November, a Z.501 from the 144a Squadriglia RM at Stagnone (pilot Sottotenente Alfio Ferri and observer Sottotenente di Vascello Umberto Gabrielli) was shot down by Lieutenant Barnes and Sub Lieutenant Sewell, after chasing it down from 4,000 feet to sea level. It was then strafed.
At 13:30, nine S.79s from the 90o Gruppo, 30o Stormo attacked the fleet. Barnes’s Yellow Section of 806 Squadron again attacked one, which started losing height after being hit in the starboard engine, and claimed it as a shared damaged. They had in fact shot down the bomber of Tenente Raffaele Brandi (crew: Sottotenente Luciano Giorchino, 1o Aviere Motorista Ludovico Talanca, 1o Aviere Radiotelegrafista Ambrogio Caroppi, 1o Aviere Armiere Alfonso Dittadi, 1o Aviere Motorista Alessandro Ghezzi, all MIA), which failed to return.

On 10 January 1941, he shot down a S.79 together with Lieutenant R. S. Henley at 10:30. During this combat Sewell’s Fulmar was slightly damaged from return fire but he managed to depart for the carrier and landed successfully. He changed aircraft and was in the air when HMS Illustrious was damaged by a Stuka and he and L/A Tribe landed at Hal Far.

After the damage on HMS Illustrious he operated briefly from Malta.

On 16 January 1941, he possibly claimed a Ju 88 or Ju 87 at 14.55 when 806 Squadron operated from Malta in defence of the damaged HMS Illustrious in French Creek harbour.

On 24 January 1941 Sewell was up in one of 806 Squadrons Gladiators on a meteorological flight when he noticed a string of tracers passing his starboard wings, followed a moment later by a Ju 88 diving towards Hal Far. Sewell followed the intruder down and reportedly shot it down off the coast. Lieutenant Vincent-Jones, who witnessed the action, added:

"From the ground it gave the impression of a terrier yapping at the heels of a mastiff!"
It is possible that this was an Ju 88 (L1+HM) of 4./LG1 flown by Unteroffizier Gustav Ulrich who failed to return from a sortie to Malta during this day.

After the operations from Malta he was stationed on HMS Formidable in the Eastern Mediterranean until that vessel too was damaged.

He made a considerable number of claims during this period and was awarded a DSC.

Underway from Alexandria via Crete to undertake a bombardment of Tripoli, the Mediterranean Fleet sailed into the area between the North African coast and Sicily on 20 April 1941. At 10:43, an unidentified plot appeared on HMS Formidable’s radar to which a section of 806 Squadron Fulmars was directed. These fighters were flown by two of the unit’s most experienced pilot, Lieutenant Commander Charles Evans and Sub Lieutenant Sewell, and the intercepted a trimotor identified as a Cant Z.1007bis, apparently on its way from Cyrenaica to Sicily. This aircraft was claimed shot down as a shared at 11:15.
It seems that the aircraft in question was actually a transport S.82 (MM60325) of the 607a Squadriglia, which had taken off from Benghazi and which was lost with Tenente Loris Pivetti and his crew KIA.

By the evening on 22 April, the Mediterranean Fleet was nearing Alexandria, having maintained anti-shadower patrols all day, many being reported but without interceptions being made.
At 17:24 a raid was finally plotted closing with the ships, and two sections of Fulmars were scrambled; these were Ju 88s of III./LG 1 out searching in the area north of Tobruk. Two such bombers were spotted 30 miles from the fleet and at once every available fighter was launched until 14 were in the air by the time the intruders got close. The first pair, from 8.Staffel, were attacked by Green Section of 803 Squadron (Lieutenant J. M. Bruen and Sub Lieutenant D. H. Richards) and Grey Section of 806 Squadron (Lieutenant Henley and Sub Lieutenant Julian Sparke). Bruen’s section forced one bomber to jettison its load and make off into clouds, possibly damaged. The second (Ju 88A-10 WNr 2209), flown by Unteroffizier Gerhart Pfeil, was also seen to jettison its bombs, but was then shot down into the sea by Sub Lieutenant Sparke, Henley’s guns having failed to operate. Lieutenant Jasper Godden, the observer in Bruen’s 6A, N1951, recalled:

“We saw nothing until the Fleet was well on its way back to Alexandria – at about 1700 hours we spent 30 minutes in combat with two Ju 88s. One was shot down – not by us – all I had was a Thompson sub-machine gun – you could see the .45 inch bullets trickling out of the muzzle – the muzzle velocity was so low!”
Black and White Sections of 806 Squadrons also intercepted a lone Ju 88, reported to be a shadower, and this was claimed probably destroyed by Lieutenant Commander Evans, Sub Lieutenant Sewell and Sub Lieutenant Orr (N1988).
No damaged was caused to the fleet.

At 11:48 on 25 May four sections of Fulmars were scrambled from HMS Formidable against incoming intruders.
One section comprising 806 Squadron’s new commander Lieutenant Commander Garnett, with Sub Lieutenant Sewell as his No. 2, encountered a pair of II/KG 26 He 111s. Sewell swiftly shot down Oberleutnant Oskar Klapproth’s 1H+CN into the sea.
Within minutes two Ju 88s of II/LG 1 were spotted and Garnett at once attacked, observing hits. Sewell joined the attack and soon the bomber was in trouble, but at that moment Garnet’s Fulmar was hit by return fire. His observer, Lieutenant Desmond Vincent-Jones recalled:

“We were hit in the engine by the rear-gunner (Gefreiter Günther Peschke) and ditched. Jackie Sewell remained in company and orbited over us until the destroyer Hereward saw us. The Ju 88 ditched about 200 yards away – their dinghy worked, ours didn’t!”
Unteroffizier Heinrich Geisenhoff and his crew from L1+CV were rescued with their victors.

Late in 1942 he commanded 804 Squadron aboard HMS Dasher from October to July 1943 taking part in the North African landings on 8 November 1942. Subsequently in September 1943, he formed 1837 Squadron on Corsairs in the USA.

On 3 October 1943 while practising formation flying over Yarmouth, Maine, USA, his wingman collided with his aircraft and both crashed to their deaths. Sewell was at the time flying Corsair Mk.I JT190.

Sewell was credited with 1 and 1 shared biplane victories and a total of 5 or 6 and 7 shared destroyed at the time of his death.

Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
1 02/09/40   1 S.79 (a) Destroyed Fulmar I ’Yellow 2’ W Malta 806 Squadron
2 02/09/40   1 S.79 (a) Destroyed Fulmar I ’Yellow 2’ W Malta 806 Squadron
  04/09/40   1 S.79 Damaged Fulmar I   off Rhodes 806 Squadron
  04/09/40   1 S.79 Damaged Fulmar I   off Rhodes 806 Squadron
  04/09/40   ½ S.79 (b) Shared destroyed Fulmar I   off Rhodes 806 Squadron
  04/09/40   ½ S.79 Shared damaged Fulmar I   off Rhodes 806 Squadron
  12/10/40 11:45 ½ Z.501 (c) Shared destroyed Fulmar I   Gibraltar-Malta 806 Squadron
3 01/11/40   1 Z.506B Destroyed Fulmar I ’Y’ at sea 806 Squadron
  01/11/40   1 Z.506B Damaged Fulmar I ’Y’ at sea 806 Squadron
  08/11/40 12:30 ½ Z.501 (d) Shared destroyed Sea Gladiator   Alexandria-Malta 806 Squadron
  10/11/40   ½ Z.501 (e) Shared destroyed Fulmar I   off Sicily 806 Squadron
  10/11/40   ½ S.79 (f) Shared damaged Fulmar I   off Sicily 806 Squadron
  10/01/41   ½ S.79 Shared destroyed Fulmar I   100m W Malta 806 Squadron
4 16/01/41   1 Ju 87 or Ju 88 (g) Destroyed Fulmar I   Malta 806 Squadron
5 24/01/41   1 Ju 88 (h) Destroyed Gladiator   Malta 806 Squadron
  20/04/41 11:15 1/2 Z.1007 (i) Shared destroyed Fulmar I   Cyrenaica-Sicily 806 Squadron
  22/04/41 17:24- 1/3 Ju 88 (j) Shared probable Fulmar I   E Tripoli 806 Squadron
6 25/05/41   1 He 111 (k) Destroyed Fulmar I   Crete area 806 Squadron
  25/05/41   ½ Ju 88 (l) Shared destroyed Fulmar I   Crete area 806 Squadron

Biplane victories: 1 and 1 shared destroyed.
TOTAL: 5 or 6 and 7 shared destroyed, 1 shared probable, 3 and 2 shared damaged.
(a) Engagement with S-79s of 235a Squadriglia, 59o Gruppo BT.
(b) S-79 of 201a Squadriglia, 92o Gruppo BT flown by Tenente Nicola Dell’Olio shot down at 11.05.
(c) The Z.501 was from an unidentified unit but the crew (pilot and gunner KIA) was later rescued by a Sunderland from 228 Squadron.
(d) Cant Z.501 of 186a Squadriglia R.M., flown by Tenente Paolo Primatesta (KIA) (observer Sottotenente di Vascello Paolo Bacchione).
(e) Cant Z.501 of 144a Squadriglia RM flown by Sottotenente Alfio Ferri.
(f) S.79 of the 90o Gruppo, 30o Stormo flown by Tenente Raffaele Brandi actually failed to return as a result of damage; the crew became MIA.
(g) It is possible, but not certain, that Sewell claimed on this date.
(h) Believed to be Ju 88 L1+HM of 4/LG1 flown by Unteroffizier Gustav Ulrich, lost over Malta on this date.
(i) S.82 MM60325 of the 607a Squadriglia shot down with the loss of the crew.
(j) Possibly claimed din combat with Ju 88 from III./LG 1, which didn’t suffer any corresponding losses.
(k) He 111 1H+CN (flown by Oberleutnant Oskar Klapproth) of II/KG26.
(l) Ju 88 L1+CV of II/LG1; Unteroffizier Heinrich Geisenhoff and his crew POW.

30o Stormo A/S Note Storiche dal 1931 al 1974 – Maurizio Circi, 1974 Editore Bizzarri, Roma, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo.
Aces High - Christopher Shores and Clive Williams, 1994 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-898697-00-0
Aces High Volume 2 - Christopher Shores, 1999, Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-902304-03-9
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
Ali marine. Gli osservatori della Regia Marina nella Seconda Guerra Mondiale - Tullio Marcon, 1978 Mursia, Milano kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo.
Courage Alone - Chris Dunning, 1998 Hikoki Publications, Aldershot, ISBN 1-902109-02-3
Desert Prelude: Early clashes June-November 1940 - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2010 MMP books, ISBN 978-83-89450-52-4
Fleet Air Arm Aircraft, 1939-1945 - Ray Sturtivant, kindly provided by Mark E. Horan
Malta: The Hurricane Years 1940-41 - Christopher Shores and Brian Cull with Nicola Malizia, 1987 Grub Street, London, ISBN 0-89747-207-1
Additional information kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo.

Last modified 29 April 2015