Biplane fighter aces

The Commonwealth

Flying Officer Robert Higson Smith OBE, RAF no. 36161

Robert Higson Smith was promoted to Flying Officer on 14 March 1939 (gazetted on 7 November 1939).

On 16 May 1939, he 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.

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 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 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 3 July 1940 Flying Officer Smith and Flying Officer R. J. Bennett of 112 Squadron was sent to 33 Squadrons 'A' Flight at Sidi Barrani to gain battle experience.

In the evening on 4 July, 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 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.

Smith was promoted to Flight Lieutenant on 3 September 1940 (gazetted on 12 November 1940).

On 1 December 1940, 112 Squadron started to ferry Gladiators to the Royal Hellenic Air Force when Flight Lieutenant R. J. Abrahams, Flight Lieutenant Charles Fry, Flight Lieutenant Joseph Fraser, Flying Officer Edwin Banks, Flying Officer Homer Cochrane, Pilot Officer Alfred Costello, Pilot Officer Smith and 2nd Lieutenant H. H. Geraty (who was about to leave the 112 Squadron to be posted to 3 SAAF Squadron in East Africa) left Sidi Haneish to ferry eight Gladiators.

On 4 December, Flight Lieutenant Charles Fry led four Gladiators (Flying Officer Homer Cochrane, Pilot Smith and Second Lieutenant H. H. Geraty) from Egypt to Greece, to join 80 Squadron on detachment.

Twelve of the sixteen 112 Squadron pilots that had left for Greece on ferry flights returned to Sidi Haneish in a Bombay on 7 December. The pilots were Flight Lieutenant Lloyd Schwab, Flying Officer Richard Acworth, Pilot Officer Leonard Bartley, Pilot Officer Jack Groves, Pilot Officer D. G. H. McDonald, Pilot Officer R. H. MacDonald, Sergeant G. M. Donaldson, Flight Lieutenant R. J. Abrahams, Flight Lieutenant Joseph Fraser, Flying Officer Edwin Banks, Flying Officer Homer Cochrane, Pilot Officer Alfred Costello. The other four pilots remained in Greece (Flight Lieutenant Charles Fry, Flying Officer R. J. Bennett, Pilot Officer Smith, Second Lieutenant H. H. Geraty) attached to 80 Squadron.

Smith was transferred from 112 Squadron on 10 September 1940 (?).

On 1 September 1941, he was promoted to Squadron Leader (temp.) (gazetted on 16 December 1941).

Smith ended the war with 1 biplane victory, this one being claimed while flying Gloster Gladiators.

Smith continued to serve in the RAF post-war and his rank of Flight Lieutenant was confirmed with seniority from 14 March 1941 (gazetted on 17 May 1946).

Squadron Leader (temp.) Smith was granted the rank of Squadron Leader (war subs.) on 17 April 1946 (gazetted on 17 May 1946).
Promotion to full Squadron Leader followed on 1 October 1946 (with seniority from 1 December 1941) (gazetted on 5 November 1946).

On 1 January 1949, he was promoted to Wing Commander (gazetted on 28 December 1948).

On 7 June 1951, he was awarded an O.B.E.

Wing Commander Smith retired from the RAF on 29 September 1959.

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

Biplane victories: 1 destroyed.
TOTAL: 1 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
Desert Prelude: Operation Compass - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2011 MMP books, ISBN 978-83-61421-18-4
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 Desert Air War 1939 – 1945 – Richard Townshend Bickers, 1991 Leo Cooper, London, ISBN 0-85052-216-1, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
The London Gazette
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 23 October 2011