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, four Gladiators from 112 Squadron on detachment to 80 Squadron arrived at Larissa, flown by Flight Lieutenant Charles Fry, Flying Officer Homer Cochrane, Pilot Officer Smith and 2nd Lieutenant H. H. Geraty. These together with eleven of the resident Gladiators were flown up to Yannina for further operations. From here Squadron Leader William Hickey led 14 aircraft on an offensive patrol over the Tepelene area at 15:05. Here many CR.42s and G.50s were encountered at around 15:30. In cloudy conditions a confusing combat took place with heavy overclaiming (especially from the RAF). The fighters from 80 and 112 Squadrons had returned at 17:05 and made claims for ten destroyed (9 CR.42 and 1 G.50) and five probables (1 CR.32, 3 CR.42 and 1 G.50). One of the Gladiators seems to have been shot down (the unknown pilot was safe) and two more Gladiators were damaged (Flight Lieutenant ’Pat' Pattle and Pilot Officer Smith).
Flight Lieutenant Pattle (Gladiator II N5832) claimed three CR.42s shot down, one into a hillside north of Delvinakion, one in flames from which the pilot baled out, and after his own aircraft had been hit in the main fuel tank and a wing strut, a third from which the pilot was also seen to bale out. He claimed a fourth as a probable when it poured black smoke. He then attacked a fighter, which he identified as a CR.32, which stalled into cloud, claiming this as a probable also. He reported:

“At 15.00 hours on the 4th December, 1940, 14 Gladiators of No. 80 Squadron and No. 112 Detachment took off from Juannuina landing ground to do an offensive patrol over the Tepelene area.
On the way to our patrol area a great number of aircraft were seen ahead of us over Delvinakion and Permedi areas. These aircraft consisted of our bombers and enemy fighters and bombers.
Our height was 7,500 ft.
The Squadron Commander leading the lower section turned towards a large formation of 27 enemy biplane fighters on our port side and was soon engaged.
Leading No. 3 Section I came up astern of a formation of 5 CR.42s and delivered a formation attack which was unobserved. The aircraft I attacked dived steeply towards the ground. I gave it two bursts and broke away but saw it flatten out about 2,000 ft above the ground. I dived again and this time after firing a few more bursts the E.A. crashed into the side of a hill a few miles north of Delvinakion.
On regaining height I found a member Squadron Ldrs. Flight (probably the C.O. himself) hard pressed with several CR.42s milling round him. Selecting a 42 just about to attack I had no difficulty in getting close behind his tail. After a few bursts his cockpit filled with smoke, and I observed flames spurting from his starboard side as he went down.
On turning round I found the sky filled with Gladiators and not a single E.A. in sight. The cloud base was only a few hundred feet above me so I climbed through and was amazed to find all the enemy fighters flying round in circles a thousand feet above me. Their tactics were obvious. They were hoping that the Gladiators would climb through the cloud to attack them and on emerging would be attacked from a superior altitude and probably unobserved.
As I emerged several fighters attacked me. I dived back into the cloud but unfortunately struck a thin patch and one E.A. attacking dead ahead managed to get a burst in, holing my main petrol tank, before I saw him. On my second attempt I managed to get within firing distance of a CR.42 which was flying immediately above me without being seen. I fired when slightly below and astern of him, the plane turned slowly to the right and I observed the pilot baling out. He appeared to almost strike my main plane as I passed him. The petrol streaming out behind me had attracted a certain amount of attention and I had again to resort to the cloud safety.
After several more attempts at penetrating the clouds I managed to get well clear of them and attacked a CR.42 at same altitude. After a short dog fight he went down through cloud in a spin with bluish black smoke pouring from him… this time a 42 attacking from Quarter damaged one of … with a well directed burst. I had several more dog fights but without success. One… spun down after one of the attacks but I am positive it was … to a stall as I spun soon afterwards. Lack of fuel in my … forced me to retire from the area and I landed at 16.15 hours.”
Sergeant Edward Hewett (N5858) claimed two CR.42s and a G.50. He reported:
“The first CR.42 I destroyed by a short burst from almost dead astern after a short chase, and a few polished aerobatics on the part of the enemy. The second was a little more difficult but I finally got a long burst into the machine at the top of a loop. The enemy aircraft fell sideways and then burst into flames, it was gutted before it hit the ground. The first CR42 went into a hillside in a vertical dive and I saw the impact.
Gazing below I saw a monoplane flying very low across a snow clad mountain. I dived upon it and as my range closed I saw it to be a G.50. I opened fire and had a long burst at the aircraft and then pulled away. On sighting the aircraft again I saw it skidding violently sideways about 30 ft. up and heading for a hilltop over which there was no possibility of climbing. I was not able to witness the crash because I was distracted at that moment by machine gun fire from behind. A CR.42 was then on my tail. I rolled off the top of a loop and saw him no more.
I then returned to base.”
Sergeant Donald Gregory (N5776) claimed one CR.42 and reported:
“I was No. 2 in the leading flight and considered that my position was most trying as a large formation of CR.42s passed over and just astern of my flight. I had to watch each flight of CR.42s pass my tail and gradually gain height on me. However although I was in an unfavourable position to attack, when my flight turned towards the enemy I picked out one of the many CR.42s coming towards me and fired, then dived below the enemy, turning around I saw a Gladiator being engaged by a 42. After taking the 42s attention off the Gladiator I got into a tight corner, having to do tight turns to keep clear. The Gladiator came to my assistance and I was able to get in a close deflection shot, from below and three quarter front.
The CR.42 went into a dive which I had no difficulty in following down and firing at it again, it finally crashed. I was short of ammunition so returned to base.
Examination of guns revealed three stopped with broken parts and one with stoppage.”
Pilot Officer William Vale (N5784) and Sergeant George Barker (N5811) each claimed one CR.42. Barker’s victory was claimed at Klissoura and he wrote:
“I was No. 3 in formation led by F/L. Graham. Which was No. 4 flight in the Squadron formation. We were flying to the right, and above the rest of the echeloned flights.
On approaching Permeti, I observed 9 G.50s on our starboard beam. F/Lt. Graham then began to climb fast. We turned left, and I observed a fight developing on our left, and below us. At this time I observed the CR.42s diving. I was led into the attack, and after the first initial dive, lost sight of my leader.
I went after a CR.42 which turned in front of me, and gave a short burst. The E.A. climbed and then dived away. I could not follow as another 42 was on my tail. Yet another 42 was doing a beam attack on me. A Gladiator took the first E.A. off my tail, and I out manoeuvred the other. The enemy then dived for the ground, I could not close the range, so I gave several long range bursts, and must have done some apparent damage, for his speed decreased. He tried twisting and turning, all the time heading west towards Argyrokoston. The enemy dived towards a hill, probably in the hope that if he would pull up close to it, I should crash into it.
After a slight pull out, however, he crashed into the hillside at high speed.
I then climbed up again, and when about 15,000 ft, I saw a Gladiator going down on three engine bombers. I followed it down, and delivered one attack, which was futile, as I could not hold them. An order was given to return to base, which I did, landing at approx. 16.10 hours.”
Flight Lieutenant Greg Graham (N5814) claimed one probable CR.42 and one probable G.50. He reported:
“At 1500 hours on the 4th Dec, 1940, fourteen Gladiators of No. 80 Squadron and No. 112 Sqdn . Detachment, took off from Yannina landing ground to do an offensive patrol over Tepelene area, also covering own bombers.
When proceeding to patrol over area in the vicinity of Delvinakion, I sighted about 27 G.50’s slightly above and approaching to starboard. At the same time I sighted the C.O.’s Flight of 3 Gladiators going in to attack a large number of C.R. 42s to port.
I was leading No. 4 Section of Gladiators and I lead them towards the C.R. 42s. The G.50s passed by on the starboard beam and made no effort to attack, instead appeared to climb up above the clouds. I attacked one C.R. 42 and after a short engagement it broke away and dived away towards enemy territory. I then climbed rapidly towards two other C.R. 42s and they disappeared in the cloud later at about 11,000 feet. Also climbing I circled around in the base of the cloud and could see only two or three Gladiators, so climbed up through the cloud. On breaking through, I sighted numerous G.50s and C.R. 42s circling above. I climbed towards one C.R. 42 and it immediately climbed above and ahead of me – I was unable to get my sights on and it disappeared in the clouds at about 19,000 feet. Then another C.R. 42 dived down to attack me and I engaged it, I fired several short bursts and it half rolled and dived steeply. I followed it, firing, and it appeared to slow down, and then pulled slowly out of the dive and I closed right in, and got a long burst at it. It pulled slowly up, stalled and then fell away, falling out of control. I followed it down to the clouds at 12,000 feet before it disappeared still falling out of control. At that moment I sighted one G.50 diving down steeply to attack two Gladiators flying in formation in the top of the clouds. I warned them over the R/T. and they immediately spilt up and avoided the attack. I then attacked the G.50 getting several bursts – it used the usual tactics of diving away. However after several minutes I fired a burst and it pulled out of a dive and climbed steeply, I closed in and could see my incendiaries hitting the vicinity of the engine cowling. The G.50 then stalled and fell away going down in a steep spiral out of control, I followed it down but lost sight of it in the clouds. I circled around for several minutes and as I could see no other aircraft, I returned to base.”
Flying Officer Sidney Linnard claimed one probable CR.42 at 15:35. Strangely his name is not included in the Squadron’s ORB but he wrote a combat report on this occasion:
“I was No. 2 in the 4th Flight (topmost). I sighted a large number of aircraft to Port Quarter ahead (CR.42s) some miles away and above us and also a number of G.50s passed us on the starboard beam.
Closing with the enemy I engaged a CR.42 which promptly dived for the ground. I followed him down for about 3-4 thousand feet but could not close/on him. I then climbed up and was attacked by a CR.42 from above but managed to evade him and get on his tail and give him several bursts from astern. He half rolled down and I was unable to keep my sights on him.
I managed to get my sights on him again at about 200 yds. And he went into a spin. I fired a few more bursts whilst he was spinning, but did not keep him in sight to the ground as there were a number of E.A. above and my attention was distracted.
I then went through the clouds (about 11,000 ft). On clearing it, saw 5 42s and 2 G.50s above me. I climbed but was unable to reach them. Although they had height on me, they seemed reluctant to attack. Eventually a G.50 dived on me. I evaded him and dived after him but could not get in effective range. I followed him down into the cloud and then lost sight, I climbed again and the above happened several times. The invariable tactics of the enemy was to dive from superior heights, their initial attack being unsuccessful to carry on diving.”
The last of the probables was claimed by Sergeant Charles Casbolt (N5788) and it seems that this claim later was upgraded to a destroyed (at least in his logbook) but in his combat report, Casbolt reported it as a probable:
“I was No. 3 in a flight lead by F/L Pattle in vic formation when the approach of 27 CR.42s from ahead and to port and 6 or 9 G.50s from our starboard beam were observed.
F/L Pattle approached and attacked the leading flight of CR.42s and I picked out the E.A. on the left of the leader.
Closing to about 200 yards I fired a burst at the E.A. which immediately half rolled and dived vertically in a spiral. I followed the enemy down to about 500 ft. where the E.A. dived at the hill sides apparently in an attempt to cause me to crash.
Eventually after several short full deflection shots I was able to approach within about 50 to 100 yards firing a long burst as the E.A. turned along the side of the hill.
In order to avoid crashing into the hillside I then pulled sharply away losing sight of my target. When however I turned, the enemy had disappeared, so climbing over the hills as there were no more aircraft visible I returned to base.”
Pilot Officer Smith (N5829) became separated during the combat and returned without any claims but with damage in the starboard wing and aileron control as a result of a head-on attack from a CR.42. Flying Officer Cochrane (N5881) reported hits on an enemy aircraft but observed no result from this.
The Italian aircraft were actually twelve CR.42s of the 150o Gruppo led by Tenente Colonello Rolando Pratelli, and ten G.50bis of the 154o Gruppo. The returning G.50bis pilots claimed two Gladiators shot down, but the 150o Gruppo lost two CR.42s, Tenente Alberto Triolo and Sottotenante. Paolo Penna being killed. These were the only Italian losses.

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 10 January 2020