Biplane fighter aces

The Commonwealth

Flying Officer Peter Edward Campbell Strahan, RAF no. 36154

Peter Strahan was granted a short service commission as Pilot Officer for five years on the active list on 23 August 1938 (gazetted on 6 September 1938).

On 16 May 1939, Strahan 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.

He was promoted to Pilot Officer on 23 March 1940 (gazetted on 2 April 1940).

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 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.

At 09:15 on 25 July, Derna El Ftàiah N1 suffered a heavy air attack, which destroyed two SM 79s on the ground and damaging two more heavily (RD). Five personnel were killed and thirteen more wounded. The personnel killed were Aviere Vincenzo Marinelli, Aviere Vincenzo De Fazio, Aviere Danilo Bartin, Aviere Nicola Fioravante and Aviere Paolo Fogliata who were part of the 30o Gruppo, 10o Stormo as were the destroyed SM 79s.
The attack was carried out by six Bristol Blenheims from 211 Squadron led by Flight Lieutenant Gordon-Finlayson. Originally nine bombers were to take part but two Blenheims didn’t take off owing to engine troubles and one broke the tail wheel on landing at Sidi Barrani where a refuelling stop was provided. On the return journey L1482 flew by Pilot Officer Dundas lost its port airscrew and reduction gear and was forced to make an emergency landing at Fuka where the port undercarriage collapsed further damaging the plane.
33 Squadron was detailed to sweep the border area to cover eventual stragglers of 211 Squadron. Five Gladiators from the unit’s 'B' Flight, flown by Flying Officer Ernest Dean (Gladiator L9046), Pilot Officer Alfred Costello (N5761), Pilot Officer Vernon Woodward (N5768), Sergeant Ronald Slater (N5783) and Sergeant Shaw (N5776) encountered a reported seven CR.42s over Bardia. Woodward and Slater each claimed one CR.42, of which Woodward’s went down in flames before they shared a third. Slater was then seen spinning down, out of the fight, and Woodward became separated from the remaining Gladiators. He was attacked for seven or eight minutes at low level by several CR.42s before escaping. Costello claimed one shared CR.42 but who he claimed it with is unknown. A fifth CR.42 was also claimed in the combat by an unknown pilot. Dean didn’t claim anything in this combat and whether Shaw claimed anything is unknown. Pilot Officer Woodward experienced a very hard combat, probably his hardest against Regia Aeronautica, and was very impressed by his opponents, in fact after this combat he once reflected:

“They were clean fighters, those Wops, and quite the equal of any Hun in the skill of combat flying.”
A quite rare recognition from a RAF fighter pilot of the period.
As a curious note, the derogatory term “Wop” referred to an Italian born in the United States with the first immigrants, so it was well known to the Canadian Woodward. Its origin is not completely clear according with some sources it meant “Without Passport” according with others it was a corruption of the Neapolitan word “Guappo” (criminal boss).
It seems that the Gladiators had clashed with CR.42s from the 13o Gruppo. At 09:10, Sergente Maggiore Leone Basso of the 77a Squadriglia scrambled from El Adem following an air alarm. Tenente Giovanni Beduz of the 78a Squadriglia joined him ten minutes later. With them were also Sergente Rovero Abbarchi, Sottotenente Natale Cima and Sergente Ernesto Taddia (all of the 78a Squadriglia). The fighters were directed to an interception course along the probable return route of enemy bombers that had attacked Derna. While cruising over Bardia waiting for the enemy bombers, a formation of British fighters, identified just as “superior in numbers”, attacked with height advantage. The Italian fighters (at least part of them because it is not sure that Natale Cima and Ernesto Taddia took part in the combat) turned the tables against their opponents. Sergente Maggiore Basso attacked a Gladiator, which was left smoking after using 250 rounds of ammunition while Sergente Abbarchi followed a Gladiator deep (40 km) inside the British territory and finally claimed it shot down. All the planes returned to base between 09:40 and 10:25. Totally the 78a fighters had used 500 rounds of ammunition.
The ORB of 33 Squadron didn’t report any losses after this combat. However, a team of 51 Repair and Salvage Unit moved to Sidi Barrani on 27 July to salvage the “crashed” Gladiators N5768 (Pilot Officer Woodward) and L9046 (Flight Lieutenant Dean) of 33 Squadron, which indicates that they at least suffered some severe damage confirming the Italian claims. L9046 was in fact so damaged that it had to be written off.
According to many post-war British sources Sergeant Slater was shot down in this in combat even if according to the 33 Squadron’s ORB, he returned to base at 11:20 together with the other pilots and took part in another patrol with Pilot Officer Costello between 14:00 and 14:40 using Gladiator N5783 again. Some British studies suggested that it was in fact forced down but was able to take off later regaining his unit.
112 Squadron flew a patrol near Bardia during the day and spotted eight CR.42s. Flying Officer Strahan of ‘A’ Flight claimed one shot down, although he himself was hit and forced to make an emergency landing on the return flight. He was returned to base with an infantry vehicle.
It is highly likely that 33 and 112 Squadrons made a combined operation over Bardia because on the Italian side, the combat of the three 13o Gruppo pilots is the only recorded combat. This could also explain the claim made by an unknown pilot (Flying Officer Strahan?) reported by 33 Squadron.

Strahan left 112 Squadron on 24 September 1940.

He relinquished his commission on 23 August 1941 on account of ill-health.

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

Claims:
Kill no. Date Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  1940              
1 25/07/40 1 CR.42 (a) Destroyed Gladiator   Bardia area 112 Squadron

Biplane victories: 1 destroyed.
TOTAL: 1 destroyed.
(a) Claimed in combat with CR.42s from 13o Gruppo C.T. 33 Squadron claimed five and 112 Squadron claimed one while losing one Gladiator from 112 Squadron and two damaged from 33 Squadron (one a write off). 13o Gruppo claimed one destroyed and one damaged without losses.

Sources:
2o Stormo - Note storiche dal 1925 al 1975 - Gino Strada, 1975 USSMA, Rome, kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
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
Hurricanes over Tobruk - Brian Cull with Don Minterne, 1999 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-902304-11-X
Quelli del Cavallino Rampante - Antonio Duma, 1981 Editore Dell'Ateneo, Roma, kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
Shark Squadron - The history of 112 Squadron 1917-1975 - Robin Brown, 1994 Crécy Books, ISBN 0-947554-33-5
The Desert Air War 1939 – 1945 – Richard Townshend Bickers, 1991 Leo Cooper, London, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
The Gloster Gladiator - Francis K. Mason, 1964 Macdonald & Co. Ltd. London
The London Gazette
Those Other Eagles – Christopher Shores, 2004 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-904010-88-1
Additional information kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro and Ludovico Slongo.




Last modified 05 February 2012