Biplane fighter aces

The Commonwealth

Group Captain William Taylor Forest ‘Freddie’ Wightman DFC, RAF no. 26129

Wightman was born on 3 May 1909.

He entered the RAF College, Cranwell, as a Flight Cadet, being awarded a Permanent Commission on graduation on 27 July 1929.

He was promoted Flying Officer in January 1931, Flight Lieutenant in January 1935, and Squadron Leader in August 1938.

94 Squadron was reformed at Sheik Othman, Aden, under the command of Squadron Leader ‘Freddie’ Wightman on 26 March 1939, with eight Gladiator Mk.IIs.

In the afternoon on 27 June a Blenheim of 39 Squadron flown by Squadron Leader Bowman led three Gladiators of 94 Squadron to Perim Island from where they were to make a dawn attack on Assab’s Macaaca (Masaala) airfield
At dawn next day Bowman’s Blenheim and two of the Gladiators (N2279 and N2294) took off from Perim Island to attack a fuel dump at Assab. The Blenheim bombed, but missed. The Gladiators flown by Squadron Leader Wightman and Pilot Officer Carter then set fire to some 100 drums of alcohol and petrol. The three British aircraft made good their escape before any opposition was encountered.

In the morning on 2 July 1940 a series of special attacks were launched on the Italian airfield at Assab to destroy the fighters present there. A single Blenheim of 39 Squadron was off first, attacking the airfield at 06.45 where a Fiat CR.42 was seen taxiing. A little later an 11 Squadron Blenheim (L4924) operating from Ras Arar dive-bombed the area, where the crew reported seeing one fighter standing on its nose. The Blenheim was hit in one engine by a bullet from the ground and crash-landed on its way back to base, when still 25 miles short of Ras Arar.
At 07:50 three more 39 Squadron Blenheims attacked individually, one being chased out to sea by two CR.42s, and another of these fighters chased another all round the hills of Eritrea. The third Blenheim, which was the second of the three to arrive over the airfield, saw a CR.42 taking off and at once attacked it, reporting that the aircraft crashed on the edge of the airfield (in the light of the actual losses, it is possible that the CR.42 merely landed again under attack, having suffered some damage).
Meanwhile three Gladiators of 94 Squadron had taken off to follow the Blenheims, arriving at Assab at 08:36. Squadron Leader Wightman at once made two attacks on a CR.42 on the ground and it burst into flames. He then saw two more CR.42s at 1,500 feet and attacked one, shooting it down in flames. The second attacked him, but he evaded it and set course for home. Meantime Sergeant W. H. Dunwoodie had been strafing vehicles when he suddenly found that he had a CR.42 on his tail; turning into it, he fired and the engine stopped, the fighter gliding towards the ground. He fired again and it crashed, first on to one wing and then the other.
It seems that the aircraft claimed shot down by Dunwoodie and by the 39 Squadron Blenheim may both have been fairly easily repairable, as both were reported by the Italians to be only slightly damaged. The aircraft shot down by Wightman was totally destroyed however, and the pilot killed, while the aircraft, which he set alight on the ground was also a total loss. The position is not entirely clear, however, for it seems that the British claims may have been more accurate than the Italian records indicate.
The commander of 414a Squadriglia reported that over Assab two of his pilots were shot down in combat, Sergente Barengo being killed and Sergente Celleri bailing out. Since no other CR.42s were claimed over Assab by the RAF except on this date, it seems probable that Celleri’s aircraft was also brought down on this occasion. The pilot was three times strafed on the ground by a Gladiator after baling out, and had to run like mad for cover. As a result he collapsed with heat stroke and spent two months in hospital.

He damaged a S.79 south of Aden on 15 September.

During the night of 20/21 November S.81s attacked Aden for the second night in succession, one aircraft of the 15a Squadriglia leaving Jijiga in the early hours, flown by the base commander Colonello Francesco Via, with Sottotenente Vicenzo Priore (now a monk) as co-pilot. From Aden Squadron Leader Wightman of 94 Squadron scrambled in Gladiator Mk.II N5627 at 04:30 and intercepted the bomber, shooting it down in flames into the sea three miles off the coast. Three members of the crew, including Via and Priore, baled out and were picked up by the Royal Navy, becoming POWs.

He was awarded the DFC on 8 February 1941.

On 20 March he was promoted to Acting Wing Commander, but at his own request he remained with 94 Squadron.

During the later part of March 3 SAAF Squadron was beginning to run short of Hurricanes as no replacements had been received. To alleviate this problem it was decided to equip the Squadron with Gladiators as a stopgap. Twelve ex-94 Squadron Gladiators were handed over to the South Africans by the end of March, the last being handed over on 29 March.
The 94 Squadron now ceased operations pending the re-equipment with Hurricanes.

On 5 April the unit left East Africa for Ismailia, Egypt for re-equipment.

In May when 94 Squadron was in the process of being re-equipped with Hurricanes, Wing Commander Wightman was ordered to collect five Gladiators from a Maintenance Unit and together with four other pilots proceed to Habbaniya to take part in the Iraqi revolt.
On 7 May Wightman was ready with his detachment to fly down to Habbaniya. The aircraft, two Mk Is and three Mk IIs, arrived at Habbaniya next day, The pilots involved were Wing Commander Wightman, Flight Lieutenant Sir R. A. MacRobert, Flying Officer Gerald Herrtage, Sergeant E. L. Smith and Sergeant W. H. Dunwoodie.

At 10.00 on 29 May three Audaxes of the Air Striking Force escorted by two Gladiators attacked the Iraqi stronghold of Khan Nuquta. The formation was intercepted by two CR.42s of the 155a Squadriglia (which had arrived in Iraqi the previous day), flown by Tenente De Merich (who was killed over Malta in 1942 while flying a Reggiane Re.2001) and Sottotenente Valentini. Flight Lieutenant Webster of 208 Squadron was piloting one of the Audaxes, with Sergeant Payne as his gunner, and he observed the Italian fighters make an attack on one of the Gladiators. Immediately following this, they attacked his Audax; Payne was slightly wounded and the pilot was obliged to force-land the aircraft in a damage condition. At this point Wing Commander Wightman (Gladiator N5777) dived to the attack and shot down Valentini’s CR.42, the pilot baling out and becoming a prisoner. Wightman later told:

“At 09.30 hrs on 29 May 1941 I was escorting three Audax on a bombing raid on enemy positions at Khan Nuqta. Approaching the target, I saw an unidentified aircraft below me on my left. I found that it was a CR.42 with Iraqi markings when another one dived on me from above out of the sun with its guns firing. I turned quickly and evaded it by diving towards and under it, and it pulled up to a great height and repeated the manoeuvre. I repeated the evading action, and by turning quickly got in a burst whilst it was climbing up. It then went into a left-hand turn and there was no difficulty in turning inside it and keeping the sights on it, whilst the range was closing to 100 yards. After three bursts, black smoke poured from the engine and it went straight down. A second or two later the pilot escaped by parachute, and was captured by our troops. The aircraft was burnt out crashing.”
94 Squadron left Iraq on the last day of May 1941.

In the end of June 1941, the 94 Squadron was based in Egypt as part of 250 Wing responsible for the defence of the Canal Zone. At this time Wing Commander Wightman, DFC, departed, handing over command of the squadron to Squadron Leader H. C. Mayers, DFC.

In December 1941 his rank as Wing Commander was confirmed

For the rest of the war he undertook non-operational duties.

Wightman ended the war with 3 biplane victories, these being claimed while flying Gloster Gladiators.

He remained in the RAF after the war and was promoted to Group Captain on 1 July 1951 and received the AFC.

He retired on 4 November 1958.

Kill no. Date Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
1 02/07/40 1 CR.42 (a) Destroyed Gladiator N2283 Assab 94 Squadron
  02/07/40 1 CR.42 Destroyed on the ground Gladiator N2283 Assab 94 Squadron
  15/09/40 1 CR.42 Damaged Gladiator   S Aden 94 Squadron
2 21/11/40 1 S.81 (b) Destroyed Gladiator N5627 Aden, 3m E Khormaksar 94 Squadron
3 29/05/41 1 CR.42 (c) Destroyed Gladiator N5777 Khan Nuquta 94 Squadron

Biplane victories: 3 destroyed, 1 destroyed on the ground.
TOTAL: 3 destroyed, 1 destroyed on the ground.
(a) Claimed in combat with CR.42s from 414a Squadriglia. 94 and 39 Squadrons claimed three CR.42s shot down while 414a Squadriglia lost two in combat with Sergente Barengo being killed and Sergente Celleri bailing out.
(b) S.81s of the 15a Squadriglia shot down. Three members of the crew, including the pilot Colonello Francesco Via and the co-pilot Sottotenente Vicenzo Priore, baled out and were picked up by RN to become POWs.
(c) CR.42 from 155a Squadriglia shot down. The pilot, Sottotenente Valentini parachuted and was taken POW.

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
Dust Clouds in the Middle East - Christopher Shores, 1996 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-898697-37-X
Gloster Gladiator - Alex Crawford, 2002 Mushroom Model Publications, Redbourn, ISBN 83-916327-0-9
Gloster Gladiator Aces - Andrew Thomas, 2002 Osprey Publishing, London, ISBN 1-84176-289-X
Gloster Gladiator Home Page - Alexander Crawford.
Those Other Eagles – Christopher Shores, 2004 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-904010-88-1

Last modified 13 November 2019