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 (K.3) to destroy the fighters present there. The first wave consisted of three Blenheims from 11 and 39 Squadron flown by Flying Officer Lawrence (L4924) of 11 Squadron and Pilot Officer Lewis (L4910) and Squadron Leader Bowman (L8402) of 39 Squadron. Pilot Officer Lewis suffered engine trouble and was forced to return to base. Squadron Leader Bowman arrived on the target at 06:45 and took the Italians completely by surprise, probably taking advantage of one of the problems afflicting the defenders of Assab: the poor visibility of the area, often covered by a thick haze that made it difficult to spot enemy aircraft from a distance. Bowman believed he had hit an ammunition dump and a CR.42 that was taxiing down the runway to take off; on his return he landed at Ras Ara airfield to report the disposition of the Italian fighters to the Gladiators from 94 Squadron, which had arrived there in the meantime.
The second Blenheim, piloted by Flying Officer Lawrence of 11 Squadron, arrived at 07:15 and dive-bombed a bomb depot, which was believed to have been hit. The pilot reported seeing a CR.42 standing on alert in the middle of the runway and then being met by a large calibre machine gun fire from the ground. According to 39 Squadron documents, however, the bomber was chased over the sea by two Italian fighters who allegedly hit the right engine causing it to seize. The Blenheim, however, made a landing without landing gear on the runway at Ras Ara. The crew, unharmed, was brought back to Sheik Othman by Squadron Leader Bowman.
The second wave of three Blenheims, all from 39 Squadron and flown by Flight Lieutenant Stevens (L8612), Sergeant Thornton (L8387) and Sergeant Crehan (L8543), attacked the airfield and ammunition depots at 07:50. Fiat fighters were already in the air from the previous action and tried to intercept them without success; one of the bombers escaped out to open sea and another was pursued in vain through the surrounding hills. Both return without having claimed or sustained damage.
The three Gladiators (in fact Sea Gladiators but most probably de-navalised) from 94 Squadron took off at 07:55. The commander, Squadron Leader Wightman (N2283) made two ground attacks as soon as he arrived at K.3, strafing a CR.42 which caught fire. He then spotted two CR.42s in flight at 460 meters and attacked one of them, shooting it down in flames. The other CR.42 tried to engage him in combat, but Wightman, taking advantage of his Gloster's superior manoeuvrability, positioned himself on his tail and forced him to flee. Sergeant W. H. Dunwoodie (N2279) machine-gunned some targets on the ground, apparently in concrete, so he changed targets and hit some vehicles and several buildings on the edge of the field. Suddenly, he realises that he was pursued by a CR.42 but, after dodging its initial attacks, he too managed to turn table and hit it. The CR.42 was seen gliding with its engine switched off and making a forced landing on the runway, crashing into the wings. The third Gladiator, (N2285) piloted by Flight Lieutenant Reid, attacked an aircraft on the runway with no apparent success, but then managed to set fire to two fuel depots. In the meantime, Wightman also targeted two aircraft on the ground which looked to him like Ro.37s, but without apparent result and, after machine-gunning an anti-aircraft artillery position, he withdrew with his men, landing at 09:35 at Ras Ara.
According to Bulletin No. 23, the 414a Squadriglia, which had scrambled four fighters, suffered the loss of two CR.42s: one in overhaul burned to the ground, the other shot down with the death of the pilot, 24-year-old Sergente Luigi Barengo from Trino Vercellese, plus two others damaged in combat. The Bulletin also admited the destruction of an ammunition cache (as claimed by the Blenheims of the first wave), the burning of off-centre fuel drums (as claimed by Flight Lieutenant Reid) and the wounding of a driver of a moving motor vehicle, this one allegedly shot at by Sergeant Dunwoodie.
Corrado Ricci, reporting post-war information from the former commander of the 414a Squadriglia, Generale Lucertini, states that a second CR.42 was shot down in combat, with Sergente Forsco Cellesi parachuting. As there is no record of this from the British side, it is possible that the pilot forced to land was Cellesi himself and perhaps Lucertini's recollection was not sufficiently accurate decades later. In any case, there is no Italian documentation to provide further details. According to the same testimony, Cellesi, whether landed or shot down, was machine-gunned on the ground by a Gladiator and forced to run for a long time on the red-hot ground to save himself, resulting in heat stroke and subsequent hospitalisation for a couple of months.
Sergente Barengo was awarded a posthumous Medaglia d’argento al valor militare.

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 Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
1 02/07/40 07:55- 1 CR.42 (a) Destroyed Gladiator N2283 Assab 94 Squadron
  02/07/40 07:55- 1 CR.42 (a) 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, which didn’t claim anything but lost 1 destroyed in combat (pilot KIA) and 1 destroyed on the ground plus 2 damaged in combat. 94 Squadron claimed 2 CR.42s in combat and 1 one the ground without losses.
(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.
I Cavalieri Erranti - Ludovico Slongo, Stefan Lazzaro, Eugenio Eusebi, Michele Palermo and Danilo Ventura, 2023, ISBN 978-88-87952-37-7
Those Other Eagles – Christopher Shores, 2004 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-904010-88-1

Last modified 13 February 2024