Biplane fighter aces


Sottotenente Carlo Agnelli

28 March 1916 - 20 November 1940

Pilots from 4o Stormo at El Adem, Cirenaica in front of a Fiat CR.32. The image is probably taken between September and November 1940.
From left to right: Aldo Gon, Giulio Reiner, Carlo Agnelli, Ezio Viglione Borghese, Armando Moresi and Alvaro Querci.
Image kindly provided by Fulvio Chianese at GORIZIA ed il QUARTO STORMO.

Carlo Agnelli was born in Milano on 28 March 1916.

On 12 July 1940, the 9o Gruppo C.T. arrived at Tripoli from Comiso with 33 Fiat CR.42s under the command of Maggiore Ernesto Botto. The Gruppo consisted of 73a, 96a and 97a Squadriglie.
The 96a Squadriglia included Capitano Roberto Fassi (CO), Tenente Alessandro Viotti, Tenente Aldo Gon, Tenente Emanuele Annoni, Sottotenente Bruno Paolazzi, Sottotenente Agnelli, Sergente Maggiore Dante Labanti, Sergente Maggiore Graziadio Rizzati, Sergente Maggiore Giovanni Gallerani, Sergente Bruno Spitzl, Sergente Vittorio Pozzati, Sergente Gustavo Minelli, Sergente Bruno Biagini and Sergente Luigi Battaini. In fact, the Squadriglia moved to Libya with only seven non-commissioned officers (Battani was possibly the one who remained in Italy).
Together with the 10o Gruppo they formed the 4o Stormo C.T.
The Gruppo’s Fiat CR.42s was wisely retrofitted with tropical kits for guns and engines, to avoid the problems suffered by the other Gruppi.

In October 1940, the unit was based at El Adem T3.

At 06:00 on 25 October, eight Blenheims; six from 55 Squadron and two from 84 Squadron, took off to take part in a wing raid on Tobruk north foreshore. Two aircraft from 55 Squadron aborted immediately for various breakdowns while the remaining six proceeded alone to the target having missed the rendezvous with nine Bristols from 113 Squadron (that attacked independently). The attack was made at 08:35 and hits on M. T. at the northern edge of Tobruk aerodrome were claimed. Twelve CR.42s were seen climbing towards the mixed formation of Blenheims from 55 and 84 Squadrons, but only two of these attacked from astern. The attack lasted 5 minutes, one attacking fighter being believed shot down. L8362 from 84 Squadron, flown by Sergeant Gordon was shot up by CR.42s, being damaged in the starboard engine (rendered U/S), both wings, fuselage and petrol tanks. The Blenheim force-landed among British forward troops with the observer slightly wounded in the back of the neck. The rest of the formation was back at 10:00. It is reported that the damaged Blenheim was sufficiently repaired next day to fly back to base but this is not in corroboration with existing records.
The Blenheims had been intercepted by three fighters from the 96a Squadriglia flown by Capitano Roberto Fassi, Sottotenente Agnelli and Sergente Bruno Spitzl. Fassi had led them in a scramble following an air alarm and left Spitzl to orbit over El Adem. Together with Agnelli, he attacked six Blenheims, which were flying at 3500 metres over Tobruk and together they claimed two shared victories (one confirmed and one probable) while the two fighters returned damaged by return fire.
Nine machines from 211 Squadron together with three of the detached Flight of 84 Squadron were also to take part in this raid but instead bombed a perimeter camp south of Sidi Barrani.

On 20 November, 208 Squadron despatched two Lysanders to reconnoitre an area bounded by Sollum, Sofali and Buq-Buq. They were L4724 piloted by Flight Lieutenant Burnard and L4728 piloted by Pilot Officer Waymark that took off from Qasaba at 14:20 and 14:15 landing back at 16:35 and 16:20 respectively (another Lysander, possibly L6874, an attached 6 Squadron aircraft piloted by Flying Officer T. H. Davison, was out in the same area). 33 Squadron provided nine Hurricanes (including Flying Officer Vernon Woodward (N2498), Flight Lieutenant Ernest Dean (P 3818), Flying Officer John Mackie (P3724), Squadron Leader Charles Ryley (P3970), Flight Sergeant Harry Goodchild (N2640), Flying Officer Frank Holman (P3724) and Pilot Officer Charles Dyson (N2640)) as escort. It is possible that the unaccounted pilots were one or two pilots from 274 Squadron since a quartet of Hurricanes from this Squadron, piloted by Flight Lieutenant R. V. Evers-Swindell, Pilot Officer Ernest Mason, Pilot Officer Thomas Patterson and Second Lieutenant Frederick Johannes Joubert, together with Pilot Officer Strange and Second Lieutenant Bester (who followed with the ground party) were detached on attachment to 33 Squadron on 14 November. On 21 November, Evers-Swindell, flew back from Fuka to have repairs on his fighter, reportedly damaged in a running fight with CR.42s. It seems almost sure that the “running fight” was the below described action, so it is possible that R. V. Evers-Swindell was present.
The escort took off from Fuka Satellite airfield at 14:15, with one section of three protecting each Lysander while a third section provided top cover. At the same time, a formation of six Gladiators from 112 Squadron would sweep the same general area.
East of Sidi Barrani, 18 CR.42s intercepted them and one Fiat half-rolled and dived away after being fired on by a Hurricane. It is possible that this aircraft later was credited as a destroyed to Flying Officer Mackie, who in a letter sent home to Canada on 4 December recalled:

“Just before I went on leave we had one of two bits of fun up here. On one occasion, you may have heard about it on the radio, fifteen of us got mixed up with sixty wop fighters. We lost none, and got at least eight of them. I got one of these, although not in a very convincing way from my point of view, as I didn’t see it go in. Another pilot saw the start and the finish of it. Anyhow, it sure was a mix-up. I have never seen so many machines milling around in such a small amount of sky.”
However, after this both sides started to guard each other without giving battle with the Italians uncertain to tangle with the faster Hurricanes and the British finding it difficult to close in on their more manoeuvrable opponents.
The Hurricanes of the two sections dealing with the direct escort of the Lysanders now started to brake off since they were being out-manoeuvred by their opponents and at this moment a huge formation of a reportedly 25-30 Italian fighters was seen higher. The top cover section of 33 Squadron climbed to engage but reportedly without avail because the Italian turned back towards Libya without engaging.
The Italian formation was composed by 18 aircraft from all three Squadriglie of the 9o Gruppo led by Maggiore Ernesto Botto (at the head of the 73a Squadriglia). Six of the CR.42s were from the 96a Squadriglia (Capitano Roberto Fassi leading Tenente Aldo Gon, Sottotenente Agnelli, Sottotenente Armando Moresi and Sergente Vittorio Pozzati together with 4o Stormo’s adjutant, Capitano Mario Pluda), five were from the 73a Squadriglia (Tenente Valerio De Campo, Tenente Pietro Bonfatti, Maresciallo Mario Ruffilli, Sergente Maggiore Antonio Valle and Sergente Santo Gino) and six were from the 97a Squadriglia (Capitano Antonio Larsimont Pergameni, Tenente Ezio Viglione Borghese, Sottotenente Jacopo Frigerio, Maresciallo Rinaldo Damiani, Sergente Francesco Putzu and Sergente Franco Sarasino). They had taken off from El Adem at 14:40 to cover Italian troops in the Bir Enba area (and probably indirectly escorting a reconnaissance plane) when Botto discovered a Bristol Blenheim escorted by several Hurricanes flying lower and attacked.
At this moment, with the 9o Gruppo’s attention focused elsewhere, the 112 Squadron’s Gladiators intervened and managed to surprise the Italian formation over Sidi Barrani. They claimed eight of the Fiats without losses. All of the six pilots made claims and Flight Lieutenant R. J. Abrahams claimed one and one shared with Pilot Officer Richard Acworth, who also claimed one additional. Flying Officer R. J. Bennett claimed one, Pilot Officer Alfred Costello claimed one, Pilot Officer Leonard Bartley claimed two and Sergeant 'Paddy' Donaldson finally claimed one. 112 Squadron didn’t record any losses in this combat even if Pilot Officer Acworth in his memories spoke of a couple of planes obliged to force-land and the unit’s aircraft retuned to Fuka between 16:20 and 17:25. For this one-sided action, they were noted in the press for the first time.
Richard Acworth remembered this combat in a short story written in the 1960’s but never published.
“The Lysanders were to be ‘covered’ against enemy air attacks by six Gladiators from my squadron… three flying at 12,000 feet, and three, led by myself, at 15,000 feet. ‘Top cover’ was to be provided by six Hurricanes, flying at 20,000 feet. The Hurricanes had strict orders to beat a hasty retreat if they met with enemy aircraft in large numbers, as it was thought at that time that they would be ‘easy meat’ for the move manoeuvrable C.R. 42’s, the single-seater Italian opposite number of the Gladiator.
We had been patrolling for about 10 minutes, when I reported forty CR 42s, in eight sections of five, flying from the direction of Libya, at approximately 25,000 feet, 5,000 feet higher that the Hurricane ‘top-cover’. To my dismay, the Hurricanes were soon speeding home, with a CR 42 sitting neatly on each tail. Our six Gladiators were left to finish the fight, for the Lysanders, their task completed, were heading for home, too.
There was not a friendly cloud in the sky, and the powerful desert sun made the enemy aircraft very difficult to see. Forthwith, they carried out the German tactics of remaining aloft, and sending down their more experienced men to finish us off one by one….but it was not to be!
With the first attacks, we broke formation, and it was every man for himself. I soon found myself very much alone, until unfriendly tracer bullets from behind, passed through the space between my right wings. I immediately steep-turned to the left, and caught sight of my attacker as he completed his dive and prepared to re-join his pals up higher, by means of a roll off the top of a loop.
Seizing my chance, I opened full throttle and followed him to the top of his loop, half rolled in formation with him, and was just about to open fire, when my aircraft stalled and flicked into a spin….not enough speed! I decided my best means of survival was to continue the spin, in the hope that he would think I had been badly hit. This was a fighter tactic from World War I, and it worked! Whilst I was spinning, I looked upwards and caught a glimpse of my adversary circling at his original height, waiting for me to crash into the desert. I came out of the spin at about 8,000 feet, no doubt much to his surprise, and didn’t have to wait long for him to dive down to finish me off.
So started a long tail-chasing session. At first, my mouth became rather dry, but after a second or two, my mind became crystal clear, and I was determined to turn the tables on him. Slowly I began to gain ground, and soon part of his tail was in my sights, but I realized it would not have been great enough. When his engine came into my sights, I pressed the firing button, and was immediately cheered to see pieces of fabric or metal ripping off his fuselage, just behind the cockpit.
The Italian pilot turned so quickly in his mad effort to escape, that he pulled his aircraft into a spin, following a ‘high-speed stall’. I followed him down, and fired at him as he tried to recover, and he promptly went into another one. On recovering from his second spin, he must have pulled an emergency boost control to give him extra speed, for he left my Gladiator ‘standing’.
However, my opponent was not easily scared, and turned about a mile away to come back at me like a bull at a gate. We both opened fire, and when it seemed that a head-on collision was inevitable, he pulled out to my left in a climbing turn. For a second, I was able to fire at his exposed fuselage, and then, with throttle fully open, I climbed into the sun, into an advantageous position. To my horror, my engine stalled near the top of the climb, and I had to carry out the usual drill of closing the throttle and opening it again, slowly. Full power came back, and looking down, I could see my opponent looking for me. This time, I had the advantage of height, and I was nicely lining him up in my sights when he saw me, and tried to turn in underneath me.
Slowly twisting, and with the right deflection, I raked him with bullets from nose to tail, at almost point-blank range. I pulled out of my dive, to regain height, and saw him commence another spin from which he did not recover. I felt immensely relieved, somewhat shaken, and eventually joined up with two stray Gladiators, and returned to Mersa Matruh. I was pleased to learn later that seven aircraft had been shot down in the engagement, and that all the Gladiator pilots had survived the fight, although two had made forced landings.
I shall never forget that day. It was my first one-against-one air battle, and the longest time I had engaged a single enemy aircraft...”
The 9o Gruppo actually lost only three shot down and four damaged but two pilots were killed. The three shot down pilots were Sottotenente Agnelli of the 96a Squadriglia, who was killed, Sergente Francesco Putzu of the 97a Squadriglia, who was killed, and Tenente Gon (who usually flew CR.42 MM5605/96-2), who recalled:
“This day [strangely enough he recorded it as on 1 November but this is for certain an error] I lost the dearest of all my wingmen [Carlo Agnelli]. We were up with all the Gruppo and the three Squadriglie were stepped at different heights. The lowest escorting a reconnaissance plane, mine (96a Squadriglia) at 3000 metres while the third stay higher. The highest group had already engaged the enemy when I saw one of our planes diving almost vertically followed by a Gloster. I made a violent overturning that my wingmen were unable to follow [again without radio equipment the Italian formation was broken at the beginning of the combat and whatever numerical advantage was impossible to put into full use] when I reach a distance suitable to open fire I had to wait because there was the risk of hitting my comrade [with the same burst aimed at the fighter that was following him] I had to concentrate only on the aim [the wingmen were far away] so I couldn’t look around and was attacked by two Glosters. With the first burst of fire they shot away my propeller, so without propulsion I could only manoeuvre to avoid further damage. All the height lost I force-landed and the English pilots that had already stopped firing while I was gliding down for my final approach flew past me waving their hands.
[Gon, tried to burn his plane without success and succeeded to reach an Italian outpost the day after]
Back at base, I discovered that information about the missing pilots (we were three) were lacking.
A sergeant
[Sergente Francesco Putzu] was seen to jump with parachute and another of our planes was seen to crash after a hard fight, all believed it was mine because the other missing pilot (my dear wingman) was too “green” to be able to fight against three enemies as the pilot of the crashed plane did.
The encounter with Botto was tragicomically. I went to his room and he was waiting for me near the door and as just as he saw me he threw himself right into my arms through the three steps that divided us. But I was too weak and was unable to sustain him so we fell embraced on the ground.”
According to the official records of the 4o Stormo, however, it seems that during the dive Gon’s guns went out of synchronisation and when opening fire he cut his propeller with the first shots.
Seven confirmed and probable victories were credited to the pilots of the Gruppo after that they had landed at 16:30. This overclaiming was the result of that the Stormo’s records had to be re-recorded in 1941 after they had been lost. This re-recording was done by Tenente Giulio Reiner, who was then adjutant of the Gruppo. Obviously Reiner’s reconstruction was not as accurate as a complete debriefing immediately after the battle could be.
Roberto Fassi was credited with a Blenheim, a probable Gladiator and two damaged Gladiators. Pozzati, who was wounded on the right foot, was credited with a Gladiator while Gon was credited with a Gladiator (a victory that he didn’t mention at all in his memories). Pluda claimed another Gladiator and Moresi one probable Gladiator. The 73a and 97a Squadriglie claimed one Gladiator and two Hurricanes shot down and four fighters damaged, all shared. Final assessment of the combat was four Gladiators, two Hurricanes and a Blenheim confirmed and two Gladiators probably destroyed (the actual number of confirmed claims varies between the reconstructed Diari of the involved Squadriglias to seven or eight destroyed).

At the time of his death, Agnelli was credited with 1 shared biplane victory.

Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  25/10/40 08:35-10:00 ½ Blenheim (a) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.42   Tobruk area 96a Squadriglia
  25/10/40 08:35-10:00 ½ Blenheim (a) Shared probable Fiat CR.42   Tobruk area 96a Squadriglia

Biplane victories: 1 shared destroyed, 1 shared probably destroyed.
TOTAL: 1 shared destroyed, 1 shared probably destroyed.
(a) Claimed in combat with Blenheims of 55 and 84 Squadrons. Blenheim L8362 of 84 Squadron force-landed but was repaired next day.

33 Squadron Operations Record Book
Desert Prelude: Early clashes June-November 1940 - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2010 MMP books, ISBN 978-83-89450-52-4
Diario Storico 73a Squadriglia kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Diario Storico 97a Squadriglia kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Fiat CR.42 Aces of World War 2 - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2009 Osprey Publishing, Oxford, ISBN 978-1-84603-427-5
Fighters over the Desert - Christopher Shores and Hans Ring, 1969 Neville Spearman Limited, London
Hurricanes over the sands: Part One - Michel Lavigne and James F. Edwards, 2003 Lavigne Aviation Publications, Victoriaville, ISBN 2-9806879-2-8
Ministero della Difesa - Banca Dati sulle sepolture dei Caduti in Guerra
Quelli del Cavallino Rampante - Antonio Duma, 1981 Editore Dell'Ateneo, Roma, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Additional information kindly provided by Ian Acworth and Ludovico Slongo

Last modified 30 October 2010