Biplane fighter aces


Sergente Maggiore Leone Basso

The 13o Gruppo (77a, 78a and 82a Squadriglie) of the 2o Stormo C.T. was commanded by Maggiore Secondo Revetria and started the war based at Tripoli Castelbenito airfield with twenty-five CR.42s and eleven CR.32s on hand (the CR.32s, kept as a reserve, were later passed on to the 50o Stormo Assalto) to guard against a possible French attach from the west.
Pilots in the 77a Squadriglia were: Capitano Mario Fedele (CO), Tenente Eduardo Sorvillo (recently arrived from 4o Stormo), Tenente Giulio Torresi, Sottotenente Gianmario Zuccarini, Sottotenente Mario Fabbricatore, Sergente Maggiore Ernesto Scalet, Sergente Maggiore Basso, Sergente Maggiore Agostino Fausti, Sergente Raoul Scodellari, Sergente Ernesto Paolini, Sergente Enrico Botti (recently arrived from 53o Stormo), Sergente Amedeo Benati and Sergente Vincenzo Campolo. These pilots had twelve CR.42s (including Maggiore Revetria’s and Colonnello Federici’s) (eight combat ready and three still under assembly) and four CR.32quaters.

On 18 June, the 77a Squadriglia moved to Tobruk T2.

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 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 Peter 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.

On 18 September, the readiness section at Tmini M2 (Tenente Guglielmo Chiarini of the 82a Squadriglia, Sergente Maggiore Basso of the 77a Squadriglia and Sergente Franco Porta of the 82a Squadriglia) were flying to Gambut when they discovered a formation of nine Blenheims at 1500 metres, which was heading towards Tmini. The three CR 42s immediately started in pursuit but were only able to intercept the RAF bombers after that they had dropped their bombs over the airfield at 18:20.
The Blenheims were reportedly flying in three vics. The three aircraft in the first vic were the first to be attacked, Tenente Chiarini claimed the leader, Sergente Porta one of the wingmen while Sergente Maggiore Basso was machine-gunning the other. They then attacked the second vic, which split up and each Blenheim looking for safety on its own. In the meantime, the third vic remained manoeuvring in close formation and departed towards land while the remaining Blenheims tried to counter attack the CR.42s and were heavily machine-gunned. Now the three Italian pilots started in pursuit of the fleeing “vic”. Flying straight into the Blenheims (because whatever approaching manoeuvre would have meant loosing the chance of closing on the fast escaping enemy bombers), Chiarini ran in a shower of return fire and was wounded in the shoulder. He didn’t turn back immediately but when he realized the seriousness of his wound he had to leave the chase and return to home base but before leaving the combat zone he witnessed a fourth Blenheim machine gunned by Basso and very close to the sea with one engine smoking. Basso himself didn’t witnessed his opponent going down but estimated that it wouldn’t make it back because of the damage suffered, so he turned back home very low on fuel.
When the three Italian pilots landed, it was already dark but the light of the incendiary bombs released on the landing strip guided them. Once on the ground (in three damaged fighters) Chiarini claimed two bombers shot down (by him and Porta), one probable (Basso) and six heavily machine-gunned as shared. The final assessment of the outcome of the combat was made by the HQ of Va Squadra following the reports of land observers, the HQ fixed the number of enemy planes shot down to five; one each for Chiarini and Porta, two for Basso and a fifth shared. Considering the rather aggressive attitude of the Blenheims over Tmini it was assumed that they were “Bristol Blenheim Fighters”. For this action Chiarini, Basso and Porta all were decorated with the Medaglia d’argento al valor militare.
113 Squadron reported that they attacked at 19:20 with nine aircraft using 72 40lbs, 80 20lbs and 400 4lbs incendiary bombs. All the bombs where seen to fall within the target area except a single container of incendiary that overshot. Three Italian planes where observed in flames on the south side of the area and two where directly hit. A cement blockhouse was also hit and damaged. After the first run a reportedly 20 (!) CR.42s attacked the formation shooting down Blenheim Mk.IV T2048 in flames. Squadron Leader Gerald Barnard Keily DFC AFC baled out and was taken POW while the observer, 24-year-old Pilot Officer John Sisman Cleaver (RAF no. 78454) and the wireless operator/air gunner, 27-year-old Sergeant James Jobson (RAF no. 525052) were killed. 113 Squadron claimed to have destroyed one of their attackers and possibly a second. Two other Blenheims were unserviceable on landing but in fact not seriously damaged (possibly the rest of the first “vic”). Flight Lieutenant R. N. Bateson assumed temporarily command of the Squadron. It seems highly likely that Keily was shot down by Tenente Chiarini.

Basso ended the war with 2 biplane victories.

Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  25/07/40 09:10-10:25 1 Gladiator (a) Damaged Fiat CR.42   Bardia area 77a Squadriglia
1 18/09/40   1 Blenheim (b) Destroyed Fiat CR.42   Tmini area 77a Squadriglia
2 18/09/40   1 Blenheim (b) Destroyed Fiat CR.42   Tmini area 77a Squadriglia
  18/09/40   1 Blenheim (b) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.42   Tmini area 77a Squadriglia

Biplane victories: 2 and 1 shared destroyed, 1 damaged.
TOTAL: 2 and 1 shared destroyed, 1 damaged.
(a) Claimed in combat with Gladiators from 33 and 112 Squadrons. 13o Gruppo claimed one destroyed and one damaged without losses. 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).
(b) Claimed in combat with Blenheim Mk.IVs from 113 Squadron. Italian fighters claimed five but 113 Squadron only lost one aircraft when Blenheim Mk.IV T2048 was shot down in flames. Pilot Squadron Leader G. Keily was taken POW while the rest of the crew were KIA.

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
Diario Storico 77a Squadriglia kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo.
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
L’8oGruppo caccia in due conflitti mondiali - Giuseppe Pesce, 1974 S.T.E.M. Mucchi, Modena, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo.
Il Savoia Marchetti S.M. 79 nel Secondo Conflitto Mondiale - Bombardamento Terrestre - Ricognizione Strategica - Aviazione Sahariana – Cesare Gori, 2003 USSMA, Rome, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo.
Quelli del Cavallino Rampante - Antonio Duma, 1981 Editore Dell'Ateneo, Roma, kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
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
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