Biplane fighter aces

Italy

Sergente Maggiore Duilio Bernardi

Dulio Bernardi took part in the Spanish Civil War where he claimed one victory.

The 8o Gruppo, 2o Stormo C.T., was transferred to Libya in September 1935 and in 1940 was the oldest colonial fighter unit of the Regia Aeronautica and was equipped with Fiat CR.32quater (a tropical version of the classic Fiat design with enlarged oil cooler and other slight improvements that enhanced its low altitude performances).
The 8o Gruppo (92a, 93a and 94a Squadriglie) was commanded by Maggiore Vincenzo La Carruba and started the war based at Tobruk T2 airfield with a full complement of 25 Fiat CR.32quaters.
Pilots in the 93a Squadriglia on 11 June were: Capitano Mario Bacich (CO), Tenente Alberto Argenton, Tenente Gioacchino Bissoli, Sergente Maggiore Italo Bertinelli, Sergente Luigi Di Lorenzo, Sergente Edoardo Azzarone, Sergente Roberto Lendaro and Sergente Duilio Bernardi. These pilots had eight CR.32quaters available on 11 June. On strength there were also Tenente Vincenzo Sansone, Sottotenente Alberto Radice, Sergente Orazio Antonicelli and Sergente Ottorino Lancia but they hadn’t left Tripoli. Sergente Armando Angelini was assigned from the 53o Stormo on 9 June but he also remained in Tripoli.

On 11 June, the Regia Aeronautica was in alarm readiness from 00:00 (throughout this book the hours will be reported as found in the original sources, so typically the Italian hour in the description of Italian activities and the British hour for the Commonwealth ones) and a standing patrol of three Fiat CR.32s of the 8o Gruppo was maintained over the Tobruk T2 airfield and Tobruk harbour. This was not possible over El Adem T3 because there were no fighter units based here.
At 05:00, seven Fiats of the 93a Squadriglia, 8o Gruppo, scrambled to meet a formation of seven British bombers signalled by the observation post at Bardia, flying in eastward direction. The fighters climbed to 2000 metres and the British formation was seen as if it was coming back from an incursion over T3. The CR.32s started in pursuit but were unable to reach them and the bombers disappeared in the dawn mist.
Two hours later, at around 07:00, seven more CR.32s scrambled to meet another attack directed on El Adem. Six of the aircraft were from the 94a Squadriglia (Capitano Franco Lavelli, Tenente Giovanni Tadini, Sergente Maggiore Alessandro Ruzzene, Sergente Maggiore Danilo Billi, Sergente Maggiore Arturo Cardano and Sergente Maggiore Trento Cecchi while the seventh was from the 92a Squadriglia (CO Martino Zannier). The Italian pilots had a slight height advantage over the seven Blenheims and this made it possible to intercept. The Fiat pilots claimed two bombers shot down (one into the sea and one from which the crew was seen to bale out) and four damaged, all shared among the seven pilots. Zannier returned at 07:40 with the engine on his fighter damaged and having expended 500 rounds of ammunition. The pilots of the 94a Squadriglia landed five minutes later, having spent 3770 rounds of ammunition.
At 11:20, Tenente Alberto Argenton of the 93a Squadriglia together with Tenente Riccardo Marcovich of the 92a Squadriglia, carried out a visual reconnaissance over the British airstrip of Tishididda. They landed at 12:50 reporting the absence of enemy planes.
At 15:00, a patrol of five CR.32s of the 93a Squadriglia, led by Tenente Gioacchino Bissoli and including Tenente Alberto Argenton, Sergente Maggiore Italo Bertinelli, Sergente Maggiore Bernardi and Sergente Maggiore Luigi Di Lorenzo intercepted another formation of six bombers. With a swift attack Bissoli shot down a Blenheim that fell down close to T3 (nobody was seen to jump from the aircraft) while his wingmen claimed damage to two others before the bombers were able to escape. The Squadriglia diary reported that all the surviving enemy bombers were damaged with the use of 1050 rounds.
Totally the 25 Fiat CR.32s of the 8o Gruppo made 96 sorties during the day.
The Italian fighters had clashed with Blenheims from 202 Group (45, 55, 113, and 211 Squadrons). A few minutes after midnight six Bristol Blenheim Mk.I crews of 211 Squadron were briefed to carry out an armed reconnaissance at dawn of targets in Libya. Their target was El Adem, photographing from Derna to Giarabub as they went. During a reconnaissance flight over the Giarabub-Capuzzo areas a Blenheim Mk.I of 211 Squadron piloted by Pilot Officer Eric Bevington-Smith was obliged to force-land with engine trouble. It is possible that the Blenheims from 211 Squadron were the ones the 8o Gruppo in vain tried to intercept at 05:40.
These were followed by eight Bristol Blenheim Mk.Is of 45 Squadron that took off from Fuka at 04:15 and attacked the airfield of El Adem T3. Initially the raid was to be against Tobruk’s harbour, but the reconnaissance of 211 Squadron showed it deprived of any significant target. The British formation was composed of Squadron Leader Dallamore (Blenheim Mk.I L8478), Flying Officer Williams (L8469), Sergeant Thurlow (L8519), Flight Lieutenant Troughton Smith (L8481), Pilot Officer Gibbs (L4923), Sergeant Bower (L8476), Flying Officer Rixson (L8524) and Flying Officer Finch (L8466). The British pilots returned from T3 claiming that they had attacked at 05:40 with 40lb, 20lb and 4lb incendiary bombs and also had strafed in subsequent passes with front and rear guns. Although no enemy aircraft were encountered, the ground defences had been in action immediately. These were described as “not heavy” and in fact it is known that at the beginning of the conflict for the defence of all the 35 air strips of Cirenaica, the Italians had only 17 ex-Austrian Schwarzlose 8mm gun of WW I vintage armed with standard ammunition and with a maximum range of 600 meters. Later more details enriched the description of this first attack, reporting that the returning crews had claimed that the entire manpower of the Italian base had been assembled on parade, as if the commanding officer had been reading a signal from Marshal Italo Balbo (Italian Commander-in-Chief) announcing the declaration of war. The Blenheims had hit two hangars burning them, then had strafed and bombed the Italian aircraft that were parked in rows as in peacetime and not dispersed destroying several of them. Three Blenheims failed to return and two more were damaged. Blenheim Mk.I L8476 was reportedly hit by light flak shortly after the last attack, caught fire and crashed into the sea killing the crew; Sergeant Peter Bower (RAF no. 524415), Sergeant Stanley George Fox (RAF no. 747815) and Aircraftman 1st Class John William Allison (RAF no. 543233). Blenheim Mk.I L8519 was damaged during the raid and crash-landed at Sidi Barrani where it burst into flames killing its crew; Sergeant Maurice Cresswell Thurlow (RAF no. 565808), Sergeant Bernard Alfred Feldman (RAF no. 747967) and Aircraftman 1st Class Henry Robinson (RAF no. 548048). Blenheim Mk.I L8466 suffered an engine failure over the target (possibly hit by Italian fire), the other engine failed after 100 miles during the return journey eastwards and the aircraft made a wheels-up forced landing near Buq-Buq. The crew (Flying Officer A. Finch, Sergeant R. Dodsworth and Leading Aircraftman Fisher) was rescued by the British Army while the aircraft was later recovered and repaired. It seems possible that these Blenheims were in fact claimed by the pilots of the 92a and 94a Squadriglie.
The first raid of the war brought also one of the first “mysteries” of the campaign, as it is not sure, from the comparison of the Italian and British documents, which were the opponents of the 8o Gruppo during this early morning raid. It seems here right to explain that the time in Italy (and assumingly also in Libya) at the beginning of the war was Greenwich Mean Time (G.M.T.) +1h. On the other hand from available documents it transpires that in Egypt was still in use the solar time that was G.M.T. + 2h, (it seems that only after 15 July did also Egypt adopted daylight saving time, which is G.M.T +3h). Thus, even if exceptions to this rule has been noted in the documents consulted, it seems that on 11 June 1940 the time recorded British was one hour in advance of that recorded by the Italians. This is the strongest clue to assume that 45 Squadron was in fact the unit that the 8o Gruppo failed to intercept during its first morning pursuit, because the RAF recorded this raid at 05:40, which was 04:40 in “Italian” time, quite close to the 05:00 of the first inconclusive scramble of the 93a Squadriglia.
If we accept this, however, the opponents of the 8o Gruppo, against which 4270 round of ammunition were expanded and which damaged Zannier’s Fiat, remained undisclosed because no other British raids was reportedly performed in the morning. Additionally it is known that Balbo himself, commenting the day’s actions credited all the three victories claimed by the Italians to the fighters and none to AA that was explicitly termed as “non existent”. As a point of interested, it is also worth noting that Italy adopted daylight saving time (G.M.T. +2h) on 15 June 1940 and kept it for the rest of the war. Thus from 15 June until 15 July, Italians and British recorded the same time (G.M.T + 2h), then after that date the British time returned one hour in advance of the Italian one.
In the afternoon, 55 and 113 Squadrons were transferred from Ismailia to Fuka and nine planes from each Squadron were bombed up and attacked El Adem T3 once again starting from 14:15. ‘A’ Flight from 55 Squadron included Blenheim Mk.Is L8530 (Flight Lieutenant Cox (acting Squadron Leader), Sergeant Wagstaff and Corporal Bennett), L8391 (Pilot Officer Walker, Sergeant Kavanagh and Leading Aircraftman Noble) and L8667 (Sergeant Day, Sergeant Browning and Leading Aircraftman McGarry). ‘B’ Flight included Blenheim Mk.Is L1538 (Flight Lieutenant H. R. Goodman, Sergeant Wiles and Leading Aircraftman Jone), L4818 (Pilot Officer M. S. Ferguson, Pilot Officer H. A. W. How and Leading Aircraftman Cherry) and L8398 (Pilot Officer R. H. Nicolson, Leading Aircraftman Bartram and Leading Aircraftman Davison). ‘C’ Flight included Blenheim Mk.Is L4820 (Flying Officer F. H. Fox, Sergeant Nicholas and Leading Aircraftman Klines), L6672 (Pilot Officer Godrich, Pilot Officer Redfern and Leading Aircraftman Thompson) and L8390 (Pilot Officer Smith, Sergeant Clarke and Leading Aircraftman Dews).
The returning pilots reported that the aircraft of the base were still not dispersed and claimed the damaging or destruction on ground of eighteen of them, together with additional damage on the hangars of the base. This time enemy aircraft were encountered and one Blenheim Mk.IV of 113 Squadron was admitted lost to them when L4823 was shot down (most probably by Tenente Bissoli) in flames 7 km east of El Adem. The crew of Flight Lieutenant D. Beauclair, Warrant Officer H. J. Owen and Sergeant J. Dobson were all badly burned, but walked for eight hours before being captured by an Italian Marine post east of Tobruk. Two Blenheims from 55 Squadron were badly damaged but were able to regain British territory. They had encountered some accurate AA fire and reported that although CR.32 fighters were seen they didn’t engage. L1538 received five hits on the starboard engine cowling, the engine stopped through lack of petrol and the aircraft made an emergency landing at Mersa Matruh, while L8398 received a bullet in the undercarriage that collapsed on landing at Mersa Matruh. The two aircraft were left there. The starboard engine of L4820, which had been followed by two Fiat fighters that reportedly scored no hits on it, seized when over Mersa Matruh. The bomber was however able to successfully land at Fuka. In all 26 bombers attacked T3 during the day hitting it with 416 forty pounds bombs, 524 twenty pounds bombs and 2080 four pounds incendiary bombs.
The Italians reported three different raids against El Adem (made by a reported six-nine-six enemy bombers). The 44o Gruppo lost one completely burnt out SM 79, two more lightly damaged (RS) and two more seriously damaged (they had to be repaired in the local S.R.A.M.). The Gruppo also suffered three dead and twenty-four wounded.
Three Ro.37s and two Ca.309s were also heavily damaged and two Ro.37s and six S.81s were lightly damaged. Ten more soldiers were wounded.

In November 1941, Sergente Maggiore Bernardi served in the 393a Squadriglia, 160o Gruppo CT, in Libya. This unit was at the time equipped with the Fiat CR.42.

On 4 November 1941, nine Marylands of 12 SAAF attacked Berka airfield from an altitude of 19,000 feet, claiming to have obtained good results. They reported having been attacked by two CR.42s and having shot one of them down. This was claimed to have been the work of Lieutenant Parson’s crew, who saw the second one lose height without control. They returned to base at 15:40; none of the bombers was damaged.
Lieutenant T. W. Ryan flying in No. 3 sub flight stated that his aircraft lagged behind while they were attempting to complete their photographic run over the target. When this operation was completed, he tried to catch up with his formation:

“On doing so, I sighted 2 enemy fighters ahead on our starboard quarter, apparently trying to attack No. 2 sub-flight. On alternative course by turning towards the fighters, we caught one fighter unaware who at this time was flying level abeam at approximately 150 yards.”
The top rear gunner opened fire on this position raking the enemy aircraft with about 70 to 80 rounds of tracer and armour piercing bullets. All appeared to enter the aircraft. The enemy was then seen in a spiral dive with white smoke pouring from him. The top gunner gave him a final burst, emptying his ammunition pan.
As the enemy aircraft passed below the Maryland, the bottom gunner fired several short bursts at it and it was last seen to crash with black smoke and flame coming from the aircraft.
Lieutenant Parsons who was flying as No. 2 of No. 2 sub-flight said he had found difficulty in closing the bomb-bay doors and consequently lagged behind his sub-flight. They were attacked from the starboard by the CR.42s; one beam and the other quarter.
“The enemy fighter which was attempting to attack us from the quarter was approx. 250- 300 yards away when my top rear gunner opened fire on him. About 70 or 80 rounds of tracer and armour piercing bullets appeared to enter the target. Smoke issued from the enemy aircraft, which appeared to wobble and then went into a vertical nose dive. When passing underneath the Maryland, still in nose dive, the enemy received a short burst from the bottom rear gunner and he was last seen in a nose dive making straight for the ground.”
It seems that the bombers had come up against two CR.42 units. At 13:05 two CR.42s of the 160o Gruppo were on a defence patrol above Benghazi, piloted by Sergente Maggiore Duilio Bernardi (393a Squadriglia) and Sergente Antonio Malavasi (394a Squadriglia). Warned via radio, they spotted nine enemy bombers identified as Blenheims, in a stacked patrol formation. Thanks to his plane’s height advantage, an altitude of 6,000 m compared with the 5,800 m of the bombers, Bernardi was able to keep within firing range long enough; in fact, he claimed to have shot down two bombers. One exploded in mid-air while the other crashed into the ground south of Benina. Malavasi, instead, only managed to machine gun a third bomber without any visible results; in return, his aircraft was damaged.
210 rounds of 7.7 mm machine guns and 490 of 12.7 mm machine guns were fired. The claims are not corroborated but Italian diaries note that one of the bombers force landed in Axis held territory.
Sottotenente Biason of 376a Squadriglia (based at Gazala) scrambled with his CR.42 at 14:25. He spotted and machine-gunned a formation of six Marylands at 14:55. No results were apparent. This second attack had probably taken place when the bombers were returning to base.
Sergente Maggiore Bernardi was later awarded a Medaglia d’argento al valor militare for this combat.

Between 02:10 and 03:45 on 6 November, Sergente Maggiore Bernardi sighted and machine gunned a formation of six enemy aircraft without any visible result during a defence patrol over Benghazi.
There was an attack of twelve Wellingtons based in Egypt on various targets, among which Benghazi. 11 Squadron lost two Blenheims during a night attack on Derna. One of these was because of engine failure. AIR.22.401 reports the loss of a Wellington but it was probably a Maryland.

In the beginning of March 1942, Regia Aeronautica spotted Chad-based Free French forces led by Général Jacques-Philippe Leclerc intruding into the Fezzan desert area, in the southern part of Libya, to harass Italian garrisons in order to distract forces from the northern front. The Leclerc column was formed by four independent patrols, the aerial support being provided by the Groupe Bretagne, composed of Nates and Rennes Escadrilles. The former was led by Lieutenant Jean Mahé and had four Martin Marylands (ex-French Martin 167s, known simply as ‘Glenns’) and a Potez 540. The latter, commanded by Lieutenant Marcel Finance, had five Lysanders and three Potez 29s.
Leclerc had moved from Chad on 17 February and ten days later surprised and overwhelmed the small garrison of Uigh el Kebir. Here he established his command post and on 28 February his forces managed to capture the Gatrun and Tegerri garrisons, but a patrol led by Capitaine Jacques Massu met strong resistance at Umm el Araneb and was forced to retreat.
As a result of the French aerial activity in Fezzan, Maggiore Michele Mandara, CO 160o Gruppo CT, deployed four CR.42s to Sebha, led by Tenente Eduardo Sorvillo (394a Squadriglia). The other three pilots were Sergente Maggiore Bernardi (393a Squadriglia), Sottotenente Piero Bertonasso (375a Squadriglia) and Sergente Antonio Malavasi (394a Squadriglia). A single S.79 of 175a Squadriglia RST was also sent as reinforcement, flown by Tenente Giuseppe Pellizzotti.
The CR.42s undertook their first sortie from Sebha on 6 March, hunting French vehicles between there and Zuila, but without result.

On 7 March, the four CR.42s at Sebha moved to Umm el Araneb. After a reconnaissance to Gatrun, while on the ground at Umm el Araneb, they were bombed and strafed by the French Lysander P9197 of the Rennes Escadrilla, flown by Lieutenant Marcel Finance. The fighter of Tenente Sorvillo (MM7627/394-8) was set on fire, the pilot suffering severe injuries, while Sottotenente Bertonasso’s CR.42 was slightly damaged.
The pair of Fiats still serviceable took off immediately, flown by Sergente Maggiore Bernardi and Sergente Antonio Malavasi to hunt for the hostile aircraft. Sergente Maggiore Bernardi found the Lysander and fired at it repeatedly, forcing it to land in the desert trailing smoke. Lieutenant Finance took the gunner Sergent Chef Fernand Leroy, who had been wounded in the leg, out of the Lysander and sought the cover of the smoke. It proved only to be a smoke bomb hit by a bullet from Bernardi’s guns.
Meanwhile, Bernardi flew for some time over the grounded aircraft without attacking it further. Convinced that he had inflicted irreparable damage, he then departed. This allowed Finance, having got the gunner back on board, to take off and fly back to Uigh el Kebir.
At Umm el Araneb meantime, the wounded Sorvillo was put in an S.79 called to the spot and flown to Castel Benito.
The S.79 (MM21465) flown by Tenente Pellizzotti subsequently crashed at Sebha for unknown reasons, all crew being killed.

On 8 March, two more 160o Gruppo CR.42s were flown down to Sebha by Tenente Raoul Francinetti and Sergente Maggiore Aurelio Munich to replace the two which had been destroyed. Meanwhile, however, all the French aircraft left the area, retiring to their base at Faya in Chad, leaving Leclerc’s patrol without air cover.
The next day, on 9 March, Tenente Francinetti and Sergente Maggiore Munich strafed Capitaine Massu’s patrol, leaving one vehicle in flames and others damaged. Francinetti’s CR.42 was slightly damaged by small-arms fire.
In the afternoon Tenente Francinetti, Sergente Malavasi and Sergente Maggiore Munich again attacked Massu’s troops, this time near Uigh el Kebir, ten small trucks were claimed destroyed and others damaged.
On 30 March an Italian patrol of 3o Compagnia Sahariana found the wreck of eight French vehicles. At this point the first Fezzan Campaign was at an end, French forces returning to Chad and the Italians garrisons being re-established.

Bernardi ended the war with at least 4 biplane victories and a total of 5.

Claims:
Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
1 ??/??/3?   1 Enemy aircraft Destroyed     Spain  
  1940                
  11/06/40 15:00 1/4 Blenheim (a) Shared damaged Fiat CR.32   El Adem area 93a Squadriglia
  11/06/40 15:00 1/4 Blenheim (a) Shared damaged Fiat CR.32   El Adem area 93a Squadriglia
  1941                
2 04/11/41 13:05- 1 Blenheim (b) Destroyed Fiat CR.42   S Benina 393a Squadriglia
3 04/11/41 13:05- 1 Blenheim (b) Destroyed Fiat CR.42   S Benina 393a Squadriglia
  1942                
4 07/03/42   1 Lysander (c) Destroyed Fiat CR.42   Gatrun 393a Squadriglia
5 ??/??/4?   1 Enemy aircraft Destroyed        

Biplane victories: 4 destroyed, 2 shared damaged.
TOTAL: 5 destroyed, 2 shared damaged.
(a) Claimed in combat with Blenheims from 55 and 113 Squadrons, which suffered two damaged bombers.
(b) Probably claimed in combat with Marylands from 12 SAAF Squadron, which didn’t suffer any losses. However Italian records claim one bomber force-landing inside Axis territory.
(c) Lysander P9197 of Rennes Escadrilla slightly damaged, force-landed but was later flown out.

Sources:
A History of the Mediterranean Air War 1940-1945: Volume Two – Christopher Shores and Giovanni Massimello with Russell Guest, Frank Olynyk & Winfried Bock, 2012 Grub Street, London, ISBN-13: 9781909166127
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
Fiat CR.42 Aces of World War 2 - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2009 Osprey Publishing, Oxford, ISBN 978-1-84603-427-5
La Battaglie Aeree In Africa Settentrionale: Novembre-Dicembre 1941 – Michele Palermo, IBN, ISBN 88-7565-102-7




Last modified 13 August 2016