Biplane fighter aces


Sergente Maggiore Italo Bertinelli

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 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 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 Bertinelli, Sergente Maggiore Duilio 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.

Reconnaissance sorties by 113 Squadron had revealed Tobruk harbour to be crowded and a combined action by the RAF and the Royal Navy was planned at dawn on 12 June against the shipping in the harbour.
The light cruiser HSM Gloucester and the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney were to carry out a sweep against Tobruk while the RAF bombed the harbour to drive shipping out of it and into the guns of the waiting fleet and to destroy at their moorings those vessels that did not flee.
Twenty-nine Blenheims from four squadrons were briefed to be over Tobruk at sunrise.
Six Blenheim Mk.Is from 45 Squadron took off but Sergeant Grant in L6664 aborted with an engine failure, while the other five failed to find the target and four returned with the bombs still aboard. Flying Officer Rixson in the fifth Blenheim (L8524) bombed some troops near Bardia but had to force-land at Mersa Matruh during the return journey (unknown reason).
Only two of the five from 55 Squadron reached Tobruk – an engine of one would not start, the observer of another was struck by a propeller so it too did not take off, while a third had to turn back with engine trouble. Over the target they met a reported fifty CR.42s, which did not attack, so they returned to base unharmed.
Two of the nine from 211 Squadron crashed on take-off while a third suffered a slight ground collision with a Bombay; the remaining six were engaged by (reportedly) Fiat CR.42s defending Tobruk and claimed to have shot down two of them, (first claims by the Royal Air Force in the desert).
Finally nine Blenheim Mk.IVs of 113 Squadron did manage to find and bomb the harbour and reporting hits on the old cruiser San Giorgio.
There were not any CR.42s operational over Tobruk on the morning of 12 June, only the CR.32 of the 8o Gruppo. The Gruppo reported that two different formations of British bombers were intercepted before they were able to reach their target and obliged to jettison their bombs and turn back suffering heavy damage. The intercepting fighters were from three sections drawn from the three Squadriglie of the Gruppo. The section of the 92a Squadriglia was commanded by Tenente Ranieri Piccolomini, the 93a Squadriglia section was commanded by Sergente Maggiore Bertinelli and the 94a Squadriglia section was commanded by Sottotenente Giacomo Maggi. The Italian fighters didn’t claim victories (only damage; according to some sources one damaged was claimed by Tenente Piccolomini) and didn’t suffer any losses.
It seems that some bombs fell on T2 but didn’t cause any damage. The air attack on the harbour was similarly devoid of concrete results.
According with the war diary of the cruiser San Giorgio, at dawn, two British cruisers with their escort of destroyers shelled the base, sinking the minesweeper Giovanni Berta, which was caught 3,5 miles out of the harbour. In the meantime, between 04:52 and 05:02, the Navy base was under air attacks that didn’t cause damage; San Giorgio was not damaged.

On 21 June, six CR.32s of the 92a Squadriglia (Capitano Martino Zannier, Tenente Ranieri Piccolomini, Sergente Maggiore Guglielmo Gorgone, Sergente Vito Copersino, Sergente Nadio Monti and Sergente Ernesto Pavan) and three from the 93a Squadriglia (Tenente Alberto Argenton, Sergente Bertinelli and Sergente Roberto Lendaro) took off at 09:40 and attacked enemy vehicles south of Bir El Gobi, escorted by CR.42s from the 13o Gruppo. The fire from the CR.32s, which attacked in single file, stopped an enemy armoured car and forced two other armoured cars of the same formation, less seriously damaged, to flee.
They were back at base at 11:00, where Copersino’s fighter was found damaged in the fuel tank by AA. The 92a Squadriglia formation expended 1756 rounds and 96 two-kilo bombs.

On 21 December, Tenente Antonio Angeloni, Marescaillo Bertinelli and Sergente Teresio Martinoli were transferred from the 13o Gruppo to the 84a Squadriglia, 10o Gruppo.

Bertinelli ended the war with 2 shared damaged biplane victories.

Kill no. Date Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  11/06/40 1/4 Blenheim (a) Shared damaged Fiat CR.32   El Adem area 93a Squadriglia
  11/06/40 1/4 Blenheim (a) Shared damaged Fiat CR.32   El Adem area 93a Squadriglia

Biplane victories: 2 shared damaged.
TOTAL: 2 shared damaged.
(a) Claimed in combat with Blenheims from 55 and 113 Squadrons, which suffered two damaged bombers.

2o Stormo - Note storiche dal 1925 al 1975 - Gino Strada, 1975 USSMA, Rome, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
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
Desert Prelude: Early clashes June-November 1940 - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2010 MMP books, ISBN 978-83-89450-52-4
Diario Storico 92a Squadriglia C.T. kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo.
Diario Storico 93a Squadriglia C.T. 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
Additional information kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo

Last modified 13 March 2017