Biplane fighter aces


Sergente Nino Campanini

On 7 September 1940, eleven CR.42s from the 157o Gruppo arrived from Comiso to Castel Benito in North Africa and nine of the pilots were posted to the 2o Stormo. Posted to the 77a Squadriglia were Sottotenente Mario Nicoloso, Sottotenente Carmelo Catania and Sergente Renato Gori. Posted to the 78a Squadriglia were Sottotenente Luigi Cannepele, Sergente Teresio Martinoli and Sergente Francesco Merana. Posted to the 82a Squadriglia were Tenente Gianfranco Perversi and Sergente Campanini (from 385a Squadriglia) while Tenente Vittorio Gnudi was posted to the 94a Squadriglia.

After the capture of Sidi Barrani on 16 September, the Italian Army formed a defensive line composed of big outposts separated by wide desert areas. From north to south there were the 1a Divisione Libica (1st Libyan infantry division) at Maktila, near the sea east of Sidi Barrani and the 4a Divisione Camice Nere (4th Black shirts Division) at Sidi Barrani. South of these were the 2a Divisione Libica (2nd Libyan infantry division) in three strong points called Alam El Tummar East, Alam El Tummar West and Point 90 (also called Ras El Dai). South of this was the motorised “Maletti Group” in the entrenched camp of Nibeiwa (strong points: Alam Nibeiwa and Alam El Iktufa). Then there were a gap of around thirty kilometres (called the Bir Enba gap) and at the extreme south of the Italian front the 63a Divisione di Fanteria (Italian Infantry division) “Cirene” in four strong points around the rocky hill of Bir Sofafi; Alam El Rabia, the crossroads at height 236, the crossroads at Qabe el Mahdi and Height 226 at Bir Sofafi.
This deployment was clearly lacking, in particular, the worst error seemed the wide gap between “Maletti” and “Cirene” a distance that allowed for encirclement of the forces south of Sidi Barrani and north of Bir Sofafi.
On 19 November, General O’Connor ordered a fully motorised support group to enter the gap and stay there as to mark the British supremacy over the important area (in fact he had already planned to use this zone to pass through his troops and attack Nibeiwa). Reconnaissance units of the “Maletti” Group signalled the dangerous presence of British armoured cars and a combined action was planned for the day after.
During the early morning, a formation of 17 fighters of the 151o Gruppo escorted a formation of Bredas attacking enemy troops in the Bir Enba area and a Ro.37bis reconnoitring in the same general area. The mission was uneventful and the 366a Squadriglia went down after the Bredas to strafe enemy vehicles.
Then an armoured column of the “Maletti” Group (420 troopers and 27 officers on 37 trucks with a strong of artillery of six anti-tank and six medium calibre guns and twenty seven M11/39 medium tanks) left Nibeiwa and a column of the 2a Divisione Libica (256 troopers and 17 officers on 29 trucks with four anti-tank and eight medium calibre guns) left Tummar. They had to rendezvous and then explore the Bir Enba gap. British forces opposing them are not known but Italian Intelligence estimated an armoured group of 60 to 70 tanks and armoured cars (the Italian Intelligence generally overestimated the actual force of the Commonwealth troops by a factor of between two to ten).
At 12:40, the “Maletti” group was attacked by the British forces and forced to do battle. Around half an hour later at 13:00 the 2a Libyan’s contingent arrived and together they forced the British forces to retreat. While they were coming back to base, the British returned and attacked again, starting a dangerous rearguard action.
At 13:00, 18 CR.42s from the 13o Gruppo were ordered off from Gambut G to patrol the Bir Enba area. After take-off a first group of 12 aircraft led by the newly promoted Tenente Colonnello Secondo Revetria stayed at 3000 meters while a second group of led by Tenente Guglielmo Chiarini covered them 2000 meters higher. Revetria’s formation included pilots from the 77a (Capitano Domenico Bevilacqua, Tenente Eduardo Sorvillo, Sottotenente Mario Nicoloso, Sergente Enrico Botti, Sergente Vincenzo Campolo and an unrecorded pilot), 78a (Sottotenente Natale Cima, Sergente Maggiore Salvatore Mechelli, Sergente Cassio Poggi and Sergente Teresio Martinoli) and 82a (Sottotenente Virgilio Vanzan) Squadriglie.
When they arrived over Bir Enba, Revetria made a first pass to better spot targets and observed an artillery duel between Italian guns and British tanks. Immediately the British vehicles, that were encircling the right flank of the Italian troops, stopped to fire and dispersed. Revetria and his eleven pilots attacked in single file causing a lot of damage among the enemies. After the strafing attack, the twelve 13o Gruppo pilots returned undamaged to base where they landed 14:50 after having spent 2200 rounds of 12,7 and 7,7 calibre ammunitions.
In the meantime, Chiarini’s formation was down to 4000 meters when they spotted a formation of a reported eight Gladiators that looked as they were trying to attack Revetria’s formation. Chiarini immediately attacked with height advantage and surprised the Gladiator. The first pass only managed to break the Gladiator formation without causing losses and then a long dogfight started (Chiarini recorded that it lasted for 25 minutes) after which six British Gladiators were claimed shot down in flames, all shared by the six pilots of the Italian formation; Tenente Chiarini, Sottotenente Gilberto Cerofolini, Sottotenente Giuseppe Bottà, Sottotenente Giuseppe Timolina, Sergente Campanini and Sergente Francesco Nanin. A seventh Gladiator was claimed as seriously damaged and was last seen flying low towards Matruh smoking and without taking evasive actions being claimed as a shared probable and the last Gladiator was also claimed as a shared probable. It was reported that all the victories were confirmed by the Libyan land forces (Chiarini also reported that the wreck of one of the Gladiators was noted on the ground by his pilots). The six Italian fighters came back almost without fuel left, they had used 1595 rounds 12,7 calibre and 2330 round 7,7 calibre ammunitions. Only four of them were slightly damaged. The heaviest damage was suffered by Timolina’s aircraft, which landed at an advanced airbase (probably Sollum) and was flown back to base the day after. His aircraft was still not operational at the beginning of Operation “Compass” much more because of the inadequacy of the Italian repair organisation than because of the damage actually suffered.
It seems that the “eight Gladiators” were in fact a formation of four Gladiators from 3 RAAF Squadron. Flight Lieutenant Blake Pelly (N5753), had been ordered to undertake a reconnaissance over enemy positions in the Sofafi-Rabia-Bir Enba areas. Squadron Leader Peter Ronald Heath (N5750), and Flying Officers Alan Rawlinson (L9044) and Alan Boyd (N5752) provided his escort. The aircraft took off from Gerawla at 13:40. Flying at about 5,500 feet and with Pelly some 200 yards in front the escort, they headed for their objective. After about half an hour and about seven miles east of Rabia, 18 CR.42s were spotted below strafing British troops. In accordance to orders, the reconnaissance flight turned around and headed for home. They had barely turned around when they were attacked by the CR.42s. Pelly out in the lead found himself at the centre of attention from nine Fiats. His escort were likewise engaged with a similar number.
Boyd found himself being attacked from astern by three aircraft. By twisting and diving he found himself behind one of them and fired off a long burst into the cockpit area. The Fiat rolled over and dived towards the ground. Pulling up into a tight turn he was able to bring his sights to bear on another enemy fighter. Coming in for a quarter attack, the Fiat fell into an uncontrollable spin with thick black smoke pouring from the engine. With barely a pause Boyd pulled round and went after a third fighter, which was attacking one of the Gladiators. After hitting it with a short burst it fell away. As he was watching it fall away he was attacked from behind by yet another Fiat. Hauling hard back on the stick, he went straight up, with the engine on full power. This caused the enemy fighter to overshoot him. Rolling over, Boyd came down and fired directly into the engine and cockpit area, the Fiat then spun down towards the ground. Looking round, he saw another fighter and set off in pursuit. The Italian saw him and pulled up into a climb, Boyd followed but his engine stalled and he entered a spin, only pulling out when he was within 30 feet of the ground. As he pulled out he was attacked by yet another Fiat. To complicate matters further Boyd’s guns had jammed and he struggled with the mechanisms trying desperately to free them, all the while being pursued a few feet off the ground by an enemy fighter. At last he freed up the two fuselage guns and in a desperate measure he yanked back the stick and went up into a loop. Coming over the top, he saw the Fiat below him and at a range of less than 30 yards he let fly with his remaining guns. The cockpit of the Fiat erupted with bullet strikes and it fell away to the Desert floor.
With no more enemy aircraft in the vicinity, Boyd took stock of his situation. He had very little ammo left and only two working guns. In the distance, he saw one aircraft being pursued by two more. Turning in their direction he gained some altitude and closed in. He soon recognised Pelly’s Gladiator coming under attack from two Fiats. He immediately attack one which was firing on Pelly, who was about to land with a faltering engine, this aircraft rolled over and dived towards the ground which was only 30 feet away. It seems unlikely that it could have pulled out. Pelly’s engine had picked up again and he started to climb away from the area. The remaining Fiat turned on Boyd, whose guns had jammed again, and chased him at low level for about a mile before giving up and turning away. Boyd rejoined Pelly and both pilots made their way home. Along the way Pelly had to land at Minqar Qaim at 14:45 when his engine gave out. It was discovered that his oil tank had been hit and all the oil had drained out (the aircraft was flown back to Gerawla the next day). Boyd continued on his own back to base where he landed at 14:50.
During this combat was 26-year-old Squadron Leader Heath (RAAF no. 87) shot down in flames and killed. He was later buried beside his aircraft.
Boyd was credited with three CR.42s shot down and one probable, Pelly claimed one shot down and one damaged, while Rawlinson claimed a damaged.
Of the dogfight, Pelly wrote:

“While proceeding on reconnaissance to Sofafi area in company with an escort of 3 other Gladiators, I encountered two formations of CR42 aircraft, consisting of eight and nine respectively.
The formation of eight attacked my escort and the other formation cut me off and drove me southwards. The interception occurred at 1400 when I was 7 miles east of Rabia, and my escort were two miles NE of me. I was at 4,000 feet and my escort at 5,000 feet.
I could not get back to my escort, and the repeated attacks of the nine CR42s forced me southwards, and I worked eastwards.
Shortly after the commencement of the battle I found myself meeting one EA head on at 50 feet. We both opened fire and he dived under me and crashed into the ground.
About five EA must have broken off, but at least 3 pursued me and attacked determinedly until 1425 when I worked northwards and rejoined on of my escort (F/O A H Boyd). These three then broke off.
During the battle at approximately 1405 I turned at two EA who were attacking me from rear and got in one good burst. This aircraft issued black smoke, which increased in intensity until he finally broke away. I saw him flying away in a cloud of black smoke.”
After the war, Pelly also added that he was also shot at by his own escort during this hectic 25 minute battle. He also recalls being picked up by a Lysander and flown back to base.
This was 3 RAAF Squadron’s first combat.
At 13:35, three Gladiators from 3 RAAF Squadron took off from Gerawla for another tactical reconnaissance. The mission was flown by Flight Lieutenant Gordon Steege (N5780), Flying Officer East (N5765) and Flying Officer Alan Gatward (N5766) and intended to cover the Bir Dignaish area. At about 14:10 the three Gladiators encountered Flying Officer Alan Rawlinson returning to base. The reconnaissance was then abandoned and the four Gladiators returned to base in company and landed at 14:40.

Campanini ended the war with 6 shared biplane victories.

Kill no. Date Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  19/11/40 1/6 Gladiator (a) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.42   Bir Emba - Bir Mella 82a Squadriglia
  19/11/40 1/6 Gladiator (a) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.42   Bir Emba - Bir Mella 82a Squadriglia
  19/11/40 1/6 Gladiator (a) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.42   Bir Emba - Bir Mella 82a Squadriglia
  19/11/40 1/6 Gladiator (a) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.42   Bir Emba - Bir Mella 82a Squadriglia
  19/11/40 1/6 Gladiator (a) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.42   Bir Emba - Bir Mella 82a Squadriglia
  19/11/40 1/6 Gladiator (a) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.42   Bir Emba - Bir Mella 82a Squadriglia

Biplane victories: 6 shared destroyed.
TOTAL: 6 shared destroyed.
(a) Claimed in combat with 3 RAAF Squadron, which claimed four CR.42s, one probable and two damaged while losing one Gladiator and getting one damaged. The 82a Squadriglia claimed six shared Gladiators and one damaged while suffering four lightly damaged fighters.

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
Diario Storico 78a Squadriglia kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Diario Storico 82a 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
Additional information kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro

Last modified 11 February 2012