Maresciallo Romolo Cantelli
In August 1940 Romolo Cantelli served with the 160a Squadriglia, 12o Gruppo Assalto, 50o Stormo in Libya, North Africa. The unit was equipped with CR.32quaters at this time.
During the morning on 4 August, 80 Squadrons ‘B’ Flight received a signal from the headquarters to provide four Gladiators to escort a Lysander from 208 Squadron flown by Pilot Officer Burwell, which was to observe enemy troops movement at Bir Taieb el Esem on the other side of the Libyan border. 'Pat' Pattle (Gladiator Mk.I K7910) decided to lead the escort and took with him Flying Officer Peter Wykeham-Barnes (L8009), Pilot Officer Johnny Lancaster (K7923) and Sergeant Kenneth George Russell Rew (RAF no. 526687) (Gladiator K7908). They took off at 17:15 and reached the rendezvous point in ten minutes where they found the Lysander circling at 6000 feet. Wykeham-Barnes and Rew took up a position about 3000 feet above and immediately behind the Lysander, whilst Pattle and Lancaster climbed 1000 feet higher on the starboard flank. The aircraft crossed the border a few miles south of Sidi Omar twenty minutes later and followed the sand tracks leading to their target.
During the same morning eleven CR.42s of the 97a Squadriglia went from Benghazi-Berka to El Adem T3 to participate, together with twelve other CR.42s from the 96a Squadriglia, which had arrived the previous day, and with nine CR.42s of the 10o Gruppo, in an aerial covering flight of the 2a Divisione Libica of Regio Esercito. This Division was marching from Bir el Gobi to Gabr Saleh.
In the meantime, a concentration of British armoured vehicles was discovered in the Bir Sheferzen area, around 30 kilometres south-west of Sollum, near the border where a logistic outpost of the Western Desert Force was located and consequently an air attack was planned.
At 16:50, a formation of assault aircraft of the 50o Stormo took off together with an escorting group of Fiat CR.42 fighters of the 4o Stormo heading for it. The assault aircraft took off from Tobruk T2bis and were twelve aircraft of the resident 12o Gruppo Assalto. They included six Breda Ba.65/A80s of the 159a Squadriglia, armed with 2kg bombs (the Bredas could carry up to 168 of these small calibre bombs) commanded by the Squadriglia Commander Capitano Antonio Dell’Oro and flown by Tenente Adriano Visconti, Tenente Fioravante Montanari (who led the second section), Sergente Maggiore Giovanni Bianchelli, Sergente Maggiore Gianni Pappalepore and Sergente Maggiore Paolo Perno. The other six were Fiat CR.32quaters of the 160a Squadriglia, armed with eight 2kg bombs and divided in two groups of three. The first group led by Capitano Duilio Fanali (Squadriglia CO) included Sottotenente Giuseppe Mezzatesta and Sergente Maggiore Corrado Sarti as wingmen while the second group was lead by Sottotenente Giuseppe Rossi with Sottotenente Mirko Erzetti and Maresciallo Cantelli as wingmen.
The Italian fighter escort took off from El Adem T3 and was composed of 31 CR.42s (ten from the 97a Squadriglia, eleven from the 96a Squadriglia, one from the 73a Squadriglia and nine from the 10o Gruppo). At the head of the two formations were Maggiore Ernesto Botto (in the aircraft from the 73a Squadriglia) and Maggiore Carlo Romagnoli. Pilots from the 97a Squadriglia were Capitano Antonio Larsimont Pergameni, Sottotenente Giovanni Barcaro, Sergente Franco Sarasino, Sottotenente Riccardo Vaccari, Sergente Angelo Golino, Sottotenente Jacopo Frigerio, Sergente Maggiore Otello Perotti, Maresciallo Vanni Zuliani, Sergente Maggiore Raffaele Novelli and Sergente Maggiore Massimo Salvatore. Pilots from the 10o Gruppo were apart from Maggiore Romagnoli, Capitano Giuseppe D’Agostinis, Tenente Enzo Martissa, Sottotenente Ruggero Caporali and Sergente Maggiore Lorenzo Migliorato from the 91a Squadriglia, Capitano Luigi Monti and Tenente Giuseppe Aurili from the 84a Squadriglia and Tenente Franco Lucchini and Sergente Amleto Monterumici from the 90a Squadriglia.
The two Italian formations met at a rendezvous point twenty kilometres east of El Adem and then headed for the target. The 4o Stormo’s aircraft flew at heights between 3500 and 4500 meters, the Fiat CR.32s at 1000 meters and the Bredas at 300 meters.
On the way towards the frontline, at 5000 m over Ridotta Capuzzo, they spotted a formation of nine Blenheims heading to El Adem, escorted by many Glosters Gladiators. Aircraft of the 96a Squadriglia and the 10o Gruppo attacked the bombers and then chased the fighters. In the fierce combat that followed, Tenente Lucchini claimed a Gladiator with the use of 385 rounds of ammunition. Pilots from the 91a Squadriglia claimed two Gladiators and three Blenheims as shared, with two additional Gladiators as shared probables (one of the Glosters was most probably the same claimed by Lucchini). Capitano Monti and Tenente Aurili claimed to have damaged two Blenheims each and then reported being credited with the three Blenheims shot down by the Stormo’s formation as shared. The pilots from the 90a Squadriglia claimed the same three Blenheims and a Gladiator jointly with the 96a Squadriglia and other pilots of the 10o Gruppo plus the individual victory of Lucchini and recorded “other Glosters shot down by pilots of 9o and 10o Gruppi”. At the end of the combat, Maggiore Botto, who personally claimed a damaged British bomber with the use of 200 rounds of ammunition, recorded ten enemy aircraft shot down together with other units. Apart from the five confirmed and two probables already detailed, the remaining victories should be those of the 50o Stormo, more prudently the 10o Gruppo’s Diary claimed only three Blenheims and a single Gloster shot down.
The 97a Squadriglia, covering at a higher altitude, spotted first six Blenheims, which were attacked by the other Squadriglie and then three other Blenheims that were heading towards Egyptian territory and dived to pursue them. Capitano Larsimont Pergameni and Sergente Sarasino chased them for a while, claiming hits on them.
The fighters from the 97a Squadriglia had most probably attacked a trio of Blenheim Mk.Is (L8667, L8391 and L8530) from 55 Squadron, which had been ordered on short notice to bomb up and meet two other flights from other squadrons over Ma’aten Bagush at 17:00 to attack an Italian M. T. convoy, 13 miles east of Bir El Gobi (obviously the Libyan division). Commanded by Pilot Officer T. O. Walker in L8667, they missed the rendezvous with the other Squadrons over Ma’aten Bagush and headed alone towards the front. After crossing the frontier, the trio spotted a big formation of about 25 CR.42s (4o Stormo’s formation). Twelve of these fighters started in pursuit as the Blenheims turned for home (the 97a Squadriglia formation). A running engagement, which lasted seven minutes started after which the Italian fighters broke off without having caused or suffered any damage. The other RAF Squadrons involved in this combat were 211 Squadron and most probably 112 and 113 Squadrons. 211 Squadron was up with two Blenheims piloted by Squadron Leader Bax (L8533) and Flight Lieutenant G. D. Jones (L8532), which were intercepted by a reportedly 40-50 fighters. Sergeant J. McIntosh, gunner of L8532, was wounded in the forearm and it seems that it was badly damaged and forced to land before reaching its base since it was salvaged by 51 RSU at Sidi Barrani on 10 August but Struck off Charge on 20 September. The total lack of records of 113 Squadron and the high level of incompleteness of those of 112 Squadron makes it quite difficult to reconstruct their contribution to the combat. It seems however probable that at least three Gladiators of 112 Squadron were around this area at the time, because it is known that Pilot Officers Robert Hugh Clarke, Homer Cochrane and B. B. E. Duff left Maaten Gerawla during the day for Sidi Barrani, with the task of patrolling over Sidi Omar (extremely close to the area where the evening combat developed). No encounters with the enemy are however recorded in the fragmentary reconstructed ORB of the unit.
The formation from the 50o Stormo continued alone towards the border, arriving over Bir Sheferzen (around thirty kilometres south and slightly east of the position where the escort left it) at 17:20, where they discovered numerous British vehicles that were immediately attacked by the Bredas and Fanali’s trio of CR.32s while Rossi’s stayed at 1000 meters as cover. The Italian aircraft performed two passes over the vehicles and while they were preparing the third the 208 Squadron Lysander and 80 Squadron Gladiators came into the area. The crew of the Lysander spotted the Italians first and alerted the escort with a red Very light before heading due east at low altitude to reach safety. Pilot Officer Burwell carried some bombs that he tried to aim at Italian transports that he saw in the vicinity but missed, then he was forced to return by the strong opposition encountered.
Pattle and Lancaster dived down but failed to spot any enemy aircraft. Wykeham-Barnes and Rew had also disappeared but a few seconds later Pattle heard Wykeham-Barnes over the radio ordering Rew to attack. Immediately afterwards Pattle saw a reported seven Breda Ba.65s in two separate flights - one containing three aircraft in vic formation and the other made up of two pairs, heading east hunting the Lysander.
Wykeham-Barnes and Rew attacked the formation of four Bredas before they could reach the Lysander and Wykeham-Barnes shot down one of them in flames immediately but at the same time was Rew shot down and killed. Pattle and Lancaster meanwhile attacked the other three Italians from astern. The Bredas dispersed and all four Gladiators separated as they each selected a different enemy machine as a target. Pattle attacked two aircraft, which kept close together and turned in a complete circle. The Bredas dropped to around 200 feet and each released two bombs. This reduced weight meant that they slowly began to creep away from Pattle’s slower Gladiator. Suddenly they however turned north towards the fighter base at El Adem. Pattle quickly cut inside their turn and closed in to 150 yards. He delivered a quarter attack on the nearest Breda but his two port guns almost immediately ceased firing. His aim had been good however and he had hit one of the Italians who slowed down considerably. He swung in directly astern of it and, after a few more bursts from his remaining two guns, saw a puff of white smoke from the starboard side of the engine. He continued to attack the Breda, which dropped lower and lower and finally force-landed on good grounds five miles further on. The second Breda got away. Lancaster had also been having trouble with his guns. After his initial burst, all four guns jammed and he spent the next ten minutes frantically pulling his Constantinescu gear pistons and aiming at various enemy aircraft, but without any further bullets leaving his guns. Eventually he was forced to go on to the defensive and got an explosive bullet in the left arm and shoulder. Because he feared the loss of blood would cause him to lose consciousness, he wriggled out of the fight and with his right thumb pressed tightly against his left radial artery, held the stick between his knees and waggled his way home. In spite of his wounds and the serious damage to his Gladiator, he made quite a smooth landing before losing consciousness. It is reported, that the fitter who came to examine the aircraft shortly afterwards pronounced it too damaged to repair in situ and ordered it to be burned forthwith! However, in fact it seems that even if 80 Squadron didn’t fly it any more, Gladiator Mk.I K 7923 was repaired and later in the year passed to the Greek Air Force.
After claiming the Breda, Wykeham-Barnes was attacked by the CR.32s. He claimed one of them before another, attacked him, which hit his Gladiator, in his Combat Fighter Report he recorded: “The left side of the instrument panel and most of the windscreen went and two bullets came through the back of the seat before I could close the throttle, and the CR 32 passed under me. My machine then fell into a dive and I abandoned it, landing me by parachute.” He had received a shrapnel wound. He was also to receive a swollen tongue and a pair of very painful blistered feet before being rescued by a detachment of 11th Hussars, who brought him back to Sidi Barrani.
Four of the Bredas were damaged and in particular that of Sergente Maggiore Perno, which was hit fifty times and the pilot was slightly wounded in the leg, before Fanali’s Fiats were able to intervene. In the meantime, it was the section of Sottotenente Rossi, which was waiting higher up for its turn to attack, that first fell over the RAF fighters, taking them by surprise. After the sharp initial attack of the Fiats the combat developed into a WW I style dogfight which lasted fifteen minutes. At the end all the Italian aircraft returned to base claiming three of the enemies; one by Fanali (probably Wykeham-Barnes) and two by Cantelli (probably Rew and Lancaster).
One of the damaged Bredas was piloted by Tenente Adriano Visconti who pressed home his attacks against the enemy armoured vehicles notwithstanding the enemy’s fighter opposition. The behaviour of Visconti in this particular combat deeply impressed his commander Capitano Dell’Oro who proposed him for a Medaglia d’argento al valor militare. The motivation of this award that Visconti received “in the field” stated that: ”During a strafing attack against enemy’s armoured vehicles he pressed home his attacks careless of an enemy fighter that was following him shooting at him from short distance (…) and with its last ammunitions he succeeded in burning one of the armoured cars of the enemy(…)”.
After Pattle had claimed the Breda he broke away while attempting, without much success, to clear his port fuselage gun. Immediately, he was attacked by five biplanes (identified as CR.42s) diving towards him from the direction of El Adem, which was approximately 10 miles north-west. He flew on, pretending that he had not seen the Italians, until they were almost in position to open fire and then, with a flick of the wrist and a sharp prod of the foot, shot up and away from the Fiats. The Italians split up and attacked him independently from all directions. The Fiats made repeated attacks simultaneously from the quarter and beam, using the speed they gained in the dive to regain altitude. After each attack Pattle was forced on to the defensive and turned away from each attack, occasionally delivering a short attack on the most suitably target as it dived past. One Fiat on completing its attack turned directly in front of his Gladiator, presenting him with an excellent deflection shot at close range. He fired a long burst with his remaining two guns, which caused the Italian fighter to turn slowly onto its back and then spin down towards the desert. Pattle last saw it spinning at 200 feet and didn’t claim it for sure, but was later credited with this victory. Soon after his starboard wing gun also jammed but fortunately, at the same time the remaining Italian fighters broke away. He was now 40 miles behind enemy lines with only one gun operational and he turned for home at 1000 feet altitude.
When some miles north-west of Bir Taieb El Essem, he was again spotted and attacked by twelve CR.42s and three Breda Ba.65s. The Bredas broke away after a few dives while the CR.42s attacked. They used the same tactics as the five earlier had used with quarter and beam attacks. Within a few seconds Pattle’s remaining gun jammed because of an exploded round in the breach, so he attempted to make the border by evasive tactics and heading east at every opportunity. He soon discovered that one of the Italian pilots was an exceptional shot who made repeated attacks using full deflection with great accuracy. Each time this particular Italian came in, he had to use all his skill and cunning to keep out of the sights of the Fiat. The remainder of the Italians as a whole lacked accuracy and did not press home their attacks to a decisive range. Nevertheless, their presence and the fact that he had to consider each attack made the work of the more determined pilot very much easier. He managed to keep this up for fully fifteen minutes before the determined Italian came out of a loop directly above Pattle’s Gladiator and opened fire. Pattle turned away to avoid the bullets, but flew straight into the line of fire from another Fiat. The rudder controls were shot away, so he could no longer turn. He pulled back on the control column, climbed to about 400 feet and jumped. As he fell the pilot parachute caught his foot, but he managed to kick it free and the main chute opened just in time for him to make a safe landing off the first swing. The time was now around 19:00. He started to walk towards what he thought was Egypt during the night but found out at dawn to his horror that he had actually walked in the opposite direction, deeper into Libya. He turned around and crossed the border at around midday. At 16:00 on 5 August, he was rescued by a detachment from 11th Hussars, which brought him back to Sidi Barrani.
It is possible that Pattle was shot down by Tenente Franco Lucchini.
In December 1941, Maresciallo Cantelli was servicing in the 165a Squadriglia, 12o Gruppo, which was equipped with Fiat G.50s and operating from Castelbenito, Libya.
At 16:00 on 30 December, after scrambling in his G.50, Maresciallo Cantelli intercepted two Beaufighters and claimed them shot down.
During the day, there were several actions over the Tripoli area by pairs of Blenheims coming from Malta. One of these encountered a Macchi but with an inconclusive outcome, but this was a couple of hours before. There was another action at 15:55 but no clashes were reported. A Blenheim reconnaissance aircraft from Malta was also reported lost, but in the morning.
Cantelli ended the war with 2 biplane victories and a total of 4.
|Bir Taieb el Esem
|Bir Taieb el Esem
Biplane victories: 2 destroyed.
TOTAL: 4 destroyed.
(a) Claimed in combat with 4 Gladiators from 80 Squadron, which claimed two Ba.65s, one CR.32 and one CR.42 for the loss of three Gladiators and 1 damaged. The 6 Ba.65s of the 159a Squadriglia and 6 CR.32s of the 160a Squadriglia claimed three Gladiators while only suffering four damaged Ba.65s.
(b) These claims can’t be verified with RAF records.
Ace of Aces: M T StJ Pattle - E C R Baker, 1992
Adriano Visconti Asso di Guerra - Giuseppe Pesce and Giovanni Massimello, 1997 kindly provided by Vincent Biondi
Desert Prelude: Early clashes June-November 1940 - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2010 MMP books, ISBN 978-83-89450-52-4
Italy's Breda Ba.65 (World War II November 1996) - Jon Guttman, 1996
La Battaglie Aeree In Africa Settentrionale: Novembre-Dicembre 1941 – Michele Palermo, IBN, ISBN 88-7565-102-7
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Additional information kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro and Ludovico Slongo.