Biplane fighter aces


Maggiore Giuseppe Cenni Medaglia d’oro al valor militare

27 February 1915 – 4 September 1943

Giuseppe Cenni was born in Casola Valsenio on 27 February 1915.

He displayed an enthusiasm for flying at an early age and enjoyed building gliders while studying at the Parma Regio Istituto d’Arte (Royal Art Institute) - a school attended by fellow would-be ace Adriano Mantelli. Indeed, both men would also commence their flying careers together.

Cenni joined the Regia Aeronautica on 19 June 1935 as an Allievo Ufflciale di Complemento (auxiliary officer cadet) and receiving his pilot’s license on 19 July after 18 hours flying time.
He gained his ‘wings’ flying the CR.20 four months later.

He was commissioned (in Servizio Permanente Effettivo) on 2 June 1936, promoted to Sottotenente and posted to the 1o Stormo CT.

In August 1936, he volunteered for service in the Spanish Civil War using the nom de guerre ’Vittorio Stella’.

At dawn on 14 August 1936, the Italian freighter Nereide entered the port of Melilla, on the Mediterranean coast of Spanish Morocco. This important town had been occupied four weeks earlier by Nationalist forces led by general Franco himself. The vessel’s cargo consisted of 12 CR.32s, which had been embarked in the Italian port of La Spezia a week earlier.
As well as spare parts for the Fiat fighters, the ship had also transported 18 volunteers from the Regia Aeronautica to North Africa, their passports bearing false details. Amongst them were the first 12 Italian fighter pilots to arrive on Spanish territory. They were led by Capitano Vincenzo Dequal (’Paride Limonesi’) of the 1o Stormo CT and his flight leaders were Tenente Vittor Ugo Ceccherelli (’Vaccarese’), also of the 1o Stormo CT, Tenente Ernesto Monico (’Preti’) of the 4o Stormo CT and Sottotenente Cenni (’Vittorio Stella’) of the 1o Stormo CT. The remaining enlisted pilots were Sergente Maggiore Giuseppe Avvico (’Nannini’) the 4o Stormo CT, Sergente Maggiore Bruno Castellani (’Ribaudi’) of the 6o Stormo CT, Sergente Maggiore Sirio Salvadori (’Salvo’) of the 4o Stormo CT, Sergente Angelo Boetti (’Ilacqua’) of the 1o Stormo CT, Sergente Adamo Giuglietti (’Guglielmotti’) of the 1o Stormo CT, Sergente Giovanni Battista Magistrini (’Marietti’) of the 1o Stormo CT, Sergente Vincenzo Patriarca (’Boccolari’) of the 4o Stormo CT and Sergente Guido Presel (’Sammartano’) of the 6o Stormo CT. The groundcrew consisted of just three aircraft riggers and three mechanics.
After being welcomed by Spanish officers and the local Italian Consul, the pilots and groundcrew were immediately enrolled into the Tercio Extranjero with their equivalent ranks.

The CR.32s were assembled at Nador (Melilla) over the course of several days and eventually transferred by air to Tablada (Seville), in southern Spain.
The 12 CR.32s were integrated into the Aviación del Tercio and these, the first fighter unit of this force became the Primera Escuadrilla de Caza de la Aviación del Tercio (1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio) and was led by Capitano Dequal.

The new squadron's initial operations consisted of patrols and single sortie missions as dictated by the particular operational requirements and limited efficiency of its aircraft. The CR.32 pilots struggled at first to have an impact on their Republican counterparts because only two of the dozen Fiat fighters in-theatre boasted compasses following a supply oversight in Italy! Unfamiliarity with Spanish terrain and inadequately detailed maps further compounded the unit’s navigational problems when in the air, and the end result was pilot disorientation culminating in emergency landings and damaged aircraft.

Initially, the CR.32s were assigned defensive duties, patrolling overhead Nationalist forces in Andalusia and protecting them from aerial attack, as well as escorting S.81 bombers. The Italian biplanes also provided air cover for the infantry columns of the African Army that had been transported to Spain in the Ju 52/3ms. These troops were particularly vulnerable to attack from the numerically superior Republican air force in the early weeks of the war as they advanced north, occupying western Extremadura. The African Army’s next target was the Spanish capital, Madrid, which it intended to occupy so as to claim international recognition in favour of a new Nationalist administration.

On 15 September, he claimed two aircraft destroyed on the ground at Andùjar airfield.

He claimed some fighters damaged over Maqueda-Torrijos on 25 September.

Next day, on 26 September, Sottotenente Cenni claimed a Breguet XIX and a Potez 540 as a shared with Sottotenente Adriano Mantelli over Bargas. The Potez 540 was from the Escuadra Internacional and came down in Republican territory with five of its six crew members wounded.

During the afternoon on 18 October, Sottotenente Cenni of the 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio claimed a light aircraft that was performing a reconnaissance mission for the Republicans over Santa Cruz.

On 22 October 1936, fighter patrols ranged over the outskirts of Madrid. During the last patrol of the day, Joaquín García Morato, Ángel Salas and Tenente Cenni flew a protection cruise over Navalcarnero. Before returning to Talavera they headed towards Madrid and in the Casa de Campo area they spotted two barrage ballons. They attacked and Cenni destroyed one, which burst into flames. The second was destroyed by Ángel Salas.

Two air battles took place on 6 November, at 10:00 and 14:00. In the latter, five Fiats led by capitán Ángel Salas attacked seven ”Chatos” and claimed four victories even if only two claims could be confirmed by ground observers. Salas was thought to have destroyed one machine from a patrol of three, this aircraft trailing smoke as it veered into a cloud and disappeared from sight. Sottotenente Cenni, Tenente Vittor Ugo Ceccherelli and Sottotenente Bernardino Serafini claimed an I-15 each over the Madrid area.
One of the aircraft destroyed was the I-15 flown by leitenant Voronov, who died two days later in hospital from injuries suffered when he crash-landed upon his return to base.
The Nationalist bulletin claimed two aircraft destroyed, while the Government bulletin, which referred only to the earlier engagement, claimed the destruction of two Heinkels, these two most probably claimed by starshiy leitenant Pavel Rychagov, who claimed two enemy aircraft during the day, but it also possible that one of them was claimed by Karp Kovtun (3a Escuadrilla) who seem to have claimed a victory during the day (according to some sources this was claimed by ramming and thus probably on 13 November when he was killed).
Bonomi confirmed that the Fiats had shot down two fighters, and this was also confirmed by the Air Force communiqué, which admitted the loss of a Fiat and a Junkers. This latter machine was probably flown by Captain Larrauri, who managed to reach Talavera with one engine out of action, the other developing only restricted power, and his aircraft riddled with bullet holes. Von Morau, leader of the Pablos y Pedros squadron, also had to force-land near Madrid at this time.

On the morning on 15 November, 15 CR.32s provided the fighter escort for bombers attacking targets in Madrid. As they neared the city, four I-16s led by Leitenant Sergey Chernykh (Escuadrilla Kolesnikov) attacked the Italian section consisting of Sottotenenti Bernardino Serafini and Cenni and Sergente Berretta. All three pilots ably defended themselves and collectively shot down an I-16 piloted by Vladimir N. Vzorov (’Jose Zoro’), who destroyed his fighter when he crash-landed into an olive grove.
The Russian pilots reported nine I-16s took off to intercept Ju 52/3m bombers, escorted by fighters, heading for Madrid. Leitenant Sergey Denisov (’Ramon’) and Leitenant Chernykh (’Garcia’) each reported downing an enemy fighter.
It is possible that one CR.32 was lost since it was reported that the body of a Nationalist pilot was found at the outskirts of Madrid.

On 2 December, a formation of 18 Polikarpov R-5 SSSs attacked Talavera-Velada airfield and destroyed one S.81 and damaged two more on the ground. One of the R-5 SSSs crashed, hit by splinters from its own bombs. The pilot, leitenant Ivan Volkov, was taken POW while his gunner/navigator, Vasiliy Akulenko, was killed. Three others were also similarly damaged, after which they were attacked by Sottotenente Cenni, who was over the airfield when the attack started after having scrambled to pursue SBs at high altitude together with a wingman. Cenni chased the R-5 SSSs down as they attempted to reach Republican territory, and he succeeded in shooting all three aircraft down. The two crewmen from the first biplane that he destroyed were taken prisoner, while the others managed to crash-land in the Republican zone.
Leitenant Volkov (born 1911) was decorated with the Order of the Red Banner on 2 January 1937 (Akulenko received a posthumous Order of the Red Banner on the same day) and was released from prison on 11 May 1937

On 29 January 1937, seven CR.32s from the 4a and 5a Squadriglie of the Aviazione Legionaria escorted some Ro.37bis and five S.81s that were flying to drop supplies to the besieged in the Santuario de la Virgen de la Cabeza. The CR.32 ran into fog at low level and due to collisions and forced landing six of them were lost. Sottotenente Cenni, Tenente Elio Pesce, Sergente Mario Bandini and Sergente Bernocchi were taken POWs while Sergente Maggiore Giacomo Trombotto and Sergente Maggiore Luigi Grimoldi were killed.
The Republicans recovered two CR.32s intact (one was MM431/'3-6') and one damaged.
Cenni, who had taken to his parachute and landed at Pantano de Guadalmellato, from where he was driven to Valencia. He returned to Italy in July, along with four other CR.32 pilots, following a prisoner exchange organised by the Spanish branch of the International Red Cross.

During the Spanish Civil War, he claimed six and three shared victories. One of the shared victories was a dirigible. He also claimed two destroyed on the ground.

In October 1939 he joined the 51o Stormo.

When Italy bought Junker Ju 87Rs (or 'Picchiatelli' as they were called in Italy) from Germany, Cenni was chosen to be among the pilots employed on this type.

On 24 November 1940 he became commander of the 239a Squadriglia Bombardamento a Tuffo.

On 28 November, the British ships of Operation MB 9 arrived off Malta and this brought a response from the Regia Aeronautica.
The first recorded mission was a visual reconnaissance carried out by two SM 79s of 34o Stormo in the Sicilian narrows.
Later during the morning, eight CR.42s of 23o Gruppo took off to reconnoitre the harbours of Malta in search of the British ships. Sergente Maggiore Arnaldo Sala of 74a Squadriglia was hit by AA when over the island and he tried to nurse home his damaged fighter, finally falling over open sea, 40 kilometres from Sicily. He and his plane were never found. Italian sources are quite clear in excluding any involvement of enemy fighters in the action but it is however possible that two machines of 261 Squadron were present, directed by the radar against a group of CR.42s that they attacked at 09:30. The reconnaissance however revealed the presence of enemy ships in harbour and consequently offensive missions were planned.
Six Ju 87Rs of the 97o Gruppo B.a’T. (a unit which had recently replaced the 96o Gruppo in Sicily) (four crews from the 238a Squadriglia and two from the 239a Squadriglia, among them Giuseppe Cenni) headed out towards Malta and the ships. The dive-bombers were covered by sixteen CR.42s of the 23o Gruppo under the command of the units Commander Maggiore Tito Falconi.
The Stukas attacked a Royal Navy formation off Malta, reporting that they were intercepted by Hurricanes, which were immediately counterattacked and dispersed by the escort and that while the first “kette” didn’t obtain hits the second probably hit the enemy’s ships. In fact, they had attacked the cruiser HMS Glasgow without success and were all back home without losses at 12:55.
The intercepting “Hurricanes” were in fact a group of six Fulmars from the HMs Illustrious’ squadrons, three planes from 805 Squadron and three from 806 Squadron. The two Fulmar sections attacked but the operational inexperienced 805 Squadron trio were unable to make contact. Even though the leader Sub Lieutenant R. F. Bryant expended some 3200 rounds in four bursts, he found the Fiats far too manoeuvrable to gain any hits. His observer, Lieutenant John Shuttleworth, recalls:

“During the engagement I fired ‘smoke puffs’ from the rear cockpit whenever CR.42s got on our tail…I certainly saw one if not two parachutes floating down.”
In the meantime, the more experienced 806 Squadron’s trio was fighting the CR.42s more successfully. Sub Lieutenant Stanley Orr (N1884) claimed one CR.42 while Sub Lieutenant G. R. Golden and Sub Lieutenant W. H. Clisby claimed damage to two more. Clisby’s Fulmar (N1935) was hit in the fight, his TAG, Leading Aircraftman H. Phillips being wounded in the leg, hand and face by an explosive bullet, although not seriously hurt.
The CR.42s claimed four Hurricanes shot down, two confirmed and two probables. Six pilots of the 70a Squadriglia claimed the former jointly, while the other was claimed by Sergente Maggiore Raffaele Marzocca of the 74a Squadriglia, the two probables being credited to Capitano Guido Bobba and Tenente Lorenzo Lorenzoni of this unit. The Fiats returned without losses.

With this unit, he took part in the attack against Greece and Yugoslavia.

On 4 April 1941 Ju 87s from Lecce raided Greek shipping off Corfu three times. Off at 10:50, six 239a Squadriglia aircraft attacked vessels in Dafnila Bay without result. During the early afternoon four more of the unit’s aircraft, plus two from 209a Squadriglia, attacked the small freighter Susanah steaming off the coast of the island, and Capitano Cenni sank this vessel with a direct hit. At about 17:20 Capitano Mario Larket led six 239a Squadriglia machines back to Dafnila Bay where this time the destroyer Proussa was sunk.

During this campaign he flew 46 combat missions and was awarded with two Medaglia d’argento al valor militare.

After this campaign the unit briefly patrolled the Mediterranean and during this period he developed the tactic of skip-bombing by pulling out of a dive very low to fly horizontally at the target, thus giving the released bomb added momentum to skim the surface into a ship’s hull. The technique demanded very accurate flying.

On 7 May the unit moved to North Africa. At this time it had become Autonomo.

They returned to Italy in December 1941.
During his time North Africa he was awarded with his fifth Medaglia d’argento al valor militare.

On 1 May 1942 the 102o Gruppo Autonomo Bombardamento a Tuffo was formed. The Gruppo was commanded by Capitano Cenni and included the 209a and 239a Squadriglie equipped with Junker Ju 87Rs.
They were at once transferred to Gela, Sicily, to take part in the attacks on Malta.

Shortly before midnight on 28 May Capitano Cenni led four Ju 87s of 239a Squadriglia on their first operation over Malta – a night raid on Gozo, Luqa and Takali. One was obliged to return early.

Cenni led his Ju 87s during Operation Harpoon, attacking a reported cruiser on 14 June.

At 11:00 on 15 June, 25 MC.202s from the 155o Gruppo CT (six of the 351a Squadriglia, ten of the 360a Squadriglia and nine of the 378a Squadriglia) led by Maggiore Duilio Fanali, took-off to escort ten Italian Ju 87s of the 102o Gruppo (led by Capitano Cenni), which out to attack the ‘Harpoon’ convoy bound for Malta. They found the convoy 70 km south of Pantelleria. At 12:10, while the Junkers were diving with their 500 kg bombs, escorting Spitfires from 601 Squadron attacked them. The 360a Squadriglia attacked the British fighters and Capitano Carlo Miani (CO of the 360a Squadriglia), Tenente Tullio Martinelli, Sottotenente Francesco Fagiolo and Maresciallo Pasquale Bartolucci claimed a Spitfire each while Sottottenente Romano Biasiol, Tenente Giambattista Caracciolo, Sottottenente Nicola Longano and Sergente Maggiore Mario Varacca claimed a shared "Hurricane". Another "Hurricane" was claimed by 1o Aviere Motorista Enrico Boerci, gunner of a Stuka flown by Sergente Maggiore Gastone Converso (209a Squadriglia).
One Ju 87R-2 (“239-8” MM7084; previous Werknr. 5792) of the 239a Squadriglia was damaged by enemy fire and made an emergency landing in the water 50 km south-east of Pantelleria Island; the crew (pilot Maresciallo Antonio Marchetti and gunner Aviere Scelto Montatore Luigi Grosso) became MIAs. Two other Ju 87s (flown by Capitano Aldo Stringa – CO of the 209a Squadriglia – and Maresciallo Zaccaria Perozzi of the 239a Squadriglia) suffered heavy damage at wings and rudders but landed safely at base, while two more suffered light damages. None of the escorting MC.202s were damaged.
The Spitfires claimed two Ju 87s destroyed, two probable Ju 87s and one damaged. 21-year-old Sergeant Jack Nock McConnell (RAF no. 405293) was killed when he dived into the sea with his Spitfire (BR306). Two more Spitfires were damaged while Sergeant G. Allen-Rowlandson (BR360) had to ditch when he run out of fuel on the return journey.
In some sources Fanali is credited with one victory in this combat but it’s not sure that he even participated in this combat since it seems that only the 360a Squadriglia was involved in combat. However, according to other sources, Miani and Martinelli only shared an aircraft, the other being shot down jointly by Fanali, Maresciallo Remo Zedda (360a Squadrigla) and Sergente Maggiore Roberto Gaucci (378a Squadriglia).

On 31 July 1942, he was promoted to Maggiore.

After the death of Colonnello Guido Nobili on 10 July 1943, Maggiore Cenni took command of the 5o Stormo, which was equipped with Reggiane Re.2002s.

In the morning on 4 September 1943, Macchis of the 4o Stormo were escorting twelve Reggiane Re.2002 of the 101o Gruppo (Capitano Dino D'Ottaviano (CO), Tenente Carlo Graziani, Tenente Ugo Bassi and Sergente Walter Banfi of the 208a Squadriglia, Tenente Eolo Morichelli d'Altemps, Sottotenente Paolo Ruggiero, Tenente Felice Fox and Sottotenente Stelio Zaganelli of the 238a Squadriglia) and of the 102o Gruppo (Tenente Renato Moglia and Sergente Faliva of the 209a Squadriglia, Maresciallo Aldo Dagnino of the 239a Squadriglia), led by the 5o Stormo's CO Maggiore Cenni.
The Reggianes had taken off from Manduria at 11:25 and were going to bomb the area of Gallico, when they were intercepted by some Spitfire Mk.Vs and Mk.IXs of 111 and 243 RAF Squadrons. In the ensuing dogfight, two Spitfires were claimed; one by Capitano Luigi Mariotti (CO of the 9o Gruppo) and one shared by several pilots including Giulio Reiner. Three more Spitfires were claimed as damaged while Reiner returned with a damaged MC.205. Sottotenente Aldo Vitale was attacked by four Spitfires, shot down and killed.
In the meanwhile, the Reggiane fighter-bombers were releasing thirty 100 kg bombs and spending 6100 .50 cal and 3600 .303 cal rounds; four LCF were claimed sunk and many trucks and barracks were destroyed. At this point, four Spitfires of 111 Squadron flown by Flying Officer I. F. Kennedy, Sergeant R. Throwbridge, Sergeant R. Gray and Sergeant Eccleston, disengaged from the escorting fighters and attacked the Re.2002s in the Aspromonte mountain area. After a fierce chase, three Reggianes were shot down between Villa S. Giovanni and Reggio Calabria; Cenni ("239-4", possibly MM7340) and Moglia were shot down and killed while Banfi parachuted claiming two Spitfires destroyed (two more were claimed in this combat). Cenni was posthumously awarded with the Medaglia d'oro al valor militare.
RAF declared to have lost only a Spitfire Mk.IX of 111 Squadron when Sergeant M. S. Murray was shot down.

Maggiore C. Alberto Rizzi took command of the 5o Stormo after the death of Cenni.

At the time of his death, Cenni was credited with 6 biplane victories and a total 8. He was also credited with sinking two ships and putting a third out of action.
During his career he had also been decorated with a sixth Medaglia d’argento al valor militare, one German Iron Cross 2nd Class, one Croce al merito di guerra, one Medaglia commemorativa della campagna di Spagna and one Medaglia di benemerenza per i volontari della guerra Spagna.
He was promoted twice due to extraordinary merits in the war.

With the rebirth of the Aeronautica Militare of the Italian Republic post-war, 5o Stormo Caccia was named after Giuseppe Cenni.

Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  15/09/36   1 Enemy aircraft Destroyed on the ground Fiat CR.32   Andùjar airfield 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
  15/09/36   1 Enemy aircraft Destroyed on the ground Fiat CR.32   Andùjar airfield 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
  25/09/36   1 Enemy fighter Damaged Fiat CR.32   Maqueda-Torrijos 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
1 26/09/36   1 Breguet XIX Destroyed Fiat CR.32   Bargas 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
  26/09/36   1/2 Potez 540 (a) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.32   Bargas 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
2 18/10/36 afternoon 1 Light aircraft Destroyed Fiat CR.32   Santa Cruz 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
  22/10/36 p.m. 1 Barrage balloon Destroyed Fiat CR.32   Casa de Campo area 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
3 06/11/36 14:00 1 I-15 (b) Destroyed Fiat CR.32   Madrid area 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
  15/11/36 morning 1/3 I-16 (c) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.32   Madrid 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
4 02/12/36   1 R-5 SSS Destroyed Fiat CR.32   Talavera-Velada airfield 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
5 02/12/36   1 R-5 SSS Destroyed Fiat CR.32   Talavera-Velada airfield 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
6 02/12/36   1 R-5 SSS Destroyed Fiat CR.32   Talavera-Velada airfield 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio

Biplane victories: 6 and 2 shared destroyed, 1 damaged, 2 destroyed on the ground, 1 barrage balloon destroyed.
TOTAL: 8 and 2 shared destroyed, 1 damaged, 2 destroyed on the ground, 1 barrage balloon destroyed.
(a) Potez 540 was from the Escuadra Internacional, which came down in Republican territory with five of its six crew members WIA.
(b) Four I-15s were claimed but only two could be confirmed by ground observers.
(c) Claimed in combat with I-16s, which claimed 2 enemy fighters while losing 1 I-16 (pilot safe). The CR.32s claimed 1 I-16 without losses (or possibly 1 lost).

Aeronautica Militare Italiana
Air war for Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete - Christopher Shores, Brian Cull and Nicola Malizia, 1987 Grub Street, London, ISBN 0-948817-07-0
Air War over Spain - Jesus Salas Larrazabal, 1974 Ian Allan Ltd, Shepperton, Surrey, ISBN 0-7110-0521-4
Annuario Ufficiale Delle Forze Armate Del Regno D’Italia Anno 1943. Part III Regia Aeronautica – 1943 Istituto Poligrafico Dello Stato, Roma
Desert Prelude: Early clashes June-November 1940 - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2010 MMP books, ISBN 978-83-89450-52-4
Fiat CR.32 Aces of the Spanish Civil War - Alfredo Logoluso, 2010 Osprey Publishing, Oxford, ISBN 978-1-84603-983-6
Giuseppe Cenni, pilota in guerra – Giuseppe Pesce, 2002, USSMA, Rome, kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro.
Hurricanes over Tobruk - Brian Cull with Don Minterne, 1999 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-902304-11-X
Il 5o Stormo - Giuseppe Pesce and Nicola Malizia, 1984 STEM Mucchi, Modena
Malta: The Hurricane Years 1940-41 - Christopher Shores and Brian Cull with Nicola Malizia, 1987 Grub Street, London, ISBN 0-89747-207-1
Malta: The Spitfire Year 1942 - Christopher Shores and Brian Cull with Nicola Malizia, 1991 Grub Street, London, ISBN 0-948817-16-X
Polikarpov I-15, I-16 and I-153 Aces - Mikhail Maslov, 2010 Osprey Publishing, Oxford, ISBN 978-1-84603-981-2
Regia Aeronautica: The Italian Air Force 1923-1945 - An Operational History - Chris Dunning, 2009 Ian Allan Publishing, Hersham, Surrey, ISBN 978-1-906537-02-9
Wings Over Spain - Emiliani Ghergo, 1997 Giorgio Apostolo Editore, Milano
Additional information kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro, Giovanni Massimello and Ludovico Slongo.

Last modified 01 March 2022