Biplane fighter aces

Italy

Sottotenente Cesare Ciapetti

In November 1940, Sottotenente Ciapetti served in the 154a Squadriglia, 3o Gruppo Autonomo C.T., which was equipped with Fiat CR.42s.

At around midday on 27 November, the British and Italian fleets clashed in what was later called the Battle of Cape Spartivento. Eleven Swordfishes from 810 Squadron of HMS Ark Royal led by Lieutenant Commander M. Johnstone attacked at around 12:40, claiming a hit on the battleship Vittorio Veneto (in fact, they all missed).
In the early afternoon, nine Swordfishes from 820 Squadron of HMS Ark Royal led by Lieutenant Commander J. A. Stuart-Moore attacked the Italian cruisers, claiming two hits (none achieved). Three CR.42s of 154a Squadriglia piloted by Capitano Tovazzi, Tenente Giannini and Sergente Maggiore Bortolani intercepted a British plane identified as a “Blackburn” during a cruise over the Italian fleet and Giannini claimed it shot down. Ten SM 79s of the 32o Stormo, escorted by CR.42s of the 3o Gruppo Autonomo then arrived over Force “H” and seven Fulmars of 808 Squadron, which were up, intercepted at 14:30 claiming two or three victories without being able to stop them. Green Section’s Lieutenant Rupert Tillard claimed one SM 79 shot down but then he and the men of his section were bounced by the CR.42s. A formation of five CR.42s of the 153a Squadriglia led by Capitano Giorgio Tugnoli and including Tenente Alfonso Mattei, Sottotenente Ciapetti (154a Squadriglia), Sergente Maggiore Visconti and Sergente Lucato (154a Squadriglia) reported a combat against seven British fighters probably “Hurricanes” over the sea 200 km south-west of Cagliari. They claimed five victories with the use of 1080 rounds, one of the victories was claimed individually by Ciapetti while Lucato failed to return. In fact, unable to fight back because low on ammunitions and after having mistaken the Fiats for Sea Gladiators, Fulmar N1941 (pilot Sub Lieutenant Richard Maurice Scott Martin and TAG L/A Alexander Laird Milne Noble (FAA/FX 79397)) was shot down into the sea with the loss of the crew. The FAA pilots were unable to claim anything and the missing CR.42 probably run out of fuel after the combat and disappeared in the sea with its pilot.
All the SM 79s from the 32o Stormo returned to base, even if eight out of ten were damaged by the Fulmars and the AA, two of them seriously. However, a transit Vichy French Farman 223 was involved in the combat and shot down, most likely by the Fulmars.
One hour later, seven Skuas of 800 Squadron led by Lieutenant Richard Smeeton dive bombed the Italian ships without success but while coming back to HMS Ark Royal they run across the Ro.43 seaplane spotter of Vittorio Veneto (piloted by Capitano Violante with observer Sottotenente di Vascello Davide Sovrano). Four of the Skuas shot it down into the sea (Lieutenant Rooper/Sub Lieutenant Woolston in L3015, Petty Officer (A) ‘Bert’ Sabey/L/A Cooles in L2900, Petty Officer (A) Burston/N/A Holmes in L3007 and Petty Officer (A) Jopling/N/A Glen in L3017).

In the beginning of May 1941, a convoy of five fast freighters steamed for Alexandria (Operation Tiger) together with Force H from Gibraltar. To meet this convoy the Mediterranean Fleet left Alexandria on 6 May to rendezvous with it south of Malta. The Tiger convoy escaped discovery until 8 May due to bad weather and poor visibility but was then on to became the focus for the air battles for the next four days.
HMS Ark Royal of Force H had embarked a second squadron of Fulmars to replace the low-performance Skuas of 800 Squadron. This was 807 Squadron under Lieutenant Commander J. Sholto Douglas who was to assist the resident Fulmars of 808 Squadron under Lieutenant Commander Rupert Tillard. However, only twelve aircraft were serviceable this morning.
The early morning patrol had been vectored towards an Italian ‘shadower’ and although this was spotted it could not be intercepted, so all now knew that the assault would soon commence.
The first incoming raid was reported at about 13:45, still 32 miles from the ships. This first raid comprised of five torpedo bombers (SM 79s) of the 280o Squadriglia, which had taken off from Elmas airfield near Calgari, Sardinia. These were flown by Capitano Dante Magagnoli, Capitano Amedeo Moioli, Capitano Ugo Rivoli, Tenente Marino Marini and Sottotenente Francesco Cappa. They were escorted by 15 CR.42s of 3o Gruppo C.T., eight from 153a Squadriglia and seven from 154a Squadriglia, all led by the gruppo commander Tenente Colonnello Innocenzo Monti; these fighters departed Monserrato (also near Cagliari) at 12:05, nine providing close escort with the other six as top cover. Weather conditions were very poor, with a low cloud ceiling and limited visibility. Nonetheless, the British ships were sighted at 13:40, some 120 miles south of Sardinia.
Two sections (four aircraft) of 807 Squadron were scrambled to join the four Fulmars of 808 Squadron on patrol, these latter aircraft intercepting the incoming SM 79s, but as Lieutenant Commander Tillard led the attack they were themselves bounced by a dozen of the escorting CR.42s. Almost immediately Tillard’s Fulmar was shoot down after having ignored the advice he had been given to not get involved in a turning ‘dogfight’ with the CR.42s. He and his observer, Lieutenant Mark Somerville, were killed. 34-year-old Lieutenant Commander Tillard was credited with 6 and 1 shared destroyed enemy aircraft at the time of his death. The three other Fulmars were also hit, the aircraft of both Lieutenant G. C. McE. Guthrie and Petty Officer (A) R. E. Dubber sustaining damage to their tail units, while in Lieutenant Taylour’s aircraft the TAG, Petty Officer (A) L. G. T. Howard received a severe leg wound, an explosive bullet shattering both tibia and fibula. One CR.42 overshot their aircraft and Taylour managed to score hits on it, forcing it into a spin from which he considered it would not be able to recover. Having evaded the other CR.42s, Taylour headed for the carrier with his wounded TAG, where only prompt and skilful action by HMS Ark Royal’s surgeon prevented the loss of Howard’s leg.
The 280o Squadriglia reported that all pilots managed to release torpedoes, Moioli and Magagnoli claiming to have hit a cruiser. However, all five SM 79s had been badly damaged, and although three got back to Elmas, Sottotenente Marini’s aircraft was hit and crashed near La Galite (they got ashore on the island in their dinghy and a French flying boat took the crew to Tunisia, from where they later was repatriated) and Sottotenente Cappa (SM 79 MM23872), hit by cannon fire, launched a torpedo against a large ship from close range, and then disappeared into the water with the loss of all the crew. Cappa was awarded a posthumous Medaglia d’oro al valor militare.
All but three of the CR.42s would return to base 14:30 and 14:40 but Tenente Massimino Mancini’s (153a Squadriglia) had been damaged and he had to crash-land, as did Sergente Maggiore Guerrino Cavalca, who had run out of fuel. Sergente Giuseppe Zani of the 153a Squadriglia was MiA in MM7203.
Meanwhile, a further formation of five SM 79s from the 32o Stormo had taken off from Decimomannu some time after the initial raiding force, covered by ten more 3o Gruppo CR.42s led by Capitano Giorgio Tugnoli (five from each squadriglie). It would seem to be with this formation that the four 807 Squadron Fulmars made contact, Lieutenant N. G. Hallett and his No. 2 – Petty Officer (A) A. G. Johnson – hitting one bomber; however, the gunner returned fire, hitting Hallett’s engine forcing him to ditch. Both he and his Australian observer, Lieutenant V. A. Smith, managed to scramble out and were soon picked up by the destroyer HMS Foresight. Meanwhile the two Blue Section aircraft flown by Lieutenant R. E. ‘Jimmie’ Gardner and South African Lieutenant K. Firth attacked the same SM 79, which was probably that flown by Capitano Armando Boetto, commanding officer of the 49a Squadriglia; Blue 1 got in the final burst before it disinter grated and fell into the sea. A second SM 79 flown by Sottotenente Michele Fonseca of 228a Squadriglia was also lost. Eight of the bombers broke through the defences to launch torpedoes at the HMS Ark Royal and the battlecruiser HMS Renown, but without obtaining hits.
Totally, the Italian pilots from the 3o Gruppo claimed five Fulmars shot down (two more were claimed by the SM 79 gunners). Claimants were Capitano Tugnoli, Tenente Mancini (153a Squadriglia), Tenente Elio Broganelli (154a Squadriglia) and Sottotenente Ciapetti (154a Squadriglia). The fifth was claimed as a shared between Sottotenente Ciapetti, Sergente Angelo Zanaria and an unknown pilot. Five further Fulmars were credited to the fighter units as probables.
These were the only combat with biplane fighters over the convoy during the day but the battle continued all day. The protecting Fulmars nevertheless managed to protect the fleet and no ships were sunk.

On 5 November 1941, the 3o Gruppo C.T. still had 33 efficient CR.42s on charge.
From 21:50 to 02:30 the 154a Squadriglia of this Gruppo carried out five scrambles above Tripoli, each one involving a CR.42 and the sky was cloudy at the altitude of the clash, 1,500 m.
Six Wellingtons were machine-gunned and three were thought to have probably been shot down. During the battle, Sergente Maggiore Italo Petrelli was badly wounded in the right hand and had to land under bombardment at Castel Benito. Petrelli was credited with one of the probable bombers and the other two were credited to Tenente Elio Broganelli and Sottotenente Ciapetti.
The three CR.42s returned from these actions having been hit by return fire from the enemy. 1068 rounds from 7.7 mm machine guns and 867 from 12.7 mm ones were expended.
On the night of 5/6th November, 18 Wellingtons (eight from 40 Squadron and ten from 104 Squadron) attacked Castel Benito dropping 22 tons of H.E. and over 3 tons of incendiaries.

”Heavy AA was fairly accurate, the shells forming black puffs. The Tripoli defences were firing a green tracer changing to red, the last round in the clip appearing white. The smoke screen was ineffective.
B saw 4 fighters and was attacked by one of them without any effect. G was attacked from astern and starboard by a CR.42, fire was returned and the enemy broke off the engagement. S was attacked by 4 fighters on separate occasions. J claims hits on a CR.42 which passed by without attacking.
Weather good over target. 10/10 clouds over Tripoli at 10.000 feet. All aircraft returned safely.”
The Italian pilots complained that the guns of the CR.42 were not powerful enough and proposed reducing the tracer bullets to one every fifteen to reduce the glare.

Ciapetti ended the war with 2 biplane victories.

Claims:
Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  1940                
1 27/11/40 p.m. 1 ’Hurricane’ (a) Destroyed Fiat CR.42   200km SW Cagliari 154a Squadriglia
  27/11/40 p.m. 1/5 ’Hurricane’ (a) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.42   200km SW Cagliari 154a Squadriglia
  27/11/40 p.m. 1/5 ’Hurricane’ (a) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.42   200km SW Cagliari 154a Squadriglia
  27/11/40 p.m. 1/5 ’Hurricane’ (a) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.42   200km SW Cagliari 154a Squadriglia
  27/11/40 p.m. 1/5 ’Hurricane’ (a) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.42   200km SW Cagliari 154a Squadriglia
  1941                
2 08/05/41 13:45-14:40 1 Fulmar (b) Destroyed Fiat CR.42   off Sardinia 154a Squadriglia
  08/05/41 13:45-14:40 1/3 Fulmar (b) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.42   off Sardinia 154a Squadriglia
  05/11/41 21:50-02:30 1 Wellington (c) Probably destroyed Fiat CR.42   Tripoli area 154a Squadriglia

Biplane victories: 2 and 5 shared destroyed, 1 probably destroyed.
TOTAL: 2 and 5 shared destroyed, 1 probably destroyed.
(a) Probably claimed in combat with Fulmars from 808 Squadron. The 3o Gruppo claimed five shot down without losses. 808 Squadron didn’t claim anything and lost Fulmar N1941 and the crew was KIA.
(b) Claimed in combat with Fulmars from 807 and 808 FAA Squadrons, which claimed one probable CR.42 while losing two Fulmars and getting three damaged. 3o Gruppo claimed five Fulmars and five more probable while losing three CR.42s.
(c) Claimed in combat with Wellingtons from 40 and 104 Squadrons, which didn’t suffer any losses.

Sources:
3o Stormo, storia fotografica - Dai biplani agli aviogetti - Carlo Lucchini and Leproni Enrico, 1990 Gino Rossato Editore
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
Assi Italiani Della Caccia 1936-1945 - 1999 Aerofan no. 69 apr.-giu. 1999
Diario Storico 153a Squadriglia anno 1940.
Diario Storico 154a Squadriglia anno 1940.
La Battaglie Aeree In Africa Settentrionale: Novembre-Dicembre 1941 – Michele Palermo, IBN, ISBN 88-7565-102-7
Malta: The Hurricane Years 1940-41 - Christopher Shores and Brian Cull with Nicola Malizia, 1987 Grub Street, London, ISBN 0-89747-207-1
Additional information kindly provided by Giovanni Massimello and Ludovico Slongo.




Last modified 07 July 2016