Biplane fighter aces

Italy

Maggiore Nunzio De Fraia

1 April 1918 – 29 May 1960

Nunzio De Fraia was born on 1 April 1918 and was from Cagliari, Sardegna.

The 8o Gruppo was transferred to Libya in September 1935 and in 1940, it 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 94a Squadriglia on 11 June were: Capitano Franco Lavelli (CO), Tenente Giovanni Tadini, Sottotenente Giacomo Maggi, Sottotenente De Fraia, Sergente Maggiore Trento Cecchi, Sergente Maggiore Danilo Billi, Sergente Maggiore Alessandro Ruzzene and Sergente Maggiore Arturo Cardano. These pilots had eight CR.32quaters available on 11 June.

At 07:45 on 19 June, four Gladiators from 33 Squadron flown by Squadron Leader D. V. Johnson (N5782), Flight Lieutenant G. E. Hawkins (N5765), Flying Officer A. H. Lynch (N5764), and Sergeant Roy Leslie Green (L9043) accompanied by Flying Officer Peter Wykeham-Barnes (Hurricane Mk.I P2639) of 80 Squadron and two Blenheim IFs from 30 Squadron took off from Mersa Matruh to patrol between Bug Bug and Sollum.
At 09:40, they sighted a formation of nine Fiat CR.42s (in other sources it is stated that it was five CR.42s and either seven CR.32s or Ro.37s). The Fiats were slightly below and to the port side of the British fighters, who were in an ideal position to make an attack.
Wykeham-Barnes shot down the leader of the Italian fighters whilst he was doing a vertical turn, with a short burst at full deflection. The Gladiators claimed two more CR.42s, but lost 24-year-old Sergeant Green (RAF No. 44754) when he was shot down despite some violent aerobatics.
The returning RAF pilots reported that although the enemy was superior in numbers, they lacked the aggression of the Gladiator pilots and gradually retreated towards the Libyan border. Wykeham-Barnes found it difficult to get his sights on the Fiats, because they were so very manoeuvrable, but eventually one of them made a mistake and he was able to get in a good burst of shells, which caused the CR.42 to dive away with smoke trailing behind it. He did not actually see it crash, but it was later confirmed as being destroyed by the ground forces. The Gladiators and the Hurricane were then forced to break off the combat by lack of petrol and ammunition. On their way back to Mersa Matruh they had to land at Sidi Barrani to refuel and rearm. The Gladiators were back at 10:10 and Wykeham-Barnes at 10:30.
The Italian aircraft had been from the Tobruk T2 based 10o Gruppo C.T. At 08:40, five aircraft of the 84a Squadriglia took off to escort a formation of five Breda Ba.65/A80s of the 159a Squadriglia, 12o Gruppo Assalto and nine CR.32s from the 8o Gruppo, heading to attack enemy vehicles between Sollum and Sidi El Barrani. The Bredas took off at 07:20, commanded by Capitano Duilio Fanali. The Italian fighters of the 84a Squadriglia were flown by Tenente Colonnello Armando Piragino, Capitano Luigi Monti, Sergente Maggiore Ugo Corsi, Sergente Giuseppe Scaglioni and Sergente Narciso Pillepich (almost certain MM5552). Monti, who was the pilot with the longer war experience insisted with his commander to increase the number of aircraft participating in the escort, but without avail. The assault planes were out in a search-and-destroy mission and firstly they had to find targets. In doing so they started with a pass between Amseat and Bardia, then a second one going beyond Sollum then a third one. In this way, a lot of time was lost and the RAF could scramble its aircraft. The Fiats were over the Bredas, turning at 2000 metres when a number of Glosters and Hurricanes (the Blenheims were not seen at all while the Hurricane was, as usual, misidentified as a Spitfire) suddenly attacked them. After a sharp engagement, three pilots came back to T2. The missing pilots were Corsi and Piragino. A CR.42s (Corsi, who was killed) was clearly seen to fall into the sea after being hit by a Hurricane, while nothing was known of the second CR.42. The Ba.65s came back safely, without seeing enemy planes that were obviously too busy with the 4o Stormo planes and didn’t engage them. However, returning to T2, the Breda flown by Sergente Maggiore Pietro Scaramucci suffered an engine breakdown and crash-landed, being written-off as a consequence.
Sergente Giuseppe Scaglioni returned claiming a Gladiator (probably Green) and a damaged Spitfire, Sergente Pillepich claimed two damaged Gladiators and Capitano Monti claimed a damaged Gladiator. The same evening a “British communiqué” advised that six (!) British fighters were lost in exchange for two Italians. So all participating pilots in this combat were credited with six shared victories because this was the only combat of the day for Italian units. Some days after, a British message dropped on Bardia informed that Piragino was wounded in a leg after crashing at Sollum and prisoner. Scaglioni described the combat:

“Over Bir el Gib we were surprised by a number of Glosters and a Hurricane that attacked with height advantage giving us a lot of trouble. I saw the commander doing a violent overturning while I was doing a break on the left, this manoeuvre put me behind a Gloster that I shot down with my 12,7 mm guns.
I lost sight of the commander immediately and after landing I knew he was missing. In the same combat we lost Sergente Maggiore Corsi shot down by a Hurricane that I attacked trying to distract it from its action but in vain. For sure Corsi was taken by surprise because he was considered a pilot of exceptional skill and the very best aerobatic pilot of the Stormo.”

The nine CR.32s from the 8o Gruppo had taken off at 08:25. The formation included six CR.32s of the 92a Squadriglia (Capitano Martino Zannier, Tenente Ranieri Piccolomini, Tenente Giorgio Savoja, Sergente Maggiore Guglielmo Gorgone, Sergente Nadio Monti and Sergente Ernesto Pavan) and three from the 94a Squadriglia (Capitano Franco Lavelli, Sottotenente Giacomo Maggi and Sottotenente Defraia), which took off loaded with two-kilo bombs with the dual role of escorting the Bredas from the 159a Squadriglia and ground attack.
The formation of the 92a Squadriglia was back at 10:35 claiming the destructions of many trucks (left in flames) with the use of 2765 rounds of ammunition and 96 two-kilo bombs. Tenente Savoja’s aircraft was damaged by AA fire but no enemy planes were noted. Lavelli’s group was back at 10:55 without suffering losses. They claimed the destruction of Sollum’s electrical station by the use of 36 two-kilo bombs but noted enemy fighters that had attacked them. It seems that they also had been engaged by the Gladiators from 33 Squadron, the 80 Squadron Hurricane and the two Blenheims from 30 Squadron.
This was 80 Squadron's first action during the Second World War.

At dawn on 29 June, Blenheims again bombed the airfield of Tobruk T2. Ten fighters from the alarm patrol of the 2o Stormo took off at 06:40 following the air alarm given by the Navy with two cannon shots and intercepted the Blenheims over the airfield. The intercepting fighters were four CR.42s from the 94a Squadriglia (Capitano Franco Lavelli, Sottotenente De Fraia, Sergente Maggiore Alessandro Ruzzene and Sergente Maggiore Arturo Cardano), two CR.42s from the 92a Squadriglia (Maggiore Vincenzo La Carruba and Tenente Riccardo Marcovich, who possibly was using a borrowed aircraft from the 93a Squadriglia together with one of the pilots from the 94a Squadriglia) and four CR.42s of the 77a Squadriglia (Capitano Mario Fedele, Sottotenente Giulio Torresi, Sottotenente Gianmario Zuccarini, Sergente Maggiore Agostino Fausti). Fedele was slow in taking off because of engine problems and arrived when the combat was already finished but the others attacked the British formation, which was estimated to nine Blenheims.
Sottotenente Torresi reached the bombers at six-o'-clock and attacked the last Blenheim, which, after three strafes, caught fire and fell. Then, avoiding defensive fire, he attacked another bomber and shot it down. In the meantime, Sottotenente Zuccarini claimed a bomber with a second as a probable while Sergente Maggiore Fausti continued to attack two stragglers that he finally caught over the open sea, shooting down both. Zuccarini, wounded in the knee and with the aircraft damaged in the oil tank by return fire, succeeded to return and force landed at the top of a cliff close to the sea, 25 kilometres from Tobruk, damaging also the landing gear in the process. Sottotenente De Fraia claimed a sixth bomber. Totally, the pilots from the 77a Squadriglia used 2200 rounds of ammunition while those of 94a Squadriglia used 500 rounds.
It seems that they had been involved in combat with Blenheims from 113 Squadron, which lost three aircraft. Blenheim Mk.IV L8436 flown by Pilot Officer D. Pike was reportedly damaged by flak and ditched; Pike, Sergeant R. Lidstone and Sergeant J. Taylor were rescued and taken PoWs. Blenheim Mk.I L8447 flown by 31-year-old Flying Officer Walter Ronald Price Knight Mason (RAF no. 70450) was shot down in flames by fighters and Mason, 28-year-old Sergeant James George Juggins (RAF no. 562162) and 21-year-old Sergeant George Kenneth Biggins (RAF no. 550227) were all killed. Enemy fighters also shot down Blenheim Mk.I L8522 flown by 27-year-old Flight Sergeant Ralph Harry Knott (RAF no. 590277) in flames and Knott, 22-year-old Sergeant James Douglas Barber (RAF no. 745841) and Leading Aircraftman James Patrick Toner (RAF no. 610188) were all killed.
Torresi, Zuccarini and Fausti (in the 77a Squadriglia’s and 13o Gruppo’s Diaries, Fausti is credited with two individual victories while the proposal of the Medaglia d’argento al valor militare speaks of a first plane shot down in cooperation with two unknown pilots and a second one individual) were all proposed to be awarded with the Medaglia d’argento al valor militare after this combat.
Zuccarini was recovered from the sea by a Navy team from a minesweeper but his aircraft was too far from whatever road and the coast was too high so it was probably abandoned. In fact it seems likely that the aviation historian Franco Pagliano, then an officer of the Air Force was charged with the recovery of this particular plane and told the story of this operation inside the short novel “The Abyss” in his 1969’s book “In cielo ed in terra”. According with this novel his mission that day was only to recover the most precious instruments, to asses the damage suffered by the plane and to destroy its guns. The recovery of the complete plane was judged too difficult. Pagliano was astonished by the skill demonstrated by the pilot that was able to land a plane in that position. Without deliberately crashing the landing gear the plane would probably had fallen down the escarpment that was only ten metres apart, causing the death of its occupant.

At 06:00 on 4 July, six fighters from the 94a Squadriglia (Capitano Franco Lavelli, Tenente Giovanni Tadini, Sottotenente De Fraia, Sergente Maggiore Trento Cecchi, Sergente Maggiore Danilo Billi and Sergente Maggiore Arturo Cardano) moved to Menastir landing ground to be able to better escort Italian reconnaissance aircraft over the front. They replaced the 78a Squadriglia, which had performed this duty the day before.

In the early afternoon, Fiat CR.42 MM5542 of the 94a Squadriglia section went up in flames during the start up and was destroyed. The 94a Squadriglia section remained with only three fighters.

In the evening on 4 July, at about 18:00, six 33 Squadron Gladiators flying in two sections escorted a Lysander from 208 Squadron flown by Flying Officer Brown over the Capuzzo-Bardia area. Nine CR.42s were seen taking off from Menastir Landing Ground west of Bardia and the Gladiators dived to attack. The No. 2 section, led by Flying Officer Gray-Worcester and including Flight Sergeant Cottingham and Pilot Officer Eric Woods, attacked just as the enemy fighters left ground and Gray-Worcester shot down four of them while Cottingham claimed two and Woods claimed one. The remaining two CR.42s made good their escape.
The British pilots reported that the Italians scrambled more fighters and five CR.42s were attempting to get airborne just as the other three Gladiators, all flown by 112 Squadron pilots (Flying Officer Price-Owen, Flying Officer R. H. Smith and Flying Officer R. J. Bennett), decided to join the fray. Taking the barely flying CR.42s by surprise Smith and Bennett each claimed one shot down.
Price-Owen was forced to leave his aircraft (Gladiator II N5751) after an explosion in the fuselage over Buq-Buq. He parachuted safely and came down 15 miles inside the Egyptian Border. Post war British studies suggested that his aircraft was possibly hit by own anti-aircraft but it seems this was not the case. In fact, Flight Lieutenant Joseph Fraser reported:

“During July 1940, pilots from 112 Squadron, on detachment at Sidi Barrani, were gaining operational experience rapidly and many dogfights resulted around the bay of Sollum between Gladiators and CR 42s, for the CR 42 pilot had not yet learnt to respect the Gladiator – his senior, with its greater manoeuvrability. It was during one of these flights that F/O Price-Owen was badly shot up, though uninjured himself, and then decided to bale out. However, unfortunately, he was wearing a parachute belonging to a friend of far greater stature and on pulling the rip cord, the loose harness gave him a very severe jerk between his legs which almost cost him his manhood – a very serious matter with Price-Owen. He was incapacitated for some time and posted from the Squadron.”
Here it is also interesting to note how the British pilots had quickly learned what were the advantage of their machine over the Italians, they however greatly overestimated the speed of their opponent: “(We tried) to get to grips with CR 42s who declined a fight with the feared and more manoeuvrable Gladiator which was outpaced at full throttle by a good 50 mph (!)”
The Italians reported that at 18:05, five CR 42s scrambled against a reported nine Gloster Gladiators that were already orbiting over the airstrip of Menastir. The Italian pilots were Capitano Franco Lavelli, Sottotenente De Fraia and Sergente Maggiore Trento Cecchi from the 94a Squadriglia and Tenente Domenico Bevilacqua and Sergente Maggiore Agostino Fausti from the 93a Squadriglia. The Italian pilots started in a helpless position considering the height advantage of the Glosters and the fact that at sea level the Gladiator II had better overall performances than the CR.42, being more manoeuvrable with a top speed (flat) of 346 Km/h against the 342 Km/h of the Italian fighter and with a slightly higher climbing rate (in 1 minute and 25 seconds the Gladiator reached 1184 metres of height while in the same time the CR 42 only reached 1000 metres). In quick succession, Cecchi was shot down and killed and De Fraia was obliged to bale out, wounded, from his burning aircraft. Lavelli was the next to fall and then Bevilacqua, who, although slightly wounded, disengaged and landed a heavily damaged aircraft. Only Fausti remained in flight, fighting against the whole RAF formation. From ground it was seen that his fire hit two enemy fighters that were obliged to leave the combat area (no victories were claimed but one of them seems highly likely to have been Price-Owen) but the other Gladiators didn’t give him a chance, hitting his plane while he (probably already wounded) was trying a last evasive manoeuvre diving in westward direction towards the fading sun. Fausti died in his burning plane (Fiat CR.42 MM5543). His proposal for an Medaglia d’argento al valor militare from June was subsequently changed to a posthumous Medaglia d’Oro al valor militare for bravery. Again it was reported that almost all the fighters of the Italian formation suffered gun-jamming during the fight, in particular the plane of Capitano Lavelli was observed not to fire even when he reached very favourable positions. After landing back at base, Bevilacqua told that his guns had ceased to fire almost immediately; he had only managed to fire 57 rounds.
Capitano Lavelli, Sottotenente De Fraia and Sergente Maggiore Cecchi had just escorted a formation of Bredas over the front, landing back at 17:45. Together with a scramble they made at 15:55, this was their fourth mission of the day.
This was the blackest day of the whole war for the 8o Gruppo C.T. and totally they lost seven CR.42s destroyed and one more damaged, three pilots were killed, two were taken prisoners and two wounded.

On 9 December, three fighters of the 8o Gruppo, flown by Tenente Vittorio Gnudi (94a Squadriglia), Tenente Giorgio Savoja (92a Squadriglia) and Sottotenente De Fraia (94a Squadriglia), scrambled at 08:25-08:40 from Menastir M against three enemy bombers that were inconclusively attacked; the Italian fighters were back at base at around 10:00.
During the morning, 45 Squadron carried out four sorties against the airfields of Menastir and Gambut while a couple of Blenheims of 39 Squadron attacked Sollum. Over Menastir, the attack was disturbed by three CR.42s described by the returning crews as “pursuing out to the sea for 30 minutes [Flight Lieutenant Paine] making an half hearted attempt to intercept without success [Pilot Officer Thomas]. In fact British post-war studies revealed that attacked by the Italian fighters, Blenheim Mk.I L1534 belly-landed at Sidi el Raniman with the crew (Flight Lieutenant Paine, Sergeant Chaplin and Sergeant Edwards) uninjured while L6663 was damaged beyond repair although the pilot, Pilot Officer C. Thomas and his crew (Sergeant R. Dodsworth and Sergeant Fisher) were safe. It seems that the damage suffered during the crash-landing was more severe to L6663 than the damage suffered during the interception. They were probably the victims of Gnudi, Savoja and De Fraia, which however only claimed damage to their opponents seeing them to escape.

At 07:15 on 10 December, Tenente Antonio Angeloni of the 93a Squadriglia took off together with Capitano Eduardo Travaglini (77a Squadriglia), Tenente Vittorio Gnudi (94a Squadriglia), Tenente Giorgio Savoja (94a Squadriglia) and Sottotenente De Fraia (94a Squadriglia) to make a protecting cruise for a SM 79 in the Sidi Barrani-Bir Enba area.
The SM 79 was most likely an aircraft from the 175a Squadriglia RST, which had taken off from T5 at 07:10 (pilot Tenente Compagnone and observer Tenente Carugno) and it counted 350 British vehicles in the Buq-Buq area (it was the 4th Armoured Brigade). It attacked those seen on the road to Bir Habata with bombs.
While landing back at Menastir at 09:15, a Hurricane attacked the CR.42s and damaged Sottotenente De Fraia’s fighter and wounding the pilot in the leg. De Fraia was forced to crash-land and his fighter was written off.
The Hurricane was most probably from 33 Squadron. This squadron was employed in strafing runs against Italian infantry and transports during the day. Two CR.42s were claimed as confirmed plus another probable.

De Fraia ended the war with 1 biplane victory.

He continued to serve in the Italian Air Force after the war and reached the rank of Maggiore.

De Fraia was killed 29 May 1960, in an air crash at Grosseto airport while coming from Pratica di Mare.

Claims:
Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  1940                
1 29/06/40 06:40- 1 Blenheim (a) Destroyed Fiat CR.42   Tobruk T2 94a Squadriglia
  09/12/40 08:25-10:00 1/3 Blenheim (b) Shared damaged Fiat CR.42   Menastir 94a Squadriglia
  09/12/40 08:25-10:00 1/3 Blenheim (b) Shared damaged Fiat CR.42   Menastir 94a Squadriglia
  09/12/40 08:25-10:00 1/3 Blenheim (b) Shared damaged Fiat CR.42   Menastir 94a Squadriglia

Biplane victories: 1 destroyed, 3 shared damaged.
TOTAL: 1 destroyed, 3 shared damaged.
(a) Probably claimed in combat with Blenheims from 113 Squadron. Italian fighters claimed six and one probable. 113 Squadron lost three aircraft. L8436 flown by Pilot Officer Pike was damaged by flak and ditched; the crew became PoWs. L8447 flown by Flying Officer W. R. P. K. Mason was shot down in flames by fighters and the crew was killed. L8522 flown by Flight Sergeant R. H. Knott was shot down in flames by fighters and the crew was killed.
(b) Claimed in combat with Blenheims from 45 Squadron, which got L1534 and L6663 damaged.

Sources:
33 Squadron Operations Record Book
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 92a Squadriglia C.T. kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo.
Diario Storico 93a Squadriglia kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo.
Diario Storico 94a 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
Il Savoia Marchetti S.M. 79 nel Secondo Conflitto Mondiale - Bombardamento Terrestre - Ricognizione Strategica - Aviazione Sahariana – Cesare Gori, 2003 USSMA, Rome, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo.
The Bristol Blenheim: A complete history – Graham Warner, 2002 Crécy Publishing Limited, Manchester, ISBN 0-947554-92-0
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Additional information kindly provided by Alessandro Defraia and Ludovico Slongo




Last modified 22 January 2012