Biplane fighter aces


Generale Adriano Mantelli

13 February 1913 – 6 May 1995

Date Decoration Note
??/??/38 Medaglia d’argento al valor militare (1st) O.M.S.
??/??/38 Medaglia d’argento al valor militare (2nd) O.M.S.
??/??/?? Medaglia d’argento al valor aeronautico  
??/??/?? Croce al merito di guerra 1940-43
??/??/?? Medaglia commemorativa della campagna di Spagna (1936-1939) O.M.S.
??/??/?? Medaglia di benemerenza per i volontari della guerra Spagna O.M.S.

Adriano Mantelli was born on 13 February 1913 in Cortile San Marino di Parma, his father being a regular soldier.

He became interested in aviation at a young age, and from 1929, he avidly participated in model flying competitions with aircraft that he had built himself. From 1931, Mantelli dedicated himself to glider design, and the following year he obtained his glider flying licence. Concurrently, he graduated from the Parma Regio Istituto d’Arte (Royal Art Institute) - a school attended by fellow would-be ace Giuseppe Cenni. Indeed, both men would also commence their flying careers together.

Joining the Regia Aeronautica in 1934, Mantelli gained his military ‘wings’ and became a fighter pilot.
He was commissioned (in Servizio Permanente Effettivo) on 7 October 1934.

Initially, he flew CR.20s with the 1o Stormo Caccia.

In 1935, he transferred to a Squadriglia equipped with CR.32s that had been formed at the Reparto Sperimentale Volo (Experimental Flight Establishment) at Guidonia expressly to defend Rome.
Finally, Mantelli joined the newly formed 6o Stormo Caccia at Ravenna, in Emilia, which was led by Colonnello Vincenzo Velardi. The latter officer subsequently commanded Italian airmen in Spain.

He served as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, using the nom de guerre ”Arrighi”.

By the end of August, after the first 12 CR.32s, and their pilots, had reached Melilla, three more had been sent to Majorca and nine were offloaded in the port of Vigo de Galicia, on Spain’s Atlantic coast, from the Spanish ship Ebro. The latter had been renamed Aniene in Italy so that it could run contraband under a flag of convenience.

The nine CR.32s delivered to Vigo de Galicia were unloaded on the night of 27 August, although the presence of a British naval vessel in the port at the same time meant that this operation could not be completed in secrecy. Nine pilots under the command of Tenente Dante Olivero (from 6o Stormo) were also on board Aniene, and each of them had a false identity. Amongst the aviators were Sottotenente Mantelli (’Arrighi’) and Sergenti Brunetto di Montegnacco (’Antonio Romualdi’), GianLino Baschirotto (’Edoardo Giri’) and Raffaele Chianese, while five groundcrew provided technical support. The men and their machines then travelled by train southwards along the Vigo-Orense-Salamanca-Caceres-Seville route, which was controlled by Nationalist forces that had recently occupied the eastern Extremadura to unite the occupied zones of southern and north-western Spain. The reassembly of the nine aeroplanes, which were destined for the Segunda Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio (2a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio), commenced after the three-day journey had ended in Tablada on 30 August.

On 6 September, capitán Joaquín García Morato became flight leader of the 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio and also flew the CR.32 for the first time following brief instructions on the ground from Sottotenente Mantelli.
Capitán Morato was the first Spanish pilot to try the Fiat CR.32.

On 16 September, Sottotenente Mantelli of the 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio shot down a Breguet XIX near Talavera de la Reína.

A patrol of Fiat CR.32s led by Vincenzo Dequal took off from Caceres on 18 September. The fighters were tasked with protection of friendly troops near Casar de Escalona. The CR.32s were flying at 4,000 meters when five enemy fighters were spotted. Their pilots, seeing the Italians headed for clouds for rescue. The CR.32s flew above the clouds and soon gained the opportunity to attack. Sottotenente Mantelli shot down a Dewoitine D.372 of the Escuadra Internacional flown by British pilot Edward Hillman, who escaped back to Republican territory.

On 26 September, Sottotenente Giuseppe Cenni claimed a Breguet XIX and a Potez 540 as a shared with Sottotenente 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.

Mantelli was then temporarily transferred to Granada to command a section of CR.32s.

On 8 October, Sottotenente Mantelli claimed a Ni-H.52. The enemy aircraft falling near Granada.

Next day, on 9 October, Sottotenente Mantelli of the 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio claimed a Ni-H.52. The enemy aircraft falling not far from Andujar.
His victim was probably, oficial segundo Luis Alonso Vega of the 1a Escuadrilla Mixta of Grupo No 21, who engaged a CR.32 patrulla. His Nieuport ‘3-28’ suffered damage to its engine and fuel tank. Bleeding from a leg wound, Alonso Vega force landed in a field 22 km from Montoro, in Córdoba, and was taken to the local field hospital.

On the morning on 16 October, Sottotenente Mantelli destroyed two Breguet XIXs directly over the airfield of Andujar, killing pilot Jose Serrano Sánchez.

Upon his return to the Madrid front, Mantelli was transferred with his flight to Avila.

In the afternoon on 27 October, Sottotenente Mantelli of the 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio and his wingmen attacked a formation of five unescorted Breguet XIXs between Peguerinos and El Escorial. Sottotenente Mantelli claimed one of the Breguets and shared in the destruction of three others with Sergente Maggiore Bernardino Serafini and Sergente Raul Galli.
Sergente Galli’s CR.32 was hit by return fire, however, severing its aileron control lines. Nevertheless, Galli managed to nurse his damaged fighter back to Ávila and perform an uneventful landing, in spite of the fighter’s poor handling.
All four of the aircraft destroyed belonged to the last Republican unit to be equipped with the Breguet XIX on the Madrid front, Escuadrilla Gonzalez, as the rest had been decimated by the all-conquering CR.32. The commander of this unit, capitán Gonzalez Martin, had in fact been flying the first aircraft to be shot down on this day. He and another pilot, and their respective rear gunners, all lost their lives, while the remaining two crews survived emergency landings in Republican territory. The one surviving Breguet XIX returned home to Alcalá de Henares with only the pilot on board, as the gunner, Ramos, had taken to his parachute over the Republican zone near El Escorial in the belief that his aircraft was falling out of the sky following the apparent death of his pilot! It was Ramos who had hit Galli’s fighter, forcing him to break off his attack.

In the morning on 30 October, Sottotenente Mantelli of the 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio and his flight consisting of Sergente Ligabò and Sergente Adamo Giuglietti, intercepted a formation of three Potez 540 bombers over Navalcarnero. Leading the Republican bomber formation was the second- in-command of the Escuadra Internacional (Escuadra No 4), Spaniard comandante Sampil, while the remaining two aircraft were flown by Bulgarian Zakharij Zakharev (’Volkan Goranov’) and Russian Ivan Proskurov. Zakharev’s (Potez 540 ‘N’) crew included three Spaniards (co-pilot, flight mechanic and a gunner), Petr Pavlovich Desnitskiy (lower turret gunner), Anatoli Ivanov (gunner) and leitenant Kuz’ma Demenchuk (navigator).
The Republican bombers were surprised and initially blinded by the sun when the CR.32s initially targeted Zakharev’s Potez, setting one of its engines on fire. The lower turret gunner Desnitskiy kept firing his gun even after he was hit, claiming an enemy fighter. He was pulled from his position and replaced by leitenant Demenchuk, who also was pulled from the turret just before the bomber crash-landed.
Proskurov attempted to assist his comrade by slowing down and positioning his aircraft between Zakharev and the opposing fighters. This courageous action won him the admiration of the Italian pilots, but it was ultimately performed in vain as the damaged bomber was doomed.
Although wounded in the leg by a bullet, Zakharev tried to nurse his stricken aircraft to the safety of Republican territory, but he and his Spanish co-pilot Pérez Sancho force-landed the aircraft in a clearing in No Man’s Land. All five crew managed to escape the wreckage and reach friendly troops with Zakharev, Desnitskiy and Demenchuck wounded by gunfire from the Italian fighters. A short while later Sottotenente Mantelli shot down Proskurov’s Potez over Republican territory. Like Zakharev, the skilful Russian pilot also managed to save the lives of his crew by carrying out a successful emergency landing in a vineyard near Getafe. Although Mantelli also was credited with the destruction of flight leader Sampil’s Potez, the latter had in fact made it back to base at Albacete.
Mantelli, like his wingmen, returned to Talavera to find that his CR.32 had been holed in several places by fire from Proskurov’s gunner, Vladimirov, who had continued to fire at the Italian fighter in spite of a serious wound to one of his hands.
The Potez 540 flown by Zakharev was flown from Toulouse to Barcelona on 15 September, before heading on to Madrid to be assigned to the Escuadra Internacional (Escuadra No 4).

By the end of October 1936 he had been credited with nine individual and several shared victories whilst operating in the New Castile and Andalusia regions, thus becoming the first Italian CR.32 ace.

During the afternoon on 2 November near Talavera, flight leader Sottotenente Mantelli and his wingman Maresciallo Felice Sozzi of the 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio managed to bring down an SB between them, this being the first time that the actual destruction of a Tupolev bomber could be proven. Mantelli later recounted:

“The combat experience that I remember best, and the one I'm most proud of, was when I faced one of the newly-arrived Red Air Force aircraft that were causing us great concern. Dubbed the “Martin bomber”, its appearance came as a rather nasty surprise to us. Thanks to its twin engines and retractable undercarriage, the bomber’s level speed was some 30 mph faster than that of our fighters, which meant that interceptions were impossible. Needless to say, scrambling once these bombers had appeared was useless. A series of surprise raids by the aircraft, where no opposition could be offered, threw all of us into a feeling of helplessness. Our commanders encouraged us, but it appeared that the facts were too clear to be dismissed – top speed, in particular, was definitely against us.
However, an interception did happen a few days later. I scrambled, accompanied by Sozzi, into the sky above Talavera de la Reína. We already knew that one of these famous monoplanes had been sighted over Avila, some 60 miles away, but I decided not to wander too far from Talavera. Below me were two airfields, and by circling over the town I could keep an eye on both of them. It was well known that these airfields were targeted by the raiders as they attempted to “ground us”" (and we had already suffered quite a lot of damage). I thought to myself that if it comes this way I could intercept it, but if it heads for a different target I could just about forget it!
We continued to climb, knowing that the higher we went the faster we could dive down on the enemy bomber. I continued to scan the sky by sector out of habit. First sector, empty. Second sector, empty. Third sector, there, a thin line in the distance against the horizon in a yellowish sky – I will never forget that. It was “him”. I wouldn't let him out of my sight, and I continued to gain height. It was not coming towards Talavera, however. According to my reckoning, it would pass us some six miles away. There would be no chance of getting at him if I didn't change course.
Then suddenly the “Martin bomber” turned almost 90 degrees and set course for Talavera. The monoplane was well below us, and hadn’t seen us. I waited, checked my speed and distance and then at the right moment I pushed the nose of my fighter down and dove at the bomber. The slipstream whistled past and the engine roared, but I heard nothing. My eyes were fixed on the aeroplane that rapidly grew larger as we closed in at a tremendous speed. Range seemed just right so I fired-the machine guns hummed.
“With the first burst I could clearly see the incendiary rounds hitting the wing, sending white sparks flying. The right wing caught fire almost immediately, then a tail of flames from the left wing engulfed both the fuselage and the right wing. The “Martin bomber” began to fall, but my frenetic dive continued. One wing broke off, at which point three men took to their parachutes. I saw three envelopes open, but the speed was too high and they were torn away – the three men fell like dead bodies. My CR.32 was faster and I flew past them. I was terribly excited by the victory and nearly forgot my controls, only to suddenly remember that I had to stop the aeroplane from diving. The sound of the slipstream became calmer as I pulled out, and down below me the monoplane exploded as it hit the ground.”
Wingman Maresciallo Sozzi also contributed to the destruction of the SB, having positioned himself behind and below the bomber after the fighters’ fast dive. He duly fired at the aircraft from below while Mantelli shot at it from above. The SB’s crew, engaged in a reconnaissance sortie to reconnoitre enemy airfields, came from 2a/12, which was based at San Clemente, in Murcia. Pilot P. P. Petrov, navigator A. F. Vlasov, and gunner/radio operator N. P. Tsigulev became the first Soviet airmen to fall in action in Spain. Following this action, Mantelli concluded:
“The excitement that spread throughout both the flying units and the Nationalist troops following this victory was enormous. A bandera [infantry unit of the Tercio] ventured into enemy territory so that the “dragon’s” demise could be confirmed. They brought back ailerons, which we shipped off to Italy. The “Martin bomber’s” myth of invincibility came to an end that day.”

Mantelli was promoted to Tenente for outstanding service in Spain.

During the morning on 1 February 1937, a patrol from 4a Squadriglia consisting of Tenente Mantelli and his two wingmen intercepted a pair of Potez 540s from the Escadrille André Malraux, based at Tabernas, near Almeria. Having already bombed Motril, the aircraft were heading east along the coast towards home, their progress being overseen by an escort of five I-15s led by Starshiy Leytenant Georgiy Zakharov (and including American pilots Albert Baumler and Koch). The escort fighters were quite some distance away from the bombers, and at a height in excess of 16,000 ft, when the three CR.32s appeared unexpectedly from the south over the sea and intercepted the Potez bombers as they flew below the I-15s.
Tenente Mantelli quickly set a Potez 540 alight with his opening burst, although the French upper gunner, lieutenant René Deverts, returned fire. Two bullets hit the CR.32 in the oil tank, causing the engine to overheat. As Mantelli turned towards Nationalist territory, he was set upon by the I-15s and force-landed in enemy territory close to the frontline east of Motril – the latter had been occupied the night before by Italian troops. The pilot of the Potez shot down by Mantelli, Frenchman Guy Sentés, ditched his bomber just offshore near the village of Castell de Ferro despite being wounded in his right arm. His Indonesian co-pilot (of Dutch nationality), Jan Frederik Stolk, suffered serious chest wounds and died in a coma some hours later, although the remaining four crewmen survived, three with injuries.
Mantelli’s wingmen attacked the other bomber before the distant fighter escort could intervene, forcing it down into Republican territory near Dallas. The Potez 540 was damaged beyond repair and five of its seven-man crew were wounded.
The Republicans credited Starshiy Leytenant Zakharov with the destruction of Mantelli’s CR.32, which had overturned along the banks of the River Guadalpece not far from Motril.
Having escaped unhurt, Mantelli managed to evade enemy militia that were roaming the area and reach Nationalist territory thanks to guidance from a local farmer. The pilot rewarded the latter with 100 pesetas for his assistance and soon met up with the vanguard of the Corpo Truppe Volontarie, returning to his unit five hours later.
Once the front east of Motril had been secured, his fighter was also recovered.

Later in Spain, he served in the XVI Gruppo.

On 8 May 1937, Duilio Fanali flew the 65a Squadriglia’s first mission, a reconnaissance over Castuera, together with the ace Tenente Mantelli, who was temporarily assigned to the 65a Squadriglia.

Totally, Mantelli claimed 10 and 12 shared victories in Spain. He also claimed 3 shared probably destroyed and 2 destroyed on the ground.
The Italian press had attributed as many as 27 kills to Mantelli. It was eventually proven that this total included both shared and unconfirmed victories, as well as two aircraft destroyed on the ground.

In the spring of 1937, Mantelli returned to Italy and eventually became a test pilot at the Guidonia Aircraft Experimental Centre near Rome.

On 12 February 1940, he was promoted to Capitano.

He transferred to the Direzione Costruzioni Aeronautiche (Aircraft Construction Directorate) in Naples.

In 1943, he still served in the Direzione Costruzioni Aeronautiche.

Mantelli flew his last combat mission on the morning of 8 September 1943 - the day of Italy’s Armistice with the Allies - in a Macchi C.202 against a formation of USAAF B-17 bombers targeting Frascati.

As a test pilot and flight instructor for the new Fiat G.55 fighter, he then served in the Aeronautica della Repubblica Sociale Italiana (Italian Social Republic Air Force).

Mantelli ended the war with 9 biplane victories.

A post-war trial cleared Mantelli of 'collaboration' by serving with the Aeronautica della Repubblica Sociale Italiana.

He continued to design and construct light civil aircraft in Italy and Argentina prior to re-joining the Italian air force in 1951. Rising through the ranks, Mantelli became a Generale and eventually retired in Rome.

Remaining active, he died from a sudden illness at the age of 82 whilst waiting for a train at Florence station on 6 May 1995.

During his long flying career, Mantelli had flown more than 10,000 hours in 200+ aircraft types, setting several international light aircraft records in the process.

Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
1 16/09/36   1 Breguet XIX Destroyed Fiat CR.32   Talavera de la Reína 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
2 18/09/36   1 D.372 (a) Destroyed Fiat CR.32   Spain 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
  26/09/36   1/2 Potez 540 (b) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.32   Bargas 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
3 08/10/36   1 Ni-H.52 Destroyed Fiat CR.32   near Granada 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
4 09/10/36   1 Ni-H.52 (c) Destroyed Fiat CR.32   near Andujar 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
5 16/10/36 morning 1 Breguet XIX (d) Destroyed Fiat CR.32   Andujar airfield 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
6 16/10/36 morning 1 Breguet XIX (d) Destroyed Fiat CR.32   Andujar airfield 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
7 27/10/36 afternoon 1 Breguet XIX (e) Destroyed Fiat CR.32   Peguerinos-El Escorial 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
  27/10/36 afternoon 1/3 Breguet XIX (e) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.32   Peguerinos-El Escorial 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
  27/10/36 afternoon 1/3 Breguet XIX (e) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.32   Peguerinos-El Escorial 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
  27/10/36 afternoon 1/3 Breguet XIX (e) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.32   Peguerinos-El Escorial 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
  30/10/36 morning 1/3 Potez 540 (f) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.32   Navalcarnero area 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
8 30/10/36 morning 1 Potez 540 (g) Destroyed Fiat CR.32   Navalcarnero area 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
9 30/10/36 morning 1 Potez 540 (h) Destroyed Fiat CR.32   Navalcarnero area 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
  02/11/36 afternoon 1/2 SB (i) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.32   Talavera area 1a Escuadrilla de Caza del Tercio
10 01/02/37 morning 1 Potez 540 (j) Destroyed Fiat CR.32   Motril area 4a Squadriglia

Biplane victories: 10 and 6 shared destroyed.
TOTAL: 10 and 6 shared destroyed.
(a) Dewoitine D.372 of the Escuadra Internacional flown by British pilot Edward Hillman, who escaped back to Republican territory.
(b) Potez 540 was from the Escuadra Internacional, which came down in Republican territory with five of its six crew members WIA.
(c) Probably oficial segundo Luis Alonso Vega (Ni-H.52 ‘3-28’) of the 1a Escuadrilla Mixta of Grupo No 21, WIA.
(d) Pilot José Serrano Sánchez KIA in one of the Breguet XIXs.
(e) 4 Breguet XIXs from Escuadrilla Gonzalez shot down. 2 of the crews KIA and 2 safe.
(f) Potez 540 from Escuadra Internacional flown by Bulgarian Zakharij Zakharev (’Volkan Goranov’) force-landed.
(g) Potez 540 from Escuadra Internacional flown by Russian Ivan Proskurov force-landed.
(h) Potez 540 from Escuadra Internacional flown by comandante Sampil, which made it back to base.
(i) SB from 2a/12 shot down and the crew of pilot P. P. Petrov, navigator A. F. Vlasov, and gunner/radio operator N. P. Tsigulev KIA.
(j) Potez 540s from the Escadrille André Malraux shot down.

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
Crickets against Rats. Regia Aeronautica in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1937. Vol. 1 - Marek Sobski, 2014 Kagero, Lublin, ISBN 978-83-64596-16-2
Elenco Nominativo dei Militari dell’ A. M. Decorati al V. M. Durante it Periodo 1929 - 1945 2 Volume M - Z
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.
Soviet airmen in the Spanish civil war 1936-1939 - Paul Whelan, 2014 Schiffer Publishing Ltd, ISBN 978-0-7643-0
Spanish Republican Aces – Rafael A. Permuy López, 2012 Osprey Publishing, Oxford, ISBN 978-1-84908-668-4
Wings Over Spain - Emiliani Ghergo, 1997 Giorgio Apostolo Editore, Milano
Additional information kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro, Alfredo Logoluso and Ludovico Slongo.

Last modified 13 January 2023