Sergente Maggiore Francesco Penna
Francesco Penna served as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War in the XXIII Gruppo.
On 12 October, the Republican Air Force intervened heavily to support International battalions and tanks in an attempt to break through the enemy lines at Fuentes del Ebro.
During the day, the VI Gruppo lost a good part of numerical, considering that part of the 31a Squadriglia had previously been detached to Córdoba. Therefore, immediately the same morning, the Comando dell’Aviazione Legionaria ordered the XXIII Gruppo to transfer to Sanjurio (Zaragoza).
At 10.30, 29 CR.32s led by Maggiore Andrea Zotti, took off from Almaluèz and arrived over Sanjurio around noon. However, before landing, Maggiore Zotti decided to lead his pilots to explore the area between Villafranca and Fuentes del Ebro. Here they spotted four Polikarpov RZ “Natachas” escorted by nine I-16s “Ratas” (above them) and 15 I-15 “Curtiss” (below them). The Italian fighters attacked the Republican aircraft and at the end of the dogfight, that lasted about fifteen minutes, the Italians claimed seven (eleven according to other sources) fighters destroyed for no losses, although several CR.32s were hit and damaged. Combat was very hard for the Italians because their fighters were weighted by pilots’ personal luggage. Pilots that scored, either individually or jointly, were Maggiore Zotti (1 I-15), Sergente Giuseppe Mottet (20a Squadriglia) (1 I-16), Sottotenente Giampiero Del Prete, Capitano Antonio Larsimont Pergameni (CO of the 20a Squadriglia), Sergente Penna, Sottotenente Aldo Felici, Capitano Enrico Degli Incerti (CO of the 19a Squadriglia) (1 I-16), Sottotenente Pio Tomaselli (19a Squadriglia), Sottotenente Franco Lucchini (19a Squadriglia), Capitano Guido Nobili (CO of the 18a Squadriglia), Sergente Maggiore Giovanni Carmello, Sergente Carlo Dentis, Sottotenente Giuseppe Enrico Zuffi, Sergente Federico Tassinari (19a Squadriglia), Sergente Maggiore Alfonso Mattei and Sottotenente Bruno Trevisan (19a Squadriglia). It seems that Lucchini’s, Tassinari’s and Mattei’s claims was a shared between these three pilots.
Penna served with the 160o Gruppo during the Greek campaign. The unit was at this time equipped with Fiat CR.42s
At 10:25 on 21 December 1940, 80 Squadron took off from Yanina for the front in Greece. They were led by Squadron Leader William Hickey and flew in three sections. The first comprised four aircraft and was led by Hickey, the second of three was led by Flight Lieutenant ’Pat’ Pattle and the third trio was led by Flying Officer Sidney Linnard.
Near Argyrokastron three enemy trimotor bombers were seen. They were identified as SM 79s, and then three more aircraft with twin tails were seen, recognized in this case as Fiat BR.20s. All six were in fact Cant Z.1007bis aircraft from the 47o Stormo B.T. from Grottaglie. The Italian bombers were attacked by the Gladiators and Pattle believed that he had hit one.
At this moment however 15 CR.42s of the 160o Gruppo appeared on the scene. Maggiore Oscar Molinari, the Gruppo commander, was leading these Italian aircraft on an offensive reconnaissance over Yannina, Paramythia and Zitsa. Seeing the bombers under attack by an estimated 20 Gladiators, the Italian attacked, joined by six other CR.42s from the 150o Gruppo led by Capitano Luigi Corsini so that 80 Squadron pilots assessed the number of their opponents at 54!
After 25 minutes, the air battle broke up and eight of the British pilots returned to claim eight confirmed and three probably destroyed CR.42s and one probably destroyed BR.20.
Pattle (Gladiator II N5832) again wrote a long narrative of this combat:
“At 10.40 hours on the 21st December, 1940. 10 Gladiators led by S/Ldr. Hickey took off from Yannina to do an offensive patrol in the area between Tepelini area and the coast. The formation flew in one section of four and two sections of three echelon right, at a height of 10,000 feet.Pilot Officer William Vale (N5784) claimed three, one of them in flames (according to Pattle this was the fighter that shot down F/Lt Ripley). Vale’s own aircraft was riddled by explosive bullets during the combat. Vale reported:
On approaching the patrol line just North of Agyrokastron a formation of three enemy bombers were sighted, dead ahead. The “tally ho” was given and the Squadron prepared to attack, No. 1 Section leading. While approaching the bombers I (leading No. 2 Section) searched for escort fighters and in doing so, I saw a formation of three BR.20’s approaching the port beam. As these were in the more favourable position for attack I turned my section towards them at same time continuing to search for fighters. I saw the escort dead astern of us and about 10,000 feet above. I sent a warning over the R/T. giving the position of the fighters and opening up to full throttle attempted to engage the bombers before the escort intercepted us.
My section approached the bombers from quarter ahead attacking in line astern with each aircraft following his attack through the beam to quarter astern before breaking away. I gave the bomber a good burst but did not notice any damage as it continued on its way maintaining formation.
By time the C.R.42’s had arrived on the scene and as they dived down to attack us I counted nine sections of three aircraft. The aircraft of each section were in echelon right. Behind them another formation of approximately equal size was coming up making fifty four in all.
The fight then became a general melee and although I tried to keep touch with the rest of the Gladiators it was impossible to do so as I was forced to continuous evasive action against repeated attack of the 42’s in quick succession.
After each attack the enemy would climb for height while another would dive down to attack. In this way I was unable to climb up to their height as continuous evasive action made climbing impossible. At time two of these would attack together and very violent evasive action was necessary to prevent being shot up. For fully five minutes I was kept on the defensive without being able to fire a shot in return. I then noticed another Gladiator at the same height being harassed by a 42 on his tail. In between evading attacks from 42’s above me, I manoeuvred into a position behind this E.A. and fired at point blank range. The E.A. climbed vertically upwards, stalled and spun into the foothills a few miles North of Agyrokastron.
Realising that I was ineffective unless I reached the height at which the enemy were circling, I wriggled out of the fight and climbed to 20,000 feet south of Agyrokastron. With the sun behind me I approached nine 42’s who were circling the town at approximately 18,000 feet. I could not see any Gladiators and the fight seemed to be over.
I singled out the nearest 42 as my target but unfortunately when still about 300 yards away the pilot saw me and dived for the ground. I gave him a quick burst but did not do any noticeable damage.
The E.A. must have been on the point of leaving as the remainder by this time were on their way towards Tepelini. I circled Argyrokastron for a further five minutes but could not see any other aircraft so returned to base landing at 11.50 hours. On landing I discovered that Sgt. Gregory had received a wound in the right eye and F/O. Linnard was hit in the left leg. S/Ldr. Hickey and F/O. Ripley did not return from this engagement.
The Squadron confirmed 8 definitely shot down and 3 probable. The Greek forward troops however reported 19 42’s and 2 Gladiators crashed in the area North of Argyrokastron.”
“At 1050, ten Gladiators took off from Yannina on an offensive patrol, flying in three flights of four, three, and three aircraft. I was flying in No.3 in the third flight led by F/O Linnard.Flight Sergeant Sidney Richens (N5825) claimed one CR.42 and reported:
On reaching the patrol line “Tally-ho!” was immediately given for three bombers seen going from west to east. The leading flight led by S/L Hickey immediately went into action. At the same moment three more bombers were seen approaching from our port beam. The leader of the second flight, F/L Pattle, immediately turned left and carried out a head-on attack, and my flight leader followed. I was able to get in a short burst before breaking away. On turning to follow, I observed a large formation of enemy C.R.42’s diving down from above. We immediately climbed to attack and a general dog fight started. I singled out one enemy aircraft who tried to dive away and dived down firing a burst at long range. He pulled up and I got in a full deflection shot from underneath and noticed flames coming from underneath his engine. The enemy aircraft went down out of control and finally hit the ground in flames. I then noticed a single Gladiator low down in a valley being attacked by five C.R.42’s. I dived down and engaged two of them and managed to get behind one and fire a long burst until it suddenly spun down out of control and crashed into the valley.
I was then attacked by more C.R.42’s who carried out frontal quarter attacks on me with the superior speed that could out-climb me. I carried out evasive action and noticed that the Gladiator below me was on fire and spinning down out of control [this was Squadron Leader Hickey’s aircraft]. I dived down towards it and saw the pilot leave the aircraft and use his parachute. I was again fired at by a C.R.42 from above who carried out his attack and then headed away North. When I again looked down I saw the Gladiator in flames on the ground with the pilot going down in his parachute. At the same time I saw a C.R.42 dive on the pilot and twin streams coming from behind his aircraft. I dived down and managed to get in a surprise attack, as he pulled away from the parachutist. I got on his tail and fired a long burst from a single fuselage gun until he turned over out of control and went straight down to crash in the valley. As I pulled up another C.R.42 came down very close to my machine, out of control, and crashed quite near to the burning Gladiator. I gained altitude and saw another Gladiator circling above me, and as I was short of ammunition, I joined formation and found the other pilot to be F/S. Richens, who had shot the C.R.42, which went past me. I noticed the position of the crashed Gladiator in respect to Argyrokastron and then returned to base. On landing I inspected my aircraft and found that my lower and upper starboard mainplanes had been hit twice by explosive bullets One of which had entered the wing ammunition tank and had exploded inside but had done no apparent damage to the structure of the mainplane. The fuselage was hit in several places but with no structural damage.”
“On December, 1940, I was No.2 in second flight of squadron of ten Gladiators led by S/Ldr. Hickey. At approximately 11.00 hours F/L. Pattle saw three enemy bombers to the North and three more approaching us from the West and endeavoured to lead his flight, of which I was right man, in a head on attack against the latter. Accordingly to plan, we went line astern and turned into them. They frustrated us by turning slightly right so we were forced to make a line astern front quarter round to the rear quarter attack. The escort on which we had been keeping a watchful eye then attacked. The Fiats came down in batches and eventually I found myself at about 4,000 ft. with two more Gladiators about 2,000 ft. below. Approximately seven C.R.42s were milling around, I saw one Gladiator go down in flames the pilot baling out. I then managed to pull round inside a 42 that came in front of me in a climbing turn. I gave him a very long burst and he went down in a very slow spiral. P/O. Vale confirms the destruction of this aircraft. The E.A. were rapidly dispersing and as there were none in the vicinity I joined P/O. Vale and returned to base.”Sergeant Charles Casbolt (N5817) claimed one CR.42 during the combat, which blew up and another, which spun down (later downgraded to a probable). Casbolt reported:
“On 21.12.40. a formation of ten Gladiators in three flights vic led by S/Ldr. Hickey, left Yannina to carry out an offensive patrol over the front.The second probably destroyed CR.42 was claimed by Flying Officer Waldo Barker Price-Owen:
I was flying No.3 in the second flight, led by F/Lt. Pattle.
As we arrived in the Agyrokastron area, two formations of three enemy aircraft were observed, one approaching from the West and one formation from the North.
As previously arranged we went into line astern, and F/Lt. Pattle lead in a head on attack at the three approaching from the West.
As we approached the enemy I observed the leading formation led by S/Ldr. Hickey heading for the other three bombers and also that the E.A. were escorted by about 27 C.R.42’s.
The E.A. turned slightly right as we approached, and the attack developed into a quarter ahead to quarter astern. I fired a long burst at close range but with no apparent effect.
I then followed my leader away and the Fiats came down in what appeared to be an undisciplined mass.
A Fiat then dived past me to attack my leader. I was able to get astern of him and at about 50 yards range fired a long burst, smoke appeared, and then the aircraft burst into flames, and dived steeply to earth.
The enemy aircraft the attacked singly, coming from above, but turning into them they were easily avoided and a position astern of them obtained as they dived past. On several occasions short bursts were fired in this manner at a range of about 300 yards.
One on occasion a Fiat appeared in front of me pointing vertically upwards and almost stalled, I fired a long burst with very little deflection closing rapidly to about 50 yards, the enemy went into a spin and was last seen spinning, and leaving a long trail of black smoke about 3,000 feet below.
As I left the scene of action I noticed three Fiats still circling at about 20,000 feet.”
“On the 21.12.40 ten Gladiators took off from Yannina at 10.30 hours to carry out an offensive patrol.Sergeant Donald Gregory claimed another two, again one in flames, but his own aircraft was badly shot up with the engine and the undercarriage damaged by a series of frontal attacks from a CR.42s that had also wounded him in the right eye and was barely able to save himself. He however managed to return to Yannina and reported:
I was flying No.4 in the leading flight of 4 Gladiators. After about 30 minutes when over the Argyrokastron area I sighted three bombers dead ahead some 6 or 7 miles away. We went into line astern and carried out a beam attack on the nearest bomber. This did not seem to effect it very much. In the meantime the other two flights of Gladiators were attacking three more bombers some two miles away on our port quarter, when they in turn were attacked by about 50 C.R.42s. We left the three bombers who were now heading towards Albania and went to the assistance of the other Gladiators, who were now dog fighting with the CR.42s.
I attacked a CR42, firing several long bursts into it from about 100 yards range. It ceased taking evasive action, turned slowly over and went down in a spiral dive. I watched it go down about 3,000 feet but was then attacked by three or four more CR.42s, and consequently did not see it hit the ground, so I was unable to confirm it.
A hectic dog fight ensued with the other CR.42s. I was attacked from head on and quarter at the same time. As soon as I got anywhere near a 42s tail I was attacked by one or two others, and had to break it off to avoid their fire. I fired long bursts into most of them from somewhat awkward positions, they appeared more reluctant after this. I had now finished my ammunition so as soon as an opportunity arose I dived very steeply and returned to base.”
“I was flying in No.1 flight in No.3 position, after we had attacked a bomber formation of 3 B.R.20’s we broke away to find that Nos. 2 and 3 flights had already been attacked by escorting C.R.42’s. At this time there must have been two squadrons of 27 each attacking six Gladiators.Sergeant Gregory was recommended for an immediate DFM. The third probable was claimed by Flying Officer Frederick William Hosken (N5811). However Flight Lieutenant Henry Derek Ripley (RAF no. 70575) in N5854 was seen to be shot down in flames and killed, while Squadron Leader Hickey was spotted bailing out of N5816; sadly his parachute caught fire, and he died from injuries soon after reaching the ground. Greek troops recovered the bodies of both pilots. Of Hickey’s death, Pilot Officer Vale reported:
Diving down astern with my leader I observed a formation of three C.R.42 in vic diving towards the fight. I pulled up and trained my sights on the leader, as the range closed I put a long burst into the 42 until I had to put my nose down to go under the formation.
Turning round in a “stall turn” I observed the leader diving vertically whilst the remaining two had split, No.2 going up, No.3 down. As I had the advantage over the lower aircraft I decided to attack this first. He attempted to come up under me but as I was near to stalling, I had no difficulty in bringing my sight round to get in a deflection shot and then astern on him.
I followed him down, at the same time I observed the leading aircraft crash on a hill and burst into flames. This dive was very steep, so much so, that I very nearly hit the ground with the 42. When I pulled up sharply out of this dive the third 42 came past and then pulled up underneath me into such a position that we could both get in quick deflection shots.
This happened three times and each time we missed colliding by inches, so that after each attack I had to find him again, quite naturally this developed into a head on attack, the first of which I slid out of, but as the following attack was head on also I became rather worried and brought him into my sights, fired, ducked down behind my engine for cover, at the same time pulling back on the control column.
Immediately after this my right eye became warm and I found I had lost my sight in this eye. It took me some seconds to get used to this, as I would try to look towards the rear on the right side, but all I saw was the extensive damage to the centre section, starboard lower plane and a flying wire that had broken. I seem to remember at this point that he came at me from below and we had another deflection shot at each other, but as I had seen him so often in this position it may have stuck in my mind. However I do remember I decided that my position was desperate and I weighed up the ground that was to receive me below, then I was overcome by a wave of determination, possibly due to the fact that when I was hit and saw the blood I turned my oxygen on at full. I pulled up in a loop and rolled off the top into a tight turn back into the direction I had come from. I looked at my compass but it appeared blurred, although I could see the sun, I could not convince myself which direction to fly.
Diving down into the valley seemed to be the only means of escape. I was unable to look behind, as this brought on pain to my eye. At one period my sight was so blurred that I could not decide whether I was being chased by 42 or if it was anti-aircraft fire. Fortunately it was the latter. I discovered my position to be 10 miles north of Valona at 4,000 feet. As I could use only 1600 revs due to damage to rocker arm, causing excessive vibration, it took 40 minutes to return to base, where a landing was made under difficulties due to damage to eyesight and to undercarriage.”
“The Gladiator was flat-spinning too. Suddenly the pilot hurled out of the cockpit like a black ant and the white burst of his parachute spreading in a puff … the parachute burst into flames and the sudden black smudge as its slow speed became a lightning streak of charred smoke and the black figure of the Gladiator pilot hurtling two thousand feet down to the black earth.”Flying Officer Linnard’s aircraft (N5834) was also badly hit and he was hit in the left calf by an explosive bullet and was taken to hospital after landing at Yannina. Flight Lieutenant Pattle noted:
“Enemy fighters used a definite plan of attack. Attacking from superior height they maintained that height by attacking the Gladiators singly and in quick succession and climbing after each attack. The Gladiators, forced to evade, were unable to climb.”In return the 160o Gruppo pilots claimed six Gladiators, two each by Maggiore Molinari and Tenente Edoardo Crainz (in CR.42 '394-7'), and one apiece by Tenente Eber Giudici (his aircraft was damaged by enemy fire) and Capitano Paolo Arcangeletti. Probables were claimed by Tenente Torquato Testerini, Sergente Maggiore Penna and Sergente Maggiore Domenico Tufano. The 150o Gruppo pilots claimed two more Gladiators when Capitano Luigi Corsini claimed one Gladiator and a probable while Sergente Maggiore Virgilio Pongiluppi claimed one Gladiator; both pilots were from the 364a Squadriglia. The 47o Stormo gunners claimed one more and a probable. As in the case of the British fighters, actual Italian losses totalled only two aircraft, Tenente Mario Gaetano Carancini and Tenente Mario Frascadore of the 160o Gruppo being lost, while Maggiore Molinari was wounded in the right foot and force-landed near Tepelene in a dry river-bed with a damaged engine (it seems that the aircraft was written off).
On 16 March 1941, Sergente Maggiore Desideri and Sergente Maggiore Penna of 160o Gruppo C.T. flew a night interception in their Fiat CR.42s. During this mission they shot down Wellington R1387 from 37 Squadron, which had attacked Tirana airfield, Albania. Two other aircraft, T2580 and T2895, managed to return to Menidi despite being seriously damaged during this mission.
Penna ended the war with 2 shared biplane victories.
|Kill no.||Date||Time||Number||Type||Result||Plane type||Serial no.||Locality||Unit|
|12/10/37||10:30-||1/?||Enemy fighter||Shared destroyed||Fiat CR.32||Villafranca-Fuentes del Ebro||XXIII Gruppo|
|21/12/40||11:00||1||Gladiator (a)||Probable||Fiat CR.42||Argyrokastron area||160o Gruppo|
|16/03/41||½||Wellington (b)||Shared destroyed||Fiat CR.42||near Tirana||160o Gruppo|
Air war for Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete - Christopher Shores, Brian Cull and Nicola Malizia, 1987 Grub Street, London, ISBN 0-948817-07-0
Ali in Spagna - Giuseppe Federico Ghergo and Angelo Emiliani, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Ali nella tragedia - Giulio Lazzati, 1970 Mursia, Milan, ISBN 88-425-2132-9, kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
Aviatori Italiani - Franco Pagliano, 1964 Longanesi Milano, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Aviobrigada X - Alfredo Lagoluso, 2001 no. 97, 98 and 99 of Storia Militare (October-December 2001), kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Guerra di Spagna e Aviazione Italiana - Ferdinando Pedriali, 1992 USSMA, Rome, kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
Il 23o Gruppo Caccia - Nicola Malizia, 1974 Bizzarri, Roma, kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
La caccia notturna Italiana 1940-1942 - Giancarlo Garello, 1996 Aerofan nr. 57 apr-giu 1996 kindly provided by Jean Michel Cala
Le giovani aquile – Antonio Trizzino, 1972 Longanesi Milano, kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
Quelli del Cavallino Rampante - Antonio Duma, 1981 Editore Dell'Ateneo, Roma, kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro