Biplane fighter aces


Capitano Mario Pluda

7 January 1910 - 8 November 1941

Date Decoration Note
??/??/40 Medaglia d’argento al valor militare (1st) 1940-43
??/??/43 Medaglia d’argento al valor militare (2nd) (Posthumous) 1940-43

Mario Pluda was born in Brescia on 7 January 1910.

In the middle of November, the 4o Stormo received a new adjutant, Capitano Mario Pluda. At this time the Stormo consisted of the 9o and 10o Gruppi C.T. and was equipped with Fiat CR.42s operating in North Africa.

On 20 November, 208 Squadron despatched two Lysanders to reconnoitre an area bounded by Sollum, Sofali and Buq-Buq. They were L4724 piloted by Flight Lieutenant Burnard and L4728 piloted by Pilot Officer Waymark that took off from Qasaba at 14:20 and 14:15 landing back at 16:35 and 16:20 respectively (another Lysander, possibly L6874, an attached 6 Squadron aircraft piloted by Flying Officer T. H. Davison, was out in the same area). 33 Squadron provided nine Hurricanes (including Flying Officer Vernon Woodward (N2498), Flight Lieutenant Ernest Dean (P 3818), Flying Officer John Mackie (P3724), Squadron Leader Charles Ryley (P3970), Flight Sergeant Harry Goodchild (N2640), Flying Officer Frank Holman (P3724) and Pilot Officer Charles Dyson (N2640)) as escort. It is possible that the unaccounted pilots were one or two pilots from 274 Squadron since a quartet of Hurricanes from this Squadron, piloted by Flight Lieutenant R. V. Evers-Swindell, Pilot Officer Ernest Mason, Pilot Officer Thomas Patterson and Second Lieutenant Frederick Johannes Joubert, together with Pilot Officer Strange and Second Lieutenant Bester (who followed with the ground party) were detached on attachment to 33 Squadron on 14 November. On 21 November, Evers-Swindell, flew back from Fuka to have repairs on his fighter, reportedly damaged in a running fight with CR.42s. It seems almost sure that the “running fight” was the below described action, so it is possible that R. V. Evers-Swindell was present.
The escort took off from Fuka Satellite airfield at 14:15, with one section of three protecting each Lysander while a third section provided top cover. At the same time, a formation of six Gladiators from 112 Squadron would sweep the same general area.
East of Sidi Barrani, 18 CR.42s intercepted them and one Fiat half-rolled and dived away after being fired on by a Hurricane. It is possible that this aircraft later was credited as a destroyed to Flying Officer Mackie, who in a letter sent home to Canada on 4 December recalled:

“Just before I went on leave we had one of two bits of fun up here. On one occasion, you may have heard about it on the radio, fifteen of us got mixed up with sixty wop fighters. We lost none, and got at least eight of them. I got one of these, although not in a very convincing way from my point of view, as I didn’t see it go in. Another pilot saw the start and the finish of it. Anyhow, it sure was a mix-up. I have never seen so many machines milling around in such a small amount of sky.”
However, after this both sides started to guard each other without giving battle with the Italians uncertain to tangle with the faster Hurricanes and the British finding it difficult to close in on their more manoeuvrable opponents.
The Hurricanes of the two sections dealing with the direct escort of the Lysanders now started to brake off since they were being out-manoeuvred by their opponents and at this moment a huge formation of a reportedly 25-30 Italian fighters was seen higher. The top cover section of 33 Squadron climbed to engage but reportedly without avail because the Italian turned back towards Libya without engaging.
The Italian formation was composed by 18 aircraft from all three Squadriglie of the 9o Gruppo led by Maggiore Ernesto Botto (at the head of the 73a Squadriglia). Six of the CR.42s were from the 96a Squadriglia (Capitano Roberto Fassi leading Tenente Aldo Gon, Sottotenente Carlo Agnelli, Sottotenente Armando Moresi and Sergente Vittorio Pozzati together with 4o Stormo’s adjutant, Capitano Pluda), five were from the 73a Squadriglia (Tenente Valerio De Campo, Tenente Pietro Bonfatti, Maresciallo Mario Ruffilli, Sergente Maggiore Antonio Valle and Sergente Santo Gino) and six were from the 97a Squadriglia (Capitano Antonio Larsimont Pergameni, Tenente Ezio Viglione Borghese, Sottotenente Jacopo Frigerio, Maresciallo Rinaldo Damiani, Sergente Francesco Putzu and Sergente Franco Sarasino). They had taken off from El Adem at 14:40 to cover Italian troops in the Bir Enba area (and probably indirectly escorting a reconnaissance plane) when Botto discovered a Bristol Blenheim escorted by several Hurricanes flying lower and attacked.
At this moment, with the 9o Gruppo’s attention focused elsewhere, the 112 Squadron’s Gladiators intervened and managed to surprise the Italian formation over Sidi Barrani. They claimed eight of the Fiats without losses. All of the six pilots made claims and Flight Lieutenant R. J. Abrahams claimed one and one shared with Pilot Officer Richard Acworth, who also claimed one additional. Flying Officer R. J. Bennett claimed one, Pilot Officer Alfred Costello claimed one, Pilot Officer Leonard Bartley claimed two and Sergeant 'Paddy' Donaldson finally claimed one. 112 Squadron didn’t record any losses in this combat even if Pilot Officer Acworth in his memories spoke of a couple of planes obliged to force-land and the unit’s aircraft retuned to Fuka between 16:20 and 17:25. For this one-sided action, they were noted in the press for the first time.
Richard Acworth remembered this combat in a short story written in the 1960’s but never published.
“The Lysanders were to be ‘covered’ against enemy air attacks by six Gladiators from my squadron… three flying at 12,000 feet, and three, led by myself, at 15,000 feet. ‘Top cover’ was to be provided by six Hurricanes, flying at 20,000 feet. The Hurricanes had strict orders to beat a hasty retreat if they met with enemy aircraft in large numbers, as it was thought at that time that they would be ‘easy meat’ for the move manoeuvrable C.R. 42’s, the single-seater Italian opposite number of the Gladiator.
We had been patrolling for about 10 minutes, when I reported forty CR 42s, in eight sections of five, flying from the direction of Libya, at approximately 25,000 feet, 5,000 feet higher that the Hurricane ‘top-cover’. To my dismay, the Hurricanes were soon speeding home, with a CR 42 sitting neatly on each tail. Our six Gladiators were left to finish the fight, for the Lysanders, their task completed, were heading for home, too.
There was not a friendly cloud in the sky, and the powerful desert sun made the enemy aircraft very difficult to see. Forthwith, they carried out the German tactics of remaining aloft, and sending down their more experienced men to finish us off one by one….but it was not to be!
With the first attacks, we broke formation, and it was every man for himself. I soon found myself very much alone, until unfriendly tracer bullets from behind, passed through the space between my right wings. I immediately steep-turned to the left, and caught sight of my attacker as he completed his dive and prepared to re-join his pals up higher, by means of a roll off the top of a loop.
Seizing my chance, I opened full throttle and followed him to the top of his loop, half rolled in formation with him, and was just about to open fire, when my aircraft stalled and flicked into a spin….not enough speed! I decided my best means of survival was to continue the spin, in the hope that he would think I had been badly hit. This was a fighter tactic from World War I, and it worked! Whilst I was spinning, I looked upwards and caught a glimpse of my adversary circling at his original height, waiting for me to crash into the desert. I came out of the spin at about 8,000 feet, no doubt much to his surprise, and didn’t have to wait long for him to dive down to finish me off.
So started a long tail-chasing session. At first, my mouth became rather dry, but after a second or two, my mind became crystal clear, and I was determined to turn the tables on him. Slowly I began to gain ground, and soon part of his tail was in my sights, but I realized it would not have been great enough. When his engine came into my sights, I pressed the firing button, and was immediately cheered to see pieces of fabric or metal ripping off his fuselage, just behind the cockpit.
The Italian pilot turned so quickly in his mad effort to escape, that he pulled his aircraft into a spin, following a ‘high-speed stall’. I followed him down, and fired at him as he tried to recover, and he promptly went into another one. On recovering from his second spin, he must have pulled an emergency boost control to give him extra speed, for he left my Gladiator ‘standing’.
However, my opponent was not easily scared, and turned about a mile away to come back at me like a bull at a gate. We both opened fire, and when it seemed that a head-on collision was inevitable, he pulled out to my left in a climbing turn. For a second, I was able to fire at his exposed fuselage, and then, with throttle fully open, I climbed into the sun, into an advantageous position. To my horror, my engine stalled near the top of the climb, and I had to carry out the usual drill of closing the throttle and opening it again, slowly. Full power came back, and looking down, I could see my opponent looking for me. This time, I had the advantage of height, and I was nicely lining him up in my sights when he saw me, and tried to turn in underneath me.
Slowly twisting, and with the right deflection, I raked him with bullets from nose to tail, at almost point-blank range. I pulled out of my dive, to regain height, and saw him commence another spin from which he did not recover. I felt immensely relieved, somewhat shaken, and eventually joined up with two stray Gladiators, and returned to Mersa Matruh. I was pleased to learn later that seven aircraft had been shot down in the engagement, and that all the Gladiator pilots had survived the fight, although two had made forced landings.
I shall never forget that day. It was my first one-against-one air battle, and the longest time I had engaged a single enemy aircraft...”
The 9o Gruppo actually lost only three shot down and four damaged but two pilots were killed. The three shot down pilots were Sottotenente Carlo Agnelli of the 96a Squadriglia, who was killed, Sergente Francesco Putzu of the 97a Squadriglia, who was killed, and Tenente Gon (who usually flew CR.42 MM5605/96-2), who recalled:
“This day [strangely enough he recorded it as on 1 November but this is for certain an error] I lost the dearest of all my wingmen [Carlo Agnelli]. We were up with all the Gruppo and the three Squadriglie were stepped at different heights. The lowest escorting a reconnaissance plane, mine (96a Squadriglia) at 3000 metres while the third stay higher. The highest group had already engaged the enemy when I saw one of our planes diving almost vertically followed by a Gloster. I made a violent overturning that my wingmen were unable to follow [again without radio equipment the Italian formation was broken at the beginning of the combat and whatever numerical advantage was impossible to put into full use] when I reach a distance suitable to open fire I had to wait because there was the risk of hitting my comrade [with the same burst aimed at the fighter that was following him] I had to concentrate only on the aim [the wingmen were far away] so I couldn’t look around and was attacked by two Glosters. With the first burst of fire they shot away my propeller, so without propulsion I could only manoeuvre to avoid further damage. All the height lost I force-landed and the English pilots that had already stopped firing while I was gliding down for my final approach flew past me waving their hands.
[Gon, tried to burn his plane without success and succeeded to reach an Italian outpost the day after]
Back at base, I discovered that information about the missing pilots (we were three) were lacking.
A sergeant
[Sergente Francesco Putzu] was seen to jump with parachute and another of our planes was seen to crash after a hard fight, all believed it was mine because the other missing pilot (my dear wingman) was too “green” to be able to fight against three enemies as the pilot of the crashed plane did.
The encounter with Botto was tragicomically. I went to his room and he was waiting for me near the door and as just as he saw me he threw himself right into my arms through the three steps that divided us. But I was too weak and was unable to sustain him so we fell embraced on the ground.”
According to the official records of the 4o Stormo, however, it seems that during the dive Gon’s guns went out of synchronisation and when opening fire he cut his propeller with the first shots.
Seven confirmed and probable victories were credited to the pilots of the Gruppo after that they had landed at 16:30. This overclaiming was the result of that the Stormo’s records had to be re-recorded in 1941 after they had been lost. This re-recording was done by Tenente Giulio Reiner, who was then adjutant of the Gruppo. Obviously Reiner’s reconstruction was not as accurate as a complete debriefing immediately after the battle could be.
Roberto Fassi was credited with a Blenheim, a probable Gladiator and two damaged Gladiators. Pozzati, who was wounded on the right foot, was credited with a Gladiator while Gon was credited with a Gladiator (a victory that he didn’t mention at all in his memories). Pluda claimed another Gladiator and Moresi one probable Gladiator. The 73a and 97a Squadriglie claimed one Gladiator and two Hurricanes shot down and four fighters damaged, all shared. Final assessment of the combat was four Gladiators, two Hurricanes and a Blenheim confirmed and two Gladiators probably destroyed (the actual number of confirmed claims varies between the reconstructed Diari of the involved Squadriglias to seven or eight destroyed).

On 12 December the 9o Gruppo started to retreat and transferred to Derna.

On 18 December, Capitano Pluda and Sergente Maggiore Enrico Dallari passed from the 73a Squadriglia, 9o Gruppo, to the 91a Squadriglia, 10o Gruppo.

At 09:15 on 26 December, eight Gladiators from 3 RAAF Squadron took off from the LG south-west of Sollum to escort a Lysander doing artillery reconnaissance over Bardia. The Lysander failed to appear. At approximately 14:05 (obviously during a third patrol) two flights of five SM 79s escorted by a number of CR.42s were observed a few miles north-east of Sollum Bay. A separate formation of 18 CR.42s was following the bomber formation and escort 2,000 feet higher as top cover. Two Gladiators attacked the bomber formation whilst the remainder climbed to meet the higher formation. The attack on the bombers was broken off when the higher formation attacked the Gladiators. In the ensuing combat, Flight Lieutenant Gordon Steege and Flying Officer Wilfred Arthur each claimed a destroyed (seen to fall into the sea) and a damaged CR.42. Flying Officer Peter Turnbull, Flying Officer John Perrin and Flying Officer Alan Rawlinson each claimed one probable.
The CR.42s were 14 fighters from the newly arrived 23o Gruppo led by the CO, Maggiore Tito Falconi and 22 CR.42s from the 10o Gruppo. The CR.42s from the 23o Gruppo included three from the 70a Squadriglia (Tenente Claudio Solaro, Sergente Pardino Pardini and Tenente Gino Battaggion), five from the 74a Squadriglia (Capitano Guido Bobba, Tenente Lorenzo Lorenzoni, Sottotenente Sante Schiroli, Sergente Maggiore Raffaele Marzocca (forced to return early due to a sudden illness) and Sergente Manlio Tarantino) and five from the 75a Squadriglia (Tenente Pietro Calistri, Tenente Ezio Monti, Sottotenente Renato Villa, Sottotenente Leopoldo Marangoni and Maresciallo Carlo Dentis). The fighters from the the 10o Gruppo included seven from the 91a Squadriglia (Maggiore Carlo Romagnoli, Capitano Vincenzo Vanni, Capitano Pluda, Sottotenente Andrea Dalla Pasqua, Sottotenente Ruggero Caporali, Sergente Maggiore Lorenzo Migliorato and Sergente Elio Miotto), nine from the 84a Squadriglia (Capitano Luigi Monti, Tenente Antonio Angeloni, Sottotenente Luigi Prati, Sottotenente Bruno Devoto, Sergente Domenico Santonocito, Sergente Corrado Patrizi, Sergente Piero Buttazzi, Sergente Luciano Perdoni and Sergente Mario Veronesi) and six from the 90a Squadriglia (Tenente Giovanni Guiducci, Tenente Franco Lucchini, Sottotenente Alessandro Rusconi, Sottotenente Neri De Benedetti, Sergente Luigi Contarini and Sergente Giovanni Battista Ceoletta), which had taken off at 13:00.
They were escorting ten SM 79s from the 41o Stormo under Tenente Colonnello Draghelli and five SM 79s 216a Squadriglia, 53o Gruppo, 34o Stormo, led by Tenente Stringa. The SM 79s had taken off from M2 at 12:25 and attacked Sollum harbour’s jetty (reportedly hit) and two destroyers inside Sollum Bay (with poor results because of the heavy AA fire). AA from the ships hit four bombers from the 34o Stormo; one of them, piloted by Sottotenente Bellini had to force land close to Ain El Gazala with the central engine out of action. Returning pilots reported an attempt to intercept by some Gladiators but the escort repulsed the British fighters. They landed without further problems at 15:15.
Over the target, immediately after the bombing, the Italian fighters reported the interception of “enemy aircraft” alternatively “many Glosters” or “Hurricanes and Glosters”. The 70a Squadrigli pilots claimed a shared Hurricane, this was possibly an aircraft from 33 Squadron. This unit’s ORB reported that during the day’s patrols many SM 79s and CR.42s were intercepted with one CR.42 believed damaged. Two Gladiators confirmed and two probables were shared between the whole 10o Gruppo. Another Gladiator was assigned to the 23o Gruppo (in the documents of 75a Squadriglia but this is not confirmed by the other two Squadriglie). Many Glosters were claimed damaged by Tenente Lorenzoni, Sottotenente Schiroli, Sergente Tarantino, Sottotenente Marangoni, Tenente Calistri, Tenente Monti and Sottotenente Villa. The CR.42s were back between 14:30 and 15:05.
No Gladiators were lost even if three of them were damaged (all repairable within the unit). The Australians had done a very good job indeed, facing a formation four times more numerous (even if it seem improbable that all the Italian fighters were able to join the combat). From the Italian reports it seems that only the front sections of the escort (including the 74a, 75a and the 84a Squadriglie) were engaged in a sharp dogfight with the Gladiators. The Australians were able to shot down the CO of the 74a Squadriglia, Capitano Guido Bobba, who was killed when his fighter fell in flames into the sea and damaged Tenente Lorenzoni’s fighter, who landed at T2 (and came back to Z1 the day after). Three more CR.42s were damaged when Tenente Angeloni was forced to land at T5 before reaching Z1, Sergente Veronesi’s fighter was damaged and Sottotenente Prati was forced to make an emergency landing short of T2 (his fighter was reportedly undamaged and only suffering for a slight engine breakdown). Maggiore Falconi’s fighter was also heavily damaged but managed to return. The morning after Angeloni was able to return to Z1 with his aircraft.
Capitano Guido Bobba was awarded a posthumously Medaglia d’Argento al valor militare. He was replaced as CO of the 74a Squadriglia by Tenente Mario Pinna.

The Stormo was sent back to Italy on Christmas Day 1940 in order to commence its re-equipment with MC.200s.

Capitano Pluda took over command of the 73a Squadriglia from Tenente Pietro Bonfatti on 1 March at Gorizia airfield.

On 4 April 1941 the 73a Squadriglia (Capitano Pluda (CO), Tenente Pietro Bonfatti, Sottotenente Giuseppe Oblach, Sottotenente Alvaro Querci, Maresciallo Mario Ruffilli, Sergente Antonio Valle, Sergente Santo Gino, Sergente Rossi, Sergente Mario Guerci, Sergente Maggiore Giovanni Gallerani (96a Squadriglia) and Sergente Maggiore Raffaele Novelli (97a Squadriglia)) was transferred to Alture di Pola.

On 9 April Capitano Pluda, Tenente Pietro Bonfatti, Sottotenente Giuseppe Oblach, Maresciallo Mario Ruffilli and Sergente Santo Gino, protected by MC.200s of the 84a Squadriglia, attacked thirteen seaplanes at Slosella harbour (now Pirovac). Eight seaplanes were claimed as sunk and two more on the ground were damaged. AA fire damaged Pluda’s aircraft in the right wing and Bonfatti’s in the tail.

The mission was repeated two days later when Pluda led eight aircraft. Bonfatti, Oblach and Santo Gino attacked the seaplanes while Pluda and the rest of the squadriglia strafed AA sites. Three seaplanes were burned and two were severely damaged.

On 13 April, while escorting a Fiat BR.20 on a reconnaissance mission at 1500 m over Zara (now Zadar), Sebenico and Divulje, Tenente Pietro Bonfatti spotted a flying boat riding at anchor at Divulje. Capitano Pluda ordered him, Sottotenente Giuseppe Oblach and Sergente Antonio Valle to dive and strafe it, while Pluda, Alvaro Querci, Tenente Giulio Reiner and Sergente Santo Gino stayed beside the Fiat. The flying boat was sunk.
During the return flight, the BR.20 lowered to 500 m while the escort remained at 1500m. Over Sebenico the BR.20 was shot down by AA fire but the escort returned unhurt.

In July 1941, they re-equipped again with MC.202s.

On 27 September, the whole 9o Gruppo, now equipped with brand new Macchi MC.202s, left Gorizia and flew to Rome-Ciampino, where they two days later met Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, which greeted them. Later the same day they went to Comiso (Sicily) for a new tour of duty, this time against Malta.
At this time the 73a Squadriglia was composed of Capitano Pluda (CO), Capitano Carlo Ivaldi, Tenente Pietro Bonfatti, Sottotenente Giuseppe Oblach, Sottotenente Felice Bussolin, Sottotenente Alvaro Querci, Sergente Maggiore Enrico Dallari, Sergente Santo Gino, Sergente Rossi, Sergente Mario Guerci, Sergente Maggiore Teresio Martinoli and Sergente Armando Angelini.

In the morning of 1 October 1941, the 9o Gruppo undertook its first sorties over Malta with its new aircraft with seven MC.202s from the 73a Squadriglia led by Capitano Pluda. Partaking pilots were Capitano Carlo Ivaldi, Tenente Pietro Bonfatti, Sottotenente Giuseppe Oblach, Sergente Maggiore Enrico Dallari, Sergente Santo Gino and Sottotenente Alvaro Querci (Querci was however forced to return due to problems with his oxygen supply).
At 11:50, eight Hurricanes from 185 Squadron scrambled after the incoming ‘bandits’, climbing to 24,000 feet. At this height, 48 kilometres north-east of the island, they were jumped by the Macchis while they were still climbing at 7500 meters altitude. The Squadron CO, 24-year-old Squadron Leader Peter ‘Boy’ Mould (RAF no. 33414) (Hurricane Z5265/GL-T) was shot down and killed (at this time Mould was credited with 8 and 3 shared victories). Capitano Ivaldi, Tenente Bonfatti and Sergente Maggiore Dallari claimed two Hurricanes shot down and two probables between them in this first pass; Bonfatti reported that he saw his opponent to jump and parachute (according to some sources the Italian pilots claimed three victories). Sergeant Ernie Knight got in a shot at the attackers, obtaining hits on Ivaldi’s aircraft (MM7723), which he claimed damaged. The Macchi had been hit in its main fuel tank, and with all fuel drained away, was obliged to force-land on a beach near Pozzzallo, on regaining the Sicilian coast.
Regarding the loss of Squadron Leader Mould, Flying Officer Peter Thompson provided an account:

“The CO was leading A Flight in a scramble after a +2. These he spotted and proceeded to give chase. As they were above him, he was compelled to lose speed in order to gain height. A further plot of +9 then appeared which he apparently did not hear about owing to R/T failure, and just when he was unfavourably placed - he had followed the +2 out of the sun - the formation was jumped by about a dozen Macchis and CR42s. F/O Murch was hit in the wing and several others, in an attempt to turn to engage, spun off. The situation was hopeless and our pilots broke off the engagement and returned to base - with one exception, the CO.
Immediately, the rescue services were put into operation - two motor boats, a float-fish
[Swordfish floatplane] and three Hurricanes led by P/O Veitch went to search in the area where the CO was presumed to have crashed. A patch of oil was reported. As time went on and still no further definite news arrived, the grave faces of the pilots at dispersal reflected the general feeling that little hope could be held for the CO’s rescue. Another three Hurricanes led by myself went out later in the afternoon but nothing was seen.
At about four o’clock Controller phoned Jeff and reported that Lt Eyres of the Rescue Service
[in the Swordfish floatplane] had seen the patch of oil with flourescence in the middle of it, and much against everyone’s will, the following conclusion had been reached - the CO had been killed. Everyone joins in offering their deepest sympathies to the CO’s wife. The tragedy of his death is beyond real expression. He was the most courageous, popular and beloved CO - we count it a privilege and an honour to have been associated with him.”

At 17:55 on 22 October, six 73a Squadriglia MC.202s, escorted by eight more, strafed Luqa. Nine Hurricanes of 249 Squadron were sent off to intercepts, the Macchis diving on them as they were climbing up over St. Paul’s Island. Sergeant Dave Owen (Hurricane GN-R), was shot down in flames, but managed to bale out before the fighter hit the sea. Sergeant Alf Branch (Z4016) noted in his logbook:

“Sgt Owen shot down into sea – circled him until picked up. Gave two short bursts head-on at a 202 – did not claim anything.”
Owen had been acting as a weaver in company with Pilot Officer R. H. ‘Bob’ Matthews whose aircraft (Z3756) was again hit, as he recorded in his diary:
“Just over St Paul’s Bay, when we were at about 15,000 feet, we saw the enemy aircraft - seven down, six above coming in very fast and diving apparently towards Takali. They were quite near when they turned towards us, still diving. They crossed us to the left of the formation and, as they came up, I pulled up my nose and gave a long burst so that the whole of the formation flew through it. They went over and all turned steeply to the left, while we nosed down and turned to the left also, trying to get some speed on the clock. We broke as they turned to fight and the whole sky filled up with aircraft milling around, and a few firing. Several Macchis stayed up and played the dive and climb tactics. As I circled after one Macchi, another jumped me and put a burst over my wings, both sides, so I turned and skidded away. I began circling to gain height, edging towards Valetta, which was darker than the west And just as I was turning towards a couple of Macchis, another jumped me from above and got in a burst which hit me pretty badly. I could smell the incendiary and explosive as they hit. And again I turned violently. As I did so, I saw a Hurricane go down steeply in flames and eventually hit the water. I did not see anyone get out.
Again I began the circling climb racket with several other Hurricanes with me. One came up behind and I shied away in case it was a Macchi. Then suddenly the Macchis went and we were left at about 12,000 feet in the growing gloom. I came in and landed, just avoiding a wing dip on account of my damaged (leading) edge. Of course, there was an inquest on the battle. I had bullets all over the place. One went into my left wing and smashed two ammo tanks, exploding a lot of ammunition in them. One went down the semi-armour plate on the cowling and burst when it hit the glycol filler cap cones, and blew it open. Another hit my mainspar about one foot from the wing-root and almost blew it apart - the wing surface was blown open about six inches on either side of the strike, The last went through the trailing edge - a clean hole. So that was another day of near shaves. I admit that I felt pretty fagged when I landed, and very upset. I could easily have been sick. The day after that I caught sandfly fever and went up to M’tarfa
[Hospital] for a week.”
This was the second time in the last two outings that Matthews and Owen had been targeted by the Macchis from the 73a Squadriglia, causing Pilot Officer Harry Moon to comment laconically:
“Sgt Owen and P/O Matthews (weavers) consistently shot up and down!”
The 73a Squadriglia pilots claimed heavily; two Hurricanes were credited to Tenente Pietro Bonfatti and one each to Capitano Pluda, Sottotenente Alvaro Querci (according to some sources he was credited with two victories), Sergente Maggiore Teresio Martinoli and Sergente Mario Guerci, while probables went to Maggiore Antonio Larsimont and Capitano Carlo Ivaldi. One Macchi was damaged in the combat.

Around midday on 25 October, four Cant Z.1007bis from the 9o Stormo B.T. approached Grand Harbour, escorted by MC.200s of the 54o Stormo as close cover, with 20 MC.202 of the 9o Gruppo providing indirect support.
185 Squadron scrambled eight Hurricanes led by Flying Officer Gay Bailey (BD835) (11:35-12:30), which dived to attack the bombers (identified as BR.20s). Bailey reported:

“I was Red 1. When approaching Kalafrana from the south-east at 25,000 feet, I saw ack-ack bursts and then four enemy bombers. The e/a were heading towards us at about 20,000 feet. We dived for head-on attack. E/a turned and went out to sea. We caught them about six miles north-east of Grand Harbour. I opened fire on e/a on the left, fired one burst at 400 yards, and closed, firing. Broke off to the left and re-engaged and fired all my ammo. I noticed strikes on the starboard engine. Enemy fighters were circling above all the time. I was hit by a .5 bullet in fuselage.”
Red 2, Pilot Officer Oliver, fired at the same aircraft and reported obtaining a few hits on its port wing and engine, but broke away when Macchis dived at him. Blue Section followed, Sergeant Ream (Blue 1) only managing a short burst at the bomber before a Macchi attempted to get on his tail. His companion, Sergeant Bill Nurse (Blue 2), also attacked the bomber:
“I opened fire from 300 yards astern, my bullets entering the fuselage. I opened fire again from 200 yards, giving a six-second burst, and observed strikes on the fuselage and port engine. I closed in again, firing until my ammunition ran out, and again observed my bullets entering the port engine and wing-root. I broke away at 50 yards, and I think I stopped the port engine.”
Sergeant Trevor Bates, leading Yellow Section, fired at the unfortunate bomber until his guns stopped. He reported that ”something flew past me when I was about 100 feet away.” The Z.1007bis at the centre of all the attention was hit hard, its port engine being stopped, and it was considered to have been probably destroyed. In fact, the bomber managed to reach Sicily, where it belly-landed at Comiso with one dead and one wounded aboard.
At this point the Hurricanes were bounced by the MC.202s and Sergeant Ernest G. Knight (RAF no. 1164161) (Z3456) was shot down, being listed as missing. Sergeant Cyril Hunton got a short burst into one MC.202, which he claimed as a probable. He reported:
“I was flying as Yellow 2, when I saw on my starboard side, about five miles away, four enemy bombers. I followed my No1, who went in to attack one of the bombers. I was about 300 yards behind him when an enemy all-black fighter with an in-line engine came up to attack Sgt Bates and crossed my sight. I fired, and got on his tail, firing continually until I saw three Macchis attacking from above, when I broke off firing. As I turned towards the other fighters and fired, I ran out of ammunition. The first Macchi I attacked was leaving a thin trail of smoke when I broke off and came back.”
Italian search craft later found the wreckage of the fighter floating in the sea. Hunton had shot down the 4o Stormo’s commander, Tenente Colonnello Eugenio Leotta (MM7728), who was posthumously awarded the Medaglia d’oro al valor militare.
Two fighters were claimed shot down by Tenente Colonnello Minio Paulello, one by Maggiore Antonio Larsimont and one as a shared by Capitano Pluda and Tenente Pietro Bonfatti, all on this occasion claimed as ‘Spitfires’.
Of the loss of Sergeant Knight, a 20-year-old from Birmingham, Flying Officer Peter Thompson wrote in the diary:
“Sgt Knight did not return from this engagement and in the subsequent search, which lasted all afternoon, no trace of him could be found. It is assumed that he was jumped by the fighter cover. Sgt Knight showed great promise as a fighter pilot. He was deservedly popular with everyone and it is with sincere regret that I have to record his death.
It has been impressed on pilots that they must maintain pair formation under all circumstances. No2s have been told to keep with their No Is. This also applies conversely: No1s must keep with their No2s. It so often happens that the No1 has the superior machine, and if he goes ‘balls out’, his No2 cannot keep up. It therefore behoves the leader of the section to maintain a speed which enables his No2 to hold formation comfortably. Sgt Knight, flying a heavy cannon machine, was probably left behind with the disastrous results that we all know.”

On 8 November, 18 MC.202s from the 4o Stormo led by Tenente Colonnello Marco Minio Paluello, and a similar number of C.200s from the 54o Stormo escorted four Cant Z.1007bis over Malta at midday.
Four Hurricanes from 126 Squadron led by Flight Lieutenant J. M. V. “Chips” Carpenter intercepted them. The enemy bombers were misidentified when the three-engined bombers were seen from above, and they were thought to be Cant Z.506B floatplanes! The British fighters made for the bombers but were attacked by the MC.202s (the pilots of which identified their opponents as ‘Spitfires’ on this occasion). Carpenter claimed one Macchi shot down:

“After I had broken away I saw two aircraft spinning down at my own level. I followed one down and saw the splash as it hit the sea. The second was in a flat spin and took much longer to come down. It was not going straight down but drifting out north. At about 6,000 feet it seemed as if something broke away as it went into a nose dive and went straight in. I could not see in what relation to the island very accurately as there was so much cloud about.” Another Macchi was claimed probably destroyed by Sergeant Tom C. Worrall. He reported that they meet 15 (inline) Macchis escorting Cant Z.1007s at a height between 6,400 meters and 7,000 meters between 12:00 and 12:05. He wrote in his combat report:
“I was flying Red 2 of F/LT Carpenter when the Tallyho was given and followed him to the attack. As we turned towards them I called over the R. T. to warn Red 1 that fighter escort was making towards us. They dived on to us and I put a short burst into one of them, and saw pieces fall off and some black smoke. 4 Macchis then got on to my tail and fired at me, and I was forced to break off to avoid them.”
The Australian Sergeant Allan Haley (Hurricane Z3033) reported:
“As we were going for the bombers, the Macchis dived on us. I counted 16, and as I went after one of them, I saw the rest of the Hurricanes keeping engagements of their own. One of them was among six of the enemy, four of whom were on his tail. I put a few bursts into the one I was after, and his tail began to smoke. Then another attacked me from astern. I turned and saw this chap and flew straight at him. I expected him to turn, as the Italians usually do; but he didn’t, he came straight on. Perhaps the pilot was killed and the Macchi was flying itself; anyway, I flew right into him, and the Macchi broke up in the air. There were pieces all over the place.
I am told that one of my wings broke off, but I don’t know, for I didn’t see the Hurricane again. I was in a spin and didn’t need to jump, I just opened the lid and fell out. I thought I might have a broken leg. I was about 2,000 feet up at the time, and as I came down over the island I saw that I was going to land on a village. I hit the wall of a house, and landed on a flat roof right on top of a dog, which let out a terrific yell, jumped off the roof, and belted up the road.”
Haley was credited with one Macchi MC.200 destroyed and one more damaged.
Meanwhile Pilot Officer H. P. ‘Pat’ Lardner-Burke (BD789/G) had attacked another MC.202, which he claimed shot down (he was also credited with one damaged MC.202), but he was badly wounded when a 12.7 mm round fired from a 96aa Squadriglia MC.202 at close range penetrated the armour plate behind his seat and passed through his chest, puncturing a lung. He was however able to return to his airfield where he at once was removed to hospital (he was later awarded a DFC for this combat).
Watching the air battle overhead and subsequent drama was 249 Squadron’s Pilot Officer R. H. Matthews:
“All we could hear was machine-gun fire and the rise and fall of engines. Then a Macchi spun through the cloud behind M’dina and burnt. Next came an odd-shaped object which turned out to be a Hurricane minus tail and wing. It fell nearby and burnt; bits of fabric and wing followed it down. Later on the pilot came through on his brolly. Then another Hurricane came through the cloud trailing out a lot of smoke. He made an approach then staggered round again and made a landing. When he taxied up we saw that the side and top were blown for six and full of splinter holes. P/O [Lardner] Burke was the pilot. When he took off his mask we could see the blood trickle from the corner of his mouth. We hauled him out and as he went into the ambulance he was sick. An armour piercing bullet had gone through his [armour] plate, through the seat, through his left hand side and into the dashboard. The burst was nine strikes over the plating from close to. But he got the man he was chasing. For this he got the DFC.”
Flight Lieutenant T. F. Neil was also on hand to help:
“The propeller was still turning as I pulled down the retractable step and climbed onto the wing-walk, the slipstream clutching at my face and hair. The pilot still had his face mask attached but I recognised him immediately as Pat Lardner-Burke. Pat’s head was bowed and his shoulders slumped, He undid his mask, clumsily. He was obviously in shock and pain. I sought to comfort him. Whatever its virtues, the Hurricane was not designed to enable a damaged pilot to be evacuated easily. About ten feet in the air, the cockpit did not have a side-flap, as did the Spitfire, so that to dismount, the pilot was obliged to climb out backwards, using first the cockpit rim then one of the steps, before walking down the wing- root and jumping to the ground. Needless to say, such gymnastics were beyond anyone crippled by wounds. Aware of the need to act quickly, I tried climbing onto the rim of the cockpit myself but found nowhere to put my feet. Then I thought about sitting on top of the open hood but saw immediately that I would not be able to reach down sufficiently to heave him up bodily. A pox on the man who designed this aircraft, I thought wildly, we would have to get a crane and winch him out. But there was no crane, or none that wouldn’t take hours to find and fetch.”
Neil urgently explained the situation to the barely conscious pilot, who nonetheless managed to pull himself to his feet while Neil grasped his shoulders. With great difficulty they reached the ground and Lardner-Burke was stretchered away to a waiting ambulance. Meanwhile, Neil returned to the damaged aircraft:
“There was not much damage but what there was was frightening. Several bullets had hit the side of the aircraft behind the cockpit and one had punched a hole in the armour-plate as though it had been nothing more than a sheet of aluminium. After it had penetrated the back of the seat, it went completely through the pilot, before continuing through the dashboard and into the armour-plate and darkness beyond. Several other pilots joined me and breathed their horrified astonishment. Crikey! And we’d always thought.. .!"
Capitano Pluda (Macchi MC.202 MM7744) and Sergente Maggiore Luigi Taroni (96a Squadriglia) (MM7736) were both killed in this combat. The Italian fighter claimed only one victory as a shared by the pilots from the 96a Squadriglia plus two damaged.
It seems that Pluda was the one that collided with Haley. Haley’s aircraft crashed near the AA gun position at Halq Dieri, west of Zebbug, while Pluda’s Macchi came down at Wied Qasrun, 1,6 km north-west of Dingli, the impact throwing up a cloud of dust and debris 100 meters into the air.
Tenente Pietro Bonfatti temporarily took command over the 73a Squadriglia after Capitano Pluda’s death.

At the time of his death, Pluda was credited with 1 biplane victory and a total of 2.

Pluda is buried in Cimitero Maggiore di Musocco, Milan.

Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
1 20/11/40 14:40-16:30 1 Gladiator (a) Destroyed Fiat CR.42   Sidi Barrani area 73a Squadriglia
  26/12/40 13:00-15:05 1/22 Gladiator (b) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.42   Sollum area 91a Squadriglia
  26/12/40 13:00-15:05 1/22 Gladiator (b) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.42   Sollum area 91a Squadriglia
  26/12/40 13:00-15:05 1/22 Gladiator (b) Shared probable Fiat CR.42   Sollum area 91a Squadriglia
  26/12/40 13:00-15:05 1/22 Gladiator (b) Shared probable Fiat CR.42   Sollum area 91a Squadriglia
2 22/10/41 17:55 1 Hurricane (c) Destroyed MC.202   St. Paul’s Island 73a Squadriglia
  25/10/41 11:35-12:30 1/2 ’Spitfire’ (d) Shared destroyed MC.202   Grand Harbour area 73a Squadriglia

Biplane victories: 1 and 2 shared destroyed, 2 shared probably destroyed.
TOTAL: 2 and 3 shared destroyed, 2 shared probably destroyed.
(a) Claimed in combat with Hurricanes from 33 and 274 Squadrons and Gladiators from 112 Squadron. 9o Gruppo claimed seven victories and two probables while losing three CR.42s, getting four more damaged and losing two pilots KIA. 112 Squadron claimed eight victories for no losses, 274 Squadron possibly suffered one damaged Hurricane while 33 Squadron possibly claimed a CR.42 without losses.
(b) Claimed in combat with Gladiators from 3 RAAF Squadron, which claimed 2 and 3 probables without any losses, and possibly Hurricanes from 33 Squadron, which claimed a damaged CR.42 during the day. The 23o Gruppo claimed 1 Hurricane and 1 Gladiator and the 10o Gruppo claimed 2 and 2 probable Gladiators while losing one CR.42 and getting five more damaged.
(c) Claimed in combat with Hurricanes from 249 Squadron. 73a Squadriglia claimed 6 destroyed and 2 probables while 249 Squadron lost 1 aircraft and got a second damaged.
(d) Claimed in combat with Hurricanes from 185 Squadron, which claimed 1 probable bomber and 1 MC.202 while losing 1 Hurricane (Sgt. E. Knight KIA). The 9o claimed 4 enemy fighters while losing 1 MC.202.

33 Squadron Operations Record Book
Diario Storico 73a Squadriglia kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Diario Storico 97a Squadriglia kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Elenco Nominativo dei Militari dell’ A. M. Decorati al V. M. Durante it Periodo 1929 - 1945 2 Volume M - Z
Hurricanes over Malta - Brian Cull and Frederick Galea, 2001 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-902304-91-8
Hurricanes over the sands: Part One - Michel Lavigne and James F. Edwards, 2003 Lavigne Aviation Publications, Victoriaville, ISBN 2-9806879-2-8
Macchi C.202/C.205V Units In Combat – Marco Mattioli, 2022 Osprey Publishing, Oxford, ISBN 978-1-4728-5068-3
Malta: The Hurricane Years 1940-41 - Christopher Shores and Brian Cull with Nicola Malizia, 1987 Grub Street, London, ISBN 0-89747-207-1
Ministero della Difesa - Banca Dati sulle sepolture dei Caduti in Guerra
Quelli del Cavallino Rampante - Antonio Duma, 1981 Editore Dell'Ateneo, Roma, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Additional information kindly provided by Ian Acworth, Stefano Lazzaro, Ludovico Slongo and Gianmaria Spagnoletti.

Last modified 06 December 2023