Biplane fighter aces

Italy

Sergente Vittorio Pozzati

On 12 July 1940, the 9o Gruppo C.T. arrived at Tripoli from Comiso with 33 Fiat CR.42s under the command of Maggiore Ernesto Botto. The Gruppo consisted of 73a, 96a and 97a Squadriglie.
The 96a Squadriglia included Capitano Roberto Fassi (CO), Tenente Alessandro Viotti, Tenente Aldo Gon, Tenente Emanuele Annoni, Sottotenente Bruno Paolazzi, Sottotenente Carlo Agnelli, Sergente Maggiore Dante Labanti, Sergente Maggiore Graziadio Rizzati, Sergente Maggiore Giovanni Gallerani, Sergente Bruno Spitzl, Sergente Pozzati, Sergente Gustavo Minelli, Sergente Bruno Biagini and Sergente Luigi Battaini. In fact, the Squadriglia moved to Libya with only seven non-commissioned officers (Battani was possibly the one who remained in Italy).
Together with the 10o Gruppo they formed the 4o Stormo C.T.
The Gruppo’s Fiat CR.42s was wisely retrofitted with tropical kits for guns and engines, to avoid the problems suffered by the other Gruppi.

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 Pozzati together with 4o Stormo’s adjutant, Capitano Mario 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).

9o Gruppo returned from the desert and was re-equipped with Macchi MC.200s. In July 1941, they re-equipped again with MC.202s.
By December 1941 they were back in the desert.

At 10:40 on 8 December, eight MC.202s from the 9o Gruppo led by Capitano Ezio Viglione Borghese (96a Squadriglia) commenced a patrol of the Ain el Gazala-Trigh Capuzzo-Tobruk area. They were followed by eleven MC.202s from the 17o Gruppo (six from the 71a Squadriglia, two from the 72a Squadriglia and three from the 80a Squadriglia), which took off at 11:30 to protect the coastal road between Ain el Gazala and Tobruk. These Macchis flew in vics disposed in echelon right at the height of 4000 metres.
It seems that both formations encountered the same Allied formation, which comprised 18 Blenheims drawn from two squadrons, escorted by Hurricanes from 274 and 1 SAAF Squadrons.
The situation at this time was very confusing. However, at 10:30, 84 Squadron Blenheims took off, targeting a very important concentration of vehicles in the area of El Adem. Cover was granted by eleven Hurricane IIB from 274 Squadron (take-off at 11:30), together while others from 1 SAAF Squadron (take-off at 11:30) were up to escort 18 Blenheims targeting the area of El Adem. The mission was considered very successful because 53 vehicles (of some 250 reported) were thought to be destroyed.
5-10 miles south-west of El Adem, 274 Squadron pilots saw a reported 30 Axis fighters; Bf 109s, MC.200s and MC.202s, coming from south-east while 1 SAAF Squadron continued to fly towards base with the bombers without seeing the enemy fighters. 274 Squadron, even if they thought to be heavily outnumbered, engaged the enemies. The Commonwealth pilots reported that the Macchis preferred to dogfight with the Hurricanes while the Bf 109s dove continuously.
The 9o Gruppo attacked first and back at base, they reported they had met a dozen Hurricanes that were strafing Italian vehicles. The head of the Italian formation led the attack and Sottotenente
Jacopo Frigerio (97a Squadriglia) attacked four enemy fighters at several times; he then had to land at Z because his Macchi had run out of fuel. On spotting the enemy aircraft, Sottotenente Giovanni Barcaro (97a Squadriglia) closed in to Capitano Viglione to warn him and together they attacked and shot down one enemy aircraft in flames. He subsequently fired on four more aircraft (totally using 184 rounds) before landing at Z.2 for refuelling. Maresciallo Otello Perotti (97a Squadriglia) fired on two enemy aircraft (using 263 rounds) but couldn’t observe the effects. He landed at Z for refuelling and claimed a probable Hurricane. Another two enemy aircraft were claimed by Sergente Maggiore Bruno Spitzl (96a Squadriglia) and Pozzati (96a Squadriglia). Tenente Fernando Malvezzi (96a Squadriglia) hit a P-40 with a long burst but couldn’t assess the result because he was attacked from behind by another P-40.
Altogether, the 9o Gruppo, which returned to base at 12:00, claimed four destroyed (Spitzl, Pozzati, Sergente Alfredo Bombardini (97a Squadriglia) and the shared between Capitano Viglione and Sottotenente Barcaro). Ten more Hurricanes were claimed as damaged (three by Sottotenente Barcaro, two by Maresciallo Perotti, four by Sottotenente Frigerio and one by Malvezzi). Sergente Bombardini’s fighter (MM7739) was damaged and had to land at Ain el Gazala but the airfield had to be evacuated and the Macchi had to be destroyed there.
As 274 Squadron sought to return to base, they were hit by the 17o Gruppo, which had taken off at 11:30 with eleven MC.202 (six from the 71a Squadriglia, two from the 72a Squadriglia and three from the 80a Squadriglia) for a protective patrol of Axis troops retreating along the coastal strip between Ain el Gazala and Tobruk. The Macchis, keeping a wedge patrol formation on the right wing at an altitude of 4,000m, reported that they at 12:00 met a formation of fighters, claiming six of them shot down (Tenente Renato Talamini (80a Squadriglia) (Hurricane), Sottotenete Renato Bagnoli (80a Squadriglia) (Tomahawk), Tenente Mario Carini (72a Squadriglia) (Hurricane), Sottotenete Vittorio Bacchi Andreoli (71a Squadriglia) (Tomahawk), Maresciallo Achille Martina (71a Squadriglia) (Tomahawk) and Sottotenete Guido Modiano (72a Squadriglia) (Hurricane). Sottotenente Ottorino Capellini (71a Squadriglia) and Sergente Maggiore Mario Host (80a Squadriglia) claimed a probable Tomahawk each. Totally the 71a Squadriglia used 1270 rounds of ammunition while the 80a Squadriglia used 1870. Tenente Carini (MM7758), hit in the cooling system, crash-landed near Bir le Fa while Tenente Talamini’s MC.202 was damaged in the left wing. The Italian fighters were back between 12:50 and 12:55.
The hard-pressed 274 Squadron claimed one Bf 109, one MC.202 (both by Sergeant James Dodds (Hurricane Z2835)) and two probables (Sergeant Robert Henderson (Z5367) and Sergeant R. H. N. Walsh (Z5435) and five damaged (between Squadron Leader Sidney Linnard (Z5064) (two MC.200s), Pilot Officer Patrick Moriarty (Z4015) (two MC.202s) and Pilot Officer George Keefer (BD880) (one Bf 109)).
Three Hurricanes were lost with one being seen going down vertically and one in flames. 26-year-old Flight Lieutenant Owen Vincent Tracey (RAF no. 42774) (Hurricane IIb BD885) and Sergeant Haines (Hurricane IIb Z5066) were missing while Sergeant John Paterson McDonnell was hit during the combat and crash-landed at Tobruk writing off his Hurricane IIb BE347. A fourth Hurricane IIb (Z5130) flown by Pilot Officer Thompson was also forced to land in Tobruk. 84 Squadron recorded that the escort lost four aircraft of the twelve present.
It is necessary to point out that the combat area reported in the documents of 274 Squadron and the 17o Gruppo are different, however errors and misidentifications of locations were always possible and there were no matching German claims. For this reasons it seems likely that 274 Squadron fought against the 17o Gruppo. The identification of Italian fighters as the opponents of 274 Squadron during this combat seems to be corroborated also by the account of Squadron Leader Linnard who while engaged by a Bf 109, saw a MC.200 attacking a Hurricane, both aircraft making steep turns and losing height. Linnard shook free from his own combat and tried to shot the Macchi off the other Hurricane’s tail, but was too late, bullets from the Italian fighter, which was turning inside the Hurricane, striking the area of the cockpit. The stricken aircraft then turned over at low level and dived into the ground several miles south of El Adem, bursting into flames. A little later squadron personnel met South African soldiers who reported that they had found a grave beside a wrecked Hurricane, and that on this was a flying helmet and the identity disc of Flight Lieutenant Tracey; it therefore seems probable that he had been the victim of the Macchi. The 20o and 153o Gruppi, which flew radial engined fighters, didn’t meet any Commonwealth fighter during the day even if they escorted Stukas three times and the MC.202 was a new machine in North Africa skies, easy to be confused with other types. It is interesting that 1 SAAF Squadron wasn’t aware of the combat. The number of enemy fighters estimated by 274 Squadron leads to think that probably other Axis fighters were up together with the MC.202s, in fact they could had been 15 Bf 109s that at taken off at 11:45 to escort Ju 87 even if they didn’t record encounters with enemy fighters.
It is also possibly that 80 Squadron was involved in this combat since Hurricane IIs of 80 Squadron had taken off at 10:55 from LG 133 to attack axis vehicles in the Acroma area. 40 of them, going west, were discovered and bombed by all Hurricanes. Afterwards six of these dived for strafing while the rest of the formation remained high to give cover. This high section attacked a formation of twelve enemy fighters (Bf 109s and MC.202s) protecting fighter-bombers that could go on with their action. Back at base the returning pilots were very pleased by the outcome of the action where they had claimed two Bf 109Fs confirmed (Flying Officer R. Reynolds (Z4801) and Sergeant Frank Mason (Z4786)) and a MC.202 probable and two damaged (Sergeant G. H. Whyte (Z4714)) without suffering any loss. It is possible that these were in combat with the 9o Gruppo, which reported ground-strafing Hurricanes.

Pozzati ended the war with 1 biplane victory and a total of 2.

Claims:
Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  1940                
1 20/11/40 14:40-16:30 1 Gladiator (a) Destroyed Fiat CR.42   Sidi Barrani area 96a Squadriglia
  1941                
2 08/12/41 11:00-12:00 1 Hurricane (b) Destroyed MC.202   Ain el Gazala-Tobruk 96a Squadriglia

Biplane victories: 1 destroyed.
TOTAL: 1 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) Possibly claimed in combat with Hurricanes from 80 and or 274 Squadron, which claimed 4 enemy fighters, 3 probables and 7 damaged while losing 4 aircraft. The 9 and 17o Gruppi claimed 10 fighters, 2 probables and 10 damaged while losing 1 MC.202 and getting two damaged.

Sources:
33 Squadron Operations Record Book
A History of the Mediterranean Air War 1940-1945: Volume One – Christopher Shores and Giovanni Massimello with Russell Guest, 2012 Grub Street, London, ISBN 978-1908117076
Desert Prelude: Early clashes June-November 1940 - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2010 MMP books, ISBN 978-83-89450-52-4
Diario Storico 73a Squadriglia kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Diario Storico 97a 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
Hurricanes over the sands: Part One - Michel Lavigne and James F. Edwards, 2003 Lavigne Aviation Publications, Victoriaville, ISBN 2-9806879-2-8
La Battaglie Aeree In Africa Settentrionale: Novembre-Dicembre 1941 – Michele Palermo, IBN, ISBN 88-7565-102-7
Quelli del Cavallino Rampante - Antonio Duma, 1981 Editore Dell'Ateneo, Roma, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Additional information kindly provided by Ian Acworth and Ludovico Slongo.




Last modified 19 March 2017