Biplane fighter aces

Italy

Sergente Maggiore Sergio Stauble

In July 1940 Sergente Maggiore Stauble served in the 73a Squadriglia, 9o Gruppo C.T., which was equipped with CR.42s. In the beginning of this month the 9o Gruppo was sent to Comiso, Sicily to fly missions in the assault on Malta.

At dawn on 4 July, 24 CR.42s led by Maggiore Ernesto Botto took off from Comiso and headed south-east. When they reached the 36th Parallel, they headed towards Malta, thus having the rising sun at their backs. Approaching Hal Far airfield, Botto, Sergente Guglielmo Biffani, Sergente Maggiore Stauble, Capitano Giuseppe Mauriello (97a Squadriglia), Tenente Riccardo Vaccari and Sergente Maggiore Massimo Salvatore dived to attack.
The escort was composed by six CR.42s of the 73a Squadriglia led by Tenente Vittorio Pezzè 600 m above, six of the 97a Squadriglia led by Capitano Antonio Larsimont at 2000 m and finally by six of the 96a Squadriglia led by Capitano Roberto Fassi at 4000 meters.
Botto and his pilots attacked Hal Far by grazing the ground, and strafed a bomber and seven Gladiators that however did not burn. Intense anti-aircraft fire damaged two aircraft of the 96a Squadriglai; Salvatore’s, which had the ailerons shot out of use and Vaccari’s, which was hit at the leading edge of left wing. Two British fighters were spotted at 2000 m but these didn't attack the Italians. After the strafe, Botto’s flight hid in a cast of clouds and all the CR.42s returned home.
The Italian War Bulletin no. 25 reported:

"A formation of fighters, defying bad weather and intense AA fire, performed a brilliant strafing attack on the airfield of Hal Far (Malta), disabling eight aircraft parked there. All our aircraft came back home."
According RAF records the actual result from the attack was two damaged Swordfishes from 830 Squadron of which both were repairable.

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 73a Squadriglia included Tenente Vittorio Pezzè (CO), Tenente Valerio De Campo, Tenente Giulio Reiner, Tenente Pietro Bonfatti (assigned in the end of July), Sottotenente Giuseppe Oblach, Sottotenente Carlo Battaglia, Sottotenente Alvaro Querci, Maresciallo Mario Ruffilli, Maresciallo Alberto Montanari, Maresciallo Norino Renzi, Maresciallo Corrado Ranieri, Sergente Maggiore Guglielmo Biffani, Sergente Maggiore Enrico Dallari, Sergente Maggiore Stauble, Sergente Maggiore Antonio Valle, Sergente Santo Gino, Sergente Lido Poli, Sergente Pasquale Rossi, Sergente Mario Guerci (still in training) and Sergente Armando Matacena (still in training).
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.

At 14:10 on 12 December, a formation of fighters from the 9o Gruppo (14 CR.42s) led by Capitano Antonio Larsimont Pergameni took off to escort SM 79s and during the return journey ground strafed British vehicles on the Sollum-Buq-Buq road claiming four destroyed and four damaged.
Six CR.42s from the 73a Squadriglia (Tenente Valerio De Campo, Tenente Giulio Reiner, Tenente Pietro Bonfatti, Sottotenente Giuseppe Oblach, Sergente Maggiore Stauble and Sergente Pasquale Rossi) took part. It seems one aircraft from the 96a Squadriglia was lost after the action when Sergente Maggiore Giovanni Gallerani nosed over on landing and his fighters was written off during a clumsy recovery.

On an early morning patrol on 13 December, six Gladiators (Flight Lieutenant Gordon Steege, Flight Lieutenant Charles Gaden, Flying Officers Lex D. Winten, Flying Officer Alan Boyd, Flying Officer Wilfred Arthur and Flying Officer Alan Gatward) from the Advanced Detached Flight of 3 RAAF Squadron took off at 08:00 to fly an offensive fighter patrol over Sollum – Fort Capuzzo – Halfaya area. They came across five SM 79s bombing troops at Sollum escorted by a reported eight CR.42s. Diving in to attack Flight Lieutenant Steege shot down one of the bombers and claimed a second as a probable. Before the Gladiators could reform for a second attack, the escorting CR.42s intervened. Flight Lieutenant Gaden (Gladiator N5765) was killed when his aircraft was shot down and crashed into the desert. It was believed that Gaden was shot down by rear gunners of the SM 79s. Flying Officer Winten was hit in the right hand by an explosive bullet and baled out. Flying Officer Boyd claimed two CR.42s before his aircraft had its port flying wire shot away causing him to force land. Flying Officer Gatward was also forced down. Flying Officer Arthur's Gladiator (N5752) was shot to pieces and he decided to bale out. As he clambered out of the cockpit, he became entangled in his oxygen tube. He managed to break free only to be caught up in the interplane bracing wires. Unable to free himself he waited for the inevitable, when at about 1,000 feet he was thrown clear and parachuted to the ground. Later back in the mess he produced from his pocket the ripcord of his parachute, which meant that he did not have to buy drinks all round. Flight Lieutenant Steege was separated from the remainder of the flight, ran out of ammunition and returned to base at 10:30.
The Italians seems to have consisted of five SM 79s from the 60a Squadriglia, 33o Gruppo Autonomo BT, which had taken off from Z1 at 07:30. The formation was led by Tenente Colonnello Ferri Forte, who flew as second pilot in Capitano Loris Bulgarelli’s (CO of the 60a Squadriglia) SM 79 and they had been briefed to attack British troop concentrations in a desert area south of Sollum. The pilot of another bomber was Tenente Pastorelli and among his crew of five was Aviere Scelto Armiere Guido Reggiani. The bombers were escorted by ten CR.42s from the 9o Gruppo. The SM 79s were the first bombing effort of the day by the 5a Squadra and attacked a group of 30 British vehicles along the road Sollum-Buq-Buq at 08:45 and immediately after this, another group of 60 armoured vehicles south-east of Halfaya. The escort was led by Capitano Antonio Larsimont Pergameni (temporary CO of the 9o Gruppo since 10 December) and included the 73a Squadriglia (Tenente Valerio De Campo, Tenente Pietro Bonfatti, Tenente Giuseppe Oblach, Sottotenente Giulio Reiner, Sergente Maggiore Stauble and Sergente Enrico Dallari) and the 97a Squadriglia (Capitano Ezio Viglione Borghese, Sergente Franco Sarasino and Sergente Maggiore Otello Perotti). After 45 minutes of flight, between Sidi Omar and Sollum, they spotted a formation of Gladiators that soon attacked the SM 79s. Aviere Scelto Armiere Reggiani recorded that after the bombing the formation was attacked by a group of ten Gloster Gladiators. The gunners of the Savoias claimed the shooting down of two of them before they were dispersed by a squadriglia of the 4o Stormo’s fighters. Capitano Larsimont chased the leader but, while shooting at him from a short distance, he collided with a British wingman that was trying to avoid his bursts. In the collision, the Gladiator lost its wings and fell. Larsimont, whose aircraft was badly damaged in the fuselage and rudders, made an emergency landing on the Menastir M airfield; unfortunately the airstrip was already abandoned by the Italians due to the proximity of the British infantry so Larsimont had to abandon his damaged plane, which became a total loss. It seems possible that Larsimont’s victim (the Gladiator surprised while chasing the Savoias and observed to fall minus its wings) was Flying Officer Arthur who later recalled:

”(...) I was chasing some Italian bombers, Savoia-Marchettis I think they were. They were quite a lot faster than our aircraft were which meant you only chance of really catching them was to cut the corner if they were foolish enough to turn very much. In...also, if you’re chasing somebody like that you’re concentrating very much on that and you are a sitting duck for somebody else. And, in fact, that’s what happened to me. Chasing these Savoias I suddenly realised I was being attacked by an Italian aircraft which almost immediately ... a shell went into the top mainplane – do you know what I mean by the top mainplane where it was a biplane - the top main plane tore straight away and swung back towards the tail and the bottom main plane sort of followed it but a bit behind and I had no control at all, just completely loose control column. So I got out quickly (...)
Arthur remembered that the whole affair lasted a short time:
”Probably only fifty seconds or seventy or something like that. I got out of the cockpit quite quickly but by that time the thing was nearly vertically downwards and I got stuck underneath one of the main planes that had folded back against the fuselage and I couldn’t get out of that. I was kicking and trying to get myself free when I was very close to the ground and finally did get free but hit the ground very hard because...well, because I hadn’t had enough time to slow up, I suppose (...)”.
Wilfred Arthur hit the ground facing the wrong way and got dragged for quite a while with the parachute because there was heavy wind. After collapsing the parachute and freeing himself again, he was circled by two Italian aircraft, which he thought would shoot at him but in fact they didn’t. After the two Italian left the area, he started walking and after only a couple of hours was found and picked up by a long-range desert patrol.
Viglione fired at several Glosters and claimed one of them (the British pilot was seen parachuting by Bonfatti) while Perotti claimed another in a head-to-head attack (not verified with the Squadriglia diaries). Sarasino claimed damage to several Gladiators. Meanwhile, another formation of Gladiators jumped the 73a Squadriglia from above but these had been alerted and could react properly and a long and harsh dogfight began. Bonfatti, Oblach and Stauble claimed one each, while De Campo, Reiner and Dallari claimed one probable each. Several other Glosters were claimed damaged. Reiner’s, Bonfatti’s and Oblach’s aircraft were slightly damaged in combat but returned to base safely.
The 60a Squadriglia suffered no losses but Capitano Bulgarelli was hit in the head and killed by a burst of fire from one of the Gladiators. The same burst of fire also wounded Tenente Colonnello Forte. The dead Bulgarelli fell over the controls and only after the help of Tenente Pier Luigi Meroni, who managed to rise Bulgarelli body, thus keeping it clear from the controls, was Ferri Forte able to nurse back the damaged Savoia. Meroni remained all the time in front of the broken skull of Bulgarelli with blood and pieces of brain close to his face. (After the war, Meroni became a pilot in civil aviation and was the pilot of the plane in which the then famous football team of Turin (winner of many Italian championships) crashed against the hill of Superga on 4 May 1949; the greatest tragedy in the history of Italian sport). Bulgarelli was a highly regarded leader and during the last days was always at the head of the 33o formations attacking the advancing British troops. He was awarded a posthumous Medaglia d’Oro al valor militare for bravery in this and previous actions. During the landing, back at base Bulgarelli’s SM 79 and another one suffered additional damage and were classified RD.
Boyd’s force-landed Gladiator was possible to repair on site and he returned to Gerawla at 11:10 with Gatward sitting on his knee.
Out of the six Gladiators that took part in the combat, four were lost and the remaining two were damaged but repairable in the unit.
Flight Lieutenant Gaden was found dead in the cockpit of his Gladiator by the 7th Hussars while they were on the march. He was buried by Lieutenant J. Napier.
It was one of the hardest day of the war for the Australians and Flight Lieutenant Peter Jeffrey, then the Signals Officer of the unit but later to became its CO remembered it this way:
“(…) we had a very bad day on 13th December, it was over Salum (…) we had an extraordinary bad day – ran into a very big lot of CR42s and Flight Lieutenant Gaiden [Gaden] was killed but Arthur, “Wilf” Arthur was shot down (…). Lex Witton [Winten] had an explosive round in one hand and he bailed out. Gatwood [Gatward] and Boyd both crash-landed. So we had five, and that was a really very bad day for the Squadron (…) It was a very traumatic sort of experience but the Squadron was very resilient and picked up very quickly and the people who’d – apart from Witton who was a casualty because of his hand - the others were back flying again next day or in a few days’ time. To a certain extent, you know, you expected these things but that was just a bit bigger than we normally expected. And seeing as we’d had so much success prior with virtually no casualties it hit us a bit hard for a start. But it was only a few days later on the 26th when we got our revenge back (…)”.
In the meantime Larsimont, finding Menastir deserted, reached the nearby Balbia road and while waiting for a passing truck to stop, was shot at by a low flying Hurricane and had a narrow escape. After the collision, he was presumed dead by his pilots and so on the evening a message of condolences arrived from the HQ in Rome. In fact, he rejoined his unit the same day and at 15:05 was again at the head of his men.
It seems that another Italian fighter took part in this mission since Sottotenente Giuseppe Bottà of the 82a Squadriglia, 13o Gruppo, who was out on a “solo” reconnaissance over the front, discovered four Gladiators. These were attacking a patrol of SM 79s and he claimed to have forced the British fighter to disengage from the bombers with his intervention.

Following the morning’s adventure on 13 December, at 15:05, Capitano Antonio Larsimont Pergameni again led a patrol with four CR.42s from the 97a Squadriglia (Tenente Ezio Viglione Borghese, Sergente Maggiore Raffaele Novelli and Sergente Alcide Leoni), eight from the 73a Squadriglia (Tenente Valerio De Campo, Tenente Pietro Bonfatti, Sottotenente Giuseppe Oblach, Sottotenente Alvaro Querci, Sergente Maggiore Enrico Dallari, Sergente Maggiore Stauble, Sergente Maggiore Antonio Valle and Sergente Santo Gino) and eight from the 96a Squadriglia to make a ground strafing against a British convoy in the Sollum-Buq-Buq area. While returning one Hurricane was attacked and claimed damaged, apparently by a 73a Squadriglia pilot. They returned to T3 at 17:05 claiming nine armoured vehicles (five in flames and four damaged).

On 14 December, El Adem T3 was abandoned by the two Gruppi of the 4o Stormo because of the presence of British armoured cars in the surroundings of the airfield. The new base for the 9o and the 10o Gruppo was Derna N1.
During the day, the whole 4o Stormo was employed to attack the advancing British forces of Operation Compass. In several attacks more than 123 trucks, 31 armoured cars and 31 other vehicles were destroyed in this single day!
At least seven CR.42s from the 73a Squadriglia (Tenente Valerio De Campo, Tenente Pietro Bonfatti, Sottotenente Giuseppe Oblach, Sergente Maggiore Enrico Dallari, Sergente Maggiore Antonio Valle and Sergente Maggiore Stauble), four from the 97a Squadriglia (Capitano Antonio Larsimont Pergameni, Tenente Ezio Viglione Borghese, Sergente Maggiore Otello Perotti, Sergente Franco Sarasino) and four from the 96a Squadriglia taking part. They attacked between 13:10 and 15:00 and the 73a Squadriglia pilots claimed five armoured vehicles burned and four stopped. From this period Aldo Gon recorded:

“the period of the retreat was very hard and sad; very few of us were left with very few planes. Our most important task was ground strafing of enemy’s armoured vehicles and during one of these missions, I suffered my sixth flying accident. We had to take off from El Adem and land west of it, at Derna. After the ground strafing, while coming back and gaining height I discovered a Hurricane that was aiming at our Squadriglia from superior height and from the left. I was, as often happened to me, the leader of the last vic of three planes; I did immediately a sharp turn zooming and we shot at each other frontally, then I reversed course violently and started following it. In doing so I left behind my wingmen (as usual) that were unable to follow such a sharp manoeuvre and landed back at Derna claiming that I had shot down the enemy; I’ve never known if this was true, but I didn’t want to have the victory credited because the stresses inflicted to my body during the sharp action left me in a state of semi-consciousness.
My wingmen claimed the victory because from distance they saw my plane doing strange aerobatics, turnings and zooming as if I was celebrating a victory in fact I was half unconscious and when I saw the ground closing I pulled the stick to gain height. (…) Feeling I was near to loose consciousness I force land close to El Adem”.
The plane was only lightly damaged and Gon was later able to return to Derna, taking off directly from the place where he landed. The main reason for his accident was discovered to be the bad alimentation of the last period that left him in quite bad shape.

Stauble ended the war with 1 biplane victory.

Claims:
Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  1940                
1 13/12/40 08:45- 1 Gladiator (a) Destroyed Fiat CR.42   Sidi Omar - Sollum 73a Squadriglia

Biplane victories: 1 destroyed.
TOTAL: 1 destroyed.
(a) Claimed combat with Gladiators from 3 RAAF Squadron, which claimed one S.79 and one probable and two CR.42s for the loss of four Gladiators destroyed and one force-landed. The 9o Gruppo claimed six Gladiators and three probables for four Fiats damaged (one of them was lost). The S.79s from the 60a Squadriglia claimed two Gladiators without losses (the CO was however killed).

Sources:
3o Stormo, storia fotografica - Dai biplani agli aviogetti - Carlo Lucchini and Leproni Enrico, 1990 Gino Rossato Editore
9o Stormo da Bombardamento Terrestre (1934-1943) - Giovanni Tonicchi, 1997, Tarquinia kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
Buscaglia e gli Aerosiluranti - Orazio Giuffrida, 1994 Ufficio Storico Aeronautica Militare, Rome kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
Dai Biplani agli Aviogetti - Carlo Lucchini and Enrico Leproni, 1990 Gino Rossato Editore, Valdagno kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
Desert Prelude: Early clashes June-November 1940 - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2010 MMP books, ISBN 978-83-89450-52-4
Fighters over the Desert - Christopher Shores and Hans Ring, 1969 Neville Spearman Limited, London
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Il 101o Gruppo Tuffatori - Giuseppe Pesce, 1975 STEM Mucchi, Modena kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
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Il caccia RE 2001 - Sergio Govi, 1982 Giorgio Apostolo Editore, Milan kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
Il Fiat CR 42 l’ultimo biplano da caccia Italiano – Nicola Malizia, 2003 Editrice Innocenti, Grosseto, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
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Italian Aces of World War 2 - Giovanni Massimello and Giorgio Apostolo, 2000 Osprey Publishing, Oxford, ISBN 1-84176-078-1
La Regia Aeronautica - volume I: Dalla non belligeranza all'intervento – Nino Arena, 1981 USSMA, Rome kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
Messerschmitt Bf 109 - Gregory Alegi and Marco Gueli, 2002 Ali Straniere in Italia no. 1, La Bancarella Aeronautica, Turin, kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
National Archives of Australia
Quelli del Cavallino Rampante - Antonio Duma, 1981 Editore Dell'Ateneo, Roma kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
Storia degli Aerosiluranti Italiani - Carlo Unia, 1974 Edizioni Bizzarri, Rome, kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
Stormi d'Italia - Giulio Lazzati, 1975 Mursia, Milan kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
The Messerschmitt 109 in Italian service 1943-1945 - Ferdinando D'Amico and Gabriele Valentini, 1989 Monogram Aviation Publication, Boylston, ISBN 0-914144-30-8, kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro
Additional information kindly provided by Russell Guest, Stefano Lazzaro and Ludovico Slongo.




Last modified 09 January 2011