Biplane fighter aces

Italy

Capitano Annibale Sterzi Medaglia d’oro al valor militare

1 January 1915 – 26 May 1942

Annibale Sterzi was born on 1 January 1915 and was from Salerno.

He served as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War, where he served in the XXIII Gruppo.

During his time in Spain, he claimed 1 victory with the Fiat CR.32.

During the Second World War, he served as CO of the 358a Squadriglia.

On 23 December 1940, the 358a Squadriglia C.T. commanded by Capitano Sterzi arrived from Italy to Castel Benito with nine Fiat G.50bis. Pilots of the Squadriglia were, apart from Sterzi, Tenente Bruno Mondini, Maresciallo Ottorino Muscnelli, Sergente Enzo Falcinelli, Sottotenente Leonardo Venturini, Sergente Maggiore Antonio Patriarca, Sottotenente Francesco Vichi, Sergente Alvinio Marinucci, Sergente Alfredo Di Spiezio. Three more pilots followed in the Caproni Ca.133 of the Squadriglia (Tenente Angelo Merati, Maresciallo Marco Aicardi and Sergente Fernando Giordano). Other pilots of the unit (Tenente Giorgio Gasperoni and Sergente Gastone Gambari) suffered accidents during their transfer. The Fiat G.50 of Gambari was written off while Gasperoni was forced to land back at Palermo.

The 358a Squadriglia started operations tasked with the defence of Tripoli on 25 December. During the evening five Fiat G.50s performed the first scramble of the unit.
The same evening Capitano Sterzi counted only seven machines combat ready left.

On 7 January 1941, the 358a Squadriglia received order to join the two Squadriglie of the 2o Gruppo at Derna. The Squadriglia was down to an efficiency of six G.50s. Five of them were planned to move to Cirenaica by Capitano Sterzi, Tenente Angelo Merati, Tenente Giorgio Gasperoni, Sergente Maggiore Antonio Patriarca and Sottotenente Francesco Vichi. In fact, because of engine breakdowns only three of them completed the first leg of their journey, landing at Uadi Tamet at 11:15. Tenente Merati had to turn back after 10 minutes of flight while Sottotenente Vichi crash-landed after 40 minutes, his fighter was declared RD. Sterzi, and his men remained in Uadi Tamet trying to fix the problems of their engines.

On 19 January, the 358a Squadriglia finally received order to move to Maraua and join the 2o Gruppo. Since its arrival at the end of December, it had been working on its Fiat G.50s, which had been unfit to fly because of the engines. Capitano Sterzi arrived at Maraua at 14:00 with six fighters. Four were the remaining machines of the 358a while the other two were G.50s from the150a and 152a Squadriglie that had been left behind in Tripoli.

On 25 January, four Gladiators of 3 RAAF Squadron flown by Flight Lieutenant D. Campbell (N5857), Flight Lieutenant Alan Rawlinson (K7963), Flying Officer Peter Turnbull (L9044) and Pilot Officer J. C. Campbell (K8022) took off from Tmini at 07:30 to carry out a protective patrol over the Armoured Brigades operating in the Mechili area. Whilst flying at 2,000 feet, 8 miles south-east of Mechili, five G.50s, which were flying at 10,000 feet, attacked and broke the Gladiators formation. During the combat was 22-year-old Pilot Officer James Chippindall Campbell (RAAF no. 634) shot down and killed, while D. Campbell was forced to make an emergency landing in the desert and the other two biplanes were damaged. Flying Officer Turnbull recalled:

“My position in the flight was astern of the vic formation. Each time I was attacked from astern and above, to avoid being hit I made a side-slipping turn back underneath. As the E/A passed overhead, it made a climbing turn to the left, and I was able to get well within range by turning right. I was attacked nine times, and each time I carried out the above action, but three of my guns ceased to fire owing to stoppages during the first attack and the fourth after the fifth attack. I could see bullets hitting E/A during the third, fourth and fifth attacks, which were at close range.

The E/A appeared to be similar to that of a Breda 65 but the pilots cockpit was well back near the trailing edge of the main planes. This being the only outstanding point which could be seen at the time. They were very fast, and by the dust made by their fire on the ground, they appeared to be armed with two.5's."

Rawlinson claimed two more G.50s damaged. These three claims for damaged aircraft are, however, not officially credited in the unit’s ORB. After the smooth force landing, D. Campbell was able to inspect the plane and assessing the damage suffered as light, took off again and landed back in Tmini. The Gladiators were all back by 08:45.
The Italians were in fact four Fiat G.50s from the 358a Squadriglia, which had taken off from Maraua at 07:30 to fly a protective patrol over El Mechili. Capitano Sterzi (G.50bis MM6335) led the formation with Tenente Bruno Mondini (MM6346), Tenente Giorgio Gasperoni and Maresciallo Marco Aicardi (MM5455). Over Mechili they discovered four Glosters flying lower and bounced them claiming two by Tenente Mondini, one by Maresciallo Aicardi and one by Capitano Sterzi. The Italian fighters were back at 09:30 after having used 1130 rounds of ammunition. Damage suffered by the three surviving Gladiators should had been light indeed because they were repaired during the day and were able to fly to Martuba during the evening.

On 26 January, 274 Squadron had a field day. After an uneventful morning sortie, five Hurricanes took off in the afternoon for an offensive patrol from the Martuba-Mechili area to the coast. Pilots taking part were Flight Lieutenant Peter Wykeham-Barnes (P2638), Flying Officer Thomas Patterson (P3723), Flying Officer Ernest Mason (P3722), Flight Lieutenant J. D. Smith (V7477) and Pilot Officer Garland (V7484), which all took off at 13:45.
At about 15.10 when one mile south of Derna aerodrome, Flying Officer Patterson discovered a group of three Fiat G.50s 2000 feet below him that were ground strafing Commonwealth troops. The Italian aircraft were escorted by twelve CR.42s in four vic of three 8000 feet above them. Patterson was with Wykeham-Barnes, who reportedly drove off the escort while he attacked from astern, claiming two G.50s shot down and seen to burn out on ground and the third machine damaged by deflection shots (Wykeham-Barnes confirmed his victories).
In the meantime, Flying Officer Mason was flying alone at 6,000 feet, ten miles west of Martuba when he discovered seven CR.42s in two formations of five and two, ahead of him and at the same height. Mason attacked single handed, starting a general dogfight down to 2000 feet, which ended with himself claiming three CR.42s crashed into the ground without burning and confirmed by troops of 2/4 Battalion of the 19th Australian Brigade over whom the fight took place. In his C.F.R. Mason didn’t mention that he was shot down during the combat, however, in a letter to his parents he described the action in this way:

“I had a quick dogfight with them all round me. The first one I fired at went down and crashed without burning. The second and third each turned slowly over and dived straight in and exploded. All this was over in two or three minutes. By the time the third one was down the others had disappeared which was very fortunate as my motor cut and I had to force land (…) I landed next to a blazing CR 42 amidst crowds of wildly enthusiastic Australians (about 30 miles south-west of Gazala). Unfortunately the ground was very rough and I burst a tyre and went up on my nose, wrecking the poor old aircraft with which I had got all my victories.
After I force-landed I learnt that one of the CR42 pilots had tried to bale out but his parachute had not opened. So I had a look at him. He was about 200 yards from his still-blazing machine. I had got him in the right shoulder so he had not been able to open his chute. I went through his pockets and found a lot of interesting snapshots and a lot of letters. Before I left I covered him with his parachute and weighted it down with stones. I hitchhiked by road and air, back to the Squadron. When I arrived there I was accosted by several press representatives who made me pose for photographs.”
It seems possible that P3722 later was salvaged by the efficient recovery teams of the RAF because even if not more flown by 274 Squadron during February and March it is recorded as finally lost on El Adem on 22 April 1941 some days after that the Afrika Korps had invested that airbase.
The 274 formation had met a combined effort of Va Squadra Aerea against the Australians attacking Derna N1 airfield. In the afternoon at around 14:00, in fact nine SM 79s of the 15o Stormo and five CR.32s from the 12o Gruppo were ordered off under escort of seven CR.42s from the 368a Squadriglia (Tenente Giuseppe Zuffi, Sottotenente Alfonso Nutti, Sergente Maggiore Davide Colauzzi, Sergente Maggiore Annibale Ricotti, Maresciallo Guido Paparatti, Sergente Maggiore Ezio Masenti and Sottotenente Furio Lauri) and three from the 366a Squadriglia (Sergente Maggiore Fiorenzo Milella, Sergente Maggiore Roberto Marchi and Sergente Rosario Di Carlo) with three more G.50s from the 358a Squadriglia (Capitano Sterzi, Tenente Angelo Merati and Maresciallo Ottorino Muscinelli) flying indirect cover.
Following the orders received, the 151o Gruppo fighters first escorted the Savoia bombers following them out to the sea off Derna after the bombing and then came back to escort the CR.32s and to strafe with four fighters of the first section of the 368a Squadriglia. It was at this point that the Hurricanes arrived. The 358a Squadriglia’s G.50s discovered the Hurricanes high, at around 5000 metres, and saw them attacking the CR.42s. In the following dogfight, they went down to 1000 metres finding themselves in the middle of a heavy AA barrage coming from the ground. Maresciallo Muscinelli’s G.50 was reportedly hit from the ground and started to lose height in the direction of the British lines. Capitano Sterzi followed him for a while but then had to return. His plane had also been hit and landed unserviceable. Muscinelli was declared MIA and it seems possible that he had in fact been Patterson victim. The 368a formation recorded that the three G.50s went down to strafe instead of giving high cover. At the end of his last strafing pass at 15:45, Sergente Maggiore Ricotti saw a Hurricane in front of him, which was following another CR.42 (presumably that of Maresciallo Paparatti) and succeeded in shooting it down even if in the same moment he had to witness the demise of the CR.42 followed by the Hurricane. Tenente Zuffi was also attacked by a Hurricane but after its first pass he was able to fire at it from a short distance and the enemy aircraft was last seen escaping emitting a thick cloud of smoke. Zuffi was then engaged by another plane and couldn’t follow his victim. Back at base two Hurricanes were claimed by the Italian pilots; a confirmed by Sergente Maggiore Ricotti and a probable by Tenente Zuffi in exchange for two CR.42 and their pilots (Maresciallo Guido Paparatti (MM5564) and Sottotenente Nutti (MM6967), who was shot down at around 15:35. The 366a Squadriglia was unable to enter the combat and was back at 16:40. It seems not so improbable that Ricotti and Zuffi each unaware of each other, both shared in shooting down Mason, who’s fighter perhaps initially was damaged by Zuffi and then finished off by Ricotti after that the British ace had shot down Paparatti.
In the meantime, over Derna, Sottotenente Giuseppe Mezzatesta from the 12o Gruppo was hit in the throat by a stray bullet coming from the ground and force-landed on a beach close nearby. Here he was helped and brought to the local hospital. He died of this wound some days later in Benghazi hospital.

A heavy raid was launched on Tobruk at dawn on 22 April by around 30 Ju 87s, including five from the 236a Squadriglia, six Bf 110s plus about a dozen Bf 109Es and G.50bis providing escort.
Four Hurricanes from 73 Squadron got off, their pilots claiming one Ju 87 shot down, one probable and one damaged. Gunners in the Luftwaffe bombers claimed to have shot down a Hurricane, but none of the British fighters suffered any notable damage.
The same four fighters intercepted another incursion at 10:50, Flying Officer Richard Martin (V7372) claiming a Bf 109E shot down over Tobruk at around 11:30. Then half an hour later five more Hurricanes were scrambled, Sous Lieutenant Albert Littolf (V7353) also claiming a Bf 109 south-west of Tobruk at 11:25.
It seems likely that Littolf and Martin had in fact attacked the same aircraft, for JG 27’s loss was Oberfähnrich Heinrich Pompsch from 2./JG 27 in Bf 109E-7 WNr. 4112, who apparently managed to bale out, but died of his wounds next day.
Sergeant A. E. Marshall (V7353) had encountered the Italian fighters, meanwhile, shooting down Sergente Enzo Falcinelli from 358a Squadriglia (Fiat G.50bis MM5455), who was killed.
Capitano Salvatore Teja (CO 152a Squadriglia) claimed a Hurricane in return, shared with Sergente Rino Ricci (152a Squadriglia) and a second was claimed by Capitano Sterzi, CO of the 358a Squadriglia (09:40-11:10) but no 73 Squadron aircraft were lost or damaged.

Taking off at 15:15 on 16 June, Capitano Sterzi claimed a Hurricane in the Sidi Omar area.

Sterzi was killed on 26 May 1942.

He was decorated with a posthumous Medaglia d’oro al valor militare.

At the time of his death, Sterzi was credited with 1 biplane victory and a total of 6.
During the war, he had also been decorated with two Medaglie d’argento al valor militare.

Claims:
Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  193?                
1 ??/??/3?   1 Enemy aircraft Destroyed CR.32   Spain XXIII Gruppo
  1941                
2 25/01/41 07:30-09:30 1 Gladiator (a) Destroyed G.50bis MM6335 Mechili area 358a Squadriglia
3 22/04/41 09:40-11:10 1 Hurricane (b) Destroyed G.50bis   Tobruk area 358a Squadriglia
4 16/06/41 15:15- 1 Hurricane Destroyed G.50bis   Sidi Omar area 358a Squadriglia
  1942                
5 12/05/42 afternoon 1 Spitfire Destroyed Re.2001   Malta 358a Squadriglia
6 25/05/42 14:20- 1 Spitfire Destroyed Re.2001   Malta 358a Squadriglia

Biplane victories: 1 destroyed.
TOTAL: 6 destroyed.
(a) Claimed in combat with Gladiators from 3 RAAF Squadron, which claimed 3 G.50s damaged while losing 1 Gladiator and getting 3 lightly damaged. The 358a Squadriglia claimed 4 Gladiators without losses.
(b) Probably claimed in combat with Hurricanes from 73 Squadron, which claimed 1 G.50 without losses. The 2o Gruppo claimed 2 Hurricanes while losing 1 G.50bis (pilot KIA).

Sources:
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
Air War over Spain - Jesus Salas Larrazabal, 1974 Ian Allan Ltd, Shepperton, Surrey, ISBN 0-7110-0521-4
Assi Italiani Della Caccia 1936-1945 - Giovanni Massimello, 1999 Aerofan no. 69 apr.-giu. 1999, Giorgio Apostolo Editore, Milan
Desert Prelude: Early clashes June-November 1940 - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2010 MMP books, ISBN 978-83-89450-52-4
Desert Prelude: Operation Compass - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2011 MMP books, ISBN 978-83-61421-18-4
Fiat CR.32 Aces of the Spanish Civil War - Alfredo Logoluso, 2010 Osprey Publishing, Oxford, ISBN 978-1-84603-983-6




Last modified 11 June 2017