Biplane fighter aces

Italy

Capitano Martino ‘Nino’ Zannier

When the war started on 10 June 1940 the 8o Gruppo of the 2o Stormo C.T. represented the whole fighter force available in Cirenaica. The Gruppo was transferred to Libya in September 1935 and in 1940 was the oldest colonial fighter unit of the Regia Aeronautica and was equipped with Fiat CR.32 quater (a tropical version of the classic Fiat design with enlarged oil cooler and other slight improvements that enhanced its low altitude performances).
The 8o Gruppo was commanded by Maggiore Vincenzo La Carruba and its three Squadriglie where: 92a Squadriglia (CO Capitano Martino Zannier), 93a Squadriglia (CO Capitano Mario Bacich) and 94a Squadrigla (CO Capitano Franco Lavelli).
Pilots in the 92a Squadriglia on 11 June were: Capitano Zannier (CO), Tenente Riccardo Marcovich (Gruppo Adjutant), Tenente Ranieri Piccolomini, Tenente Giorgio Savoja, Sergente Maggiore Guglielmo Gorgone, Sergente Vito Copersino, Sergente Nadio Monti, Sergente Ernesto Pavan and Sergente Bruno Salvi. These pilots had nine CR.32quaters (including Maggiore La Carruba’s) and one S.81 (piloted by Savini during the transfer) available on 11 June. On strength, there was also Sergente Giovanni Sessa but he hadn’t left Tripoli. A number of pilots had been assigned to the squadriglia before the start of the hostilities; Sottotenente Alfonso Notari (from the 4o Stormo on 8 June), Sergente Augusto Mannu (from 53o Stormo on 8 June), Sergente Guido Piazza (from 53o Stormo on 10 June) and Sergente Clemente Bonfanti (from 53o Stormo on 10 June); these pilots however remained at Tripoli.

On 11 June, the Regia Aeronautica was in alarm readiness from 00:00 and a standing patrol of three Fiat CR.32s of the 8o Gruppo was maintained over the Tobruk T2 airfield and Tobruk harbour. This was not possible over El Adem T3 because there were no fighter units based here.
At 05:00, seven Fiats of the 93a Squadriglia, 8o Gruppo, scrambled to meet a formation of seven British bombers signalled by the observation post at Bardia, flying in eastward direction. The fighters climbed to 2000 metres and the British formation was seen as if it was coming back from an incursion over T3. The CR.32s started in pursuit but were unable to reach them and the bombers disappeared in the dawn mist.
Two hours later, at around 07:00, seven more CR.32s scrambled to meet another attack directed on El Adem. Six of the aircraft were from the 94a Squadriglia (Capitano Franco Lavelli, Tenente Giovanni Tadini, Sergente Maggiore Alessandro Ruzzene, Sergente Maggiore Danilo Billi, Sergente Maggiore Arturo Cardano and Sergente Maggiore Trento Cecchi while the seventh was from the 92a Squadriglia (CO Zannier). The Italian pilots had a slight height advantage over the seven Blenheims and this made it possible to intercept. The Fiat pilots claimed two bombers shot down (one into the sea and one from which the crew was seen to bale out) and four damaged, all shared among the seven pilots. Zannier returned at 07:40 with the engine on his fighter damaged and having expended 500 rounds of ammunition. The pilots of the 94a Squadriglia landed five minutes later, having spent 3770 rounds of ammunition.
At 11:20, Tenente Alberto Argenton of the 93a Squadriglia together with Tenente Riccardo Marcovich of the 92a Squadriglia, carried out a visual reconnaissance over the British airstrip of Tishididda. They landed at 12:50 reporting the absence of enemy planes.
At 15:00, a patrol of five CR.32s of the 93a Squadriglia, led by Tenente Gioacchino Bissoli and including Tenente Alberto Argenton, Sergente Maggiore Italo Bertinelli, Sergente Maggiore Duilio Bernardi and Sergente Maggiore Luigi Di Lorenzo intercepted another formation of six bombers. With a swift attack Bissoli shot down a Blenheim that fell down close to T3 (nobody was seen to jump from the aircraft) while his wingmen claimed damage to two others before the bombers were able to escape. The Squadriglia diary reported that all the surviving enemy bombers were damaged with the use of 1050 rounds.
Totally the 25 Fiat CR.32s of the 8o Gruppo made 96 sorties during the day.
The Italian fighters had clashed with Blenheims from 202 Group (45, 55, 113, and 211 Squadrons). A few minutes after midnight six Bristol Blenheim Mk.I crews of 211 Squadron were briefed to carry out an armed reconnaissance at dawn of targets in Libya. Their target was El Adem, photographing from Derna to Giarabub as they went. During a reconnaissance flight over the Giarabub-Capuzzo areas a Blenheim Mk.I of 211 Squadron piloted by Pilot Officer Eric Bevington-Smith was obliged to force-land with engine trouble. It is possible that the Blenheims from 211 Squadron were the ones the 8o Gruppo in vain tried to intercept at 05:40.
These were followed by eight Bristol Blenheim Mk.Is of 45 Squadron that took off from Fuka at 04:15 and attacked the airfield of El Adem T3. Initially the raid was to be against Tobruk’s harbour, but the reconnaissance of 211 Squadron showed it deprived of any significant target. The British formation was composed of Squadron Leader Dallamore (Blenheim Mk.I L8478), Flying Officer Williams (L8469), Sergeant Thurlow (L8519), Flight Lieutenant Troughton Smith (L8481), Pilot Officer Gibbs (L4923), Sergeant Bower (L8476), Flying Officer Rixson (L8524) and Flying Officer Finch (L8466). The British pilots returned from T3 claiming that they had attacked at 05:40 with 40lb, 20lb and 4lb incendiary bombs and also had strafed in subsequent passes with front and rear guns. Although no enemy aircraft were encountered, the ground defences had been in action immediately. These were described as “not heavy” and in fact it is known that at the beginning of the conflict for the defence of all the 35 air strips of Cirenaica, the Italians had only 17 ex-Austrian Schwarzlose 8mm gun of WW I vintage armed with standard ammunition and with a maximum range of 600 meters. Later more details enriched the description of this first attack, reporting that the returning crews had claimed that the entire manpower of the Italian base had been assembled on parade, as if the commanding officer had been reading a signal from Marshal Italo Balbo (Italian Commander-in-Chief) announcing the declaration of war. The Blenheims had hit two hangars burning them, then had strafed and bombed the Italian aircraft that were parked in rows as in peacetime and not dispersed destroying several of them. Three Blenheims failed to return and two more were damaged. Blenheim Mk.I L8476 was reportedly hit by light flak shortly after the last attack, caught fire and crashed into the sea killing the crew; Sergeant Peter Bower (RAF no. 524415), Sergeant Stanley George Fox (RAF no. 747815) and Aircraftman 1st Class John William Allison (RAF no. 543233). Blenheim Mk.I L8519 was damaged during the raid and crash-landed at Sidi Barrani where it burst into flames killing its crew; Sergeant Maurice Cresswell Thurlow (RAF no. 565808), Sergeant Bernard Alfred Feldman (RAF no. 747967) and Aircraftman 1st Class Henry Robinson (RAF no. 548048). Blenheim Mk.I L8466 suffered an engine failure over the target (possibly hit by Italian fire), the other engine failed after 100 miles during the return journey eastwards and the aircraft made a wheels-up forced landing near Buq-Buq. The crew (Flying Officer A. Finch, Sergeant R. Dodsworth and Leading Aircraftman Fisher) was rescued by the British Army while the aircraft was later recovered and repaired. It seems possible that these Blenheims were in fact claimed by the pilots of the 92a and 94a Squadriglie.
The first raid of the war brought also one of the first “mysteries” of the campaign, as it is not sure, from the comparison of the Italian and British documents, which were the opponents of the 8o Gruppo during this early morning raid. It seems here right to explain that the time in Italy (and assumingly also in Libya) at the beginning of the war was Greenwich Mean Time (G.M.T.) +1h. On the other hand from available documents it transpires that in Egypt was still in use the solar time that was G.M.T. + 2h, (it seems that only after 15 July did also Egypt adopted daylight saving time, which is G.M.T +3h). Thus, even if exceptions to this rule has been noted in the documents consulted, it seems that on 11 June 1940 the time recorded British was one hour in advance of that recorded by the Italians. This is the strongest clue to assume that 45 Squadron was in fact the unit that the 8o Gruppo failed to intercept during its first morning pursuit, because the RAF recorded this raid at 05:40, which was 04:40 in “Italian” time, quite close to the 05:00 of the first inconclusive scramble of the 93a Squadriglia.
If we accept this, however, the opponents of the 8o Gruppo, against which 4270 round of ammunition were expanded and which damaged Zannier’s Fiat, remained undisclosed because no other British raids was reportedly performed in the morning. Additionally it is known that Balbo himself, commenting the day’s actions credited all the three victories claimed by the Italians to the fighters and none to AA that was explicitly termed as “non existent”. As a point of interested, it is also worth noting that Italy adopted daylight saving time (G.M.T. +2h) on 15 June 1940 and kept it for the rest of the war. Thus from 15 June until 15 July, Italians and British recorded the same time (G.M.T + 2h), then after that date the British time returned one hour in advance of the Italian one.
In the afternoon, 55 and 113 Squadrons were transferred from Ismailia to Fuka and nine planes from each Squadron were bombed up and attacked El Adem T3 once again starting from 14:15. ‘A’ Flight from 55 Squadron included Blenheim Mk.Is L8530 (Flight Lieutenant Cox (acting Squadron Leader), Sergeant Wagstaff and Corporal Bennett), L8391 (Pilot Officer Walker, Sergeant Kavanagh and Leading Aircraftman Noble) and L8667 (Sergeant Day, Sergeant Browning and Leading Aircraftman McGarry). ‘B’ Flight included Blenheim Mk.Is L1538 (Flight Lieutenant H. R. Goodman, Sergeant Wiles and Leading Aircraftman Jone), L4818 (Pilot Officer M. S. Ferguson, Pilot Officer H. A. W. How and Leading Aircraftman Cherry) and L8398 (Pilot Officer R. H. Nicolson, Leading Aircraftman Bartram and Leading Aircraftman Davison). ‘C’ Flight included Blenheim Mk.Is L4820 (Flying Officer F. H. Fox, Sergeant Nicholas and Leading Aircraftman Klines), L6672 (Pilot Officer Godrich, Pilot Officer Redfern and Leading Aircraftman Thompson) and L8390 (Pilot Officer Smith, Sergeant Clarke and Leading Aircraftman Dews).
The returning pilots reported that the aircraft of the base were still not dispersed and claimed the damaging or destruction on ground of eighteen of them, together with additional damage on the hangars of the base. This time enemy aircraft were encountered and one Blenheim Mk.IV of 113 Squadron was admitted lost to them when L4823 was shot down (most probably by Tenente Bissoli) in flames 7 km east of El Adem. The crew of Flight Lieutenant D. Beauclair, Warrant Officer H. J. Owen and Sergeant J. Dobson were all badly burned, but walked for eight hours before being captured by an Italian Marine post east of Tobruk. Two Blenheims from 55 Squadron were badly damaged but were able to regain British territory. They had encountered some accurate AA fire and reported that although CR.32 fighters were seen they didn’t engage. L1538 received five hits on the starboard engine cowling, the engine stopped through lack of petrol and the aircraft made an emergency landing at Mersa Matruh, while L8398 received a bullet in the undercarriage that collapsed on landing at Mersa Matruh. The two aircraft were left there. The starboard engine of L4820, which had been followed by two Fiat fighters that reportedly scored no hits on it, seized when over Mersa Matruh. The bomber was however able to successfully land at Fuka. In all 26 bombers attacked T3 during the day hitting it with 416 forty pounds bombs, 524 twenty pounds bombs and 2080 four pounds incendiary bombs.
The Italians reported three different raids against El Adem (made by a reported six-nine-six enemy bombers). The 44o Gruppo lost one completely burnt out SM 79, two more lightly damaged (RS) and two more seriously damaged (they had to be repaired in the local S.R.A.M.). The Gruppo also suffered three dead and twenty-four wounded.
Three Ro.37s and two Ca.309s were also heavily damaged and two Ro.37s and six S.81s were lightly damaged. Ten more soldiers were wounded.

At 07:45 on 19 June, four Gladiators from 33 Squadron flown by Squadron Leader D. V. Johnson (N5782), Flight Lieutenant G. E. Hawkins (N5765), Flying Officer A. H. Lynch (N5764), and Sergeant Roy Leslie Green (L9043) accompanied by Flying Officer Peter Wykeham-Barnes (Hurricane Mk.I P2639) of 80 Squadron and two Blenheim IFs from 30 Squadron took off from Mersa Matruh to patrol between Bug Bug and Sollum.
At 09:40, they sighted a formation of nine Fiat CR.42s (in other sources it is stated that it was five CR.42s and either seven CR.32s or Ro.37s). The Fiats were slightly below and to the port side of the British fighters, who were in an ideal position to make an attack.
Wykeham-Barnes shot down the leader of the Italian fighters whilst he was doing a vertical turn, with a short burst at full deflection. The Gladiators claimed two more CR.42s, but lost 24-year-old Sergeant Green (RAF No. 44754) when he was shot down despite some violent aerobatics.
The returning RAF pilots reported that although the enemy was superior in numbers, they lacked the aggression of the Gladiator pilots and gradually retreated towards the Libyan border. Wykeham-Barnes found it difficult to get his sights on the Fiats, because they were so very manoeuvrable, but eventually one of them made a mistake and he was able to get in a good burst of shells, which caused the CR.42 to dive away with smoke trailing behind it. He did not actually see it crash, but it was later confirmed as being destroyed by the ground forces. The Gladiators and the Hurricane were then forced to break off the combat by lack of petrol and ammunition. On their way back to Mersa Matruh they had to land at Sidi Barrani to refuel and rearm. The Gladiators were back at 10:10 and Wykeham-Barnes at 10:30.
The Italian aircraft had been from the Tobruk T2 based 10o Gruppo C.T. At 08:40, five aircraft of the 84a Squadriglia took off to escort a formation of five Breda Ba.65/A80s of the 159a Squadriglia, 12o Gruppo Assalto and nine CR.32s from the 8o Gruppo, heading to attack enemy vehicles between Sollum and Sidi El Barrani. The Bredas took off at 07:20, commanded by Capitano Duilio Fanali. The Italian fighters of the 84a Squadriglia were flown by Tenente Colonnello Armando Piragino, Capitano Luigi Monti, Sergente Maggiore Ugo Corsi, Sergente Giuseppe Scaglioni and Sergente Narciso Pillepich (almost certain MM5552). Monti, who was the pilot with the longer war experience insisted with his commander to increase the number of aircraft participating in the escort, but without avail. The assault planes were out in a search-and-destroy mission and firstly they had to find targets. In doing so they started with a pass between Amseat and Bardia, then a second one going beyond Sollum then a third one. In this way, a lot of time was lost and the RAF could scramble its aircraft. The Fiats were over the Bredas, turning at 2000 metres when a number of Glosters and Hurricanes (the Blenheims were not seen at all while the Hurricane was, as usual, misidentified as a Spitfire) suddenly attacked them. After a sharp engagement, three pilots came back to T2. The missing pilots were Corsi and Piragino. A CR.42s (Corsi, who was killed) was clearly seen to fall into the sea after being hit by a Hurricane, while nothing was known of the second CR.42. The Ba.65s came back safely, without seeing enemy planes that were obviously too busy with the 4o Stormo planes and didn’t engage them. However, returning to T2, the Breda flown by Sergente Maggiore Pietro Scaramucci suffered an engine breakdown and crash-landed, being written-off as a consequence.
Sergente Giuseppe Scaglioni returned claiming a Gladiator (probably Green) and a damaged Spitfire, Sergente Pillepich claimed two damaged Gladiators and Capitano Monti claimed a damaged Gladiator. The same evening a “British communiqué” advised that six (!) British fighters were lost in exchange for two Italians. So all participating pilots in this combat were credited with six shared victories because this was the only combat of the day for Italian units. Some days after, a British message dropped on Bardia informed that Piragino was wounded in a leg after crashing at Sollum and prisoner. Scaglioni described the combat:

“Over Bir el Gib we were surprised by a number of Glosters and a Hurricane that attacked with height advantage giving us a lot of trouble. I saw the commander doing a violent overturning while I was doing a break on the left, this manoeuvre put me behind a Gloster that I shot down with my 12,7 mm guns.
I lost sight of the commander immediately and after landing I knew he was missing. In the same combat we lost Sergente Maggiore Corsi shot down by a Hurricane that I attacked trying to distract it from its action but in vain. For sure Corsi was taken by surprise because he was considered a pilot of exceptional skill and the very best aerobatic pilot of the Stormo.”

The nine CR.32s from the 8o Gruppo had taken off at 08:25. The formation included six CR.32s of the 92a Squadriglia (Capitano Zannier, Tenente Ranieri Piccolomini, Tenente Giorgio Savoja, Sergente Maggiore Guglielmo Gorgone, Sergente Nadio Monti and Sergente Ernesto Pavan) and three from the 94a Squadriglia (Capitano Franco Lavelli, Sottotenente Giacomo Maggi and Sottotenente Nunzio De Fraia), which took off loaded with two-kilo bombs with the dual role of escorting the Bredas from the 159a Squadriglia and ground attack.
The formation of the 92a Squadriglia was back at 10:35 claiming the destructions of many trucks (left in flames) with the use of 2765 rounds of ammunition and 96 two-kilo bombs. Tenente Savoja’s aircraft was damaged by AA fire but no enemy planes were noted. Lavelli’s group was back at 10:55 without suffering losses. They claimed the destruction of Sollum’s electrical station by the use of 36 two-kilo bombs but noted enemy fighters that had attacked them. It seems that they also had been engaged by the Gladiators from 33 Squadron, the 80 Squadron Hurricane and the two Blenheims from 30 Squadron.
This was 80 Squadron's first action during the Second World War.

On 21 June, six CR.32s of the 92a Squadriglia (Capitano Zannier, Tenente Ranieri Piccolomini, Sergente Maggiore Guglielmo Gorgone, Sergente Vito Copersino, Sergente Nadio Monti and Sergente Ernesto Pavan) and three from the 93a Squadriglia (Tenente Alberto Argenton, Sergente Italo Bertinelli and Sergente Roberto Lendaro) took off at 09:40 and attacked enemy vehicles south of Bir El Gobi, escorted by CR.42s from the 13o Gruppo. The fire from the CR.32s, which attacked in single file, stopped an enemy armoured car and forced two other armoured cars of the same formation, less seriously damaged, to flee.
They were back at base at 11:00, where Copersino’s fighter was found damaged in the fuel tank by AA. The 92a Squadriglia formation expended 1756 rounds and 96 two-kilo bombs.

On 8 December, the 92a Squadriglia (CO Capitano Zannier) had three combat ready CR.42s, four inefficient at Menastir and one inefficient at Benghazi waiting for an engine. During the morning on 8 December the three combat ready CR.42s were passed to the 13o Gruppo at Gambut while two of the inefficient machines were flown to Benina. During the morning on 10 December one CR.42 of the Squadriglia piloted by Sergente Orsi made a standing patrol over Menastir (obviously one of the planes that was inefficient on the 8th), while on 11 December another inefficient machine was taken to El Adem for a general revision.
Regarding the Commanding Officer it is noteworthy that Zannier (who wrote down the Squadriglia’s Diary) didn’t take part in any of the missions of his Squadriglia after 5 October and during the following months it appears that the Squadriglia was led in the air directly by Maggiore La Carruba (Gruppo CO) or Tenente Ranieri Piccolomini and on one occasion (28 November) one of its CR.42s was flown by Capitano Travaglini, a pilot of the 77a Squadriglia.

Zannier ended the war with 2 shared biplane victories.

Claims:
Kill no. Date Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  1940              
  11/06/40 1/7 Blenheim (a) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.32   El Adem area 92a Squadriglia
  11/06/40 1/7 Blenheim (a) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.32   El Adem area 92a Squadriglia
  11/06/40 1/7 Blenheim (a) Shared damaged Fiat CR.32   El Adem area 92a Squadriglia
  11/06/40 1/7 Blenheim (a) Shared damaged Fiat CR.32   El Adem area 92a Squadriglia
  11/06/40 1/7 Blenheim (a) Shared damaged Fiat CR.32   El Adem area 92a Squadriglia
  11/06/40 1/7 Blenheim (a) Shared damaged Fiat CR.32   El Adem area 92a Squadriglia

Biplane victories: 2 shared destroyed, 4 shared damaged.
TOTAL: 2 shared destroyed, 4 shared damaged.
(a) Claimed in combat with Blenheims from 45 Squadron. The 92a and 94a Squadriglie claimed two bombers shot down and four damaged for two fighters damaged. 45 Squadron lost three Blenheims and got two more damaged; L8476 crashed into the sea killing the crew, L8519 was damaged during the raid and crash-landed at Sidi El Barrani where it burst into flames killing its crew and L8466 suffered an engine failure over the target, the other engine failed after 100 miles during the return journey eastwards and the plane force landed near Buq-Buq. The crew was rescued by while the aircraft was later recovered and repaired.

Sources:
2o Stormo - Note storiche dal 1925 al 1975 - Gino Strada, 1975 USSMA, Rome, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Desert Prelude: Early clashes June-November 1940 - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2010 MMP books, ISBN 978-83-89450-52-4
Diario Storico 92a Squadriglia C.T. kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Diario Storico 93a Squadriglia C.T. kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
Diario Storico 94a Squadriglia C.T. 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
Fighters over the Desert - Christopher Shores and Hans Ring, 1969 Neville Spearman Limited, London
L’8oGruppo caccia in due conflitti mondiali - Giuseppe Pesce, 1974 S.T.E.M. Mucchi, Modena, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
L’aeronautica Italiana nella Seconda Guerra Mondiale I volume - Giuseppe Santoro, 1966 Second Edition, Editore Esse, Milano-Roma, kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo
The Bristol Blenheim: A complete history – Graham Warner, 2002 Crécy Publishing Limited, Manchester, ISBN 0-947554-92-0
Additional information kindly provided by Ludovico Slongo




Last modified 25 September 2010