Biplane fighter aces

Italy

Sergente Maggiore Celso Zemella

Zemella served in the 70a Squadriglia, 18o Gruppo, 3o Stormo. This unit was equipped with Fiat CR.42s.

When the war started on 10 June 1940, the 3o Stormo was sent to the French border to take part in the attacks on southern France.

Zemella took part in the big attack on French airfields on 15 June.

After a very short resettling period at 3o Stormo’s home base at Mirafiori, the 23o Gruppo became Autonomo on 9 July and moved to Sicily to take part in the attacks on Malta.

On 13 July 1940 eleven CR.42 of 23o Gruppo led by the unit commander Maggiore Tito Falconi made a reconnaissance sortie over Malta’s principal ports. During the sortie the unit claimed two Hurricanes shot down. One was claimed by Capitano Guido Bobba and the other was claimed by Capitano Ottorino Fargnoli and Capitano Antonio Chiodi with Sergente Maggiore Celso Zemella and Sergente Maggiore Renzo Bocconi. Their opponents at this occasion had in fact been a single Hurricane and a Gladiator flown by Flight Lieutenant George Burges who had been on readiness when the order to scramble came at around 0200. The Hurricane (P2653), flown by Pilot Officer Dick Sugden of the Hal Far Fighter Flight, was only damaged during the engagement.

On 16 December 1940, the 23o Gruppo (previously part of 3o Stormo but now Autonomo) with 20 Fiat CR.42s (70a, 74a and 75a Squadriglie) and three hack Caproni Ca.133s arrived in Tripoli to help trying steam Operation Compass, which was mauling the Italian forces. The Gruppo had experienced brief (and quite unlucky) action at the beginning of the war against France, and then it had moved to Sicily where they had seen extensive action against Malta.
They were led by their CO, Maggiore Tito Falconi (a famous aerobatic pilot that had held the world record in inverted flight going in a Caproni 113 biplane racer from St. Louis to Chicago in 1933 and a veteran of the Abyssinian Campaign where he had gained some ground victories and of the Spanish Civil War where he had claimed many (mostly shared) aerial victories) in a 70a Squadriglia fighter.
Pilots in the 70a Squadriglia were Tenente Claudio Solaro (acting CO), Tenente Gino Battaggion, Sottotenente Oscar Abello, Sergente Ubaldo Marziali, Sergente Balilla Albani, Sergente Maggiore Zemella and Sergente Cesare Sironi.
Pilots in the 74a Squadriglia were Capitano Guido Bobba (CO and already credited with one over Spain and three individual and a probable Hurricanes over Malta, which made him one of the top scoring Italian pilots up to that moment), Tenente Mario Pinna, Sottotenente Sante Schiroli, Sergente Maggiore Raffaele Marzocca, Sergente Emilio Stefani, Sergente Giuseppe Sanguettoli and Sergente Manlio Tarantino.
Pilots in the 75a Squadriglia were Tenente Pietro Calistri (CO), Tenente Ezio Maria Monti, Sottotenente Giuseppe De Angelis, Sottotenente Renato Villa, Maresciallo Giovanni Carmello and Maresciallo Carlo Dentis.
The pilots in the Ca.133s were Tenente Marino Commissoli, Sergente Pardino Pardini (70a Squadriglia), Tenente Lorenzo Lorenzoni (74a Squadriglia), Tenente Milano Pausi, Sottotenente Leopoldo Marangoni (brother in law of Maggiore Carlo Romagnoli) and Sergente Leo Mannucci (75a Squadriglia)).
The Gruppo landed at Tripoli-Castel Benito at 17:15. Zemella’s fighter was left behind at Pantelleria after an engine breakdown.

On 19 December the 23o Gruppo moved to Z1 landing ground at Ain el Gazala.

At the beginning of 1942, the 23o Gruppo joined the 18o Gruppo to establish the 3o Stormo again. The units reassembled at Mirafori to be re-equipped with Macchi MC.202s.

The unit returned to North Africa and took part of the Axis offensive into Egypt during the summer and fall of 1942.

On 31 July 1942 a formation of 12 MC.202s from 70a and 74a Squadriglias surprised a squadron of Kittyhawks, who were attacking German lines at Bir Mukeisin with a squadron of Spitfires as escort. Totally was the allied group twice as big as the Italian was.
Despite this the Italian fighters attacked and during the following dogfight five of the enemy fighters were claimed as destroyed. In this combat enemy aircraft were claimed by Capitano Giorgio Tugnoli, Capitano Claudio Solaro, Sergente Maggiore Zemella, Sergente Maggiore Mantelli. The fifth was claimed jointly by Tenente Moruzzi, Tenente Spinelli, Sottotenente Sprinelli Barrile and Sottotenente Carlo Brigante Colonna. Capitano Tugnoli and Sergente Maggiore Stefani claimed two more aircraft as probables. Eleven more of the enemy aircraft was shot at.
All the Italian aircraft returned to base.

On 31 August 1942 two Italian formations from 23o Gruppo flew a fighter sweep over the front-line to protect Italian and German troops.
One eight-plane formation was led by Maggiore Luigi Filippi and the other ten-plane formation was led by Capitano Claudio Solaro.
The Italian fighters intercepted a dozen of Boston bombers escorted by two squadrons Kittyhawks. Maggiore Filippi and his formation attacked the main enemy formation while Capitano Solaro and his formation attacked a smaller group of British aircraft. The combat was fierce but lasted only a few minutes. In fact it was so short that Tenente Giorgio Solaroli who led the Italian top-cover, never got any opportunities to intervene.
During the combat Capitano Solaro, Sergente Maggiore Albani and Sergente Maggiore Zemella each claimed Kittyhawks (even if Zemella claimed that his opponent had been a Spitfire). Maggiore Filippi and Capitano Mario Pinna claimed a fourth Kittyhawk together.

At around 09:00 in the morning on 26 October, seven MC.202s of the 9o and 10o Gruppi (Tenente Giulio Reiner (leader), Tenente Vittorio Squarcia (73a Squadriglia), Sottotenente Giorgio Bertolaso (91a Squadriglia), Sergente Maggiore Alessandro Bladelli, Sergente Ferruccio Terrabujo (91a Squadriglia), Sottotenente Vittorino Daffara (97a Squadriglia) and Sergente Maggiore Amleto Monterumici (90a Squadriglia)) took off to intercept a reportedly eighteen Bostons, escorted by thirty P-40s and ten Spitfires, heading to bomb Fuka. A few minutes earlier, at 08:50, twelve MC.202s of the 23o Gruppo, 3o Stormo, (four from the 70a Squadriglia, three of the 74a Squadriglia and five of the 75a Squadriglia) led by Capitano Mario Pinna (CO of the 75a Squadriglia) had taken off from Abu Aggag for a patrol mission (one of the aircraft was flown by Sottotenente Franco Bordoni-Bisleri of the 83a Squadriglia, 18o Gruppo).
Both Italian formations spotted the enemy bombers at the same time and the attack of the 4o Stormo and the 23o Gruppo made the bombers aiming inaccurate, so most of the bombs fell out of the target. Daffara claimed the left wingman of the head formation of Bostons, and damaged two more. Reiner strafed the bomber leader, which began to slip out of formation sideways. He then climbed and found a Spitfire in front of him, fired and hitting it. The Spitfire exploded when hitting the ground 20 kilometres south-east Fuka. Another Spitfire was claimed as a probable by Bertolaso, who also damaged two Bostons. Squarcia, after having damaged several Bostons and a P-40, pursued another Curtiss together with pilots of the 23o Gruppo, and forced it to make a wheels-up landing south of El Daba (the pilot, Sergeant Emy Meredith, was subsequently rescued by the same Squarcia together with Maggiore Simeone Marsan in the Stormo's Fiesler Storch). Bladelli damaged four Bostons and a P-40, but was hit and had to made an emergency landing at Fuka. Another P-40, shared by many, was seen to explode when hitting the ground. Monterumici, after having fired at the bombers, was hit by three rounds from a P-40; one stopped against the head armour, one hit the armoured windshield and one destroyed the instrument panel. Monterumici recalled:

"A sharp overturn when my armoured windshield explode, whose splinters injured my face. Meanwhile, the canopy exploded too and I, while slowing down a bit to take breath, was attacked by five or six P-46 [Note: in the reports of the time, "P-46" probably meant the P-40F], that were firing at me from everywhere. Pieces of the rudder and of the right wing flew off, many bullets hit the fuselage. To escape, I decent to the ground until my propeller touched the ground. Then I shut off the engine, but the aircraft at 700 km per hour seemed to never end to skim over the desert; I'll never forget that endless run [...]"
Monterumici was rescued same day around 18:00 by a companion that was patrolling on a motorcycle, after being missed by an Italian Storch (probably that one of Squarcia).
From the 23o Gruppo formation Bordoni-Bisleri claimed one of the fighters, which crash-landed about 15 km south-east of Fuka and Pinna claimed one probable Boston and a damaged fighter while Sergente Antonio Franciosi claimed a probable Kittyhawk and two damaged Bostons. Sergente Maurizio Mandolesi damaged two fighters and two bombers and all of the Gruppo's pilots damaged twelve aircraft. Sergente Maggiore Zemella jumped and parachuted in the El Quteifiya area due to an engine failure. According to some sources Bordoni-Bisleri’s victim was Sergeant J. G. Meredith of 344 Squadron (i.e. the same pilot as was claimed by Squarcia).
It is possible that the Allied fighters were those of 2 Squadron SAAF, whose Flight Lieutenant Pearson claimed a "Bf 109", Flying Officer Burlus claimed a MC.202, Pilot Officer Blignault claimed a probable "Bf 109", Pilot Officer Allen-White and Pilot Officer Lowens damaged respectively a "Bf 109" and a MC.202. It is also possible that 260 Squadron RAF encountered the Italian fighters of the 23o Gruppo and Pilot Officer Aitchison and Meredith claimed a shared MC.202.
Meredith was taken to Fuka but the same evening the 4o Stormo was obliged to hand him over to the Germans by an order coming directly from the HQ.
The Luftwaffe claimed only two planes in these combats (one Kittyhawk each by Unteroffizier Erich Krainik of III/JG 27 and Leutnant Jürgen Harder of III/JG 53).
The Desert Air Force reported a general attack in the Fuka and Daba areas conducted by twenty-four Kittyhawks of 260 Squadron and 2 SAAF covering twelve Bostons and six Baltimores bound for Fuka while twelve Kittyhawks of 112 Squadron escorted bombers. Ten Hurricanes of 274 Squadron covered by others of 127 Squadron, six Kittyhawks of 450 Squadron and seventeen Spitfires of 92 and 601 Squadron were also up, the Spitfire doing a “delousing” sweep. These large formations reported widespread combat with enemy fighters and while no bombers were reported lost five fighters failed to return, one Hurricane of 274 Squadron (Flying Officer Graves MIA), two Kittyhawks of 112 Squadron (Pilot Officer Wright wounded and 21-year-old Flying Officer Keith Ronald Gardener (RAF No. 103554) KIA), and two Kittyhawks of 260 Squadron (Flying Officer Meredith POW and 22-year-old Pilot Officer Charles Edwin Ody (RAF No. 135396) KIA). The RAF claimed eight Bf 109s (in fact only a Messerschmitt and one Macchis were lost).

During the war Zemella was awarded with three Medaglie d’argento al valor militare (Silver medals for military valour), one Medaglia di bronzo al valor militare (Bronze medals for military valour) and the German Iron Cross 2nd Class.

Zemella ended the war with at least one shared biplane victory and a total of 5 destroyed.

Claims:
Kill no. Date Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
  1940              
  13/07/40 1/4 Hurricane (a) Shared destroyed Fiat CR.42   over Malta 70a Squadriglia
  1942              
? 31/07/42 1 Enemy aircraft (b) Destroyed MC.202   Bir Mukeisin area 70a Squadriglia
? 31/08/42 1 Kittyhawk (c) Destroyed MC.202   North Africa 70a Squadriglia

Biplane victories: At least 1 shared destroyed.
TOTAL: 5 and 1 shared destroyed.
(a) Regia Aeronautic claimed two Hurricanes destroyed; Only one Hurricane (P2653), flown by Pilot Officer Dick Sugden of the Hal Far Fighter Flight, was damaged during the engagement.
(b) Claimed in combat with P-40 Kittyhawks and Spitfires.
(c) Claimed as a ‘Spitfire’.

Sources:
3o Stormo, storia fotografica - Dai biplani agli aviogetti - C. Lucchini and E. Leproni, 1990 Gino Rossato Editore kindly provided by Jean Michel Cala with translations kindly provided by Birgitta Hallberg-Lombardi
Assi Italiani Della Caccia 1936-1945 - 1999 Aerofan no. 69 apr.-giu. 1999, kindly provided by Jean Michel Cala
Courage Alone - Chris Dunning, 1998 Hikoki Publications, Aldershot, ISBN 1-902109-02-3
Desert Prelude: Operation Compass - Håkan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo, 2011 MMP books, ISBN 978-83-61421-18-4
Malta: The Hurricane Years 1940-41 - Christopher Shores and Brian Cull with Nicola Malizia, 1987 Grub Street, London, ISBN 0-89747-207-1
Additional information kindly provided by Stefano Lazzaro and Ludovico Slongo.




Last modified 10 June 2012