Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Italian Air Campaign in East Africa I

“Pipistrelli” in the East Africa

 Pilots and groundcrew of No 3 Squadron, South African Air Force, chalk up their 101st enemy aircraft shot down on the fuselage of a captured Italian CR 42 fighter.
The Duke of Aosta

Throughout the campaign in East Africa, the Italian troops fought with resolution and courage. When the war began, the Italian forces were composed of 91,000 Italian nationals (of whom 7,000 were officers) belonging to the Army, Air Force and Revenue Guards. The colonial soldiers numbered around 200,000. They were equipped with 3,300 machine-guns; sixty-four medium tanks; thirty-nine light tanks; 126 armoured cars and trucks; 813 guns of different calibres but all dated; 325 aircraft of which only 244 were combat ready. In comparison, the British were outnumbered, but better armed and more mobile as they were mechanised. As we have seen, this was not a detail, but a major factor in the vast territories over which the conflict was fought.

It had been an air war that had been dominated by the biplane fighter, the CR.32 and CR.42 and the Gloster Gladiator, but what of the aces, the men who had flown them? Some had seen combat in Spain and others were fresh to aerial dogfights. Undoubtedly, not only the Italian pilots, but the British and Commonwealth ones too, were supremely brave men, fighting over inhospitable terrain, often against hopeless odds. The following few paragraphs examine the careers and sometimes the deaths of some of the more successful Italian pilots. Omissions are purely incidental.

Luigi Baron was born in 1918 at Castelfranco Veneto; he was to serve with 412a Squadriglia, equipped with Fiat CR.42s. He ended the campaign as the second most successful of the Italian fighter pilots in the East Africa. A Gladiator of 237 Squadron was operating over Keren on 25 March 1941 and spotted a pair of CR.42s, but it was then attacked by a Hurricane of 1 SAAF Squadron. This squadron engaged CR.42s twice during the day, once in the morning when one was hit by Lt Irvine (possibly the 237 Squadron Gladiator and not a CR.42). In the afternoon Lt Robin Pare and Lt White encountered two CR.42s from 412 Squadriglia. They were at 15,000 ft. Pare shot one of them down, but the other escaped. The Italians admitted that one of the CR.42s was shot down; the one flown by Sergente Pietro Morlotti was killed. A second was later written off. Two other CR.42s were damaged that day, with both of the pilots being wounded. Two Hurricanes were also claimed by the CR.42s. Baron claimed one of the Hurricanes, but he was wounded in the leg and baled out. Baron remained in hospital for two years and was then repatriated to Italy. He arrived safely in Italy after a two-month voyage, and was given the Medaglia d’Argento al Valor Militare and the Medaglia di Bronzo al Valor Militare. He was also decorated with the German Iron Cross 2nd Class. He ended his war with twelve kills.

Carlo Canella was born on 22 June 1914 and was commissioned (in the Servizio Permanente Effettivo) on 28 October 1938. He too served with 412a Squadriglia. On 12 June 1940, he shot down a British Wellesley bomber over the Keren area. In the early hours of 16 October Flt Lt Mitchell (430 Flight), in a Vincent, attacked Tessenei airfield. He was followed back to Gedaref by a Ca 133, and so the Italians now knew where the aircraft were based. The Italians attacked the airfield at 0525, with an S.79 flown by Generale Piacentini leading in six CR.42s of the 412 Squadriglia; the pilots were Capitano Antonio Raffi, Tenente Visintini, Tenente Carlo Canella, Sergente Maggiore Lugi Baron, Scarselli and Tenente De Pauli. The fighters destroyed all eight Wellesleys of 47 Squadron’s detachment and two of 430 Flight’s Vincents. Canella ended the war with seven biplane victories. For his actions he was awarded two Medaglie d’Argento al Valor Militare and one Medaglia di Bronzo al Valor Militare.

Antonio Giardinà served with the 410a Squadriglia, and flew a Fiat CR.32. At noon on 24 June 1940, four Blenheims of 39 Squadron and two of 11 Squadron hit Diredawa in flights of three. Giardinà was up on a standing patrol. He dived out of the sun on the leading flight and attacked them, damaging all three of the aircraft. On 11 July 1940 a Blenheim of 8 Squadron, flown by Flg Off P.A. Nicholas (Aden), made a reconnaissance over Jijiga. The aircraft was intercepted by Sottotenente Veronese and Sergente Maggiore Giardinà, who attacked the bomber, claiming to have probably hit it.

On 15 March 1941 Hurricanes of 3 SAAF Squadron attacked Diredawa. The Hurricane pilots found three Fiat CR.32s of the 410 Squadriglia in the air. One of the CR.32 pilots, Sergente Maggiore Giardinà, had just begun an attack on a Ju86 also attacking the airfield, when he suddenly spotted a Hurricane approaching to attack him. Sottotenente Osvaldo Bartolozzi rushed to Giardinà’s aid without checking his own tail, the next moment hearing an explosion and being hit in the face and neck by splinters. He immediately broke away and began turning with his attacker, avoiding two more bursts of fire. He landed with 188 holes in his aircraft, but no serious damage. Giardinà fought on for several minutes, returning fire, and at last the Hurricane left. He was then able to land.

At 0700 on 28 March 1941, five CR.42s and two CR.32s from Gauani under the command of Tenente Franco De Micheli of the 413a Squadriglia made an attack on Jijiga airfield. In the first pass a Ju52/3m (No. 660), a Valentia (No. 264) and a Hartebeest were set on fire; two of the Ju52/3ms that were damaged in an attack on the 26th were also shot up again, as was a Leopard Moth of the Communication Squadron. The Italians had not found the fighter satellite strip, and two Hurricanes of 3 SAAF Squadron flown by Capt S. van Breda Theron and Lt Venter scrambled. Theron was no sooner in the air than his aircraft received a bullet in the cooling system (from an airfield defence Lewis gun, it was suspected); he went in to land again, but as he did so he was attacked by Sergente Maggiore Giardinà in a CR.32. The Hurricane was set on fire and Theron was wounded in the leg. As soon as Giardinà saw Theron leap out onto the wing, which he did the moment his Hurricane touched the ground, Giardinà ceased firing. Venter was attacked by three Fiats and his aircraft was riddled with bullets, but he managed to shoot down one Fiat, which fell in flames and crashed. The pilot was Sottotenente Silvano.

Giardinà was shifted to 412a Squadriglia and began flying CR.42s. On 2 July 1941 Sergente Maggiore Giuseppe Mottet and Giardinà claimed one shared Vickers Wellesley of 47 Squadron, which was shot down over Gondar, the aircraft falling in flames. The pilot, Sgt Alexander George Brown, and his crew were all killed. Later in the war Giardinà served with 300a Squadriglia in the night defence of Rome. He was to end the war with five biplane victories. Giardinà was decorated with two Medaglie d’Argento al Valor Militare and one Medaglia di Bronzo al Valor Militare.

Giuseppe Mottet was born in Fontanemore (Aosta) on 12 September 1912. In 1937, he volunteered for the Spanish Civil War and was assigned to 20a Squadriglia, XXIII Gruppo ‘Asso Di Bastoni’, flying Fiat CR.32s. Mottet flew about ninety missions during his tour in Spain, primarily on escort flights to bombers and field protection sorties. In 1939 he received an order to transfer to the 411a Squadriglia in Africa Orientale Italiana (AOI, or Italian East Africa). He arrived at Addis Ababa on 30 August.

From 10 June 1940 to 27 November 1941 he flew many reconnaissance flights and strafing attacks, and was involved in dogfights. On 14 November 1940 he flew as Number Two in a section of two aircraft when they were involved in combat with four unknown enemy aircraft over Jimma airfield. Three of the aircraft were claimed shot down, and this was later confirmed.

On 9 April 1941, Giuseppe Mottet was engaged by Hurricanes over Gimma while defending the base flying a Fiat CR.32, together with another fighter. Capt Frost and Lt Hewitson of 3 SAAF Squadron shot him down. The aircraft was a write-off but Mottet was unhurt.

On 2 July 1941 Mottet and Sergente Maggiore Antonio Giardinà claimed one shared Vickers Wellesley. This was a Wellesley of 47 Squadron, which was shot down over Gondar, the aircraft falling in flames. In a report from 411a Squadriglia on 11 August it was reported that he had flown 160 hours of combat missions from 22 August 1939 to date. On 15 October he was promoted to Maresciallo at Gondar. From 31 October, after the death of his CO, Tenente Malavolti, he was the only Italian fighter pilot in Italian East Africa. On 22 November 1941 the last CR.42 flown by Mottet was sent out and attacked British artillery at Kulkaber. Upon landing, he destroyed the CR.42 and joined the Italian troops, fighting until the surrender five days later. Giuseppe Mottet was decorated with the Medaglia d’Argento al Valor Militare.

Enzo Omiccioli was born in Fano on 1 June 1915. In the beginning of the East African campaign he was serving with 410a Squadriglia, equipped with Fiat CR.32s. On 15 June Omiccioli intercepted a Blenheim (39 Squadron) over Diredawa, but no result was claimed. In July Omiccioli was on a brief attachment to the 411a Squadriglia. On 11 July four Hawker Hartebeests of 40 SAAF Squadron made an attack around Moyale. There they encountered three Ca 133s, escorted by three CR.32s of the Squadriglia. The fighters attacked the South African aircraft, and Lt Neville Keith Rankin was last seen in a spin with one Fiat on the tail of his aircraft; he and his gunner, Air Sgt Dennis Haig Hughes, were both killed. Lt L.H.G. Shuttleworth’s aircraft was hit, but he made good his escape. The Italians reported meeting five aircraft, and claimed to have probably shot down two of them, one of these being claimed by Sergente Maggiore Omiccioli.

Omiccioli was loaned to the 412a Squadriglia, equipped with CR.42s. On 3 February six Gladiators from 1 SAAF Squadron flew into a new landing-strip called ‘Pretoria’, where they refuelled. They took off again at 1145 to strafe airfields in the Gondar area. A landing-site was spotted to the south of Azozo on which five Ca 133s were sitting. Another airfield was nearby, from which CR.42s were taking off. The Gladiators were attacked by the Fiats. In the combat Capt Brian Boyle and Capt Gerald Le Mesurier each claimed a Fiat shot down. The only loss sustained by the Italians in this combat was Sergente Maggiore Omiccioli, who was shot down and killed. He was posthumously awarded Italy’s highest decoration for valour, the Medaglia D’Oro al Valor Militare (Gold Medal). At the time of his death, he had a total of five victories, all of them claimed while flying biplanes.

Corrado Ricci was born in 1912, and he joined the Regia Aeronautica in 1931. After serving in Spain he served with the 410a Squadriglia, equipped with Fiat CR.32s. At 0800 on 1 August 1940, the two secret Italian landing-grounds at Chinele, near Diredawa, were discovered and strafed by two Blenheims. Six Blenheims each from 8 and 39 Squadrons, escorted by two Blenheim IVFs of 203 Squadron, were sent off to attack the fields in the afternoon. At 1500 the bombers approached at 16,000 ft and dived to 10,000 ft to bomb.

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