Thursday, October 27, 2016
Sunday, August 14, 2016
The colony of Italian East Africa was to be short lived, and on 18 January 1941 Emperor Haile Selassie would cross the border into Abyssinia and raise his flag and march at the head of his irregular army into Addis Ababa on 5 May.
The second Italo-Abyssinian war was devastating for Abyssinia. Over three-quarters of a million people were killed, half a million houses were destroyed, along with six million cattle, seven million sheep and goats, a million horses and mules and two thousand churches.
By June 1940 the balance of power, as we shall see, was entirely in favour of the Italians. The bulk of British strength was concentrated to defend the Suez Canal, and so was in Egypt. There were small forces of both British and French troops in their respective Somaliland territories.
With France falling in May 1940, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and East Africa were all vulnerable. It was very much a question of what Mussolini would choose to do, as it seemed that the initiative was very much with him. It would have been relatively easy for the Italians to seize almost anything for very little cost.
There was an enormous danger with Italy joining the war for the Mediterranean to become untenable for the Allies. If Italy were to press its claim for control of the Mediterranean, then British forces bound for the Middle East would have to be brought all around Africa and come into the Middle East via the Red Sea. This, then, made East Africa all the more important. A strong and determined Italy, in control of the entrance to the Red Sea, could place Britain’s tenuous control of the Suez Canal, Egypt and vital oil assets in jeopardy.
Some attempts had been made to strengthen the Royal Air Force in the Sudan, British Somaliland, Kenya and Aden. Any such move, however, would only seek to weaken the already stretched forces in Egypt. There could be no hope of launching any offensive action in this theatre either on the ground or in the air. What assets could be spared in East Africa were little more than police forces and patrol units.
Although Italian East Africa was vast, it was not an ideal theatre of war with its enormous highlands, deserts and rainy seasons. Across the region there were areas that were virtually deserts, while others were sub-tropical. There were few good roads, and in the rainy season they became almost impassable. There were just two railway lines: one ran from the Eritrean port of Massawa to Asmara and Tessenei, and the other ran from Addis Ababa to Djibouti in French Somaliland.
Although Italian East Africa was some 600 per cent larger than Italy itself, it was effectively cut off. To send troops, supplies or ammunition meant that the vessels would have to pass Gibraltar and then proceed down the west coast of Africa, around the Horn and up the east coast towards Italian Somaliland. In any case, both the Italian army and the air force were designed primarily as a colonial force. There was only a single, regular, Italian division – the Savoy Grenadiers. There were also territorial units, or Blackshirt battalions. These were men predominantly middle aged, with little in the way of training or equipment, who had somehow been persuaded to avoid the humiliation of unemployment at home for the uncertain virtues of life in East Africa.
The bulk of the army was, however, native units. They were recruited on a tribal basis. They were not designed to fight conventional wars; they lacked mobility, were terrified of artillery fire and were led by aloof Italian officers on horseback. There were also native scouts and skirmishers, again led by Italian officers. Added to this there were also irregular troops, who tended to be used for police duties. To support the ground forces there were a handful of tanks and armoured cars, mostly old and poorly maintained. The artillery was also outdated, and even anti-aircraft defences were poor. In all, the ground forces could muster some sixteen battalions, a pair of armoured car companies, two squadrons of tanks, ten artillery units, 123 native battalions, eight units of cavalry, some light artillery carried by mules and some irregulars. In total the Italians could muster upwards of 280,000 men. This was increased to 330,000 in June 1940. Reservists had been called up, although most of these men were either too old or too poorly trained to be of any use. There was a shortage of rifles, and many native units had been deployed as road builders.
Considering the enormous distances involved and the poor infrastructure, added to which the troops available were not suitable for large-scale offensive actions, it was understandable that Italian commanders in East Africa were unwilling to consider much more than defence.
Facing the northern borders with the Sudan were some 100,000 troops. These were primarily concentrated from the Red Sea coast to the border facing Khartoum. Some 83,000 men were on the borders of French and British Somaliland, 20,000 men formed the Army of the Juba, 40,000 were in central Abyssinia and just a scattering of forces covered the rest of the Sudanese border and the border with Kenya.
Ground forces were supported by a small Italian navy based in the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab. They had two squadrons of destroyers and eight largely unserviceable submarines.
The Italian Air Force, or Regia Aeronautica, was of a reasonable size. The bulk of the aircraft were Caproni Ca 133s. They were perfectly designed for their original purpose. The aircraft were monoplanes with three engines, and could be used for bombing, troop carrying or cargo carrying. But they were only any good if the enemy did not have their own aircraft or anti-aircraft defences; simply they were too slow and too poorly armed.
Another common aircraft was the Savoia S.81. This was a three-engined monoplane with fixed undercarriage. It would turn out to be so poor that it would only be used at night. Another aircraft deployed by the Italian Air Force in June 1940 was the Savoia S.79. It was a three-engined monoplane with a retractable undercarriage. Two of its five machine-guns were 12.7 mm, and it was without doubt the best aircraft to be deployed by any force in the region. The third engine, in the nose, limited its effectiveness, particularly when it was used on bombing missions. Added to this, there were very few spare parts for the aircraft.
Two of the fighter squadrons were flying the Fiat CR.32. It was a biplane, and, as the Italians would discover, it was far too slow to catch their bombers. Three other fighter squadrons were equipped with Fiat CR.42s. It was to be one of the more successful Italian aircraft in the theatre. The Italian pilots would discover that it was more manoeuvrable than the Hurricane and faster than the Gladiator. The three squadrons of CR.42s – 412th, 413th and 414th Squadrons – would have mixed fortunes. The best squadron was the 412th.
Another fighter squadron, the 110th, was flying Meridionali Ro.37bis, twin-seat biplanes. They were originally designed for reconnaissance, observation and army co-operation. They were to prove particularly useless when ordered to intercept enemy aircraft.
The most powerful striking force of the Italian Air Force in East Africa was, of course, the three main bomber groups. The fighters were scattered all around East Africa. Generale Pietro Pinna was the air commander in East Africa. His instructions on the outbreak of war were to hit any British airfields or ports within striking distance. The availability of bombs was to be a considerable problem. He would reserve his 250 kg bombs for stationary ships in port. Ships at sea would be attacked with 50 kg bombs.
In all, across Italian East Africa, there were nine Italian aircraft groups. Each of the groups could have from two to eight squadriglie. Broadly speaking, the strength of one of these was similar to an RAF flight. However, the Italian fighters were usually in the larger squadriglie, and these could be as large as an RAF squadron.
The Italian Air Force was organised into three distinct areas. Comando Settore Aeronautico Nord (Air Sector Headquarters North) was based in Asmara in Eritrea. The 26th Group could muster twelve Caproni Ca 133s (11th and 13th Squadriglie). These were based at Gondar and Bahar Dar. The 27th Group had the 18th and 52nd Squadriglie, also with a dozen Ca 133s at Assab. The 118th Squadriglia, also part of 27th Group, with half a dozen Savoia S.81s, was also based at Assab. At Zula was 28th Group with the 10th and 19th Squadriglie, and they had twelve S.81s. The 62nd and 63rd Squadriglie of 29th Group were based at Assab with a dozen S.81s. The rest of the group was scattered, apart from 413th Squadriglia, with its nine CR.42s at Assab. The 412th Squadriglia had four CR.42s at Massawa and five at Gura. Also at Gura was the 29th Group’s final squadriglia, the 414th, with six more CR.42s. At Agordat there was Gasbarrini Group, with twelve Caproni Ca 133s (41st Squadriglia and Squadriglia Dello Stato Maggiore Del Settore Nord).
On the western side of Italian East Africa, based at Addis Ababa, was the Comando Settore Aeronautico Ovest. The 4th and 44th Gruppi were based at Diredawa. The 4th Gruppo, consisting of the 14th and 15th Squadriglie, mustered some twelve Savoia S.81s. The 44th Gruppo, consisting of the 6th and 7th Squadriglie, had twelve Savoia S.79s. The 49th Gruppo, based at Jimma, was made up of the 61st and 64th Squadriglie with some twelve Caproni Ca 133s. Both the 110th and 410th Squadriglie were also at Diredawa; the 110th had nine Ro.37bis and the 410th had nine CR.32s. Based at Addis Ababa was the 411th Squadriglia, also with nine CR.32s, and Squadriglia Dello Stato Maggiore Del Settore Centrale with six Ca 133s. The 65th Squadriglia had six Ca 133s and was based at Neghelli, and the 66th Squadriglia was at Yavello with three Ca 133s.
Based around Mogadishu was Comando Settore Aeronautico Sud. This consisted of the 25th Gruppo, which had the 8th and 9th Squadriglie with twelve Ca 133s. Half of these were based at Gobwen, and the other half at Lugh Ferrandi. Finally, at Mogadishu were the seven Ca 133s of the Squadriglia Dello Stato Maggiore Del Settore.
The Italians also had a considerable number of transport aircraft. There were nine Savoia S.73s and a similar number of Ca 133s. There was one Fokker FVII and six Ca 148s. The reserve forces consisted of thirty-five Ca 133s, six CR.42s, five CR.32s, four S.79s and two Ro.37bis. In addition to this were aircraft that were currently under repair, and these included forty-eight Ca 133s, sixteen S.81s, eleven CR.32s and two of each of S.79s, CR.42s and Ro.37bis.
Although the numbers of aircraft presented an impressive total, one of the key problems was the position and the state of the airfields. The bulk of the airfields were at the edges of the Italian territories and therefore potentially vulnerable. Many of the airfields had also been designed primarily for use by Ca 133s, and as a consequence the runways were too short for S.79s and CR.42s. The crews were not, by and large, the most adept of pilots; few had decent navigation skills; maps were at a premium; few of the aircraft had radios, and this meant that it was difficult not only to communicate between ground and air but to co-ordinate the flights themselves.
Allied forces in the region were neither that impressive nor necessarily well positioned. In the Sudan, based at Erkowit, was the impressively named Advanced Striking Force of the RAF. It comprised 254 Wing, which had three squadrons, all of which had been supplied with the Vickers Wellesley. This was a single-engined bomber, and in every other theatre barring the Sudan it had already been phased out. No. 47 Squadron, commanded by Wg Cdr J.G. Elton, was actually based at Erkowit. At Port Sudan was Sqn Ldr A.D. Selway’s 14 Squadron, and at Summit was 223 Squadron, commanded by Sqn Ldr J.C. Larking.
Attached to 47 Squadron was D Flight of the Sudan Defence Force, commanded by Gp Capt Macdonald. They had been supplied with seven Vickers Vincent biplanes. On 3 June 1940 they were reinforced by nine Gloster Gladiators of 112 Squadron. They would be based at Summit and would be responsible for protecting Port Sudan and other bases in the Sudan. By August 1940 Air Cdre L.H. Slatter would be in position to take command of all forces in the Sudan, as part of 203 Group.
AVM G.R.M. Reid commanded both the ground forces and air assets in the Aden Protectorate. Reid’s responsibility was not only to deal with tribesmen in Aden, but also to protect vessels passing through the Red Sea. Based at Khormaksar was 8 Squadron, commanded by Sqn Ldr D.S. Radford. No. 8 Squadron had a flight of Vincents and a flight of Bristol Blenheims. No. 94 Squadron, based at Sheik Othman and commanded by Sqn Ldr W.T.F. Wightman, had a single flight of Gladiators. Working alongside 8 Squadron at Khormaksar was 203 Squadron. Wg Cdr J.R.S. Streatfield had Blenheim IVs, which had been converted to operate as long-range fighters. In June 1940 Blenheim Is of 39 Squadron were en route from India to Sheik Othman, and more Blenheim Is were coming from Singapore, as part of 11 Squadron. They were also due to set up at Sheik Othman.
To the south of Italian East Africa, in Kenya, there were no RAF units available at the start of 1940. In April, 1 Squadron of the Southern Rhodesian Air Force arrived at Nairobi and became part of 237 Squadron. They were equipped with Army Co-operation biplanes, mainly Hawker Harts, Hardies and Audaxes.
Additional air assets would be provided by the South African Air Force. In September 1939 the South Africans could muster sixty-three Hawker Hartebeests (these were converted Hawker Harts), eighteen Junkers Ju86s (these were former South African Airways airliners that had been converted into bombers and reconnaissance aircraft), six Hawker Fury Is, four Hawker Hurricane Is and a single Blenheim IF.
Britain had provided South Africa with several additional aircraft by May 1940, including Avro Ansons (maritime reconnaissance) and some Vickers Valentia Transports. A further ten Ju52/3M aircraft, belonging to South African Airways, had been requisitioned as military transports. The South Africans had also been able to create three squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes and Furies. The flights, commanded by Capt S. Van Schalkwyk, Lt B.J.L. Boyle and Lt S. van Breda Theron, became operational by the middle of 1940. The unit was commanded by Maj N.G. Neblock-Stuart.
On 13 May 1940 the pilots of the first two flights were transported to Egypt to be converted to use Gloster Gladiators. They were trained on Gloster Gauntlets. Once the training period was over, they would ferry their own aircraft south to Nairobi. Six days later, on 19 May, Maj R. Preller’s 11 Bomber Squadron, with twenty-four Hartebeests and a Fairey Battle, headed for Nairobi.
There was more reshuffling; 12 Bomber Squadron had their Ansons replaced by Ju86s, and along with 1 Squadron’s Hurricanes they too headed for Nairobi, arriving there on 25 May. The Ju86s were commanded by Maj C. Martin, and the Hurricanes were led by Lt Theron. Once 12 Squadron had arrived at Nairobi, together with 11 Squadron, they became 1 Bomber Brigade under Lt Col S.A. Melville. No. 1 Squadron’s Furies were disassembled on 26 May and ferried to Kenya on board the SS Takliwa, arriving in Kenya on 1 June. Two of 11 Squadron’s flights shifted to Mombasa.
By the second week of June there were forty-six South African aircraft, a single Rhodesian squadron and additional aircraft for liaison duties available in Kenya. No. 12 Squadron’s Ju86s were dispersed, with A Flight, commanded by Capt Raubenheimer, at Dar-Es-Salaam, B Flight at Mombasa under Capt D. Meaker, and Capt D. Du Toit’s C Flight remaining at Nairobi.
Completing the Allied air forces available was a tiny force in French Somaliland. This was the Armée de l’Air. It had eleven Potez 25 Army Co-operation biplanes, four Potez 631 reconnaissance bombers, three Morane 406 fighters and a pair of Potez 29 transport and liaison biplanes.
In July 1943, a coup ousted Mussolini from power. He was made captive by his enemies but rescued in a daring mission the following September 12 by German commandoes. The Duce thereafter reestablished himself in the north, at the town of Salo, where he set up the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI), the Italian Social Republic. Its chief purpose was to continue the fight against the Anglo-American invaders by creating a new armed forces, including the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana. Members of the former Italian Air Force responded virtually en masse to his call for volunteers. For example, of 66 Macchi MB.205 fighters still in service, all save half a dozen were flown away from the south. Less than 200 men out of the Regia Aeronautica's 12,000 officers and 160,000 NCOs flew for Marshal Badoglio's puppet Co-Belligerent Air Force (the Aeronautica Cobelligerante del Sud) operating at the behest of the Western Allies. In short order, most of these volunteers became disenchanted with their new superiors, who re-assigned them to transport duties on behalf of Tito's Communist partisans in Yugoslavia.
Meanwhile, the ANR's unexpected influx of volunteers fleshed out into one fighter group (the Gruppo Caccia Asso di Bastoni) composed of three squadrons, a bomber group (the 2° Gruppo Caccia "Gigi Tre Osei") of three squadrons, a torpedo-bomber group (the Gruppo Aerosiluranti Buscaglia Faggioni), the supporting Squadriglia complementare cl'allarme "Montefusco-Bonet," and the 2° Gruppo Aerotrasporti "Terraciano" for training. The Gruppo Caccia Asso di Bastoni defended industrial areas controlled by the RSI, intercepted enemy aircraft en route to southern Germany, offered close support for Italo-German land forces, and carried out missions outside the Salo Republic's immediate sphere of influence.
The ANR's ex-Regia Aeronautica warplanes were augmented by factory replacement production, provided especially by Turin's Fiat plant, and arrivals from Germany in the form of Fieseler Storch liaison planes, Dornier Do.217 medium-bombers, Messerschmitt Bf 109 interceptors, and Bf-110 ground-attack "destroyers:' In all, the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana operated no less than 56 different types of aircraft, from doddering CR.32 biplane veterans of the Ethiopian War to another Fiat, the finest of World War II. Described by Oberst Hans Petersen, inspection officer of the Luftwaffe's aircraft evaluation department, as "the best fighter in the Axis;' the G.55 was powered by a liquid-cooled inverted V-12, 1,475-hp Fiat R.A 1050 Tifone engine (a license-built Daimler-Benz DB 605A-1), enabling the sleek Centauro to climb almost 23,000 feet in under nine minutes. With a maximum speed of 417 mph at that altitude, and armed with three 20-mm cannons mounted in the engine and wings, plus two 12.7-mm machine-guns in the fuselage, the "Centaur" was a lethal bomber-killer that could equally compete with top Allied fighters.
Its baptism of fire came on June 5,1943, when the first few G.55s assigned to the 20° Gruppo of the 51°Stormo at Capoterra, near Cagliari, decimated an RAF attack against Sardinia. In early summer, they were transferred to the 353rd Squadriglia, joining two dozen more Fiats in the 2nd Gruppo Caccia Terrestre at Veneria Real. In defending Rome from American bomber streams, the Centaurs scored heavily against B-17 Flying Fortresses, while dealing handily with P-51 escorts. When Marshal Badoglio declared an armistice with the Allies on September 8, just 1 of the 35 new Fiats that had been delivered flew south to join his Co-Belligerent Air Force. The rest became part of the ANR's Squadriglia Montefusco, in November 1943, operating from Piemonte.
G.55 production resumed in the north, resulting in another 97 specimens until March 29, 1944, when the Montefusco was absorbed by the 1st Gruppo and transferred to Veneto. By then, the redoubtable fighter had made such a name for itself among Anglo-American pilots, they organized a special raid aimed directly at curtailing its further existence by carpet bombing the city of Turin, where the Fiat plant was located, on April 25. Civilian casualties were high, and the plant was heavily damaged, but only 15 Centaurs-some near completion on the assembly lines, others ready for delivery to the factory airfield-were lost.
On recommendations of German observers from their Ruestungs and Kriegsproduktion Stab (the Armaments and War Production Staff), further G.55 manufacture was dispersed across Monferrato, enabling workers in various towns and villages throughout the area to construct different specific parts, which were then brought together for rapid assembly in Turin. German efficiency measures also reduced Centaur fabrication from 15,000 to 9,000 man-hours per finished airplane. In all, 274 of the latest Fiats were produced by war's end.
The Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana eventually became so powerful, it could afford to send the 1° Gruppo Aerotrasporti "Trabucchi" to serve beyond Italy in the Baltic, at Spilve, near Riga, from whence its crewmen defended Latvia against Soviet invasion, until they were virtually annihilated by late summer 1944. Several hundred ANR crews training on Messerschmitt Bf.109s and Fiat interceptors in Germany were prevented by the Third Reich's deteriorating military situation from returning to Italy, opting to defend its capital city during the climactic Battle of Berlin. From mid-March to early May 1945, some of the latest G.55 Centaurs and Macchi Greyhounds threw themselves against an immense enemy air fleet of bombers and fighters, much to the alarm of Soviet pilots.
ANR maritime attacks continued until very late in the war. After several successful raids against American forces pinned down at the Anzio beach head, the Gruppo Aerosiluranti "Buscaglia Faggioni" relocated to coastal Greece, where its Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 Sparrowhawks menaced Allied shipping, sinking a 5,000-ton British transport north of Benghazi, Libya, and another enemy freighter out of Rimini as late in the war as February 5, 1945. Ten S.M.79 Sparviero bombers formed an antishipping unit based at Ghedi, in Lombardy, beginning in October 1944. They celebrated Christmas Day by attacking an Allied convoy near Ancona, torpedoing a 7,000-ton freighter.
Outstanding was the ANR's 1st Gruppo "Asso di Bastoni," which made its debut on January 3, 1944, with the destruction of four P-38 Lightnings, minus casualties. Before March, its crews claimed 26 combat victories, mostly over Americans, for the loss of 9 comrades. On the 11th of that month alone, a dozen more of the foe fell under their guns, at the cost of three Italian airmen. A week later, 30 Macchi Veltros were joined by 60 Messerschmitt Gustavs of JG.77 to intercept 450 Allied bombers and dozens more escorting fighters. That the Axis crews achieved four "kills" for the loss of just one of their own against such opposition was remarkable.
By late summer 1944, ANR pilots were confronted by almost overwhelming odds, as evidenced by the loss on August 25 of Corporal Teresio Martinoli, Italy's top-scoring ace, with 22 confirmed combat victories. Even so, it was less the aerial competition offered by their increasingly outnumbering enemies in the sky, than the Italians' own lack of sufficient replacement parts and especially aviation fuel that grounded ANR aircraft, leaving them sitting targets for AngloAmerican warplanes.
From Italy's June 10, 1940, declaration of war against the Western Allies until the Badoglio armistice of September 8, 1943, Regia Aeronautica air crews accounted for 2,522 combat "kills, plus 74 Soviet aircraft claimed by the Comando Aeronautica Fronte Orientate, losing 15 of its own on the Eastern Front, largely through accidents in Russia's icy conditions. An additional 265 Western Allied warplanes were shot down by Mussolini's Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana between December 1943 and April 1945 for the loss of 158 Italian crewmen. These figures do not, of course, include enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground, in excess of 1,000 warplanes. Regia Aeronautica and Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana bombers sank approximately 80 Allied warships and more than 200 freighters, damaging another 500 vessels of all types, many of them beyond salvage.
The measure of this achievement, plus the courage and skill of Italian crews, is self-evident in the technical inferiority of the aircraft they mostly flew against numerically superior opponents. Officially, both Italian air forces in World War II combined produced 100 aces, each one scoring a minimum of five "kills" in the air. These figures are misleading, however, as destroyed aircraft were not credited to individual pilots but instead to their own squadrillia until later in the war. Airmen who demonstrated exceptionally high skills were commonly reassigned from frontline service to become instructors or promoted into the Regia Aeronautica's command structure, a policy that explains the low number of kills credited to Italian flyers relative to the aces of other nations. Fascist Italy's most outstanding military aviators were not allowed to remain in combat operations for as long as their foreign contemporaries, and the "kills" they did make often went uncredited.
The last fighter missions on behalf of the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana were carried out by the 2nd Fighter Group "Gigi Tre Osei" on April 19, 1945, when, in a final gesture of defiance, its crews went down fighting against impossibly high numbers of the enemy, taking several Lockheed Lightnings, P-51 Mustangs, and Supermarine Spitfires with them into eternity. Nine days later, Mussolini was dead. Shortly before his arrest and execution by Communist partisans, he told a despairing colleague, "There is no shame in defeat. The only disgrace is cowardice. We have nothing to be ashamed of."
Sunday, March 13, 2016
Fiat CR42 downing a Gloster Gladiator
Immediately after the battle of Agordat on 1 February 1941, Gazelle Force was instructed to pursue the Italians towards Keren. The British were held up at the Barak river, where the Ponte Mussolini bridge had been partially destroyed. The main girders had been severely damaged and it was impossible to get motor transport over it. At this point the Barak was around 150 yards wide and consisted of a strip of very soft, deep sand that, without a temporary track, vehicles had no hope of crossing.
The Italians were not about to make even this difficult task easy for the British, as they had laid a large number of mines around the approaches to the bridge and were covering the minefield with machine-gun posts and an artillery piece. This small rearguard was quickly overwhelmed by field artillery, which allowed the British to lay their track, and by the evening of 2 February Gazelle Force, along with six light tanks and the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, was just five miles from Keren.
In the skies on 1 February, 1 SAAF Squadron’s fighters had broken up an attack by five S.79s near Agordat. By this stage the Italian Air Force was in a parlous state. Since the middle of January it had lost seventeen aircraft due to enemy action, three more had been destroyed in accidents and twenty-four more were out of commission until at least March, due to the severity of the damage. This now meant that the Italian Air Force in East Africa could muster just thirty-seven Ca 133s, fifteen CR.42s, fourteen CR.32s, seven S.79s, six S.81s, two Ro.37bis and one S.82. The Italians by this stage also knew that it was suicidal to launch Ca 133s against any Allied target unless they were protected by fighters. It was the view of the Italian command that if air activities continued at its present level of intensity for another fortnight the Italian Air Force would virtually cease to exist.
There was another Italian casualty on 2 February when a patrol of 3 SAAF Squadron Hurricanes flew a sortie to Afmadu. The pilots, Capt J.E. Frost and Lt Hewitson, saw nothing on their first sortie, but on their second they spotted a Ca 133 on the ground. Frost strafed it and set it on fire. By now 3 SAAF was based at Aligabe and was very much at the forefront of the push.
Meanwhile, on the ground, as Gazelle Force pressed on from Ponte Mussolini they encountered a good road heading north-east over rolling terrain. Ahead of them was an escarpment, literally the entrance into Eritrea. The escarpment seemed to stretch for miles, and indeed for the last few miles before Keren the road ran through a narrow valley, with the escarpment on the left and an enormous spur on the right. It would be in this valley and the surrounding heights that the battle of Keren would be fought. There were Italian observation posts all above the valley, some as high as 2,000 ft. During daylight hours nothing could move without being seen. The valley was bare; a handful of trees and some scrub and no other cover. The valley was wide; between half a mile and a mile and a half. The road itself ran along the south side of the valley as far as Mount Dologorodoc, where it turned sharply to the north over a bridge and then uphill to enter the Dongolaas Gorge, which was no more than 330 yards wide. Above was Fort Dologorodoc, and here was a wide part, known as the Happy Valley. The only entrance for real traffic was over the bridge.
In the north wall of the valley was the Acqua Gap, flanked to the east by Mount Zelale, known as the Sphinx due to its shape. Fort Dologorodoc, guarding the entrance to the gorge, was overlooked to the east by Mount Falestoh, to the north-east by Mount Zeban and to the north-west by Mount Sanchil. Fire could be brought down on the fort from any of these summits.
To the north-west of Mount Sanchil were a series of features that would play an important role in the battle – Brig’s Peak, Sugar Loaf, Saddle, Near Feature, Hog’s Back, Flat Top Hill, Mole Hill, Mount Samanna and Mount Amba. All of the mountains were steep, covered in boulders and scrub, there were no paths and some took as much as an hour and a half to climb.
The railway running from Agordat to Keren ran along the north side of the valley. When it reached Dongolaas Gorge it had climbed a third of the way up the lower slopes of Mount Sanchil. The railway would be of enormous use, particularly to the 4th Indian Division.
When Agordat fell, Keren was believed to have been held by just a single colonial brigade. The British believed that if they moved quickly they could overrun Keren before the Italians poured reinforcements into it. Unfortunately, intelligence revealed that by 2 February the Italians had in fact already reinforced Keren. A colonial brigade and part of a Grenadier division had been brought up from Addis Ababa.
By now the British were at the first major Italian roadblock in the Dongolaas Gorge. The Italians had sited units to cover the position. Any British that drew close to it came under immediate fire. A reconnaissance was sent out, and although the British tried to rush the roadblock on 3 February, they were unable to get past. The 2nd Camerons worked their way towards Brig’s Peak and secured Cameron Ridge. Meanwhile Skinner’s Horse was sent around the right flank, and units probed into the Happy Valley to try and find a way around the block.
Storming the Italian positions at Keren was not a task that the British could take lightly. Added to the natural strength of the Italian positions, the temperature was also rising daily. Both the British and the Italians knew that the engagement at Keren would be decisive. A surprise attack by the British was unlikely, as the Italians had good observation posts and the air force was still active. The British knew that this would not be an easy assault. Keren was indeed a tough nut to crack. Any casualties now would be incredibly difficult to replace.
The British hunted for a way past the block; in fact the 3rd Central Indian Horse hunted for a way through some sixty miles to the south, and reached Arresa, which No. 2 Motor Machine-gun Group of the Sudan Defence Force had reached. They found that Arresa was a possibility, but they could see how difficult the route was, as the Italians had abandoned nearly all their vehicles along here in their retreat from Barentu. It would take time to build a road through here, and every wasted hour would give the Italians an opportunity to move troops down and make Arresa as difficult as Keren.
The expected rains would also make the route impossible. The British hunted to the north and found nothing, and they came to the gradual realisation that only at Keren was there any real option.
On 3 February Hurricanes of 3 SAAF Squadron scrambled over the Dif area. Later Lt Marsh escorted Hartebeests of 41 SAAF Squadron on an attack on Afmadu. Marsh engaged one of five CR.42s that came up to intercept, but it evaded him in the clouds. Capt Frost, based at Aligabe, on his third sortie of the day, saw three Ca 133s bombing a British camp at Dif. He dived to attack, making a frontal attack on the third Ca 133. He was then bounced by two CR.42s. Frost evaded them and swung around to try and catch the Ca 133s again. As he came in for another attack the CR.42s tried to intercept him. He fired a burst of machine-gun fire into one of them. The CR.42 pulled up and then spun down, crash-landing in a ball of flames. Frost then turned to attack the bombers again. The Ca 133s broke formation, and as Frost closed with one of them the pilot baled out and the controls were taken over by the co-pilot, who managed to crash-land the bomber. Frost now tackled the second bomber, which burst into flames and crashed. He now moved on the third one, shooting at it in two passes and then seeing it crash-land. British ground troops took eleven Italian air crew prisoner.
Over Eritrea, six Gladiators of 1 SAAF Squadron landed at the new airstrip, codenamed Pretoria. They took off again at 1145 to attack Italian positions around Gondar. They spotted an Italian landing-ground near Azozo, and on it were five Ca 133s. The Gladiators came down and began strafing the Ca 133s, which were being refuelled and loaded with bombs. The Gladiator pilots claimed that they hit and blew up all five, but the Italians later only admitted to one.
Peeling away from the Italian airfield, the Gladiator pilots saw another airfield, with CR.42s taxiing to take off. Also on the ground were a number of S.81s. The Gladiators got in one strafing attack before the CR.42s engaged them. In the ensuing dogfight Capt Le Mesurier and Capt Boyle each claimed to have shot down a CR.42. In the fight Lt Smith’s aircraft was badly damaged and he had to make a forced landing at Azozo.
One of the CR.42 victims that day was Sergente Maggiore Enzo Omiccioli. Omiccioli was originally of 410 Squadriglia, but had been recently flying with 412 Squadriglia. He was shot down during the attack on Gondar, and was posthumously awarded the Medaglia D’Oro for his actions while flying a CR.32 on attachment to 411 Squadriglia, when he shot down Lt Rankin of 40 SAAF Squadron in a Hartebeest. He had also shot down two Blenheims when he was with 410 Squadriglia, and four when he was with 412 Squadriglia.
On 4 February, 1 SAAF Squadron launched three Gladiators and three Hurricanes for an attack on the airfield at Bahar Dar. As they approached the airfield they saw three Ca 133s on the ground. Capt Driver shot one up, and Lt White and Lt Coetzer claimed another one each.
Meanwhile, four more Hurricanes of 1 SAAF Squadron were on escort duty with Wellesleys to attack the area around Gura. They encountered three Blenheim IVs of 14 Squadron. Immediately the South African pilots took the Blenheims to be enemy aircraft and launched an attack, damaging one so badly that it had to crash-land at Port Sudan. The Hurricanes then peeled off to attack four CR.42s. Maj Wilmot attacked one at low level over Asmara, believing that he saw it crash among some buildings.
A pair of Blenheim IVFs launched an attack on Makale airfield from Aden. The pilots, Sqn Ldr J.M.N. Pike and Flt Lt Gethin of 203 Squadron, shot up three S.79s, and may well have badly damaged three others that were undergoing repairs. The Blenheims were then set upon by a pair of CR.32s of 410 Squadriglia, flown by Verones and Folcherio. The Italians hit both of the Blenheims, and one of them was forced to crash-land back at Aden.
There was considerable activity over Eritrea on 5 February. There were engagements between Hurricanes and Gladiators of 1 SAAF Squadron against as many as six CR.42s. In one of the engagements Capt Driver attacked a CR.42 and saw it crash-land close to Asmara. Meanwhile Lt Coetzer shot down another CR.42, while Capt Le Mesurier claimed a third.
Italian aircraft attacked the 5th Indian Brigade outside Keren on 6 February. From now on, 1 SAAF Squadron was assigned to provide cover for the ground troops over the area.
British bombers struck Keren and Assab, and on 7 February a CR.42 of 412 Squadriglia attacked and shot down a Hardy of 237 Squadron over Keren. The crew-members of the Hardy, Flg Off Taylor and Sgt Stowe, were both killed. The British lost a pair of Wellesleys flown by Flg Off Helsby and Sgt E.E. Blofield over Adi Ugri. The Wellesleys were attacked by CR.42s of 412 Squadriglia, and one of the kills was claimed by Maresciallo Soffritti. Pike and Gethin were active again on 6 February, and this time they attacked Alomata. They saw nine Ca 133s on the ground and shot up eight of them.
On the ground, the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade, less one battalion, was moved from Agordat to Keren. It was hoped that it could attack around the right flank of the Italian positions, through the Happy Valley and into the Acqua Gap. During the previous night the 3rd Battalion of the 14th Punjabis occupied Brig’s Peak, but was driven off on the afternoon of 6 February. The 1st Battalion of the 6th Rajputana Rifles occupied part of Cameron Ridge and held off vicious counter-attacks.
It was clear that the Italians were reinforcing the area. During the night of 7/8 February the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade moved into position in the Happy Valley, and in the early morning of 8 February the 4th Battalion of the 6th Rajputana Rifles launched an attack on Acqua Gap. It was wired and strongly held, and the battalion was only able to consolidate on a ridge just below it. It was a perfect target for the Italian Air Force.
Elsewhere, another attempt was made to secure Brig’s Peak, this time by the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Punjabis. It was to take it until 1500 on 10 February to succeed.
No. 14 Squadron launched four Blenheim IVs on 8 February to attack Asmara. One Blenheim was hit by anti-aircraft fire and shot down. Later in the day four Hurricanes of 1 SAAF Squadron launched a patrol over Asmara and were attacked by five CR.42s. Capt Driver managed to shoot one down and Lt Van Der Merwe damaged a second one.
There was disaster on Sunday 9 February when Agordat and the surrounding airfields were attacked by 412 Squadriglia. Five CR.42s were involved in the strafing and bombing runs. The Italians would claim five Hurricanes, five Hawker biplanes, two Wellesleys, two Gladiators and two other aircraft. In actual fact just two Wellesleys, two Hardies and two Lysanders were destroyed.
Throughout the period 10–12 February the Italians made numerous counter-attacks against Brig’s Peak and Cameron Ridge. The 3rd Battalion of the 1st Punjabis were driven off Brig’s Peak once again in the early hours. Meanwhile a second attack on the Acqua Gap was being launched. The 4th Battalion of the 11th Sikhs aimed to take Mount Zalale (the Sphinx) while the 4th Battalion of the 6th Rajputana Rifles attacked Hill 1565. Neither battalion was able to reach its objectives; in fact the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade was then pulled out. The second unsuccessful attack on the Acqua Gap made it clear to the British that shortage of transport, ammunition, rations and petrol was becoming a problem. The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade was pulled back to Barentu, and the rest of the 5th Indian Division was moved back to Subderat and Tessenei, where it could be more easily resupplied.
No. 1 SAAF Squadron was launching offensive patrols over Asmara on 10 February. Six Hurricanes got into a dangerous dogfight with five CR.42s in the cloudy skies. Capt Boyle managed to shoot down a CR.42, and Capt Driver, having chased a pair of CR.42s and then lost them in the clouds, shot at a third one and saw it burst into flames. Driver then received a number of hits and two CR.42s chased him, but he managed to evade and land safely at Agordat. In all probability, the Hurricane pilots had actually only shot down one Italian aircraft – a CR.32, almost certainly flown by Sergente Marlotti (412 Squadriglia). His body was found near the wreckage of his aircraft. His parachute had not opened.
No. 1 SAAF was determined to sweep Italian fighters from the skies over Keren, and on 11 February it launched no fewer than eleven fighters. On one of the patrols two Hurricanes were attacked by CR.42s. The CR.42s tried to slip away and were chased by Lt S. de K Viljoen. The South African pilot ran out of fuel and had to land near a village. He was lucky that the village was already in British hands; he managed to obtain some fuel, and took off the following morning, but promptly crashed. He returned to base on foot, and later his aircraft was recovered and repaired.
In all likelihood, the three CR.42s that had been encountered by the Hurricanes were being led by Capitano Mario Visintini. He was leading two young pilots. It was a disastrous sortie. Visintini was blown off course and was killed when he crashed into Mount Nefasit. The two young pilots had to make forced landings. Visintini was another desperate loss for the Italian Air Force. He had flown in the Spanish Civil War and had probably shot down a number of Wellesleys and Blenheims. In total he may have claimed fifteen to seventeen kills. Visintini was posthumously awarded the Medaglia D’Oro.
More aggressive combat patrols were launched once again on 13 February. Five Hurricanes engaged five CR.42s, and as one of the CR.42s tried to evade an onrushing Hurricane it began to belch smoke. It was attacked by Capt Boyle and set on fire. The pilot managed to bale out. Meanwhile Lt Duncan saw another CR.42 in trouble, and as he attacked it the pilot also baled out. In fact just one of the two losses was a CR.42 flown by Luigi De Pol (who was badly wounded and later died in hospital). The other aircraft was the last CR.32 in Eritrea, which was flown by Tenente Bossi. It was later claimed that Bossi had been machine-gunned while he was dangling from his parachute. In hospital he had to have an arm and a leg amputated, but he died as a result of his injuries.
An S.82 transporter was destroyed when the British raided Zula, and welcome reinforcements arrived with K Flight’s return from Egypt. The Gladiator flight was commanded by Flt Lt J.E. Scoular DFC. It would now be based at Mersa Taclai.
“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.