The Air Battles Over the Piave

Illustration: Sopwith Camels over Italy in 1918 (image from ‘Sopwith Camel’ by Jon Guttman © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

When the British army occupied the Asiago sector, the original plan had been to attack the Austrians towards the Val Suguna. However, the situation in France caused a postponement, and instead it was the Austrians that took the offensive. Then, as the problem in France caused British troops to be withdrawn from the Italian front on the Piave River, the Camels began flying three-man patrols over both the Piave and Asiago areas to maintain a presence.

Enemy reconnaissance aircraft were constantly over allied positions and the Camels were flying barrage patrols between Fornia and Gallio. It was presumed that while the Austrians were preparing to attack, unknown to the allies they had changed their plan of advance to the Piave. In order to conceal their intentions, they were moving all men and equipment during the hours of darkness.

On the first day of June 45 Squadron lost one of its ace pilots – Earl Hand – to the Austro-Hungarian pilot Frank Linke-Crawford. Hand was on patrol along with Lieutenants Paddy O’Neill and J. P. `Proc’ Huins. Huins had this to say about the action in a letter:

An early morning O. P., 6-7.15 am, over the lines. Paddy had engine trouble and returned to base before we crossed the lines. Hand and myself climbed to 12,000 feet flying east, with me on his starboard side. When some 7-10 miles over a sudden waggling of wings by Hand, indicated he had spotted some E. A. well below us. Down he went in a good dive and I followed on, flattening out after the dive. Hand immediately closed in combat with a black machine with a large camouflaged letter `L’ on the top of the centre section of his machine.

I was about 100 yards away and as I hurried on a parallel course, Hand turned out of the tight circle in which he and the E. A. was involved, and I saw flames come from Hand’s main tank behind his back. The pilot of the `L’ machine was about 200 yards away. I turned towards him and we came head-on; he opened fire first and a second later I replied – a two-second burst but then both [my] guns jammed. I held my head-on approach and decided to fly for a collision. At the last moment when it seemed certain we would collide the E. A. went under, and he passed beneath me. I immediately did a steep left turn and came round inside the E. A., which was turning left. I finished some ten yards or less on his tail, the pilot looking over his left shoulder, then he half-rolled and went down vertically. I held my height as the E. A. flattened out at tree-top level, and flying `on the carpet’ went east.

I realised my engine was running rough as my Camel had been damaged in the encounter. The leading edge of my wings were torn and flapping in the breeze, the engine damaged, and the windmill pump on the right centre section strut had been shot away. I turned on to the gravity tank and limped back to our side of the lines, taking a last look at Hand’s burning machine.

Earl Hand, from Ontario, was lucky to survive the encounter, crashing in flames. Although he suffered some burns, he got clear of the wreckage and soon found himself taken prisoner. He had gained five victories over France and Italy, and later received the DFC. `Proc’ Huins later became a doctor and spent a lot of time studying aviation medicine, for which he was made an OBE and received the Air Force Cross and Bar.

Two casualties in early June were Second Lieutenant A. F. Bartlett of 66 Squadron (B7353) taken prisoner on the 6th, and Lieutenant G. D. McLeod of 28 Squadron (B2316) wounded and captured on the 8th. He lingered until he succumbed to his injuries on 22 January 1919.

From 10 June 1918, Camels again began making their barrage patrols between Fornia and Gallio in order to restrict Austrian air reconnaissance over these areas; also what were termed `long patrols’ which were flown some 5 miles into enemy territory between Casotto and Cismon. Meanwhile, British and Italian air reconnaissance reports and photographs finally revealed that the Austrians were planning to attack the Piave sector. Austrian intentions, however, were not clear until a heavy bombardment began at 0300 hours on the 15th from the Adriatic coast to Astico. The Austrians also attacked Italian positions on the Piave, French positions on Mount Grappa and the remaining British forces on the Asiago plateau.

Low mist prevented any real air operations against the enemy offensive, especially over these mountainous regions. However, a patrol led by Spike Howell of 45 Squadron did manage to spot early signs of the attack. Austrian troops were crossing the Piave under cover of smoke screens, in boats and by erecting pontoon bridges. No. 45 Squadron then began sending out Camels in threes, dropping 20lb Cooper bombs on both these types of targets. The Camels then came in at low level to machine-gun targets of opportunity, causing many casualties among the assaulting soldiery. These attacks continued as the weather improved and in total, 45 Squadron alone flew thirty-five sorties dropping 112 x 20lb bombs plus another twenty bombs on Asiago targets. This was followed by an all-out attack by Camels and Bristol fighters of `Z’ Flight, the latter recently formed from C Flight of 34 Squadron, to help with recce sorties and based at Istrana. (In July it would become 139 Squadron.) Italian fighters and bombers also added to the Austrians’ discomfort.

In all, during the initial assault by the Austrians, the RAF dropped 350 x 20lb bombs on the crossings. After dark, the Austrians began rebuilding destroyed or damaged pontoon bridges and also managed to get troops across in boats under cover of darkness. As dawn broke on the second day, ground mist again hampered early attempts by the RAF to engage them but as this began to lift around 0900, the Camels were once more causing mayhem.

Austrian and German aircraft were in evidence above these crossings, and British pilots had some success. On the 15th 28 Squadron claimed three Albatros fighters and two balloons, while 66, under Carpenter, shot down three: two Albatros D. Vs and a Brandenburg two-seater. In the meantime, 45 Squadron bagged four two- seaters, including one by the CO, Major A. M. Vaucour: a DFW in flames. Lieutenant S. W. Ellison was wounded on the 16th (B5204), later dying of his wounds. By the 16th the Austrians were in retreat.

On the 17th low cloud and rain grounded all aircraft, but the weather became the ultimate ruin of the Austrian offensive. These rains poured tons of water down from the mountains and into the river, sweeping away bridges and upsetting boats as the torrent raged. By 18 June only two bridges remained usable but it was the beginning of the end for the Austrians. The Italians now began a counter-attack and by the 19th the Austrians were in full retreat. Better weather allowed Camels to get into the action, 45 Squadron claiming eight enemy aircraft, two of these by Howell and three by Lieutenant J. H. Dewhirst. Bunny Vaucour destroyed another two-seater.

Cooper of 28 had downed one enemy machine on the 18th, while McEwen and Williams scored on the 19th; McEwen with one Berg fighter in flames and another `ooc’, Voss Williams a D. V crashed. On the 19th Lieutenant S. M. Robins of 28 was brought down by AA fire to become a prisoner (Camel D9310 `D’).

A serious loss to Britain’s Italian ally was that of Maggiore Francesco Baracca, their leading air ace with thirty-four victories. He had flown out on a ground strafing sortie on the 19th and failed to return. He was 30 years of age and had claimed his last two victories on 15 June.

At around 0900 hours on 21 June, Barker, Apps and Birks claimed three Albatros D. IIIs near Motta air base, located 10 miles east of the Piave. Barker and Birks had been flying together for some time, with Birks acting as his wingman; in fact, there had been nearly forty such flights and on this date, Gerry Birks made his twelfth and last claim. In the event it seems that only one Albatros was actually destroyed, with Oberleutnant F. Dechant of Flik 51J in 153.88 being killed. Barker had spotted a number of Austrian fighters taking off from Motta and decided to climb higher and to the north-east, biding his time till the hostiles were near Oderzo, closer to the front lines. Barker took his two partners in an arc so that the morning sun was behind them and then dived. Barker’s fire sent one opponent down in a spin and then it broke up. Birks and `Mable’ Apps each sent opponents spinning earthwards. On the 22nd Eycott-Martin flamed a Brandenburg C-type over Arsie.

Gerry Birks had flown a total of sixty-six patrols over Italy by the 24th and was pretty tired, so was rested. It was not long before he was on a ship sailing home to Canada. He went on to live to the age of 96, although he never flew again. A banker, he married twice, had several children and died in Toronto in May 1991. Apart from Josef Kiss, Birks had also downed another Austrian ace, Oberleutnant Karl Patzelt on 4 May 1918, as mentioned earlier.

By the 24th, the Austrians had fallen back to their original positions at the start of the offensive, having incurred serious losses including some 20,000 men taken prisoner, those who had been unable to get back across the Piave. The RAF, especially the Camel squadrons, had played a significant part in this victory.

Combats continued to be had by all three Camel squadrons during the rest of June and into July. Cliff McEwen racked up eleven victories in these two months, bringing his score to twenty-four. Seven of these he scored flying D8112 but following one of these in this machine on 1 July, a Berg Scout, he crashed into trees near Isola di Cartura and was badly shaken. However, he was awarded the DFC, adding this to his earlier MC. He also received the Italian Bronze Medal. In the Second World War he commanded No. 6 (Canadian) Bomber Group in England from January 1944. He died in Toronto in 1967.

Lieutenant McEvoy, in D8235 `T’, shot down a Pfalz Scout north-west of Asiago on 4 July and ten days later, in this same machine, he was forced to crash-land in a marsh following another combat. He was unhurt.

No. 28 Squadron lost Lieutenant A. R. Strang on 13 July (D8209) on a morning patrol. He was attacking a two-seater with two other pilots and although the enemy machine was claimed as destroyed, Strang sharing the kill with Joe Mackereth and Captain J. E. Hallonquist, he was missing after the fight, ending up as a prisoner.

#

On 3 July, the RAF’s `Z’ Flight became 139 Squadron and command of it was given to Will Barker in mid-July. It was equipped with the BF2b – Bristol Fighter – a fighting machine that had already proved itself on the Western Front. Manned by an aggressive pilot and a competent observer/gunner, the `Brisfit’ was a formidable adversary for the enemy. Barker by this time had achieved thirty-eight victories. One amazing concession already given was to be allowed once again: that he could take his beloved Camel B6313 with him, despite his command flying two-seater Bristols. By this stage the two front wing struts of his Camel had white notches painted on them, one for each victory. When his Italian tour of duty ended in September, there would be forty-six notches. Incredibly he had scored all these victories in this aircraft, operating with it in France and Italy for almost a year. Some years ago this author saw this Camel’s log book, retained in the Imperial War Museum, London.

What Barker thought of this posting can only be imagined, but at least he could continue flying his beloved Camel. Before mid-September, he added a further seven victories to his score and was then posted back to England. As is well known, he managed to wangle a posting back to France, arguing that he needed to be brought `up to speed’ on operations over France, and went to 201 Squadron, flying the new Sopwith Snipes.

On 27 October he fought a number of enemy aircraft in a one-man scrap, and although badly wounded he was credited with four victories before being forced to crash-land. For this he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

#

By far the most serious loss to the Camel squadrons in Italy was the death of 45 Squadron’s CO, Major Awdry Morris Vaucour MC & Bar, DFC and the Italian Silver Medal for Military Valour (Medaglia d’Argento al Valore Militare). His penchant for often flying over the front on his own finally cost him his life.

On 16 July he was flying Camel D8102, keeping an eye out for his squadron’s patrols across the front lines. There are two versions of what happened; the British one believing that Vaucour, having spotted an aircraft and realizing that it was Italian, had tried to reassure its pilot he was friendly by flying in front so that the pilot could recognize the British roundels. However, the Italian pilot reported seeing an aircraft heading towards him, and being at around 0900 hours, the low sun was blinding him. He believed he could see black crosses on it and as it passed, he turned and dived to the attack, firing as he came within range.

Too late, he saw that it was a British machine but his fire had already hit Vaucour, the wounded pilot diving some distance before the Camel began to disintegrate, the wreckage falling near Monastier di Treviso. The Italian pilot was Lieutenant Alberto Moresco in a Hanriot scout of the 78ª Squadriglia. Bunny Vaucour was 28 years old, the son of a vicar, born in Topcliffe, Yorkshire. He had claimed five victories over Italy plus three more in France.

Gordon Apps of 66 Squadron was wounded by AA fire over Belluno in B7358 on the 17th. He had gained his tenth and final victory before this event, sharing an LVG two-seater destroyed with Lieutenant A. E. Baker. Apps was later awarded the DFC.

On 27 July, Major J. A. H. Crook MC arrived from England and took command of 45 Squadron. Amazing as it sounds, Joe Crook was only 21 years of age and had won his MC in 1916, aged just 18, on two-seater corps aircraft. One might have expected one of the experienced Camel pilots in Italy to have been promoted to this command.

The Austro-Hungarians also lost one of their leading pilots on 31 July. Oberleutnant Frank Linke-Crawford had downed his 29th victory two days earlier, a BF2b of 139 Squadron. In recent weeks he had also claimed four Camels, with both 28 and 45 Squadrons suffering losses. Flying a Berg D. I, he tangled with 45 Squadron and had to spin down out of trouble and damaged, but then ran into two Italian fighters. Unable to manoeuvre properly, he fell to the guns of Corporal Aldo Astolfi of the 81ª Squadriglia, the latter’s first and only combat success.

Upon hearing that Linke-Crawford had been killed, RAF HQ quickly tried to establish whether an RAF pilot had got him and soon discovered that 45 Squadron had been in action that morning, also that Lieutenant Jack Cottle had claimed a victory. At first it was thought that Cottle should be credited; indeed, he was told so by Colonel Joubert de la Ferté who had telephoned 45 Squadron asking that Cottle should come to his HQ. In his own recollections, Cottle said that the machine he shot down was a new type with red and green stripes along its fuselage and a large octagonal `C’. Cottle, along with Charles Catto and Francis Bowles, had been in a scrap with enemy fighters and the latter two pilots confirmed seeing Cottle’s opponent going down. In 45’s game book Cottle’s record page has even had reference to Linke-Crawford being the victim, the fighter falling in pieces over Fontane.

However, other evidence seems to indicate that Cottle had shot down a Phönix D. I flown by Feldwebel J. Acs of Flik 60J. The difficulty is that Acs appears to have made a forced landing, his machine badly damaged, so not falling to pieces in the air. The Phönix was not a new type at the front, and photos of Linke-Crawford’s machine – a Berg, serial number 115.32 – show a large `L’ on the fuselage. The Italian pilot had reported his victim crashing in flames and he had received confirmation from a nearby artillery observation post. Other pictures show that Flik 60J carried octagonal letters on their machines, such as Kurt Gruber’s `G’.

Linke-Crawford was in fact engaged by Italian Hanriots and shot down in flames after a long combat with 81ª Squadriglia, Corporal Aldo Astolfi claiming his first and only victory as stated above.

#

August 1918 saw a continuation of the fighting in the air. No. 45 Squadron made a total of twenty-two claims, sixteen noted as destroyed. No. 66 Squadron also put in claims for twenty-two, all but one as being destroyed. No. 28 Squadron only claimed four, three being destroyed. All suffered losses.

No. 45 Squadron lost Lieutenant A. L. Haines DFC on the 10th. Alf Haines came from Evesham, Worcs, a pre-war farmer, and two victories on 29 July had brought his score to six. His DFC was announced after his death. He was very unlucky to be hit by an anti-aircraft shell while flying at 10,000ft, falling in no man’s land from where enemy troops carried his body to the British lines under a white flag.

The other two losses were both results of flying accidents, with Captain W. C. Hilborn DFC losing his life. Canadian Bill Hilborn had attained seven victories and again his DFC was announced after his death on 16 August. He had flown with 66, 28 and finally as a flight commander in 45 two days prior to his crash, although he lingered on for ten days before dying.

No. 28 Squadron only suffered one loss in August with Lieutenant S. Yates being injured in a crash, but 66 Squadron had three casualties. On the 5th, Lieutenant G. C. Easton (B6354) was lost on a patrol and reported killed. Lieutenant E. P. O’Connor- Glynn died following a flying accident on the 17th in B2433, while Captain J. Mackereth (E1496) failed to return on the 31st. However, John Mackereth from Essex survived as a prisoner. Most of his time in Italy had been spent with 28 Squadron until being made a flight commander with 66. However, his tour with them did not last long, for while attacking and destroying a balloon he was hit in the leg by ground fire, crashed and was taken captive. He had gained seven victories.

Another successful 66 Squadron pilot was C. M. Maud from Leeds, formerly with the Royal Field Artillery. Charles Maud celebrated his 22nd birthday on the day the RAF was formed: 1 April 1918. He had been with 66 since March but finally got into his stride during May, with five victories that month. By 23 August he had raised this to ten and number eleven came on 7 October. He was awarded the DFC and the Italian Croce di Guerra.

Air fighting diminished during September, although patrols were still flown across the Asiago front. RAF Intelligence Reports indicated to RAF HQ that the Austro- Hungarian Air Corps were in poor shape, and bad weather over northern Italy did not help either side. Following the massive German offensive in France, it was thought at one stage that much of the British force in Italy might need to return to the Western Front and indeed, nine army battalions were sent during the summer.

Also going back to France was 45 Squadron, and they fought their last air actions on 31 August. In early September the squadron began to dismantle its aircraft and prepare to leave. Once they returned they were attached to Hugh Trenchard’s Independent Force, tasked with bombing French and German strategic targets. Although the squadron was there to give protection, its fighters saw little action until the last weeks of the war, mainly against German reconnaissance aircraft.

The pilots of 28 Squadron managed to get into several combats, but it was mostly new pilots who began to claw down the odd victim or two. Stan Stanger and Cliff McEwen both added to their already impressive scores as the war over Italy gradually came to an end. Stanger, from Montreal, was a flight commander with 28 after initially being with 66. His last three victories in September and October brought his score to thirteen, and he added the DFC to his earlier MC. McEwen, from Manitoba, brought his score to twenty-seven during the last weeks of the war, and had also been awarded the MC and DFC. One of his claims, for an Albatros D. III on 18 February 1918, was only credited as an `ooc’ victory, but some years later the wreckage was discovered in the mountains which raised his credit to `destroyed’.

No. 66 Squadron, on the other hand, got into numerous combats and during September and October gained an impressive thirty-one claims. Among these pilots was Lieutenant H. K. Goode.

Harry King Goode, from Handsworth and formerly a Royal Engineer, had achieved seven victories by August 1918, but in the last weeks he downed seven more, the last six being kite balloons. One of these fell on 29 October, after which he attacked the enemy airfield at South Gioncomo, claiming three enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground. He ended the war with the DFC and then the DSO. He remained in the RAF after the war, becoming a group captain, but was killed in a flying accident, as a passenger, in August 1942.

#

With the war on the Western Front going well, it was hoped that in northern Italy the Austro-Hungarian forces would also soon be defeated. One British division remained on the Asiago plateau, but the other two had joined up with the American and French units who were supporting the Italians on the Piave front. To allay suspicions, British soldiers took to wearing Italian uniforms, while all flying operations were kept to the Asiago front.

The opening push began on 4 and 5 October with two air-raids on Austrian advanced training schools. Twenty-three Camels from 28 and 66 attacked Campoformido with high-explosive and phosphorus bombs, and a few enemy machines that tried to interfere were engaged, one being claimed by Stanger and McEwen. The next day Egna in the Adige Valley received attention from twenty- two Camels. No. 28 Squadron had two pilots shot down on the 4th – Lieutenant J. H. R. Bryant killed in B5638 and Lieutenant A. Latimer killed in D8244 – while Lieutenant R. H. Foss shot down an LVG two-seater on the 5th. No. 28 Squadron also had a pilot wounded on the 5th: Second Lieutenant C. S. Styles in E1581.

On the 7th Oberleutnant Ludwig Hautzmeyer of Flik 61J shot down Camel D8215 of 66 Squadron flown by Lieutenant W. J. Courtney, his sixth victory, and Oberleutnant Franz Peter of Flik 3J downed another (E1498) flown by Second Lieutenant G. R. Leighton, a 26-year-old Scot from Glasgow, also his sixth victory. Further operations were begun on 23 October, followed by more decisive action on the 27th. Allied troops crossed the Piave, attacked by the Austrians from the air, while Camels went for the enemy’s balloon lines, three being shot down by 66 Squadron. Enemy forces, once allied soldiers had got across the river, were in retreat.

Augustus Paget from Wiltshire gained all his six victories in these last weeks in Italy with 66 Squadron and was awarded the DFC. However, his luck ran out on 30 October, being brought down and killed by ground fire.

Austrian forces tried to counter the offensive on the 29th but they were finally broken, with low-flying Camels constantly ground-strafing and bombing Austrian ground forces. Over the next few days much carnage was done to the enemy troops from the air, as the allied soldiers constantly pushed forward. The Armistice in Italy finally came into effect on 4 November 1918.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.