First Military Uses of the Airplane

Today I have decided to try to throw bombs from the aeroplane. It is the first time that we will try this and if I succeed, I will be really pleased to be the first person to do it,” wrote Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti to his father. With other military aviators of the new Italian Royal Army Air Services Specialist Battalion, Lt. Gavotti had been sent to the Ottoman Turk provinces of Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica to fight in the Italo-Turkish War. His aeroplane was a Blériot monoplane, one of only a handful in Italy’s possession.

Today two boxes full of bombs arrived. We are expected to throw them from our planes. It is very strange that none of us have been told about this, and that we haven’t received any instruction from our superiors. So we are taking the bombs on board with the greatest precaution. It will be very interesting to try them on the Turks.”

In the earliest air actions, carried out by Italian airmen in Libya (Tripolitania), the bomb dropped by Lieut. Gavotti was a 2-kg weapon like the one shown here: it was known as a Cipelli bomb, so named after its inventor.

In almost every country there were adventuresome military personnel who wanted to demonstrate the utility of the aircraft in warfare. As soon as aircraft performance would permit carrying a few more pounds than just those of the pilot and his observer, attempts were made to install and use weapons. On January 19, 1910, the famous Louis Paulhan flew an airplane over a field in Los Angeles, and U.S. Army Lieutenant Paul Beck dropped dummy bombs. On June 9, the French lieutenant (later general) Philippe Féquant made the first photo-reconnaissance flight. On August 20, Lieutenant Jacob E. Fickel, U.S. Army, fired a rifle from his Curtiss biplane at a target in Sheepshead Bay, New York. On November 14, Eugene Ely launched naval aviation with a flight in his Curtiss pusher from the USS Birmingham. He would make the first landing on January 18, 1911, on the USS Pennsylvania. On March 3, the famed Wright exhibition pilot, Phil O. Parmelee, and his passenger, the future Chief of the United States Army Air Corps, Lieutenant Benjamin (“Bennie”) Foulois, used both radio and carrier pigeons to communicate with the ground from their Curtiss biplane. On June 2, 1912, Lieutenant Thomas DeWitt Milling flew a Wright Model B biplane, with Captain Charles de Forest Chandler firing a machine gun from the air. Both men became famous U.S. Air Service aviators. Similar indications of progress, not so well reported, took place in the military services of other countries.

Yet long before Chandler and Milling had fired a shot, the aircraft had gone to war, and in a significant way. On September 28, 1911, Lieutenant Colonel Vittorio Cordero di Montezemolo ordered the Aviation Unit of the Italian Specialist Battalion Headquarters to send an “air fleet” to Libya (then a part of the Ottoman Empire) as a part of a Special Army Corps “to protect Italian commercial interests.” It was, in fact, essentially an invasion of Turkish territory. Five pilots, under the command of Captain Carlo Piazza of the Eighth Field Artillery, were assigned to the task. They brought with them nine aircraft, including two Blériots, three Nieuports, two Farmans, and two of the dove-like Etrichs. All of these aircraft were equipped with fifty-horsepower Gnome rotary engines, and each one was provided its own hangar. More aircraft were dispatched later, along with a lighter-than-air unit consisting of four observation balloons and two airships.

The Italian invasion of Libya began on October 2, 1911, and had gone off relatively smoothly, but the transportation of the air fleet could not be undertaken until after the fall of Tripoli. Thus it was not until October 21 that Captain Piazza could report that his aircraft was ready for action.

The world’s first combat flight took place on October 23, when the Commander of the Air Fleet, Captain Piazza, took off at 6:19 A.M. to reconnoiter Turkish positions. In a sixty-one minute flight, he discovered several enemy encampments. While he was airborne, Captain Riccardo Moizo also took off to observe enemy dispositions. By this time, military observations from balloons had been conducted for many years, but this was the first military observation from an aircraft. The difference was enormous, for while the balloon was tethered (normally), the aircraft was free to fly wherever the pilot wished, allowing him to observe many more hundreds of square miles than the balloon observer could do.

There followed a yearlong series of sorties under extremely dangerous conditions. The French Military Air Force had signaled the Italian headquarters that it had found daytime flights over the desert to be particularly hazardous because of the air currents and the possibility of sandstorms. Nonetheless, the Italian air fleet carried on with surprising effectiveness for an initial effort at full-scale warfare.

On October 26, Captain Moizo’s Nieuport became the first aircraft ever to sustain combat damage. He had discovered a large encampment of some six thousand men, and came under rifle fire, suffering three hits in the wing, but no major damage.

It fell to Second Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti to make the world’s first combat bombing sortie, flying an Etrich Taube. He carried four of the grenade-like “Cipelli” bombs, each weighing about four pounds and roughly the size of a grapefruit. He dropped one on a Turkish position at Ain Zara, and three on the Oasis of Jagiura. Gavotti’s raid was widely reported, and had great effect upon the thinking of airmen in other armies. Another raid, this time by Captain Moizo, resulted in the Turkish government issuing what would become a familiar protest. They stated that bombs had been dropped on a hospital, a claim the Italians investigated and denied.

The tempo of the air campaign was accelerated, with heavier bombs being brought into play. Reconnaissance flights took place every day until weather conditions during December and January made regular sorties difficult.

During the long campaign, there were many other notable firsts, including the first dropping of propaganda leaflets, spotting for artillery, night-bombing and reconnaissance missions, and radio communications that involved no less a person than Guglielmo Marconi himself. The first pilot to be wounded in combat was Captain Carlo Montu, who was struck by a rifle bullet on January 31, 1912, over Tobruk. Sadly, the first pilot to die in combat was Second Lieutenant Piero Manzini, who crashed on August 25, 1912, shortly after takeoff for a photographic reconnaissance mission. The valiant Captain Moizo was forced to land behind enemy lines on September 10, when his Nieuport developed engine trouble. He was the first airplane pilot ever to be taken prisoner, and was not liberated until after the armistice was signed in November 1913.

The successful Italian air campaign received worldwide notice. On August 12, 1912, the London Times stated that “no one can have observed the work accomplished by the Italian airplanes at Tripoli without being deeply impressed by the courage and the ability of the Italian pilots and without being convinced of the valuable use of aviation in wartime.

On September 10, 1912, the Berliner Tageblatt took a slightly different view, reporting “for now at least, airplanes and airships are not practical used as offensive weapons: they have, however been shown to be very useful for reconnaissance. The Italian Command is always, thanks to aircraft, informed of every displacement of Turkish troops, and knows the exact positions of them. Moreover, following the photographs and relief maps made by the airships and airplanes, it has been possible to compile a map with which to conduct the war.”

The Italian air campaign had great effect upon the Italian people, who rejoiced when the principals were showered with decorations, and responded with a flood of poetry, songs, and even a board game celebrating it.

Perhaps the most influential aspect of the Italian campaign was philosophical rather than military, for it fell to Major (General Staff) Giulio Douhet, provisionary battalion commander, to make the full report on the campaign. Douhet had for years been an advocate of air power, writing articles in the service journal La Preparazione, but the campaign in Tripoli gave him his first chance to report facts rather than theories, and he made the most of it. His extensive report analyzed the technical and professional considerations that had affected the use of aircraft, and he drew interesting inferences on the preparation of flying personnel, their recruitment and training, as well as the types of aircraft to be procured. He concluded with an organizational proposal that became the structural framework for Italian aviation and industry during the 1914-18 war in Europe.

His experience and his report prepared him to write one of the most influential documents in the development of air power, Command of the Air.

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Complete Victory In North Africa I

If the tide of World War II can be said to have turned at any one point in time, that point occurred in November 1942. In the foul jungles of Guadalcanal, as the last Japanese counterattack was hurled back, the United States took a permanent grip on the initiative in the Pacific. In Russia, the ferocious struggle for Stalingrad turned against Hitler as the Red Army encircled 300,000 German troops. And in North Africa, the twin successes of El Alamein and Operation Torch opened wide the gates of opportunity to the Allies.

This opportunity for quick, complete victory in North Africa had to be grasped immediately, however. The first chance came along the coast road west of El Alamein, as Rommel’s beaten troops fled before the victorious 8th Army. If Montgomery could throw an armored flanking column across the road ahead of the remnants of the Panzerarmee, the job begun at such cost at El Alamein would be finished in one stroke.

Montgomery’s painstaking battle plan had included a force to pursue the beaten enemy – Montgomery never doubted that the enemy would be beaten – but the three divisions he named a corps de chasse were sucked into the battle and badly mauled. At the very moment of victory, he had to improvise a new corps de chasse, one that was neither stocked with extra fuel nor rested and fresh for the chase.

“The essence of an armoured pursuit,” wrote a historian of the campaign, “is speed and boldness to the point of fool-hardiness.” Such a pursuit was, in fact, a perfect example of Rommel’s theory of boldness – a driving, headlong rush with much to gain and no real threat to the army if it failed. But this was not Bernard Montgomery’s way. He was a master of the set-piece engagement, superbly skilled at planning and preparing an army for battle and in balancing and adjusting forces on the battlefield. It was against his nature to take military risks, to indulge in what he called “mad rush” tactics. Nor, perhaps, was the Rommel legend quite dead. Even in defeat the Desert Fox’s reputation inspired caution among his pursuers.

The result was a series of frustrating near-misses. At first the very size of the 8th Army was a handicap, and the monumental traffic jam that developed as the corps de chasse tried to shake free cost some twelve hours. One trap misfired when a British column cut in toward the coast road too soon; another failed when the pursuers stopped for the night while their quarry kept moving. The New Zealanders were held up half a day by a mine field that turned out not only to be a dummy, but a dummy laid by the British themselves during the Gazala Gallop.

Most frustrating of all was the plight of the 1st Armored Division, which made a long dash through the desert toward Matruh – the site of Rommel’s dazzling victory the previous June – only to run out of gasoline twice and lose the race. On the evening of November 6, with Rommel’s hopes for escape already growing brighter, the heavens opened wide and rain deluged the two armies. On the desert tracks, the corps de chasse was immediately axle-deep in mud. On the paved coast road, the Panzerarmee limped on in the rain – and was finally out of reach.

So one Allied opportunity was lost, but another soon appeared in its place – Tunisia. By quickly seizing and holding this very defensible country, the Torch army could sever Rommel’s supply line and leave him hopelessly trapped. Tunisia, in fact, had once been on the list of Torch’s D-day objectives, but with all the other uncertainties, it seemed too much of a gamble to attempt an amphibious landing under the very nose of the Axis air force in Sicily. Still, the need to strike fast for Tunisia never left Eisenhower’s thoughts. “This single objective was constantly held before all eyes,” he wrote.

There were some 15,000 French troops in Tunisia, poorly armed but strong enough to deny the country to the Axis at least temporarily – if they would fight. Admiral Darlan, however, shrank from ordering the Tunisian garrison to shoot at Germans, even after ordering the shooting at the Allies in Algeria and Morocco to stop. Nor could the French commanders of the garrison bring themselves to put aside notions of military honor and loyalty to Marshal Pétain to act on their own.

As the hours slipped away and General Clark tried to pin down the squirming Darlan, the Germans scraped up men and guns and hurled them across the Sicilian narrows. French units sat in their weapons pits around the Tunisian airfields and watched impassively as scores of Junkers transport planes spiraled down and landed. Soon a thin line of German troops held the primary northern ports of Tunis and Bizerte and the defensive ground around them and began to trickle southward to “hold the door open” for Rommel.

(It took months to straighten out the troublesome political tangle centered in Algiers. The uproar in the United States and Britain over the so-called Darlan Deal ended only when Darlan was assassinated on Christmas Eve of 1942 by a young French patriot. General Giraud then took over, but he proved to be, in President Roosevelt’s tart phrase, “a very slender reed” to depend upon. Finally, General de Gaulle brought order out of the confusion. Free French forces were rearmed and eventually played an important role in liberating their homeland from Nazi rule.)

The door of opportunity was still ajar, for the German beachhead was very weak, and the Allies were racing hard for Tunis. More than 550 miles of rugged, mountainous country lay before them. “Get there somehow, and get there quick” was their motto, a war correspondent wrote. “No one quite knew what enemy, if any, was ahead or to the flanks, but morale was up to the limits and there was an infectious air of excitement. . . .” Infantrymen and paratroopers, U.S. Rangers and British commandos, rushed on, never knowing if there would be fuel or ammunition – or food – for the next day.

By mid-November, the Allies were well across the Tunisian border but facing stiffening resistance. The Axis poured men into Tunisia at the rate of more than 1,000 a day, a pace the Allies could not match. The Luftwaffe harassed the advancing columns. Nevertheless, a British force pushed to within a dozen miles of Tunis before it was forced back. The race was in its last lap, the outcome was hanging in the balance – and then the rains came.

The soil of northern Tunisia has a peculiar consistency, and overnight it turned into one great soft sea of mud. “Tunisian mire has a flypaper quality all its own,” wrote Hollywood producer Darryl Zanuck, a colonel in the Signal Corps. “There are no puddles and you don’t slip or splash; you just sink in sort of gentle-like and stay there.” General Eisenhower toured the front before a major attack he had scheduled for Christmas Eve. Everywhere he looked the army was bogged down; at one point he watched as four soldiers tried to get a single motorcycle out of a mud hole, became swamped themselves, and finally left the machine mired deeper than when they began. Bitterly disappointed, he called off the attack. The race for Tunis was over.

The stalemate in Tunisia during the winter of 1942–43, like the siege of Tobruk in 1941, was bloody and monotonous and frustrating; but instead of the heat and dust of Tobruk, the troops in Tunisia lived in cold and mud. It was a winter full of those little incidents of war that seemed especially senseless when neither side could gain an advantage. Correspondent Alan Moorehead recorded one such incident, in a village called El Aroussa, in January, 1943.

“The morning broke unusually clear, and I wandered into the village,” Moorehead wrote. “In the main street half a dozen Tommies were washing in the horse trough, and I fell into conversation with them. They were Londoners, adolescent boys on their first campaign and enjoying a good deal of it. Their backs and chests as they washed were very white, but their faces had gone scarlet through exposure. . . . They were friendly and shy and very determined to do well in the war. . . .

“As I walked back to my camp the Stukas came over. . . . It seemed for a moment that they were going to sail by the village, but at the last moment they altered direction, opened their flaps, and dived. The bombs tumbled out lazily, turning over and over in the morning sunshine. Then with that graceful little jump and a flick, each aircraft turned upward and out of its dive and wheeled away. . . .

“I walked over to the centre of the village, keeping care to stay away from an exploding ammunition lorry. A barnlike building had taken a direct hit, and the coiled barbed wire [stored there] had threshed about wildly in a thousand murderous tentacles. The blast had carried these fragments across to the water trough, and now my six young friends were curiously huddled up and twisted over one another. It is the stillness of the dead that is so shocking. Even their boots don’t seem to lie on the ground as those of a sleeping man would. They don’t move at all. They seem to slump into the earth with such unnatural overwhelming tiredness. . . .”

In the desert to the east, meanwhile, the retreat of the Panzerarmee continued. The British pursued doggedly, relentlessly, unable to catch up to Rommel but giving him no rest either. On November 23, for the third time in less than two years, he was back at El Agheila. There the Panzerarmee held for three weeks, gravely wounded but still dangerous, while Montgomery stock-piled supplies for an attack. On December 13, as the British barrage began, the Desert Fox pulled out.

After another three-week pause at Buerat, some 200 miles to the west, the retreat continued. Tripoli could not be defended, and on January 23, 1943, the 8th Army marched into the city. Since the days of Wavell and O’Connor, British soldiers had dreamed of taking Tripoli, seemingly as unreachable as a desert mirage. Now, wrote a correspondent, they “stood with wonderment and emotion beside the playing fountains” – and then marched on westward. On February 12, the second anniversary of Rommel’s arrival in North Africa, the rear guards of the Afrika Korps withdrew across the Libyan border into Tunisia. The Axis dug in at the formidable Mareth Line.

This kind of retreat had gone against all Rommel’s instincts. His orders had been to withdraw as slowly as possible, holding off the 8th Army as long as possible. Rommel favored either withdrawal from North Africa (given Axis supply problems, he believed the campaign was a lost cause) or the classic strategy of an army threatened with entrapment: rapid concentration to defeat the enemy forces in detail before they could combine against him. Every mile Rommel retreated shortened his supply line and lengthened the 8th Army’s, allowing him to retreat a great deal faster than the British could chase him. The Desert Fox had wanted to hurry to Tunisia, connect with General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 5th Panzer Army there to rout the still-weak Torch army, and then turn on the 8th Army while it dangled at the end of its long supply line.

He flew to Germany to raise these matters of strategy with Hitler. The reaction was, in Rommel’s words, “like a spark in a powder barrel. The Führer flew into a fury. . . . I began to realize that Adolf Hitler simply did not want to see the situation as it was and that he reacted emotionally against what his intelligence must have told him was right.”

Rommel was still determined to seize the initiative if he could. In February 1943, leaving his infantry in the Mareth Line to hold off Montgomery, he led the Afrika Korps northward for an assault on the Americans in the narrow “waist” of Tunisia. On February 14, the panzers sprang forward to the attack.

Complete Victory In North Africa II

Suddenly it was the old glory days all over again – the quick surprise thrust, the reeling enemy, the Desert Fox leading from up front, the waves of consternation spreading through the opposing high command like ripples through a pond after the splash of a stone. Two panzer columns ripped through the thin American line, converged on a mountain gap called Kasserine Pass, brushed aside the force defending it, and poured through the pass into the American rear areas. Desperate counterattacks were methodically chewed up by German tanks and antitank guns.

Collecting every unit they could lay hands on, the Allied commanders labored to plug the gap. Early in the Kasserine battle the green U.S. troops and their inexperienced commanders had been badly knocked about by Rommel’s desert veterans; now they began to dig in their heels stubbornly, particularly hard-fighting units of the U.S. 1st Armored Division. “They recovered very quickly after the first shock,” Rommel wrote. On February 22, unable to achieve a breakthrough, he pulled back through Kasserine Pass.

Two weeks later, Rommel tried a second attack, this time against the 8th Army near Mareth. But the old magic was gone. He was exhausted mentally and sick physically, and he mishandled the attack. His armor charged blindly and was cut to pieces by Montgomery’s antitank guns; some fifty tanks were lost, while the British lost but half a dozen. On March 9, 1943, his health broken, the Desert Fox left North Africa, never to return.

By the end of March, the Torch army’s losses at Kasserine Pass had been made good. Units were consolidated and inept commanders weeded out, and General Alexander arrived from Cairo to command the Allied ground forces. It was now a battle against time, a battle to end the campaign in Tunisia in time to assault Sicily and Italy that summer. If von Arnim could hold out for three or four months, however, no further Allied campaigns would be possible in 1943. This would suit Hitler very well indeed, giving him the chance to concentrate all his forces for one last mighty thrust at Russia.

The terrain facing the 8th Army in southern Tunisia was on the familiar desert pattern, but the rugged, mountainous north was something else entirely. In desert fighting, the armies were spread out and concealed in dust clouds, and the progress of a battle was seldom easy to follow. In northern Tunisia, on the other hand, it was usually possible to see the enemy positions clearly and to plot the course of the battle without difficulty. In the sector manned by the British 1st Army, for example, there was a long and bitter struggle for a piece of high ground known as Longstop Hill. The climactic British assault on Longstop, made in late April, looked like this to an eyewitness:

“Everything appeared to happen in miniature. The tanks climbing on Jebel Ang looked like toys. The infantry that crept across the uplands toward [the village of] Heidous were tiny dark dots, and when the mortar shells fell among them it was like drops of rain on a muddy puddle. Toy donkeys toiled up the tracks toward the mountain crests, and the Germans, too, were like toys, little animated figures that occasionally got up and ran or bobbed up out of holes in the ground between the shell explosions.”

As Longstop was being overrun, another equally bitter battle was being fought for Hill 609 in the American sector a few miles to the north. This high ground – named for its height in meters on the maps the Allies were using – was blocking the advance of the American 2nd Corps, commanded by Major General Omar Bradley. For four days, the fight for Hill 609 raged. Von Arnim’s stubborn infantrymen were dug into cracks and crevices on the stony heights, and their mortars and artillery dominated all the approaches to the hill.

“Seldom has an enemy contested a position more bitterly than did the Germans high on Hill 609,” wrote General Bradley. They rolled hand grenades down on the Americans clawing for a foothold on the steep slopes, and their strong points were taken only after hand-to-hand combat with pistols, knives, and fists. Each American gain was met by a vicious counterattack. Finally, Bradley ordered Sherman tanks forward to provide fire support. They nosed up to the foot of the hill and chipped away at the enemy positions with their seventy-five millimeter guns, their armor proof against the bullets and grenades showered down on them.

At last, on May 1, Hill 609 was encircled and the defenders hunted down. The capture was sweet revenge for the U.S. 34th Infantry Division. The 34th had been badly mauled by the Afrika Korps at Kasserine Pass in February, losing both its reputation and its self-respect in the process. Now it regained both, with interest.

Already, Montgomery, in a masterful display of battlefield tactics, had forced the Mareth Line and linked up with the Torch army. The loss of Longstop and Hill 609, combined with heavy pressure from the 8th Army, drove von Arnim back to his final line of defense overlooking the approaches to Tunis and Bizerte. Last-minute attempts to fly in reinforcements from Sicily met with disaster. Scores of Junkers transports and mammoth six-engined Messerschmitt troop carriers were knocked into the sea by Allied fighters.

On May 6, behind a tremendous artillery barrage and a bombing attack, the last German line was blown open. Tanks burst through like water through a broken dam. “In scores, in hundreds, this vast procession of steel lizards went grumbling and lurching and swaying up the Tunis road,” wrote correspondent Moorehead. The next day, Tunis itself was in sight. It was especially fitting that the Desert Rats of the British 7th Armored Division, their famous red jerboa emblem still decorating their vehicles, were among the first to enter the city. The Desert Rats were bringing to an end the long campaign they had begun under O’Connor in those far-off days of 1940.

That same day, the Americans reached Bizerte. A force of Grant tanks swept into the city, exchanging fire with snipers and the German rear guard. A crewman of one of the tanks described the scene in a letter to his family.

“By this time it was getting very hot and stuffy in the tank,” he wrote, “so we climbed out and took a smoke. . . . Then a Frenchman comes up with a bottle of wine and we all had a smoke and drank the bottle of wine. A shell lands behind the tank and sort of makes us mad, so we get back in and start shooting away again – and the people just standing there on the sidewalk. Every time George would shoot the seventy-five, plaster would fall down from all the buildings around, but they didn’t seem to mind that, they were so glad to see us. . . .”

Axis troops were now surrendering in droves. Many tried to flee to Cape Bon, a finger of land jutting out into the Mediterranean, but when they saw that there were no ships or planes to carry them across to Sicily, they too gave themselves up. As the men of his Afrika Korps marched into captivity, Rommel was with Hitler in Berlin. “I should have listened to you before,” the dejected Führer told him, “but I suppose it’s too late now. It will soon be all over in Tunisia.”

It was all over on May 13, 1943. Close to 275,000 Axis troops were captured in the last week of battle. They stacked their weapons and came into Allied lines in endless, orderly columns of trucks. Almost none escaped. “It is my duty to report that the Tunisian campaign is over,” General Alexander cabled Prime Minister Churchill. “All enemy resistance has ceased. We are the masters of the North African shores.”

The crushing defeat in North Africa was the beginning of the end for the Axis partners. Before the year was out, Sicily and Italy were invaded, and massive Russian attacks rolled back the Germans on the eastern front. In June 1944, the Allies attacked across the English Channel to win a foothold on the Normandy shores; by fall, France was liberated and the battle for Germany had begun.

For some, North Africa was the first step on the road to military fame. Eisenhower became supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, with Montgomery the head of his ground forces. Alexander commanded the forces in the Mediterranean theater. American generals such as Bradley, bloodied in Tunisia, went on to carve important niches for themselves in the European campaign. But for others the desert war was the climax of their military careers. Wavell and Auchinleck, for example, later served in relative obscurity in the Far East; General Ritchie ended up as a corps commander in Europe under Montgomery.

For Erwin Rommel, who put such a unique, personal stamp on the desert war, the future brought only disillusionment and doom. In July 1944, while commanding the German forces in Normandy, he was gravely wounded in an air attack. A few days later, a group of generals, convinced that Hitler was insane and dragging Germany down to destruction in a war already lost, tried to kill the Führer by planting a bomb in his headquarters. Rommel, who had long since come to despise Hitler, knew of the plot to overthrow him but took no part in it. Nor did he know that the conspirators planned to name him head of state to negotiate peace if they succeeded. But Hitler survived, and in the purge that followed, Rommel was implicated.

He was at his home recovering from his wounds when Hitler’s police came. They gave him the choice of suicide by poison or a public execution, with its disgrace to his family and his memory. He chose to kill himself. His son, Manfred, saw the body soon afterward. “My father lay on a camp bed in his brown Africa uniform,” he said, “a look of contempt on his face.” The German people were told that the Desert Fox had died of the wounds suffered in Normandy, and on October 18, 1944, he was given a hero’s funeral. Seven months later, Hitler also killed himself, and Germany lay defeated and in ruins.

War Against the Ottoman [and French] on Sea

Barbarossa’s fleet wintering in the French harbour of Toulon, 1543. (by: Matrakçı Nasuh)

French King Henry II renewed his father’s policy of alliance with the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman, to mount joint operations of the French, Turkish and corsair fleets in the western Mediterranean. For both sides, these naval campaigns had the same strategic aim, to weaken imperial and Spanish power, but they had significantly different views on tactics. Destructive raids to garner booty and slaves were standard practice for the Turks and corsairs, but the French were often hoping to have the cooperation of local people. These differences meant that, even though the imperial fleet – still under the command of Andrea Doria, now aged well over eighty – was outnumbered, their joint enterprises did not give the French and Turkish fleets lasting superiority in the seas off the coast of Italy. On the whole, collaboration with the Turks proved counterproductive for the French in Naples and in Tuscany, and not as helpful as the French hoped in the war in Corsica.

In 1552, after raids on the Neapolitan coasts, the Turkish fleet waited from mid-June to mid-July off Naples for the French to join them. Contrary winds foiled an attempt to sail to Piombino and Elba, but chance brought a notable victory on 8 August in a night attack on Doria’s fleet, as he was transporting troops to Naples, unaware of the position of the Turks. Two days later, they left for the eastern Mediterranean, ten days before the arrival of the French fleet under Polin, baron de La Garde with Salerno on board. The French followed them, and overwintered with them in the east In early July 1553, the combined forces of 130 Turkish vessels under the corsair Dragut and 24 French galleys and three frigates returned to the coasts of Naples. Salerno insisted the people should not be harmed. In the end, he was able to have the population in areas where he had partisans spared, although other places were not so fortunate. In 1557, when an attack on Naples by land was being discussed, Salerno would tell Henry his Neapolitan friends had sent to warn they would not assist him if he came with a Turkish fleet, because of the harm that had been done in the past.

La Garde persuaded Dragut to sail for Tuscany, where the fleet was welcomed at Port’ Ercole on 9 August 1553. While the French prepared the force of 4,000 men Termes was to take from Siena to fight the Genoese in Corsica, Dragut pillaged Elba. The fleets transported the troops to Corsica, where the Turks blockaded the eastern coast of the island, while the French fleet attacked the west. When Bonifacio surrendered on 15 September, the Turks massacred the Genoese garrison and sacked the town. Frustrated because he could not enslave the inhabitants, Dragut exacted a ransom of 30,000 écus for them from the French, and then left. Disappointed by what he felt were meagre pickings from the expedition of 1553, Dragut brought his fleet into Italian waters only briefly in 1554, and refused to help the French in Corsica or in Tuscany. In 1555, an Ottoman fleet under a new commander, Piali Pasha, came to support the French besieging Calvi in Corsica, and disembarked 3,000 men for an unsuccessful assault on 10 August. A second unsuccessful assault, on Bastia, followed and then Piali received orders to leave. This was the last significant joint operation of the French and Turkish fleets. Another was planned in 1558, but Piali Pasha refused to attack any of the targets the French had in mind.

When unencumbered by their French allies, the Turks made the terrible raids for which they were so feared, ravaging, burning and enslaving. It was to deny them a potential base in Tuscany, as well as to deprive the French of their main supply route for the places they held onto in Sienese territory, that Marignano went to besiege Port’ Ercole in late May 1555. His attacks were combined with Doria’s fleet, which was patrolling off Tuscany, anticipating the arrival of the Turks. The French had surrounded Port’ Ercole with several forts, and it took until 18 June to capture them all and secure the town. When the Turkish fleet arrived in Tuscan waters in mid-July, it was feared they might seize Piombino instead, but the raiding parties put ashore were driven off. Elba, however, suffered another attack before the fleet left for Corsica.

The defence of Elba (since 1548) and of Piombino (since 1552) was entrusted to Cosimo de’ Medici, and he devoted much effort to building fortifications on Elba, constructing a stronghold at Portoferraio in which the people of the island could take refuge when the Turks or corsairs threatened. Cosimo hoped his possession would be permanent, but he would be disappointed. The activities of the Turkish fleet, and of the French in Tuscany, had given new strategic importance to Tuscan harbours. When Cosimo eventually succeeded in obtaining Siena from Philip in 1557, he had to give up Piombino and some ports on the Sienese coast.

Corsica

What made Corsica a target for the French was its potential as a naval base, impeding the sea routes between Spain and Italy, and providing safe harbours and ship’s timber for galleys and supplies of food and fresh water for their crews. The island’s maritime significance was still greater for the Genoese, who were determined to keep it. In itself, Corsica was poor, and it was in a state of semi-permanent rebellion against the Genoese, who governed it through their iconic financial institution, the Casa di San Giorgio. A leading rebel, Sampiero Corso, was with the French, and his contacts and supporters helped the Turkish and French fleets to conquer all the island except for the town of Calvi within a month of their arrival in mid-August 1553. La Garde wrote to the Genoese, blaming the Turks for the attack. The French would not occupy the island, he said, if the Genoese would undertake to be neutral between France and Spain. Henry was annoyed that the Genoese refused to discuss neutrality, preferring to set about recovering the island by force.

By the time the Genoese had gathered their forces and sent them to Corsica in November under the command of Andrea Doria, Dragut’s fleet had left. Doria sent a squadron of galleys to relieve Calvi, disembarked the troops near San Fiorenzo and began to lay siege to it. Cosimo had sent around 2,500 troops and four galleys in support of the Genoese, and imperial troops also came from Naples and Lombardy, while a French naval squadron bringing reinforcements from Marseilles was dispersed by a storm. Yet the Genoese did not find reconquering the island as easy as the French had found taking it to be. There were heavy losses, mostly from disease, in the siege camp at San Fiorenzo, before the fortress finally surrendered on 16 February 1554. Andrea Doria was resolute, but so physically infirm he could not leave his cabin on his galley. He would have to return to Corsica repeatedly over the next few years; his failure to dislodge the French damaged his already diminished standing in Genoa still further. By late 1554, however, the Genoese had retaken most of the island. French hopes for help from Dragut were not realized, and their efforts were also hindered by mistrust of Sampiero Corso and by the inevitable complications attendant on reliance on a faction leader in an island so riven by factional disputes. On the other hand, they were aided by the abiding unpopularity of the Genoese with many Corsicans, a sentiment fostered by the reprisals against civilians by imperial troops in response to the guerrilla tactics of the rebels. By 1555, the Genoese held the eastern part of the island which had in the past generally been more under their control, and the French held the western side, where the powerful clans were dominant. The French offensive, aided by the Turkish fleet, in 1555, besieging Calvi and Bastia, did not break the stalemate. Henry ordered another push in early 1556, instructing his lieutenant in the island to seize as much territory as possible, before the general truce that Philip and Charles were seeking was concluded. When this truce of Vaucelles came into effect in mid-February 1556, leaving each side in possession of the territories they held at that moment, a large part of Corsica was in French hands.

Macchi C.202 Folgore (Lightning)

An early Macchi C.202 (no radio mast) of 81ª Squadriglia, 6° Gruppo, 1° Stormo CT; this photo appears to have been taken in Libya.

C.202 of Regia Aeronautica 168ª Squadriglia, 54° Stormo CT c.1943

Although a sufficient improvement over the Fiat CR.42 and G.50 to have warranted production as a stopgap fighter, the Saetta was barely a match for the Hurricane and no match for the Spitfire. A closer examination of the C.200’s airframe, however, revealed an essentially clean design with an excellent combination of stability and maneuverability. All it needed was a better engine.
With that in mind, Castoldi privately approached the Daimler-Benz A. G. and purchased a twelve-cylinder air-cooled DB 601Aa engine. He then commenced work on an aerodynamically refined adaptation of the C.200 airframe to accept the German engine, at the same time abandoning the C.201, another project to reengine the Saetta. The result of his efforts, which took to the air at Varese on August 10, 1940, restored the racy appearance of the Castoldi floatplanes to the basic C.200 design, as well as to its performance potential. So successful were its tests that the Ministerio dell’Aeronautica immediately ordered the new fighter into series production—not only at Macchi’s Varese factory but also at Breda’s plant at Sesto San Giovanni, near Milan. While more DB 601 Aas were ordered to power the first production batch, Alfa Romeo acquired a license to manufacture the engine as the R. A. 1000 R. C. 41-I Monsone (Monsoon), which was rated at 1,040 horsepower at 2,400 revolutions per minute. The Macchi C.202 Folgore (Lightning), as the new fighter was designated, had a maximum speed of 372 miles per hour at 18,370 feet, featured self-sealing fuel tanks, a molded armor-plate pilot’s seat, and an enclosed cockpit, although it lacked an armor-glass windscreen. Armament was initially the same as the C.200—two synchronized 12.7mm Breda-SAFAT machine guns—but ammunition capacity was increased from 370 to 400 rounds per gun. Later-production series Folgores added two 7.7mm Breda-SAFAT guns in the wings.
The first C.202s were delivered to the 4o Stormo C. T. at Gorizia in July 1941. After accustoming themselves with the new fighter’s characteristics, pilots of the wing’s 9o Gruppo, comprised of the 73a Squadriglia (Fotoricognitori) and 96a and 97a Squadriglie C. T., commenced operations against Malta from their base at Comiso on September 29, 1941. On the following afternoon, Italy’s new lightning bolt struck for the first time when five Hurricane fighter-bombers of No. 185 Squadron, escorted by six other Hurricanes, attacked Comiso. Three C.202s of the 97a Squadriglia scrambled up to intercept them, and in the running fight that followed, Tenente Iacopo Frigerio shot down Pilot Officer Donald W. Lintern, who was last seen bailing out near Gozo Island.
After returning to their base to refuel, five of the Hurricanes accompanied a Fairey Fulmar of the Kalafrana Rescue Flight in a search for Lintern. They never found him, but they did come under attack by the C.202s. Tenente Luigi Tessari and Sgt. Raffaello Novelli were jointly credited with downing an enemy fighter, which they reported to have fallen into the sea and blown up ten kilometers south of Cap Scaramia. Their victim was the Fulmar, but it ditched relatively intact, and its crew, Lt. D. E. C. Eyres and Sub-Lt. Bernard Furlong, were subsequently rescued by a Fairey Swordfish floatplane of their flight. One of the Hurricane pilots, Flt. Lt. Charles G. St. David Jeffries, claimed to have probably downed one of the unidentified enemy fighters, while Pilot Officer Peter J. B. Veitch and Flt. Sgt. A. W. Jolly each claimed to have damaged one; Tessari returned with numerous holes in his fuselage.
The 9o Gruppo carried the fight back to Malta on the morning of October 1, as Capt. Mario Pluda led seven C.202s to escort two C.200s on a reconnaissance mission. At 1150 hours, eight Hurricane Mark IIAs of No. 185 Squadron took off to intercept, but as they reached an altitude of 24,000 feet, thirty miles northeast of the embattled island, they were jumped by the Folgori. Capitano Carlo Ivaldi, Tenente Pietro Bonfatti, and Sergente Maggiore Enrico Dallari claimed two Hurricanes shot down and two probables in their first pass; but only one Hurricane was lost along with its pilot, Squadron Leader P. W. B. Mould—the same “Boy” Mould who, as a member of No. 1 Squadron, had scored the first confirmed Hurricane victory in France on October 30, 1939. Mould’s total account stood at eight, plus one shared, when he became one of the C.202’s earliest victims. The Italians did not get off scot-free, however. Sergeant Ernest G. Knight scored hits on Ivaldi’s main fuel tank, and he only just made it to Sicily before the last of his fuel drained away, force landing on the beach near Pozzallo.
The Folgore quickly demonstrated its inherent mastery over the Hurricane, and by the end of 1941, at least one of the 9o Gruppo’s pilots, Teresio Martinoli, had been credited with five out of an eventual personal total of twenty-two victories (one of them German while flying for the Allies in Italy’s Co-Belligerent Air Force), including Peter Veitch, whom he shot down and killed off Malta on October 4. The C.202’s numbers were too small to have a decisive impact over Malta in the late months of 1941, however. By the time it was available in significant quantities in 1942, Spitfire Mark Vs had arrived to engage the Italian fighters on roughly equal terms. Nevertheless, the C.202 gave a much-needed boost to the confidence of Italian fighter pilots and became the Regia Aeronautica’s fighter mainstay until Italy capitulated on September 8, 1943. A more potent variant with a license-produced version of the DB 605 engine and heavier armament, the C.205 Veltro (Greyhound), would continue to be a formidable fighter thereafter, in the hands of both Allied Co-Belligerent pilots and the diehard Fascisti of the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana.

Variants and production
Like its predecessor C.200, the C.202 had relatively few modifications, with only 116 modifications during its career, most of them invisible, externally. The total series production ordered was 1,454: 900 to Breda, 150 to SAI Ambrosini, 403 to Aermacchi. The amount produced was actually 1,106 and not 1,220 as previous stated. Breda built 649 (Series XVI deleted, Series XII and XV partially completed caused the difference); Aermacchi made 390 examples, SAI only 67.
One of the differences between prototype and series production was the lack of radio antenna and the retractable tailwheel (these differences resulting in a slightly higher top speed); the difference in speed was not so great and so, the series version had the fixed tailwheel and the radio antenna. The support for the engine, originally steel, was replaced with a lighter aluminium structure.

C.202
Starting with the Serie VII, the fighter had a new wing with a provision for two 7.7 mm (.303 in) Breda-SAFAT machine guns and an armored windscreen (previously, only the armored seat and the self-sealing tanks were provided). Serie IX’s weight was 2,515/3,069 kg with the 7.7 machine guns seldom installed.

C.202AS
Dust filters for operations in North Africa (AS – Africa Settentrionale, North Africa); they little affected the speed and so, almost all Folgores had them and thus were in C.202AS standard; finally, starting with Serie XI there was a provision for two 50, 100 or 160 kg bombs, small bombs clusters (10, 15, 20 kg) or 100 l drop tanks. These underwing pylons were rarely utilized, as Folgores were needed in the interceptor roles.

C.202CB
Underwing hardpoints for bombs or drop tanks (CB – Caccia Bombardiere, Fighter-Bomber)

C.202EC
probably meaning Esperimento Cannoni, it was another link between Veltro and Folgore. One aircraft (Serie III, s/n MM 91974) was fitted with a pair of gondola-mounted 20 mm cannon with 200 rounds each (it flew on 12 May 1943); later it was turned into a C.205V. Another four examples were so equipped, but, despite the good results in the trials (aimed to boost the Folgore’s firepower), there was no further production, because the cannons penalized the aircraft’s performance. There was, in the Folgore, no room to mount them inside the wings or the nose, so the MC.205V/Ns was developed. Nevertheless, the XII series could have introduced a new wing with MG 151 provisions. This is not well documented, as this series was produced by Breda after the Armistice, and was interrupted with the devastating USAAF bombings, together with many other aircraft; among them, also Macchi 205 production and the 206 prototype (30 April 1944; in five days, the USAAF destroyed both Fiat and Macchi facilities, eliminating all of Italy’s fighter production).

C.202RF
Equipped with cameras for photo-reconnaissance missions (R – Ricognizione, Reconnaissance), very few produced, later the recce role was covered by Veltros.

C.202D
Prototype with a revised radiator, under the nose, similar to the P-40 (s/n. MM 7768)

C.202 AR.4
at least one was modified as “drone director” (coupled with S.79s), and it was planned to use Folgores also as ‘Mistel’, with an AR.4 “radiobomba” (a sort of remote-control kamikaze bomber).
C.202 with DB 605 and other engines
Macchi MC.202 with DB 605 were initially known as MC.202 bis; later as the C.205 Veltro. Macchi C.200, C.202 and C.205 shared many common components. The MC.200A/2 was a MC.200 with Folgore wings (MM.8238). After the Armistice, Aeronautica Sannita or the Co-Belligerent Italian AF began MC.205 modifying C.202s with DB 605s. These aircraft were known also as Folgeltro. Around two dozen were made. Another Folgore was modified with DB 601E-1 (1,350 PS) in summer 1944, but this hybrid with Bf 109F technology crashed on 21 January 1946. The MC.204 was a version with a L.121 Asso (1,000 hp); proposed early in the war (28 September 1940), but all the effort continued only with DB 601 engines. Early Folgores had original DB 601s, while from the Serie VII, RC.41s were available.
After the war, 31 C.202 airframes were fitted with license-built Daimler-Benz DB 605 engines and sold to Egypt as C.205 Veltros, with another 11 ‘real’ MC.205s (with MG 151 cannons in the wings).

LINK

 

Corpo di Spedizione Italiano and Units after 1943

Corpo di Spedizione Italiano (CSI – Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia)

As Europe’s first fascist dictator, it was inevitable that Mussolini would commit troops to the “anti-Bolshevik crusade”. However, up to June 1941, World War II had gone badly for Il Duce. He had nothing to show in comparison with Hitler’s territorial gains. In May 1940, Mussolini’s frustration was further heightened when the German armies drove the British forces off the continent and brought France to her knees. It now seemed certain that Germany would win the war. Desperate to share in the spoils of war, Mussolini announced on 10 June 1940 to an enormous crowd gathered in the Piazza Venezia that Italy was at war with Britain and France. Unfortunately, Il Duce was caught in what his Foreign Minister Ciano ironically called “an outbreak of peace” which left Mussolini in a state of limbo. His ego and thirst for power drove him subsequently to invade the Balkans. The Italians invaded Greece in October 1940, only to be militarily humiliated by the Greeks. However, fascist honour was restored by the German Blitzkrieg in the Balkans in April 1941. Greece and Yugoslavia were quickly conquered, and a British expeditionary force was expelled from the mainland. It found refuge on Crete, which was then taken by a German airborne assault in May. This was followed by Turkey signing a formal treaty with Berlin that granted the Germans passage through the Dardanelles.

These factors convinced Mussolini of the Führer’s invincibility and that the impending German attack on the Soviet Union would be an unqualified success. He was convinced he would gain the prestige that he longed for, and Italy would share in the spoils of war. He thus joined the war against Russia and committed a force of 60,000 men to the struggle, known as the Corpo di Spedizione Italiano (CSI – Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia). This force comprised three divisions: Pasubio and Torino, which were 1938-type binary divisions (two infantry regiments and an artillery regiment each plus support services), and the 3rd Mobile Division Principe Amedeo Duca d’Aosta. The latter had two mounted cavalry regiments, a Bersaglieri cycle regiment, a light tank group with obsolete L-3s, an artillery regiment and service units. Later, he sent the 63rd Assault Legion Tagliamento to represent his fascist Blackshirts.

The CSI on the Eastern Front

In July 1941, the supposedly motorized CSI followed the German Army through the Ukraine, mainly on foot. Morale was high at the prospect of an easy campaign, and the Germans were impressed with their Italian allies. Unfortunately, this initial euphoria soon disappeared. Inadequate leadership, armour and transport, plus shortages of artillery and anti-tank weapons, revealed the corps to be ill-equipped for the fighting it was to encounter. Undeterred, in March 1942, Mussolini sent II Corps comprising the Sforzesca, Ravenna and Cosseria Infantry Divisions, together with the élite Alpine Corps comprising the Vicenza Infantry and Tridentina, Julia and Cuneense Alpine Divisions. Further Blackshirt units were also sent, formed into the 3 Gennaio and 23 Marzo Groups to reinforce the CSI, now designated XXXV Corps. This force of 227,000 men became the Italian Eighth Army. In August 1942, it was guarding the Don Front north of Stalingrad with German liaison officers and formations attached to ensure its reliability. Although a Russian attack had been expected, the Italians were unable to resist the massive armoured thrust that was hurled against them on 11 December 1942. II and XXXV Corps crumbled almost immediately, leaving the Alpine Corps stranded and resulting in a huge gap in the Don defences. The lack of anti-tank guns and medium tanks was keenly felt in this rout. The Italians were left to fend for themselves during their retreat, in which they were harassed continually by the Red Army. In January 1943, the survivors regrouped in the Ukraine but the Italian Eighth Army had ceased to exist. The disillusioned Germans sent the survivors back to Italy.

The Fall of Mussolini

Once in Italy, the survivors bitterly blamed both Mussolini and Hitler for the suffering they had endured. This, in part, influenced the events that were to follow in Italy when, on 25 July 1943, Mussolini was voted out of office by his own Fascist Grand Council and subsequently placed under arrest. On 8 September, Italy officially quit the war. After the fall of the fascist regime, the liberated areas of the country turned to the Allies. On 12 September, Mussolini was rescued from captivity on Gran Sasso by a German commando unit under the leadership of Otto Skorzeny and then evacuated to Germany. Later, in the town of Salo on the shores of Lake Garda, Il Duce set up a puppet fascist state, the so-called Italian Social Republic or, as it is sometimes referred to, the Republic of Salo. The official foundation of the armed forces of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI) was on 28 October 1943.

A virtual civil war had broken out in Italy after Mussolini’s deposition and Italy’s exit from the Axis camp. Some of the Italian forces actively resisted the Germans and were defeated and made prisoner; others deserted to swell the ranks of the resistance; and a few remained loyal to fascism. The Germans were anxious to utilize the pro-fascist elements in the struggle against the now greatly augmented resistance. Above all, they were determined to keep open the vital lines of communication between Austria and northern Italy. Mussolini’s republic cannot be considered anything but a puppet state of the greater German Reich. Four infantry divisions were formed and trained in Germany: the Italia, Littorio, San Marco and Monterosa Divisions. These and other units were under German control. For example, a unit that was formed in France after the fall of Mussolini from two battalions of the Blackshirt militia wore Italian Army uniforms with the Wehrmacht eagle and swastika above the left breast pocket and as a cap badge. It returned to Italy in October 1943 to fight the partisans and later the Allies at Anzio. It was granted the title, 1st Battaglione 9 Settembre, by Mussolini in August 1944. In October 1944, it was attached to the German Brandenburg Division and, as part of this unit, fought against the Red Army on the Eastern Front from October 1944 to January 1945, when it was brought back to Italy to take part once again in anti-partisan fighting.

The Germans also raised a unit composed of Bersaglieri personnel. Before the RSI was proclaimed, this formation was called the Voluntary Battalion of the Waffen-SS. It should not be confused with the 29th Grenadier Division of the Italian SS, which appeared later and was formed by more than 15,000 Italian recruits who joined the Waffen-SS.

From September 1943 to the end of February 1944, a separate SS battalion was being formed at the SS Heidelager Training Centre at Debica, Poland. Major Fortunato, a former Bersaglieri officer who had served in Russia, was tasked in the selection of new recruits loyal to the Germans. Most of the volunteers came from the Italian 31st Tank Battalion of the Lombardia Division and the élite alpine Julia Division.

The formation, which had 20 officers and 571 men, was referred to as the SS Battalion Debica. For the most part, these troops were considered as Waffen-SS men; and by early March 1944, the men of the SS Battalion Debica had been kitted out in German paratrooper uniforms.

On 21 March 1944, the SS Battalion Debica was deployed to carry out anti-partisan operations around the Pellice Valley, southwest of Turin. On 12 April, the SS Battalion Debica was incorporated into SS Battle Group Diebitsch. However, it was not deployed to the Anzio frontlines. During April and May, the battalion fought around Nocera Umbra, Assisi and San Severino Marche against Italian partisans, suffering 50 casualties. New volunteers were able to keep the battalion’s strength at 500 men and 20 officers.

In early June 1944, SS Battalion Debica, now subordinated to the German I Parachute Corps, was in action to the north of Rome along the Tyrrhenian coast. It suffered heavy losses while fighting American tank units in this area and against partisans behind the German lines. The 200 or so survivors were then dispersed among small battle groups. On 16 June, the SS Battalion Debica was ordered to Florence to help guard the defensive positions of the Gothic Line under Army Group von Zangen. Because the battalion was understrength, it was sent to Pinerolo for refitting. By August, the battalion was back to full strength and ordered to take part in Operation Nightingale against partisan strongpoints in the Chisone and Susa Valleys. On 7 September the SS Battalion Debica became part of the new Waffen Grenadier Brigade der SS (Italian nr. 1), being converted into the new 59th Waffen-SS Reconnaissance Battalion.

Fourteen captured Italian Carro Armato P 40 tanks were supplied to the newly formed division, 24th Waffen Gebirgs Division Karstjäger, in July 1944, but they proved unreliable.

The 24th Waffen Gebirgs Division Karstjäger was a mixed German Volksdeutsche and pro-fascist Italian formation. To combat Tito’s partisans in the Carso and Julian Alps, the SS Karstwehr Company had been formed in the summer of 1942, initially to combat partisans in the Karst alpine regions bordering Austria, Italy and Slovenia. Out of this special anti-partisan mountain combat company grew a division (after Mussolini’s removal made Himmler decide that the Karstwehr Battalion should be strengthened with locally recruited Volksdeutsche from the South Tyrol, and subsequently by Italian fascist “loyalists”). A divisional headquarters was set up in the town of Moggio in the province of Udine. The division consisted of two mountain infantry regiments and one mountain artillery regiment. Apart from one brief encounter with the British in the latter stages of the war, all the actions fought by this unit were against the partisans. General Paul Hausser, a Waffen-SS corps commander, referred to the non-German part of the division as, “a mixture of Italians, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs and Ukrainians”. The division began to fall apart in the closing weeks of the war, with only the German component fighting on to the end. The remnants surrendered to the British 6th Armoured Division in Austria at the beginning of May 1945.

Fiats and Gladiators I

From the outset, and unlike the Greek Army, the Royal Hellenic Air Force was heavily outgunned and outclassed, and would become more so as the conflict progressed. At the outbreak of war the Regia Aeronautica outnumbered the RHAF’s front-line strength by three to one. The Italian air force at the time was one of the best-trained in Europe. Italy’s aerospace industry, coddled by the Mussolini administration, was turning out redoubtable aircraft such as the Fiat G50bis Freccia (Arrow) monoplane fighter, the Macchi C200 Saetta (Lightning) fighter, the CantZ 1007bis bomber and the trimotor Savoia-Marchetti SM79 and SM81 bombers. Many Italian combat pilots had honed their air-fighting skills in the Spanish Civil War. In the 1930s Italy had experienced a surge of interest in air sports and aviation in general, encouraged by Mussolini’s own attainments as an aviator. It was part of the Duce’s broader drive to re-mould the Italian people into a warlike nation like the Romans of old.

The Regia Aeronautica had been an independent service since 1923. It was lucky to have contained pioneering thinkers such as Major Giulio Douhet, who worked out the strategic bombing doctrines that would find their full fruition later in the war. Marshal Italo Balbo refined Douhet’s ideas to come up with the idea of a massed bomber force that could penetrate enemy territory like a mailed fist. Balbo became hugely popular in Italy thanks to his flying-boat team’s highly-publicized international flights, including a tour of America. Well might Mussolini boast to his fascist party cadres on 18 November:

The Italian air force is always at the peak of its task. It has dominated and continues to dominate the skies. Its bombers can reach the most distant of objectives, its fighters are making life difficult for the fighters of the enemy. Its men are truly men of our time: their characteristic is a calm intrepidity.

Mussolini had some cause to boast. In terms of numbers, aircrew and firepower the Regia Aeronautica looked good and was good. But what he didn’t mention was that the senior air force command was ill-equipped to aggressively command such a force. The air force Chief, General Pricolo, was allowed nothing like free rein for his task. Worse, he wasn’t even told of the plan to invade Greece until the critical high-level meeting of 15 October, which he hadn’t even been invited to attend! One might justifiably wonder what had happened to the innovative strategic ideas of Douhet and Balbo. The only possible answer is that the attack on Greece was simply not conceived in air terms. Visconti Prasca’s visions were of an exclusively army triumph; there was also a lingering contempt for Greece and Balkan nations generally as not having air forces worthy of the name, and hence not requiring specific air planning to any major degree. Pricolo fretted at this, but seems not to have had the strength of character to do anything about it – he, too, just wanted to keep his job.

As the Greek air force was thought to be a flimsy adversary, the Regia Aeronautica employed obsolescent biplane fighters in the first phase of the Greece operation. About half of the available fighter force consisted of Fiat CR42 Falco (Falcon) biplanes and older Fiat CR32s, the latter already at the end of their career. The CR42 was about a match for the Greeks’ PZL24 and Gladiator. Eighty examples of a newer all-metal monoplane fighter, the Fiat G50bis, were available, plus twelve of the even better Macchi MC200. The Italian bomber force included the menacing-looking three-engined Cant Z1007bis Alcione (Halcyon), an aircraft that could take a lot of punishment and was highly manoeuvrable. Fifty examples of the Cant Z506B Airone (Heron), a seaplane version of the Cant Z1007, were also in service. Also lined up on Albanian airfields were squadrons of Savoia-Marchetti SM81 Pipistrello (Bat) bombers. The SM81 was in the process of being superseded by the sleeker and more durable trimotor Savoia-Marchetti SM79 Sparviero (Hawk). Eighteen Fiat BR20M Cicogna (Stork) twin-engined bombers were also operational. The Regia Aeronautica’s planes were organized into squadriglie of nine aircraft each, which was slightly smaller than an RAF squadron or Greek mira. Three squadriglie made up a gruppo (somewhere between a squadron and a wing), and two gruppi made up a stormo, or wing.

The Royal Hellenic Air Force had been an independent arm for eleven years, producing its first crop of nine graduating aircrew officers in 1931. Through the politically turbulent 1930s the fledgling air force had experienced its ups and downs. Both the army and navy looked down on the upstart service as little more than a flying club for well-to-do young men. The RHAF College, known as the Icarus School, had narrowly escaped being closed down in 1932. The air force’s survival was assured only in 1934 with the creation of the General Air Staff. Still, even in 1940, Greek air operations were under the full control of the army, in the person of Major General Petros Ekonomakos.

On 28 October the RHAF could field four air observation and army cooperation mirai, three of naval cooperation aircraft, four of fighters and three of medium bombers, totalling some 160 planes, though perhaps two-thirds were serviceable. The main fighter was the Polish-built PZL24, a rugged machine but rapidly being outclassed in Europe. Before the war Greece had managed to buy a dozen modern Bristol Blenheim IV bombers and another dozen single-engined Fairey Battles from Britain, and a similar number of Potez 63 bombers from France. The naval cooperation mirai had the advantage of modern British Avro Anson patrol bombers. When war broke out Greece had ordered 107 additional modern aircraft such as the redoubtable Supermarine Spitfire, the American Grumman F4F Wildcat and the Martin Maryland bomber. It never got to receive them.

The immediate operational need of the RHAF was to repel the waves of Italian bombers while employing the army observation squadrons to keep track of the invading Italian land forces. The fighters had an unequal fight on their hands from the start. The first real aerial encounter of the war took place on 30 October, when a few Henschel Hs126 observation aircraft took off to locate Italian troop formations and had the worst of an encounter with five Fiat CR42s. One Henschel went down, killing its observer, Pilot Officer Evangelos Giannaris, the first Greek airman to die in the campaign. Another Henschel went down that same morning, killing its two-man crew, while Italian bombers hammered the port of Patras.

The Greek aircrews learned how to fight the hard way. ‘We didn’t know how to fly then,’ said Flying Officer George Doukas of 24 Pursuit Mira later. ‘We couldn’t even shoot. We knew nothing of firing distances or angles of attack. We went to war … as if we were on parade. We were blown out of the sky.’ Greek pilots had very little, if any, training in evasive manoeuvres. To compound the problem for the Greeks, the Italian bombers would come in at high altitude – at least 20,000ft – which was at the limit of the PZLs’ and Gladiators’ operational ceiling. It was a rare sortie that didn’t see some Greek airborne casualty.

Units of the crack 53 Land Fighter Stormo (Wing) had arrived at bases in Albania on 1 November – 150 Gruppo (Group), comprising 363, 364 and 365 Squadriglie. Their pilots were a bit disappointed in having been given the Fiat C42s to fly, especially as the stormo had specifically trained for the new Macchi MC200 fighters, and were naturally quite proud of the fact. But the Macchis were kept safe at Turin while the older biplanes were fed into the war against Greece. While 365 Squadriglia was transferred to 160 Gruppo Autonomo at Tirana, 364 was stationed at Vlore and 365 at Gjirokaster, sometimes interchangeably.

As the Siena, Ferrara and Centauro Divisions were advancing on Kalpaki, Metaxas himself telephoned the RHAF’s bomber chief, Group Captain Stephanos Philippas, at his headquarters at Larissa. An enemy column was rolling towards Doliana, Metaxas barked, and had to be stopped that very night ‘even if no-one comes back’. Philippas detailed a flight of 31 Bombing Mira to do the job. The 31 Mira CO, Flight Lieutenant George Karnavias, gulped. None of his crews had ever flown a night operation before. But orders were orders. As night fell, three of his pilots climbed into their twin-engined Potez 63s and headed off into the mountain blackness. One of them was Flight Lieutenant Lambros Kouziyannis, wounded in the head on the previous day’s mission. He jumped out of his hospital bed to join the operation, ignoring the protests of his CO.

The pilots’ only guide on the way, apart from their glowing instruments, was the dim candlelight from the clifftop Meteora monasteries to starboard. The crews had to shield their eyes from the bombers’ white-hot exhaust shooting from the engine housings. The lights of an Italian column approaching Kalpaki became visible as the Potez 63s roared over Ioannina and its shimmering lake. Kouziyannis, his head bandaged, bombed the column, defying a hail of flak on the dive. On his way back he got lost and found himself over blacked-out Athens rather than his base at Larissa. His bomber ran out of fuel over the city, but managed to glide the few miles to the base at Tatoi. He had just cleared the airfield fence and was breathing a prayer of thanks when he collided with a parked trainer in the darkness. The concussion crippled Kouziyannis for the rest of his life.

As the Italians continued to bomb Thessaloniki and other cities, killing scores of civilians, Greek bombers sometimes gave as good as they got. Early in November 31 Bombing Mira took off from Athens to bomb the Italian base at Korce. A formation of Blenheims under Flying Officer Constantine Margaritis pounded the base, killing nineteen airmen who had gathered in the ops room for a briefing, and wounding twenty-five others. Two Italian fighters were damaged on the ground. The Fairey Battles of 33 Mira were equally audacious, sneaking into Albanian airspace and shooting up Italian columns. Those planes, though, were primitive. The pilot of a Battle could communicate with his gunner/observer in the back only through a speaking tube – engine noise permitting, of course. Maps were scarce; the only available map of southern Albania had to be rotated among several crews.

The Fiats of 365 Squadriglia continued tangling with the inexperienced Greek airmen, to the latters’ cost. On 4 November Second Lieutenant Lorenzo Clerici and Sergeant Pasquale Facchini pumped streams of bullets into a couple of Breguet XIXs of 2 Air Observation Mira that were strafing the troops of the Julia Division, sending one of them spinning down in flames.

Greece’s three bombing mirai, 31, 32 and 33, were only gradually introduced to the principles of tactical air warfare. Their task at the outbreak of war was to act as long-range artillery in support of ground operations, a task made easier as the RAF gradually took over the strategic bombing of enemy targets in Albania. These missions took a steady toll of aircrews. One of the Blenheim IVs of 32 Mira was downed over Gjirokaster on 11 November. The Blenheim IV was one of the few modern bombers in the RHAF’s armoury and the loss of even one was significant at a time when the Regia Aeronuatica, in response to the Italian setbacks in the ground war, poured some 250 more fighters into its Albanian bases. Metaxas confessed to having nightmares about the erosion of the air force’s firepower.

The main reason why the Greeks had to advance quickly on the eastern part of the front to capture Korce was that it was a base from which Greece’s cities were being regularly bombed. The Blenheims of 32 Mira and Battles of 33 Mira were sent to soften up Korce on 14 November, in advance of the Greek III Corps thrust, destroying fifteen enemy aircraft on the ground in two waves, for the loss of one more 32 Mira Blenheim – probably to one of Italy’s more renowned airmen, Second Lieutenant Maurizio di Robilant of 363 Squadriglia. Flight Lieutenant Panayotis Orphanidis was returning to Larissa from the Korce raid when he found a Fiat CR42 stuck on his Blenheim’s tail, firing intermittently and weaving to get a better shot. The Blenheim was the faster plane, but it couldn’t quite shake off the pursuer. More than 160 bullets smashed into the bomber’s fuselage and wings, holing the fuel and oil tanks, which luckily were nearly empty, and wounding the gunner. Orphanidis knew that the Italian would have his best chance as the bomber slowed down to make the turn to land at Larissa. So instead of making the turn he continued on and across the eastern Greek coast, setting a course for Sedes base at Thessaloniki. Somewhere over the water the Fiat, apparently low on fuel, gave up the chase.

As Orphanidis and his friends were trying to flatten the Korce base, six of the smaller and more agile Battles of 33 Mira swept at low level from Corfu and snaked between the mountain ranges to stage an audacious raid on the Gjirokaster base. Despite the flaming wall of flak they had to penetrate, not one Battle was hit (though 363 Squadriglia reported a damaged ‘probable’). Typical of the effect on the RHAF’s morale was a letter by Pilot Officer Yannis Kipouros to his mother after the operation: ‘I know that one day I might plunge to earth defending my beautiful country,’ he wrote. ‘What are the Italians defending? … The joy I feel when completing a mission is indescribable.’ Kipouros (who was to disappear without a trace on a mission in a few weeks’ time) was venting a more general optimism among the Greeks, as mid-November was seeing the tide turn on the ground, with the Julia Division knocked out and the rest of the Italian army stalled before Kalpaki.

The RHAF’s army cooperation and observation mirai were active in their obsolescent but hardy Henschel Hs126 monoplanes, strafing and harassing Italian columns inside Albanian territory. A large Italian bomber force struck at the advanced Greek base at Florina, the headquarters of 31 Mira, but without hitting a single aircraft or major installation. The 31 Mira CO, Squadron Leader Grigorios Theodoropoulos, wondered whether the enemy were ‘just unlucky, or inexperienced and hasty’.

While the Greek drive on Korce was getting up steam, the Fairey Battles of 31 Mira were ordered to hit the Italian forces on Mount Morova and Mount Ivan, the high points defending the southern approaches to the town. The raid was not unopposed. Performing prodigies of flying in this sector was di Robilant of 363 Squadriglia who scored a devastating hit on Flying Officer George Hinaris’ plane, killing his gunner/observer and forcing him to bale out, his flying suit on fire. Hinaris was saved by falling into a stream, though he was badly burned. In the same action Di Robilant accounted for Flight Lieutenant Dimitris Pitsikas’ Battle, which managed to limp to a landing at Ioannina, though by that time Warrant Officer Aristophanes Pappas, the gunner/observer, was dead in the back seat. While that was going on, three Potez 63s of 31 Mira attacked enemy artillery positions in the Devoli River valley. Vladousis’ plane was hit by his own side’s anti-aircraft guns. His gunner/observer already dead, Vladousis jumped from the stricken plane into a maelstrom of fire from the wheeling Fiats and the Greeks on the ground. To identify himself to the latter, he took a letter from his mother from his pocket and as he floated to earth he waved it like a white flag, yelling, ‘I’m Greek, you fellows!’ at the top of his voice.

Once down, he was saved from toppling over a cliff by a sergeant whom he recognized as an old school friend. As Vladousis was chatting with the local sector colonel, the captain of the offending anti-aircraft battery burst in with profuse and embarrassed apologies. The officer, it seemed, had no idea that the RHAF had twin-engined bombers such as the Potez 63 in the air – all he knew about, apparently, were the antique Breguet XIXs. Anything more modern than that, it was assumed, had to be Italian. Relaxing, Vladousis took off his flying overall and in that way he told the army something more about the indomitable spirit of the air force, for underneath it he was wearing his full dress uniform. To the thunderstruck colonel Vladousis quipped, ‘Since we never know if we’re going to come back, we might as well dress properly.’ Just as many airmen carried (and still carry) personal talismans as psychological defence mechanisms against worrying too much about death, the dress uniform was almost Spartan in its significance. It was like Leonidas’ Spartans combing their hair before the fatal encounter at Thermopylai. So Vladousis, if he was going to meet death, was determined to do it with dignity.

Two days before the fall of Korce 32 Mira was sent to bomb the base at Gjirokaster. Pilot Officer Alexander Malakis, perhaps because of a navigation error, bombed nearby Permet by mistake. The attack flattened an Italian military hospital, killing at least fifty patients. Next door to the hospital an ammunition dump exploded and burned for three days. While Malakis and his crew were decorated for the raid, Rome howled about a gross violation of the Geneva Convention. What actually happened is disputed to this day. Malakis claimed to have bombed by mistake, as Permet resembled Gjirokaster. The Greeks, moreover, asserted that the ammunition dump – ostensibly the real target – had been deliberately placed next to the hospital to deter attacks. This ‘explanation’, however, implies that Permet could have been the legitimate target after all. And certainly there was no lack of Greeks in uniform whose memories of Italian aggression were quite fresh and thus not overly scrupulous about what they hit.

The suddenness of the Greek advance on Korce caught the Regia Aero-nautica by surprise. Hours before the base’s capture, a SM79 bomber collided with three Fiats while trying to take off. It was abandoned to the Greeks who repainted it with blue and white roundels and added it to their bomber force. The Battles of 33 Mira were sent to harass the retreating Italian column but came under attack by a swarm of Fiats which forced the Greeks to break off the operation. One Battle was seriously damaged and its gunner/observer wounded.

The undoubted heroics displayed by the outgunned RHAF drew the admiration of Metaxas, but he fretted that the loss rate could not be sustained for very long. Even with the help of the RAF from the early days of November, and even when the ground campaign began turning in the Greeks’ favour in the middle of the month, the air war was giving Metaxas serious jitters. Grateful as he was for what British aerial help could be spared from the Middle East theatre, he could only gloomily observe his own airmen and planes dwindling mercilessly.

More British aerial help arrived on 18 November in the form of 80 Squadron, equipped with Gloster Gladiator IIs. Led by Squadron Leader William Hickey, the fighters touched down at Eleusis along with a lumbering Bristol Bombay transport carrying ground crews and spares. From that day the boys in RAF blue were given hero status by the grateful Athenians. Understandably, the crews that first night took full advantage of the adulation in the form of endless free drinks and meals, but Hickey himself wasn’t free to join in the fun, having to receive his orders from the Greek High Command. These were for 80 Squadron’s B Flight under the South African-born Flight Lieutenant Marmaduke ‘Pat’ Pattle to fly on to Trikala in central Greece the next morning, refuel, and carry out the RAF’s first fighter patrol in Greek skies.

Pattle and his flight, plus his CO Hickey, landed at Trikala to find the crews of the RHAF’s 21 Pursuit Mira ‘enjoying a meal of bread and cheese and olives … washed down with a very strong-smelling but sweet-tasting wine,’ which they shared with the Britons. Thus fortified, three of 21 Mira’s PZL24s led Hickey and nine of 80 Squadron’s Gladiators on their first familiarity flight over the northwest Greek mountains. By the time the formation reached the Italian base at Korce the PZLs had to turn back because of a lack of fuel, leaving B Flight to see what it could pick off.

The eagle-eyed Pattle, leading the flight’s second section, was the first to see four Fiat CR42s of 150 Gruppo climbing to intercept them and signalled to Hickey. As both pilots went into an attacking dive, the Fiats scattered. Pattle got onto the tail of one of them and coolly blasted it at 100yds – the first of the redoubtable South African’s many kills in the Greek and Albanian theatres of the war. Over Korce airfield Pattle expertly evaded an attack by a 154 Gruppo Fiat G50 monoplane fighter, of the kind that was now being fed into the campaign in increasing numbers, and a few minutes later downed another CR42. At that point low air pressure knocked out the Gladiator’s guns, so he had to fly wildly around the sky getting out of the way of aggressive Italians until the gun pressure could build up again, but by that time his fuel was low and at tree-top height weaved his way through the mountains to Trikala, where 80 Squadron was feted as having accounted for nine Italian fighters and a couple more probables. As a reward, the pilots were put up at Trikala’s best hotel.