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Narrative:In the last days of December 1940 the Va Squadra Aerea (the higher command of the Italian Air Force in Libya) was reinforced by the arrival of a new fighter unit, the 2° Gruppo Autonomo C.T. This unit was constituted of only two squadriglie, 150a and 152a, and was strong of 20 Fiat G.50 fighters and two Ca 133 hack aircraft. But the rushing to the front of this unit was one of the worst examples during the war of the bad Italian logistic organization.
|Thursday 9 January 1941
|150a Sqa, 2° Gr. Aut. C.T., Regia Aeronautica
|Fatalities: 0 / Occupants: 1
|Ain el Gazala -
Although having their new monoplanes fpr nearly two months, the pilots of 2° Gruppo were still largely unfamiliar with their flying characteristics and tested them and the endurance of their Fiat during the flight to Libya. Their aircraft were early series machines and had no radio, armour, anti-sand protection, oxygen mask or lifejackets provided to the pilots. When they reached Tripoli on 31 December they were sent to Bir El Ghnem, an auxiliary strip in the desert, where the engines started eating sand and soon using more oil than fuel. Added to the fact that all the ground personnel of the unit was left behind in Italy, this reduced the number of serviceable fighters to only a few in some days, most of the aircraft being grounded awaiting replacement engines.
On 9 January 1941 the 2° Gr. Aut. C.T., now the only front line fighter unit of the Va Squadra Aerea, had only four G.50 available but launched its first operation. The commander of 150a Squadriglia, Capitano Tullio De Prato, led three pilots of 152a Squadriglia, Tenente Marino Caselli, Tenente Giacomo Metellini and Sottotenente Romano Pagliana. They took off at 1015 hrs from Derna to escort six CR 32s and three Ba 65s from 12° Gruppo in an offensive patrol in the Acroma area. Tenente Caselli was forced to return early because of engine problems.
The G.50 pilots had may problems during the flight. They were new to the desert environment that they considered unrecognizable, had never flown together before (being of different Squadriglie) and had no radio, so communicated with conventional but not codified signs. They had to fly at an higher altitude than the ground attack aircraft and to follow them visually, which was difficult as they were perfectly camouflaged, while also keeping an eye on the sky, the desert and their oil pressure gauge that was showing an alarming decrease.
After only 15 minutes, De Prato decided to climb around 100 metres to put the engine in a slightly cooler environment but the 12° Gruppo’s formation probably turned at the same time and the escort lost them. De Prato, being unable to contact them, decided to continue on the original course as a king of indirect fighter support.
At 1100 hrs, while at 4000 metres over Ain El Gazala, De Prato saw a fast monoplane flying in reverse course towards them, soon identified as a Hurricane. He tried to signal his wingmen the danger but only obtained that they closed formation with him. The Hurricane passed their flank at the same height and at an approximate distance of 2000 metres. De Prato hoped he had not seen them but it then started a slow turn to get on the tail of the Italian fighters. De Prato made a last sign to his wingmen, just to avoid a collision and then reversed course sharply, going close to the stalling speed of his Fiat. His wingmen were good in avoiding him but the three Italian pilots definitely lost contact with each other.
De Prato then made a head on pass on the Hurricane that in the meantime had gained height while he had lost some during his turn. The fighters almost collided, shooting at each other only a prolonged burst of fire, one of the two machine guns of De Prato jamming at the first round. The Hurricane then continued in its dive, going almost vertical, and De Prato made half a turn of controlled spin, gaining his tail and trying to follow him, but he was far away and was losing ground steadily eve, giving full throttle. At this time De Prato realized that his airscrew was practically dead and his aircraft was smoking. He had been hit in the carburetor and the engine was burning, luckily for him very slowly.
The Hurricane met by De Prato was probably the one flown by Sgt Fred Marshall of 73 Sqn, who flew two patrols this day and reported being bounced by three G.50s and "being lucky to escape". He obviously had not realized that he had inflicted damage, for he made no claim, not even as a damaged.
De Prato decided not to jump but to land at Ain el Gazala because he saw one of the CR 32s landing on it below him. It was the aircraft of Tenente Sergio Giacomello of 160a Squadriglia, 12° Gruppo, which had been hit in the oil radiator by British AA fire during the already accomplished ground attack.
As De Prato was at the end of his landing, the fire in his engine erupted and in the same moment in which the belly of his Fiat G.50 MM6383 touched the ground, he jumped from it and the fighter exploded. De Prato was wounded, but Giacomello helped him. They then both watched a low-level attack by an Hurricane, flown by Flg Off Ernest M Mason of 274 Sqn, that destroyed the damaged CR 32 on the ground. Mason returned to base from a patrol claiming a CR 32 destroyed by strafing on the ground.
Later the same day a S.81 flown Tenente Fioravante Montanari and escorted by three CR.32s landed at Ain el Gazala and brought Giacomello and De Prato back to Derna. On the way back it was encountered by a Hurricane flown by Plt Off G E ’Randy’ Goodman DFC of 73 Sqn, who, seeing it prominently marked with Red Crosses, flew alongside, receiving a cheerful wave from the pilot, which he reciprocated. As it appeared to be unarmed, he allowed it to proceed on its way.
"Desert Prelude, vol 2: Operation Compass", by Hakan Gustavsson and Ludovico Slongo. ISBN 978-83-61421-18-4
"A history of the Mediterranean Air War 1940-1945. Volume One: North Africa June 1940 - January 1942", by Christopher Shores and Giovanni Massimello with Russel Guest. ISBN 978-1-908117-07-6 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiat_G.50 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gazala
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