Proper South African Gladiators

Wonderful colourised image by Tinus Le Roux of South African Air Force pilots during the East Africa campaign in WW2.

Here are No. 2 Squadron pilots in East Africa 1940-’41 (Gladiator aircraft in the background). From left to right: Lt. Pieter Fritz, Lt. Adrian “Coley” Colenbrander, Lt. Basil Guest. Only Lt. Guest will survive the war.

Lt. Colenbrander was a popular member of the squadron and was shot down and killed in 1942 just after the El Alamein break-through as 2 squadron’s Officer Commanding.

The Gloster Gladiator’s combat record  in East Africa

In Eastern Africa, it was determined that Italian forces based on Ethiopia posed a threat to the British Aden Protectorate, thus it was decided that an offensive would be necessary, under which the Gladiator would face off against the Italian biplane fighters: Fiat CR.32s and CR.42s. On 6 November 1940, in the first hour of the British offensive against Ethiopia, the Fiat CR.42 fighters of the 412a Squadriglia led by Capt. Antonio Raffi shot down five Gloster Gladiators of 1 SAAF Sqn; among the Italian pilots was the ace Mario Visintini. Tactically, the SAAF aircraft erred by engaging the CR.42’s in a piecemeal fashion and not en masse, and were anyway heavily outnumbered.

Early on in the action, Gladiators of No. 94 Squadron performed various offensive actions against the Italian forces; typical targets included airfields, supply depots, and aircraft. They were also assigned the mission of defending Aden airspace at day and night, as well as to protect Allied shipping operating in the vicinity. It was in the latter role that saw a single No. 94 Gladiator, piloted by Gordon Haywood, be responsible for the surrender and capture of the Italian Archimede-class submarine Galilei Galileo

On 6 June 1941, the Regia Aeronautica had only two serviceable aircraft remaining: a CR.32 and a CR.42, therefore air superiority was finally achieved by Gladiators and the Hurricanes. The Gladiator’s last air combat with an Italian fighter was on 24 October 1941, with the CR.42 of Tenente Malavolti (or, according to historian Håkan Gustavsson, sottotenente Malavolta). The Italian pilot took off to strafe British airfields at Dabat and Adi Arcai. According to the Italian historian Nico Sgarlato, the CR.42 was intercepted by three Gladiators and managed to shoot down two of them, but was then itself shot down and the pilot killed.  Other authors state that Malavolti managed to fire only on the two Gladiators before being shot down.

According to Gustavsson, SAAF pilot (no. 47484V) Lieutenant Lancelot Charles Henry “Paddy” Hope, at Dabat airfield, scrambled to intercept the CR.42 (MM7117). Diving on it, he opened fire at 300 yards. Although the CR.42 pilot took violent evasive action, Hope pursued, closing to 20 yards and firing as it tried to dive away. There was a brief flicker of flame and the last Italian aircraft to be shot down over East Africa spun into the ground and burst into flames near Ambazzo. The next day the wreckage was found, the dead pilot still in the cockpit. Hope dropped a message on Italian positions at Ambazzo:

“Tribute to the pilot of the Fiat. He was a brave man. South African Air Force.”

But operational record books of the Commonwealth units in the area state that they did not suffer any losses on this date. The dedication of the posthumous Medaglia d’oro al valor militare states that Malavolti shot down a Gladiator and forced another to crash land, but was himself shot down by a third Gladiator. This was the last air-to-air victory in the East African campaign.

Original black and white Photograph from the SAAF museum Colourised photo copyright and courtesy of Tinus Le Roux, and my thanks to Tinus for the caption reference.  Reference – wikipedia

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