A great blog for a momentous anniversary

Contrails filled the sky over England - and elsewhere - 75 years ago

Contrails filled the sky over England – and elsewhere – 75 years ago

We are fast approaching the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, meaning that much will be said, written and broadcast between now and October – including here at the S&G. An abundance of Spitfires and Hurricanes, a Blenheim and some Gladiators will take to the skies and much will be said about ‘The Few’ – no matter how inaccurate some of those comments will be. Air raid sirens will wail and Churchill’s words will growl.

Before we hurl ourselves into the occasion, however, feel free to savour a truly remarkable blog about another campaign in the summer of 1940, during which the fate of an island nation was plunged into jeopardy – and with it the course of human kind: Malta GC 70.

Malta became a target for bombers in the summer of 1940

Malta became a target for bombers in the summer of 1940

In 2011 the enterprising individual behind this blog began putting up posts that told the reader exactly what had happened on the same day 70 years earlier – how many bombs fell, how many aircraft flew, how many shells were fired and how many casualties there were. This was to mark 70 years since the peak of the Battle of Malta and to build towards the commemorations of 70 years since the Maltese were recognised with the George Cross.

Now the blog is back in action, adding to the story by putting up daily details of the first weeks of the siege, to mark 75 years since the moment that Mussolini belatedly declared war on Britain and attempted to restore the Roman empire in the Mediterranean.

It is an astonishing body of work that tells far more than the legend of Faith, Hope and Charity. It brings to vivid life the daily realities for the Maltese, British and Empire nationals who were caught up in the maelstrom – and, thanks to the option to receive posts by email, provides a thought-provoking and entirely welcome window on the past almost every day of the week. Enjoy – and do come back to the S&G when you have a moment!

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The remarkable Whitney Straight – Part 2: aviator

The art deco splendour of Ramsgate's airport terminal - a Straight Corporation creation

The art deco splendour of Ramsgate’s airport terminal – a Straight Corporation creation

The prodigiously talented young American racing driver, Whitney Straight, abandoned his chosen career at the ripe old age of 23. With no prospect of winning at the highest level of the sport without representing Nazi Germany, he turned to his other great passion – aviation – and founded the Straight Corporation Ltd. in early 1935.

Immediately he began looking for ways to invest in the aviation infrastructure of his adopted home country, Britain, thus the Straight Corporation set about buying up operator’s rights and expanding existing airfields, setting up flying clubs and taking a lead role in civil aviation.

The business grew rapidly through the mid-1930s and among the many Straight Corporation properties were the airports at Exeter, Ipswich, Ramsgate, Weston Super Mare, Bristol and Inverness. Whitney Straight himself also joined forces with the Miles aircraft company to produce a beautiful touring machine, the Miles Whitney Straight, in 1936.

The Miles Whitney Straight was a rakish air racer and tourer

The Miles Whitney Straight was a rakish air racer and tourer

As with his motor racing exploits, Straight very quickly inveigled his friend Dick Seaman in the new venture. No doubt arguing that Seaman also needed something to provide him with a future beyond racing, the younger man also gained his pilot’s licence and was listed as a director of many Straight Corporation-owned businesses. He was even the registered owner of a Short Scion airliner at the tender age of 22!

The Aeroplane recorded that, in January 1936, the Straight Corporation Ltd. of Brettenham House, Lancaster Gate, Strand, London, WC2 reported increase in capital of £45,000 over the registered capital of £75,000. Whitney Straight was himself stated to be director and also director of General Aircraft Ltd. Dumium Ltd, Air Commerce Ltd and Sidco Trust Ltd.

As well as a prominent businessman, Straight had also become a husband. In a classic meeting of backgrounds, he married Lady Daphne Margarita Finch-Hatton, whose father was Guy Montagu George Finch-Hatton, 14th Earl of Winchilsea and 9th Earl of Nottingham, but whose mother was Margaretta Armstrong Drexel, an American banker’s heiress. The couple had two daughters together.

In 1938, with war becoming an increasing certainty, Whitney Straight became a British citizen. When war broke out, the British government requisitioned most of the Straight Corporation’s airfields while he himself joined the Royal Air Force.

Whitney Straight in uniform as an RAF officer

Whitney Straight in uniform as an RAF officer

Straight’s background in establishing, developing and managing successful airfields in peacetime doubtless played a key role in his first military assignment. He was dispatched to Norway in April 1940 to find frozen lakes suitable for use as airfields. The resultant RAF base at Lake Lesjaskog became home to the Gloster Gladiators of 263 Squadron, which fought a desperate battle against overwhelming forces during the Nazi invasion of Norway.

Straight himself was seriously wounded during the invasion and invalided back to Britain. After his recuperation, during which time the Blitzkrieg rolled its way through Belgium, Holland and France, he lobbied hard for a front-line role in the defence of Britain and was posted to 601 (County of London) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force – better known as the ‘Millionaires Squadron’.

Just like other Auxiliary units such as 610 Squadron, the early weeks of active service had taken a heavy toll on the wealthy ‘weekend warriors’ of 601. Straight flew with them from September 1940 until April 1941, during which time he was credited with two aircraft destroyed.

A 601 Squadron Hurricane being serviced in late 1940

A 601 Squadron Hurricane being serviced in late 1940

He then became CO of 242 Squadron, formerly commanded by Douglas Bader, and was able to bring his total score to 3 and 1 shared (with 2 ‘probables’) by July 1941. It was on July 31st 1941 that his front line career ended, however, when he was shot down over France.

Straight was flying a 242 Squadron Hurricane II on a ROADSTEAD anti-shipping raid near Le Havre when his aircraft was hit by the defending flak ship, knocking its engine out. He managed to make a forced landing in a nearby field and made a run for it.

Thanks to his upbringing and considerable time in Europe, Straight was a fluent French speaker and because he chose to fly in a non-regulation leather jacket he was able to make his way to Rouen and catch a train to Paris. Here he found the US Embassy closed but finally managed to telephone and persuade a member of the embassy staff to bring a thousand francs to a nearby café where Straight was hiding in the lavatories.

He then took a train to Tours and crossed out of Nazi-occupied France into the Vichy state by swimming across the river Cher. After gathering himself together and drying out, he then took a bus to Chateauroux and a train to Toulouse, from where he boarded another train heading for Pau. On approaching Bedous, near the Spanish border, he was arrested and, realising the potential propaganda value he could hold for the Germans, he gave his name and rank as Captain Whitney of the Royal Army Service Corps.

It was known that Vichy France was repatriating wounded prisoners at this time, and thus Straight claimed to be suffering ear problems from wounds received in Norway and was successfully certified as unfit for further military service. There was a long delay before repatriation could be arranged and it wasn’t until March 1942 that he joined a party being sent through Spain via Perpignan.

On arrival in Perpignan, however, it appeared that the repatriation policy had been reversed. The party was turned back and sent to detention in Nice, where Straight continued to complain of trouble from his Norwegian wounds and was duly sent to the Pasteur Hospital in Nice.

Meanwhile in London, word had reached the War Office from the US Embassy that Whitney Straight was alive in Vichy captivity and orders were given to the escape line operated by Pat O’Leary (the nom-de-guerre of Belgian army doctor-turned-spy Albert-Marie Guérisse).

A top secret vessel: HMS Tarana

A top secret vessel: HMS Tarana

O’Leary’s network ran from Gibraltar through neutral Spain and into Vichy France. One of his operatives, Francis Blanchain, traveled to Nice and visited Straight in hospital, organizing a diversion with the assistance of a nurse, Nicole Brugere, during which Straight together with two more POWs – Polish bomber crewman Sergeant Stefan Miniakowski and British soldier Private Charles Knight – simply walked out of the hospital.

The three men joined four other prisoners of war and one member of the Special Operations Executive at St Pierre Plage, near Narbonne. In what was known as Operation BLUEBOTTLE, a former French trawler used by the British secret services at MI9 as HMS TARANA, gathered up the 17-strong party in a rowing boat and then sailed them to Gibraltar in mid-July 1942.

In September 1942, Straight was appointed Wing Commander and dispatched to the Middle East as AOC of 216 Group, the air transportation and logistics operation for the region. He remained in this position until the end of the war, returning to England to take over 46 Group, the principal Air Transport operation in the RAF.

Straight and Shaikh Khalifa of Bahrain in 1945

Straight and Shaikh Khalifa of Bahrain in 1945

Straight returned to civilian life in 1946 and took up the position of deputy chairman at British European Airways before moving to the position of managing director and Chief Executive Officer of British Overseas Airways Corporation in 1947 – becoming BOAC Chairman in 1949.

Meanwhile, all around Straight there was plenty going on. His cousin Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney was President of Pan-American Airways and was also appointed President Truman’s special envoy to the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Spain and Italy, with the two cousins apparently embodying the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the USA.

Straight was also involved in what would turn out to be a 30-year romance with Diana Barnato Walker, the daughter of Le Mans winner Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato and a celebrated pilot in her own right. Together Straight and Diana had a son, Barney Barnato Walker, although he remained married to Daphne throughout his life.

Wartime heroine and long-term mistress, Diana Barnato Walker

Wartime heroine and Straight’s 30-year mistress, Diana Barnato Walker

In the meantime, Straight’s younger brother Michael was also getting some undesired attention for extracurricular interests. After flying with Whitney to South Africa in 1934, Michael Straight continued to travel and in 1935 he visited Russia – and later in the year went up to Cambridge, where he entered the circle of Communist ringleader Anthony Blunt.

Fearful of Nazism and disillusioned by British appeasement of Hitler, the teenage Straight was a ripe target for recruitment by the KGB – and legend has it that Stalin himself was kept abreast of the recruitment of the rich young American.

Cambridge spy, Anthony Blunt

Cambridge spy, Anthony Blunt

When he completed his studies at Cambridge it was agreed that Straight would very publicly attack the Communist Party and its ethos, after which he feigned a nervous breakdown and travelled to the USA with his mother and stepfather.

Through his family contacts, Michael Straight was able to gain an audience with President Roosevelt, who refused to employ him on his permanent staff but offered to help him get a job at the State Department. It was a low-profile role and it allowed the young man plenty of opportunity to copy secret documents and smuggle them to his KGB controller, Iskhak Akhmerov.

When the USA entered the war, Michael Straight joined the Army Air Service and operations. At the war’s end he joined the editorial and management team of The New Republic political magazine, founded by his mother, but this venture foundered and his elder brother Whitney forced the closure of the business.

It was at this time that Whitney Straight, now on the board of Rolls-Royce’s aeronautics division, discovered to his horror that the Soviet Union had access to Rolls-Royce technology and that the MIG 15 front-line fighter was powered by a rip-off of the Rolls-Royce Derwent engine.

MIG fighters were powered by Rolls-Royce clones

MIG fighters were powered by Rolls-Royce clones

This was nothing to do with his brother – in fact Britain’s socialist prime minister, Clement Attlee, had sent 40 Rolls-Royce engines to Russia under an export licence agreed by the Labour government. Straight immediately sued the Soviet government for breach of copyright, demanding £200 million in unpaid royalties… without success.

Michael Straight meanwhile decided that he wanted to follow the family route into American political life, when a background check by the Democratic Party revealed his Communist affiliations before World War 2. At the height of the Cold War, alarm bells went off on both sides of the Atlantic.

For the next decade, Michael Straight became a cause celebre of the American secret services, with information drawn from him in 1963 giving up Anthony Blunt as the ringleader of the Cambridge spy ring which included Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and Kim Philby. No action was taken directly against Michael Straight by the US government, but many believed that by not revealing his secrets earlier, he allowed Burgess, McLean and Philby a free hand.

After his long years in the wilderness under FBI and CIA observation, Michael Straight returned to public life in the late 1960s as a patron of the arts and wrote several historical studies. His older sister, Beatrice, had long been involved in the arts as an actress, taking to the stage in England in 1939 and winning an Oscar for her role in the movie Network in 1976.

Whitney and Michael Straight's sister Beatrice won an Oscar in 1976

Whitney and Michael Straight’s sister Beatrice won an Oscar in 1976

Michael Straight died in 2004 at the age of 87, three years after his sister. By that time their older brother Whitney, the pioneering aviator and racing driver, war hero and airline grandee was also dead.

At the age of just 66 – and yet with more life lived than many of far greater years – Whitney Straight died at home in Fulham in 1979, leaving a large family and a quiet but unshakeable legacy of adventure and achievement. They were, and remain, a truly remarkable family.

Gladiator Survivors #3: What Hope for Faith?

The story of ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’, the defenders of Malta, is probably the most enduring legend of World War 2 in the Mediterranean. It began in March 1940 when 18 Gloster Sea Gladiators (believed to have consecutive serial numbers N5518 – N5535), were unloaded on the Island in packing cases, bound for the carrier HMS Glorious.

Three of these cases were shipped back to England and the aircraft took part in the failed defence of Norway. Three more went to Egypt. Four of them were sent on to the carrier HMS Eagle to give her some defensive cover in anticipation of Italy joining the war.

Gloster Gladiators on Malta which staved off the Regia Aeronautica

Gloster Gladiators on Malta which staved off the Regia Aeronautica

After a bit of dithering which resulted in the aircraft being assembled, taken apart ready for onward shipping and then finally reassembled once again, the remaining aircraft formed the Malta Fighter Flight.

When Mussolini finally committed Italy to war against Britain it was these fighters which stood alone against a vast armada of Italian fighters and bombers based 60 miles away in Sicily.

For just under two weeks they flew in flights of two or three at a time and became known as ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’. Whether they were so christened by the deeply religious Maltese, by members of the RAF or by some bright spark in the propaganda unit has never been satisfactorily answered.

N5520 Faith seen with Blenheim engine and propeller fitted

N5520 Faith seen with Blenheim engine and propeller fitted

These outdated and outnumbered little aircraft and the valiant defence that they mounted truly has the stuff of legend about it, but the name stuck in the popular imagination. To this day the three longest-serving of the aircraft – N5520, N5519 and N5531 – have become known respectively as Faith, Hope and Charity.

Charity was shot down on 29 July 1940 and its pilot, Flying Officer Peter Hartley, was badly burned. Hope was destroyed in an air raid on 4 February 1941. By this time the surviving Faith had been joined by survivors from HMS Illustrious after she had limped, blazing, into port for emergency repairs in January 1941.

None of the aircraft remained completely intact, with much ‘bodging together’ of spare parts taken from damaged machines in order to keep the fittest survivors airworthy. Engines were sourced from Blenheim bombers, suitably modified, and fitted with three-blade propellers to try and boost their performance to get on terms with the Italian Fiat and Macchi fighters – and even keep up with the bombers.

Perhaps the most spectacular of all these aircraft was the fabled ‘Bloodiator’: a hybrid beast to which an additional pair of machine guns was fitted on top of the upper wing in the hope of being able to hit Stuka dive bombers as they pulled out of their bombing runs. This aircraft was destroyed by bombs on the ground before anyone had the chance to try it in anger – but when the experiment was replicated back in Britain it proved more hazardous to the Gladiator than to enemy targets.

Faith_09_43

By the summer of 1943 the siege had been broken and Malta had acted as the bridgehead to invading Sicily, but from the old airframe dump in the quarry near Luqa airfield the skeletal remains of N5520 Faith were retrieved and presented to the people of Malta by Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park on behalf of the British governor Lord Gort in recognition of their shared sacrifices and gallantry through the years of siege and hardship.

Faith has been kept on display in the depths of the ancient Fort St. Elmo for most of the intervening 70 years. In 1974 she was partially restored by a detachment of RAF volunteers, in which state she remains to this day, on view in the Malta War Museum.

Faith as she is seen today in the Fort St. Elmo war mueum

Faith as she is seen today in the Fort St. Elmo war mueum

In 1996, Malta’s then Minister of Justice and the Arts suggested that the specialists of the Malta Aviation Museum might be able to build some wings and restore Faith to her former glory. After trawling the air museums of Britain, Sweden, Finland and Norway the Aviation Museum team had assembled almost all the parts needed for the job – but then all hell appeared to be let loose.

There has been an impasse between the Malta Heritage-run War Museum and the volunteers of the Malta Air Museum over what work should be carried out, what is deemed necessary for the preservation of Faith, who should do the work and where she should ultimately be kept.

70 years after her presentation to the Maltese, Faith is still making headlines

70 years after her presentation to Malta, Faith is still making headlines

The Malta Aviation Museum states that what is left of Faith is deteriorating in the cellars of the old fortress, getting ravaged by damp and not being given the care that she deserves. The opposition states that it was entrusted with Faith and that the attentions of the volunteers are unwarranted and unwelcome.

While the war of words rages on between the museums, Faith remains wingless with a curious little propeller and a crude tail unit cut out of wood – but still drawing thousands of tourists every summer. Rightly so, too, as both the War Museum and Aviation Museum offer a wealth of exhibits and expertise and should be on anyone’s bucket list of places to visit – along with the rest of Malta and Gozo.

Here at the Scarf and Goggles we hope that there will be plenty of Faith in the future

Here at the S&G we hope that there will be plenty of Faith in the future

It would be wonderful to see this old girl back in one piece, representing a truly heroic chapter of Malta’s history to best effect. Although the signs are not encouraging at this moment in time, hopefully both sides can find the way to accommodate each other’s expertise to ensure that the story of Maltese endurance and resistance through the siege of 1940-42 continues to enthrall generations to come.

Gladiator Survivors #2 – The Shuttleworth Collection

It’s rather a startling thought that one particular aircraft has been entertaining the nation for more than half a century as a relic of the last peacetime days of the 1930s. And yet there she is, the Shuttleworth Collection’s celebrated Gloster Gladiator, L8032, describing graceful arcs and sweeping climbs above Old Warden just as she has since 1960…

L8032 on a trip to Duxford's Flying Legends air display

L8032 basks in the sun on a trip to Duxford’s Flying Legends air display

L8032 was the last Gladiator I airframe built from the initial order made in 1935. All the components were built in 1937 but not actually assembled until 1938. Like her sister aircraft from this final batch, now on display at the RAF Museum, the completed L8032 immediately went into storage as the more modern Hawker Hurricane monoplane and soon-to-arrive Supermarine Spitfire took precedence in Fighter Command’s attention.

In the autumn of 1943 L8032 was brought out of storage and sent to 61 Operational Training Unit in readiness for a new job with a film unit called Independent Producers, which was to use the aircraft to shoot scenes for a film of the book Signed With Their Honour. This was to be a ‘factional’ retelling of the story of 80 Squadron and its Gladiators which fought to the last man and the last aircraft in the retreat from Greece and Crete in 1941.

At home at the Shuttleworth Collection’s airfield, Old Warden

Remarkably, all three complete surviving Gladiators – including The Fighter Collection’s N5903 – had an active role to play in the movie and were assigned to 61 OTU while the film was made. Two Gladiators were lost in a mid-air collision during filming but the survivors completed their tour of duty as stars of the silver screen before being mothballed once again.

L8032 would emerge once more in 1946 when she was put on display in Hyde Park. On 16 March 1948, L8032 was struck off the RAF’s charge list and bought back by the Gloster aircraft company along with N5903. Clearly the ailing Gloster company had no real idea what to do with these old machines and in 1950 both the Gladiators were delivered to Air Service Training for use as instructional airframes at Hamble and Ansty.

You can get up close at any time when the Shuttleworth Collection opens to the public

When RAF Ansty closed the two old aircraft were bought by Viv Bellamy for a nominal sum and L8032 was restored to flying condition using the engine from N5903 and the civilian registration G-AMRK. In 1956, Gloster decided that it wanted its aircraft back again and bought them from Bellamy, refitting L8032 was in full military specification and painting her in 72 Squadron markings, albeit with the fictitious serial K8032.

When Gloster Aircraft finally closed for business at the end of 1960,  L8032 was presented to the Shuttleworth Collection for safe keeping – and has remained there ever since. After many years of service she was completely overhauled in 1990 and repainted in a camouflage scheme of 247 Squadron, the only Gladiator unit to take part in the Battle of Britain. She wore these colours until 1996, when another new skin saw her returned to pre-war silver in hue – albeit in Norwegian markings for another film appearance.

Ready for another season in 2013: one of the longest-serving display aircraft in the UK

Finally in 2007 L8032 re-appeared in the colourful blue and yellow flashes of K7985, a 73 Squadron Gladiator that was flown with memorable vigour by the future WW2 ace ‘Cobber’ Kain at the 1937 Hendon Air Pageant. It is these colours which she carries to this day, and which are about to be replicated by a new model kit by Airfix.

The Scarf & Goggles proudly salutes this fine old girl and all who care for her. Here’s to another 50 years in the air over Bedfordshire…

 

When Kangaroos Bombed Bahrain

If wars were won with pluck and dash alone, in the way that the movies teach you, then Italy would have romped home to victory at a canter during World War 2. For every Doolittle Raid or Dam-Buster on the allied side there is a tale of ingenuity and bravery from Italian men at arms which, while delivering little to turn the tide of the war, leaves one with a profound respect.

One such tale is that of the bombing of Bahrain.

The oil drums lined up on Sitra wharf in 1940

The oil drums lined up on Bahrain’s Sitra wharf in 1940

Through the second half of 1940, after Mussolini launched his attempt to wrest control of the Mediterranean from British and French influence, things were going somewhat disastrously awry for the Italian armed forces.

To start with he sent an invading force of 700,000 men to mop up southern France. The north of the country was already over-run and Dunkirk evacuated, but the Italian forces were still held back by a force of 32,000 French troops – the route to the Côte d’Azur famously being defended by a single NCO and seven men.

Mussolini also planned to charge across the Sahara to Cairo and take control of Suez. Once again an inferior number of British troops pegged the Italian advance at Sidi Barrani, sparking the long war of attrition in the Western Desert.

Even at sea, where Mussolini had invested in the construction of a superior naval force to the British fleet, things did not go to plan. Admiral Cunningham took great exception Mussolini’s belief that the Mediterranean would become mare nostrum (our lake), and duly battered the Italian navy at the Battle of Matapan. Shortly afterwards he would send  Swordfish biplanes to mine and torpedo the remainder at anchor in Taranto harbour.

The Regia Aeronautica, Mussolini’s air force, had meanwhile launched an assault on Malta. This key outpost lay just 60 miles away from Sicilian shores but 800 miles away from the nearest British reinforcements and was woefully under-prepared. Yet the bombing did not provoke the hoped-for Maltese revolt against their British colonists, meanwhile might of the Regia Aeronautica was held at bay by a handful of Gloster Gladiator biplanes.

Gloster Gladiators on Malta which staved off the Regia Aeronautica

Gloster Gladiators on Malta which staved off the Regia Aeronautica

Thus after these opening exchanges, Italy’s military position was fast becoming an embarrassment and the Italian people – who had no great territorial ambitions anyway – were likely to start asking il Duce some rather searching questions before long.

So it was that a number of spectacular and daring raids were prepared to win as much propaganda value as they did military success. The use of midget submarines and small high speed boats to mount lightning raids bore fruit, meanwhile the Regia Aeronautica hatched a truly ambitious plan.

Pre-war Italian civil aircraft were particularly good for long range flights and so several capacious Savoia Marchetti SM82 Cangaru (Kangaroo), tri-engined airliners were hastily converted into bombers which could fly much further than the regular types in the Regia Aeronautica’s front line. They became known as the 41st Gruppo.

Savoia-Marchetti SM.82 in full warpaint

Savoia-Marchetti SM.82 in full warpaint

Next a suitable target was required which provided both strategic importance and enormous kudos to Mussolini’s strength and ingenuity. After much strenuous planning, the decision came to attack the American-owned oil fields in the British protectorate of Bahrain: a vital source of supply to British forces across the Empire, and the attack would be made in mid-October 1940.

The 41st Gruppo’s aircraft, meanwhile, were being put into action elsewhere. It’s inspirational leader, Tenente Colonello Muti, and his men would bomb British enclaves in Palestine and even the previously impregnable rock of Gibraltar. Then on 13 October, Muti led a flight of five aircraft from their base at Rome-Ciampino to the airport of Gadurrà in Rhodes.

Once in place, Muti and his men finalized the plan for their marathon 4,000km flight. They would take off from Rhodes and fly east, skirting Cyprus before making landfall on the Lebanese coast, crossing Syria and then turning onto a more southerly heading to avoid the heaviest British concentrations in Jordan and Iraq until they reached the Arabian Gulf and the run-in to the target.

The plan was to set the wells, refineries and port ablaze, and if they managed to do so then they would undoubtedly be intercepted by the Royal Air Force on their return. Their escape route was therefore over Saudi Arabia – providing them with the secondary target of the oil fields at Dammam – before flying out over the vast emptiness of the Arabian desert, eventually reaching the Red Sea and then safe haven in Italian colony of Eritrea.

Tenente Colonello Muti

Tenente Colonello Ettore Muti

In all, the plan took two months to agree and prepare for. In the end four of the SM.82s would be used, stripped of all defensive armament and fitted with additional fuel tanks for the marathon flight. Their load was 1.5 tons of incendiary and explosive bombs made up of 15, 20 and 50 kg bombs – and they were finally for take-off as dusk began to settle on December 18 1940.

The fifth aircraft was flown off directly to the airfield at Zula in Eritrea where the escaping bombers would finally touch down again. This aircraft carried a huge store of supplies in readiness to go out and assist any bombers which were forced down over the desert.

Overloaded with an all-up weight of 19,500kg, the aircraft struggled to get airborne. They were galvanized by the barnstorming Tenente Colonello Muti in the lead aircraft, however, who had demonstrated with his crew of Maggiore Giovanni Raina and Capitano Paolo Moci that it was possible – albeit inadvisable – to take off in an SM.82 laden with 21,000kg.

The remainder of the flight was crewed by Tenente Colonello Fortunato Federici, Capitano Aldo Buzzaca and Tenente Emanuele Francesco Ruspoli in the second aircraft, Capitano Giorgio Meyer, Tenente Adolf Rebex and Sergente Maggiore Aldo Carrera in the third and Capitano Antonio Zanetti with Tenente Vittorio Cecconi and Sergente Maggiore Mario Badii in the fourth.

Muti was able to keep formation by painting large white diamonds on the upper surface of his wings, which were dimly lit to allow the rest of his ‘flock’ to follow in their allocated position. The formation observed radio silence as their aircraft laboured to reach 19,000 feet to cross the hinterland of Jordan and Syria and onward throughout the entire journey.

The formation held throughout the outward leg, but at the last minute the number 2 aircraft of Tenente Colonello Federici lost sight of the leader and fell out of the formation. Rather than risk a collision with his unseen colleagues or arrive too late and draw anti-aircraft fire, he set course for Dammam and let the remaining trio of bombers close in on Bahrain.

At 02:20 on 19 December all was calm in Bahrain. In Muti’s lead aircraft, major Raina found the target easy to spot from his bomb aimer’s position, saying that the refinery and the port were well illuminated. The three aircraft swept in at only a few hundred feet, completely disorientating the people below as they began to unleash their payload.

For obvious reasons, reports differed as to the effectiveness of the bombing. The British reported that most bombs fell into the sea and only one hit the land, blowing up on a mountain of spoil from the drilling activity with a broken leg as the only casualty. The Italians meanwhile claimed to have set six wells ablaze with secondary fires seen burning in the storage areas.

The bombers meanwhile escaped and made their long slog across the great empty girth of the Saudi desert without problem. The three aircraft landed almost in unison at Zula in Eritrea at 08:40 after flying for more than 4000km and 15 and a half hours.

A camouflaged Cangaru receiving attention

A camouflaged Cangaru receiving attention

After a few days of celebration, recuperation and propaganda duties, the five SM.82s once again lifted off from Zula and headed for the Italian strongholds in Libya, from where they made their last leg back to Rome-Urbe airport.

The bombing of Bahrain was an astonishing feat of airmanship by Ettore Muti and his men. Although limited by the small number of bombers and the small load they carried, the attack was a huge blow to British morale and required them to pull back a squadron of fighters and significant anti-aircraft defences to defend Bahrain’s oil supply.

The loss of the fighters and defences significantly weakened the rest of the British presence in the Middle East, in part prompting the Axis-leaning prime minister of Iraq, Rashid Ali, to try and expel the British forces there. A brief and bitter campaign was waged in the spring of 1941 as a result.

A Gloster Gladiator in its wartime colours

A Gloster Gladiator in its wartime colours

Even today, Bahrainis talk of the giant barrage balloons which hung in the sky through the war years as a result of Ettore Muti’s audacity. The man himself was duly promoted out of the front line and ended up working in intelligence, where he made a formidable enemy in the former Chief of Staff, Pietro Badoglio.

Muti discovered that Badoglio’s record in the field left a lot to be desired, and when Badoglio successfully ousted Mussolini from power in 1943 his first job was to assassinate the man who had masterminded the Regia Aeronautica’s barnstorming long-distance bombing campaign.

Gladiator Survivors #1 – RAF Museum, Hendon

The Gloster Gladiator was the first aeroplane to really get my attention. I don’t actually remember the occasion, being rather young, but my parents took me to The Shuttleworth Collection where my particular excitement about the ‘Gladys’ – Gladiator being a bit of a mouthful – entered family folklore. I’ve also sought out as many as possible of the survivors…

This old stager has sat in a corner of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Hall since the day it was built. Two squadrons of Gladiators were sent to France in 1939 and not one aircraft survived the Luftwaffe’s assault when Hitler finally pushed west in May 1940. A further two squadrons were on the strength of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, hence the longtime presence of K8042 in the Hendon display.

The RAF Museum's Gladiator, K8042

The RAF Museum’s Gladiator, K8042

Delivered to the RAF in 1937, K8042 immediately went into storage, where she stayed until 1941. Gladiator aircraft were meanwhile making a name for themselves elsewhere in the world – most famously in the defence of Malta but also in Greece, North Africa and the bizarre but vicious little battle for control of Iraq’s oil fields where British and Iraqi forces both flew Gladiators against one another.

It was at this time that K8042 emerged from storage to try out some of the improvised ‘enhancements’ being made in the field, such as recreating the six-gun ‘Bloodiator’ that was hastily thrown together in a desperate bid for more firepower on Malta. This was not a success – in fact spent bullet casings from the extra guns caused considerable damage!

Thereafter the Gladiators were mothballed once again, although K8042 was used briefly for a propaganda film about British heroism in the defence of Greece. In this fictitious scheme she was stored for most of the next 25 years, save the occasional appearance for ceremonial duties, before being restored to pre-war colours in 1968 and then put on display in the new Battle of Britain Hall at Hendon in 1978.

The RAF's first enclosed cockpit fighter and its last biplane

The RAF’s first enclosed cockpit fighter and its last biplane

For more information on the Battle of Britain Hall at RAF Hendon, go to the website.