The First Ever Jet Airstrike Was a Disaster. Here’s The Bizarre Story.
When gunners spot them, they are stunned: their speed. No propellers.
From out of the northeast, rocketing down from medium altitude in a shallow dive intended to improve bombing accuracy the Germans are back again. It is one more day of airstrikes on the prize. This is the third set of airstrikes today.
But this one is different. The planes are flying much faster. And have no propellers.
The first jet airstrike in history has begun. German Arado Ar 234 medium bombers and Messerschmitt Me 262 fighter/attack jet aircraft are launching a last-ditch airstrike on this key target in a desperate attempt to halt the allied advance.
But it isn’t going well.
The Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, Germany is the most heavily defended target from air attack ever. Since the allies seized the bridge in a lightning attack a few days ago around March 7th they have emplaced more anti-aircraft guns surrounding this key bridge than any other single target on earth. In the upcoming 10 days of the German Luftwaffe campaign against the Ludendorff Bridge approximately 367 combat aircraft will attack the target. The Germans throw everything at Ludendorff, fighters, bombers, frogmen, artillery and now the secret German super-weapons, the jet bombers and fighters. The Allies claim to shoot-down 30% of the German planes. None score an effective hit on the bridge.
Bridges are a notoriously difficult target to hit with fast jets. The Germans are learning this difficult lesson for the first time in history today. The U.S. Air Force relearns it years later between 1967 and 1972 during protracted (and largely ineffective) airstrikes on the Long Biên (“Paul Doumer”) Bridge. They finally develop a new secret weapon, a “guided bomb” directed to its target by a laser beam. The Americans destroyed the North Vietnamese bridge on the first try with laser-guided bombs in 1972.
A damaged bridge
The Germans have crude guided bombs now including the “Fritz” radio-guided dive-bomb, but neither the new Arado jet bombers nor the smaller Messerschmitt jets can carry the large Fritz guided “smart” bomb.
As the hours to seize the bridge from the Allies turn into days the Germans become increasingly desperate. Luftwaffe Chancellor Hermann Göring proposes a suicide attack with bomb-laden Me 262 jets. No volunteers come forward or a technical shortcoming of the aircraft’s aiming device- or both- prevents the desperate tactic.
Göring forms a secret, special unit named the “Gefechtsverband Kowalewski”. It is an elite cadre of handpicked, jet-qualified strike pilots from Kampfgeschwader 76, the 76th Bomber Wing formerly located in Norway. The first jet attack pilots in history.
On March 13 the Germans hurl 19 of the special Ar 234 medium bombers and 30 Messerschmitt Me 262 A-2a jet fighter-bombers from II Kampfgeschwader 51 against the target. They are led by special Luftwaffe jet pilot Hansgeorg Bätcher. Bätcher led a previous (unsuccessful) March 7th mission against the Ludendorff problem and lived to tell. He knew the target well. It takes a brave man to volunteer to return, but the German situation is increasingly desperate.
It will be the first all-jet airstrike on a ground target in aviation history. Even with a full complement of heavy 1,000kg bombs weighing more than a ton the bombers can press home the attack run at over 660 km/h (410 mph), a nearly unheard of speed at the time. They are so fast the American anti-aircraft units will have trouble hitting them. Speed is their primary defense. For six days the III Gruppe/KG 76 pilots attempt to hit the bridge in nine separate strikes.
First jet airstrikes illustration (author unknown)
Seated in the bubble nose of their incredibly fast Arado jet bombers the pilots have an excellent view. The sky is entirely aglow with bursting anti-aircraft shells, the thickest they have ever seen. Diving into the fiery cauldron seems like certain death. Shrapnel from the thick flak peppers the Arados and Messerschmitts. Every one that survives is damaged by flak. And whether it is the concentration of the flak or the speed of the new jet bombers or the inaccuracy of the unguided “dumb” bombs, every single bomb misses the bridge.
The jet strike is a titanic failure for the Germans.
The German losses are devastating. Seven jet aircraft, including two shot down by Allied fighters, are destroyed in that raid alone. The Americans estimate that from Mar. 7th to the 17th they have shot down 109 German planes, and likely destroyed 36 more. Total losses for the Germans now total nearly one-third of their dedicated strike force.
The Germans have developed and fielded a revolutionary new weapon, the jet attack aircraft, but they have not developed the tactics and weapons necessary to capitalize on the new aircraft’s speed and power. The early German jets are also dangerous to fly and require an absurd amount of maintenance. Jet fuel is increasingly scarce as the war continues to go poorly for the Germans.
In a last desperate measure the Germans launch a huge ballistic missile strike on the Ludendorff Bridge using their super-weapon, the V-2 intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), the first of its type. But its crude gyro-controlled guidance system is so poor some missiles land on civilian villages miles away. Only one missile lands close to the bridge, missing the main span and doing no damage to stanchions on land. The missile strikes are also a failure.
While the German’s last-ditch campaign with their new super weapons fails, it heralds the arrival of the jet age and predicts the new direction of air war. They simply didn’t have all the details worked out, and the last months of a desperate war are a poor place to perfect a revolutionary new technology. Thankfully.
Nicknamed “Gobbo Maledetto” (Italian for “Damned Hunchback”) for its distinctive fuselage “hump”, the S.79 “Sparviero” is one of the most famous Italian aircraft of WWII. It was originally designed as a passenger transport aircraft and was used by the Regia Aeronautica in the bomber and torpedo-bomber roles. The torpedo bombers had a dangerous mission and suffered heavy losses during the war. S.79s had to fly at low level straight and level towards the ships before the torpedo was launched, and so were targeted by every available anti-aircraft weapon. Many were hit and were compelled to ditch in the Mediterranean Sea, and some of the most heroic actions of the Italian Air Force in WWII were performed by S.79 pilots whose courage was acknowledged by the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy.
Recently Simone Bovi met Luigi Gastaldello, a former S.79 pilot, WWII veteran, in his welcoming house in Vicenza, Italy, where the former pilot of the Italian Air Force (32 years of service, more than 3700 hours of flying, a war on his logbook and the memories of the passage from unstable biplanes to fast jets) recalled the most thrilling missions he flew against the Royal Navy during the Second World War:
The stories from Second Lieutenant Luigi Gastaldello span 32 years of military service, from the early and staggering biplanes to the fast jets era of the Sixties, passing through the worst conflict of the last century: the Second World War, fought against the Allies. Luigi Gastaldello was born in Teolo (Vicenza) on March 7, 1917 and was among the youngest Italian pilots of that time, when in 1936 he achieved a civil pilot license on the monoplane Fiat-Ansaldo A.S.1, an Italian manufactured tourism aircraft which was largely used for training purposes during the Spanish Civil War. The following year, his application to join the Regia Aeronautica (the name of the then Royal Italian Air Force until the collapse of Fascism dictatorship on September 8, 1943) was finally accepted and after a few months of training on the Caproni 133s and Breda 25s aircraft, 2nd Lt. Gastaldello finally obtained his military flying license. After leaving Grottaglie airbase he was transferred to the 32° Stormo based at Cagliari Elmas (Sardinia), tasked with important duties of Terrestrial and Maritime Bombing. The pre-war period is relatively short and Luigi takes up his days with flying sorties on the Savoia Marchetti S-81s and, from the first months of 1939, on the recently arrived and innovative S-79 Bomber “Sparviero” (the Italian nickname for Sparrow-Hawk). The Sparviero, without any doubt one of the most known Italian aircraft of WWII, was largely involved in aerial actions against the British. This aircraft, indeed, would accompany Luigi throughout his long and brilliant career. Following his memories, I step back to the past.
Pre-War period (1938-1940)
Luigi remembers the pre-war phase as a relatively peaceful period, portrayed with intensive training flights over the Mediterranean Sea (he still remembers about flights that lasted even more than 5 hours each), and day by day he gained major skills on the long-haul navigation and a better knowledge of the new S-79. Indeed, unlikely its predecessor S-81, the Sparviero was surely more efficient but requested more effort in piloting it since it tended to be strongly instable on haul, especially when passing through moderate and heavy turbulences. During his sorties, Luigi had also the chance to fly and to receive a painstaking training from some fellows who became famous during the late ‘20s and the ‘30s (when they took part in the famous Oceanic fly-over which made some Italian air pioneers very well known worldwide).
Flying against the British
After the declaration of war of June 10, 1940 against France and Great Britain, the activities suddenly increased for the 32° Stormo. Sardinia, where Luigi was located, quickly became a strategic waypoint for setting up aerial sorties of interdiction against naval enemy activities within a large part of the Mediterranean Sea. After more than 800 flying hours and 70 war sorties seated on his Sparviero, it is easy for Luigi to point out the most dramatic actions he participated to, that still impress him after 70 years.
Facing “Operation Hurry”
Operation Hurry (Aug. 1 – 4, 1940) was a Royal Navy operation whose main purpose was to ferry 12 Hawker Hurricane aircraft to Malta, where they were desperately needed to reinforce the island’s defences. The operation involved almost all the British warship in the Mediterranean, from both Admiral Andrew Cunningham’s fleet at Alexandria and Admiral Somerville’s Force H at Gibraltar whose aim was preventing the Italian Air Force and Navy from attacking Force H, which was escorting the carrier HMS Argus. On the first day of the Operation, 2nd Lt. Gastaldello witnessed the battle against the British. “We were scrambled from Decimomannu and headed to the Balearic Islands after being warned of the presence of a large British convoy navigating out there.We were a total of 25 planes without any fighter escort or the support of the Navy. I was flying at the head of a formation of five S-79s and in front of us there was another three ship formation led by General Stefano Cagna. I still remember it was about 3:30 pm with good visibility when we spotted out the enemy convoy around 90km off the coast of Formentera. I was able to count up to twenty ships when they furiously started to shoot, with shocking and loud explosions below us. Since we knew that British anti-aircraft cannons could generally reach the higher altitude of 4.000 meters, during that mission we kept flying at 4.200 metres, in order to remain out of their maximum reach. But at that height it was not easy for us to fly for long periods…since our aircraft were not equipped with oxygen masks at all! Approaching our target, the crew on board started the preparation to drop our load (generally only consisting of four bombs of 250kg each). I was alone in flight deck since my Commander had left his seat to move down to the central hold of the plane in order to activate the bombing pointing device. Suddenly I saw the Sparviero piloted by General Cagna in front of me, heading nose-down towards the target being hit by antiaircraft artillery and exploding in mid-air. Instinctively I pulled up my plane and doing so I managed to avoid the largest mass of debris coming all around me from the explosion, even tough some of them hit my plane. [Luigi Gastaldello still keeps jealously in his house a piece of metal fragment that was taken out from his wounded plane]. In spite of the severe damage suffered, we continued our mission and, after dropping our bombs, we recomposed the formation and returned to the base. The epilogue of our mission was the loss of three planes and many others being damaged. Instead, our damage to the enemy was relatively poor because of the inaccuracy of high altitude bombing against fast moving targets. The only successful goal we achieved was to obtain clear aerial photographs that were sent on the same evening to the Air Force Headquarters in Rome. There, the analysts realized how the aerial bombing against moving naval units brought poor effects and posed high risks for our aviators”. Obviously this was not enough to change right away the whole bombing strategy. This came only a few months later even if the origin of such a change could be traced back to the aftermaths of the Battle of Balearic Islands. It was only from the last months of 1940 on that a new version of the S-79 was employed as a torpedo bomber. This change of strategy in bombing enemy ships implied significant improvements: Italian pilots finally gained a better consideration from the British Naval Commanders who, from that moment on, nicknamed the new S-79 as the “Gobbo Maledetto” (Damned Hunchback).
Saved by the clouds
“Another action which is still clearly impressed in my mind is the Battle off the Galite Islands, located at 38 km northwest of the Tunisian coast and 150km south of Cape Spartivento (Sardinia)”. The battle fell within the large Operation “Tiger”, by which the British urgently sent 5 supply convoys from Gibraltar to Alexandria, in order to strengthen up the besieged forces commanded by General Wavell. The convoy was escorted by the carrier HMS Ark Royal, the cruisers HMS Renown and Sheffield and 9 battle destroyers. “It was May 8, 1941 when we were ordered to take off from Decimomannu and had to face off some enemy naval units that were escorting a large supply convoy”. On that morning the weather was poor, with low clouds and showers. The fierce guests forced the pilots to make continuous trim corrections to maintain the right course: below the sea had a leaden look. As we approached the target, tension on board was rising. No words, only glances between the crew and the constant search for something out there, either ships or enemy fighters. “Finally, at around midday we located the enemy and immediately started to aim at a British cruiser on escort. We could not ask for a better position for an air attack: the sun on our shoulders and the naval artillery that was not even firing a single shot”. “We descended to lower altitudes but as the crew was activating the pointing device and dropped the first bomb, our target suddenly changed its course to the left. It is unnecessary to say that our bomb splashed heavily into the water! From that moment on, the enemy artillery unleashed all their fire mouths! There were explosions everywhere around us and from the initial formation of five, only two of us managed to come back to the base. We were also attacked on our way back when a lonely Hurricane spotted us and repeatedly shot enraged bursts that fortunately missed our aircraft for no more than 5 meters. Then I immediately diverted my plane into a large and thick formation of clouds after having dropped the remaining bombs: this maneuver meant our salvation”. On that day, a Fairey Fulmar piloted by Nigel George “Buster” and accompanied by the Australian observer Sir Victor Alfred Tumper Smith managed to shot down the S-79 of Captain Armando Boetto, who perished in the incident with the rest of the crew. During the clashes, the Fulmar was also heavily hit by the Italian gunners and was forced to splashdown into the water, where his crew was later rescued by the Royal Navy. Indeed, in honor of Captain Armando Boetto, the 32° Stormo of Italian Air Force is currently named after him.
The above stories underline once again how the early bombing conducted by the Regia Aeronautica on mobile targets was ineffective. This ineffectiveness depended on various factors. It is worth to be highlighted that during the Mediterranean Sea battles, the S-79s crews could almost only rely on their abilities. Their aircraft were not equipped with oxygen masks or radio communication. The Sparviero could transport up to 5 250Kg bombs but the crew tended to bring in action only 4 of them, in order to gain more maneuverability. The defensive armament was exclusively made of 3 12,7mm Breda-SAFAT machine guns and a fourth 7,7mm Lewis located in the middle of the fuselage. Luigi Gastaldello was also witness of the poor coordination that wafted into the strategy rooms: “A few days after the Battle of Galite Island I was ordered by the Commander in Chief to be ready for a night mission: destination Balearic Islands, and our target would have been the HMS carrier “Ark Royal”. My aircraft was the only one planned for the mission, without any support by the fighters or the Navy! Fortunately, one hour before the scheduled takeoff the mission was cancelled”.
Stukas and Sicily
The war actions for 2nd Lt. Luigi Gastaldello did not stop with the S-79s. By the second half of 1941 he and his Squadron moved to Bologna to test the new Savoia Marchetti SM-84, where, in spite of the big expectations, the aircraft will turn out to be less effective than his predecessor S-79. On December of the same year Luigi Gastaldello also flew with the 101st Squadron “Nucleo Addestramento Tiro a Tuffo” (Dive Bombing Training Unit) at Lonate Pozzolo (Varese) on the JU87s Stuka, but no significant war actions are worth to be remarked. Starting from March 1942 he moved back to Gela (Sicily) and to Ciampino (Rome) on the following month. There, he was enlisted in the 1st Experimental Unit, where he tested the new attack aircraft RO-57 and managed also to obtain qualifications on Macchi 202s, 205s, CR-42s and Fiat G-50s. After the establishment of the 97th Interception Squadron equipped with RO-57s, Luigi was moved again to Crotone (Calabria) on June 1943 and employed with defence tasks against the foreseen Allied invasion. “I remember on a muggy day of July at Crotone airfield, I was lining up my RO-57 on the runway ready for a desperate sortie with a single 500kg bomb, when I received the counter order to suspend the mission…maybe in Rome someone realized the inutility of throwing ourselves into the fray by facing a huge armada untenable for us”. During that summer many were the losses suffered by the 5° Stormo. On Jul. 11, the whole Squadron engaged the naval units off the coast of Augusta, destroying the steamer “Talamba” but suffering the loss of four aircraft, including the Unit Commander Colonel Guido Nobili. Two days later another clash against the Allies was conducted by eleven Reggiane Re 2002s and brought to the damage of battleship “Nelson”. The unit was forced to retreat to Malta after having suffered heavy structural damage. Although this minimal success, a couple of Italian planes were shot down. The surviving pilots, just after their landing at Crotone airfield, also underwent a heavy bombing by large formations of US Liberators. The action caused the partial destruction of the runway and the loss of men and aircraft on ground. “I still remember a summer evening, when I was coming back to my dormitory after a bloody action founding myself alone! No one of my comrades was left after weeks of terrible battles”.
A few days before the collapse of Italian Dictatorship on September 8, 1943, Luigi Gastaldello was obliged by the events to retreat northbound to Tarquinia (near Rome), flying a Macchi 205. “It was my first time on board this new aircraft and I was not really used with the controls and gauges. Moreover our airfield had suffered many bombardments by the Allied, the last one a few hours before I had been ordered to retreat and fly away the M-205. The runway was disseminated with warning flags indicating unexploded bombs, craters and holes. This was not really a gentle takeoff! After pushing the throttle onwards I started again to breathe when my plane lifted off that damned runway!”. On September the British landed in Calabria as the pilots of the 5° Stormo were still flying and fighting. On Sept. 4 even the newly promoted Maj. Giuseppe Cenni perished during an air battle over the Aspromonte Mountains. Some witnesses on the ground spotted his lonely Re 2002 being attacked by a lot of Spitfires. He was putting every effort in order to defend himself and his plane; he grazed the mountaintops and trees combined with fast changes of maneuver, but the British were too many and Cenni’s aircraft was seen falling into a deep valley. Four days later, the armistice was signed. During the last two months the 5° Stormo had lost more than 20 pilots and almost all their aircraft. During three years of war 57 pilots had been killed in action and 73 was the total amount of destroyed airplanes.
After Sept. 8the Italian Armed Forces collapsed and Luigi, as many others soldiers did, felt the need to meet up with his family. He then managed to reach his native town of Teolo and there, with frequent displacements helped by acquaintances, he avoided the capture and deportation by the Germans.
Still in service
After WWII the carreer as pilot for Luigi Gastaldello was far from being over. He took service at Pisa, where he obtained the qualification on Beechcraft C-45 “Expeditor” and Fiat G-12 transportation aircraft. During the fifties Luigi Gastaldello was mainly committed with night sorties and flights to test the innovative aids for instrumental navigation, but qualifications on different aircraft were still on the way: S-7, Fiat G-46, Piaggio 148, Fiat G-59, Macchi 416 and the P-51 Mustang, after this type entered in service with the new Italian Air Force. In 1959 Luigi finally moved back to northeastern Italy and there, between a liaison flight and another, he still had time to obtain his last qualification on Lockheed T-33. He retired in 1968.
The picture shows the aircraft Macchi C.202 Folgore marked 9476 exhibited at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. The aircraft is one of the few Italian WWII fighters that escaped the conflict and, in particular, one of the two MC202 sent to USA at the end of the war to be tested. With the help of Italian Air Force and Aeronautica Macchi, in 1974 this aircraft was given to Smithsonian Institute.
The aircraft, that I had the opportunity to see in 1994, during my visit to the Museum, sports the colours of the 90^ Squadriglia of the 4° Stormo “Francesco Baracca”, when it was operating in North Africa in 1942. Even if the aircraft was perfectly restored, the serial “9476” is not correct since the original Folgore belonged to the serie III and not serie IV and was actually marked 7796.
The pictures were taken by Simone Bovi in 2008.
Some weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the Anzio Beachhead museum. Opened in January 1994, in the 50th Anniversary of the Allied landings, the Anzio Beachhead Museum is hosted at the ground floor of Villa Adele, a 17th Century mansion house located at Anzio, 57 kilometers to the SW of Rome. The Museum, made by voluntary and no-profit members is diveded into four sectors (American, British, German and Italian), contains exhibits with authentic uniforms, patches, badges, documents, pictures, articles, etc all generously donated by other Museums and by Veterans’ Associations and, of course, veterans and their families. Many exhibits come from sea in front Anzio where remains of aircraft, war and merchant ships, landing craft are still lying at various depths: many of these wrecks still have the crew on board, like the H.M.S Spartan, H.M.S. Janus and the Hospital ship St. David.
But what about the battle?
The Allied amphibious landing in the coastline area between Anzio and Nettuno, Italy, dubbed “Operation Shingle” was intended to outflank German forces and enable an attack on Rome. Towards the end of 1943, Allied forces that had invaded Italy were blocked at the Gustav Line, the main line of fortification which ran across Italy from north of the Garigliano River outlet in the Tyrrhenian Sea to the mouth of the Sangro River on the Adriatic coast in the east. The Germans, headed by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring had found the terrain of central Italy ideal to provide a natural defense of the most important strategic target: Rome. In order to break the defensive line, many proposals were made, the most important of which was Winston Churchill’s “Operation Shingle”. The idea behind the amphibious operation was that a major attack from the south by the Fifth Army commanded by Lieutenant-General Mark W. Clark would push the Germany’s forces away from the area around Rome and from the hills between Rome and the coast a condition that would create the perfect scenario for a surprise landing in the Anzio and Nettuno area. The beachhead would prelude to a quick advance to cut the German communication lines and to capture of Rome. The Southern attack was performed by the Fifth Army’s on the Gustav Line on Jan. 16, 1944, at Monte Cassino. As a result of the attack, Gen. Heinrich von Vietinghoff, commanding the Gustav Line, asked for reinforcements, and Kesselring transferred the 29th and 90th Panzergrenadier Divisions from Rome. The door was open.
Fifth Army’s U.S. VI Corps under the command of Maj. Gen. John P. Lucas could land on the beaches of Nettuno and Anzio to secure a beachhead in the vicinity of Anzio to advance and secure Colli Laziali in the outskirts of Rome and to prepare the advance on Rome. Allied forces involved in the attack consisted of 5 cruisers, 24 destroyers, 238 landing craft, 62+ other ships, 40,000 soldiers, and 5,000+ vehicles. The landing took place on Jan. 22, 1944. Initially the Allied Forces did not find any opposition and were able to penetrate a few kilometers inland. Even if Lucas’s superiors expected an aggressive offensive action from him and a quick run towards Rome, he stregthened the defenses around the beachhead and did not advance. This represents a most controversial decision in the history of Operation Shingle since, according to many historians, Lucas (that was later replaced) exposed his forces to risks without imposing any on the enemy. In fact, the Axis forces’ reaction was quite rapid: even if Kesselering did not expect the landing to take place in that way, he had prepared a series of contingency plans; in a few days Anzio area was surrounded by three divisions that outnumbered the two Allied ones. The most detailed analysis of the Anzio beachhead and subsequent offensive actions and counterattacks I found was in an Osprey Publishing book: Anzio 1944. Osprey is an independent England-based book publisher specializing in military history, that runs several military and aviation series. Every book contains everything I and many other military experts or enthusiasts look for: data, diagrams, maps and pictures. The “Anzio 1944” (Paperback; August 2005; 96 pages; ISBN: 9781841769134) analyzes the questionable decisions by the Allied leadership that led to three months of World War I-style trench warfare, and provides the chronology of the operations, a description of the opposing plans, forces and commander, the in-depth description of the whole campaing and a “picture” of how the battlefield appears today. I suggest you reading this book to fully understand how the the beachhead survived three violent attacks in February 1944, the largest German counter-attacks in the west until the Ardennes offensive ten months later. By March, Anzio had degenerated into an agonizing stalemate. Operation Diadem (which was later to be called the fourth Battle of Cassino), intended to trap the bulk of the German Tenth Army between the Allied forces advancing through the Gustav Line and VI Corps thrusting inland from Anzio, had the aim to fully engage Kesselring’s armies with a major offensive preventing Germans withdrawing forces from Italy to redeploy elsewhere. However because of another controversial decision made by Gen. Clark Operation Diadem (that cost U.S. 5th and British 8th Armies 44.000 casualties) failed in its objective of destroying the German 10th Army and enabled the Allied to enter Rome on Jun. 4, 1944. As Steven J. Zaloga, author of the Osprey’s “Anzio 1944” commented: “Ironically, an operation that had been launched to redeem the Gustav line operation in the end depended on a successful conclusion of the Cassino breakthrough before the bridgehead could be exploited. To further add to the controversy of the operation, Gen Mark Clark decided to focus the advance out of Anzio in the direction of Rome rather than eastward to trap the German forces retreating from the Cassino sector. Rome fell to the Allies on 4 June 1944, but it was a bitter victory that was quickly forgotten when the main Allied campaign opened in Normandy two days later”.
The following pictures show the Anzio Beachhead Museum exhibits. As you can see, there are also some aircraft parts and a propeller belonging to an SM79 downed near Anzio.
The years following the end of WWII were very controversial and did not bring to a real peace for those territories claimed by two or more parts.
Just to remain in the old continent, the political tension between Italy and Yugoslavia for the brand-new border was followed by a deployment of military forces and by the continue use of them as a way of threat.
The modeling of borders under the control of the new world superpowers was on the way and the aim to reach the maximum sphere of influence on the satellite countries brought to some inevitable incidents.
After the end of World War II many C-47s remained in the USAAF, participating in the Berlin airlift and in other flights to bring supplies to the allied countries.
In particular, since 1946, the USAAF C-47As made some regular transport flights between Wien and Udine and, in order to avoid lengthening their route, it was a habit for the crews to fly through a portion of the Yugoslavian airspace.
Alarmed by the continuous intrusions of foreign planes, Dictator Tito ordered a reinforcement of the new born air force (Jugoslovensko Ratno Vazduhoplovstvo or JRV) on the Lubiana-Polje airport, deploying the 3rd Aerial Division equipped with Russian Yak-3 aircrafts.
Yak 3, Belgrade Aviation Museum, Serbia. Author: Marko M.
The incidents did not wait too long to occur. One of the most significant ones occurred in July, 1946 when two fighters of the 254° Regiment intercepted an American transport C-47 that managed to avoid the contact by disappearing in the thick clouds. Another USAAF Douglas C-47 (Registration marks 43-15376) had not the same lucky destiny the following Aug. 9. The plane was shot down over the actual Slovenian airspace by pilot Dragomir Zacevic, who although fortunately survived and performed an emergency landing at the Belgrade airport. Onboard there were four American crewmembers (including William Crombie, the pilot) and four passengers – three Americans, two Hungarians, and a Turkish officer. Everybody onboard survived and after ten days was released – and could take possess again of their plane – by the Yugoslavian authorities. The Turkish officer was badly injured in the incident and was released after everybody else.
Ten days later the worse occurred.
Lieutenants Mirolad Knezev and Vladimir Vodopivec were on duty on the Radovljca airfield that late morning, when the air siren rang over the ghostly sound of war.
They pitched their Yak-3 fighters at maximum speed on the runway and shortly they intercepted the intruder, another USAAF Douglas C-47, which was shot down in flames, killing all the crew onboard: Harold Schreiber, Glen Freestone, Richard Claeys, Matthew Comko and Chester L. Lower.
In the Western world the reaction was unanimous against the ruthless act perpetrated by the Yugoslavian air force but Tito’s dictatorship soon justified their action providing some figures: during the months of July and August 1946 alone, more than 170 violations of his airspace had occurred!
This statement encountered the complete disagreement of the counterpart.
The United States asserted the plane had received by the authorities before the flight a specific order to avoid the Yugoslavian airspace; the unintended violation happened only because the crew – due to very bad weather conditions – diverted the course from the one they previously planned.
The United States criticised how the Yugoslavian fighters attacked the transport plane with repeated gun shots without any request of immediate landing.
This is the statement made by the Department of State following the incident:
“[The Yugoslavian fighters]…made no signal which could be interpreted as a landing signal but had merely wobbled their wings – which, according to United States practice, was the accepted signal to attract attention; and that the plane was again fired on while rapidly descending in an effort to land.”
This incident was interpreted by the United States and most of the international community as a clear and evident violation of international rules, regardless of the exact territory over which the plane was flying at the time of the incident.
Through the words of their Ambassador in Belgrade, the United States highlighted the gravity of the situation by stating how the incident represented a specific violation to article 51 of the Chart of the United Nations:
“…Regardless of whether the planes were a short distance within or without the corridor, they were unarmed passenger planes en route to Udine, in Italy. Their flight in no way constituted a threat to the sovereignty of Yugoslavia. The use of force by Yugoslavia under the circumstances was without the slightest justification in international law, was clearly inconsistent with relations between friendly states, and was a plain violation of the obligations resting upon Yugoslavia under the Charter of the United Nations not to use force except in self-defence. At no time did the Yugoslav government advise the United States Government that if one of its planes should, because of weather conditions, be forced a mile or two outside of the corridor or, because of mechanical troubles, should find itself outside of that corridor, the Yugoslavian Government would shoot to death the occupants of the plane. The deliberate firing without warning on the unarmed passenger plane of a friendly nation is in the judgment of the United States an offence against the law of nations and the principles of humanity.”
Yugoslavian Government never challenged the US thesis regarding the need to protect the safety of the aircrafts – both civilian and military – flying over a foreign territory on a situation of distress due to bad weather conditions, engine failures or space disorientation.
Nevertheless, the Yugoslavian Ambassador in Washington declared that during the period of time from July to August 1946, more than two 278 non-authorized flights took place over the Yugoslavian territory and, in most of the cases, they were flights made with the purpose of violating Yugoslavian sovereignty.
On August, 31th 1946, Marshall Tito wrote a note to the US ambassador, asserting the complete disposal of its government to cease any military activities that could prejudice the safety of flight crews over the Yugoslavian territory; at the same time, he kept on refusing the responsibility for the event.
Incidents did not stop completely in the following years. At the end of 1948 the situation slowly calmed down, but only in appearance: it was time to shift the range of operations in a larger theater.
Cold war had just started and the whole world, from the Alaskan border to the far South east of Asia was the playing scenario for the two nuclear superpowers.
The era of countless secret air battles through the skies of the world had just begun, often needing the efforts and the sacrifices of unknown and forgotten heroes.