Defenders of the Mountain Fronts.

One of the most prominent units of the Italian Regio Esercito that fought in the First World War was 71 Squadriglia Caccia, which was assigned to uninterrupted frontline service from the moment of its constitution in 1916 until the termination of hostilities. In the first of two parts LUIGINO CALIARO tells its story.

Among the units of the Regio Esercito that fought in the First World War, one of the most prominent was without doubt the 71 Squadriglia Caccia, a unit which was assigned to uninterrupted frontline service from the moment of its constitution in 1916, operating almost exclusively on the mountain fronts near Vicenza and Trento until the termination of hostilities.

In reality, the unit had commenced its first combat operations towards the end of 1915, but its official constitution dates from January 30, 1916, at Torino Mirafiori Airfield as the 2° Squadriglia Caccia, intended to operate on the Eastern front. In fact, from February 1, 1916, the squadriglia began its transfer to the airfield at La Comina, near Pordenone. Commanded by Capitano Giorgio Chiaperotti, among the initial group of pilots were Capitano Bosio Antonio, Sottotenente Sabelli Giovanni, Sergente Maggiore Barattini Giovanni and Soldato Amico Silvio, to whom were entrusted six Nieuport Xs — one single-seat and five two seats plus two Nieuport 11 Bebe.

In the space of a few days the squadriglia completed its relocation, and despite the fact that by February 9 the unit was ready to enter into action, it was only able to perform its first combat mission on February 18, as until that date it had been lacking the machine-guns to install into its aircraft. On that day three Nieuports of 71 Squadriglia confronted Austrian Aviatik aircraft engaged in attacking a force of Caproni CA 3 bombers during an important raid on Ljubljana.

First losses.

On March 2, the squadriglia received orders to relocate to the strip at Cascina Farello, near Aquileia, with its principal assigned duty being the protection of the cities of Cervignano, Grado and the towns in the hinterland. On March 22, the unit recorded its first loss, when Soldato pilot Amico, in the course of a training flight, stalled and spun into the ground close to the landing strip in Nieuport 1452. On April 2, Sergente Maggiore Barattini and his gunner, Soldato Moretto, managed to intercept an enemy Brandenburg and forced it to land inside Italian lines. The enemy aircraft overturned on landing, and the Austrian airmen managed to burn it before it could be captured.

On April 15, 1916, following the issue of a new field organisation for the aviation elements, the unit was re-designated as the 71 Squadriglia Aeroplani and transferred, from May 23, to the airfield at Villaverla, not far from the city of Thiene, positioned strategically on the plain at the base of the Asiago plateau. Prior to this, however, it is worth mentioning an event which occurred on April 28, when Capitano Chiapperotti evaluated, albeit without much success, a new method of attack (in a sense a precursor to the system trialled by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War and known as «Schrage Musik»). Flying a Nieuport Bebe he attacked two Austrian aircraft from below, detaching the machine-gun from the mounting which enabled it to fire forward over the propeller disc, and positioning it vertically tried to hit the aircraft by firing straight up at them.

On June 7, 1916, the 71 Squadriglia suffered its second fatal accident when the Nieuport piloted by Sergente Ghelfi, airborne on a training cross country, collided over Villaverla with the Nieuport flown by Capitano Chiaperotti, engaged with Capitano Croce Ettore in a simulated fighter combat. Capitano Chiaperotti, despite his aircraft being severely damaged, managed to return to the airfield, but Sergente Ghelfi’s Nieuport crashed on to the airfield’s runway with the death of the pilot, whose body was found around 100m away from the burnt wreckage of the aircraft.

The Italian offensive.

In early July, 71 Squadriglia became a part of the III Gruppo Aeroplani, commanded by Maggiore La Polla Ernesto, but remained based at Villaverla, being frequently called on to respond to alarms created by Austrian aircraft operating from the airfields near Trento. The unit also flew numerous defensive patrols covering the cities of Vicenza, Schio, Thiene and Bassano. The air operations, moreover, conducted in collaboration with the other fighter units operating on the «Fronte degli Altipiani», were principally concerned with escorting reconnaissance and bomber aircraft, and were particularly intense during the Italian offensive action in the Pasubio range in October 1916, despite the fact that the weather conditions were anything other than favourable.

In this period there were numerous scrambles intended to intercept and beat off enemy aircraft tasked with bombing the cities of the foothills or directing the fire of enemy artillery. In order to confront this threat, No 71 Squadriglia was requested to hold at least four aircraft at continuous readiness between dawn and dusk, in the meantime continuing to perform patrol missions and provide escorts to reconnaissance and bomber aircraft. On October 30, Comandante Chiaperotti made the first flight in the new Nieuport 17, equipped with the 110 hp Le Rhone engine, a type which in Italy was known as the «Super Bebe».

Despite the efforts of the pilots, towards the end of 1916 the bombing raids by Austrian aircraft became particularly intense, but in this respect the unit suffered from the fact that the enemy aircraft warning system was notably ineffective, resulting in much delayed alerting of the Italian pilots, frequently impeding them from actually reaching their enemy. There were also cases of erroneous reporting, and in some cases the Nieuports of 71 Squadriglia were the object of friendly anti-aircraft fire, as the spotter personnel failed to distinguish the Italian aircraft from the Austrians, often because, as occurred in many cases, the watchers were not issued with binoculars and therefore considered all aircraft as «hostiles». This situation resulted in a letter of protest written by Capitano Chiaperotti and posted to the Comando d’Armata, requesting that the anti-aircraft personnel be issued with suitable recognition material and identification photos of the enemy aircraft.

Into 1917.

The first combat mission of 1917 was flown on January 2 by Sergente Banino, who flew a long patrol just short of the frontline, the first of a long series of operational missions performed by the unit in the month of January, despite the unfavourable weather conditions and the almost complete absence of enemy air assets. On January 17, Capitano Chiaperotti handed over command of 71 Squadriglia to Capitano Notari, but on January 21 another tragedy struck the unit. On this occasion Sergente Menegoni was killed during a training flight at the controls of Nieuport 11 1622, when the wing struts failed and his aircraft crashed to the ground. This turned out not to be unique and resulted in the temporary suspension of flying Bebes built by the Macchi company, in order to investigate the reasons for the failure and to introduce appropriate modifications. Fortunately during this winter period the flying activities were significantly reduced by the weather conditions, and the unit was able toreorganise with the arrival of new aircraft and new pilots before being assigned, from May 10, 1917, to the IX Gruppo Aeroplani which had its home base at Villaverla.

In mid-May, the first SPAD VII fighters began to join 71 Squadriglia, replacing the, by now, worn out Nieuports. The pilots quickly commenced familiarisation flights in the new type conducting numerous patrol missions as well as long-range reconnaissance, exploiting the excellent characteristics of the aircraft. Confirmation of this was the mission of June

2 flown by Tenente Barattini, who in his SPAD performed a successful photographic mission over the cities of Trento, Bolzano and Merano, all well inside territory controlled by the Austrians, and avoiding any interception. With the new aircraft, which joined the remaining Nieuport 17s, the pilots of 71 Squadriglia were constantly engaged throughout summer 1917 in patrol and escort flights above the plateaus, engaging in numerous combats with enemy aircraft and gaining victories, such as that recorded on August 6 by Sergente Montalto Ercoli. After taking off following an alert, he managed to intercept and shoot down Brandenburg 229.16 of FLIK 17 piloted by Corporal Rudolg Horatschek. On August 23 and 24, however, Tenente Amantea claimed two kills, albeit one in collaboration with another two pilots from the squadriglia.

The autumn of 1917 was marked by the tragic retreat from Caporetto by the Italian troops, caught out by the Austro-Hungarian offensive along the Isonzo front. The Esercito Italiano was also in difficulty on the plateau fronts, and in that period the frontline was edging perilously close to the plain. Despite this, to reinforce the Eastern front 71 Squadriglia detached some pilots and aircraft to 82 Squadriglia based at Campoformido, near Udine, receiving in exchange three SAME reconnaissance aircraft and crews from 121 Squadriglia. These were subjected to intensive use until their return to their original unit in November 1917.

The Austrian offensive.

On November 14, Sergente Luigi Vulcano shot down an Austrian aircraft in collaboration with other pilots, however the following day proved to be particularly fateful. With the Austrian offensive underway on the Asiago and Pasubio plateaus, the airfield at Villaverla found itself falling within the range of the

Austrian artillery. On the 15 th the strip was hit by shells fired by the Austrian gunners on Monte Cimone without significant damage. In the following days the airfield was the subject of further artillery bombardments, which began to seriously concern the Comando of the V Armata, who hastily decided to disperse the various squadriglie present on Villaverla Airfield to other nearby air strips.

No 71 Squadriglia was deployed to the field at Sovizzo, around 20km from Villaverla, and by November 23 the pilots and aircraft had completed the transfer.

At this airfield, which also housed reconnaissance squadriglie equipped with SP

3 and SAML aircraft, 71 Squadriglia quickly commenced combat operations, operating just a dozen SPAD aircraft, as no further Nieuports were available, and on December 13, in a clash above Asiago, Sergente Vulcano managed to shoot down an Austrian Albatros, probably aircraft 153.62, whose pilot survived the crash. Unfortunately, 1917 concluded in the worst of ways, as on December 30 SPAD 5413 of Sergente Camperi failed to return from an escort mission for Caproni bombers, having been shot down by Austrian fighters.

By the end of 1917, No 71 Squadriglia had recorded a total of some 1,288 combat missions and 89 air combats.

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