Of Gladiators and Falcons…

by Dr. Marshall Michel86th Airlift Wing historian

***image1***In popular memory, World War II fighter combat involves fast, heavily armed monoplanes. And, the sight of biplane fighters with fixed landing gear, wheeling slowing and gracefully, evokes memories of World War I and movies such as The Blue Max and Dawn Patrol.

But, despite the popular stereotypes, dogfights between biplanes were quite common the first two years of World War II in the Mediterranean theater. The biplane adversaries were most often the Royal Air Force’s Gloster Gladiator and the Regia Aeronautica’s (Italian Air Force) Fiat CR.42 Falco (Falcon) − two fighters that were virtually identical in performance but represented entirely different stages of development in their respective air forces.

***image2***The Gladiator made its first flight in 1934 and was ordered into production in 1935 − less than a year before the first flights of the new eight-gun British monoplane fighters, the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire, and nearly a year after the first flight of the Messerschmitt Bf-109 in Germany.

Due to production delays, the Gladiator did not enter RAF service until 1937, and by that time it was already obsolete as the Hurricane and Spitfire were entering production and the first Bf-109s were delivered to the Luftwaffe. The Gladiator was clearly not in their class, and many examples were shipped to Great Britain’s allies, eventually flying with 14 air forces. The RAF still had examples in England when World War II began in September 1939, but they were quickly sent to the Middle East where, it was expected, they would be safe from the Luftwaffe.

The Fiat CR.42 had a different status in the Regia Aeronautica. Even though it was a biplane, it first flew in mid-1938 and entered service in 1939, and instead of being considered obsolete it was the Italian Air Force’s first line fighter. When in June 1940, Italy joined Hitler’s invasion of France, CR.42s were actively engaged against the French Air Force, and for a brief period, CR.42s even joined the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. Not surprisingly they were outgunned, outperformed and in general, roughly handled by the more modern Hurricanes and Spitfires.

The Italians then moved to invade Egypt and to attack British forces in the Mediterranean, and here the CR.42s and the Gladiators began to meet in regular combat. Three Gladiators− dubbed “Faith, Hope, and Charity” − were the only air defense for the British island of Malta in the summer of 1940, and their exploits made them immortal in the annals of air combat.  In the Western Desert, the British routed the Italian invasion of Egypt and Gladiators destroyed 58 Italian aircraft in the first six weeks of the conflict, including one day where outnumbered Gladiators shot down nine CR.42s with the loss of two Gladiators.
When Italy invaded Greece in late October 1940, the British sent two Gladiator squadrons from Egypt to Greece and once again the old biplanes proved up to the task. One RAF Gladiator pilot, South African Marmaduke “Pat” Pattle, scored more than 20 kills in the Gladiator over Egypt and Greece. (Pattle accumulated between 28 and 44 kills before he was shot down and killed on April 20, 1942 over Athens).

The Gladiator’s final air combats were over Iraq, defending the RAF base at Habbaniya, west of Baghdad, from a Nazi-supported revolt in April 1941.

German fighters and bombers were flown to Iraq to help the rebels, and Gladiators shot down several modern German aircraft before the revolt ended a few months later.

The CR.42, while less successful in air-to-air combat, proved to be a solid ground attack aircraft and it  flew in support of Italian and German forces in their invasion of Russia. The CR.42’s excellent handling and slow landing speeds made it a fine night attack aircraft, and it served the Axis − the alliance of Germany, Italy and Japan during WWII − well into 1942. E-mail questions and comments to marshall.michel@ramstein.af.mil.