The Americans and the Caproni

      The Gold Medals for military valor awarded to Italian airmen during the First World War were very few, fewer than the ones awarded for the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1936; but their correct number is not 22, as reported by some books, but 23. 
      By Roberto Gentilli (Translated by L. Pavese).   

         The 23rd medal was awarded to a foreigner, Lieutenant Fenafly Coleman de Witt, of the American Flying Group of the Army of the United States of America. 
As it is well known, many American aviators arrived in Italy in 1918, and were trained for the bombing specialty on Italian Caproni tri-motors, mainly at the Air Training Center in Foggia. While the contribution of other allied Air Forces, mainly French and British, to the Italian war effort consisted of organic air groups, that is, complete and self sufficient reconnaissance and fighter squadrons, the Americans were fully integrated in the fabric of the Italian air arm: from the flying training programs (which for some included the basic training and for others only the specialization) to the learning of the techniques and the Italian language. Therefore, the relations among the Italian and the Americans airmen were excellent, in a spirit of brotherhood and emulation which was unequaled with the other allies in that War, let alone the following one.

Italian and American officers pose with a Ca.5 in the background

The American pilots, the first of whom reached the front on June 20th, 1918, led by Captain Fiorello La Guardia, were assigned to the XI (11th) Bomber Group, consisting of the IV (4th) Squadriglia, (emblem: a black prancing lion), and the VI (6th), (whose emblem was the red disc of a rising sun, and the mottos dear to Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio: “Unus non sufficit orbis,” Remember to Dare, Always, and “Avium flammigerum agmen”). 

Captain Fiorello La Guardia and Gianni Caproni

In the summer of 1918 the XI had already accumulated a great deal of experience on the Caproni bomber aircraft, including even a landing on the glacier of the Adamello. Based at the Ca’ degli Oppi air base and led by Major Reggio, the group was equipped with the new Caproni Ca. 5, better known as the Caproni 600 HP. 
The VI Squadriglia, one of the most heroic of the Italian bombing units and the first to receive the new and controversial Ca. 600 HP, to replace the old but irreplaceable Ca. 3, had been established at Aviano, on December 18th, 1915. Among its pilots, the following must be mentioned: Lieutenants Scavini, Baccili, Thaon de Revel, Marelli, Bertolini, the Florentine Manlio Borri, Soliani, who were all awarded the Silver Medal; the great aviator, flight instructor and test pilot Luigi Ridolfi, who would lose his life in the crash of the Caproni transport aircraft, in Verona, on August 2nd, 1919.

Above all the figure of the Neapolitan Raffaele Tarantini stands out. Tarantini was an Infantry volunteer. He became a pilot at the San Giusto Flying School and, after the war, founded and managed the airline Società Avio Linee Italiane. At the break-out of the war in Ethiopia (1935) he volunteered again and, while leading a unit of Askaris (indigenous Ethiopian troops) was killed by a band of Abyssinian irregulars, after heroic resistance. He was awarded the Gold Medal for military valor.

An Italian officer standing in the bow
     gunner station of a Caproni Ca.5.

 In the summer of 1918, the IV and the VI Squadriglie repeatedly bombed the towns of Mezzolombardo, Levico, Bolzano, the Austrian airfield of Matterello and the areas of the Piave and Tagliamento rivers, during the day and at night, and dropped fliers over the city of Trento several times. The latter, being an eminently Italian town, was never bombed, therefore at night it remained brightly lit. The Austro-Hungarian officers spent in Trento what is now known as “rest and recreation time,” and the harmless Italian flyovers were fiercely opposed by the strong Austrian anti-aircraft artillery, situated on the sides of the surrounding mountains, and even by night-fighters, with which there were several clashes, although apparently without consequences.

The same officer poses near the central FIAT A.12 engine of a Ca.5. The officer's right hand is on the aspiration duct, and his right elbow is touching a magneto.

On August 25th, 1918 the IV Squadriglia lost a Caproni, after a mission over Romagnano, and on September 26th another bomber, belonging to the XI Group, was hit over Mezzolombardo; but the most painful loss was the death of Major Resio, due to the Spanish flu, on October 7th. Major Quaglia became the new Group commander. 
Towards the end of October, the great offensive which, with the battle of Vittorio Veneto, would eventually destroy the Austro-Hungarian Army and end the conflict, was beginning to take shape. The re-organized, well equipped and efficient Italian Air Arm proved up to the task. Employing very modern techniques the Italian Air Arm of the Royal Army deployed a “Fighter Mass,” a “Bomber Mass” and groupings of air squadriglie to support the Armies. That amounted to a daily average availability of about 200 fighters, 200 reconnaissance aircraft and 50 bombers ready to strike from the air, while the infantry massed along the front line and the powerful artillery barrage began.

An American (left) and an Italian officer sit side by side in the cockpit of a Caproni bomber

On October 20th 1918, the XI Group moved from the province of Verona to the airfield of Brentelle, near the city of Padua. On the 27th, the Group flew a daylight mission against an enemy ammunition depot, situated near the Jewish cemetery of Ceneva, a sub-division of Vittorio Veneto. The Austrian fighter force, equipped with excellent airplanes flown by expert pilots, remained combative and dangerous to the last day, and a protracted fight ensued.

The Caproni's crew defended themselves at length, with their on-board weapons, and two Austrian fighters were shot down by the VI Squadriglia's Ca.5 flown by Lieutenant Coleman de Witt. But in the end, two of the trimotors, de Witt's and one bomber of the IV Squadriglia were also shot down. 

The first aircraft crashed near Vittorio Veneto and the other near Conegliano. Besides de Witt, several other airmen died. Among them there was another sadly unnamed American officer and Italian Lieutenant Tarli, Sergeant Cantarutti and the Observer, Lieutenant Cutello, a Sicilian who had boarded de Witt’s aircraft at the last minute, taking the place of Lieutenant Moressi.
These were tragic losses, because the war had clearly reached its end; nevertheless the XI Group didn’t lose heart. The Americans were very eager to fly and fight, and the Italians wanted to measure up. The Americans were also very popular with the ground crews, not only for their personalities and their fighting spirit, but also because they happily shared the very abundant supplies of exotic merchandise from the U.S., including the first chewing gum.

On October 28th, a mission was flown over Felling, on the 29th over Sacile, on the 30th over Fontanafredda; and several others on November 1st, when the Caproni 11664 was hit and forced to alight on the river Piave. The unharmed crew returned to Padua the following day.
On November 2nd, 1918,  in awful weather, the Squadriglia took off to attack Palmanova. The formation was abandoned in the clouds, and the aircraft gained altitude separately to avoid a collision. The cloud cover was pierced at about 14,800 feet and the airplanes navigated by compass and by reference to the peaks of the Julian Alps. Above Palmanova, the aeroplanes or, more precisely, the aircraft that had survived the all too frequent mechanical troubles typical of the Caproni Ca.5, dived again to an altitude of 10,500 feet, until they sighted the target.
The central Fiat A 12 bis engine of Caproni 11660, mounted in the rear of the fuselage, shock-cooled, experienced a carburetor backfire and caught on fire. The gunner, Sergeant Borghi, managed to put out the fire and to secure the unserviceable engine, which vibrated on its charred wooden supports, with the belts of the crew’s flight suits.
The airplane, unable to climb on two engines, overflew Palmanova. The town appeared to have been abandoned by the Austrian troops and, at the train station, which was the intended target, the inhabitants waved enthusiastically at the sight of the tri-color roundels on the Italian aircraft's wing. The primary mission was abandoned, and the Caproni’s crew looked for opportunity targets on the way back. They found them on the bridges of Latisana, over the Tagliamento river. The bridges were crowded with retreating Austrian troops and their carriages. The Italian bombs scored direct hits, causing heavy casualties. The aircraft landed at Padua, by the light of projectors, after more than three hours of flight, on two engines and having been repeatedly hit by anti-aircraft fire. 
On November 3, the Squadriglie were ready to attack again, but rumors were already circulating that a delegation of Austro-Hungarian generals were on their way to Villa Albano, the headquarter of the Italian Supreme Command, to negotiate the surrender, and it was decided not to spread any more grief in a war that was already won. The missions were cancelled. The wartime cooperation between Italians and Americans came to an end. The results had been outstanding and the Gold Medal awarded to Coleman de Witt was their coronation.
We like to believe that the spirit that was created, during those days, was not forgotten and might have reemerged, reaffirming our right to fight as equals when the tri-color roundel reappeared on the wing of the Italian aircraft after the Armistice of  September 8, 1943.


This article first appeared on the January 1976 issue of the Italian aviation magazine JP4.
Your comments, as usual, will be greatly appreciated.
L. Pavese


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