Saturday, November 5, 2011

Resistance will be futile

     "Resistance is futile," the villain would say on a popular TV show. In this case, it was suicide.
     During the last days of the summer of 1943, the Italian Royal Air Force, which was the aggressor in the Mediterranean just three years before, is now facing overwhelming enemy forces. The Allies have conquered North Africa, they landed in Sicily on the 10th of July and now they dominate the sky over the Italian mainland.



     What follows is the translation of a few pages of the diary of an Italian pilot who lived through those tragic days before the Armistice of September 8. He's flying a Macchi C 200: a fighter designed by Dr. Castoldi, the designer of the racing record setting seaplanes of the Schneider Cup. However, the C 200 is not fast. It flew for the first time in 1937, and even then it was barely adequate. Now, in 1943, it could be considered only a light fighter. Although it could easily outmaneuver any aircraft that the enemy flies, it doesn't have the speed, the armament or the protection to counteract any air threat. It's just a handsome mount for a few gallant knights.
     
     This is my first post in English. I hope you enjoy it. Your comments will be appreciated. Thank you.
L. Pavese

Macchi C200's. Illustration by Roberto Zanella



Sarzana, June 5 1943   (Sarzana is a town in eastern Liguria. The fighters where protecting the La Spezia naval base. L. Pavese).
            The siren, the alarm...I am already running like mad, holding the flight suit tight in my arms. Airmen jump out from everywhere, form underneath the aircraft, from the tents, from the ditch. My comrades. There’s number 9.
            The engineer is already starting the engine up. The propeller makes one slow revolution, another one; two or three sneezes, white puffs from the exhaust pipes, come on, come on...it started, it’s alive. I always say it’s the best...
            I’m putting the flight-suit on, life preserver, parachute, helmet, tightening the belts, connecting the radio, hoping that it works, while inside I’m short of air, as if a hot hand were squeezing my lungs. Go, go...From the tower they’re firing flares after flares! The first three scrambling aircraft are taking off; I am already taxing in the dust, towards the line...I’m the first. A buzz, a gravelly croak among the static discharges; the radio communicates: “Launch, everybody launch. They’re above us. Launch, maximum altitude. They’re right overhead. Launch...”
            Holy Mary, they sure are! Go, full throttle, 100, 120, 140; I can only imagine the dust cloud behind me. The tail is already up, come on, come on, 145, 150, it’s airborne. Gear up, 250, I hold the nose down then I pull up.
            Come on Macchi, climb, pull, pull up. I look up and see a shroud of white tufts blackened by aircraft. Damned bastards, they’re above me. 5000 meters above. Why weren’t we alerted earlier? Who’s going to catch them now? Who knows, maybe over the sea, later, on the return flight...Open auxiliary tank, dump the superfluous fuel, power boost...The engine is howling, but today it will have to make a miracle! The old piece of junk is doing it! It climbs, it climbs, struggling, but it climbs... The first ones have already dropped. Sudden reddish flowers bloom on the surface. The sea is erupting enormous water spouts. Down in La Spezia is hell. Look how the AA artillery is firing; but too low, below them. I look around...There they are, there’s more. The sharp crack of the transmitting radio: it’s me calling now: “Attention...attention...Moto 4 calling Sara...another formation approaching from the South; approximately 25 four-engine aircraft...over”. On the receiver the familiar voice: “Adelmo, Sara, roger. All aircraft climb to maximum altitude. Intercept on escape route”. I am already on that route. I don’t feel warm anymore. I am at 3000, pushing hard...Behind me the second wave has also dropped the bombs. It’s just one big curtain of rising water...Those people down there...poor bastards, poveracci! Oh Hell! How many times have I witnessed that? Air open, plates lowered, gun sight on...Down there, two little boats are spinning like mad. What are they afraid of?
            There they are; the first ones are above me...700, 800 meters above, heading South, in a tight formation. I pull up desperately. They’re all already passing overhead, black, huge, shiny, against the blue background. What are they doing? Well, what else should they do? They’re shooting at me! I don’t know why, but I think that if they dropped something they’ll hit me on the head...I turn right, out of their range, and I gain some more altitude; and now I’m really cold, because our Macchi’s don’t have a canopy!

They all passed, but wait, there's one; a little below me...I’m on its tail and I take aim – it’s the last wingman on the right – accurately, between the engine and the fuselage, and open fire, fire...the red tracers weaving a web between me and him; acrid smell of gunpowder; the syncopated drumming...but he’s already too far. I am at 5500 meters; there’s three more, distanced, wide. One is on my right, two or three hundred meters above. What a monster. It’s a B 17 Flying Fortress; just like the one in that picture on the newspaper...We were talking about it, just two days ago.
My old Macchi C 200 is barely floating. I turn slightly to the right. He opens fire first, from the belly turret...then I start...the tracers go in...but I’m completely vertical. I’m doing maybe 200 and he’s gaining speed. He dives a little and distances me. I shoot, shoot...what’s happening. I press the button in vain, reload, nothing. My hand is contracted on the stick...Why is it not firing? I look inside; I’m out of ammo. I shot everything I had.
            Damn! I inform Sara; a sharp wing over turn on my back and I dive towards the coast. It’s far, full power.
            “Attention. Moto 4 to Sara. Out of ammunition. Heading back”.





            August 7th
            It’s the fifth escort flight of the day and the darkness, the turbulence and the fatigue make it really hard to orbit continuously, slowly, looking endlessly at the sky, the ships, the sky...Sarzana  is still far away and my eyes are burning: how long has it been? Eight, nine hours of flight? Many, too many, but those ships were entrusted to us...
            Suddenly, low on the water, we spot six twin-engine aircraft. From the ships, they’re yelling on the radio: “Torpedo-bombers, torpedo-bombers at 7 o’clock...”
            With a sharp wing over, we’re on them. They have already spread out, turning in the increasing darkness. We get one, Plodari on its left and me on the right, and we start to frame him with our bursts of fire. He shoots back like a mad man and the tracers look like fireworks.
        All of a sudden, I see Plodari disappear with a sharp turn. I call him, in vain, on the radio, in anguish. Could they have hit him? I can’t see him anymore; he disappeared in the dark...so I turn back to the twin, (maybe a Boston, a Beaufighter...?) and I unload on him another long mean burst, in a wave of cold anger. Smoke and flames begin to shoot from the right engine but, from the ships, an excited voice is calling: “Attention, enemy aircraft 3 o’clock, repeat 3 o’clock...”
            I have to let the prey go, ( but that one, I'm sure, didn’t make it back), and I return to the ships.          I fly at full power in the direction indicated; then I have to jump the other way because the torpedo-bombers are trying to come in from different directions. I can’t see them, but from the ships they’re guiding me right.
            Is there any other aircraft of ours over the vessels? I hope so but, in the confusion, darkness fell and I am at my range limit. From the ships, they’re begging me: “Please stay. As long as possible...”
            Therefore, I keep orbiting, one, two, five more minutes, and then I call the ships: “Low fuel...I must return”. They thank me and I head north. It’s past 9 pm. It’s night and I can barely see the N in the compass. North is my heading, but how will I be able to land? I have never flown at night. I can’t see the instruments on the panel. I can discern the N only leaning forward and the airfield has no lights. It’s just not equipped; and on the obligated inbound approach side there are those hills...
            A whirlwind of thoughts. I’m afraid. It’s true fear, made of cold shivers and I pray, pray: because only God can help me. To the right and far away I see a few weak lights, notwithstanding the black-out. Maybe that’s Viareggio. My nerves are taut like a violin’s strings.
    I call on the radio: “Attention, aircraft in-bound, attention...” I try to pierce the darkness with my eyes; and all of a sudden, in front of me, a darker mass. I’m there. I catch a glimpse of the saddle between the hills, descend, gear down, flaps. The airfield must be down there, past the marsh...
            I must get down there at the slowest speed. I can’t miss, because, if I’m long, there are the barracks, the railroad and the power-line. I sense, more than seeing them, the feeble red lights of the catenary; I cut the power, flare gently and I feel the wheels roll on the ground. I brake like crazy, because I don’t know at what point of the runway I am. At last, I stop. I made it. I am soaked with sweat, am now I can relax...
            People with flashlights are running. I have to taxi for quite a bit, because I made a fabulous short landing. When I climb down and stagger, (because the tension, all at once, has disappeared), I hear happy voices all around and feel slaps on my shoulders. Even the Squadron Leader hugs me. It’s 21:20; but the joy disappears right away: Plodari did not make it back...



            Agrigento, September 20 (The author is now in Sicily, after the Armistice. The Italian Royal Air Force is re-organizing in the South. It will resume fighting on the Allies' side).
            
In the afternoon, I go to the airfield with the technicians: we have to check out one of the aircraft. A Spitfire takes off, does a fast pass and flies away. I do a short, ten minute, flight; and there’s time for two or three passes down to the grass, with vertical turns to follow. When I land, two American pilots approach me, smiling. They exclaim: “Good job!” Then they start to examine my Macchi C 200. They look at it, perplexed; notice the open cockpit, without a canopy; they confabulate. I gather they can’t believe the two miserable 12.7 millimeters. “Only two?” they ask. “Yes, only two...” Then we start talking, me in my elementary English and with gestures. They are Flying Fortresses’ pilots; and we discover that we fought, above Liguria!    They are incredulous: “With that? You’re crazy!” Yes, I am crazy, but you were over my house.



A C 200, with the insignia of the post-Fascist Italian Royal Air Force.
   
                
   
          
 






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