Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Flying the gentle giant.

     Researching Fulvio Setti, the author of the text I translated and published on this post, I discovered that during the 1930's he had been the Italian national champion in the 110 meter hurdling race. At that time little he knew about the deadly hurdles he would have to face in a few years, as a transport pilot in the Italian Royal Air Force.
    Italy entered the war in June of 1940. Benito Mussolini was convinced the conflict was going to be over very soon, once France had fallen, and, in his own ruthless words, he just wanted "one thousand casualties to bring, as a victor, to the negotiating table." But the war went on, and for the Italian forces, thrown into the cauldron ill-equipped and without the backing of a strong industrial capability, the conflict turned into a slow but inexorable process of consumption which consumed men and machines, until the inevitable defeat, foreign invasion, and the catastrophe of the 1943 to 1945 period.
    I found the piece on an old Italian book that I probably bought in a newsstand about thirty-five years ago, in Italy. It was published in the QUID NOVI? series by S.T.E.M. Mucchi, an Italian publisher  based in the city of Modena.
    Fulvio Setti was the only recipient of the Gold Medal for military valor among the Italian transport pilots of World War II. In its resemblance to the Olympic system, the Italian custom of awarding military bronze, silver and gold medals for military valor is almost ridiculous; and by instituting an official scale of merit, as if it were a measuring of the highest jump in a competition, cheapens the actions and the suffering of the combatants to whom, I think, we should leave the recounting of them.
    I'm interested in the thoughts and the feelings of a pilot who performs the familiar motions of the craft he loves, when each act has become a movement of the deadly mechanism of war. 
   I hope you'll find this reading as interesting as I did. 
   You comments will be greatly appreciated.
   Thank you.
   L. Pavese





 

 The S.M. 82 in the memories of a protagonist. 


As a non-commissioned Lieutenant pilot recalled to duty, I did the entire Second World War on the '82; except for a few rare exceptional flights on the S.M.79 and the S.M.81.
For us who lived on it, for the combatants, for everyone, it was not the S.M 82 tri-motor transport aircraft by Savoia Marchetti, but simply the '82. It was a confidential, friendly tone that the aircraft allowed us to take with it. The airplane was the proverbial gentle giant, with a wingspan of about 97 feet, 72 feet long, and with a pilot, who was very tiny compared to it, sitting 19 feet from the ground. Had the pilot also been short, like my friend Nicola was, he would have had necessarily to equip himself with a lot of cushions to be able to emerge barely with his eyes from below the windshield, like from a trench.





The airplane was good, powerful, very strong. It never betrayed its crew. It could withstand such hits from the enemy fighters, or from the anti-aircraft artillery, that looking at the airplane when it came back from its always strange and out of the ordinary flights, it seemed impossible that it could have flown back home in those conditions.
It was good, and it just grumbled a bit when at the first light of dawn, in long lumbering lines, always laden beyond allowance, it taxied to depart for the eight, ten, twelve hour round-trip flights from the Italian mainland to Africa, without even a sip of coffee; because the cooks got up at the wake, but for the airplane and the crews the wake was not signaled by the trumpet but by the rising of the sun. Then, until dark, the program was to lift the load, get to destination, hurriedly unload and get back to Italy, which seemed so far, on the other side of the sea: from Tobruk, from Mersa Matrouh, from Fuka, with numbered hours of light and the ever-rationed and scarce gasoline.
As far as loading was concerned, the '82 wasn't a problem; although, truthfully, our engineers had mandated a maximum payload of 7 metric tons. On the Athens to Tobruk leg (the runway at Tatoi was short and mislaid), because of a constant local breeze, the take-off was either with a tail-wind and therefore quite dangerous, or with a favorable wind but uphill and towards the hills. In those conditions the '82 took-off routinely with a load of 8.5 metric tons and not always flown by the aces from the airlines, but very often by us recalled non-commissioned officers.
A few years ago, during a visit to the Greek Reserve, I visited Tatoi again, which is now the airfield of the Greek Air Force Academy. It's still the same, with the same exact challenges. At the end of the airfield, on the downhill side towards Athens, there remains that small stone building, maybe a sheepfold, which really bothered us a lot during those memorable take-offs when we just flew a few feet off the ground.






When it was young, the '82 could boast of having set two very prestigious records: the endurance of more than 70 hours and a distance record of about 7020 nautical miles. And during the war it even tried to emulate its past, like when Gigi Balletti took off from the beach, in Zula, on the shores of the Indian Ocean, with a load of 10.5 tons, well above the empty weight of the aircraft which was around 9 or 9.5 metric tons, depending on the series. During the conflict, the '82 was no longer a record-plane, and the lack of strategic materials had made it heavier. Nevertheless it felt strong; and every once in a while someone got even some strange ideas, like that it could have been feasible, even easy, to try to bomb New York City with it. Then they changed their mind, and the aircraft continued to act like a good guy.







The '82 was good-natured, but it wasn't a wimp. It had a tough temperament and it really demanded well trained pilots; and to train the recalled officers like me was the job of the great instructors who came from the Italian airlines.
It never got along with the Germans though. The '82 was the only Italian transport aircraft employed by the Germans in an attempt to replace the outstanding but outdated Junkers Ju. 52's. To retire Tante Ju and put the '82 to work was a good idea, but the German pilots never bonded with the Italian aircraft. Maybe they couldn't rely on the great teachers we had, and many '82's with German insignia ended up badly, written off at the edges of all the airfields of the war theater. Those wrecked aircraft actually were very useful to us because from them we could get the spare parts for our '82's, which kept flying until the last day of the conflict.

On September 8, 1943, the day the Armistice was announced, the Italian 44th StormoTrasporti was still flying war missions with all its remaining aircraft; and afterwards the '82 continued to do its hard work for the opposing Italian air forces in the North and in the South, until the April of 1945.
As far as the way to fly it, the '82 didn't want to hear any excuses. It had needs that had to be absolutely satisfied. It was very demanding, but with those who executed the obligatory maneuvers, it turned out to be docile, safe, and could land and take off from anywhere.
To extend the flaps for landing, the '82 demanded a particular counter-instinctive maneuver that could not be improvised. We needed the tips from the great instructors we had. Then, after the aircraft had been set up the right way, everything proceeded perfectly and it was a delight to alight on the runway on those big tires, very lightly, especially when our passengers included the soldiers who returned wounded, some very seriously, and couldn't be made to suffer even more with our bounces.


Evacuation of casualties with a S.M. 82

On departures, with a cross-wind that blew on the huge vertical stabilizer and with the load that often was badly distributed, the '82 sometimes refused to take-off and slapped you around with furious yaws. But with a trick it liked, and that we had inherited from the old seaplane pilots, that is, yoke to the side of the yaw (to lower the upwind wing), delicately dosed not to plant a wingtip into the ground, it just flew out straight and safe, to the amazement of everyone, especially those who, a few minutes earlier, had laid the plane clumsily across the field. (Translator note: that is the technique that should be used on any tail-wheel equipped aircraft.)





Derna, Libya. An Italian S.M.82 Captain pilot with a group of Indian prisoners.


When things went well for our armed forces, the '82 almost looked cheerful. It flew just off the surface of the Mediterranean Sea without worrying too much about the wake it left behind on the water. It frightened the sea turtles basking in the sun and very often another '82 came and tapped on its shoulder, like children do, wing over wing, to the amazement, not exactly without worry, of the soldiers who were being ferried. Baldo Secco Snardo flew with me during the mandatory familiarization flights with the squadron; and during his period of rest from flying (we usually did one hour each at the controls), played the banjo and sang; and the '82 joined in with its powerful and attuned rhythmic voice.





On April 13, 1942, two S.M.82's of 145th Gruppo took off from Derna and, preceded by three German Bf. 110's, landed at a British Landing Ground (a forward airfield established for the purpose of extending the combat range of aircraft). Twenty nine Italian soldiers and thirty German sappers disembarked from the '82's with their equipment: three motorcycles, one cannon and several machine guns. They destroyed more than three hundred barrels of aviation fuel, one hundred containers of lubricant and other material, rendering the airfield inoperable for a long time.     


























I only had a fight once with the '82, and the aircraft was right. Coming back to Derna from Athens, in the middle of the Mediterranean the central engine quit, then the starboard one began to act up, and barely kept going thanks only  to the attentive care of Tarsi, my good flight engineer. Those are moments in which the cohesiveness and the understanding among all the crew members, and the perfect, almost fraternal knowledge of the aircraft are decisively important.
With a very light touch on the controls, it is ridiculous to say it, but we talked to the airplane and we entrusted ourselves to it: “Come on old friend, just a bit longer, we don't have anything left to jettison to lighten the load.” (I had had the foresight not to load anything for the return flight.)  Fighting on the radio with the controllers of the Suda naval base on Crete, who demanded we passed offshore while we were about to plunge into the sea, we reached with a supreme effort a tiny airfield on the shore, Rethimnonn, on the northern coast of the Cretan island.
The poor '82 really had given it all. After a check on the ground, we discovered that the central engine was completely molten and the lateral engine had even deformed the cowling, throwing the push-rods against it.  Nevertheless, we had managed to put our feet on the ground, safe and sound.
A few minutes later, still elated for having made it, we heard fighting in the sky above the airfield.  Soon after, at the horizon, a fighter aircraft was nose-diving into the sea. Then a parachute, far away, descending towards the waves. Right away we got out the dinghy that we had readied for ourselves in the cabin for the past emergency and, naked with a gun belt around our neck, just in case, the hat with our rank on, Tarsi (my phenomenal engineer) and I sailed off to rescue the shipwrecked fallen from the sky.
As the two of us got farther away from the beach, it almost looked like the aircraft was giving us a bad look. It seemed angry: all the sacrifices it had made just a few minutes earlier had been for nothing. It was our destiny that we also ended up lost at sea that afternoon. It knew that our dinghy was a veritable colander; and if a land breeze started to blow, like it did every evening, we would never make it back. The '82 might as well have let us fall into the sea.
But when we came back, almost at night, with the British pilot we had rescued and made our prisoner, the aircraft seemed mortified for its earlier unusual behavior because it had always been ready to make itself useful and give a hand to whomever needed its help.


Crete, September 1942. Lieutenant Setti's crew rescues R.A.F F.O. Day with the semi-deflated dinghy.





















Sometimes, when we had a problem and no way out, especially over the open sea, it happened that we had to jettison our load. It was painful to watch the luggage of the soldiers fly away, knowing that they kept in it the memories of thirty months of war,  but it had to be done. However, the mail, no.  We never jettisoned the mail. The loss of the luggage affected a few people, but the loss of the mail would have been damaging to everyone.
On a flight from Rome to Athens, with an enormous load of correspondence, in the middle of the terrible mountains of Greece, with malfunctioning engines, it became necessary to choose: either to jettison the load or end up in those awful mountains.
Our '82 couldn't make it anymore and had to lose altitude, but the five of us stuck together and agreed not to get rid of the load. The '82 kept descending, down, almost brushing against the peaks, then inside those twisting and narrow valleys, desperately, lower and lower.  By then our hair was standing on our heads. Then, the usual stroke of luck: right under our nose, Agrinion, a forgotten airfield in the middle of the mountains.
 The airfield is very short and the '82 is very big and very heavy. Careful, the nerves are very tense, here we go. The '82 lands, jumps a ditch.  It almost looks impossible to be able to land in that little basin, but the plane makes it. The mail will continue, although aboard trucks.  It will reach our soldiers, many of whom are leaving for northern Africa and that might be the last letter they'll receive from home. 


In 1942, during our lighting advance into Egypt, the '82 exuded happiness: maybe that was going to be the final push. We needed to rush, hurry; and the plane ran and hurried: there were hundreds of high ranking prisoner enemy officers who had to be ferried to Italy, and the '82 carried 35 of them at a time. We transported them with much dignity, but keeping our eyes open to avoid being hijacked to Malta, where we would have liked to go just a few months earlier, but carrying the paratroopers of the Folgore Division for the invasion instead, and not as a hijacked aircraft. That would have been very humiliating: taken prisoners by the prisoners. But that never happened, and all those big shots were delivered in good health.





 Benghazi, Libya. 1941. British prisoners board a S.M.82 to be flown to Lecce, Italy. 

The '82 flew back and forth along the Via Balbia, sometimes even three times a day, carrying gasoline, explosives, ammunition; no rest for the weary. Business as usual: never any time to sleep or to eat. At night the aircraft returned, exhausted but satisfied, and very often with a crate of excellent French Champagne that the retreating Allies had lost along the way. We lived in the most appalling conditions and we drank Champagne; there was nothing else!
Alexandria was close and we kept an old and dilapidated motorcycle in the belly of the '82, with two sub-machine guns. The '82 wanted to be among the first to reach Alexandria, the Cairo, Suez.  It had done its part with great humility and now it wanted to be there. But things changed: the motorcycle was unloaded, but not the sub-machine guns, which would come very handy later when the '82 stayed behind to load our things and the British armored cars were already running all around us. 

Then the Calvary began. The Allies were really miffed and it truly looked like they had a bone to pick with the '82's. What an honor. They were saying: “You're too big, too slow, too clumsy, under-gunned; you can't possibly take on the Hurricanes, the P40's, the Mosquitoes, the Lightning's.” But what could it possibly do? They were attacking it and the '82 defended itself as it knew best, using its old tricks again. They were not very useful but sometimes they helped to get through and complete the mission.




1943. A S.M. 82 escorted by a C.R.42 braves the Channel.


Under the attacks of the ravenous American fighters, when the gunner in the dorsal turret of the '82 fired his first shots — which he had to economize because he only had 250 rounds — the first impulse was to gun the engines but, against every instinct, the '82 dropped down to the surface of the water and into the waves if there happened to blow a crosswind.  Cutting the power suddenly, the '82 almost stopped horrifically in mid air and the bursts of enemy fire streamed just in front of its bow but off-target.
We had to keep very calm, to play this mortal accordion game of fast and slow. To brake was useful to avoid the bursts of gunfire, but we couldn't exaggerate: the Mediterranean was right there, just a few meters below, and it would've been very easy to plunge into its waters. Nevertheless sometimes it happened we touched the crest of the wave with the propellers' tips and, if the airplane made it home, everybody laughed about the funny whisker-like marks on the blades that the aircraft exhibited with pride.




Channel of Sicily  1943


On April 10, 1943, on their way from Castelvetrano to El Aouina, Tunis, 15 S.M.82's fell into the Channel of Sicily. On the 13th of April we lost 27, and three days later all the 82's in service that day, attacked by P-38 Lightning's, met the rest on the bottom of the sea. 

But Tunisia had to be supplied, and all the '82's that had been under maintenance on the mainland until then converged towards Sicily. Colonel Morino, the very severe commander of the 44th Transport Wing, desperate because of a situation that had no solution, tried to explain to the High Command that, at the moment, the reinforcements were not yet able to operate. The answer was: Regrettably, those are aircraft and crews destined for sacrifice. It is better to lose an airplane in bad shape, and a sick crew, than a perfectly good airplane (which didn't exist) and a healthy crew. 
The remaining '82's flew to Finocchiara, Sigonella, Fontana Rossa, Scissa, Castelvetrano, and kept sacrificing serenely till the day General Messe received the order to quit. 

Fulvio Setti



Tunisia. May 1943. The '82 has landed on the beach, and the  Bersaglieri will be on the line of fire in a few hours.




A brief history of the S.M. 82. 


The Marsupiale, as the '82 was officially baptized (although I think the name was never used by the crews) was a derivative of the S.M.75 airliner, with a re-designed fuselage and Alfa Romeo 128 engines. It was designed for the dual bomber-transport aircraft role. Several aircraft performed that role, during WWII. The first that comes to mind is the Consolidated B-24/C-87 and, if you have read Ernest K. Gann, you know what I'm talking about.


S.M.75, the precursor of the '82.  Illustration from The Fedora Lounge


The prototype of the S.M. 82 flew in 1938. At the outbreak of the war (Italy declared war on June 10, 1940), the Italian Royal Air Force was only in charge of 12 S.M. 82's, but series production had started in earnest at SIAI Savoia Marchetti. 
On October 18, 1940, six S.M.82's based on the island of Rhodes, in the Aegean, carried out the most famous bombing mission flown by S.M.82's: hitting the oil refineries at Manama, in the Persian Gulf, and landing at Zula, in Italian Ethiopia, after flying about 2270 nautical miles in 15 hours and 30'.


One of the S.M. 82 bombers based in Rhodes.











However, the aircraft really came into its own performing the transport role. During the brief campaign of Italian Eastern Africa, eight S.M.82'S ferried fifty-oneFiat C.R. 42's fighters, plus the engines and equipment, from the Italian mainland. 
Between 1942 and the Spring of 1943 the Luftwaffe employed forty-five of the 100 aircraft that had been ordered from SIAI, which were assigned to the FliegerTransport Gruppe "Savoia".




Luftwaffe's S.M.82 




















As a consequence of the Armistice, thirty-one Italian S.M.82'S flew to Allied controlled southern Italy,  two flew to Spain and fifteen were destroyed, but the bulk of the '82's was captured by the Germans, together with a large number of new aircraft found in the SIAI's factories. 
The S.M.82'S that ended up in the south were put to good use in the operations in the Balkans.




A S.M.82 of the 1st Raggruppamento Trasporti of the Italian Royal Air Force, operating in Allied -controlled southern Italy.











 In the north, the A.N.R., the air force of the Republic, could field about sixty transports, forty of which operated on the Eastern Front with the newly created 2nd Gruppo.




Italian paratroopers of the Republican Army prepare to board an S.M. 82 in  northern Italy.

After September of 1943, SIAI kept building S.M.82'S for the Luftwaffe, delivering 299 aircraft. Through orders, requisitions, and by capturing them as war booty the Germans eventually acquired about 430 S.M.82's, the majority of which were assigned to the 6th Luftflotte, and the ReichLuftflotte, operating extensively on the Russian Front and in northern Germany until the end of the conflict. 
Production between 1938 to 1945 totaled 875 aircraft. At the end of the war,  fifty-three S.M.82's remained in northern and southern Italy in various stages of production and maintenance at the SIAI shops.  
After the war, the S.M. 82 was re-engined with the much more powerful Pratt&Whitney R-1830 engines that improved speed and load carrying capability; although, due to the restrictions imposed by the Allies on the bombing capability of the Italian Air Force, the bomb doors of the aircraft had to be locked in a closed position and the fuselage doors enlarged.
The last Italian S.M.82 was decommissioned in 1960.


A post-war S.M. 82 with P&W 1830 engines and the insignia of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta





















As always, your comments will be greatly appreciated. Thank you, (and thanks to J.J.P. for reviewing the English text).


Leonardo Pavese



                

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