Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Diving Dragonflies

The Dornier Libelle and the 1920’s studies to equip the submarines of the Italian Royal Navy with submersible aircraft. 
By Achille Vigna.
(Translated and edited by L. Pavese)

With a contract signed on October 20, 1924, the Italian Ministry of Aeronautics ordered S.A.I.C.M. of Marina di Pisa (Società Anonima Italiana Costruzioni Meccaniche) the building of two minuscule single-seat, single-engine Dornier Libelle (Dragonfly) airplanes. The first was to be delivered no later than April 1925 and the second in the following May. The design of the aircraft had been entered in an early 1924 ministerial contest for a removable wing seaplane destined to be embarked on the Barbarigo Class submarines, and it had come out the winner. S.A.I.C.M. (Italian Anonymous Mechanical Manufacturing Company) had been set up on December 17, 1921, with the purpose of building aircraft designed and certificated by the German company Dornier Mertallbauten GmbH, which could not build its aircraft in-house due to the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.

A German-built dragonfly

            The Italian company was located at the estuary of the Arno River. It was equipped with German machinery and tools. It was staffed largely by technicians, managers and workers from Germany and it had begun building the twin-engine, all-metal flying boat Dornier “Wal,” which at the time was the most technologically advanced aircraft of that kind. The Wal was Dornier’s feather in the cap; it was continuously improved; it was produced in military and civilian versions and it enjoyed a considerable commercial success, with more than one hundred aircraft sold.
            During the first four years of activity, the head company had directed its Italian sub-contractor to build or simply assemble other Dornier designed airplanes, with the intention to widen its market. Among these there were the “Falke” fighter, the single-engine “Merkur,” the “Delphin” seaplane and the aforementioned Libelle.

A Libelle on the beach in Marina di Pisa

 The Libelle (whose complete designation was Dornier Do A Libelle II) was a small sport seaplane with rearward-folding wings, and propelled by a Le Rhone rotary engine. The presence of the Libelle in the Italian inventory was due to the fact that it answered to the above-mentioned specifications, except for the removable wing, which was a later modification.
The participation of the Libelle in the Air Ministry contest was imposed to S.A.I.C.M. by Dornier. The Germans had to overcome the reluctance of the Italian company that was already overloaded by work. Before the signing of the contract, the D.G.C.A. (the Italian government agency that decided what aircraft to procure and build) had requested a few modifications to the original design. The alterations were mandated by the size of the cylindrical hangar aboard the submersible boat, the diameter of which had been reduced from m 2.5 to m 2. The Italian company, which was saturated by the manufacturing orders of the Wal flying boat, had shown very little interest in the construction of the two Libelles, to the point that the D.G.C.A. (Direzione Superiore Genio e Costruzioni Aeronautiche) had considered consulting with other companies.
Nevertheless, according to the D.G.C.A.’s July 1924 monthly report, the agency renewed its pressure on S.A.I.C.M. to take on the work, and the contract was finally signed on October 20. The agency’s May 1925 report states that the first Libelle’s fight test was imminent, and that a static test of the second one had been requested. According to the September 1925 report, on the preceding July 23 the company had carried out a few test flights with the first airplane, and on the second aircraft there remained only to mount the engine. The company had suspended the work and was waiting for directions.
Actually, the Le Rhone engine had proved unsuitable; therefore, it was decided to re-engine both prototypes of the Libelle with a 55 hp Siemens Halske SH-5 radial engine, with an addendum to the contract issued on July 7, 1926. Meanwhile, the military registrations M.M. 56 and 57 had been assigned to the two aircraft. The decision to opt for another engine caused further delay, to the point that the second prototype was flight-tested only on August 12, 1926. The test flights were carried out by test-pilot Tullio Crosio and by Dr. Guido Guidi (manager of S.A.I.C.M.), who, out of a sense of responsibility, personally tested almost all aircraft that came out of his plant.
Once this cycle of tests ended (by now, it was the fall of 1927) the final phase of the acceptance tests began, that is, the operations of disassembly, stowing and reassembly and launching from vessel at sea, take off and retrieval. One aircraft was sent to the seaplane base of Cadimare (La Spezia), and the tests were carried out in December of 1927, aboard the submarine Provana, which had been equipped with a provisional hangar.

The Andrea Provana

The Andrea Provana was one of the four vessels of the Barbarigo class, the construction of which had begun in 1915. The boats were m 67 long, and displaced 762 metric tons on the surface and 924 tons submerged. They could sail at 16 knots on the surface and at 9 knots submerged, and they were armed with two mm 76 guns and six mm 450 torpedoes tubes.
The hauling aboard of the airplane was accomplished by means of a sort of dolly that ran on tracks, which were mounted on a long turning sled. The sled came out of the hangar and protruded on the water, reaching the bottom of the hull of the seaplane. These operations are described in the December 28, 1927 report, written by the commanding officer of the Provana Lieutenant Commander Carlo Balsamo, entitled: “Report concerning the experiments with the seaplane.” It was a classified document, illustrated by 9 photographs. A copy of the report, signed by second in command, Lieutenant Garinei was found devoid of the indication of the addressee; but in all likelihood the report was destined to the General Staff of the Italian Royal Navy. This is the text, which was taken from a typed copy of the report:

R. Submersible ship PROVANA
[…] As we were ordered by the High Ministry, a removable wing seaplane has been taken aboard and recovered in a provisional sheet-metal framed, fabric covered hangar.
The hangar, which was supposed to be a m 2 diameter, m 8 long cylinder, was actually much larger, as shown by the attached drawing. In fact, the maximum height from the deck was m 2.6.
These over-sized dimensions were due to the need of placing the guide tracks of the dolly at a certain height from the deck, in order to pass over various obstructions, such as the washboards of the hatches, the raising handle, etcetera.

The Provana's cylindrical hangar

If a special dolly were devised, and if the tracks were placed on the bottom of the cylinder, the 2 m diameter would be sufficient to accommodate the aircraft “Libellula.” (Dragonfly, in Italian).

Photograph #1 shows the aft end of the hangar, where the water-tight door should be. The nose of the airplane, pointed in the direction opposite the bow of the boat, is visible.

Photograph #2 clearly shows the tracks for the launch of the aircraft, which reach all the way to the far stern.

Photograph #3 shows the beginning of the assembly, that is, the setting up of the central section of the aircraft, with the engine and the empennage. 

After these operations, the airplane is turned athwartship (sideways) and the wings and the fins (the sponsons) are mounted at the same time. Afterwards, the aircraft is aligned with the keel, the controls are set, the engine started and the airplane is launched, as shown by photograph # 6.

To launch the aircraft, the stern of the boat is submerged flooding the stern tanks. As soon as the seaplane floats, it is able to leave the boat on its own power.
To retrieve the aircraft, two sailors wearing diving suits guide the airplane on its sled, as shown by photograph #7. 

As soon as the seaplane is on the dolly, it is hauled aboard while at the same time the stern ballast tanks are emptied, so that the aircraft is immediately out of the water (photograph #8).

Then, the aforementioned operations are carried out in the reverse order, disassembling the airplane and stowing it in its hangar.

The average operation time was about 18 minutes for the assembly and about 13 minutes for the disassembly. These times are often liable to increase considerably, due to weather conditions and the difficulties that very likely will arise during such delicate operations with material subject to wear and tear.
On December 23, in the presence of the Admiral, Commandant of the Submarine Division, the above-described operations were carried out within the confines of the dyke, and they respectively took 22 and 18 minutes. Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that the weather conditions were particularly adverse, with strong gusty wind, rough seas and low temperature which greatly impeded the work of the men.
Even from this summary description of the operation, it can be ascertained that with the “Libellula” type aircraft, the assembly, the launch, the retrieval and the stowing of the aircraft are very time consuming operations, which, in the best case scenario, with very well trained and practiced personnel, can only be accomplished in no less than about a quarter of an hour.
In an attempt to facilitate the operations, I have personally travelled to Marina di Pisa to the aircraft manufacturing plant, in order to request a few minor modifications that were immediately made and produced a gain of several minutes. But, in any case, in my opinion the time required to launch the Libellula is absolutely prohibitive. Moreover, the flight characteristics of the aircraft make it unpractical and useless. The flight endurance of the airplane (a little more than one hour) is absolutely insufficient.
At the present level of technology, I believe it would be possible to build a seaplane of adequate performance, while remaining within the limits of weight and dimensions imposed by the size of the cylinder; but it would be necessary to design a purpose-built aircraft. The airplane should have an engine that could be started from the cockpit, which now is impossible. The dolly with the rotating sled is too heavy and cumbersome. Its height was about cm 50. Therefore, it would be necessary to build a new type of dolly with externally placed wheels, so that the dolly would remain within the tracks in one piece, that is, without the above-mounted rotating sled. The dolly could be made to rotate instead on a suitably placed platform. Naturally, all the obstacles on the deck should be eliminated.
If I may, I would like to point out to Your Lordship that perhaps the operation of a seaplane from a submarine could be made much more practical if we had an aircraft that could remain submerged. In that case, it could be stowed in the vessel’s inter-space, eliminating the cylinder altogether, with great advantage and making the launch operations much simpler. I don’t think that would be technically impossible, using a completely metallic aircraft with special paint, and in view of the fact that totally watertight engines already exist.                            

Lieutenant Commander
C. Balsamo


The purpose of employing mid-size vessels like the Provana and a small airplane like the Libelle for the tests was to gather the fundamental elements on which to base the specifications for an aircraft designed to operate on the large oceanic submarine Ettore Fieramosca.
The Fieramosca had been designed by Naval Engineers’ General Curio Bernardis, and at the time it was being built in the Tosi shipyards of Taranto. It was a large m 84 vessel that displaced 1556 metric tons on the surface and 2128 tons submerged. It was intended to be a true submersible oceanic cruiser, and it was armed with a mm 203 gun. It turned out to be a poorly manueuverable ship. It served only for about ten years, and it was decommissioned in 1941, even when the war was still on-going.

   The launch of the giant Fieramosca. The cylindrical hangar can be seen abaft of the sail.

Besides the performance of the Dornier Libelle (which turned out to be inadequate for the purpose), it was necessary to evaluate the operational limits of the entire concept, especially the difficulties related to launching and retrieving the airplane in the open sea; and last but not least the difficult problem of starting the engine, caused by the space constraints and by the danger of the spinning propeller in an unstable environment such as the deck of a submarine.

Two new aircraft, the Piaggio P.8 and the Macchi M. 53, were entered in a new contest that was announced in 1927. Both were single engine, single seat airplanes powered by the 75 hp A.D.C. Cirrus II, with a removable wing, according to the specifications. As far as the Macchi is concerned, the approval was given the same year, and construction began. The first M.53 flew on October 25, 1928. The evaluation of the aircraft was still going on, when the Ettore Fieramosca was launched on April 15, 1929, equipped with a cylindrical hangar mounted abaft of the conning tower.

Macchi M.53

 The Piaggio proposal, designed by Dr. Giovanni Pegna, initially followed the same course, but the production that began in 1927, in the Finalmarina plant (Finale Ligure), suffered serious delays. The Piaggio P.8 was a parasol wing monoplane, particularly suited for the reconnaissance role. It was a modern design with an almost completely metallic airframe. For that time, it could be considered a technological marvel.

                     The P.8

The P.8 folded and stowed in its cylinder

Nevertheless, although the purchase had been finalized on February 22, 1928, the P.8 was flight tested only on November 12, 1929, when by then the entire project of the aircraft-carrying submarine had been abandoned.
 The main reason of the decision to terminate the project, though, was not due to the inadequate performance of the two prototype aircraft, or to any operational difficulties that eventually could have been overcome. Lieutenant Commander Balsamo’s idea of water-proof aircraft that could be stowed in the vessel’s inter-space could be considered odd, even with today’s technology, but the real problem at the time consisted precisely in the large water-tight cylinder mounted on the deck. The cylindrical air filled hangar required a continuous compensatory re-trimming of the ship to maintain the proper longitudinal attitude. Furthermore, the maximum depth that the boat could reach and the maneuverability of the ship were greatly reduced.
While the Ettore Fieramosca was being fitted out, the cylindrical hangar for the seaplane was off-loaded shortly before the sea trials, and the submersible ship was commissioned on April 1, 1930 in a conventional configuration, that is, without the hangar; and it remained the only ship of its class. 

        The article was originally published in June 2012, on the # 225 issue of the Italian magazine "Storia Militare," and it was relayed to me by the good folks of the Italian group Avia (whom I'd like to thank). Several countries experimented with submarine-borne aircraft. The first that comes to mind is the Focke-Achgelis Fa-330, which was a German tethered (unpowered) gyroplane that the Kriegsmarine employed, with some success, to extend the visibility of the U-boats in WWII (after experimenting with a folding-wing airplane); and I know the Japanese also built aircraft-carrying submarines, but I don't remember the details, and I'll let you do the research. In any case, I'm sure that the experiences of the Italian Royal Navy are not well known, and the original article featured the previously unpublished report, complete with pictures, of  the trials conducted aboard the Andrea Provana; therefore I thought it could be of some interest. I hope you thought so too.
Your comments will be greatly appreciated. Thank you. (And I'd like to thank Poul Webb from whose blog I took the title picture).
Leonardo Pavese     

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Lo yacht e il Presidente.


Un Presidente, uno yacht e un’operazione segreta.
di Matthew Algeo  (Traduzione e rielaborazione di Leonardo Pavese)

L’articolo originale proviene dal numero di ottobre/novembre, 2011, della rivista statunitense BoatU.S.

Questa è la storia di una delle operazioni segrete più bizzarre e sfrontate negli annali della Presidenza degli Stati Uniti d’ America. Cleveland fu forse l’ultimo Presidente degli Stati Uniti veramente liberale in senso classico, non Liberal, cioè social-democratico in senso obamiano, e probabilmente il mio favorito. Lo yacht era stupendo e i personaggi interessanti, il che rende questo articoletto degno di essere tradotto e pubblicato come il primo della serie di contributi non strettamente legati all’aviazione. Spero che almeno qualche lettore italiano lo gradisca. I commenti saranno molto graditi.

Il primo luglio del 1893, Grover Cleveland, il ventiduesimo e ventiquattresimo Presidente degli Stati Uniti, (l’unico Presidente a servire per due mandati non consecutivi), semplicemente sparì. Salpò verso il Long Island Sound sullo yacht di un amico, e nessuno ne seppe più niente per quattro giorni. Quel che successe su quello yacht fu così incredibile, che quando la verità finalmente venne a galla, la maggior parte degli americani semplicemente si rifiutò di credervi, e la reputazione di un uomo onesto ne soffrì.
La storia comincia circa due mesi prima, a maggio appena iniziato. Il paese era nelle grinfie di un’altra recessione dagli effetti quasi paralizzanti, che sarebbe passata alla storia come: “Il Panico del ‘93”. Un’altra bolla speculativa era scoppiata: quella delle ferrovie. Le linee ferroviarie erano oberate da un’eccedenza di capacità incommensurabile: erano stati stesi troppi chilometri di binari. Prima della fine dell’anno 119 di esse andranno in bancarotta, trascinando nel baratro innumerevoli altre aziende. La disoccupazione era esplosa. La borsa, crollata. Nel frattempo il paese si era impelagato in un dibattito conflittuale sulla moneta: ovvero se il dollaro avrebbe dovuto fare aggio sull’oro o sull’argento.
Il 5 di maggio, nel bel mezzo di questa tempesta politica ed economica, Grover Cleveland notò, per la prima volta, uno strano nodulo sul suo palato. Date tutte le gatte che aveva da pelare in quel momento, non fu che alla fine del mese seguente quando si decise a sottoporre l’escrescenza a un controllo. Il suo dottore personale, Joseph Bryant, gli diagnosticò un cancro alla bocca. “È un inquilino dall’aspetto molto brutto,” disse Bryant a Cleveland. “Se fosse nella mia bocca lo sfratterei subito."

Grover Cleveland

Cleveland però temeva che i mercati avrebbero subito un ulteriore collasso, e che la fiducia della popolazione nell’economia sarebbe stata frantumata, se si fosse venuto a sapere che aveva un cancro: una malattia così temuta all’epoca, che perfino la parola stessa veniva evitata in compagnia. Avrebbe acconsentito alla rimozione del tumore, solo se l’operazione fosse stata mantenuta segreta; persino al Vice Presidente, Adlai Stevenson, (nonno del futuro candidato alla Presidenza, nel 1952 e ‘56. ndt.). Solo i dottori del Presidente, la famiglia e gli amici più intimi sarebbero stati messi al corrente della verità.

Cleveland decise che il posto più adatto, per l’operazione segreta, sarebbe stato a bordo dell’ Oneida, uno yacht di proprietà del suo caro amico, il banchiere Elias Benedict. Il Presidente aveva accumulato più di 50000 miglia, a bordo dell’Oneida; per la maggior parte trascorse pescando nel Long Island Sound e al largo di Cape Cod. La sua presenza sul motoveliero non avrebbe destato sospetti. L’équipe di chirurghi e i suoi strumenti sarebbero stati imbarcati di nascosto, prima del Presidente. L’ operazione avrebbe avuto luogo mentre l’imbarcazione navigava fra New York e Gray Gables, che era la residenza estiva di Cleveland, nella Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts, dove sua moglie Frances lo avrebbe atteso. Al resto del mondo sarebbe parso che il Presidente fosse partito semplicemente per una crociera di piacere.
Con calma, naturalmente, il Dottor Bryant cominciò a formare la sua équipe chirurgica, che lo avrebbe assistito nell’operazione. Il primo ad essere ingaggiato fu William Williams Keen, il più celebre chirurgo del paese. Appena sei anni prima, Keen aveva eseguito la prima rimozione, felicemente conclusasi, di un tumore del cervello, negli Stati Uniti. Bryant aveva anche supervisionato le preparazioni a bordo dell’Oneida, ancorata nell’East River. La piccola e ombreggiata dinette dello yacht fu trasformata in una sala operatoria di fortuna. Fu svuotata di tutta la mobilia, eccetto l’organo, che era imbullonato al pavimento. Poi fu pulita e disinfettata. Una grande poltrona, dove il Presidente si sarebbe seduto per l’operazione,  fu assicurata all'albero che passava per il centro della cabina. Non ci sarebbe stato nessun tavolo operatorio.
L’unica luce artificiale sarebbe pervenuta da una singola lampadina elettrica, connessa a una batteria portatile. I più voluminosi componenti dell’equipaggiamento, incluse le bombole di ossigeno e di protossido di azoto, furono trasportati rapidamente sullo yacht.
Operare in quello spazio piccolo, scarsamente illuminato e poco ventilato, su una barca, presentava rischi imprevedibili. Come si diceva allora, quando tante strade non erano ancora pavimentate: se qualcosa fosse andato storto, i medici di Cleveland si sarebbero trovati col fango fino al mozzo della ruote.

Per quanto riguarda la dotazione fuori del comune di parafernale ospedaliero, all'equipaggio dell’Oneida fu detto solo che al Presidente sarebbero stati estratti due denti. Anni dopo, si scrisse che lo yacht, bianco, era stato anche dipinto di verde, per nasconderlo meglio, ma non era vero. Come riferì Benedict più tardi: “Una cosa del genere avrebbe creato quel sospetto che tutti cercavamo di evitare.” L’ intenzione era di far apparire tutto come una gita estiva, perfettamente normale, del Presidente e dei suoi amici.
Perfino secondo lo standard della “Gilded Age”, (l’era di fantastica crescita economica statunitense seguita alla Guerra Civile e alla Ricostruzione, alla fine del diciannovesimo secolo, ndt.) l’Oneida era una barca favolosa. Costruita nel 1883, e battezzata originariamente Utowana, lo yacht aveva vinto la Lundberg Cup, una regata internazionale, nel 1885.


Benedict, un appassionato di yacht, ne era rimasto talmente ammirato che l’aveva acquistata, modificata  pensando alla comodità oltre che alla velocità, e l’aveva ribattezzata Oneida, forse in onore alla prima tribù di indiani che si era schierata con gli americani durante la Rivoluzione. Misurando 138 piedi, (m 41,8) l’Oneida non era eccezionalmente grande; (per esempio, lo yacht di J.P. Morgan era lungo più del doppio); ma era veloce  e lussuosa: capace di filare a 13 nodi e ospitare confortevolmente una dozzina di persone. Aveva uno scafo di ferro, due alberi e un motore a vapore. Le cabine sottocoperta erano lussuosissime. La nave aveva l'eleganza dello schooner, la velocità della vaporiera e offriva il lusso del transatlantico. Era stata costruita a Chester, Pennsylvania, da John Roach, un brillante autodidatta irlandese, pioniere della cantieristica in ferro negli Stati Uniti. A parte aver costruito gli yachts dei ricchi e dei famosi, egli costruì anche la prima flotta di moderne navi da battaglia della Marina degli Stati Uniti. Per colmo d’ ironia, Roach morì nel 1887 di un cancro della bocca.
Nel pomeriggio del 30 giugno, W. W. Keen e quattro altri dottori, ingaggiati da Bryant in segreto, si riunirono a bordo dell’Oneida. Ognuno di loro fu traghettato a bordo dello yacht da moli diversi, per evitare d’essere notati. Anche Cleveland e Bryant salirono a bordo quella notte. Il Presidente sedette su una sdraio, sul ponte, si accese un sigaro e cominciò a chiacchierare affabilmente con i suoi chirurghi. La dolce aria della sera si colmò di piacevole conversazione e del fragrante profumo dei buoni sigari. Dopo circa trenta minuti, tutti si congedarono per la notte.

L’Oneida salpò le àncore la mattina seguente. Il tempo era perfetto e, con il sollievo di tutti, il mare era calmo. “Se dovete cozzare contro uno scoglio,” disse il Dottor Bryant al comandante, mentre la nave iniziava la navigazione, “dategli una bella botta secca, cosicché finiamo tutti quanti a fondo!”
Sottocoperta, nella dinette, i dottori si prepararono per l’operazione. Fecero bollire gli strumenti e indossarono grembiuli bianchi e intonsi sopra i loro vestiti scuri. Poco dopo mezzogiorno, il Presidente entrò nella cabina e si accomodò sulla poltrona. Mentre l’Oneida attraversava volando il Long Island Sound, Cleveland fu anestetizzato con etere e protossido di azoto. Dopodiché i chirurghi rimossero il tumore, insieme a cinque denti e buona parte del palato sinistro e della mascella.
“Mai sentii un senso di responsabilità così profondo, quasi paralizzante, come durante quell’operazione,” scrisse dopo il Dottor Keene. L’intervento durò novanta minuti. Per far sì che non rimanessero cicatrici esterne, l’operazione dovette essere fatta interamente dentro la bocca del paziente. Perfino i baffoni di Cleveland, che erano praticamente un suo marchio registrato, non furono neanche toccati, per meglio mascherare l’intervento.
Quattro giorni dopo, il 5 di luglio, Cleveland fu sbarcato a Gray Gables, la sua casa a Buzzards Bay. Prima della fine del mese, quando si trovava ancora lì, gli fu impiantata una protesi di gomma vulcanizzata, che colmava la cavità rimastagli in bocca e ripristinava la sua voce normale. Durante tutto questo tempo, alla popolazione fu comunicato che il Presidente non aveva sofferto niente di più serio di un mal di denti. Alla fine del mese, se ne andò a pescare nella Buzzards Bay, come se niente fosse successo.
Il 29 agosto però, il Philadelphia Press pubblicò un resoconto dell’intervento chirurgico. L’autore era Elisha Jay Edwards, un cronista quarantaseienne, corrispondente da New York, il quale aveva ricevuto una soffiata da parte di un amico dottore, che ne aveva sentito spettegolare. Edwards trovò conferma dell’accaduto da Ferdinand Hasbrouk, un dentista che aveva somministrato l’anestesia al Presidente sull’Oneida. Il servizio di Edwards era straordinariamente accurato e ancora oggi è menzionato come uno dei colpi più grossi, negli annali del giornalismo statunitense. Cleveland, il quale aveva sempre coltivato, con molta cura, la sua reputazione di onestà, negò risolutamente la notizia, e l’opinione pubblica gli credette. E. J. Edwards fu completamente screditato. I giornali rivali lo bollarono come “una disgrazia per il giornalismo” e “una calamità menzognera.” Benché Edwards seguitasse a lavorare fino a ventesimo secolo inoltrato, (nel 1909 divenne uno dei primi redattori del neonato Wall Street Journal), la sua carriera fu imbrattata, apparentemente per sempre, dalle illazioni che si fosse inventato di sana pianta la storia dell’operazione segreta di Grover Cleveland.

Il Presidente completò il resto del suo mandato. Visse il resto della sua vita apparentemente senza recrudescenze note di cancro. Il successo del trattamento fu un’impresa straordinaria della medicina statunitense, ma nota solo alla stretta cerchia di persone che lo sapevano. Perfino dopo la morte di Cleveland, nel 1908, il segreto resistette. Finalmente, nel 1917, W. W. Keen ruppe l’embargo pubblicando un resoconto completo dell’operazione sul Saturday Evening Post. Keen s’era sempre rammaricato di come E. J. Edwards fosse stato diffamato così ingiustamente. Rendendo pubblica la storia, disse Keen :” aveva sperato di riabilitare il Signor Edwards, un cronista che diceva la verità.”
A quel tempo, 24 anni erano già trascorsi dall’operazione, ed erano rimasti solo tre testimoni degli eventi a bordo dell’ Oneida : Keen, Elias Benedict e John Erdmann, che era stato il giovane assistente di Bryant e ora era lui stesso un chirurgo di fama. Inoltre, fra quelli ancora in vita, vi era E. J. Edwards;  e dopo che il racconto di Keene fu pubblicato, l’anziano giornalista venne sommerso da una cascata di lettere e telegrammi di congratulazioni.
La sorte finale dell’Oneida rimane sconosciuta. Nel 1914 circa, Elias Benedict vendette lo yacht, il quale fu ribattezzato Adelante e trasformato in rimorchiatore. Durante la Prima Guerra Mondiale, l’Adelante fu requisito dalla U.S. Navy, la Marina Militare degli Stati Uniti, e fu messo in servizio, nella stesura di una rete di stazioni radio marittime lungo la costa del Maine. Dopo la guerra, ritornò all’ opera come rimorchiatore, basato nel porto di New York, con i nomi di John Gulley e Salvager. Nel 1941 l’imbarcazione, che era stata uno dei più maestosi yacht al mondo, e il teatro di un episodio unico nella storia americana, sparì dai registri. Probabilmente venduta come rottame di ferro.    

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Libya from the Air

Cyrenaica: A two-seat SVA in air-cooperation with a Squadriglia of Italian Royal Army's armored cars. 

The Italian Royal Army was the first armed force in the world to employ aircraft in combat, during the 1911-12 Italo-Turkish War for the control of the territory that became modern Libya. After the end of WWI the Italian airplanes were back in force on their Fourth Shore (as the Italians called Libya), and it was there, where airplanes had fought for the first time in history, that the European colonial forces grew their wings and learned to fly.

The following is a translation of an excerpt of an Italian "Storia dell'Aviazione," written by various authors and published in weekly installments in Italy by Fratelli Fabbri Editori S.p.A. beginning in 1973 (this comes from issue N. 42).

I hope you will find it interesting, and your comments will be very appreciated.
Thank you, L. Pavese.

  Air Forces in the Colonies 

At the beginning of the war against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Italy had already been experiencing some troubles with taking control of the military situation in Libya.
During the two years from the completion of the initial occupation (1912) to the outbreak of hostilities in Europe (1914), the Italian troops had not been able to subjugate the rebel Libyan tribes or to gain complete control of the inland territories, let alone the oasis that was still in the hands of Ahmed Sharif as-Senussi, a religious chief hostile to Italy.
At the outbreak of WWI, the Italians had withdrawn all the aircraft from Libya, and they were not going to redeploy any other airplanes there until 1915. Therefore, for a period of about fifteen months, the Italians troops in Libya were deprived of the precious support of the air force, in the country where the airplane had received its baptism of fire.
Unwilling to tie down men and materials in the new colony, the Italian government gave the order to abandon all the inland garrisons, postponing the problem of the full pacification of Libya to after the end of the war in Europe. As a result, the occupation of the northern African country remained limited to a narrow band of land along the coast; but communications became precarious very soon, because coasting navigation was imperiled by enemy submarines and also because the Libyan rebels were supplied with weapons by the enemies of Italy.
As the Italian war effort increased on the European front, the disturbance actions grew in intensity on the part of the Libyans, who became more and more daring and also attacked – sometimes successfully – very important towns and garrisons.
For this reason, in the second half of 1915, the Italians were forced to rebuild an air force in Libya, not only for the purpose of maintaining communications between the garrisons but, above all, to perform a careful reconnaissance of the territory. But the requirements of the operations against the Austro-Hungarians did not permit the Italians to deploy to Libya the necessary number of aircraft, which caused the air operations to be very limited in scale; although practically every land operation was supported by aerial reconnaissance. In particular, the availability of several Caproni tri-motors, which with machine guns and light bombs easily controlled the caravans of camels crossing the desert, turned out to be very advantageous. But, above all, the availability of reconnaissance aircraft always kept the Italian military leaders well informed about the movement of the enemy and the concentrations of the guerrilla forces.

Tripolitania: a  tethered balloon extends the visual range of a mechanized unit. 

Flour from the air

In December 1918, right after the end of WWI, the Italian air force in Libya was vigorously reinforced. In mid 1919, it numbered 90 aircraft (20 of which were still being assembled) and 6 observation balloons.
The airplanes were immediately employed to extend surveillance and to maintain the mail connections among the presidios without interruptions. In several occasions, the military aircraft transported passengers, evacuated casualties and also performed demonstration flights for friendly Libyan chieftains.

Meanwhile the Italian military high command was elaborating a new strategy of movement, based precisely on the use of the air force. This new operational doctrine foresaw the almost complete elimination of burden animals, the replacement of heavy and automatic weapons with more modern ones and the assignment of several aircraft to each unit. This objective, that was eventually achieved, was to reach the high level of agility that was the only way to fight effectively the highly mobile camel-mounted rebels.
The fine-tuning of the new techniques, the training, the concentrations of troops and the completion of the necessary political steps took about three years. During that period, the contribution of the air force in Libya was significant; but the airplanes became essential in the six following years, from 1922 to 1927, when Libya was completely reconquered and totally pacified.
The Italians also employed the aircraft extensively for logistical tasks. Significant was the example of the garrison of Aziziya, cut off by the rebels who had also interrupted the railroad to Tripoli. Five Caproni tri-motors and a few reconnaissance SVA were charged with re-supplying Aziziya. In about two months, from mid February to mid April, five Caproni’s air-lifted more than forty metric tons of food and three tons of various material; they transported an entire company of Eritrean Askari (213 men) and evacuated 65 wounded and sick troops and 53 civilians.

1921: A tri-motor Caproni Ca.3 has just transported a group of Askaris to Aziziya. 

Another one has evacuated civilians.

Medevac with a Ca.3: Note the two stretchers secured to the fuselages.

And even the SVA’s carried food, by tying several bags of flour on the engine cowling with ropes. (That caused also an unusual accident, when one of the bags ripped in flight creating a flour-storm that reduced visibility to zero and forced the pilot of a SVA to crash land).

Libya 1914. Max Slevogt

The retaking of Libya.

At the beginning of 1922, the Italians started a series of wide ranging operations aimed at regaining total control of the country. Initially greater importance was given to Tripolitania, and it was clear from the beginning that the new tactics based on very mobile units supported by aircraft was bearing fruit.
In July of 1923, after one year of operations, the area of Misurata could be considered totally pacified. During that period the air force flew 2139 war missions, dropping more than 18 metric tons of bombs and fragmentation bombs. The airplanes transported more than kg 24000 of supplies, and the pilots landed many times on improvised airstrips to exchange information with the troops.

Italian bombs explode among the rebels

One of the tasks of the Italian air force was also to strafe and bomb the camps of the bands of raiders who, taking advantage of the situation, raided the peaceful Berber people.
During one of these missions, near the Egyptian border, a Caproni with a crew of four was forced to land for mechanical problems on the other side of the border. The aircraft was attacked by a band of raiders who killed the four airmen. The commanding officer was Major Ferruccio Capuzzo, the commander of the Italian air force in Cyrenaica. A fort was dedicated to his name, which was going to be the theatre of epic battles during the Second World War.
In December, when the Italian-British treaty for the definition of the Libyan - Egyptian border was signed, the oasis of Giarabub, the base of the Senussi Sect, remained in Italian territory. The immediate invasion of the oasis was decided. The occupation was completed in February of 1926 with a mechanized unit consisting of tanks, armored cars and trucks, supported by aircraft. Only a few hours after the entry of the Italian troops in the oasis the Caproni tri-motors were taking off with the mail and with the reports of the journalists  that followed the Army.
At the same time another Italian Army column headed for the oasis of Jalo.

Airfield of Slonta:  line-up of Ro.1 reconnaissance aircraft.

Just to give an idea of the conditions in which the Italian aviators were often forced to operate, these few lines excerpted from the report of Colonel Maletti, who led the unit, should suffice:
“A very violent wind was blowing...We heard the roar of an engine. That weather seemed to me absolutely forbidding for flying. The machine, that rocked in a terrifying way, flew over the field at such a low altitude that everybody thought it was looking for a place to land.
“I had the appropriate signals deployed, but the aircraft did not land.
“While it glided to launch a message, we saw it caught suddenly in a downdraft, just over the crest of of dune on which it dropped all at once at a height of not more than a meter or two.
“We thought it was doomed; but it managed to recover and it dropped a sack of bread among our tents, and in it a message in which the aviators said that the atmospheric conditions did not allow them to continue the reconnaissance and that they were forced to return to the base.
“We learned later that the aircraft (a two-seat SVA) had not returned to the base.I ordered the search to start right away...”
In fact the aircraft had been overwhelmed by the desert wind and it had been forced to do an emergency landing; but the officers, the pilot Milanti and the observer De Giuli managed to reach an Italian fort after a two days march.

Bases in the desert

In 1927 the conquest of Libya had been practically accomplished. But there remained several hotbeds of rebellion, and therefore it was necessary to intervene again in the Gebel (the Green Mountain) of Cyrenaica and proceed to the occupation of the Fezzàn and of the oasis of Kufra.
The participation of the Air force in these operations, which were completed in 1931, was actually far more demanding and risky than before. On one hand there was the all but infernal weather, the terrain that was not favorable to off-the-field landings, the interminable missions; and on the other hand the different tactics of the rebels, who had formed very small and extremely mobile units, and had given up carrying along their tents, their families, their burden animals with the baggage and basically all the impedimenta that would make them more detectable.

1927: The 37th Squadriglia SVA on the airfield of Tobruck.

The provisions for the Italian aircraft were carried by caravans of camels burdened with gasoline, oil and bombs. These caravans established forward bases near the combat zones, to allow the aviators to rearm and refuel quickly and return to the sky over the battlefield.
In the words of a pilot that participated in those operations:
“The base usually consisted of an airstrip with a rough or sandy surface (and when one had to take off at gross weight it made one’s hair stand up), a large depot full of barrels of gasoline and oil, a pile of crates of explosive and about twenty tents to house the aviators...
“The ground troops had themselves preceded, escorted and protected by the air force. The airplanes had established their base in Serdeles and they had been flying for a few days without interruption, from dawn to sunset, one pair of aircraft relieving another.
“They encountered unbelievable difficulties to orient and navigate in that fantastic ocean of sand , in which one dune resembles the other: when one thought he had fixed in one’s head the shape of a dune as a reference point, there were ten or one hundred dunes that looked just the same...
“It was not possible to land on the dunes. The wheels would sink causing the plane to overturn. The troops were too far to be able to rescue the crew, but the aviators did not think about that; they didn’t want to...”

1931: Lieutenant Colonel Lordi, chief of staff of the Italian Air Force in Cyrenaica, with Prince  Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, after a reconnaissance flight over Kufra. (Lordi would die in the March 24, 1944  massacre of Fosse Ardeatine .)    
In January of 1931, with the invasion and occupation of the oasis of Kufra ( in which Italian aircraft flew over areas never before overflown by anybody), the conquest of Libya was finally completed; although mopping up operations against isolated bands of rebels went on for some time after that.
Although in the language of the time most of the missions in Libya were called “Colonial police operations,” it is obvious that they were truly military operations. In particular the constant air support given to the land units expanded the operational horizon and demonstrated the possibility of a very close cooperation between ground and air forces.

A few years later, with more advanced techniques and aided by radio communications, the Germans first and later the Allies would demonstrate beyond doubt the validity of the concept of air-cooperation with ground forces.

Something else was going on in Eastern Africa; but that's another story.