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51° Sturmo History
IL 51° STORMO CACCIA "Ferruccio Serafini" - by Nicola Malizia
Copyright N.Malizia/F.McMeiken - Publication prohibited
Translated by Frank McMeiken
This work appear here by courtesy of the author, Nicola Malizia.
Nicola Malizia is also author of several books, including a comprehensive history of 51° Stormo caccia (Quelli del Gatto Nero, I 60 anni di storia del 51°Stormo - 1939-1999)
More news can be found at the author's website:
The beginning
With Foglio d'Ordini N.029/2 dated 25 September 1939 the Stato Maggiore of the Regia Aeronautica decreed the constitution of the 51°Stormo Caccia Terrestre, a definition used a the time to distinguish land based fighter units from the small number of Caccia Marittima - seaplane fighter - units. The date of formation of the unit was fixed for 1 October 1939. Inserted into the structure of the 3^Z.A.T. (Zona Aerea Territoriale), which covered Lazio and Tuscany, the new unit, commanded by Ten.Colonnello Pilota Umberto Chiesa, was established at Ciampino Sud airfield, controlling the 20°Gruppo (Squadriglie 351^/352^/353^) and 21°Gruppo C.T. (Squadriglie 354^/355^/356^), a standard structure for a fighter Stormo of the period. Equipped with early series FIAT G.50, the unit commenced and intensive training period, driven by the events unfolding in a part of Eastern Europe: the beginnings of the Second World War, when, on 1 September of the same year, had entered into Poland. On 1 January 1940 the 51°Stormo C.T. became a part of the 8^Brigata Caccia, a major Unitá Aerea which parented our unit together with the 52°Stormo C.T. and the 88°Gruppo Autonomo C.M., the latter disbanded shortly afterwards. The formation of the 8^ Brigata Caccia offered the occasion to each unit to adopt an original insignia, which we can define as being the first emblem of the 51°Stormo Caccia: a wolf, red in colour, on a black background, with the "Hostibus Terror" for the 51°Stormo C.T., and a black wolf on a red background with the motto "Ad Hostes Ululans" for the 52°Stormo C.T..
The Black Cat
Another emblem was, however, shortly to be adopted by the 51°tormo Caccia, still in the spring of that tumultuous 1940, an emblem derived above all from the traditional and 'sportive' rivalries played out between fighter and bomber crews, given the presence on the same airfield, on the North Side, of the 12°Stormo B.T., whose emblem at that time featured three green mice, evidence of the international records captured by the unit's S.79 during the pre-war period. The frequent practice attack on the Capital, the defence of which being entrusted initially to FIAT CR 32, incapable of confronting the "incursori" (avenger), gave rise to much playful discussion on the base until finally, when during one of the last exercises, the FIAT G.50 were available, technically more capable of spoiling the usual triumph of the tri-motors of the "Sorci Verdi".(Green Mice). The supremacy of the FIAT G.50 aroused the enthusiasm of the pilots of the 51°Stormo C.T., and one of these, the then Ten.Vincenzo Sant'Andrea, an able designer, painted on the fin of a G.50 a Black Cat [Gatto Nero] which was pouncing on three Green Mice. Despite the annoyance of the aircrew of the 12°Stormo B.T., who used their influence and prestige to try to provoke the prohibition of the badge, the Stato Maggiore RA took a wise and prudent decision....yes to the Mice, but instead of green, they had to be grey. Eventually, this compromise was accepted by both sides, although later, with the commencement of hostilites, and with the 20°Gruppo C.T. inserted into the 56°Stormo C.T., a unit which was assigned to the C.A.I. (Corpo Aereo Italiano), sent to Belgium to partecipate in the "Battle of Britain", all the personnel of the unit of C.O. Comandante Mario Bonzano changed the colour of the mice to green, and they have remained so coloured to this day!
World War Two
After the declaration of war against France and Great Britain, the 20°Gruppo C.T. assumed responsibility for the defence of the Capital, while other units, initially the 356^Squadriglia of the 21°Gruppo C.T., moved to the airfield at Capodichino to defend the Napoli area. Here the unit, in the light of its predicted inability to guarantee an adequate night alert service with the FIAT G.50, was re-equipped with FIAT CR 32, FIAT CR 42, while the 'daylight only' FIAT G.50 were joined by a few Macchi MC 200, although these too were similarly not suited to night operations. A similar initiative involved the 20°Gruppo C.T. which, remaining at Ciampino Sud, established one of the first alert detachments of the Regia Aeronautica at Guidonia, with a fleet of FIAT CR 32 "quater".
51° Stormo disbanded: British Channel, Greek and Lybia operations (1940-41)
In mid-summer 1940 important structural changes initiated within the 3^ZAT placed the 51°Stormo Caccia in the position of a reparto quadro [disbanded]. The 20°Gruppo C.T. was transferred to the forming 56°Stormo C.T., incorporated in the CAI, and destined to operate from bases in Belgium, while the 21°Gruppo C.T., declared a reparto autonomo [autonomous unit], passed two of its Squadriglie, the 354^ and 355^, to the 24°Gruppo Autonomo C.T., which was posted to the Greek front on the commencement of operations in this new Balkan theatre. In Belgium, the 20°Gruppo C.T., operating within the CAI, was incorporated into the Luftwaffe II Fliegerkorps, assuming the German designation of 20/Jagdgeswader 56. The unit retained on the fins of its FIAT G.50 the untouchable "Gatto Nero", still with grey mice, but which gradually were turning green. The operational base of the 20°Gruppo C.T. was that at Maldegem, where in truth the unit failed to make any valid impression in the contest on this difficult front. In the two memorable encounters in British skies, involving mainly the other unit of the 56°Stormo C.T., the 18°Gruppo Caccia, the 20° remained definitely outside the action, and never engaged with aircraft of the R.A.F. Nonetheless, its contribution was still valid, as the unit was assigned the task of mounting difficult continuous patrols along the Channel coasts, suffering its share of losses, with two pilots killed and one gravely injured. On the return of the entire CAI in Italia, two units of the 20°Gruppo Autonomo C.T. (352^ and 353^), which remained alone for a few months in Belgium, were offered the possibility of re-equipping with German Bf 109F, a proposal voiced in April 1941. Unfortunately for the unit, Bonzano was ordered to return to Italy.
Meanwhile, at Ciampino Sud airfield, on 15 January 1941 a new unit as formed, destined to become intertwined with the story of the reformed 51°Stormo C.T., which at the time was still a reparto quadro. In fact, the 155°Gruppo Autonomo C.T. (Squadriglie 351^,360^.378^) was formed, equipped with a brand new fleet of FIAT G.50 "bis", and just before the end of the same month the entire unit was transferred to the Libyan front. In the arid and empty desert sands of the Marmaris plain the unit, commanded by Luigi Bianchi, joined the struggle of the desert war, sacrificing men and machines in a battle that did not always produce the desired successes despite the intense effort. The unit lost eight men and many aircraft, remaining in the operational sector until December 1941.
Following a brief period at Ciampino Sud, the 20°Gruppo Autonomo C.T., returning from airfields in Belgium, Holland, and France, where it had operated for seven months, was requipped with FIAT G.50 "bis". In May 1941 the unit was also transferred to the Libyan front, performing the same role as the 155°Gruppo Autonomo C.T., and on many occasions finding itself engaged in operations in the same sector. Further casualties added to the long list of combat losses, and amongst these was the outstanding figure, decorated with the Medaglia d'Oro al V.M., of Cap.Mario Montefusco, Commander of the 151^Squadriglia, shot down on 4 July 1941. At the end of 1941 both the 20° and 155°Gruppo Autonomo C.T. made a bitter return to Italy.
The Malta years (1942-43)
On 1 January 1942, under Foglio N.30014/S issued by the Comando 3^Squadra Aerea, the 51°Stormo Caccia Terrestre was reconstituted, being placed under the command of Col. Pil. Aldo Remondino, and parenting the 20°Gruppo C.T. (Squadriglie 151^/352^/353^) and 155°Gruppo C.T. (Squadriglie 351^/360^/378^). The Stormo's flying equipment comprised Macchi MC 200, FIAT G.50 "bis", a few FIAT CR 42, some Caproni Vizzola F.5, Nardi F.N. 305, and a sole Caproni Ca 164, the latter two types being assigned to liaison duties. Training was under way on the G.50 "bis" and Macchi MC 200, in view of the predicted arrival of a new fighter aircraft, the Macchi MC 202 "Folgore", the first example of which joined the "Gatto Nero" unit on 24 March 1942. First unit to completely re-equip with the new fighter was the 155°Gruppo C.T. of Comandante Duilio Fanali, and which just before the end of May was transferred to the airfield at Gela, in Sicilia, ready to launch, together with other units of the Regia Aeronautica and Luftwaffe, the siege of the island of Malta. It was joined in June by the 20°Gruppo C.T. of Comandante Gino Callieri. Thus commenced the period in which the men of the "Gatto Nero" wrote their most heroic, glorious, and tragic pages of their war history, pages featuring sacrifice and courage, suffering, and many deaths, 20 young pilots and several ground crew. Their role was to confront with their Macchi C.202, in the skies over Malta, the British island, the fearsome Spitfire Vc and Vb, excellent fighters controlled by their capable Fighter Directors under the watchful eyes of the radar stations positioned in various locations throughout the island fortress, on which the hopes and illusions of the Germans and Italians eventually were to founder. However, in those skies over the central Mediterranean acts of sublime heroism abounded, as pilots died in the flower of their youth. The most glorious figure was that of Cap. Pilota Furio Niclot Doglio, Commander of the 151^Squadriglia, shot down on 27 July 1942 during a desperate fight against two separate flights of Spitfire V. He was awarded a posthumous Medaglia d'Oro al V.M. Although many aircraft of the RAF were shot down over the British island, the enemy's supremacy, boosted by its radar and the use of the Enigma machine to decode Ultra signals traffic, together with the American landing in North Africa, grew in an unmatchable manner. The Italo-German forces had no other choice than to offer their final extreme sacrifice, eventually ending in tragedy. A large part of the Macchi MC 202 of the 51°Stormo C.T. were able to withdraw to the airfields in Tunisia, where they met for the first time aircraft of the USAAF. The personnel continued to fight and die for their country until the inevitable happened, and the unit withdrew to the friendly airfield of Ciampino Sud.
Sardinia (1943)
After a few months of relative relaxation, despite the involvement of a few sections of Macchi MC 202, detached to Napoli Capodichino and Capua airfields in defence of the Napoli area, in May 1943 the 20°Gruppo C.T., equipped with a few new Macchi MC 205 "Veltro" together with thirty MC 202, flew to the airfield at Capoterra near Cagliari, followed by the 378^Squadriglia of the 155°Gruppo C.T. This Gruppo was detached instead to Monserrato, where it awaited the arrival of the other two of its units, detached to Sardegna during June. Sardegna offered the men of the 51°Stormo C.T. the last act of their heroic resistance through the daily battles against vast formations of Anglo-American fighters and bombers, recording victories and defeats. In the sky over Sardegna, and over the seas that separate it from Tunisia, and even over the Capoterra airfield, the unit lost another 17 pilots and 10 ground personnel. Amongst these heroic victims fell four heroes, decorated with posthumous Medaglia d'Oro al V.M, Capitani Piloti Italo D'Amico and Paolo Damiani, Sergente Pilota Ferruccio Serafini, and M.llo Pil.Luigi Bianchi, and on 2 August 1943 the Bandiera di Guerra of the Unit was decorated with the Medaglia d'Argento al V.M., an initial and merited recognition of the sacrifice and courage of the personnel of the "Gatto Nero".
After the armistice (September 8th, 1943): the ICAF years
After the events of the Armistice of 8 September 1943, and the eventual recovery from several intricate situations, the 51°Stormo Caccia figured amongst the first units of the reconstituted Aeronautica Militare Italiana, which concentrated in the South with a few units, continued, now alongside the Allies, the fight against the Nazi presence. It was another page of struggle and suffering, with aircraft weary from their long battles. The 20°Gruppo C.T. alone received Spitfire Vc, inherited from a Jugoslavian unit that had received them in turn from the R.A.F. The 20° and 155°Gruppo C.T. were joined by the 21°Gruppo Caccia (Squadriglie 361^/386^): thus other heroic men were added to the long list of those who performed with honour, and who made the supreme sacrifice. The War of Liberation conducted in the South cost the 51°Stormo C.T. another ten fatalities. Finally came peace, and the great desire for a new beginning.
After WW2 - Transfer to Northern Italy - Spitfires IXC and Mustang P51D (1946-1951)
With the ending in July 1946 of Macchi MC 205 operations, ceded shortly after to the 5°Stormo, and having operated for a few weeks with the few Spitfire Vc of the 20°Gruppo C.T., in the same month the 51°Stormo C.T., stationed at Lecce airfield, received its first Spitfires IXc, aircraft considered as 'war residue', certainly not new, but equally tired after a long operational career with the squadrons of the R.A.F. In the month of June 1947 the 20° and 21°Gruppo Caccia relocated to the Vicenza "Dal Molin" airfield, while on 24 July of the same year the 155°Gruppo C.T. was deployed to the base at Treviso S.Angelo. The following year, 1948, saw the transfer of the 20° and 21° Gruppi to the base at Treviso, where the 155° Gruppo and Comando di Stormo were already located. Finally the units of the "Gatto Nero" were together again, and they undertook intense operational activity on the Spitfire IXc. The Spitfire IXc, graceful to see in their silver livery, were no longer reliable fighters, suffering from fatigue in every component, and above all in their engines. This induced the SMAM to suspend and reauthorise their activity following numerous accidents, some fatal, which afflicted both the 51° and 5° Stormo, the latter also flying the famous British fighter. The technicians of the 51°Stormo Caccia recount how they lacked even basic aircraft maintenance manuals and sufficient spare parts to perform repairs on their aircraft. Spitfires IXc operations were concluded just before the end of 1950, when first the 155°Gruppo C.T. was re-equipped in October with the North American P-51D "Mustang", transferring from Treviso to Ghedi, where on 1 January 1951 it gave life to the reconstituted 6°Stormo C.T. On 18 December 1950 the first three Republic P-47D "Thunderbolt", arrived at Treviso San Angelo, quickly reinforced by further examples for operations by the 20° and 21°Gruppo which changed their designations from Caccia Terrestre to Caccia Bombardieri.
The jet era (1951-1954)
Operation of the P-47D gave the 51°Stormo C.B., although in less measure that which disastrously affected the 5° Stormo, also re-equipped with the "Thunderbolt", serious problems of serviceability and safety, given that these mastodontic fighters were also war veterans. Nevertheless, the P-47 of the "Gatto Nero" provoked the loss of 4 piloti, two from the 20°Gruppo, one from the 21°, and a fourth from the 22°Gruppo C.B., a Gruppo that was reformed on 1 February 1953 to receive those "Thunderbolt" still considered capable of flight. The 22° was transfered South, operating from the airfields at Gioia del Colle and Amendola, during the period in which the 21°Gruppo C.B. initially, and subsequently the 20°, were equipped with the new jet fighter, the Republic F-84G "Thunderjet", ceded under the MAP. These jets were operated from Aviano airfield while the unit waited for the completion of its definitive base, the new and modern airfield at Istrana. On 1 November 1951 at Vicenza 'Dal Molin' airfield the 56th Tactical Air Force was constituted, incorporating the three units in the North: 5°, 6° and 51°Stormo Caccia. Within the 56th TAF, on 1 February 1953 it was decided to transform the "Stormi" into "Aerobrigate", increasing their standard structure from two to three flying Gruppi. "Thunderjet" activity was intense, although the unit registered two sad losses, one for each Gruppo. Finally, between February and March 1954 the unit took possession of the finished base at Istrana, although it still lacked adequate structures. However, the enthusiasm of youth made this easy and possible.
Gold Medal
20 June 1954: the Medaglia d'Oro al V.M. is assigned to the Bandiera di Guerra of the 51°Stormo C.B. On this bright and warm day, the Istrana base was decked out for a solemn festival, and the Presidente della Repubblica, Sen.Luigi Einaudi, visited the base of the 51°Stormo Caccia to attach to its Bandiera di Guerra the Medaglia d'Oro al Valor Militare. Homage and honour to the units' fallen, honoured in a solemn ceremony, highlight of which was the superb exhibition by the acrobatic team of the "Gatti Neri", the celebrated future Tigri Bianche, well known in Italy and abroad.
1°Stormo Caccia Intercettori (1956-1961)
On 1° May 1956 the unit was inserted into the 51^Aerobrigata. On 2 November 1955 the first two North American (FIAT) F-86K arrived at Istrana airfield, destined to form the equipment of the first Gruppo of the 1°Stormo C.OT., the 6°Gruppo. This unit had been collecting under its insignia and within its structure all the aircraft that were steadily arriving from Fiat at Caselle Torinese, together with all the personnel that would rebuild another famous unit with a similarly celebrated emblem (Incocca - Tende - Scaglia). After the 6°Gruppo COT it was the turn of the 17°, and in December of 1956 it was possible to reform the 23°, which, due to the impossibility of operating from the crowded Istrana base, was detached to Pisa S.Giusto. At Istrana, meanwhile, the 21° and 22° Gruppi were re-equipped with the Republic F-84F "Thunderstreak". The 20°Gruppo C.B. had been placed into the "reparto quadro" position (disbanded) just before the advent of the F-86K, during October of 1955. The life and activity of the 1°Stormo Caccia Intercettori Ognitempo (all-weather interceptors) lasted until 1 May 1959, when the unit was transformed into the 1^Aerobrigata Intercettori Teleguidati, organising initially around the 6° and 17°Gruppo, while the 23°Gruppo COT at Pisa continued to operate the F-86K. The same aircraft, formerly of the 6° and 17°Gruppo COT, finished up, together with a large part of the dependent personnel, serving with the 22° and 21°Gruppo. In the space of only four years the same pilots and the same technicians of the 20°Gruppo C.B., later the 6°Gruppo COT, found themselves reunited under the insignia and codes of the 22°Gruppo COT. The Istrana base now resounded with the roar of the new AMI jets, capable of breaking the sound barrier, if only in a steep dive. On 1 September 1961 the 51^Aerobrigata absorbed within its ranks the Reparto Volo Tattici Leggeri, equipped with FIAT G.91/R1, aircraft coming from the 14° and 103°Gruppo CTL of the 2°Stormo, which changed their insignia from that of the "Cavaliere Errante" to that of the "Gatto Nero". The permanence of the FIAT G.91/R1 within the 51^A/B lasted until the end of 1963.
The "Starfighter" era (1961-1972)
n the context of the technical and structural renewal of the Aeronautica Militare, and destined to bolster the fleets of some of the fighter units, Italy entered into the era of the Lockheed F-104G "Starfighter", the first examples of which were assigned in March 1963 to the 9°Gruppo of the 4^Aerobrigata. The second unit to receive the type was the 21°Gruppo COT of the 51^A/B, which having passed on its F-84F, on 1 September of the same year commenced transition onto the new aircraft at Grosseto airbase, which had become the "Centro di Qualificazione F-104". From Grosseto, in the following year the 21°Gruppo C.I. moved to Cameri airfield, where in practice it assumed autonomous status, despite retaining for a time the codes and insignia of the 51^A/B. These were eventually changed to that of "21", an unusual code for A.M. gruppi, which was painted on the side of the noses of the Starfighters together with the "Gatto Nero" on the fins until the date of 1 April 1967. On this day, with the reconstitution of the 53°Stormo, the F-104G of the 21°Gruppo C.I. cancelled the badge of the "Gatto Nero" from their fins, and replaced it with that of the Asso di Spade, the historical emblem of the reborn piemontese unit. The 22° and 23°Gruppo COT continued to operate the veteran North American (FIAT) F-86K, the first from the base at Istrana, the second from 1 July 1964 from that of Rimini Miramare, having abandoned the airfield at Pisa S.Giusto. Over the following few years the activity of the F-86K, intense and constant, was able of completing all the operational tasks assigned to the "Gatto Nero" units by the SMAM: permanent "Alert H24" missions, from its home base, or "Alert HJ" from bases in the South, air-to-air weapons camps to achieve the requisite Combat Readyness, held at the CAT at Brindisi initially and later at Decimomannu. Meanwhile, the 'old, indestructable, and Noble' 651^Squadriglia Collegamenti e Bersagli performed all the activity inherent in the training of anti-aircraft units of the units of the Marina Militare, Esercito, and Aeronautica, utilising the excellent Lockheed T/RT-33A, equipped to tow various types of target through the sky. On 12 September 1967 the SMAM decided to abolish the Aerobrigate and to dust off the old designation of Stormo, altering the establishment of flying units within a Stormo from three to two Gruppi. On 9 June 1969, when a large part of the personnel - pilots and technicians of the 22°Gruppo C.I. - were to be found at Cameri, after the unit has passed all its F-86K to the 23°Gruppo CIO at Rimini, from Torino Caselle came the first of the F-104S destined to join the unit of the 51°Stormo, which in this circumstance had bee afforded absolute priority. The first 5 F-104S were ferried later and definitively to Istrana on 20 September 1969, intensifying their activity in view of the re-acquisition of the necessary Combat Readyness. They would soon commence the mounting of "Alert HJ" operations from the basic [at that time] airfield at Trapani Birgi, where the first Cellula d'Allarme [Alert Cell] arrived during 1972.
The "Circolo of the 51"
n accordance with the precise instruction issued by the SMAM on 1 March 1971, which ordered that every Stormo of the Aeronautica Militare should be named after a hero belonging to the unit, it was decided to dedicate the 51°Stormo to the memory of Ferruccio Serafini, of Falcade (Belluno), Medaglia d'Oro al V.M., who fell in air combat in the skies of Sardegna on 22 July 1943. It should be noted that Istrana airfield is titled in the memory of Vittorio Bragadin, from Treviso, also a holder of the Medaglia d'Oro al V.M., representing the 101°Gruppo Bombardamento a Tuffo, and shot down over Malta on 5 November 1941 by violent British anti-aircraft fire while engaged with his unit in a night dive-bomber attack. With effect from 23 March 1973, by when the 23°Gruppo C.I. at Rimini had already received its first Lockheed F-104S (9.3.73), the unit was absorbed into the structure of the 5°Stormo, where it still represents the sole fighter unit of the Stormo, today based at Cervia. In accordance with Foglio SMA Nr.11/0518/G3-6/62, dated 10 September 1973, the 155°Gruppo CBOS, formerly of the 50°Stormo, but traditional unit Gruppo of the "Gatto Nero", was transferred from Piacenza to Istrana. The first F-104S for the Panther [Pantere] unit arrived at the Veneto base on 24 October 1973. This situation would last for around eight years, until 1 January 1985, when a new order detached the 155°Gruppo CBOS from the 51°Stormo, and passed it under the control of the 6°Stormo at Ghedi. On 1 January 1988 the "Nucleo Addestramento Operativo e Standardizzazione velivolo AMX" was constituted at Istrana and assigned to the 51°Storno. The new AMX fighterbomber, built in partnership with Brasil, was assigned initially to the 103°Gruppo, and which in turn was transferred to the control of the 51°Stormo [1.1.1989] In July of the following year it was the turn of the 132°Gruppo, also equipped with AMX, to detach from 3°Stormo at Verona Villafranca and reinforce the structure of the "Gatto Nero". These aircraft assumed the responsibility of performing and continuing the new missions assigned to the Istrana unit, both at home and abroad. The two Gruppi have played a full part in the NATO sanctioned war operations over the territory of the former Jugoslavia , and continue to their professional and unheralded defensive vigil of Italian territory and airspace, carrying both at home and abroad the celebrated "Gatto Nero" insignia....perennially painted on their aircrafts' fins. This history of the 51°Stormo of Istrana (Treviso), a unit considered one of the elite on the strength of its wartime record. The Stormo's casualties, who died in battle, for the sacred destiny of Italy, or who were killed in peacetime operations, and for the passion which constantly drove them on, have written, together with those who survived their time with this famous unit, the most glorious pages of history under a memorable and indestructible insigna: the Gatto Nero with its eternal rivals, the three green mice.
Copyright N.Malizia/F,McMeiken
Publication Prohibited - Story registered in Notary Study in Rimini
Translated by Frank McMeiken