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Alan Righetti's 95th birthday on the 15th of March 2013, in his Sunshine Coast home, was a very memorable occasion. Alan was visited by fellow Kittyhawk pilot Tom Russell (also 95) who had travelled up especially from Sydney to celebrate their friendship of over seventy years. They also recalled the air combat of Friday, January 22nd 1943; when both of their names became linked inextricably with that of Major Joachim Müncheberg, an outstanding German Ace who claimed them both as "kills" on that day, high above the north-western coast of Libya, North Africa...
Ironically, Müncheberg was to live for only eight more weeks after that day, whereas his two "kills" are still very much with us after 70 years!
[Left to Right:] Tom Russell , Janet Righetti and Alan Righetti, displaying some of the wonderful books sent to Alan by historians from all over the world.
Friday, 22 January, 1943...
Tom and Alan had already flown a total of 25 Kittyhawk fighter-bomber missions together when this fateful Friday dawned. - Little did they know that their 26th mission together would be the last time that these two friends would see each other for several years!
The No.3 Squadron "Operations Record Book" shows that the Squadron mounted a trio of attacks on 22 January 1943. The second operation, involving eleven Merlin-engined Kittyhawk II aircraft, took off at 1235. Their mission was to bomb and strafe motor transport on the Mediterranean coast road near Zuara, Libya, in concert with a dozen Kittyhawks of 450 Squadron. 450SQN was armed with multiple anti-personnel bombs and while 3 Squadron also carried high-explosive bombs, 3 Squadron were mainly tasked to provide "top cover" for 450SQN during the strafing phase of the operation.
The planned number of 3SQN aircraft was 12, but Bob Ulrich's Kitty had failed to take off with the rest of the group, leaving a gap in the formation. Tom Russell is listed as taking off at 8th position in the 3SQN formation, Alan Righetti in 10th position.
On the way out, Murray Knox's fighter couldn't keep up with the formation and he turned back early. That left ten 3SQN Kittyhawks heading into action.
Tripolitania, Libya. January 1943. An aerial view of Axis transport streaming in a long line along the road to Zuara during the German retreat from Tripoli.
The shadows cast by the vehicles hurrying westward look like an avenue of trees beside the road. [AWM MED1237]
The Australian aircraft flew northwest across central Libya in fine weather, from their desert base at Uadi Sirru. The 3SQN formation was led by Flight Lieutenant Ron Watt, who was in turn following the 450SQN formation, which was flying ahead of them at 9,000ft. They spotted traffic near the town of Zelten, just west of Zuara, and 3SQN dropped their bombs first. 3SQN's Bombs straddled the road, which was packed with trucks. Light 20mm anti-aircraft fire hose-piped up towards them. Then 450 Squadron strafed the vehicles and dropped 40lb anti-personnel bombs (up to six per aircraft) along five miles of the road below, setting two large fires where Axis petrol tankers had been refuelling the trucks.
Next, according to the 3 Squadron Operations Record Book, four white-nosed Messerschmitt Bf109Fs were spotted whistling in from above, as the Kittyhawks were climbing and regrouping after their bomb run. (One of the least-endearing characteristics of the Kittyhawk was its relatively sluggish climb performance.)
The Germans were in fact from the formidable Commanding Officer's flight ("Stabschwarm") of Fighter Group JG77. They were led by Major Joachim Müncheberg, at that time one of Germany's top aces with 127 victory claims.
The handsome Major Joachim Müncheberg,
showing the "Knight's Cross" decoration with Oak Leaves and Crossed Swords
that he received personally from Hitler.
The 3 Squadron records then go on to say, quite brusquely, that Tom Russell "received slight shrapnel wounds in the arm" during the Messerschmitts' zooming attack.
Tom's own description (recorded in 1990) is somewhat more exciting:
"... I got cut off and I was attacked by four 109s ... They hit me in the left arm and they shot my cockpit about a bit, but my aircraft was quite flyable, except I didn't have any instruments. ...[Afterwards] Rod McKenzie allowed me to formate on him and Dave Ritchie was there, he was leading our section, and they escorted me back to the aerodrome, where I landed. ... I wasn't badly injured ... I could see the blood had begun to run down my sleeve, but I had no discomfort from it and I was quite okay."
Tom's safe landing back at base after flying 200 kilometres with his smashed cockpit instruments and injuries was a considerable feat of airmanship. The cannon-shell hits on his aircraft had been sufficiently spectacular for Müncheberg to have claimed Tom as a "kill". Tom recalls that his cockpit canopy had been jammed shut by the impact of Müncheberg's hits. (It had to be levered open by his ground crew once he was back at base. Obviously this would have been a fatal trap, had the aircraft caught fire, so Tom was very lucky.) Tom was treated for his injuries by the Squadron doctor and was flying combat operations again five days later.
The 3SQN Operations Record Book then continues on in its clipped manner, saying, "Sergeant Righetti was lagging and was shot down, but was seen to parachute safely." Alan's memories, recorded on his Veterans Affairs video in 2003, are somewhat less clipped! (And as will become clear, Alan's formation leader had been hasty to have judged that he was "lagging"...)
...We hit a few trucks and things on the road, and then we climbed up, and we were heading south into the desert when I saw three (apparently there were four, but I saw three) 109s at "Angels Two", that's another 2000 feet above us, at two o'clock, circling around to come behind us. So I called up our leader, who was one of the newer squadron commanders, and said, "Enemy aircraft two o'clock!"
A voice said, "I see them!"
- So you keep quiet then, you don't break radio silence.
I watched them come around, until they got right to six o'clock [directly behind], the usual thing, and then they made their classic attack. They dived down, I suppose 500 feet below us and then came up underneath, and still nothing from the leader. So, if that happens, you can call 'Turn About!' yourself and everybody turns at the same time. So I said, "Turn about right! Shabby aircraft go!" ("Shabby" was our call sign.)
As I turned, I nearly hit the leader as I went around. Nobody else had got the message. Now in the heat of the moment I didn't really realise that they were not coming with me. I saw blue flashes on one of our own aeroplanes at the rear of our six and I opened up. As they came up they flew through the stream of lead that I was firing, but I didn't see any damage, and the next moment I'm alone. At that speed, aeroplanes disappear very quickly and I just couldn't believe that all of a sudden I was left there with three 109s... You don't think very well when you get a shock like that and I called out, "Give me a hand back here" and a few adjectives, if I remember rightly!
The next moment I'm twisting and turning amongst these 109s but they did it very professionally. There was one on one side, one on the other and one above me. If I turned into the one on the right I would expose the belly of the aircraft to the one on the left but I diced around for a little while, I think not flying terribly well, because I couldn't quite believe it - still - that I was left to it. If I had, I'd have rolled on my back, dived for the deck (because the Kittyhawk used to dive very fast, it was such a big, heavy aeroplane) and got right down to ground level, and tried to stream away from him. But having shot down a 109 a few days before, I was a little bit cocky and I thought I might get one!
...In actual fact I wasn't going too badly, when I felt this BANG in the base of the aeroplane and I felt my legs go numb below the knees. Some shrapnel had hit the throttle quadrant and opened up my hand a bit, and the aeroplane went into a spin. So I pushed the joystick forward (to keep your airspeed, which you must do to get out of a spin in a Kittyhawk), kicked on the opposite rudder and held it, and she came out of the spin still diving very quickly, and I knew she was flyable.
So I began to think, "I'm going to be OK." I started pulling back on the stick and looking around to see that I wasn't being followed down, and I wasn't. The cockpit was pretty full of smoke. I wound the canopy back, rather than jettisoning it. I wasn't in much of a panic and I started to pull it back to where she was almost straight and level, still looking around.
I had heard a voice over the radio say, "There's one of your chaps in trouble back there, Shabby aircraft!" That was 450 Squadron.
They'd got my radio message but nobody in my group had and I could feel the blood running down the back of my legs, so I knew what had happened - a 20mm cannon shell had exploded in under the seat. Of course the armour plating is very thick that you're sitting on and behind your back, but there's no protection from the seat down, but "I'm going to be OK." So I wound the canopy back, had the aircraft just about straight-and-level and a tongue of flame started to come in, from the left mainplane, over the edge of the cockpit.
Now my belief always was that with those things, if they start to burn, get out! Don't attempt to crash land them because so many chaps used to get down to perhaps three or four hundred feet and then their aeroplane would blow up, or it would burn too much for them, and they'd lose their lives. So I set about getting out pretty quickly.
I first went to pull my helmet off, and the strap was tight (I suppose I was pulling down instead of out). I couldn't get it off quickly and easily, so I did two things.... I undid the harness and let go of the joystick to grab the helmet with both hands, and the aircraft was still nose-heavy with that big heavy engine, and it bunted me forward, just like a cork out of a bottle.
I went straight out of the top over the windscreen, smacking my knees on the windscreen as I went out. I felt my neck crick as my helmet came off with my oxygen mask and everything on it, and the next moment I'm in the air beside the burning aircraft, and I pulled the ripcord.
As I pulled the ripcord the aircraft blew up...
The aeroplane just moved away immediately. You don't seem to move when you're in a parachute. It's virtually like being suspended. The aeroplane dropped away quickly, just a mass of flame. I just got singed a little bit over the eyebrows and forehead, and a little bit on my arm. The parachute opened beautifully and I always had it pretty tight, and I had no problem with it opening.
People say, "You must have been terrified." - No, the great feeling is one of relief to be out of the burning aeroplane. You just had that feeling, "I'm alive. I'm out of it!"
The other great experience is one of silence. It is absolutely dead silent, after the noise and the crashing and the action that you'd been through. All of a sudden, you're just hanging in the air. So I had a good look around to see that the 109s were not coming back or anything. No sign of anything in the sky at all, just my aeroplane going down and crashing.
I started to take a pretty good look at where I was going to land and it was really nothing but medium-sized sand dunes, perhaps 30 feet high. I could see away in the distance a bit of a donkey track but nothing else at all. I started to sort of side-slip the parachute a little bit, trying to get towards those donkey tracks, but I was a bit nervous about that because I had no experience with it, using a parachute. I thought I might spill the air out and cause it to collapse, so I didn't do very much of that.
I was at about 5000 feet when all this happened, so there was no panic and my legs were completely numb by this time. My hand was a bit of a mess and I had a bit of a gash over my eye where the oxygen mask had been jerked off. It had opened up my forehead but I thought I wasn't in too bad shape.
I landed fairly heavily, but not too badly (because my legs were numb I didn't really feel that too much) on the side of a sand dune, I suppose a mile away from where the aeroplane was burning. I could see the smoke. I opened up my trouser legs and had a look at the wounds, and I thought, "I'm going to lose both legs." They looked a terrible mess. Actually there were lots and lots of little bits of shrapnel, but you're not experienced with those sorts of things, and it looked to me as if I could easily lose both legs.
So I cut up the parachute. I had a pocket knife and bound up my legs, and my hand, and I thought, "Well, here I go, towards those donkey tracks, so I'll stand up here," and there was no way that I could stand up.
I thought, "Well my legs are not hurting. They're numb. I must be able to!" - I could not. Nothing I could do to stand up.
An aeroplane from 450 Squadron (Coded "OK" instead of our "CV" ) came in low, and I waved. I thought, "Well at least they'll know I'm alive."
He apparently dropped rations to me. (Which I didn't find out until after the war - I was told that.) I made very slow progress, because I was only able to go from hip to shoulder.
I did this for about an hour and I came upon a sort of an orange-type fruit on a bush, and there was a bit of shade there, so I got in under that for a while. I thought, "I'll find out whether these things are edible and I'll just take it a bit quietly, and make off later on. There's no panic." Then I saw the shoulders and heads of two Arabs on the other side of the dune, going towards the smoke of the aeroplane. I sang out and they got quite a fright, and came over very cautiously to me.
I knew a few words of Arabic and I had a little Arabic dictionary, so I said, "Inglesi? [English?] ..faloose"; money. "Igri"; quickly. "Homar"; donkey. "Multi-faloose"; plenty of money....
- "Oh right!"
I gave one of them, who seemed to be the leader, my pocket knife as a present. I had my Smith and Wesson .38 calibre [revolver] ...but I just left that where it was, as they seemed quite friendly, and had a bit of a look at my legs. The blood was coming through the parachute a bit, but one of them stayed with me and the other one went away. I was trying to make conversation, not very successfully and then the first chap came back, in about I suppose half an hour, with a beautiful donkey, a nice big strong donkey, and a white sheet and another 10 or 15 Arabs. They spread the sheet out on the ground and I thought, "I'm not too sure what they're going to do with it. Are they going to put me on that first and lift me up or what were they going to do?"
All of sudden there was a call from one of them and they just left me. I'm lying there. The sheet's there and the donkey's there, and I'm just on my own. Away they went!
They seemed to stop up on the top of a dune. Then over the crest, in a semi-circle on the dune, ten or twelve Italians appeared, all with automatic weapons.
- So yours truly put his hands up very quickly!
Alan was "in the bag" and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of the Italians and Germans, often suffering great privations, but fortunately his injuries healed and he survived.
The 450SQN Operations Record Book for 22 January also mentions the German aircraft attacking the 3SQN formation and Alan's later parachute jump. 450SQN had been down low strafing and bombing with the dreaded ‘daisy cutter’ 40lb. anti-personnel bombs:
When re-forming, four enemy aircraft were reported. Two seen attacking top cover. One aircraft of 3 Squadron seen to go down and pilot bale out. Flight Sergeant McQueen threw him an Escape Aid box, after observing he was apparently OK.
Surviving German records of the engagement are fragmentary, but volume 3 of the German JG77 history (Geschichte des Jagdgeschwaders 77) has the following interesting information:
[Translation:] Friday, January 22, 1943. The German/Italian Panzer army fended off heavy enemy attacks last night as the plan by the opponent [British Eighth Army] was off. With this, movement to the west of Tripoli was granted without a fight. We took away all the supplies and the entire war materiel from the city and destroyed the port.
The command flight of JG77 left Castell Benito [near Tripoli] last and moved to Zuara, an airfield 150 km west of Tripoli on the Via Balbia road. There, at around noon, a scramble of a pair of Bf 109s took place, with Maj. Müncheberg [Bf 109 G-2 WNr. 10752] and Ofw. Niederhagen from the Group Commander’s flight [Stab] of I./JG 77. Southeast of ZUARA, the two Messerschmitts met 21 P-40s, which were engaged in low-level attacks on the retreating traffic on the Via Balbia.
Kills (from JG77 OKW report, 23.1.1943):
Maj. Müncheberg Stab/JG 77. Victim: P-40 Kittyhawk (Müncheberg Victory number 128). Time 12.55.
Maj. Müncheberg Stab/JG 77. Victim: P-40 Kittyhawk (Müncheberg Victory number 129). Time 13.05.
[It's a mystery as to why Müncheberg thought the gap between his two kills was ten minutes. - Most likely he did not make a precise note, but maybe Alan's aggressive dogfighting also made the seconds drag!]
Maj Müncheberg left Africa a few days after this operation to take home leave. After a debate in Berlin at the headquarters of the General of Fighter Pilots [Adolf Galland], Müncheberg had a three-week vacation at Zürs in the Tyrolean Alps.
- The leave arrangements for this famous German ace certainly outclassed those of the dusty 3SQN boys!
Sadly though, Müncheberg's days were numbered. He returned to his unit in Africa and was killed in combat on 23 March 1943 over Tunisia, when his 135th and last aerial victim, an American 52nd Fighter Group Spitfire, exploded in front of him after a close-in burst of cannon fire. Müncheberg was able to bale out, but was severely wounded. He died in transit to a German field hospital.
Text by James Oglethorpe.
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