Thursday, August 7, 2014

Italian Ace Captain Franco Lucchini

The man generally considered the greatest Italian ace of World War II was Captain Franco Lucchini. Absolute precision is somewhat difficult given the way that Italy (like other countries) originally credited victories collectively rather than individually. This was an effort to encourage teamwork and esprit de corps, which is understandable, but eventually most ended up giving way to individual scoring. Although it may not sound as loftily idealistic, individual scoring encouraged a competitive spirit and also played in to the immense celebrity status that the most successful fighter pilots obtained. Ever since their emergence in the Great War, fighter pilots had been the rock stars of the military and that simply was not going to change. By most accounts, Captain Franco Lucchini scored twenty-six individual aerial victories during World War II. Yet, more than that, his tally of collective victories was fifty-two and he has the distinction of being an ace fighter pilot in both World War II and the Spanish Civil War in which he shot down five planes. Taken altogether, his score would be higher than the top American, French and other aces of World War II so there is no doubt Lucchini was one of the very best fighter pilots in the history of aerial warfare.

Franco Lucchini was born in Rome on July 12, 1917 to the family of a railroad official. From his boyhood he had an interest in aviation and dreamed of flying. When he was sixteen he obtained a glider pilot’s license and in 1935 he joined the Regia Aeronautica as a reserve officer. Sottotenente Pilota di Complemento Lucchini had further training and by the summer of the following year qualified as a military pilot from the Foggia flying school. He received his formal commission on August 13, 1936 and was posted to his first assignment with a squadron in Gorizia. The next year he first saw action when Italian forces were committed to aid the nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. He flew a Fiat CR.32 biplane and, during a transfer flight to Zaragoza, engaged in a battle, alongside his comrades, with four Polikarpov R-Z biplane bombers, escorted by nine Polikarpov I-16 fighters and fifteen Polikarpov I-15 biplane fighters all made in the Soviet Union. It was October 12 and Lucchini shot down one of communist planes for his first aerial victory. Early the next year he shot down an R-Z bomber and eventually gained five victories to make him an “ace”. However, he was shot down twice himself, the second time being taken prisoner by the republican forces. Fortunately, he escaped in February of 1939 and for his achievements in Spain was awarded the Silver Medal of Military Valor.

After returning to Italy, Lucchini was posted to the elite 4th Stormo based in Tobruk in the Italian colony of Libya. When the Kingdom of Italy entered World War II, Lucchini was flying a Fiat CR.42 biplane and early on participated in shooting down a Gladiator. A week later, while flying escort duty, he encountered an RAF Sunderland. It had previously been targeted by other pilots but the heavily armed British craft survived them all until Lucchini moved in with such tenacity that the craft was finally forced down near Bardia where the crew were taken prisoner. Before his first tour of duty was out Lucchini shot down a Gladiator and Hurricane before his unit was transferred to Sicily and outfitted with the new Macchi C.200 Saetta, a lightly armed but highly maneuverable fighter, for offensive operations over the British held island of Malta. Some pilots had trouble adapting to the new craft, but Lucchini showed his skill as high as it had been and growing greater, shooting down four more British Hurricanes between June and September of 1941.

Unfortunately, there was an accident that forced Lucchini to crash land on Ustica (along with several other pilots). He was badly injured and took a lengthy period of time to recover. However, once he was back in action, he proved that he had lost not of his fighting spirit. Flying the new C.202 fighter he was given command of the 84th Squadron and was posted back to Sicily to fly escort for the bombers that were attacking Malta. He shot down two British Spitfires (the most famous RAF fighter of the Battle of Britain) before 4th Stormo were transferred to north Africa for Rommel’s Italo-German offensive into Egypt in 1942. Between June 4 and September 3 Captain Lucchini shot down four Kittyhawks, two Spitfires, two Hurricanes and a Boston light bomber. He also participated in the shooting down of over a dozen other aircraft alongside other Italian pilots. On October 20, Lucchini shot down an American Curtiss P-40 Warhawk but a few days later was himself shot down and badly wounded. He was sent back to Italy to recuperate and two months later his exhausted stormo was transferred out as well.

After sufficient recovery, Lucchini was back in action again by the spring of 1943, given command of the 10th Group on Sicily where he and his men fought a hopeless campaign against insurmountable odds. There was no denying the courage and determination of the Italian pilots but they were hopelessly outnumbered and just after shooting down another Spitfire that was escorting a number of B-17 bombers, Lucchini was caught in a cross-fire from the bombers, lost control of his C.202 and crashed to his death. Only a few minutes later, another of the top Italian aces, Lieutenant Leonardo Ferrulli was shot down and killed as well. It was a dark day indeed for the Regia Aeronautica. By most counts he was the most successful Italian pilot of World War II (there are others who name Teresio Martinoli who also shot down 22 planes) and it is no wonder he was nicknamed the “Baracca of the Second World War” in reference to the top Italian ace from the First World War, Francesco Baracca who brought down 34 Austro-Hungarian planes. Lucchini was known for his keen eyesight, tenacity and aggressiveness in attacking any enemy he found. Contrary to his ferocity in the air, when on the ground he was known as a quiet, serious and rather solitary man. Over his distinguished career he was awarded the Bronze Medal for Military Valor, 3 War Crosses, the German Iron Cross second class, 5 Silver Medals and the Gold Medal for Military Valor.

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