On 16 February I was in a six-plane flight of Mark 5 Spitfires that encountered about twelve ME 109s in the region between Orvieto and Perugia, about sixty-five miles north of Rome. Our six-plane flight was in line-astern formation, with the planes about fifty feet apart and stepped to the right and down, slightly, so the pilots can easily see the planes ahead of them. I was leading the last two-plane element of the flight, and Bob Confer, a veteran of the North African Campaign was my wingman.
I remember seeing the ME 109s, in line astern formation, a few hundred yards to our right and two or three thousand feet above us, moving in the same direction as we were, northward, and nearly parallel to us at about the same speed. Our formation continued on course, no orders being given by the flight leader.
As I was watching the 109s, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, so to speak, my wingman, Confer, make a sharp climbing turn toward the 109s. This action startled me, since I was the element leader, and he was supposed to stay with me. But I quickly recovered and immediately called Confer on the radio saying that I was following him.
As Confer climbed toward the 109s, one of them dived toward him. As it passed Confer's plane I pulled my plane up into a vertical climb in order to fire at it. I wasn't able to line up on it properly but fired anyway, out of shear exuberance. I even thought of trying to ram it, in the wing, a thought that was immediately dismissed. I probably couldn't have done that even if I had tried, because my plane had lost so much speed, after I pulled it nearly straight up, that I wouldn't have been able to control it that well.
Then my plane stalled completely and fell a few thousand feet before regaining flying speed. This maneuver was undoubtedly foolish, because it made my plane a good target for an enterprising 109 pilot. But I didn't care. I was so happy to be doing something other than sitting there waiting for the Germans, or our leader, to decide what to do.
I was completely in favor of Confer's action, namely, attack them, and let THEM respond to OUR attack, rather than wait for their attack, then respond to it. Perhaps both flights would have ignored each other, both leaders preferring to avoid a fight if possible, but I doubt it, because the Germans had a definite advantage.
Another of our pilots, Mike Encinias, broke formation to follow Confer, although I didn't see him do so because he was ahead of me in the flight and out of my field of view at the time. He and Confer eventually caught the 109 and shot it down. (According to J. Prien's GESCHICHTE DES JG 53 the pilot of the plane they shot down was Leutnant Hans-Dieter Heinecke of Stab III./JG 53, who was killed when the plane, a Bf 109 G-6, #162156, crashed 1 km. south of Orvieto airfield.)
It seems unlikely that a German pilot would break formation, so his leader must have ordered him to attack. I would presume that the leader would have sent two planes on such an attack, but I only saw one.
If there was another 109 its pilot didn't attack me. I was now alone and could not see any other planes, so I called my flight, saying I was all alone and asked them to look for me. As I called them I heard the tone of fear in my voice, so I quickly shifted to a bantering tone, adding "and lonely". I think that "all alone and lonely" is a phrase from a popular song, but perhaps I was just improvising.
I then heard one of our pilots call in some FW 190s, so I knew they would not be able to look for me. I set course for base. A little later I saw two ME 109s, a few thousand feet above me on my right, in close echelon formation. They tracked me for a few minutes then started down. I thought briefly about taking them on but quickly rejected that idea, and dived my plane into a low overcast that was spreading inland from the Ligurian Sea. I flew on instruments in this overcast for fifteen minutes or so until I was sure I was over the sea, then descended and flew just below the overcast the rest of the way to our airstrip about eight miles south of Bastia on the northeast coast of Corsica.
Although Confer's action showed a lack of discipline, it also showed an unwillingness to wait "forever" for a leader to make a decision. I decided that he had the right idea and that the next time we encountered enemy fighters, I was going to wait only a short time before TELLING the flight leader that I was taking my wingman and attacking the enemy. Since nothing official had been said later about Confer's action, I felt that I would be free to do this.
Just three days later I took such action when I was again in a six-plane flight of Mark 5 Spitfires, flying from Borgo Airstrip on Corsica, that encountered at least twelve ME 109s in the area north of Lake Bolsena near Orvieto. Again the 109s were above us, and behind us. After a short wait I called the flight leader and said I and my wingman were going to attack the 109s. He acknowledged my message by saying "O.K.".
Then I started a climbing 180 degree turn to the left. Part-way into the turn I saw a 109 diving on our flight from behind. I immediately turned back, and after it passed me on my left and went into a moderate climb, I was able to line up on it and fire (four .303 machine guns and two 20 mm cannons).
Although I didn't have a gunsight, the light had burned out, I lined up on the 109 as best I could. I didn't see any strikes but it immediately rolled over and dived. The German pilot probably knew he was in trouble because he felt some hits on his plane by .303 bullets from the machine guns. We did not use tracer ammunition, and hits by the .303 bullets seldom were visible to us, but hits by the 20 millimeter cannon shells were easy to see.
The German pilot had made a basic mistake by not climbing steeply at the end of his pass, so as not to overshoot us and thus be a target. I was able to take advantage of his mistake. After the 109 rolled over and dived I rolled over and followed it. The plane dived for about a 1,000 feet then pulled it into a very tight left turn, rolled over again and dived. It did this three times.
The second time it pulled out of a dive and turned I was about 75 yards behind and slightly above it, and turning with it. I was able to turn more tightly so that it disappeared beneath the nose of my plane. I fired a two second burst, pushed the nose of my plane down and saw a cannon-shell strike on the fuselage about four feet behind the cockpit, and a little stream of white smoke stream from a wing. This smoke was coolant leaking from hits in a radiator by .303 machine gun bullets. The radiators are under the rear portion of each wing just outside the fuselage.
Shortly after the 109 was hit by the 20 mm shells its pilot jettisoned the canopy. This action showed that the hits did serious damage, or perhaps injured the pilot.
The 109 slowed a bit and I had to pull up to avoid overrunning it. Then I rolled around and and got back on its tail as it went into another very tight, level, left turn. I stayed in the turn with it but could not turn tightly enough to get another shot at it. Then it rolled over once more and started down, turning slightly to the left. I saw some small pieces flying off the fuselage, and the radiator emitting a little more white smoke.
The 109 then leveled off at about 500 feet and flew a slightly weaving course southward. I thought that the pilot might be trying to bail out. I debated whether to give him some time, or fire again. I decided that I couldn't wait, because someone might be lining up on me, so I fired.
I saw cannon-shell strikes all over the 109. It flew on for a few moments then flipped onto its back and flew along, more or less straight and level, into a hillside. It seems to me that because the 109, after it flipped over, flew straight and level for a few seconds before crashing into the hillside, the pilot may have been trying to bail out, but didn't know how close he was to the ground, or that there was a hillside ahead of him. Perhaps his windshield was covered with oil, and/or, he was injured and not aware of his situation.
After looking around for other aircraft, friendly or hostile, and seeing none, I headed back to base, with mixed emotions, elation over the victory, but also guilt over not giving the pilot more of a chance to bail out. I knew someone in Germany would be unhappy.
When I got back to base, I did a victory roll, something I had begun to feel would never happen. The first pilot I saw as I walked from my plane toward the operations shack was Art Johnson, who also had been on this mission but in a different flight. I eagerly told him that I had "gotten one", but he wasn't at all interested in my "good news". He had very bad news - Mike Encinias had been shot down. (Mike survived and was captured.)
I have learned that the pilot of the plane I shot down was Oberleutnant Rolf Klippgen, newly appointed Kapitän of 7./JG 53, who was killed when the plane crashed. (Before this appointment he had been in Stab [Staff] of III Gruppe JG 53, along with Lt. Heinecke, the pilot who was killed when his plane was shot down by Confer and Encinias on 16 Feb.)
Here is the pertinent information, from J. Prien: Hist. of JG 53, Vol. 3 (trans. from German) In the morning [of 19 February 1944] Oblt. Klippgen, the new Kapitän of 7./JG 53 took over his Staffel ... the second operation took place at 12:50 when a scramble was called because of bandits reported near the airfield (Orvieto). Shortly after take-off III./JG 53 had contact with a strong formation of Spitfires, leading to a fierce air battle over Orvieto airfield. Within ten minutes Fw. Müller of 7./JG 53 was alone able to shoot down three Spitfires, which fell at 13:38, 13:43 and 13:48, all north-west of Lake Bolsena (his 10th, 11th and 12th victories). In the course of the combat Oblt. Klippgen was last seen by his wingman swinging down from about 2,500 meters and shortly afterwards, at about 1,500 being again attacked by Spitfires and badly shot up. Then, since he was himself threatened by other Spitfires, Horst Wegener lost sight of his Staffelkapitän. On landing after the mission Oblt. Klippgen's "White 9" was missing: it was found some time later, with its dead pilot, a few kilometers south-west of Onano. Obviously Klippgen had attempted a belly landing, leading to a crash in which he was mortally wounded.
[III./JG 53 is III Gruppe, which is composed of several Staffeln (about 12 planes each), one of which is 7./JG 53]
From the above description it seems that it was Klippgen's 109 that I shot down. Those who found Klippgen's plane apparently were not able to see that it had crashed onto the ground inverted, and presumed it had flipped over during an attempted belly landing.
It seems likely that Klippgen's wingman, Horst Wegener, following closely after his leader, dived on our flight and fired at Bickford's plane and hit it, then overran his target, was fired on and hit, and dived away but was not chased by Bickford. As he dived away he apparently saw me chasing, and firing at, his leader, but being worried about having a Spitfire chasing him, he didn't come to his leader's rescue.
Wegener's plane was not lost, despite Alexander's statement that he saw it going down in an uncontrolled spin, emitting much smoke, and was at about 200 feet when he last saw it. This statement was the basis for confirmation of a victory for Bickford. Since a spin is intrinsically "uncontrolled" it is redundant to use that adjective, but it is used to show that the pilot has lost control and that the plane will crash.
When Klippgen dived his plane on my flight he must have seen me, and my wingman, turn out of formation, and probably thought that we were breaking because of the attack by him and his wingman. His failure to climb steeply when he overran our flight shows that he was not expecting either of these breaking planes to make a sharp 180 degree turn and get on his tail. So he was taken by surprise when he felt hits by 30 caliber bullets. Then he instinctively rolled over and dived instead of pulling up into a steep climbing turn, which would have made it very hard for me to stay within firing range of his plane.
He probably made this wrong move because he didn't know who was firing at his plane. If he had known it was one of the breaking Spitfires, which had made a very tight 180 degree turn, and therefore had lost speed, he might have understood that his best evasive tactic would be a steep climbing turn. In any case this would have been his best evasive maneuver, but the dive seems safer because it allows speed to be built up quickly.
Maneuvering, however, not speed, is the most effective evasive tactic, unless you know your plane is much faster than that of the enemy, which was not the case here. Klippgen tried both diving and making tight turns, an especially ineffective tactic against a competently piloted Spitfire. In a straight dive his plane might have been able to pull away from my Spitfire, which, especially with its enlarged nose (tropical air filter) builds up speed in a dive more slowly than a 109. It is interesting that both Klippgen and his wingman broke the iron rule of fighter combat - never overrun your target. Then each of them dived away instead of climbing.
The 109 of Fw. Müller, on the other hand, who apparently attacked the other 2nd Squadron flight on this mission, and hit Encinias's plane, was seen, by Art Johnson, to pull up nearly vertically to avoid overrunning the flight. He seems to have overclaimed, however, since Encinias and Liebl were the squadron's only losses.
After Mike bailed out and was captured, he talked to the pilot, a Sergeant (Fw=Feldwebel=Sergeant), who said that although he was far out of range behind the Spitfires he had pulled up the nose of his 109 and fired, and was surprised to see the hit. Mike told me, sometime after we started having reunions in 1983, that he had wanted to break formation and attack the 109s but didn't because he had been chastized by flight leader for breaking formation on the 16th of Feb. Mike was flight leaders wingman on that mission. On the 19th he was leading the third element of a six-plane flight and Art Johnson was his wingman, and the tail-end charlie of the flight but it was Mike,s plane that was hit by Müller,s wild shot.
Note: by Robert C. Curtis, 2nd Sq., 52nd Fighter Group