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“Boxing Day”

The "last-ever" 3 Squadron aeroplane to be shot-down by an enemy fighter fell on the 26th of December 1944, while undertaking a dive-bombing mission over northern Italy.  The Squadron's Mustangs suffered a swift opportunistic attack by Messerschmitts of one of the few remaining units of the Italian fascist Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana (or "ANR").  No.3 Squadron's Warrant Officer Jack Quinn was shot down before anyone was aware of the danger.  

By way of retribution, one of the Italian fighters was subsequently stalked and shot down by 3 Squadron in a thrilling low-level pursuit.  (This proved to be the last of many Me109 aircraft downed by 3 Squadron in World War II.)  Despite the aircraft losses, the downed Australian and Italian pilots both escaped with their lives.  (Although no doubt rather shaken!)  This represented the final round of “boxing” between 3 Squadron and their long-standing Italian opponents, a contest that had been going on ever since the biplane battles of 1940 in the Egyptian desert...


"Nowhere to Hide".  [Artwork by Drew Harrison.]

26 December, 1944...

In their first month of combat operations with their new Mustang fighters (following their conversion from Kittyhawks in November 1944), 3 Squadron had smoothly adapted to the new aircraft type, but the bitter winter weather of Northern Italy often frustrated their mission plans.  

The greater range of the Mustang permitted sorties to be mounted as far as Yugoslavia; harassing the German forces retreating before the Yugoslav partisan armies there.  Christmas Day 1944 had seen a particularly successful “train-busting” sweep over Yugoslavia, with 11 Mustangs expending all of their bombs and ammunition on a number of trains, before the team returned to their base at Fano, on the north-eastern Italian coast, for a hearty Christmas dinner.

 http://static.awm.gov.au/images/collection/items/ACCNUM_SCREEN/MEB0232.JPG
Fano, Italy, 25 December 1944.  A section of the pilots' mess of No.3 (Mustang) Squadron RAAF awaiting Christmas dinner.
Judging by the merry faces of the boys, a good time was being had by all.
Identified personnel are (left), Barry Finch and Eric Power.  Right front: Max Thomas and Johnny Taylor.
The walls are adorned with portraits by the official War Artists.  [AWM
MEB0232]

Although German flak still posed a potent danger to the Mustang dive-bombers, 3 Squadron had not been engaged by Axis fighters for several months.  Indeed, the skies were often filled with Allied aircraft going methodically about their work; creating a “traffic desert” behind the German frontline in Italy.

On Boxing Day 1944, two missions were flown.  The first mission, mounted by eight Mustangs, targeted a bridge in Yugoslavia.  Unfortunately this mission was something of a fizzer.  One Mustang was written-off in a takeoff accident and the weather over Yugoslavia was found to be completely closed-in.  Their bombs had to be jettisoned over the Adriatic Sea

The second mission, flown by another eight Mustangs (each carrying two 500lb bombs) was led off by Squadron Leader Murray Nash at 1435.  They were heading for the clearer weather of northern Italy, with the objective of cutting the important railway line that runs through the town of Pordenone.  Their flightpath took them past Venice and within view of the breathtaking, snowbound, Dolomite Alps. 

Nash led his Mustangs inland up the course of the Piave River.  They spotted their railway-line target stretching across the Veneto plain.  They then swung to follow it north-east, at an altitude of about 9000 feet, searching for any rail traffic to strike.  However, a complete lack of suitable targets left them flying straight and level for a long period of time, with the winter sun setting low over their shoulders.


The Mustang IV of Squadron Leader Murray Nash.  [Artwork Drew Harrison]

These were ideal conditions for a seasoned enemy fighter-leader to exploit.  Unfortunately for 3 Squadron, just such a man was indeed speeding towards them at that very moment…

Capitano Ugo Drago, Commanding Officer of 1o Squadriglia of the 2o Gruppo Caccia of the ANR, had led off ten Bf109Gs at 1500 hours in a scramble from their Aviano base, located just 15km to the north of 3 Squadron’s intended target.  The RAAF Mustangs had been spotted by German radar and the decision had been made to chance some of the scant Axis fighter resources in northern Italy on an interception.  

Ugo Drago was a much-admired fighter tactician, who, by December 1944, had four years of combat experience and over a dozen air combat victory claims.  His personal aircraft always carried the lucky number “7”.  Despite overwhelming Allied air power in Italy, Drago had continued to mount successful interception missions.  (Quite remarkably, he kept his squadron losses to only two combat fatalities in eleven months of operations from April 1944 to March 1945.) 

Drago positioned his squadron in the sun above and behind the swiftly-moving formation of Nash’s Mustangs.  At this moment, one of the Mustangs was lagging behind - Drago directed the Italian Tenente Keller to dive on it. 

For the Australians, the first indication of the attack was when Pilot Officer Ken Caldecott saw Keller's speeding grey Messerschmitt firing on Jack Quinn’s green/grey camouflaged Mustang III (coded "CV-J").  Keller scored hits on Quinn’s engine and sent him spinning into a dive, trailing white smoke.

Caldecott yelled a warning as Keller’s Bf109G continued forwards, opening fire on Flying Officer Max Thomas’s Mustang in the main formation.  Nash ordered the formation to jettison their bombs and make a defensive turn to port.  As they turned, Nash saw Quinn bale out of the spiralling CV-J, about a thousand feet below.  Quinn’s parachute eventually opened and he was seen to land on a riverbank.  His Mustang, with bombs still attached, exploded into a ball of flame in the fields nearby.

Tenente Keller zoomed back into the sun to elude interception.  He was closely followed by Capitano Drago, who fired on Caldecott from his “Black 7” and then also made his own fast getaway.  Caldecott was not hit, but he may have been very lucky – the Italian ace was sufficiently confident in his attack to file a “kill” claim! 

Drago then decided that the Italians had achieved adequate success and he instructed his men to disengage. 

Everything had happened so quickly that it took some moments for the Australians to piece together that they had been attacked by enemy aircraft.  (Several Allied aircraft had been seen earlier in the flight and mistaken “friendly fire” attacks were a common risk …)  It then took further time to identify the fallen Mustang as Quinn’s.  Nash subsequently decided to patrol his flight at low altitude to the south of the Aviano airbase to see if they could snare the returning Italian fighters.

Eventually a single returning 109 was spotted about 4000 feet above them, off to port.  The Messerschmitt, “Black 8” was piloted by Sottotenente Felice Squassoni, who was unaware of the danger lurking below him.


Squassoni's "Black 8"  [Artwork Drew Harrison]

Nash skillfully manoeuvred his formation into Squassoni’s blind-spot and climbed to intercept.  Once they had closed the distance, Max Thomas fired off a stream of tracer, but missed. 

Squassoni immediately dived for the deck at full throttle, heading for the protection of the Aviano anti-aircraft defences.  Nash and his wingman Bill Andrews (CV-A) sped after him, crossing the southern boundary of the airfield at "nought feet".  (Squassoni was flying only slightly higher - at "nought metres"!)


Bill Andrews' Mustang III [Artwork Drew Harrison]

The 20mm flak from the airfield defences wasn’t much help to Squassoni, possibly because everyone was going so fast at such a low altitude.   Nash later rated the flak as “medium”.   Nash quickly closed to 100 yards.   He had difficulty getting a bead on the dodging Italian while they were so close to the ground, but scored hits with three lengthy bursts from his guns.   The Messerschmitt emitted a long white plume of leaking engine coolant.  

Nash sheared off, thinking Squassoni was going in.

However, the 109 stayed airborne, so Andrews pressed in, hammering away from a distance of 150 yards down to 20 yards.  He got hits on the Me109's port wing and cockpit.  The Messerschmitt’s wheels drooped down as its hydraulics were shot away.   Squassoni was terrified, but still protected by his armoured seat.  Andrews pulled away and Max Thomas replaced him in line, adding three more bursts of machinegun fire into the disintegrating Messerschmitt. 

Squassoni decided that his survival depended on getting down onto the ground immediately.  As Thomas zoomed overhead, Squassoni was skimming over a flat vineyard.  He nosed his fighter straight into it, making a spectacular crash landing at full speed.  His aircraft smashed through many rows of vines and poles and juddered to a halt in a shower of dirt.   Squassoni flung open his cockpit canopy and ran for his life, but his riddled 109 didn’t explode, and there was no further gunfire - the RAAF Mustangs were suddenly absent. 

Thomas had lost sight of the 109 after he pulled up to avoid colliding with his target.  Consequently the Australians were unaware that “Black 8” had crashed.  Nash, Andrews and Thomas later filed a joint claim for “one Me109 damaged”.  - Ironically, this last example of 3 Squadron’s long line of defeated adversaries from Professor Willi Messerschmitt’s factories was never listed as a victory! 

For the remainder of the war,  3 Squadron continued to fly their risky daily missions into the teeth of the deadly German flak.   Several more Mustangs were lost, but only three further pilot fatalities were suffered.   Sadly, one of these was Max Thomas, who died on the 9th of January, 1945. 

A few days later, Squadron Leader Murray Nash had the difficult task of writing to Jack Quinn’s father in Toorak, Victoria: 

I2/1/45.

Dear Mr. Quinn.

It is with regret that I write to tell you of the circumstances surrounding the mission on which your son went missing on 26th. December, 1944.

Jack was flying in a formation of eight aircraft whose job it was to bomb a rail-line in Northern Italy.  Whilst in the target area, enemy aircraft were reported by our pilots, and engaged.

After the first attack Jack's aircraft was seen spiralling towards the ground leaving a stream of white vapour.  I observed Jack leave the aircraft and saw his parachute open.  Although it was impossible to observe his actions upon reaching the ground, he appeared to land satisfactorily in level country.  He gave no messages over the radio before bailing out and it is not known whether he was injured or not during the engagement.  The chances that he landed quite safe and sound are very good.

It is most likely that he will be a Prisoner of War as the area was fairly active with enemy movement.  If this is so, you will be informed in due course, when confirmation is received.

The chances of him successfully regaining our lines, or hiding out, whilst not impossible, are not probable, as the distance is great and the obstacles many.  Although there is good reason to believe that Jack is safe and well, please remember that apart from his being seen to parachute satisfactorily to the ground, nothing can yet be really definitely established after that point.

I have known Jack ever since he has been with the Squadron and for a short time beforehand.  His work, both in the air and on the ground, has been a credit to him, and the spirit with which he used to voluntarily carry out a multitude of irksome jobs in the Mess for our comfort, was an example to us all.

He will be sincerely missed by all of us.  Should I obtain any further information I will immediately forward it on to you.  All members of the Squadron join me in extending to you and yours our deep sympathy at this period or anxiety.

Yours sincerely, M. Nash.

Jack Quinn had indeed survived his parachute descent and friendly Italians hid him in vineyard farms for three weeks.  However, an 'unfriendly' tipped off the German occupation forces in early February '45Quinn was captured, to finish the war as a POW; firstly in Italy and then in four POW camps in Germany.  He was released on V.E. Day.

http://static.awm.gov.au/images/collection/items/ACCNUM_SCREEN/MEA2283.JPG
Italy.  1945.  View of the house of Yuglielino Cealin and family, where refuge was given to an RAAF pilot, 410420 Warrant Officer (WO) J. F. Quinn, who was shot down in aerial combat near Pordenone in northern Italy
WO Quinn parachuted to safety and Yuglielino Cealin, a farmer in the vicinity, hid him for several days in the cellar in the farm house, at great personal risk to himself and his family. 
During that time the Blackshirts made searches of all homes for the pilot whom they knew was somewhere in the area.  [Group portrait of the Cealin family and children with Padre McKay.  AWM MEA2283]

Felice Squassoni returned to flying operations with Drago and both survived the final months of the war.   Squassoni in later years became the mayor of one of the local Italian towns, where he was eventually visited by Murray Nash.  Ugo Drago became a leading figure in the establishment of the Italian airline Alitalia

Text by James Oglethorpe. 

Many thanks to Drew Harrison for his original artwork.

References: 3 Squadron RAAF Operations Record Book (Page 546) and Jack Quinn RAAF file, both online in the National Archives of Australia.

Italian research by Ferdinando D'Amico as reported in: http://www.dalnet.se/~surfcity/italy_drago.htm
and 
http://www.dalnet.se/~surfcity/italy_squassoni.htm 

 
Aviano airbase today is a major NATO facility.

Postscript: In 2009 I had a chance to visit the Aviano USAF Base in North-Eastern Italy.  There I was lucky enough to be invited to try the F-16 Flight Simulator - engaging in some simulated air-combat and low-flying through the Alps.  The Simulator Instructor was very interested in the battle that 3 Squadron had fought over Aviano on the 26th of December 1944.  I was able to fly him through the action over the same landmarks - except that the F-16 jet fighter had to be throttled way back so as not to exceed the speed of 3 Squadron's Mustangs! (J.O.)

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