In the golden light of late afternoon on October 18,1940, four overloaded planes, their tanks topped off with more than 1,300 gallons of fuel, taxied slowly to the end of the runway on the Italian-occupied island of Rhodes in Greece.
By jet-age standards the planes would have looked almost comically quaint. They were Savoia-Marchetti S-82's with fabric-covered fuselages, wooden wings and three nine-cylinder, 880-HP, Alfa-Romeo propeller engines, one of them mounted in the nose. But there was nothing comical about them in 1940. The S-82's were sturdy and had a long range. They were armed with machine guns mounted in a turret. They carried bombs. And there was certainly nothing quaint about their mission that fall day in Rhodes: to fly from Greece to the Arabian Gulf and bomb the oil refinery in the British protected state called Bahrain.
Some four months earlier, Benito Mussolini, Prime Minister and ruler of Italy, had declared war on France and Great Britain. Now, in October, Mussolini had approved a plan developed by an obscure air force captain and brilliant test pilot named Paolo Moci to destroy the refinery and cut off its flow of oil to the Royal Navy. He had also approved—or possibly arranged—the appointment of a high-level Fascist as expedition leader: Major Ettore Muti, Secretary of the Italian Fascist Party and General of the Fascist Militia.
It was an audacious plan. With a staggering load of fuel and bombs the tiny flotilla was to attempt to fly the Eastern Mediterranean, cross the mountains of Lebanon and make its way over the largely uncharted deserts of Syria and Arabia. En route they would have to avoid RAF patrols out of Iraq, bomb the refinery, cross the Arabian Peninsula and land in Eritrea, seized in Mussolini's war with Haile Selassie's Ethiopia, then usually called Abyssinia.
But Captain Moci had planned well. Although the four S-82's each carried a huge weight of fuel—and more than a ton of small fragmentation bombs each—Moci had calculated that with a strong tail wind the four bombers could make the whole trip with fuel to spare. It was, he knew, a 3,000-mile crescent over sea, mountains and desert, but with a wind, a good wind, they could do it.
As a precaution, the Italians had equipped the flotilla with a homing beacon and ordered another S-82 cargo plane to stand by in Massawa on the Red Sea coast, a cargo plane filled with gasoline to refuel the mission in the event the raiders had to make a forced landing in the vast emptiness of the Arabian Desert. But the tail wind was crucial and as dusk fell that day and the Alfa-Romeo engines thrummed with power, Paolo Moci presumably grinned happily. He had his tail wind and at 5:10 the four S-82's raced down the runway, the fabric-covered fuselage and wooden wings quivering with strain. Moments later they lifted into the air, banked and turned east.
The first hours of the flight were easy. The Mediterranean sky was clear and the planes, in a diamond formation about 9,000 feet up, were traveling at about 175 miles an hour toward Syria, then in the friendly hands of the Vichy French. But later, over the mountains of Lebanon, they plunged into a heavy mist and the flight leader, Major Muti, lost visual contact with the last plane in the formation. For a short time he maintained radio contact with the stray, but lost it completely after Damascus when the flotilla veered slightly east of their planned route to see if they could orient themselves on the ground as they approached the Arabian Gulf.
This phase was particularly dangerous. Further east, but not much further, was Iraq, a British mandate in which the RAF controlled the skies. But the S-82's went on with the crucial tail wind holding and the bright moonlight touching the desert below. Not long after, they saw the coast of Kuwait, dropped to 3,000 feet and—some nine hours after leaving Rhodes—banked sharply to roar in over the northern tip of Bahrain.
In Bahrain that night—and in nearby Dhahran on the coast of Arabia—all was tranquil. Families slept. On-duty technicians idly checked their dials. And in the early morning darkness the installations lay, as Stegner said, "lighted up like a California supermarket opening." Even better, British ground personnel at the airport, naturally assuming that the planes were friendly, switched on the runway lights.
For the bombers it was perfect. A defenseless island. A bombers' moon. A target ablaze with light. The pilots tensed. The bomb bays opened. Nearly 200 bombs tumbled toward the ground and the thunder of explosions rocked the island.
Over Dhahran, meanwhile, some 30 miles west, the fourth plane—the plane lost over Damascus—was also attacking, its pilot apparently believing he was above Bahrain. Again the night erupted and the flash of explosions lit the desert night.
It was over in moments. The planes over Bahrain wheeled and headed west across Arabia. Minutes later they picked up a signal from their stray, re-formed and flew west toward Eritrea, exulting at what they—and the Italian Government—assumed to be a successful raid. "Bahrain," Italy's newcasters excitedly announced the next day, "has been destroyed."
In fact Bahrain—and Dhahran—were barely scratched. Despite optimum conditions, the bombers somehow managed to miss just about everything. On Bahrain one explosion ruffled a pile of coal. In Dhahran another cut a water main and punctured an oil line. But the other bombs exploded harmlessly in the sand—apparently because Captain Moci's careful instructions focused bombsights on the brilliant orange waste gas flares, not knowing that the flares had been moved further away from the installations some days before. The raid did, certainly, startle Great Britain. For days after, Italian intelligence reported, RAF fighters scoured the Gulf for submarines or seaplanes. Shortly after, hard-pressed Britain also had to beef up its defenses. And in Dhahran Aramco quietly shipped its women and children home. But the installations were unharmed and Bahrain's oil continued to flow.
For the raiders, however, that disappointing disclosure would come later. Now they raced their dwindling fuel supply across the Peninsula, peering tautly ahead and, at dawn, photographing the long shadows of the desert wadis, the ancient network of dry river beds. Their luck holding, they reached the Red Sea coast and started the last leg of their flight—across the Red Sea to Eritrea, some 200 miles away on the coast of Africa.
For a few moments they faltered. By radio Major Muti learned that the RAF had spitefully picked that day to bomb Massawa airport, their destination. But about 35 miles down the coast—by now a critical 35 miles—lay Zul'a. They veered South and at 8:40—after flying, nearly 3,000 miles in 15 hours and 30 minutes—touched down in Africa. It was none too soon. Each plane had less than 40 gallons of fuel remaining in its tank.
Subsequent to the raid, the same four bombers, manned by the same crews, returned to Rome by way of Benghazi in Libya, also, in those days, Italian territory. On the way they bombed British harbor installations in Port Sudan. And later, Italian sources say. Major Muti was decorated for his role in what, for its time, was a bold, and possibly unique, venture. Later, to be sure, as America's war-spawned technology developed such aircraft as the B-29 superfortresses, flights as long and longer became commonplace and bomb loads increased seven times. But for 1940 the long flight of these fabric-covered, wooden-winged aircraft was an astonishing feat—one that deservedly lives on among the memories of Aramco veterans.
William E. Mulligan joined Aramco in Saudi Arabia in 1946 after wartime service in Aden.