GENERAL ALBERTO BRIGANTI AN AVIATION PIONEER
curated by Fabio Mariotti
by Alvaro Gragnoli
The Frecce Tricolori for the 100th anniversary of the General
August 31, 1996. The roar of the engines of the PAN MB339s, Aerobatic Team
Nazionale Frecce Tricolori, is felt throughout Umbertide making the windows tremble
houses. It forces citizens to roll their eyes to admire those planes
so low, with the tricolor painted under the wings and on the fuselage, that in an instant
disappear from sight. But after a few minutes here they appear again leaving
a long trail of white, red and green smoke, and waving its wings in greeting up
to disappear in the distance.
Enthusiasm and surprise mix because not everyone knows that in the council chamber
municipal, with a simple ceremony, wishes are being given to the general
of the Alberto Briganti Air Force. He has just turned one hundred and the Frecce Tricolori
they came to pay homage to the soldier and the man who had so much importance
in the history of national aviation. But the Air Force Band also wanted to be
present on this unrepeatable occasion and, in the evening, held a very popular concert at the
Teatro del Parco Ranieri.
The birth in Umbertide in 1896
If Umbertide has given valuable pilots, some of which are highly decorated (1), and if many young people continue to enlist in aviation, it is also due to the story of Briganti. Which curiously begins as a sailor. Born in Umbertide on December 22, 1896, he was orphaned by his mother at the age of two and was raised by his grandmother, who managed to get him to study until he graduated from secondary school.
Perhaps we would have had one more teacher or accountant, and one less general if, during the holidays of the year of middle school, two Umbertidesi had not returned to the city and they would push him to the choice of life. One is long-time captain Armando Bettoni, who is
he will thrill with stories about his life as a sailor, and the other is Count Balilla Grilli, director of the “Vittorio Emanuele” marine college in Livorno, who invites him to enroll in his school. And the young Alberto leaves for Livorno, where in 1915 he will obtain his nautical diploma and, at the beginning of 1916, having not yet called up the draft of 1896, he embarks on the steamship “Assiria”. He begins to navigate between the various ports of the Tyrrhenian Sea, but as soon as the course for additional officer cadets at the Naval Academy is announced, he applies and is ranked eleventh out of 120 participants.
From the Navy to the Aviation
It is during the exams that the admiral commanding the school informs them that the Navy needs airmen and invites them to apply. Sixteen of them decide in this sense and so the young Alberto who, his comment, "I went to the Nautical Institute without having seen the sea and without knowing how to swim, I went to aviation without ever having seen an airplane up close" (2), is envoy
at the Flight School of Taranto, where he follows the course held by ten. of ship Mario Calderara, Italian pilot's license n.1 and pupil of Wilbur Wright. In May 1917 he obtained the seaplane pilot license and was assigned to the Venice office.
We are in the middle of the war and the bombing and reconnaissance actions carried out at the controls of an L3 aircraft built by Macchi are daily. The objectives are mainly the port of Pula, the base of the navy
Austrian, and the area around the Piave river.
It is in the course of one of these actions that he is injured
the thigh while still managing to return to the base
even with the plane riddled with shots.
In the Great War he was decorated with two medals
bronze for the following reasons:
“Bold seaplane pilot, after having strafed
at low altitude stalking of enemy machine gunners,
although wounded, seen his squadron leader descend into the swamp,
he lingered on the spot until he made sure it was
rescue from another seaplane and, despite the suffering,
he then brought the aircraft back to the departure station
demonstrating great fortitude.
Basso Piave December 16, 1917 ".
"Seaplane pilot was performing
numerous bombings […] in enemy territory demonstrating
always zeal and in various critical circumstances,
admirable courage and calm.
Upper Adriatic July-December 1918 "(3).
The end of the war found him in Ancona from where he was transferred in
May 1919, at the headquarters in Fiume. There he lives with D'Annunzio the whole
dramatic history of that city.
Returning to civilian life, he founds an airline, which however has a short life
troubled. He then presents himself to the competition announced by the Regia Marina for officers
in SPE, he brilliantly overtakes it and is embarked on the battleship “Vittorio
Emanuele ”with the rank of lieutenant. But it is clear that his fate
it is not facing the sea because, when it was founded in October 1923
the Air Force as an independent body, the decision to change the uniform
of the Navy with that of the Air Force is taken without any second thoughts.
“I had to choose my fate. I had been an aviator for five years […] I was
slipped twice into the sea, I had been wounded in the air, faced storms and grazed
death many times, but I had never had a moment of perplexity for
having chosen to be a pilot " . (A. Briganti. "Op. Quoted)
Thus he met Italo Balbo who had been entrusted with the task of organizing the new weapon, became his instructor for the pilot's license on seaplanes and in 1927 he was his flight assistant. In this new role she organizes and participates in various air cruises in the Mediterranean and in Europe. The one that sees him most committed at an organizational level and in which he should have participated as a driver, is the
Atlantic crossing on the Savoia-Marchetti S.55A seaplanes from Rome to Brazil, which made Balbo and the Italian Air Force famous all over the world. But comes the appointment as aide-de-camp to the King, to which he cannot say no and must necessarily renounce. He will leave this post in 1933 to take command of the seaplane base of Orbetello. In this capacity, when his
subject, the pilot lieutenant Roberto Federici asks him to be a witness at his wedding willingly accepts. The bride is a certain Claretta Petacci, who sadly ended her life alongside the Duce in Dongo. In 1936, at the age of forty, he was promoted to general. Duke Amedeo d'Aosta, commander of the first air division L'Aquila, communicates this to him. From that moment on, he would have been employed by him, having managed "to snatch him from Italo Balbo who wanted him with him" (4). He will remain with the duke for a little less than two years when, after a short period in the ministry as head of the training and operations department of the General Staff, he is assigned to Tripoli as commander of the Libyan Air Force. He thus returned to the employ of Balbo, who at that moment was the Governor of the Italian colony. In 1938 he was at his side in Germany in the meeting he had with Goering and Hitler, and with him he remained in Libya until the end of May 1940, when he was assigned to command the Milan Air Zone. On June 10, Italy also enters the war. On the 28th of the same month Italo Balbo will be shot down by our anti-aircraft in the skies of Tobruch (5). Thus closes a cycle of Briganti's life that had been full of satisfaction and interest.
War, imprisonment and escape
In March 1943, after spending about a year as commander-in-chief of the Navy Aviation (Italy was preparing an aircraft carrier, "L'Aquila", which was damaged by British bombing and the project was abandoned), destined for the command of the Air Force of the Aegean based in Rhodes. Here is the 8th of September and when the Germans invite all the military
Italians to enlist in their army, the gen. Briganti refuses and sends a letter to the German command, of which we report a passage: “Today the King of Italy has ordered the suspension of hostilities towards the Anglo-American armed forces. Having taken an oath of loyalty to the King, the Departments of the Aegean Air Force feel the obligation to obey his orders and therefore declare, through me, to refrain from hostile acts both against the Anglo-Americans and against the Germanic troops: not therefore they can enlist in any army other than the Italian one ”.
The consequence of this letter is the arrest and the transfer to Lager 64 / Z of Schokken in Poland, where he arrives after a long transfer first by plane and then by train. Lager 64 / Z is a camp intended for senior officers and the life of the prisoners takes place in an acceptable way if compared to other camps, albeit with many privations. Several times the commander of the camp
invites the officers to enlist in the army of the Republic of Salò, but they only accept General Biseo, who was Mussolini's personal pilot, and a few others.
Thus we arrive at January 20, 1945 when, to escape the advance of the Russian army, the Germans begin the transfer from the camp. It is a very hard march on frozen snow, with the temperature even dropping to 20 degrees below zero, but after five days of suffering, during
a stop in the village of Rosko, near the city of Wielen, then the border with Germany, comes the opportunity to escape. It is a local farmer, a certain Domina, who proposes it to the prisoners to whom he is distributing milk and bread, telling them that he would help them. What to do? Go ahead and face the SS who see them as traitors or take risks with the Soviet soldiers instead? The gen. Briganti, the gen. Francesco Arena and ten. with the. of the air force Carlo Unia decide to try.
Helped by the farmer who hides them from the sight of the guards, they slip into the door of a house. The column of prisoners passes in front of their hiding place and when it has disappeared in the distance, the three fugitives, accompanied by the Pole, head towards his home. Here they are refreshed and can finally sleep in shelter and warmth.
Three days after the escape, on the evening of January 28, Domina and ten. with the. Unia have been out for a while to listen to a clandestine radio, when the door opens violently and two Soviet soldiers appear. Domina's sister tries to explain that the two are Italian prisoners who escaped from the Germans, but the two Soviets, shouting "Italianski, fascisti", violently push her away and
they push Briganti and Arena out of the door threatening them with rifles. In the courtyard, while one of them keeps his rifle pointed, the other searches them and appropriates the little they have. The gen. Arena addresses Briganti with the words "here they kill us like dogs", to which Briganti replies: "Dear Arena, we thought we had guessed, but we were wrong". He does not hear the shot, but only a
violent blow to the head that makes him fall to the ground unconscious. He will find out only several days later but, when he is lifeless on the ground, the soldier fires a second shot at him which wounds him in the neck. When he wakes up, he tries to understand what happened and only realizes the wound in his left ear that has torn part of the scalp. He sheds a lot of blood and can't stand, but he's alive,
even if the pain in the head is excruciating. Look for gen. Arena and sees it a stone's throw from him poured in his blood. He did not have the same luck (6). With much suffering he drags himself home, the blow to the ear has upset the sense of balance and only with great pain does he manage to enter. All fours approaches the bed and, sitting on the ground, leans on it exhausted. A little later he hears one
patter outside the door and thinks it is Unia and Domina returning. He calls them, but sees the two Soviet soldiers from just before entering. Then he lets himself slide to the ground, his right hand under his head, hoping that they think he is dead. It is not so. One shot and the bullet hits the thumb and touches the head. He closes his eyes thinking that this time he will not have the same luck and when
he feels a contact in his chest, he thinks it is the barrel of the gun for the last shot. But it is the soldier's hand that tears off the insignia of his uniform and then he goes away. The next morning Domina, together with col. Unia finds him lying on the bed, with the blood he has
crossed the pillow and spilled onto the floor. He gives him first aid but only after a fortnight does he partially regain his sense of balance and can be transported to the hospital in Scharnikow about twenty kilometers away. It is here that he discovers that there are two head injuries that, however, are fortunately healing. The wound on the thumb is infected, the finger is very sore and swollen to the point that it needs to be cut. There are no surgical instruments and a sharpener disinfected by the flame of a lighter is used. In the absence of medicines, the wound is treated in an "artisanal" way, with the methods used by local farmers; the effects are still very effective and it will heal perfectly, while it will take several months to recover the balance.
Meanwhile, the situation is slowly, albeit chaotically, normalizing and the Soviets organize the grouping of ex-prisoners of the Germans, Italians and allies, for repatriation.
The lack of means, the interrupted lines and the resulting chaos will make the return journey long and difficult, albeit alleviated by the availability and help of the populations of the various countries crossed. The first days of September 1945 Alberto Briganti is in Ukraine from where he finally manages to continue with a certain regularity through half of Europe and to reach Italy. On 5 October 1945 he reunites with his family. The two head wounds, now healed, are the silent testimony of how much luck has helped him.
The postwar period
After the hostilities, we proceed with the reorganization of the Ministry of Aeronautics. Chief of Staff is appointed gen. of air squad Mario Ajmone-Cat, who wants the gen. Brigands in the commission charged with studying the new system. For the laws on the matter, Briganti is submitted to the judgment of the 1st degree commission for the purge of military personnel, accused of "having carried out undoubted fascist political activity by participating in action squads". But he was acquitted "for not having given manifestations of serious bias and having already for many years detached himself from the fascist ideology and abstained from further and specific political activities".
In August 1946 he was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff to replace gen. Ajmone-Cat, sent to Paris for peace negotiations. In a speech to the Chamber, the Hon. Cingolani, Minister of the Air Force, to silence concerns that there were generals with fascist and monarchist backgrounds at the top, declares: "If these officers, who yesterday were monarchists in good
faith, in good faith today they accept to serve the Republic, and it is the case of the new Chief of Staff (Briganti, ed.), there is no reason not to believe that faith and that word "(7). In the six months that he held the post, Briganti managed to establish excellent personal relationships with his American allies, which gave him the opportunity to reconstitute a first military aviation unit
using aircraft decommissioned by the allies. At the same time, he obtained the authorization to set up a civil aviation company. Thus was born the LAI (Italian Airlines) associated with the US TWA, immediately followed by another company, Alitalia, associated with British Airways.
Subsequently, the two companies will merge into one, with the name Alitalia.
In the years 1948-1949 Briganti was secretary general of the Air Force and in this capacity he was responsible for the design of the new Rome airport, which became necessary because that of Ciampino, due to the increased commercial traffic, is becoming insufficient. The choice falls on the Fiumicino area. Briganti presents a project that, at the Paris Air Show in 1949, collects
the admiration of all experts; they call it "the most rational airport in the world". But in 1951, when he was general manager of Civil Aviation, he was unable to oppose a series of changes that would completely upset the project and lead to what is now the “Leonardo da Vinci” airport. Briganti will also hold the positions of president of the superior council of the Air Force and president of the superior council of the Armed Forces. He retired in 1954, having reached the age limit, with the rank of "four-star air squad general". At the time of his leave, the then President of the Republic Giovanni Gronchi, addressed this letter to the general: Dear General, when you leave the permanent service for having reached the age limit, I am pleased to send you the expression of gratitude that the Country and the Air Force owe you for what you have done for both as Navy and Air Force Officer. Bold pilot in peace and war, Commander of large mobilized air units, heroic defender of the island of Rhodes on 8 September 1943, reorganizer of the Italian military and civil Air Force as Chief of Staff and Secretary General of the Air Force, President of the Superior Council of the Armed Forces; these are the brilliant stages of your service, which make you a high example of soldier, organizer and leader. The firmness and pride of mind demonstrated during the internment in Poland, which left marks in His spirit and in His body still visible today, add a note of moral value which, together with the daring and high sense of duty, make it for the Air Force and for the country well worthy of esteem and memory. Please, dear General, my best wishes and many cordial greetings. Giovanni Gronchi. Rome June 16, 1955 (8).
Among the many Italian and foreign decorations of which gen. Briganti was awarded the very high honor of "Knight of the Grand Cross of the Military Order of Italy", with the following motivation: "General Officer of high military qualities [...] Commander of the Air Force
of the Aegean, at the time of the armistice he kept an exemplary demeanor as a man and as a Commander, personally following and pointing out to his employees the way of honor and duty. Aegean 1943 "(9).
The monument at the Umbertide cemetery
Briganti died in Rome on 2 July 1997 and was buried in the cemetery of "his" Umbertide. The story could end here, but we want to tell one last episode, indicative of how hard it is to die a mentality anchored in a distant past.
In the early 2000s, the Umbertide Airmen Association, led by the colonel
pilot Giuseppe Cozzari (silver medal and war cross for military valor), who
with gen. Briganti collaborated after the war, he would like to honor with a monument
the fellow citizen who gave so much prestige to his hometown. All the associates, but in particular
the col. Cozzari and Marshal Muzio Venti , will work body and soul to achieve
the target. The task of designing it is entrusted to Adriano Bottaccioli , painter,
graphic, historical, much appreciated not only in Umbertide. The local Lions supports the initiative
providing all possible help, including financial. The Cassa foundations also contribute
di Risparmio di Perugia and Città di Castello. The municipal administration, to which it comes
requested a space for the placement of the monument, he prevaricates for a long time until he gives his own
decided "no". The reasons, even if not explicitly stated, seem obvious: yes
it can honor those who have had a fascist past, albeit subordinated to a high sense of
State, even if he acquired considerable merit in the activities to which he was called by
Italian republic. We forget that in the much warmer years immediately after the war,
with a very different spirit, a municipal administration of the same political color, had
even organized the funeral - it was later learned that it was fake because the body was not
been found again - to honor the driver Fausto Fornaci, who fell fighting for the
Italian Social Republic. Meanwhile the years pass, the col. Cozzari and Marshal Venti
and the stalemate does not seem to be unblocked. Finally, in 2008, a compromise was proposed: the monument could have its place inside the city cemetery. If, as Foscolo says, "the strong soul ignites the urn of the strong for excellent things", this is certainly not the ideal place, far from the gaze of anyone. But no alternatives are allowed. The solution is accepted, obtorto collo, and the monument is placed in the area of the new cemetery. A wonderful example to our dear departed ones.
1. as Fausto Fornaci (Altotiberine Pages n.50), Gen. EMPucci (2 silver medals and War Cross at VM, Gen. A. Contini (3 silver medals at VM). two wars, there were 18 silver medals in the VM, 4 war crosses, 6 bronze medals, numerous commendations. (Luciana Ranieri Honorati. "The Umbrians in the history of flight" - Perugia 1984 - San Paolo di Tivoli. )
2. A. Briganti, “Beyond the clouds the serene” Nuovo Studio Tecna - Rome - 2nd ed. Sept. 1994
3. Luciana Ranieri Honorati "The Umbrians in the history of flight - Perugia 1984‐
4. Duke Amedeo d'Aosta defined Briganti's military and professional qualities in this way: “The complex of his moral skills, his culture and serenity of character, make it easy for him to work as an educator. Employees immediately feel confident in him and carry out their duties with keen enthusiasm. A very skilled pilot, he demonstrates in navigation that he possesses uncommon qualities for safety, expertise and in-depth knowledge of all the most modern systems. Excellent bombing pilot with 20/20. Excellent general of the Air Bombardment Brigade. May 1937 ". (Lucia R.Honorati. Op. Cited)
5. The next day an RAF plane parachuted a laurel wreath on the Italian field with the following note: "The British air forces express their sincere regret for the death of Marshal Balbo, a great leader and a valiant aviator who fate posed in the adverse field ". Today the body of Italo Balbo rests among those of the Atlantic flyers in a sector of the Orbetello cemetery reserved for them.
6. He will be buried in the small cemetery of the town and the grave will always be cared for by some inhabitants, until his return to Italy about fifteen years later. (A. Briganti. Op. Cited)
7. A. Briganti. Op. Cited
8. A. Briganti. Op. Cited
9. Luciana Ranieri Honorati. (Op cited)
The photos, and the quotations in italics of the text, are taken from the book " Beyond the clouds the serene " by A. Briganti, and from the internet. The photos of the ceremonies are by Fabio Mariotti.
Alberto Briganti “ Beyond the clouds, the serene ” 2nd edition ‐ September 1994 - Nuovo Studio Tecna ‐ Rome
Luciana Ranieri Honorati. “ The Umbrians in the history of flight ” - Perugia 1984 - San Paolo di Tivoli printing press.
This essay was published in nr. 53 - 2014 by Pagine Altotiberine published by the "Historical Association of the Upper Tiber Valley" on p. 127
It has also been published on the website “umbertideturismo.it” - Municipality of Umbertide