Sunnuntai 19.11.2017
UTIN ILMAKILTA ry UTTI 

DIEGO MANZOCCHI the forgotten hero

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By Tapio Huttunen


In the memorial occasions of the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Winter War, the fate of the Italian volunteer Diego Manzocchi has received little attention. However, he sacrificed his dearest for the freedom of Finland, his life! His story well deserves to be told.

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Diego Manzocchi’s arrival at Finland as a volunteer in the battles of the Winter War was most obviously a mere co-incidence. This fact in no way lessens his appreciation here in Finland. At the end of 1939, Diego Manzocchi was receiving flying training at the Cameri Flying School in Northern Italy, close to Milan. By his rank, he was a Senior Sergeant in the Italian Air Force. He had earlier served in Tripoli, Libya, which then was a colony of Italy. He was aged 27 years and a bachelor. On his leave in the Italian Riviera in the autumn of 1939, he met a French lady named Justine, with whom he fell in love with such fervor that after his return from leave, he started planning a flight to France to meet his object of admiration. He was also dissatisfied in the progress of his career in the Air Force as well as in the then fascist Italian regime of Benito Mussolini.

Diego Manzocchi put his plan into practice on 29th September 1939. He let his old Fiat CR 20 biplane fighter be filled up with fuel. Fiat CR 20 served as an advanced trainer at Cameri, before transition to modern fighters. The aircraft was single-seated, with a range of 500-700 kilometres fully fuelled, depending on the circumstances.

Diego calculated that with this amount of fuel he could fly over the Alps to Gap Tallard airfield on the French side. The take-off was successful, and the flight path went first passing Turin around its Northern side (to avoid encountering fighters possibly sent from Turin air base to intercept), over the Gran Paradiso National Park, to the North-West, crossing the border between Italy and France at Brianconi. However, the warning light for low fuel finally lit up, and Diego understood that the fuel could never suffice for Gap Tallard. Thus he carried out a forced landing on a corn field by the river Durance, while the engine was already coughing, indicating shortage of fuel. The landing took place without damage, and soon Diego had to explain the reasons of his arrival to the French Gendarmerie who had been alarmed on the site. Diego had studied the French language already at school in his home town, Morbegno, and later with French tourists while spending his leaves on the Italian Riviera. The outcome was that Diego was allowed to stay in France, but he was all the time under the surveillance of the French military intelligence service, and he was ordered to reside at the remote town of Bolle from mid-October 1939 on. From there, Diego managed to visit Paris on 28th December 1939, in the address that he had received from his object of admiration. However, the door was opened by a tall man, who announced he was the husband of the lady in question. That admiration saw its end there and then, and Diego noticed he was in worse than trouble!

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Fiat C.R.20 Aviano, 1936

On the following day, 29th December, in a café by the Gare de Lyon street he met two Canadian pilots, who were on their way to Stockholm, and from there, later on to Finland for volunteers in the Winter War. These two Canadians were Lieutenant John McMaster and Sergeant John Jenkins, who also did arrive at Finland. The Canadians were well aware about things in Finland, and they gave Diego the address of a recruitment office as well as instructions for the journey by rail from Stockholm to Tornio.

Diego returned to Bolle, where he filled in an application to be allowed to “fight against communism”. The application was returned with a negative response on 9th January 1940. Another application of 12th January was also returned as negative. Only the third application was approved on 25th January 1940, with permission of transit to Paris and further on to the border.

Diego boarded a train in Paris and his journey went through the neutral Belgium and Holland to Germany, and from there, to the neutral Denmark. At the Swedish border there was already a Finnish contact person to meet him, who helped Diego to get a visa for residence in Sweden from the day of arrival 29th January until 15th February 1940. The Finns interviewed Diego for a long time in an office near the Finnish Consulate. Finally they were satisfied with Diego’s answers and they ordered him to report at the recruitment office in Tornio on 7th February 1940, where he arrived on the given day. In Tornio Diego was paid one month’s salary in advance and given clothes better suited for the Finnish climate.

From Tornio, Diego Manzocchi was sent to Lapua, where “Detachment Sisu” had been established for foreign volunteers on 8th January 1940. The Commander of Detachment Sisu was Captain Bertil Nordlund. The pilots of Detachment Sisu were sent further to Parola, where the Täydennyslentolaivue 29 (abbreviated T-LLv 29, Replenishment Flight Squadron 29) was deployed. From there, chosen pilots were sent to different units of the Air Force, or back to Lapua, as there were all sorts of volunteer “pilots”, for example the American Captain Julien, “Black Eagle” and “Field Marshal of Abyssinia”, and a countless number of other swindlers and adventurers. But Diego Manzocchi was a top class pilot, and he was ordered to report at Utti in the Lentolaivue 26 (Flight Squadron 26).

Diego Manzocchi arrived at the Lentolaivue 26 on 16th February 1940. He had served as a Senior Sergeant in the Italian Air Force, and the same rank was given to him also in the Finnish Air Force. He had flown the Fiat G.50 aircraft already in his homeland, so he was a most welcome help in the Squadron. There is no precise knowledge on when he flew in Finland for the first time. According to the documents preserved, he flew an interception sortie to Viipurinlahti Bay with Lieutenant Puhakka on February 29th at 14.50 hours, and another one at 16.25 hrs, totaling 60 minutes. According to the war diary of the Squadron, Manzocchi flew in February 3 hours and 20 minutes, so the first flight has been earlier in February.

On March 1st 1940 there were two interception sorties. On the next day, there was a transit flight from Hollola to Haukkajärvi, where the aircraft capsized on its nose in soft snow while taxiing after landing. The following entry is for 9th March 1940, when Manzocchi participated in combat at Viipurinlahti Bay, although the landing gear did not entirely retract because of a hydraulics failure. Flight time was 65 minutes. Then, on the fateful day of 11th March, an interception flight of 40 minutes took place at 11.20, and then the fatal flight at 13.40 hrs, which ended in forced landing after 45 minutes. There is varying data on the flight hours logged by Diego Manzocchi. He flew in March 1940 at least a total of 6 hours and 10 minutes, maybe more. He flew Fiat in Finland at least a total of 9 hours and 30 minutes.

On that fateful day of 11th March 1940 the events unfolded as follows: at 11.20 hrs Lieutenant Olli Puhakka and Senior Sergeant Diego Manzocchi took off for an interception mission in the direction of Viipuri without encountering the enemy, and returned to the base. The flight time was 40 minutes. After the aircraft were serviced and refueled, the couple took off again at 13.40 hrs for an interception sortie in Viipuri direction. Again, the bombers had already left the air space of Viipuri, and the pair decided to return.

As they arrived at Haukkajärvi, they spotted a huge formation of about a hundred bombers at 5000 meters. The aircraft were heading towards Lahti, and the fast Fiats went chasing the formation. They reached the bombers above Sääskjärvi Lake of Iitti, and went for attack. Lieutenant Puhakka managed to shoot down one DB-3 aircraft from the formation. The bomber fell in the forest at Kimonkylä village of Lapinjärvi. Captain Grigori Bulava and his crew were killed.

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Diego's Fiat G.50, FA-22

The attack of Senior Sergeant Manzocchi was not equally successful, but from the defensive fire of the bombers, he sustained the hit of a bullet in his lungs. Observers on the ground saw Manzocchi’s plane swing and fall steeply towards the ground, but however in a controlled fashion. The wounded pilot chose the small Ikolanjärvi Lake as his site of forced landing. As he approached the lake, he lowered his landing gear in the down position. This decision most likely cost him his life. If he had done a traditional “belly landing” with the landing gear retracted, the aircraft would most likely have glided on along the ice and stayed upright. Now, instead the aircraft landed on soft ice with a layer of wet snow on it, and the locals had made a winter road across the ice.

Manzocchi’s Fiat G.50 hit the bank of the winter road, turning upside down and continuing its way with the inertia of its speed. The open cockpit of the aircraft was packed with ice and wet snow, bruising the head of the pilot. As the plane stopped, the pilot was left hanging from his seat belts head down.

The first one to find the plane was a small boy, Matti Laitinen, who informed the authorities about it. But the rescue work started very slowly. At Kuusankoski, there was a training company, and its men were collected for a rescue group. From the stables of the Kymi Company, a horse and a sleigh were borrowed. Thereafter, mechanical jacks were fetched, as they were thought to be needed in lifting the aircraft. Finally the group was under way and they reached the plane at 17.20 hrs.

Villagers had been near the plane earlier in the day, and knocking was heard from inside the plane at about 15.00 hours. Now it was all silent. The rescue group lifted the tail of the aircraft with the jacks, and then snow was shoveled away from where the cockpit was. There became a space of about 70 cm and a volunteer crawled into the cockpit and cut the seat belts of the pilot. The body of the pilot slid on the ice and was lifted in the sled. The body was still warm but lifeless. Manzocchi was taken by sled to Kymi vocational school, which then served as a makeshift war hospital. He was carried to the lobby, where a doctor confirmed him as dead. According to the doctor, the bullet in the lungs alone was not the cause of death, but the bruises of the head, loss of blood, and hanging head down for several hours all together caused the death.

The information on Diego Manzocchi’s fate went extremely slowly. Not until the evening of the same day did the Commander of Hävittäjälentolaivue 26, Major J. W. R. Harju-Jeanty receive the message, and passed on the information to the staff of Lentorykmentti 2 (Flight Regiment 2) on Senior Sergeant Manzocchi not having returned from his flight. The Headquarters of Flight Regiment 2 was located in Selänpää of Jaala in March 1940.

At 19.35 hrs, LLv 26, Utti. I hereby report that today at 17.20 hrs Ensign Alppisara found on the ice of Ikolanjärvi Lake, 7 kilometres to the South-West from Voikkaa, at the map location 70,4 on the spot of the number 7, a downed Finnish fighter aircraft Number 4946 FA-22. The aircraft has green colour, it has fallen at about 13.00 hrs, according to what a small boy Matti Laitinen has told, today in the time between 12.00 – 15.40 hrs, and as reported by Ensign Alppisara, it is on the ice upside down, partially sunken in water. Inside is at least one dead pilot. I have arranged for guarding of the plane, and sent a task group, which will try to lift the aircraft so that the bodies can be removed. Deputy Commander of II / Training Company IV, Olavi Järvelä.

Diego Manzocchi was a very cheerful and polite, gregarious gentleman. The pilots and mechanics liked him a lot. In Finland, he became enthusiastic about the sauna and bathing. He taught the pilots and mechanics an Italian song ”E l`aeronautica e`l árma elegante”. Mechanic Veikko Lappalainen remembers that once when he went to the tents of the pilots he met Manzocchi, who was laughing while reading aloud a Finnish cartoon “World of Adventure”, pronouncing the words in a perfectly correct manner, but without understanding a word. He was a real easy-going fellow for a pilot!

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Diego's tombstone at Hietaniemi cemetery Helsinki

Diego Manzocchi was born in Morbegno, Northern Italy, on 26th December 1912. He has been buried at the Hietaniemi hero cemetery in Helsinki, fairly close to the tall cross. The tombstone bears the text “Italian pilot Diego Manzoechi + 13.1.1940 Valkeala”. In other words, the name has been misspelled, and the date is false, too! Diego Manzocchi is the only Italian fallen in the Winter War.

Manzocchi’s Fiat G.50 aircraft was disassembled on site and transported back to Utti and the report of the aircraft inspector of Flight Squadron 26, Väinö Lemmilä, is as follows.

Senior Sergeant Manzocchi made a forced landing on the ice of Ikolanjärvi Lake for an unknown reason. In the forced landing, the propeller of the aircraft was bent, and the canopy of the cockpit, the wings, and rudder were damaged. The aircraft has been sent for repair to the depot of Härmälä at Tampere on 19th March 1940.

From the depot, the aircraft was not returned to the strength of Flight Squadron 26 as repaired until 19th April 1941 – just suitably for the Continuation War. The aircraft served the Air Force honourably for the duration of the whole war. The last flight with the aircraft took place on 28th August 1944. It was handed over to the depot on 25th February 1945, and removed from the strength of the Air Force on 31st May 1945.



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