Saturday, March 20, 2010


The setting Sun cast a baleful glare across the riven countryside of Treviso, northern Italy. Beneath the cockpit of Francesco Barraca's SPAD VII biplane, the landscape scrolled like a papier-mache diorama, the trenches thrown into deep shadow, and a shimmering amber glow reflecting from the waters of the River Piave as it curled around the base of Montello hill.

A conduit for pure alpine meltwater, flowing to its Venetian outlet on the Adriatic, the Piave now cut its way between fields of war, and formed the front to which the Italian forces had retreated after their 1917 defeat at Caporetto. Montello hill, a moraine deposited in the landscape by an ancient glacier, provided a stronghold for the Italians as the Austrians gathered their forces, and launched an attack across the Piave on the 15th June 1918.

On the 19th, the Italians staged a counter-attack, and that evening, Italy's number one fighter pilot, with 34 victories to his name, took to the skies to strafe the Austrian positions from above.

As Barraca placed his biplane into a shallow dive, he fettled the Vickers machine-gun sitting atop the engine cowling, and prepared to open fire. Swooping low across the Austrian lines, he heard a sudden polyphonic whistle to one side, followed instantly by a volley of bullets tearing a line of holes across the metal cowling. Immediately, orange flames were licking around the base of the fuselage. Barraca jettisoned the fuel tank, but the conflagration spread in seconds to the canvas wings. Maggiore Francesco Barraca was now fighting for his life, frantically banking the plane towards Montello, seeking a site for the inevitable crash-landing.

Montello, however, was heavily forested. As Barraca fought with the rudder, his vision was obscured by smoke billowing from the nose, and he clipped the top of a chestnut tree, ripping the undercarriage away, and pitching the fuselage forward into a final short dive. In a small clearing between the trees, the biplane hit the ground with a sickening thump that ripped the final breath from the V8 Hispano-Suiza engine, and sent the frame of Barraca's mount cartwheeling towards a copse of oak trees.

Shrouded in smoke and flame, Barraca's shattered bones lay entangled in the splintered frame of the biplane, scarlet blood mixing with jet black engine oil. Still conscious, Barraca heard the sound of Austrian soldiers approaching, calmly loaded his pistol, and fired a single shot into his skull. When the soldiers extinguished the fire, and reached Barraca, the only part of the aircraft frame which remained untouched by the flames, was Barraca's insignia: a prancing black horse...

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