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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The World’s First In-air Hijack

The 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001 led to major upgrades in security protocols at airports all over the world. Yet, whilst aircraft hijackings may seem like a modern form of terrorism, such incidents have been around for almost as long as human flight itself. The world’s first confirmed in-air hijack took place in 1942, when a South African, an Englishman, and two New Zealanders overpowered the crew of an Italian seaplane that was flying them to a prisoner-of-war camp, and instead diverted the aircraft to Malta.



On 15th March 1937, No. 217 Squadron RAF, which had first seen service in the latter stages of WWI, was re-formed at RAF Boscombe Down, in Amesbury, Wiltshire, under the recently created RAF Coastal Command. Equipped with the Avro Anson multi-role aircraft, the squadron performed general reconnaissance duties until the outbreak of WWII. In October 1939, the squadron moved to RAF St Eval, in Cornwall, from where it conducted anti-submarine patrols over the Western Approaches to the English Channel. From May 1940, the squadron started to be equipped with Bristol Beaufort torpedo bombers, which were used in anti-shipping and mine-laying missions.


After two years at St Eval, the squadron moved to the north of Scotland, before, in May 1942, it was ordered to Ceylon, via Gibraltar and Malta. On 10th June, the squadron’s aircraft arrived in Malta, where they were detained to provide cover for two Allied convoys that were sailing to the island simultaneously from both ends of the Mediterranean two days later. In the end, the squadron would remain in Malta for two months, carrying out attacks on enemy shipping across a wide section of the Mediterranean, reaching as far as Greece.


A Bristol Beaufort of No. 217 Squadron at RAF Luqa, Malta.

On 28th July, Bristol Beauforts of No. 217 Squadron took off from Malta in search of a southbound convoy, consisting of a 7,000-ton Italian supply ship and two escorting destroyers, which was known to be sailing south of Greece. One of the Beauforts was piloted by 22-year-old Lieutenant Edward Theodore 'Ted' Strever, South African Air Force, from Klerksdorp, South Africa. His navigator was an Englishman, 32-year-old Pilot Officer William Martin Dunsmore, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, from Maghull, Merseyside. Two New Zealanders, 22-year-old Sergeant John Aston Wilkinson, from Auckland, and 26-year-old Sergeant Alexander Raymond Brown, from Timaru - both of the Royal New Zealand Air Force - were wireless operators/air gunners.


The convoy was eventually located south of the island of Sapientza, off the southern coast of the Peloponnese, and was attacked by nine Beauforts and six escorting Bristol Beaufighters. Three of the aircraft aimed their bombs at the destroyers, scoring near-misses, while all vessels were machine-gunned. In the meantime, as the torpedo bombers hugged the surface of the sea to start their runs, they were met by a hail of flak. Strever released one torpedo, which slammed into the side of the Italian vessel, although his aircraft was badly shot up by fire from one of the destroyers in the process. In the end, this was the only hit achieved on the merchant vessel, which was seen pouring white smoke. The ship did not sink but was eventually forced into Pylos, Greece, for emergency repairs.


A Beaufort carrying out an attack against enemy shipping.

In the meantime, although at first, the damage to Strever’s aircraft appeared to be slight, the port engine soon started showing unmistakable signs of imminent failure, and realising that there was no hope of completing the 500-kilometre return flight to Malta, he was left with no alternative but to turn back in an attempt to reach the Greek coast. Yet, as the situation worsened, Strever was forced to ditch in the sea while still some distance from the coast. His Beaufort was one of two that failed to return from the mission.  


Although the Beaufort sank within 90 seconds, all four crew members managed to escape, though Strever himself struggled to exit from a partially submerged cockpit. He eventually joined the rest of his crew in the emergency dinghy, and after having taken stock of the situation, the men started paddling in the direction of the shore. Yet, after around two hours, an Italian CANT Z.506B floatplane appeared overhead, and after circling, landed a short distance away from them. Strever promptly swam across and was hauled aboard, where he was given brandy and a cigarette. The rest of the crew were then picked up and treated likewise, before being flown to a seaplane base in Preveza, north-western Greece.


A CANT Z.506B floatplane of the Regia Aeronautica.

Upon landing, the prisoners were made surprisingly comfortable, being shown every consideration and even allowed to make use of the officers’ mess for the rest of the day. That evening, they were treated to an excellent supper, with more wine and cigarettes, before some Italian officers vacated their rooms to allow the downed crew a good night’s sleep. Following a breakfast of eggs and coffee the following morning, the prisoners were informed that they were to be flown to Italy for questioning, before being interned in a prisoner-of-war camp. Upon hearing this, their hearts sank, for this mode of transport seemed to offer little chance of escape.


Shortly afterwards, they were taken aboard a CANT Z.506B belonging to the 139a Squadriglia Ricognizione Marittima, bound for Taranto, Italy. The CANT’s crew consisted of the pilot, Tenente Gaetano Mastrodicasa; co-pilot, Maresciallo Alessandro Cifari; engineer, Sergente Trento Losi; and wireless operator/observer, Aviere Scelto Marcello Schifano. There was an extra passenger, Vicebrigadiere Giulio Scarcella, of the Carabinieri, who, armed with a revolver, was detailed to accompany and guard the prisoners.


A CANT Z.506B of the 139a Squadriglia Ricognizione Marittima.

The seaplane took off and set course westwards, and for a while, the flight proceeded uneventfully. Yet, with every passing minute, the prisoners knew that they were getting closer to a long incarceration in a POW camp, and the thought of this unsavoury prospect soon spurred them into action. There are many different accounts of what actually happened, but it seems that Scarcella was suffering from airsickness, which provided an opportunity. The prisoners, who had not been tied up, leaving them free to move around the aircraft, exchanged meaningful glances.


Suddenly, Wilkinson leant forward and, with one punch, took out the wireless operator, Schifano. Leaping over his prostrate body, he then flung himself at Scarcella, wrenching away his revolver, which he at once passed to Strever. Reacting quickly, Dunsmore and Brown tackled the engineer, Losi. Wilkinson then advanced up the fuselage, holding Scarcella in front of him as a shield, while Strever followed, brandishing the captured revolver. At this point, the pilot pulled out a gun, but fortunately, it was knocked out of his hand by the co-pilot in the frantic struggle to regain control. A few seconds later, the former captives had taken over the aircraft, with the Italian aircrew tied up with their own belts, and Strever at the controls.



The capture of the aircraft had only taken a few seconds, but new problems now became apparent. For starters, there were no maps or charts on board, since the Italian crew had flown the route many times before and were familiar with it. Strever also had no idea of the floatplane’s speed, or how much fuel would be needed to reach Malta. Faced with a strange collection of foreign instruments, he decided it would be easier to untie the co-pilot and force him, at gunpoint, to fly towards Sicily, knowing that this would allow him to get his bearings and enable them to fly south towards Malta.


At length, they hit the toe of Italy, with Strever ordering the co-pilot to proceed according to plan. As they flew southwards above Sicily, several enemy aircraft passed within sight, thankfully without suspicion: The Italian markings seemed to do the trick. The most southerly point of Sicily was reached without any issues, but at this point, the flight engineer, Losi, pointed out that they were running out of fuel. Strever decided there was no option but to carry on, in the hope that they would somehow make it. Yet, as soon as the Italians realised their destination, they became somewhat alarmed, knowing full well how Malta's fighter aircraft and ground defences were likely to greet them.


In truth, the Allied airmen were just as apprehensive, knowing that there was a strong chance that they would be fired upon by their own side. Their fears were soon justified. At around 1 pm, the CANT was picked up by radar in Malta, and six Spitfires from No. 603 Squadron RAF were scrambled from RAF Ta Kali to intercept the mysterious unidentified aircraft approaching the island at low altitude from the north. The British fighters spotted the floatplane about 15 kilometres off the coast, flying just above the surface of the sea, and heading in the direction of St. Paul’s Bay.


A Supermarine Spitfire of No. 603 Squadron at RAF Ta Kali.

As the floatplane came in low, three of the Spitfires, led by Pilot Officer Eric 'Dicky' Dicks-Sherwood, swept down upon it. Dicky fired a burst and hit it in the wing, while another pilot fired across its bows. A frantic Dunsmore took off his white vest and started waving it out of the cockpit window, but when it became apparent that the Spitfire pilots had not been deterred, Strever ordered the Italian flying the aircraft to land in the sea, around 1.5 kilometres offshore, and approximately halfway between St. Paul’s Bay and Sliema. No sooner had he done so than the engines stopped: They had finally run out of fuel.


The Spitfire pilots looked on perplexed as several men emerged onto the wings waving frantically. Puzzled, they ceased firing and radioed for an air-sea rescue launch, whilst continuing to circle overhead until it arrived. Shortly afterwards, High Speed Launch (HSL) 107 arrived on the scene, having been dispatched from RAF Kalafrana. The rescuers were amazed to find both Italian and Allied airmen inside the floatplane. With the assistance of a seaplane tender, the CANT was towed into St. Paul’s Bay, where the five Italian and four Commonwealth airmen were taken ashore.


The Beaufort and CANT crews pictured together. Left to right: Pilot Officer Dunsmore, Vicebrigadiere Scarcella, Sergente Losi, Lieutenant Strever, Tenente Mastrodicasa, Sergeant Wilkinson, Maresciallo Cifari, Sergeant Brown, and Aviere Scelto Schifano.

The rescued Allied aircrew, perhaps feeling a little guilty at the way they had repaid the Italians' hospitality, offered their apologies and promised to do all they could for the comfort of their captives. The Italians, however, seemed to take everything in good part, with one of them producing a bottle of wine from a suitcase and insisting that they all have one last drink together. An armed guard was provided to prevent the locals from attacking the Italians, with Strever himself brandishing his revolver to show everyone that he would not let any harm befall his former captors.


The next day, the seaplane tender towed the CANT to Grand Harbour for examination, from where it was later flown to Kalafrana. Here, British markings were painted over the Italian ones to display its new ownership. It was originally intended to keep the floatplane in Malta, to be used for air-sea rescue work, but its unmistakable design would have undoubtedly made it a target to Allied aircraft, and it thus left Malta shortly afterwards.


The captured CANT Z.506B in British colours.

The Italian airmen were later transferred by sea to a POW camp in the UK, with the pilot, Mastrodicasa, whose idea it had been to transport the POWs to Taranto, being later tried in absentia and found guilty of disobedience and of allowing his aircraft to be captured by the enemy. On the other hand, Strever and Dunsmore were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions, while Wilkinson and Brown received the Distinguished Flying Medal. All four would survive the war and would be remembered for having carried out the world’s first confirmed in-air hijack.

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