“Pippo flew over Venice every afternoon at around three o’clock,” Anna Friedenberg remembers. Now a resident of Toronto, Friedenberg was only four years old when she lived in German-occupied Venice, yet she still has memories of the plane known as Pippo. “He never machine-gunned Venice or Mestre or Maghera,” she says, naming two nearby industrial towns. “And he didn’t frighten us. He was simply a presence, a fact of life. We thought he was a reconnaissance plane flown by the Allies.”
Although Pippo survives in the oral tradition of Northern Italy, he is little acknowledged in official histories of the war. In fact, no one even seems to know how Pippo acquired his name. One theory suggests it was a play on the Italian moniker for Disney’s Goofy character. Alternatively, it could have been based on the pip-pip sounds he made as he flew overhead. The silly name makes sense to Friedenberg. “We sometimes even called him Pippino(Little Pippo),” she says, using the diminutive. “He wasn’t frightening to us, so why else choose such a name?”
However, not everyone thought of Pippo as a friendly presence. According to Poldo Giro, who lives in the Euganean Hills west of Venice, Pippo was feared by all. Flying only at night, thus only heard but never seen, it was essential to block the lights in your house or Pippo might bomb it. He was rumoured to drop exploding pens or so-called butterfly bombs. He was blamed with strafing the fields and roads with gunfire. And naughty children were sometimes warned: Be good or Pippo will come and get you.
Sometimes Pippo’s identity seems to have been determined by one’s political allegiances. If you were faithful to the Fascists, Pippo was certainly an Allied plane. If you were a supporter of the Allies, the plane was German or maybe even Italian. In any case, it is evident from at least one newspaper of the era that the Fascists used it as a propaganda tool to turn ordinary civilians against the Allies. But whether friend or enemy, Pippo was always he – the plane and pilot a single entity – flying tirelessly all night long over German-occupied Northern Italy.
As it turns out, Friedenberg and her fellow Venetians were probably right when they believed Pippo to be a reconnaissance plane. According to research by historian Alan R. Perry, Pippo was almost certainly a plane, or rather planes, flown by the British Royal Air Force. Unaware of the fears and myths they were generating on the ground, the pilots flew tactical night missions throughout Northern Italy to survey and intervene in German troop movements. The plane itself was most likely a Mosquito, famed for its distinctive buzz, many of which were built during the war by de Havilland Canada at Downsview Airfield (now Park) right here in Toronto.
To a four-year old girl forced to flee Venice after Italy allied with the Nazis in 1943 because her father was Jewish, Pippo was just what she knew. “Pippo was like a joke,” says Friedenberg. “He would come and visit.” She admits though that her memory may be hazy. “I was so young. It was a vague idea. It is like an urban legend. But it is real history.”
These stories are too good to be lost, so if you have any memories of Pippo, please email janiceandgina @ hotmail.com or post here.