The history of Italian fighter planes
It is a truism, trundled out in countless books, websites, documentaries and a caption in the Science Museum that the design of the Spitfire was directly developed from the Supermarine S.6b. There was, however, another aircraft that boasted the same pedigree as Supermarine’s most famous product. It is not famous and it is a fine example of the artistic mediocrity that afflicted Italy’s aviation industry at the very moment that it was most sorely needed. The aircraft is the Macchi C.200 Saetta and it bears the same relation to the Macchi MC.72 as does the Spitfire to the Supermarine S.6b. The MC.72 was, to coin a phrase, an incredibly handsome shit-kicking, fire-breathing killer.
Its engine eventually developed over 3000 horsepower and this gargantuan 24 cylinder monster required that a vast amount of the airframe skin be employed as a cooling surface. Radiators covered the upper parts of the floats, the struts that attached them to the fuselage, nearly the whole wing, top and bottom on both sides, and (if the weather was warm) the lower rear fuselage. The entire nose was a thin- skinned tank to cool the oil. Any part of the aircraft not covered in radiator was painted Italian racing scarlet. The nose was long and dramatic to house the giant engine and the rest of the aircraft was a collection of swooping deco streamlines.
It looked fast and exciting and dangerous. And so it proved. Before it could be coaxed to the design team’s goal of 700 km/h it had claimed the lives of two test pilots. Eventually Warrant Officer Francesco Agello, chosen, like his dead colleagues, for his diminutive stature (the cockpit was tiny) took the MC.72 up to 709.2 km/h (440.6 mph) at Lake Garda in 1934; The fastest speed attained by a propeller driven seaplane to this very day. Had the MC.72 been followed up in the same manner as the Spitfire followed the S.6b then Italy would have had the fastest, finest and best looking fighter of the war.
However Castoldi designed the C.200 instead. That isn’t to say that the C.200 doesn’t have a certain charm. It could almost said to be good looking in a slightly cuddly rotund kind of way, like a bumblebee or Winnie the Pooh.
From an engineering point of view it was also quite advanced. For example, to counteract the torque of the airscrew Castoldi made the left wing 21 cm longer than the right, the difference in lift between the two wings neutralising the effect of the rotating propeller. The rear fuselage was a semi-monocoque, just like the Spitfire, and, as first designed it had a fully enclosed cockpit. The dive performance was said to be exceptionally good.
But who cares? It looked like humpty-dumpty. It was powered by the FIAT A.74, an unhappy Italian development of the Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp and could barely exceed 500 km/h (312 mph). But it was pleasant to fly and although it was barely armed with two 12.7mm machine guns (which would have made it pretty competitive in World War I), the pilot had the benefit of a counter in the cockpit to tell him how much ammunition he had left to ineffectually fling at any enemy aircraft slow enough for him to catch up with. To convey the right sort of image it was dubbed the Saetta, which translates roughly as Thunderbolt and refers specifically to the lightning bolts that Jupiter clutches in his hand to scare mortals with.
And thus Italy’s most produced monoplane fighter of World War Two joined the fray like Captain Mainwaring in a world populated by Errol Flynns.
Meanwhile the Spitfire was busy raising itself to mythic status. In addition to having a film made about it (‘First of the Few’) and having classical music composed for it (‘Spitfire Prelude and Fugue’), it actually was the best fighter aircraft in the world (more or less).
More importantly it looked like sex on legs.
And herein is the key – the Bf 109 was better than the Hurricane because it looked like it ought to be and the Spitfire was marginally better than the 109 because it was marginally better looking. The poor little Saetta could not succeed because it did not look more like a sexy killer than any other aircraft. Apart, that is, from other Italian aircraft: Over in Turin, FIAT weren’t just making engines of variable quality but busily producing aircraft too.
Their CR.32 was an excellent attractive biplane that cut a dash over Spain and was instrumental in gaining Nationalist air supremacy. FIAT followed it up with the CR.42 (another biplane) which was chunkier, friendlier and happier looking and was so hopelessly outclassed when committed to the Battle of Britain that at least one pilot ‘mistakenly’ landed his FIAT in Suffolk rather than trust his life in the chubby machine against Fighter Command (and no one could truly blame him). To follow this FIAT gamely attempted to enter the monoplane arena; their G.50 was designed by Giuseppe Gabrielli who was also responsible for the rather elegant G.91 jet fighter of the 1960s.
A cruel joke?
The G.50 cannot be considered his masterpiece, a slab sided, open cockpit, hump-backed aircraft, it swiftly set new standards of mediocrity. Over Greece it was outclassed by the Gloster Gladiator (a biplane) which gives a fairly accurate impression as to its capability, and it contrived to make even the Saetta look pretty slick. Its name of Freccia (Arrow) seems in retrospect to be a pointedly cruel joke and it has, quite rightly, sunk into obscurity, lacking even a modicum of aesthetic charm to commend it to anyone.
The third major Italian fighter manufacturer, Reggiane, was building an aircraft they called the Re 2000 Falco (Falcon) and it was notably better than any of the others – tellingly the RAF had ordered 600 of them before Italy entered the war but Germany embargoed the sale.
As a result the Italian air force chose inexplicably to virtually ignore the Falco (which looked like a P-47 Thunderbolt that has been squeezed lengthways – thus neither particularly threatening nor totally awful) but it was used in quantity by Hungary and Sweden with some success. But then, something weird happened. Castoldi took the C.200, bolted on a licence-built Daimler Benz V-12 DB 601 engine and created a real looker. Long slender nose, angular canopy blended with a curvaceous fairing, radiator set well back so it didn’t interfere with the svelte lines at the front.
Stylish lightning and brutish greyhounds
The porky C.200 became the stylish C.202 Folgore (Lightning) and soon made its superiority known over all Allied fighters with the exception, seemingly inevitably, of the Spitfire. A further engine change (for the DB 605) resulted in the Veltro (Greyhound), a broadly similar machine that added a certain degree of brutishness to the aesthetic mix and was a highly effective fighter. A bit like a Messerschmitt with curves. So successful was this approach that FIAT and Reggiane could not fail to notice and the German engine was married to the G.50 and the Falco.
The hopeless little G.50 was transformed into the outstanding and good-looking G.55 and ultimately the experimental G.56 which proved superior to any Axis fighter in German tests. But the Reggiane became the Re 2005 Sagittario (Archer) an aircraft that was described as “the most beautiful plane of the Second World War” (admittedly by an Italian). Its looks did not belie its capabilities and it was lucky indeed that a mere 48 were built. It was too late anyway; the damage was done and Italy had fielded an array of the world’s least attractive or even purposeful looking fighters and had suffered the consequences.
That Italian engines lagged behind the World standard, that its industrial output was pathetic and its fighters lacked what any other nation would consider a proper armament was by the by. Italy’s fighters were aesthetically wanting in its hour of need and they suffered the consequences.
However, they got to keep the floatplane record for eighty years.
By Ted Ward writer and illustrator
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The MC72 is indeed stunning and had effectively two V12 engines, one for each prop. Being a racing plane she operated on the edge of the envelope and the crashes were caused by one of the engines backfiring and dropping the unfortunate pilot into the drink. This was solved for the record run by Rod Banks (I thoroughly recommend his auotbiography “I Kept No Diary”) mixing a special cocktail fuel that the Italians used.
The reason why Italy did not develop a fighter from Macchi MC.72 was that the Italian Ministry of Industry forced the aviation industry to abandon the linear motors for radial engines considered more solid. That’s why then Italy will have to produce under license Germans linear aircraft engines.