Despite world-class aircraft designers, Italian fighter aircraft in the early part of World War II were stymied by weedy engines and a lack of serious firepower. The introduction of German engines and cannon to these transformed these mediocrities into some of the best fighter aircraft in the world, we spoke to author Marco Mattioli to find out more.
What was the C.200 and what were its strengths and weaknesses?
The Macchi C.200 Saetta (thunderbolt or arrow) was the best Italian fighter at the time in June 1940, the time Italy’s entered the War. Like most Italian aeroplanes, it was a delight to fly and was extremely manoeuvrable. Unfortunately, it didn’t win the favour of Italian fighter pilots. Most of the pilots were strongly conservative and used to open cockpits – and didn’t like the 200’s new-fangled enclosed cockpit with its sliding hood (they feared being trapped inside in the event of an emergency). Thus the subsequent variants of the C.200, in something of a retrograde step, were fitted with an open cockpit. The pilots still preferred to fly the more aerobatic Fiat CR.32 and CR.42 biplanes, despite them being far slower than the modern enemy monoplanes they would likely encounter in combat. The pilots were not entirely irrational in their distrust of the new machine as the Saetta had a dangerous quirk: a tendency to stall. If the aircraft stalled at high altitude and had an expert test pilot at its controls, it could recover with apparent ease. But, at low-level with a beginner at the controls, the aircraft was a deathtrap. Sadly, low-level stalls did kill several pilots. A solution was found by the chief designer of SAI Ambrosini firm, engineer Sergio Stefanutti with the assistance of test pilot Adriano Mantelli. The C.200 wing section was redesigned, replacing its former constant profile with a variable one. The wings’ sharp leading edges (in the centre) and wingtips were rounded off, gluing to them balsa wood strips, then shaped and covered with canvas.
The Saetta’s main strength was its excellent manoeuvrability. Its two main weaknesses: it was poorly armed (just two cowling-mounted 12.7 mm Breda-SAFAT machine-guns) and underpowered. Its Fiat radial engine limited maximum speed to only 312 mph.
- How did it fare against Allied fighters?
Until the C.200s had to face the Gloster Gladiator biplanes over Malta, they had a degree of success. The biplane Gladiators, when flown by expert pilots, could seriously challenge C.200s. On paper, the C.200s had the advantage of speed, but the Gladiators were extremely manoeuvrable opponents that were dangerous to underestimate. Over Malta, there was one inconclusive dogfight on 11 June 1940. The Saetta pilot managed to drive his Gloster opponent away from the Italian bombers and one C.200 shot down (pilot becoming a PoW) by a Gladiator flown by Flt Lt Burges on 23 June 1940 (this C.200, being faster than the biplane, had overshot it, and the British pilot could shoot it down).
Over Greece, C.200s from 153° Gruppo met Gladiators from No 112 Sqn twice in the air: the first combat, on 22 March 1941, was inconclusive but for a No 80 Sqn Gladiator II set ablaze on the ground by the Macchis. Instead in the second action (26 March) the C.200s badly damaged one Gladiator (flown by Plt Off Neville Bowker) in the air and destroyed another from No 112 Sqn on the ground. Finally, on 14 April 1941, C.200s from 153° Gruppo clashed inconclusively with nine Greek Gladiators from the 21 Mira. To my knowledge, the Gloster Gladiators met over Malta were the first fighter opponents ever faced by the MC.200s
The going got tougher when Hawker Hurricane fighters arrived in-theatre. After that, performance parity, it was now purely the skill of the pilot that decided a dogfight’s outcome; when fighting the lethal, and far superior, Spitfire VB, the 200 pilots required extremely good luck to survive. In the fighter-bomber role, especially over North Africa and the Eastern Front, it performed well and proved to be a rugged aircraft.
- Why was it re-engined and what other changes were made to it to create the Macchi C.202 Folgore?
The Macchi C.200 was the foundation which led to create the Macchi C.202. Thanks to the Saetta’s manoeuvrability, its fuselage was deemed by Dr Engineer Mario Castoldi as a fair airframe to house the potent German-built Daimler Benz DB 601A-1 inline engine. This power unit was built under licence in Italy as the RA.1000 RC41-I Monsone (Monsoon). Initially, the C.202 was a re-engined C.200, and was 60 mph/96 kph faster (372 mph/599 kph) than the ‘original’ Saetta, thanks to the effective combination of the DB 601 power unit coupled with the streamlined frontal profile of the new Folgore fighter.
- What were the strengths and the weaknesses of the Macchi C.202 Folgore?
The Folgore’s main strengths were a marked increased speed, agility and rugged construction. Its weaknesses were a wingspan (34 ft 8.5 in/10.58 m) that was over two feet shorter than the one featured by the lethal Spitfire Vs and IXs. This detail affected Folgore’s performance at heights exceeding 20,000 feet (6,096 m), the routine starting altitude for much dogfighting. To make matters worse, the C.202’s radio proved to be so unreliable that the pilots decided to rely on hand gestures as a more reliable alternative. Besides, the undercarriages partially lowered due to high-g pullouts, not to mention faulty oxygen systems which plagued aircraft’s early actions. Finally, C.202’s light armament revealed itself really insufficient when facing newer RAF fighters armed with 20 mm cannon and both well-armed and armoured US heavy bombers.
- How did it compare to the Allied fighters it faced?
Folgores showed a marked superiority over the Tomahawks, Kittyhawks, Hurricane Is/IIs and Fairey Fulmars it faced all over North Africa and Mediterranean theatres. Anyway C.202s found their match with the Spitfire VBs/VCs, although veteran Italian pilots could hold their own when dogfighting with the RAF’s best fighter. As a matter of fact, since the autumn of 1942 Italian fighter groups were more and more confronted stiff opposition from Allied units equipped with Spitfire IXs, P-38 Lightnings and P-40 K/L Warhawks. All these fighter types not only performed equally or better than the Folgores, but were more heavily armed and overwhelming in numbers.
- What was the Macchi C.205 Veltro?
Through 1943, US medium and heavy bombers began to appear in increasingly large formations all over the Italian skies, escorted by potent new fighters. The Macchi C.202’s armament proved to be pitifully insufficient to shoot down these well-armoured and heavily armed intruders. A new powerfully armed fighter was needed. Engineer Mario Castoldi had been working on two such designs since December 1941. One of Castoldi’s designs, the Macchi C.205N Orione (Orion), never materialised made it into operational service due to the degree of redesign it required. But the other project, which combined the outstanding German DB 1475 hp DB 605A-1 (licence-built as RA.1050 RC58 Tifone – Typhoon) inline engine with the MC.200 wing and the MC.202 fuselage, was quickly developed. It was chosen because its upcycled construction, based mainly on C.202’s airframe, allowed a rapid development and service entry. Initially, it was designated C.202bis, before receiving the far better designation of C.205V Veltro (Greyhound). The Serie I Veltros were armed with four Breda-SAFAT machine-guns (two 12.7 mm cowling-mounted with 370 rounds per weapon, and two 7.7 mm others in the wings with 500 rounds each). The Serie III C.205Vs were armed with two cowl-mounted 12.7 mm machine-guns and two German-built 20-mm MG 151 Mauser cannon in the wings (with 250 rounds per gun).
The would-be Serie II, requested from the Fiat firm, never materialised because the Turin company was busy developing the G.55 Centauro fighter.
The decision to employ the proven C.202 airframes allowed Veltros to be delivered to Regia Aeronautica units by October 1942, a mere six months after the type’s maiden flight in April 1942. Brand-new Veltros featured an aerodynamic retractable tailwheel, while C.202s modified into Veltros kept a fixed tailwheel.
What were the strengths and the weaknesses of the Macchi C.205 Veltro?
The C.205V’s strengths had a high top speed of 399 mph, a high rate of climb (it could reach 20,000 ft in 4 minutes and 52 seconds), and the potent armament: which finally enabled the Italian fighter pilots to mete out serious damage to the Allied heavy bombers and their escort fighters. Weaknesses were a slight reduction in manoeuvrability above 20,000 ft – and a paucity of aircraft. Only 177 were examples built. This last fact was due to the devastating raids flown by RAF Bomber Command bombers on industrial targets in Northern Italy from the autumn of 1942 to August 1943. This meant that Fiat firm struggled to even produce a paltry 12 engines per month at its Turin plant.
- How well did it perform in combat?
The Veltro’s powerful armament finally allowed the Italian fighter pilots to destroy their Allied opponents, both bombers and escort fighters. As matter of fact, due to their reduced number (just 177 were built), frontline Veltros were usually assigned only to the aces and veteran pilots.
- What was the best Italian fighter aircraft of World War II, and why?
For the production number (nearly 1,300), agility and rugged construction the MC.202 Folgore; for its potent armament, despite their limited number, the Reggiane Re.2005 Sagittario (Archer), the MC.205V Veltro and the Fiat G.55 Centauro.
Tell us about your book
As an enthusiast of all things Italian, I am deeply fond of the Macchi C.202/205V fighters. My book examines in detail the operational careers of two of Italy’s best fighter aircraft in World War 2. The failure of engines’ pre-war designs of their own forced the Italians to ask German technology for good inline power units to be fitted on Regia Aeronautica fighters. The reliable DB 601s and DB 605s, coupled with good airframes, materialised the C.202 and the C.205V fighters. These outstanding aircraft allowed the Italian fighter pilots to be a match against the Allied fighters and bombers, prior to be overwhelmed by more potent Allied aircraft, through late 1942 to mid-1943. My text explores the war actions of the Italian Folgores and Veltros alike over several operational theatres as the Mediterranean, Malta, North Africa, the Eastern Front and Italy’s homeland skies. Not to mention C.202s and C.205Vs in foreign service with both Luftwaffe and Croat Air Force in WW2 and the Royal Egyptian Air Force in the First Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49. The narrative is supported also with plenty of period photos and nice colour profiles of these aircraft types, often identifying for each aircraft the pilot who flew it.
What should have I asked you?
I think you should have asked me about the men who flew such machines as well as the episodes which saw them act as protagonists.
Franco Bordoni Bisleri Franco Bordoni-Bisleri (10 January 1913 – 15 September 1975) was an Italian aviator and racing car driver. He is one of the top-scoring aces of the Regia Aeronautica, with 19 air victories. His nickname was “Robur” (strength) and was painted on most of his aircraft and racing cars.
One among them was high scorer 19-kill ace Tenente (Lieutenant) Franco Bordoni Bisleri of 18° Gruppo Caccia who, on 1 November 1942, was leading a four-strong MC.202 patrol over Mersa Matruh. Suddenly the Italians were jumped by a stronger formation of 12 Kittyhawks from No 250 Sqn: in an hectic and wild dogfight which lasted ten minutes, Ten Bordoni and his wingman Sottotenente Roberto Caetani fared well, shooting down two and one P-40s respectively. This outstanding feat earned Bordoni and Caetani being both decorated with the Medaglia d’Argento al Valor Militare (Silver Medal for Military Valour, Italy’s second-ranking award for bravery). For Bordoni that Silver Medal was his third one. Besides, you have to consider that even single aircraft have their own stories, often linked with the lives of the pilots which flew them. Please let me give some instances: the Macchi C.202 coded ’90-8′ of the 90^ Squadriglia (10° Gruppo, 4° Stormo) and serialled MM7906 had an interesting operational career: it was flown by Tenente Virgilio Vanzan to score a shared kill on 12 June 1942, shooting down a Kittyhawk I of No 260 Squadron, flown by Sgt R A Matthews, who baled out successfully. Vanzan’s Macchi was hit by South African anti-aircraft fire minutes later, but the Italian did succeed to make it back to base. On July 16th MM7906, this time piloted by Sottotenente Renato Baroni, scored a shared P-40 kill in combat against No 250 Sqn; however it was in turn stricken again during this action and forced to belly-land near El Daba. Let’s us pass to another really interesting aircraft, the one serialled MM7712 and coded ’97-2′: it was the mount at whose controls future ace Sottotenente Jacopo Frigerio of 97^ Squadriglia (9° Gruppo, 4° Stormo) on 30 September 1941 scored the first confirmed victory for the C.202 ever. He had downed an ‘Hurri-bomber’ from No 185 Sqn piloted by Plt Off D W Lintern, following an RAF raid over the Sicilian airfield at Comiso. MM7712 was one of the first production Folgores completed by Macchi firm, and had been ferried by Sottotenente Frigerio himself from Lonate Pozzolo to Gorizia. This machine was destined to feature a really long and varied operational career. After being fitted with a camera for reconnaissance role, the aircraft was posted to 54° Stormo, where it was also flown by ten-kill ace Capitano Adriano Visconti. Then it was transferred to 377^ Squadriglia Autonoma at Palermo-Boccadifalco and, coded ‘377-1’, saw action being piloted by five-kill ace Tenente Luigi Torchio. This latter pilot used MM7712 to claim a P-38 kill on 3 February 1943 near Punta Zafferano. However ‘377-1’ was damaged in the same engagement, forcing its pilot to belly-land at Palermo. Also the C.202 coded ‘151-1’ of 20° Gruppo, 51° Stormo and serialled MM9042 it’s worth being mentioned: it was ferried from Macchi firm to Rome-Ciampino on 16 June 1942, then reaching Sicilian Gela airfield on the 24th. This aircraft was the regular mount of ace Capitano Furio Niclot Doglio, 151^ Squadriglia CO, who was credited with six individual and two shared Spitfire kills over Malta. On 6 July 1942 Cap Doglio badly damaged the Spitfire flown by ace Sgt George ‘Buzz’ Beurling; but the Canadian pilot was to take his revenge 21 days later, when on 27 July he shot down Macchi MM9042, at whose controls Cap Doglio lost his life. For his distinguished service, the Italian ace posthumously earned the Medaglia d’Oro al Valor Militare (Gold Medal for Military Valour – Italy’s highest award for bravery). And so on, we could continue for tens of individual stories.
What is the greatest myth or misunderstanding of Italian aircraft in World War 2?
Rather than the aircraft itself, it would be more pertinent to speak about the myths and misunderstandings regarding the Italian Air Arm as a whole. The main misunderstanding derived from the remarkable results achieved by Italy in the ’20s and ’30s with world speed and high altitude records, plus long-range individual and formation flights. These amazing performances, coupled with the wars in Libya, Ethiopia, Spain and Albania, which always saw Italy on the apparent winning side, led the world to consider the Royal Italian Air Force as an efficient, combat-proven, potent and innovative air arm. But this was only a dramatic facade, based on an overestimation. The myth would be tragically unravelled by the combat demands of World War II.
An incredible series of wrong evaluations made by Italy’s politics, industrial and military leaderships forced the Italian Armed Forces to wage a war with insufficient armaments against better-equipped adversaries, whose governments had been more far-sighted than Italy’s. And this was to be true for the Royal Italian Air Force too. The Italian pilots were skilled, but had to fight with both underarmed and underpowered machines, that were not a match for their opponents’ aeroplanes. Among the great mistakes Italy made before and after war’s own entry, was the lack of standardization of its armaments: it would have been better to concentrate the war production on few but really efficient designs, like the combat-proven Macchi C.202/205V for the fighters and the S.79, the would-be redoubtable Cant Z.1018 (this latter, due to several delays, never saw action) for the bombers.
Instead, the Italian war industries foolishly chose to scatter their war productions pursuing an excessive number of pointless projects, which also limited the number of spare parts available for the few operationally efficient aircraft types. Unfortunately for the Italians, though they had many although they had plenty of gifted aircraft designers, they lacked real war production leaders (like Lord Beaverbrook in Great Britain), who could centralise all production destined for the war effort. All this, coupled with the fact that Italy was a country poor in raw materials (fact this that not allowed Italian industries producing military craft in quantities sufficient to match Allied war productions) at the very end would result catastrophic. Often the Italians were considered less effective in combat than the Germans, while on the other hand, some Allied pilots admitted that their Italian opponents were brave. As matter of fact, the Italian fighter pilots, as they liked the aerobatic individual duel, often stayed in combat against their Spitfire and Hurricane adversaries. On the contrary, the more pragmatic German Jagdwaffe pilots would prefer to break off and looking for a better advantageous position during the dogfight. Paradoxically, if there is a myth, it lies on the fact that Italian aviators compensated their technical inferiority with their own boldness and courage.
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