Aeronautica Macchi C.200 Saetta Series in Combat

Macchi MC 200 Saetta

While the Fw 190A served as a worthy complement to the Me 109F in the Luftwaffe’s fighter arsenal, Italy’s Regia Aeronautica was in desperate need of a new fighter just to restore parity with such British counterparts as the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire. The most numerous Italian fighter in 1939 had been the Fiat CR.42 biplane, essentially a refined World War I fighter. The Fiat G.50, Italy’s first monoplane fighter, could barely outperform the CR.42, let alone its contemporary opposition.

Aeronautica Macchi’s designer, Mario Castoldi, had already tried to redress those consequences of shortsightedness on the part of the Regia Aeronautica. His C.200 Saetta (Thunderbolt), which first flew on December 24, 1937, was a monoplane with retractable landing gear that strove to incorporate the aerodynamic refinements of Castoldi’s Schneider Trophy racers, much as Reginald Mitchell did with his Spitfire. Unlike the Spitfire, however, the C.200 suffered from compromises. It had a humped upper fuselage to provide the pilot with a good field of vision, which was enhanced by the later omission of its enclosed canopy at the behest of conservative seat-of-the-pants pilots. Most telling, both from the standpoint of performance and aesthetics, was the installation of an 870-horsepower Fiat A74 RC.38 fourteen-cylinder double-row radial engine on the airframe. Looking as if it had been stuck on as an afterthought—which, for all intents and purposes, it was—the radial obscured the C.200’s Schneider Trophy pedigree and added an inordinate amount of drag.

CR.42s were the only fighters committed to Italy’s invasion of France on June 10, 1940, but on the following day, the C.200 joined battle over another target entirely: the British-held isle of Malta. As successive flights of Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 trimotor bombers of the 34o, 11o, and 41o Stormi B. T. left their Sicilian air bases for Malta, eighteen Saettas, drawn in equal part from the 79a and 88a Squadriglie of Tenente Colonello (Lieutenant Colonel) Armando Francois’s 6o Gruppo Caccia Terrestre Autonomo, took off from Comiso, Sicily, to provide escort. As the eighth raid of the day neared Malta, the island’s lone radar picked up the attacking formations, and the island’s entire fighter force—three Gloster Sea Gladiator biplanes led by Flt. Lt. George Burges—rose to intercept them. The Italians were already bombing Valletta harbor and Hal Far airfield when the Gladiators split up to attack as many of the enemy as they could—with little damage inflicted by either side. It was the third Gladiator, N5520 flown by Flying Officer William J. Woods, that caught the attention of one of the escorting C.200s, flown by Tenente Giuseppe Pesola of the 79a Squadriglia. “Timber” Woods had just completed his second attack on a five-plane bomber formation when he heard machine gun fire behind him, immediately went into a steep left-hand turn and then saw the enemy fighter diving at him.

“For quite three minutes I circled as tightly as possible and got the enemy in my sight,” Woods reported afterward. “I got in a good burst, full deflection shot, and he went down in a steep dive with black smoke pouring from his tail. I could not follow him down, but he appeared to go into the sea.” Pesola, who had fired 125 rounds at the Gladiator before having the tables turned on him, was credited to Woods as the first aerial victory to be scored in the long aerial siege of Malta—but in fact he brought his Macchi back to Comiso with little damage. For neither the first nor the last time in the war, Woods and other witnesses had mistaken the black exhaust smoke from a fighter diving away with its throttle suddenly opened for a burning adversary.

The next encounter would be more conclusive. On June 23, three SM.79s made for Malta, escorted by five C.200s of the 88a Squadriglia. Burges, in Gladiator N5519, and Woods, in N5531, rose to intercept when Burges found one of the fighters diving on him. He evaded the Saetta’s fire and then engaged it in what he described as a tight dogfight out of World War I. At one point the Macchi overshot, allowing Burges, in his own words, to “belt him up the backside as he went past.” After four or five such rounds, Burges got in a burst that set the C.200 on fire, and its pilot, Sergente Maggiore Lamberto Molinelli, bailed out over Sliema, where he was taken prisoner. Burges later paid him a visit in Intarfa Hospital, but found him less than friendly.

Molinelli had reason for a sour mood because the C.200’s first combats showed it to be almost as nimble as a biplane—but not quite nimble enough to make old school dogfighting a good idea. They had not highlighted any other merits in the plane.

The first confirmed victory for C.200s did not come until November 1, when Malta-based Short Sunderland N9020 of No. 228 Squadron, conducting a morning reconnaissance near Augusta, Sicily, was caught and shot down by Tenente Luigi Armanino and Sergente Maggiore Natalino Stabile of the 88a Squadriglia, with all nine crewmen perishing aboard. A second 228 Squadron Sunderland, L5806, was patrolling thirty-two miles from Malta at 1530 that afternoon when it came under attack by two more Saettas of the 88a, flown by Tenenti Pesola and Pio Tomaselli, along with Fiat CR.42s of the 75a Squadriglia, 23o Gruppo, 3o Stormo, flown by Tenente Ezio Monti and Sgt. Francesco Cuscuna. Although riddled by its attackers, the tough Sunderland managed to return to Kalafrana, where it was promptly taken upslip before it sank. The Italians reported their victim as only being “damaged,” and rightly so, for it was repaired and flying again on November 22.

Over the next three years, Saettas would soldier on over Malta, North Africa, and the Soviet Union with sometimes creditable, but never spectacular, results. Although a sufficient improvement over the Fiat CR.42 and G.50 to have warranted production as a stopgap fighter, the Saetta was barely a match for the Hurricane and no match for the Spitfire. A closer examination of the C.200’s airframe, however, revealed an essentially clean design with an excellent combination of stability and maneuverability. All it needed was a better engine.

With that in mind, Castoldi privately approached the Daimler-Benz A. G. and purchased a twelve-cylinder air-cooled DB 601Aa engine. He then commenced work on an aerodynamically refined adaptation of the C.200 airframe to accept the German engine, at the same time abandoning the C.201, another project to reengine the Saetta. The result of his efforts, which took to the air at Varese on August 10, 1940, restored the racy appearance of the Castoldi floatplanes to the basic C.200 design, as well as to its performance potential. So successful were its tests that the Ministerio dell’Aeronautica immediately ordered the new fighter into series production—not only at Macchi’s Varese factory but also at Breda’s plant at Sesto San Giovanni, near Milan. While more DB 601 Aas were ordered to power the first production batch, Alfa Romeo acquired a license to manufacture the engine as the R. A. 1000 R. C. 41-I Monsone (Monsoon), which was rated at 1,040 horsepower at 2,400 revolutions per minute. The Macchi C.202 Folgore (Lightning), as the new fighter was designated, had a maximum speed of 372 miles per hour at 18,370 feet, featured self-sealing fuel tanks, a molded armor-plate pilot’s seat, and an enclosed cockpit, although it lacked an armor-glass windscreen. Armament was initially the same as the C.200—two synchronized 12.7mm Breda-SAFAT machine guns—but ammunition capacity was increased from 370 to 400 rounds per gun. Later-production series Folgores added two 7.7mm Breda-SAFAT guns in the wings.

The first C.202s were delivered to the 4o Stormo C. T. at Gorizia in July 1941. After accustoming themselves with the new fighter’s characteristics, pilots of the wing’s 9o Gruppo, comprised of the 73a Squadriglia (Fotoricognitori) and 96a and 97a Squadriglie C. T., commenced operations against Malta from their base at Comiso on September 29, 1941. On the following afternoon, Italy’s new lightning bolt struck for the first time when five Hurricane fighter-bombers of No. 185 Squadron, escorted by six other Hurricanes, attacked Comiso. Three C.202s of the 97a Squadriglia scrambled up to intercept them, and in the running fight that followed, Tenente Iacopo Frigerio shot down Pilot Officer Donald W. Lintern, who was last seen bailing out near Gozo Island.

After returning to their base to refuel, five of the Hurricanes accompanied a Fairey Fulmar of the Kalafrana Rescue Flight in a search for Lintern. They never found him, but they did come under attack by the C.202s. Tenente Luigi Tessari and Sgt. Raffaello Novelli were jointly credited with downing an enemy fighter, which they reported to have fallen into the sea and blown up ten kilometers south of Cap Scaramia. Their victim was the Fulmar, but it ditched relatively intact, and its crew, Lt. D. E. C. Eyres and Sub-Lt. Bernard Furlong, were subsequently rescued by a Fairey Swordfish floatplane of their flight. One of the Hurricane pilots, Flt. Lt. Charles G. St. David Jeffries, claimed to have probably downed one of the unidentified enemy fighters, while Pilot Officer Peter J. B. Veitch and Flt. Sgt. A. W. Jolly each claimed to have damaged one; Tessari returned with numerous holes in his fuselage.

The 9o Gruppo carried the fight back to Malta on the morning of October 1, as Capt. Mario Pluda led seven C.202s to escort two C.200s on a reconnaissance mission. At 1150 hours, eight Hurricane Mark IIAs of No. 185 Squadron took off to intercept, but as they reached an altitude of 24,000 feet, thirty miles northeast of the embattled island, they were jumped by the Folgori. Capitano Carlo Ivaldi, Tenente Pietro Bonfatti, and Sergente Maggiore Enrico Dallari claimed two Hurricanes shot down and two probables in their first pass; but only one Hurricane was lost along with its pilot, Squadron Leader P. W. B. Mould—the same “Boy” Mould who, as a member of No. 1 Squadron, had scored the first confirmed Hurricane victory in France on October 30, 1939. Mould’s total account stood at eight, plus one shared, when he became one of the C.202’s earliest victims. The Italians did not get off scot-free, however. Sergeant Ernest G. Knight scored hits on Ivaldi’s main fuel tank, and he only just made it to Sicily before the last of his fuel drained away, force landing on the beach near Pozzallo.

The Folgore quickly demonstrated its inherent mastery over the Hurricane, and by the end of 1941, at least one of the 9o Gruppo’s pilots, Teresio Martinoli, had been credited with five out of an eventual personal total of twenty-two victories (one of them German while flying for the Allies in Italy’s Co-Belligerent Air Force), including Peter Veitch, whom he shot down and killed off Malta on October 4. The C.202’s numbers were too small to have a decisive impact over Malta in the late months of 1941, however. By the time it was available in significant quantities in 1942, Spitfire Mark Vs had arrived to engage the Italian fighters on roughly equal terms. Nevertheless, the C.202 gave a much-needed boost to the confidence of Italian fighter pilots and became the Regia Aeronautica’s fighter mainstay until Italy capitulated on September 8, 1943. A more potent variant with a license-produced version of the DB 605 engine and heavier armament, the C.205 Veltro (Greyhound), would continue to be a formidable fighter thereafter, in the hands of both Allied Co-Belligerent pilots and the diehard Fascisti of the Aeronautica Nazionale Repubblicana.

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