Introduction and Development
The Macchi M.C.202 Folgore (Thunderbolt) was probably the best Italian fighter aircraft to see service in significant numbers during the Second World War. It was developed from the manoeuvrable but underpowered M.C.200 Saetta, and was based around a licence-built Daimler-Benz inline engine.
Although the M.C.200 was a well-streamlined and very manoeuvrable aircraft it was limited by its under powered radial engine. Italian efforts at producing a home-grown inline engine, including the Fiat A.38, failed. The problem was only solved by importing the German Daimler Benz DB 601A. Fiat had already negotiated a licence to produce the DB601 in case their own engine failed. At the start of 1941 Francesco Pricolo, the new Chief of the Air Staff, ordered Fiat to prepare for mass production of the German engine, and to end work on the A.38. Four complete engines were imported from Germany, of which two went to Macchi and two to Reggiane.
The new Macchi design retained the tail, landing gear and most of the wings of the M.C.200, partly to speed up the development of the new design and partly to retain the M.C.200's best feature - its manoeuvrability. One unusual feature was that the port wing was 8in shorter than the starboard wing, to counter the torque from the engine. The rest of the fuselage was redesigned. The new engine was placed in a well streamlined nose and the partly open cockpit of late production M.C.200s was replaced by a fully enclosed version. The back of the cockpit canopy was faired neatly into the rear fuselage. Only the armament remained unchanged, at two .50in machine guns carried in the nose.
The prototype M.C.202 made its maiden flight on 10 August 1940, and lived up to expectations. It had a top speed of over 375mph, and retained the good manoeuvrability of the M.C.200. The limited firepower remained for the first fire production series, and then two .303in guns were added in the wings.
The M.C.202 was ordered into production soon after undergoing flight tests. The main limit on production was the availability of the engine. Germany provided 400 DB601 engines to fill the gap before Alfa Romeo could begin production of the Ra 1000R.C.41. The first of 2,000 licence built engines was completed in the summer of 1941.
A total of fifteen series of M.C.202s were ordered, with production split between Macchi, Breda and SAI-Ambrossini. Of the 1,300 aircraft ordered in these fifteen series, around 1,150 were completed, some after the Italian Armistice.
The M.C.202 entered service with the 1st Stormo in the summer of 1941, but didn't enter combat until November 1941 when the unit returned to Libya. This was too late to stop the RAF from gaining aerial superiority over Cyrenaica during the crucial offensive that saw the siege of Tobruk lifted.
The M.C.202s of the 1st Stormo took part in Rommel's successful offensive of early 1942. Fighting alongside the Bf 109 and eventually the M.C.202s of the 4th Stormo, they helped the Axis powers gain air superiority over the desert.
The turning point in the air, as on the ground, came at El Alamein. The German and Italians were now operating at the end of a very long supply line, and at the same time the Allied air forces were gaining rapidly in strength, and were also gaining an increasing number of aircraft that were on a par with the M.C.202, amongst them the Spitfire V. Two Stormi (3rd and 4th) were with the Axis army in the El Alamein position at the start of the Allied offensive, and although the M.C.202 was still an effective aircraft the two Stormi were simply overwhelmed. During the retreat they were forced to merge into a single unit, before being pulled back to Tunisia.
On the eve of the Allied invasion of Sicily there were only 100 serviceable M.C.202s left, supported by a tiny number of the newer M.C.205. During this period the remaining aircraft were used in the role for which the original M.C.200 had been designed, as a metropolitan defence interceptor, attempting to stem the massive Allied bombing campaign that hit Italy. After the Italian armistice some of the remaining M.C.202s joined both the Italian Co-Belligerent Air Force and the new Fascist air force in the north, but neither side used them in combat - in the south they were soon replaced by newer Allied types while in the north they were used as training aircraft.
The M.C.202 was also used in small numbers on the Eastern Front, arriving in September 1942.
The M.C.202 was followed into service by the very similar M.C.205, which was powered by the Daimler Benz DB605A, and came very close to a top speed of 400mph.
Engine: Alfa Romeo RA.100 RC 41-I inverted V-12 (DB 601A)
Wing span: 34ft 8.5in
Length: 29ft 0.5in
Height: 9ft 11.5in
Empty Weight: 5,181lb
Maximum take-off weight: 6,636lb
Max Speed: 370mph at 16,405ft
Service Ceiling: 37,730ft
Range: 475 miles
Armament: Two .50in machine guns in nose on all aircraft, two 0.303in guns in wings from Series VI.