The C.202 Folgore (“Lightning Bolt”) was the best Italian fighter plane to be produced during the Second World War. It was fast and maneuverable, and was the plane of choice for the Italian fighter aces on both sides of the war. Its one crippling flaw was its weak armament.
The Macchi C.202 Folgore, on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
When World War Two began in 1939, the best fighter plane in the Italian Regia Aeronautica was the Macchi C.200 “Saetta”, one of the first all-metal retractable-gear monoplanes designed by Mario Castoldi in 1935. The new fighter was produced as part of Mussolini’s “Program R”, an all-out effort to modernize the Italian military. The Saetta was highly maneuverable, but its radial engine produced a high amount of aerodynamic drag, and it was too underpowered to give it effective speed. The Saetta quickly proved itself no match for the more modern British fighters. (And the Italian Air Force was still largely dependent on biplane fighters like the Fiat CR.42 “Falco”.)
In 1939, Castoldi began planning improvements to the Saetta design. To maintain the plane’s impressive maneuverability, he kept the same tail, undercarriage and wings as the Saetta (which also allowed much of the same production equipment to be utilized). The major improvement would be to replace the radial engine with a slimmer more aerodynamic inline to increase the speed. The new plane was dubbed the C.202 Folgore.
But the only existing Italian inline engine was the Isotta-Fraschini Delta IV, which at only 840 horsepower was far too small, and efforts to produce a more powerful inline engine, the Fiat A.38, were not a success. The Italians did not have much experience in producing inline aircraft engines, and the A.38 engine was continually delayed and could not meet its specifications.
To get around this problem, Mussolini negotiated an agreement with Hitler for Italy to produce the Daimler Benz DB 601A inline V-12 with 1,175 horsepower, the engine used in the Bf-109 Messerschmitt fighter, in Italy. Four complete Daimler-Benz engines were sent to Italy, with two going to the Macchi design factory and two going to Reggiane. The German engines were produced by the Alfa Romero company as the Model Ra 1000R.C.41.
At Macchi, the new engine was immediately mated to the planned C.202. As had been done with the earlier C.200, to make the plane easier to handle, the designers deliberately lengthened the right wing over the left by about eight inches, producing more lift on that side to counter the torque from the propeller.
Production of the Folgore began in 1940, and it first entered combat in Northern Africa in 1941. And a crippling problem immediately became apparent. The British Hurricanes had eight .50-caliber machine guns mounted in the wings, and the American P-40 had four; the Folgore had only two .50-caliber machine guns mounted in the nose, and was far outgunned by the Allied aircraft. In early 1942, two more .50-caliber machine guns were added to the Folgore, one on each wing. The C.202’s speed and maneuverability outclassed the Hurricane and the Warhawk, and was an even match for the early model Spitfires, and along with the German Bf-109’s it gave the Axis forces air superiority for the first years of the North Africa campaign. But the Folgore was always hampered by its relative lack of firepower. In later years, the Italians modified a small number of planes to add two underwing hardpoints to attach external fuel tanks, or light bombs for ground attack.
To increase production, the Regia Aeronautica assigned the C.202 design to the Breda company, which eventually ended up producing far more of the fighters than the Macchi company did. Around 1200 Folgores were produced during the war. Four of Italy’s top five scoring aces during the war flew the Folgore.
By 1943, the Folgore was beginning to be outclassed by Allied fighters, especially the new model Spitfires and the American P-51. By the time Sicily was invaded in July 1943, only 100 Folgores remained in flying shape. A new version of the C.202 was planned which would add two 20mm cannon to increase its firepower, especially against bombers, but Allied bombing of the Italian aircraft factories crippled the program, and it never entered service. A new airplane, the C.205 Veltro (“Greyhound”), was planned to use the C.202 airframe with added cannons and a newer German DB 605 engine, but it too was hampered by Allied bombing and only 6 ever reached service.
When the Italian government surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, the Italian Regia Aeronautica became split into two; the air bases in the southern part of Italy, occupied by the Allies, became the Co-Belligerent Air Force, and the air bases in northern Italy occupied by the Nazis became the Italian Social Republic Air Force. Neither of them flew Folgores in combat: the Allied forces replaced them with Spitfires, and the Fascists used the C.202 as trainers.
After the war, C.205 Veltro versions of the Folgore continued to fly with the Egyptian Air Force until 1949.