The early days of the air campaign in North Africa seemed to be from another era. Biplanes were still quite widespread with the British Gloster Gladiator and Italian Fiat CR.42 among the very best. The reason for this from the British position was largely that the most premier warplanes should be reserved for the defence of mainland Britain; after all what good is protecting North Africa if Blighty falls. After the Battle of Britain, the Royal Air Force was in a more stable position and began to dispatch its more capable aircraft to North Africa to face the Italians. This took on an even greater urgency when Germany came to the Italian’s aid.
As the air war over North Africa intensified it began to take on an image equal and possibly even more savage than in Europe. It was here that the legacy of the earlier biplane dogfights between the British and Italians was continued with the introduction of the more modern monoplane fighters. In early 1941 the British sent the latest Spitfire, the Mark V, which was designed to address some of the shortcomings of the earlier Spitfires. Unfortunately the Mark V will always be remembered as being too little too late for its arrival coincided with the arrival of the “Butcher Bird” – the mighty Focke-Wulf 190. While it was a poor match for the Fw190 it was still a good aircraft comparable to nearly all other fighters in the European and North African theatres.
Throughout the 1930s Italy’s fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, dreamed of building a new Roman Empire and he knew that this would mean military conquest in Africa and the Balkans. To that extent he instigated one of the most ambitious and aggressive military build-ups in the world at that time including a vast air force. By the outbreak of war in 1939 Italy’s air force, the Regia Aeronautica, was immensely strong possessing more aircraft than either Britain or France however this advantage on paper was seriously degraded by the speed at which the re-equipment program was carried out which meant that the vast majority of Italy’s fighters were rendered obsolete by the modern types in RAF service. One aircraft that appeared during this build-up that was still credible however was the Macchi MC.200 Saetta.
The Saetta was a low wing monoplane with an obvious biplane heritage having a large Fiat A74 14 cylinder air cooled radial engine and short stubby fuselage. It was far superior to any other indigenous fighter in the Regia Aeronautica and could actually hold its own with the RAF’s Hawker Hurricane although both the Supermarine Spitfire Mark I/II and German Messerschmitt Bf109D held an edge. The designer of the Saetta, Mario Castoldi, firmly believed that he had a world beating aircraft but one that was being let down by the large radial engine that incurred heavy drag and had insufficient power to compensate. Impressed by Germany’s Bf109 he requested to build a version of the MC.200 powered by the German fighter’s DB.601A 12 cylinder in-line engine built under license by Alfa Romeo as RA.1000 R.C.41-I Monsone. Installing the new engine required only the slightest modification to the airframe thus easing production by Macchi as the tooling was already available. Thus the MC.202 Folgore was born.
This comparison will look at the Spitfire Vb and the MC.202 basic fighter. The results can also be transferred to the Royal Navy’s Supermarine Seafire IB naval fighter as this was simply a Spitfire Vb with arrestor gear for landing on a carrier.
The Spitfire V was powered by a Rolls-Royce Merlin 45, a variant of the Merlin XX and came fitted with a single-stage, single-speed supercharger. The engine still lacked the direct fuel injection system of the German engines but improvements to the carburettor did allowed the Spitfire V to undertake negative-G manoeuvres without major disruption to the flow of fuel as had been the case in earlier variants. First production Merlin 45s were delivered in January 1941 and churned out around 1,450hp at 9,000ft, an advance over the Spitfire II/Merlin XII combination of some 275hp, which it translated it in to forward motion via a three bladed propeller.
The Merlin 45 pulled the Spitfire V along at a comfortable top speed of 375mph at 20,000ft. The dust encountered at lower levels such as during take off or straffing enemy formations in North Africa required the fitting of a large Volge air filter that not only ruined the Spitfire’s elegant lines but also incurred a 7-9mph speed penalty. The aircraft had an initial climb rate of 2,600ft/min which increased to over 3,100ft/min above 14,000ft once clear of the thick air lower down leading on to a service ceiling of 36,500ft. The Spitfire Vb had a respectable wing loading of 27.35 lb/ft2 and had a maximum of 639hp to share for every ton in weight depending on fuel and weapon loadout.
Daimler in Germany were relieved that Italy chose to manufacture its superb DB.601A engine itself. It was already inundated with orders for German aircraft and an Italian production line would mean that there was the possibility that they might be able to ease the pressure a little as well as provide the powerplant for the Folgore. However the opposite happened with Alfa Romeo struggling to get the production line open which meant that the first batch of MC.202s had to be fitted with imported German DB.601As.
The Italian version of the engine, the RA.1000 R.C.41-I Monsone, developed 1,159hp which took the aircraft to a speed of around 370mph at 19,000ft; 1mph faster than the Spitfire Vb. Initial climb rate was 3,563 ft/min and a service ceiling of 37,730ft was achievable. This meant that the Folgore was significantly faster in a climb than the Spitfire and could operate at over a thousand feet higher. It’s heavier wing loading of 35.68 lb/ft² coupled with a power-to-mass(empty) ratio of 429hp per ton meant however that the Spitfire was a nimbler machine in the air.
It’s name may have been “Spitfire” but in the early marks, Supermarine’s legendary fighter was barely an adequate gun platform. It’s eight .303 machine guns were spaced out across the wing making it difficult to train them to a point ahead of the aircraft where their collective firepower could inflict heavy enough damage on an enemy aircraft equipped with self sealing fuel tanks. This was why the Hawker Hurricane, with its eight .303 machine guns coupled closely together, was the superior gun platform in the Battle of Britain.
Efforts were therefore made to up-gun the Spitfire by fitting a 20mm cannon but early trials were abismal with the Hispano 20mm cannon proving extremely unreliable and prone to jamming after just a few shots. Nevertheless the RAF persisted and after the bugs had been ironed out cannon armament became the standard on all later Spitfires. The Spitfire Vb was therefore armed with a pair of 20mm cannon each with 60 rounds and these had a muzzle velocity of 2800ft/sec. The .303s were still there however and the Spitfire Vb carried four of them. Some variants of the Mark V were armed with four 20mm cannon but this didn’t become standard until the last two years of the war.
The Folgore was armed with a pair of 12.7mm machine guns around the upper engine cowling that fired through the propeller. These had a muzzle velocity of 2,510ft/sec and although were capable of firing up to 700 rounds a minute, 575 was the maximum they could attain in the Folgore because of the gun having to be synchronized to the propeller. Their position did mean that they were relatively easy to train on to an enemy aircraft compared to all-wing mounted weapons such as in the Spitfire. It was a heavy weapon compared to equivalent American and German weapons of the same calibre making them difficult for ground crews to manage. The Folgore had a second pair of these guns in the wings but were bored out for the smaller 7.7mm round (the same calibre as the British .303). This left the Folgore quite under-armed compared to the Spitfire.
The Spitfire pilot sat sandwiched between two fuel tanks; one ahead of the cockpit behind the engine and an auxiliary tank behind the cockpit. This meant that should his aircraft be hit in either of these areas he was likely to suffer horrendous burns if he didn’t get out quick enough. To that end Martin-Baker, the company that would eventually become synonymous with ejection seat technology developed a quick release system that allowed the Spitfire pilot get the canopy off in one quick movement and allow him to exit.
He was not entirely without protection however as he had armour plates behind his seat and head as well as a bullet-resistant windscreen. While the Spitfire was often cited as a delight to fly it was a notoriously bad aircraft to handle on the ground thanks to its narrow undercarriage that raised from the centre fuselage towards the wings as opposed to the opposite which was much more common.
The Folgore pilot was also sandwiched between his two fuel tanks but had the additional problem of having a large number of ammunition stored around the forward tank for the 12.7mm guns in the nose. Escaping the Folgore was a much more difficult affair than in the Spitfire thanks to its narrow sideways hinging canopy and high set fuselage immediately behind the cockpit.
The wider set landing gear on the Folgore made it a much easier aircraft to handle on the ground and fewer Italian pilots crashed their aircraft in hard landings than Spitfire pilots did. While the Folgore did have armour plating protecting the back of the pilot’s head it lacked an armoured windscreen and left the pilot extremely vulnerable from defensive fire during attacks on bombers or a head on attack by another fighter such as the Spitfire.
No one will ever deny that Mario Castoldi designed an excellent aircraft but the MC.202 Folgore was lacking as a warplane. Against the Spitfire Vb the Italian fighter held an edge in the vertical plane thanks to its higher climb and dive rates. By contrast the Spitfire was more nimble in the horizontal plane allowing it to turn inside the turning circle of the Folgore. Although the Folgore enjoyed a 1,000ft advantage in service ceiling the fact of the matter was that dogfights rarely took place at the top of the aircraft’s respective service ceilings thus negating this advantage. In terms of speed at altitude the aircraft were both very evenly matched. Finally, the Spitfire pilot had vastly heavier armament and any Folgore caught in the Spitfire’s sights would get cut to pieces while in the opposite scenario the Folgore pilot would have to keep spraying bullets on the Spitfire for a lot longer to do any significant damage; a difficult prospect when the Spitfire pilot will be manoeuvring wildly.
Overall therefore the Spitfire Vb has to be declared the superior aircraft. Nevertheless Allied pilots respected it knowing that in the right hands it was a deadly weapon and the vast majority of Italy’s aces flew the MC.202. It’s low armament was always its downfall however especially when trying to tackle the four engined bombers of the USAAF and this lead to an improved version – the MC.205 Veltro.