The story of the Royal Air Force’s war against the Regia Aeronautica Italiana (Italian Royal Air Force) during the first half of World War II is a story of extremes. Excluding the Italian’s brief involvement in the Battle of Britain the real story begins in North Africa between British and Commonwealth forces flying from Egypt taking on the numerically superior Italians in aircraft that wouldn’t have seemed too out of place in World War One. Biplanes such as the British Gloster Gladiator and the Italian Fiat CR.42 still dominated the African sky.
The war over the desert and over the Mediterranean quickly progressed however and soon both sides were committing more capable fighters. The British utilised American fighters primarily the American P-40 Tomahawk to supplant the usual Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfires. The Italians, having lagged behind somewhat, produced an excellent warplane in this period by mating the German DB.601 engine to their Macchi C.200 Saetta. The resulting Macchi C.202 was fast and nimble bringing it on a par with other contemporary fighters such as the Messerschmitt Bf109E and the Supermarine Spitfire V (click here to view the complete comparison) however it was let down by its low armament.
The MC.202s shortcomings were recognised early and in 1941 work commenced on producing an even more powerful version built around the German DB 605 engine which Fiat produced for the Italian aviation industry as the RA.1050 R.C.58 Tifone (Typhoon). This had nearly 300hp over the previous engine and greatly improved the already sprightly performance of the earlier aircraft. The new aircraft, now designated the C.205 Veltro, was also more heavily armed and would prove an unwelcome shock to allied fighter pilots.
In Britain the Royal Air Force’s premier fighter the Supermarine Spitfire was also advancing forward. The arrival of the “Butcher Bird” – the Focke-Wulf Fw190-A – had tipped the balance in the air dramatically in favour of the German Luftwaffe as the Spitfire V simply proved to be inferior. Supermarine therefore frantically undertook work on a further improved version of the aircraft based on the high altitude Spitfire VII version. The logically named Spitfire VIII was powered by the Merlin 63 engine (two sub variants for low and high altitude work were powered by the Merlin 66 and 70 engines respectively) and this offered greatly enhanced performance.
However the problem was that development of the aircraft began to drag out as the aircraft went through further redesigns to get the most out of the new engine and airframe. Coupled with the delay of retooling the factories to produce the aircraft the Air Ministry decided to develop an interim aircraft powered by the new two-stage supercharged Merlin engine that could be put in to service as an interim fighter until the Mark VIII became available. The resulting Spitfire IX was effectively a Spitfire V modified to use the more powerful Merlin 61 engine and the performance increase was dramatic to say the least despite the fact that the airframe couldn’t utilise the engine to its maximum potential without breaking.
Far from being a stop-gap the Spitfire IX went on to become one of the great fighters of World War II and remained in production until the end of the war. In the end 5,656 Spitfire IXs were produced making it the most numerous variant of the famed Spitfire family. The aircraft had equal performance to the dreaded Fw190 which helped restore parity in the air war over Western Europe and against the Italians on the southern front which by now was being fought more and more over Italy itself. By far the Spitfire IXs finest hour was on the 5th of October 1944 when Spitfire Mk IXs of No.401 Squadron shot down a Messerschmitt Me.262 Jet fighter; the first jet aircraft ever to be shot down in combat.
Both these aircraft were forged in combat but which was the better warplane?
The problem with the designation “Spitfire IX” is that it actually covers a number of Spitfire/Merlin combinations. While the airframe remained more or less unchanged at least four different Merlins were used in Mark IXs to create sub-types optimised for different roles. Therefore this comparison will be looking at those aircraft fitted with the Merlin 61 engine as this was the first engine and was seen as the best all-rounder until it was replaced by the Merlin 63. The Merlin 61 was a 12-cylinder, two-stage supercharged, liquid-cooled engine that churned out 1,580hp at 23,000ft. This finally took the Spitfire over the 400mph mark with a top speed of 409mph while service ceiling was raised to 43,000ft compared to the Spitfire V’s 36,500ft with the initial climb rate being 3,200ft a minute. When fitted with the full span “C” wing (as opposed to the cropped wing of the low altitude optimised variant) the Spitfire IX’s wing loading was 159.4kg/m²
The fitting of the DB 601 engine to the Macchi C.202 was a winning combination and it was only natural that as German engine technology advanced the Italians would take advantage of their ally’s latest engine the DB 605. The Macchi C.205 was fitted with an Italian built version of the DB.605 called the RA.1050 R.C.58 Tifone and was built by Fiat. Like the Merlin it was a 12-cylinder, liquid-cooled engine although like the rest of the DB-series engines the cylinders were arranged in an inverted Vee configuration. Unlike the Merlin the Tifone featured a single-stage supercharger which meant it started to lose power faster at higher altitudes but at lower altitudes it was slightly more powerful. The Tifone engine churned out around 1,474hp which took the C.205 to a top speed of 400mph at 24,600ft and to a service ceiling of 37,730ft. Wing loading for the Macchi C.205 was significantly higher than the Spitfire IX being 202.9kg/m².
The Spitfire had several wing types during its lifetime. The Mark IX was fitted with the “C” wing known as the universal wing for it could accept a number of armament options ranging from the original eight .303 machine guns to a mix of .303 and two 20mm cannons to four 20mm cannons. By 1941 it was clear that the eight .303s lacked sufficient hitting power to defeat armoured aircraft that featured self-sealing fuel tanks therefore the Spitfire IX only flew with either four 20mm cannons or two 20mm cannons and four .303 machine guns. Early trials with the Hispano 20mm cannon were abysmal it proving extremely unreliable and prone to jamming after just a few shots. The weapon became more reliable as its entry in to service continued and gave the Spitfire a good punch but reliability would never be what was hoped. American Spitfire IXs and later some RAF aircraft fitted with the .303s had the guns barrelled for the US 50.cal round which was harder hitting. The “C” wing did allow the aircraft to carry a pair of 250lb bombs for ground attack.
The Macchi C.202 was an excellent aircraft in terms of its performance but the biggest criticism was its lack of hitting power. In combat against American raids by B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators the C.202s struggled to inflict sufficient damage to bring down the mighty bombers requiring them to get in closer to concentrate their firepower where they were very vulnerable to defensive fire. With the C.205 the designers decided that rather than extensively redesigning the aircraft to add more guns which would delay its entry in to service they would simply up-gun the new aircraft. To that end the C.205 only had four guns in total with two 12.7 mm Breda-SAFAT machine guns mounted in the nose above the engine. Each of these guns was provided with an extremely useful 400 rounds and had a rate of fire of 700 rounds a minute. It was in the wings however where the real hitting power of the C.205 was located with two German MG 151 cannons with 250 rounds each. This was a powerful and proven weapon that gave the C.205 a heavy punch against armoured aircraft.
The Spitfire IX pilot was protected by a sheet of armour plating behind his seat intended to protect him from incoming rounds fired from behind. The Spitfire pilot’s view in the rear quarter was quite poor leaving him open to surprise attacks until a modified version of the IX came along with a cut down rear fuselage and bubble canopy similar to the P-51D Mustang but these did not appear until near the end of the war and was more of a feature of later Spitfires. The large wing of the Spitfire, a major factor in its excellent performance, also severely hindered visibility below the aircraft to the port and starboard. A major combat enhancement came to the Spitfire IX in 1944 with the introduction of the gyro gunsight which predicted the angle of deflection for the bullets when firing against a turning target. The gunsight dramatically improved the Spitfire’s effectiveness by allowing the newest of pilots to fire with a similar level of accuracy to experienced ones.
The Macchi C.205 pilot enjoyed a marginally better all-round view than the Spitfire IX pilot with the smaller area wing being mounted more forward of the cockpit. This allowed him to look down to the starboard and port sides more easily although the trade-off was that when pursuing a turning fighter ahead and below of the Macchi there was more chance of the C.205 pilot momentarily losing sight of his prey. The C.205 pilot also enjoyed a better rearward view compared to the Spitfire pilot thanks to the smaller rear fuselage although both the Focke-Wulf 190 and P-51D Mustang enjoyed better views than either of these aircraft. The C.205 was fitted with a San Giorgio reflector gunsight which was equivalent to the early gunsight on the Spitfire.
Only the most foolish allied pilot would underestimate the C.205 it being a highly competent combat aircraft for the period. Even the German Luftwaffe appreciated the aircraft’s performance and adopted the aircraft themselves in a limited capacity. In the medium altitude arena the Spitfire IX and the C.205 Veltro were very evenly matched with both aircraft having a very similar top speed. The Spitfire’s large area wing meant that it enjoyed a low wing loading that gave it a very good turning circle. The smaller area wing on the C.205 came with a much higher wing loading as a result but enjoyed a slightly better roll rate. This made the Spitfire an extremely difficult target for the C.205 in a continuous turning battle.
As the altitudes increase however the Spitfire pilot began to enjoy more advantages over the C.205. It had a significantly higher service ceiling than the Italian aircraft and when the C.205 was operating near its own service ceiling at 37,000ft it ran out of steam while the Spitfire IX had energy to spare. On the other hand in the low to medium altitude arena the C.205 enjoyed a degree of superiority over the Spitfire IX with its DB 605-based engine providing marginally more horsepower and a slightly higher speed. The thicker air also made the large winged Spitfire less manoeuvrable.
In terms of firepower the Spitfire enjoyed marginally greater collective hitting power even when fitted with the two 20mm Hispano cannons and four .303 machine guns. The C.205 enjoyed a better engagement envelope however with its closely coupled guns being able to concentrate their hitting power over a longer arc ahead of the aircraft which is especially important when engaging bombers.
Actual combat results tell a seemingly biased story in favour of the C.205. On the 20th of April 1943 a mixed formation of C.202s and C.205s met a large formation of South African and Polish (RAF) Spitfires off the cost of North Africa. In a fierce battle the C.205s downed around 14 Spitfires for the loss of seven of their number – these figures are disputed by numerous sources on both sides – although the majority of the Veltro’s victims were older Spitfire Vs and so were not an a par with the Italian aircraft. Indeed, a look at a lot of the successes achieved by the C.205 during its short combat career shows that the majority were made against allied aircraft that were of the previous generation. Due to their small number and the desperate situation Mussolini’s Italy found itself in 1943 the C.205 served in mixed units with the older C.202 and were often assigned to the best pilots which also goes some way to explaining the aircraft’s brief success with the Italians and the subsequent legend that grew up around it in Italy.
In conclusion the C.205 Veltro was a competent aircraft and a very real threat to the Spitfire IX. In this instance victory would be decided more by the situation the two pilots found themselves in coupled with the skill and experience of the pilot.