Castoldi’s Fighters

Text by Divan Muller
Think about it. Would it make sense that Italy, the country famous for producing the world’s best cars, could go through World War II without producing any quality fighter aircraft? Were there any World War II era fighters that could be described as Ferraris, Alfa Romeos or Lancias of the sky?
Racing pedigree

Mario Castoldi was Italy’s equivalent of Britain’s Reginald Mitchell. Castoldi was employed by Macchi to design high speed seaplane racers to compete for the famous interwar Schneider Trophy. Of course, those seaplane races were dominated by Mitchell’s Supermarine aircraft, which ultimately led to the development of the Spitfire, but Castoldi did manage to produce a number of notable Fiat-powered racers. His M.39, for example, won the 1926 trophy, but it was the M.C.72 which stood out from the crowd. Sadly, the M.C.72 was not developed in time for the final Schneider Trophy race, but Castoldi continued to perfect his design. In 1934, the M.C.72 set a speed record of 382 kts. To this day, this record set by Castoldi’s aircraft has never been broken by a piston-engined seaplane.
Macchi M.C. 200 Saetta

Following his success with the M.C.72, Mario Castoldi used his experience to focus on developing new fighters for the Reggia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force). In December 1937, his M.C. 200 Saetta (Lightning) completed its maiden flight. The somewhat ungainly radial-engined fighter was praised for its graceful handling characteristics, good climb and dive performance and excellent manoeuvrability, although it was slow and lacked sufficient firepower. Even so, M.C.200s were used quite successfully as ground attack aircraft and as long-range fighter escorts, particularly in North Africa, the Balkans and on the Eastern Front. Saettas first saw combat in 1940, whilst escorting bombers over Malta. During the next two years the Italian fighters saw combat against Commonwealth Hurricanes and Kittyhawks. Although surprisingly well matched, the Saettas did not fare particularly well. However, on the Eastern Front M.C.200 pilots scored 88 aerial victories, whilst losing only fifteen aircraft in combat. As more advanced Italian fighter entered service, Saettas were relegated to ground attack duties, which suited the tough, radial-engined aircraft well. In the end, more than 1 100 M.C.200s were produced.
Macchi M.C.202 Folgore

With Castoldi’s next aircraft design, Italian aircraft development was taken to a whole new level, albeit with a little help from the Germans. The M.C.200 was a wonderful design, but it was limited by its comparatively weak Fiat radial engine. The new M.C.202 Folgore (Thunderbolt) was powered by a more powerful inline engine, developed by Daimler Benz and produced by Alfa Romeo. The Folgore retained the clean, aerodynamic design and breathtaking manoeuvrability of its predecessor, making it a joy to fly. Sadly, it also retained the inadequate armament of the Saetta, which consisted of two .50 inch machine guns. Later, two .303 machine guns were added. In 1942, Folgores fought alongside German Bf-109s in North Africa, primarily escorting bombers. The Italian fighter proved to be very capable and has even been compared with the Spitfire Mk.V. As fighters, Folgores were highly underrated, as most were destroyed on the ground, rather than in combat. On 7 March 1943, for example, 17 Folgores engaged large formations of Spitfires and P-38 Lightnings over Tunisia. Folgores destroyed nine Spitfires and one Lightning, whilst only two Folgores were shot down. Of course, Folgores saw much action in the Mediterranean. Their service with the Regia Aeronautica came to an abrupt halt, with the signing of the armistice in September 1943. From that point on, Folgores mostly served with the Allies’ Balkan Air Force, although some examples remained in service with Axis units, under command of the Luftwaffe (German Air Force). As with its predecessor, more than 1 100 examples were built. After World War II, the last Folgores served with Egypt during the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Macchi M.C. 205V Veltro

Development of the Folgare ultimately led to the M.C.205V Veltro (Greyhound), widely regarded as the best Italian fighter of World War II. Essentially a more powerful Folgare, the Veltro finally provided Italians with a fighter with excellent handling and manoeuvrability, good performance and decent firepower, thanks to the addition of two 20 mm cannons. Only 262 M.C.205Vs were produced, but most of the production aircraft remained in service with Italian and German units until the end of the war, fighting for different sides. As with the Folgares, Veltros saw service with Egypt during the late 1940s and early 1950s, ultimately used in combat against Israel alongside Folgares.