Introduction and Development
The Macchi M.C.200 Saetta (Lightning) was one of the most important Italian fighter aircraft during the first years of Italian involvement in the Second World War, but was outclassed by its more modern opponents.
The basic design of the M.C.200 was produced during 1935 by Mario Castoldi, the chief designer at Macchi, as a design study for a monoplane fighter with retractable undercarriage.
In the following year the Italian Air Ministry (Ministero dell'Aeronautica) issued a specification for a new metropolitan defence fighter. The key feature of the initial specification was that the aircraft required a good rate of climb, in order to reach incoming hostile aircraft in time to intercept them. Endurance was to be limited, and the new fighter would only be armed with a single .50in machine gun. This specification was soon modified to include a second .50in machine gun, while the required endurance was increased to two hours. The new aircraft would be produced as part of 'Programme R', an attempt to increase the strength of the Italian Air Force.
The prototype M.C.200 made its maiden flight on 24 December 1937. It was a low-wing monoplane of metal construction, with a well-streamlined fuselage and a well designed fully enclosed cockpit canopy. The engine was mounted comparatively low compared to the main part of the fuselage, giving the aircraft a slightly humped appearance, but also improving visibility.
The new aircraft had a good rate of climb, was manoeuvrable and was strongly built. It did suffer from two major problems. The first was the limited firepower provided by the two .50in machine guns, which gave it only a third of the weight of fire of the eight-gun British Hurricane and Spitfire. The second was its radial engine. Towards the end of the Second War World radial engines would develop so much power that they were able to overcome their high level of drag to produce excellent aircraft such as the American Thunderbolt and Corsair, but the Fiat radial engines used in the M.C.200 combined high drag and comparatively low power.
Despite this limit the M.C.200 had a top speed of 313mph, only 10mph slower than the Hawker Hurricane I with its 1,030hp Rolls-Royce Merlin, so at first the Regia Aeronautica could be satisfied with its new aircraft. The limits of the radial engine became more obvious when compared to the slightly later Supermarine Spitfire I, which with the same engine as the Hurricane had a top speed of 362mph.
The M.C.200 came up against the Caproni-Vizzola F.5, Reggiane Re.2000, A.U.T.18 and the I.M.A.M. Ro.51 in competitive trials in 1938, and emerged as the winner. The urgent need for new fighter aircraft meant that both the M.C.200 and Re.2000 were ordered into production, alongside the Fiat CR.42 and G.50, giving the Italian Air Force a wide range of obsolescent aircraft.
Macchi were given an initial production contract for 99 aircraft, but this was soon expanded. The aim was to produce enough aircraft to equip three fighter stormi by the end of 1940, and 150 had been delivered by June 1940 when Italy entered the Second World War. Eventually 1,153 M.C.200s were built, 400 by Macchi and the rest by Breda and SAI-Ambrosini.
In a rather odd twist the first stormi to receive the new monoplane, the 4th Stormo 'Cavallino Rampante' refused to accept the aircraft, and instead insisted on keeping its biplanes, but by June 1940 elements of the 6th and 54th Stormi were equipped with the new aircraft. The same conservatism saw the original fully enclosed cockpit canopy rejected and after 240 aircraft had been built it was replaced by a semi-open version with a solid back, reducing rearwards visibility.
The M.C.200 was grounded during the brief campaign against France in 1940, and didn't see combat until September 1940, when it was used to escort Italian Ju 87s attacking Malta.
In March 1941 the M.C.200 was deployed to Greece for the first time, in response to the appearance of RAF Hurricanes. The two aircraft were well matched, but the Italians still suffered serious losses during the brief campaign in Yugoslavia and the harder fighting in Greece.
In April 1941 the M.C.200 made its first appearance in North Africa, where it came up against the Hurricane and the P-40. Officially two full Gruppi were available for most of the year, but actual aircraft availability was often poor, only reaching 25 aircraft in December.
During 1942 the M.C.200 was replaced as a dedicated fighter by more modern aircraft, amongst them the M.C.202 with its licence-built Daimler Benz DB 601A engine. The surviving M.C.200s were used as fighter-bombers, carrying two bombs under the wings. The aircraft continued to operate in this role throughout 1942, taking part in the fighting around Tobruk and the retreat from El Alamein. By the end of the year only twenty-five aircraft were available in North Africa, and by mid-July 1943, when the Allies invaded Sicily, there were only 42 serviceable M.C.200s left in Italian service. Of these 23 escaped to Allied controlled airfields after the Italian Armistice in September 1943.
The M.C.200 also saw service in Russia, first arriving with the 22nd Gruppo in August 1941. Over the next eighteen months the M.C.200 was used on the southern part of the front, alongside a small number of M.C.202s. Only fifteen aircraft were lost in combat during some 6,000 sorties, and eighty-eight victories were claimed.
Engine: Fiat A.74 R.C.38 double-row fourteen cylinder radial engine
Power: 870hp at take-off, 840hp at 12,500ft, 740hp at sea level
Wing span: 34.71ft
Empty Weight: 4,330lb
Total Loaded Weight: 5,275lb
Max Speed: 313mph at 14,770ft
Service Ceiling: 29,200ft
Range: 355 miles, 540 miles with auxiliary fuel tanks
Armament: Two .50in machine guns
Bomb-load: 705lb/ 320kg of under-wing bombs on fighter-bomber version