I have previously posted about the Italian air force’s frontline strength during CRUSADER, in this post. Today I would like to add a bit about the types of fighter planes used by the Italian air force, how they compared to the Commonwealth planes they were fighting, and how they were used.
Italian fighters were all built for high maneuvrability at the expense of speed, but the pre-war designs all suffered from having weak engines, and lacked sufficient armament. Although in fairness, by early war standards the armament was probably considered sufficient, and the destructive power of the two 12.7mm MGs fitted should compare favourably with that of British fighter armament of the time. By the time of CRUSADER one modern type had been fielded, the Macchi Mc. 202, which used a modern German engine, and therefore could stand up in performance to anything the Commonwealth could fly against it. But it was still undergunned. It entered the theatre as part of emergency reinforcements in November 1941.
By 1 January 1942, following substantial reinforcements arriving from Italy and the Balkans, as well as losses suffered in battle, the operational fighter strength of the Regia Aeronautica in North Africa stood at 97 planes, broken down as follows:
- Fiat CR.42: 34
- Fiat G.50: 14
- Macchi Mc.200: 24
- Macchi Mc.202: 35
Bi-plane Fighter/Ground Attack
Fiat CR.42 Falco (Falcon)
A bi-plane fighter designed as successor to the Cr.32 in the late 1930s and first taking to air in 1938. While the epitome of bi-plane fighter design (and an aerobatic gem in the view of a British test-pilot who flew the captured one pictured below), by the start of World War 2 it was considered obsolete, yet soldiered on until the end of the war. It was used for close escort of bombers (where I presume its maneuverability would make up at least somewhat for its lack of speed), near-shore escort of shipping, and ground attack. During CRUSADER it was found operating from rear air fields such as Agedabia, Castel Benito, or Gialo.
Because it continued serving for so long in an air war for which it was clearly not built, it has attracted a good amount of attention from airplane enthusiasts, and here is another article about it. The picture below shows the Fiat Cr.42 that made a forced landing at the beach of Orfordness during the Battle of Britain. A wartime picture showing the same plane with RAF markings can be seen at this link.
From Hakan’s blog entry here, it also appears that a Cr.42 pilot, of a machine flying in German colours, fielded what must be the final claim of an air kill by a biplane, on 8 February 1945, with the claim being a USAAF P-38 Lightning. I am usually very skeptical about claims, but this one could well have some validity to it.
Single-Engine Monoplane Fighters
There were three more modern single-engine fighters in the Regia Aeronautica arsenal in late 1941. Two of them were of pre-war vintage, the Fiat G.50 and the Macchi C.200. Neither of them could compete in terms of modern aerial combat with the Curtiss P-40, and the Hurricane II. Nevertheless, the Italian pilots worked their machines hard and had good flying skills which, combined with the aeronautical quality of their machines made them dangerous in a dog fight.
The usual tactical arrangement was thus for the older Italian fighters to accompany Stuka groups as close escort, including the dive on target, while the modern Me109F and Mc.202 stayed above acting as distant escorts, and undertaking high-energy attacks on any Empire fighters going after the Stukas. This however was a complex arrangement that could easily go wrong, if e.g. a rendez-vous was missed.
Fiat G.50 Freccia (Arrow)
The first monoplane retractable wheels fighter to enter service with the Regia Aeronautica in 1938. It was, as all Italian fighters of the period, underpowered and undergunned. By the time of CRUSADER an improved version had been fielded which became the main production version. The G.50 was probably used a lot in the ground attack role during CRUSADER, and with the Cr.42 it formed the mainstay of the Regia Aeronautica’s fighter force in North Africa during the battle.
An Italian Fiat G.50 captured by the British at Sidi Rezegh airfield in North Africa. Note the RAF Hawker Hurricane landing, and another just visible above the rear deck of the G.50. A second G.50 can be seen just behind the tail of the one in the foreground. British Air Ministry CM1825
A Fiat G.50 in flight, 1941, accompanying a Bf 110, probably of ZG26 – courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Bundesarchiv project
Macchi Mc. 200 Saetta (Lightning)
Similar in looks to the G.50, this plane was designed around the same time, but entered service about 2 years later in 1940, due to necessary re-designs relating to aeronautic instability. It utilised the same engine and followed the same armament philosophy, with predictable consequences. It was produced in considerable numbers, but only few were in North Africa during the CRUSADER period.
Picture from Wikimedia Commons, taken by the observer of a SM.79, maybe during a mission to Malta or Tobruk
An early Macchi C.202 (note lack of radio mast) of 81ª Squadriglia, 6° Gruppo, 1° Stormo CT; this photo appears to have been taken in Libya. Wikipedia. What appears to be a Mc.200 in the rear.
Macchi Mc. 202 Folgore (also Lightning, indicating the close relationship of the two, maybe?)
This was the first truly modern fighter to be built in Italy for a number of years, and it was built by a simple solution, marrying the high-performance German DB601A aeroengine with the aeronautically well-developed frame of the Mc.200. The result was a good-looking, fast, and highly maneuverable plane that was at least the equal, but probably superior to anything the Commonwealth was flying in North Africa at the time of CRUSADER. It entered service in summer 1941, and arrived in North Africa in November when 1o Stormo was sent as reinforcement during the CRUSADER battle. Commonwealth pilots seem to often have mistaken the Mc.202 for German Bf109, since they were used to Italian fighters with radial engines. It was also the first Italian fighter with a fully enclosed cockpit, marking a departure in design philosophy.
From Wikimedia – Mc.202, one of two left in the world, in the Smithsonian Collection, Washington Dulles Airport.