‘Five’ versus the Lightning

Air battle over Malta 1942.  The Spitfire Mk. V takes on the C.202 Folgore for air supremacy.  By Donald Nijboer

“Either, sir, we get the Spitfires here within days, not weeks, or we’re done. That’s it.” 
Squadron Leader Stan Turner to Air Officer Commanding Sir Hugh Lloyd about the situation on Malta.

It all began over the peaceful waters of the English Channel. Long before the Spitfire Mk.V and Macchi C.202 ever met in combat over Malta in 1942, the battle for air supremacy between Britain and Italy began with two of the world’s most amazing aircraft. During the celebrated Schneider Trophy Racing years, (1913-1931) both R J Mitchell and Italian Mario Castoldi would design two of the most impressive aircraft the world has ever seen. Powered by the Rolls Royce R engine, Mitchell’s Supermarine S.6B would claim the prize on September 13, 1931 with a top speed of 380mph (612kph). Unfortunately for the Italians, their Macchi M.C.72 was not ready for the race and did not compete. Regarded as one of the most beautiful aircraft ever built, the sleek and graceful M.C. 72 would go on to shatter the world speed record with a top speed of 440mph (709kph) in October 1934. A record that remains to this day.

Aerodynamic Supremacy

In the early 1930s advances in aircraft and engine design were moving forward at a rapid pace.  The development of the Rolls Royce R Engine (2,530hp) led directly to the famous Merlin, and according to A F Sidgreaves, managing director of Rolls Royce, the Schneider Trophy Races compressed 10 years of engine development into two years. Without that focus, the Merlin may have never been created in time – if at all. The races also revealed Italy’s Achilles heel – engine development. The M.C.72 was, in fact, a twin-engine aircraft. Unable to find a single engine capable of developing the required horsepower, Castoldi coupled two Fiat AS.5 engines together creating the Fiat AS.6 (2,300hp). It worked, but the lack of engines equal to British, German or American designs would limit Castoldi’s early fighter designs. It was only when Castoldi adopted Germany’s DB 601 engine did the C.202 come into being. In the end, the lessons learned from the Schneider Trophy races would be seen in two of the best fighters of World War Two – the Supermarine Spitfire and Macchi C.202 Folgore.

Forever Linked in History

The history of these two fighters will be forever linked with the almost daily battles that took place over the skies of Malta in 1942. By the spring of 1942, Malta had been under siege for almost two years. The Regia Aeronautica (RA), unable to subdue the island’s defences since June 1940, was joined by Luftwaffe for a second time in January of 1942. This time, the Luftwaffe and Italians were equipped with two of their best fighters, the Bf 109F, and the new C.202. To meet this force the RAF mustered just three squadrons of Hurricanes IIs. At the same time there eighty squadrons of Spitfires based in England. The RAF considered Malta to be a backwater, but it soon became apparent, without Spitfires it would be bombed into submission.

On March 7, 1942 the first of many Spitfires were finally flown off the carrier HMS Eagle bound for Malta. More would follow and by April 20, ninety-one Mk.Vs had arrived. For the first three months of 1942 Malta had been almost entirely a Luftwaffe affair, but this was about to change. On April 2 the 4° Stormo CT flew to Sicily equipped with 26 new C.202s. For the next six months, the Spitfire Mk. V and C.202 would battle it out of air supremacy over Malta.

A View from the Cockpit

In the summer of 1943, British Air Intelligence captured their first C.202 in Libya. It was a Serie III aircraft serial M.M. 7779. The enemy aircraft report No. 48/1 provides a good description of the cockpit. “The view from the cockpit is fair in all directions. The front three transparent panels are of triplex glass and the remainder of a material of the Perspex type. No rear-view mirror is fitted.

The cockpit is comfortable and fairly roomy and has plenty of headroom. Neither the seat nor rudder bar are adjustable.

The pilot is well protected by armour plate from astern and in fact to about 40 degrees off dead astern. He is provided with a bucket seat entirely constructed from a single piece of 8mm armour, which stretches from his shoulders almost to his knees and comes well round the sides of his body. The armour plate seat appears to be handmade. In addition, there is a head piece of 7mm armour and a small strip to cover the gap between the two. No bullet proof glass is used on this aeroplane.

The only armament on this aeroplane comprises two machine guns mounted in front of the pilot firing over the engine and through the airscrew disc. The guns are mechanically synchronized with the propeller. The guns are mechanically cocked by two T-handles in the cockpit and are probably electrically fired by a button, which was missing, on the control column. Round counters are provided on the lower instrument panel for each of the guns. The counters read up to 650 rounds per gun and show a red warning mark when the number of rounds is reduced to 75 per gun.”

Spitfire VC Trop and Macchi C.202 Comparison Specifications

 Spitfire VC TropMacchi C.202
Power Plant1,470hp Merlin 451,175hp DB 601A-1 
Span36ft 10in (11.33m)34ft 8in (10.57m)
Length29ft 11in (9.12m) 
Height11ft 5in (3.48m)10ft (3.05m)
Wing Area242sq ft (22.48m2)181sq ft (18.82m2)
Empty5,100lb (2313kg)5,170lb (2345kg)
Loaded6,785lb (3078kg)6,620lb (3003kg)
Maximum Speed354mph at 17,400ft(570km/h at 5304m)370mph at 16,400ft(595km/h at 4999m)
Range470 miles (756km)475 miles (764km)
ClimbTo 20,000 ft (6096m) in 8minTo 19,685ft (6000m) in 5.55min
Service Ceiling36,300ft (11064m)37,730ft (11500m)
Armament4 x 20mm Hispano cannons or 2 x 20mm Hispano cannons and 4 x 0.303in Brownings2 x 12.7mm Breda SAFAT machine guns

Malta – Master Key to British Empire

After nearly two and a half years of war, Britain was still fighting a losing battle. There were defeats and surrenders in almost every theatre, from Europe, North Africa, and the Far East.  

The RAF for its part had suffered four resounding defeats – the air campaign in Norway, the Battle of France, Greece, and Malaya. The only victory had been the Battle of Britain.    

Described by Winston Churchill as ‘the master key to the British Empire,’ Malta was now recognized as a decisive strategic asset. 

Siege Warfare

Shortly after Italy entered the war against Britain and France the siege of Malta began. On the morning of June 11, 1940 33 S.79 bombers, escorted by 18 Fiat CR. 42 bi-plane fighters attacked Valetta harbour. British air defences at the time consisted of just four Fleet Air Arm Gloster Gladiator bi-plane fighters. It was a token force and one the Regia Aeronautica should easily have destroyed. However, the numbers revealed the inherent weakness of the RA. When Italy entered the war, it’s air force wasn’t anything like the Luftwaffe’s. Both technically and numerically, it was a second-rate force. At the outbreak of hostilities, the RA’s total strength consisted of 3269 aircraft, of which only 1795 were considered combat-ready. It was not a firm base on which to begin offensive operations. 

A Thorn in their Side  

On June 21, eight Hawker Hurricanes were flown to Malta via France. This gave the RAF  enough of a defence to keep the Italians off balance. Between September and December, Italian forces would be committed to the invasion of Greece and a desert offensive against the British in North Africa. A contingent of 178 fighters and bombers was also sent to Belgium to join the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. None of these operations brought the Italians any success and led directly to German intervention in the Balkans and North Africa. In December 1940 a small mechanized Commonwealth army struck the blow that would send Rommel and the Afrika Korps to North Africa and put Malta squarely in the sights of the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica. 

As the Germans solidified their presence in North Africa, the strategic importance of Malta came to the fore. Exasperated by the failure of the RA to eliminate both the offensive and defensive capability of the RAF on Malta, the Luftwaffe entered the fray with X Fliegerkorps moving to Sicily in early 1941. Initially, the German aerial strength consisted of 80 Ju 88A-4s, 50 He 111H-6s, 80 Ju 87R-1s and an undisclosed number of Bf 110C-4s in support. The Regia Aeronautica committed 45 SM. 79 bombers, 75 CR.42, and C.200 fighters.  In response, the British mustered just six Hurricane IIs, four Fairey Fulmars, and one Sea Gladiator. It was a desperate fight for the RAF and by late February Axis forces were in control of the skies over the central Mediterranean.  

Changing Fortunes

On June 22, 1941 Hitler’s plan to invade Russia began. Operation Barbarossa was the most massive military operation in human history and had a direct impact on Malta. With German forces committed to the Russian Front this left the Regia Aeronautica the task of subduing Malta. But Malta’s defences were growing (43 Hurricane IIs in June) as were its offensive capabilities. Between June and September British ships, submarines and aircraft sank 270,000 tons of enemy shipping. For Rommel it was a situation he could no longer tolerate. In the autumn of 1941 he pressed for additional air power to neutralize Malta. At the same time the Macchi C.202 made its combat debut over Malta. 

Unfortunately for the British, the arrival of winter on the Russian Front gave the Germans the chance to transfer II Fliegerkorps to Sicily. During December 1941 and January 1942 units of II Fliegerkorps began to trickle into Sicily. It wasn’t until March that that full-scale operations finally began. With the Luftwaffe’s arrival the RA began relocating a number of squadrons to add more punch. II Fliegerkorps had more than 400 aircraft with the Regia Aeronautica contributing 50 bombers/torpedo-bombers and 100 fighters. In defence the RAF had three squadrons along with two partial squadrons and one flight all equipped with Hurricane IIBs and IICs.

Battle of Equals

The British knew their Hurricanes were outmatched by the Bf 109F-4s of II Fliegerkorps and the newly arrived C.202s. To defend Malta properly their only hope lay with the new Spitfire Mk.V. On March 15, 1942 the carrier HMS Eagle, launched the first fifteen Spitfire Mk. Vs bound for Malta. In the weeks and months that followed more Spitfires were delivered. “With Malta in our hands, the British would have had little chance of exercising any further control over convoy traffic in the Central Mediterranean… It has the lives of many thousands of Germans and Italians on its conscience.’” Erwin Rommel

As March 1942 drew to a close 31 Spitfire Mk. Vs had finally been delivered.   

For the first three months of 1942, the attacks on Malta had almost been entirely a Luftwaffe preserve, but this was about to change. At sunset on April 2, the 4° Stormo returned to Sicily with 26 new C.202s. For the next seven months, Italy’s best fighter would be pitted against the formidable Spitfire Mk. V.    

The Wasp’s Sting

At the same time, the punishing raids by both Luftwaffe and RA units had reduced the number of serviceable Spitfires and Hurricanes to a mere handful. The initial batch of Spitfires had brought some relief, but the numbers had been too small for any sustained combat operations. Help was on the way. Prime Minister Winston Churchill contacted US President Roosevelt directly and pressed his case. By using the US Navy carrier Wasp, the British could deliver up to 50 Spitfires. Roosevelt agreed and on April 20 operation Calendar succeeded with the delivery of 46 of 47 Spitfires.  

By April 21, however, only 27 Spitfires remained operational and by that evening, just 17 were fit for combat. The Island’s top commander AOC Hugh Lloyd was not impressed. After a quick inspection he found the Spitfires delivered were not combat ready. Most if not all the cannons and machine guns had not been fired since installation and many radios did not work. His harshest critique fell on the new pilots. His message to the powers that be was blunt, “Only fully experienced operational pilots must come here. It is no place for beginners. Casualties up to now have been the beginners.” Pilots with limited experience was not exclusive to the British.  

Ace of Clubs

The Italians had their fair share of novice pilots as well. On his first combat mission over Malta, Sergeant Bruno Lentini not only managed to survive but also claimed his first Spitfire.

“On my first mission over Malta I was still pretty inexperienced. I was flying a Macchi MC. 202 with the 374a Squadriglia – ‘Asso di Bastoni’ (Ace of Clubs). I was placed at the far right of the formation. At a height of 8,000 m we came across the German bombers, which we were meant to protect. They flew some 1,000 m below us. Our task was to shield them while they were flying over and bombarding Malta. After the German bombers had dropped their bombs, they turned back and so did my mates. I was sort of spellbound while watching the island of Malta beneath when noticed I was flying off route. All of a sudden, my captain yelled at me in my headset: ‘you stupid boy, you have two Spitfires on your tail!’ I saw the tracks of their machine-guns and decided to nose-dive. This sudden move disoriented the two pilots who were chasing me. I nose-dived some 4,000 m and then flew into some clouds, thus disappearing. When I flew out of the clouds I was suddenly on the tail of the two Spitfires and instinctively fired at them and hit one. I saw that plane catch fire and plummet to the sea. I prayed for the pilot to jump but he never did. I felt so guilty about killing someone, although that someone had tried to kill me. Back at base I was punished for leaving the formation, but it was a virtual punishment – pilots were constantly needed for escort missions and convoy protection round the clock.” 

Trading Blows

The heavy attacks on the three RAF airfields continued throughout the rest of April with devastating results. On April 27 the C.202s of the 4° Stormo made their biggest showing with 27 escorting 35 Ju 88s, 21 Ju 87s and five Z1007bis. With no RAF fighters available to intercept the incoming raid Malta’s defences were left to the anti-aircraft guns. By the end of April, just seven Spitfires and a handful of Hurricanes remained serviceable. The reinforcement of Malta continued. Flying off the carriers Wasp (50 Spitfires) and HMS Eagle (17) sixty-one made it safely to the island on May 9.  

Turning of the Tide

As May 10 dawned, the Spitfire pilots of Malta were prepared. It would be the turning point in the long and bitter siege. Five Spitfire Squadrons were operational – 126, 185, 249, 601 and 603. As the first raid approached the island, the Spitfires started their engines. No longer resigned to sending just a handful of fighters into the fray, the RAF scrambled 37 Spitfires and 13 Hurricanes! May 10 would also mark the first C.202 shot down by a Spitfire. After several Luftwaffe raids, the RA put in an appearance at 1740hrs. Five Z1007bis escorted by C.202s and RE.2001s approached the island. In behind were Ju 87s and Ju 88s and a large escort of Bf 109s. This raid was met with by 42 Spitfires. 601 Squadron was the first to attack shooting down one Z1007bis bomber. During the intercept Pilot Officer Wally Cadwell (BR344/4-H) shot down Captain Roberto in his C.202.  Roberto was the Commanding Officer of 97a Squadriglia. When the smoke cleared the numbers came in – Four Ju 88s, four Ju 87s, three Bf 109s, one Z1007bis, and one C.202 shot down. In return, the Italian fighter pilots claimed six RAF fighters. Only three Spitfires were lost that day.

Fog of War

The newly arrived Spitfires were turning the tables. Despite the telling losses of May 10,  Feldmarschall Kesselring convinced himself that Malta was no longer a threat. Hitler was informed that Luftwaffe and RA losses had been modest. Berlin then ordered Kesselring to reduce air operations over Malta and transfer his air units to Africa and Russia.  

By mid-July, the Italian offense against Malta was exhausted. On July 27 the C.202s presence over Malta was dealt a demoralizing and staggering blow. Thirteen Macchis (11 of 20° Gruppo and two of 155° Gruppo) were assigned as indirect escort for nine Ju 88s. Twenty-two Spitfires from 185, 249 and 126 Squadrons scrambled to intercept. As the Spitfires began their attacks on the Ju 88s the C.202s moved to help the bombers. At the same moment, the pilots of 249 Squadron spotted the Macchis. Sergeant Beurling flying (BR301/UF-S) latched onto a C.202 and with a straight deflection shot hit the engine and radiator. His victim was Sergeant Magg Falerio of 378 Squadriglia who claimed three Malta Spitfires. As he had done so many times before Beurling methodically moved onto his next target and fired. “The poor devil simply blew to pieces in the air.” Captain Furio Doglio Niclot, the top Italian ace of Malta, was hit and crashed into the sea. For the Italians it was a body blow. Squadron mate, Ronaldo Scaroni recalled: “When he died, some of the fighting spirit of the Regia Aeronautica died with him. There was a feeling that if Doglio Niclot couldn’t survive, none of us could. For the first time, we began to doubt that Malta could be taken.” Not only did the Italians lose one of their leading aces (6 plus 3 shared), the serviceability rates of the C.202 was so poor they were forced to cease all operations at the end of the month. 

Last Blows

October would see an all-out effort by both the Regia Aeronautica and Luftwaffe. The RA  mustered close to 100 C.202s belonging to the 51° and 53° Stormos. The Germans would add 58 Bf 109F-4s/G-2s. The British could now respond with 113 Spitfire Mk. Vs. The so-called ‘October Blitz’ commenced on the 11th and ended on 18th. No airfields were put out of action for longer than 30 minutes, and on average, 74 Spitfires were ready each day. After suffering heavy losses the RA and Luftwaffe reverted to fighter sweeps and small-scale fighter-bomber raids. By the end of October, the siege of Malta was all but over. The defenders had weathered several storms and RAF claims for October were as follows: 126 confirmed of which 17 were C.202s, 62 probables, 3 being C.202s and 162 damaged, 18 being C.202s. 

In the end, the Spitfire Mk. V and C.202 were so evenly matched, victory often came down to a number of battle proven variables. In this respect the British had the upper hand.  Their excellent radar and fighter control matched with their superior tactics, leadership, better armament and individual pilot skills gave them an advantage the Italians were hard pressed to match. 

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