Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Macchis over the Steppe - The Macchi C.200 Saetta on the Eastern Front

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When the Wermacht stormed over Russian soil on 22 June 1941, the opening day of Operation Barbarossa, the other states of the Axis powers promptly declared war on the Soviet Union. Many of the Eastern nations such as Bulgaria, Hungary and Rumania had long-lasting rivalries and territorial claims against the Russian. However, Germany's main ally in Europe, Italy, had joined the the war in June 1940, and had since then been heavily involved in the Mediterranean War. Despite not having particular political and territorial claims in the East, and not enough resources for a two-front war, Mussolini decided to send an expeditionary corp, the CSIR (Corpo di Spedizione Italiana in Russia). The air component of this army was constituted of the 22° Gruppo Caccia (Fighter Group), and the 61° Gruppo Osservazione Aerea (Aerial Reconaissance Group).

369° Squadriglia, Krivoi-Rog, Septtember 1941
The 22° Gruppo was equipped with the Macchi C.200 Saetta (Thunderbolt), distributed among 4 Squadrons (Squadriglie): 359th, 362nd, 369th and 371st. The fighters arrived in Tudora (nort of Rumania) in early August 1941, commanded by Maggiore (Major) Giovanni Borzoni. They were quickly deployed at Krivoi-Rog, along the river Dniepr, to back Axis forces advancing in Southern USSR. There, they started to mount offensive operations, tipically low-level attacks on Russian columns and vehicles, occasionally escorting German bomber and recce aicraft. In their first battle against the enemy, the unit claimed six SB-2 bombers and two I-16 fighters shot down. During the first months of combat, clashes with Soviet fighters didn't cause much problems, as the most common opponent was the Polikarpov I-16, which the Italians had already encountered during the Spanish Civil War. 

The most feared enemies were the omni-present flak and the harsh Russian winter. If the pilots could rely on the C.200's air-cooled radial engine and all-metal construncion, which made it ideally suited for ground-attack operations, nothing could be done against "General Winter". Engines had to be pre-heated before being ingnited, landing gears often iced, and the open cockpits rendered the pilots' tasks even more difficult . Despite these challenging conditions, operations continued for the whole November and December, reaching their peak on 28 December, when nine aircraft - six of them I-16 fighters - were shot down with no loss.

In January 1942, appalling weather prevented any activity, and it was only on 5 February that operations could restart, with a strafing mission against the airfield of Krasnjy Liman. On the 24th and 28th of the same month, two air battles occurred, resulting in four I-16s downed without losses. Between 5 March and 3 May, 21° Gruppo was part of the Nahkampffuhrer Stalino, escorting Ju-87 and carrying out free hunt as well as strafing sorties

Macchis of the 386° Squadriglia, 1942
The Gruppo carried on air operations until 4 May, when it was replaced by the 21° Gruppo, (356th, 382nd, 361st and 386th Squadriglie).
The newly arrived unit was sent to the frontline right after its arrive, and participated in the Second Battle of Kharkov, receiving official recognition and praise from the commander of the 17th Army, for the effective and daring low-level attacks in the Slavyansk area.

The German offensive in late spring 1942 smashed several Soviet armies, and Axis forces advanced deep into enemy territory, as they had done the year before. The Italian units moved to Stalino and then to Voroscilovgrad, south of the river Donetz. The Macchis were now asked to fly more escort missions, and losses raised, since the Russian had started to equip frontline units with better fighters. 
On 27 July, two squadrons were detached to Borvenkovo, covering the crossing of the river Don near Izyum. For the entire summer, the units were detached wherever they were needed, moving to Tazinskaja, then to Oblivskaja, Millerovo, again Voroscilovgrad, Kantamirovka and Starobelsk.

C.200s being refuelled, unidentified unit
The information on the last part of 1942 is scarce, but it can be clearly assumed that, in the 12 months of operations, the 22° and 21° had flown 2,557 offensive sorties, so divided:
  • 1,310 strafing missions
  • 511 bombing attacks
  • 1,938 escorts
At the end of this 12 months of combat, the Macchi C.200 had obtained a remarkable kill to loss ratio of 88 to 15. The top scorer where Captain Germano La Fera and Giovanni Vercellin, with 13 kills each.

In January 1943, the Soviet Uran offensive, which destroyed the 6th German Army at Stalingrad, and the desperate situation in North Africa, where Axis forces were on the verge of collapsing, forced the Italian High Command to call back its forces in Russia. 21° Gruppo flew its last sortie on 17 January: four days later, it retreated to Stalino and then headed back to Italy, leaving behind 15 unserviceable Macchis.

Today, one Macchi C.200 Saetta is displayed at the Italian Air Force Museum in Vigna di Valle, Rome, with the colours of the 369° Squadriglia. 
Critical Sources:

Courage Alone, Chris Dunning, Hikoki Publication, 1998

Italian Aces of World War 2, Giovanni Massimello and Giorgio Apostolo, Osprey Publishing, 2000

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