Virtually unknown outside Italy, the C.202 Folgore was the best fighter airplane fielded in significant numbers by the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Royal Air Force or RA) during World War II. This airplane demonstrated that Italy could design and build fighter aircraft to world-class standards. Aeronautica Macchi S. p. A. designed and built the Folgore (Lightning), which was based on an earlier Macchi design powered by a radial engine, the C.200 Saeta (Thunderbolt). To create the Folgore, Macchi's chief of design, Mario Castoldi, adapted the Saeta airframe to the German Daimler-Benz DB 601 liquid-cooled engine. Italy was a significant air-faring nation during the mid-1930s but its aviation industry began to lag late in the decade, particularly in engine development. No indigenous, in-line powerplant of sufficient power was available when the war started so early in 1940 Macchi had to import the German engine as a private venture. The results were impressive. Flat out, the Folgore was almost 97 kph (60 mph) faster than the Saeta's speed of 502 kph (312 mph).
The C.202 first flew in August 1940 and the RA initially deployed the aircraft during the summer of 1941 to the 1° Stormo C.T. for conversion training. By November, this unit had transferred to Libya and engaged British forces shortly before the British blockaded Tobruk. Although it was available too late to affect the outcome in North Africa, the new Macchi C.202 proved clearly superior to both the American Curtiss P-40 and the British Hawker Hurricane. Pilots flying the Italian fighter outperformed all opponents except Supermarine Spitfires and North American P-51 Mustangs. Folgore pilots lauded the fighter's finger-light handling and superb agility.