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Packing the Punch: The Bristol Beaufighter

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RAF Beaufighters of Coastal Command attack a German ship with devastating force (pic from BAE Systems/Ron Smith):

RAF Coastal Command Beaufighters attack a German ship with devastating force!




I have to admit that when I came to this subject, I was still so beguiled by, and in awe of, the svelte beauty and fine performance of the de Havilland Mosquito that I tended to ignore the Beaufighter; indeed,  the Beaufighter had always seemed to me to be the big, pugilistic, older brother of the more finely honed Mosquito, and I wasn’t sure how positive my opinions would be after researching it for this article. I needn’t have worried, however, because during the process of writing this topic, my respect for the Bristol Beaufighter has greatly increased and I now feel that the Beaufighter and the Mosquito should be seen as equals in a partnership over time; together fulfilling all the roles that a larger twin-engined fighter plane was ideal for. In terms of both aesthetics and practicality, the Beaufighter has a rugged doggedness and muscularity that is actually rather attractive, forcefully enhanced by its ability to carry and unleash massive firepower against our enemies during World War Two. The Beaufighter neatly complements the elegant and speedy airiness of the Mosquito, both planes capable of deadly use in their own fashion. Thankfully for history and for democratic civilisation, we had both of these aircraft and would have been less secure of victory without either one of them. So here is the Beaufighter story.  

 During the period between the two world wars, the Bristol Aeroplane Company turned its attention to the concept of developing of a heavy long-range fighter, recognising the lack of such an aircraft in the RAF inventory. Accordingly, the chief designer at Bristol, Leslie G. Frise, and his colleague Roy Fedden, the firm’s engine designer, discussed the possibility of developing a single-seat fighter based on a Bristol bomber - either the Beaufort or the Blenheim - and presented their proposals to the Air Ministry in 1938 in advance of the RAF specifying a need for such an aircraft.

 This proposal resulted in official specification F.11/37 for a heavily armed fighter with a gun turret for a second crew member. In line with the specification, Frise and Fedden designed a twin-engined, two-seater fighter with massive firepower - four fixed 20 mm (0.787 in) cannon located under the nose in the space taken up in the Beaufort by the bomb aimer, and a further six 7.7 mm (0.303 in) machine guns mounted in the wings. A dorsal observer’s turret was added at the middle of the fuselage for the second crew member. An initial order for 300 Beaufighters was issued and the first prototypes took to the air in July 1939, the name of the aircraft being derived from the “Beau”fort bomber. In flight performance, the Beaufighter had one Achilles heel that was managed but never completely cured - longitudinal instability, giving the aircraft a tendency to sway, especially during take-off and landing.




The first unarmed Beaufighter prototype no. 2052 in July 1939 (pic from BAE Systems, Ron Smith):

Bristol 156 Beaufighter prototype R2052



Vintage poster showing a cutaway illustration of the Bristol Beaufighter Mk1 (pic from i.pinimg.com/originals):




Beaufighter Mk.VI of 272 Squadron 1942 (pic from i.pinimg.com/originals):





 One advantage of the Beaufighter’s design was the fact that it utilised the major airframe components of the Bristol Beaufort torpedo-bomber already in production (viz. the wings, tail unit and landing gear) and with a somewhat shortened front fuselage the plane had a characteristic snub-nosed appearance. Partly due to the use and availability of well-tried and tested components, gestation period of the Beaufighter was relatively short, with Bristol even supplying its own Hercules engines to power the prototypes. Indeed, it was a matter of only 13 months between the first flight of a prototype and the introduction of the Beaufighter in September 1940. The first squadron to receive a Beaufighter were Nos. 25 and 29 sqaudron, on 2 September, and by 17 October 1940, night fighter unit No 29 squadron was up and running with Beaufighters. Other front-line squadrons (25, 219, 600 and 640) were soon being equipped with Beaufighters, and in late 1940 aircraft equipped with the newly developed AI Mk.IV radar system were introduced. On 14 November 1940, Flt Lt John “Cats Eyes” Cunningham claimed the first kill using the radar against a Junkers Ju 88. Cunnigham, of 604 squadron, was the most successful RAF night-fighter pilot; he and his radar operator Jimmy Rawnsley were credited with 19 confirmed victories at night and one during the day. He later went on to have a distinguished career as a test pilot, and worked for British Aerospace until his retirement in the 1980s.




Cockpit of the Bristol T156 Beaufighter (pic from flight-manuals-online.com):






 During its development phase, it had been assumed at Bristol that the new aircraft would have a top speed of 540 kph (335 mph) but in reality, the twin Hercules III double-row radial engines did not provide quite enough power for this target to be reached and top speed was about 500 kph (310 mph), less than the Hawker Hurricane and also with higher fuel consumption. It had therefore become clear that the Beaufighter was not well-suited to the role of daytime interception. However, the plane really came into into its own as a night-fighter, and its use during the increased German bombing raids in 1940 was crucial. It had sufficient speed to gain the upper hand over German bombers and, when fully armed (for a short while in 1940, the Beaufighter flew with its cannon only due to a predicted shortage of machine guns destined for Spitfires and Hurricanes) could be a devastating opponent such that one salvo on target was enough to guarantee heavy damage.

 The Beaufighter Mk.IF (late production) was variously powered by Bristol Hercules III, X or XI engines, and the plane had a length of 12.6 m (41 ft 4 in) with a wingspan of 17.63 m (57 ft 10 in). Normal range was 2,141 km (1,5000 miles) with a top speed of 520 kph (323 mph) at 4,572 m (15,000 ft). The service ceiling was  at 8,809 m (28,900 ft) and empty equipped weight of the aircraft was 6,381 kg (14,069 lb). Interestingly, the last major Beaufighter model or variant, the Mk.X, was about the same size as the Mk.I but considerably heavier in empty equipped weight and powered by more powerful Bristol engines - up from 1,400 hp to 1,770 hp. The service ceiling of the Mk.X was down to not far off only half that of the Mk.IF and top speed was only a tad faster.

 Prior to the Beaufighter, The Bristol Blenheim Mk.IF, equipped with radar, had been used in a stop-gap fashion as a night time fighter, but it was slow and lacked the necessary performance for the role; the Beaufighter Mk.I now filled this gap and took this fighting role to a new level. The Mk.IF Beaufighter had continued to use Bristol Hercules III air-cooled 14 cylinder double row radial engines through 1940, then upgraded versions of that engine, but with a change in strategy whereby the bomber fleet took priority and increased the demand for Hercules engines, the Beaufighter was required to use a different engine altogether. This resulted in the faster Mk.II Beaufighter, powered by two Rolls Royce Merlin XX engines; the even more powerful Rolls Royce Griffon was used in some Beaufighters. The Mk.II Beaufighter also incorporated a twelve degree dihedral tailplane as a remedy for the known low-speed instability of the aircraft, and this was to be fitted on all subsequent variants. The Bristol Beaufighter protected the night skies over Britain during the peak of German bombing raids which began to peter out in May 1941. During the last major raid on London on 10 May, Beaufighters shot down no less than 14 enemy aircraft - the most ever claimed on any one night.




Beaufighter Mk.1C of the RAAF on the ground after flak damage, March 1943 (pic from asisbiz.com):






 The Beaufighter did not succumb to an early demise with the lessening of German bombing raids on the UK, nor even when the faster de Havilland Mosquito arrived on the scene - indeed, its time was by no means over. By mid-1941 the Beaufighter had been adopted by RAF Coastal Command in the form of the Mk.IC long-range strike fighter. The main focus for this version was the need for an aircraft able to strike at the Mediterranean area, and in order to increase the range, extra fuel tanks replaced the machine guns on the aircraft. The Mk.IC enjoyed considerable success against Italian and German shipping in the summer of 1941, and in November 1941, No 272 squadron mounted attacks on North African airfields destroying 44 aircraft in 4 days. The MK.IIF Beaufighter night fighter, of which over 400 were built, served with UK-based squadrons from April 1941.

 After the Beaufighter MK.II, came the Mk.VI which, like the Mk.II was produced in coastal (VIC) and fighter (VIF) versions. For night-fighting, the Mk.VIF was mainly equipped with the newly developed AI.MK VIII radar housed in a “thimble” nose. The ever-diminishing raids on the UK in 1942 freed many of the home-based squadrons to fly night raids over northern France, attacking trains, convoys, railway installations and other similar targets. The Mk.VIF was also used in an escort role during bombing raids, luring away Luftwaffe night fighters. Also in Europe, the Beaufighter Mk.VI was also used to help prepare the way for the invasion of Sicily and Italy and support Allied ground operations until the Italian surrender. And in the North Sea and Bay of Biscay, from 1942 until the end of the War, Beaufighter Mk.VIC aircraft sank or crippled thousands of tons of enemy shipping and submarines using their cannon and rocket projectiles.




A Bristol Beaufighter in the National Museum of the American Air Force, Dayton Ohio. This example was manufactured on license by Fairey Aviation Co., Stockport, and delivered to the RAAF in 1942. It  bears the markings of USAAF pilot Capt. Harold Augspurger of 415th Night Fighter Squadron who shot down a Heinkel 111 carrying German staff officers in September 1944, and the bottom picture presumably shows the plane during restoration (pics from media.defense.gov):









 The Mk.VI Beaufighter was instrumental in inflicting serious damage not only in the European theatre of war but also further afield. Squadrons of Beaufighter Mk.VIF fighters were operational in the Far East against Japanese lines of communication in Burma, mounting daily low-level raids and destroying 66 locomotives, 123 ships, and 96 road vehicles in the nine months from the end of 1942. The Mk.VI was to continue to operate against the Japanese until the end of the War, its deadly armaments now enhanced by the use of rockets; the aircraft earned the name of “Whispering Death” from the Japanese. Somewhat nearer to home, the Beaufighter MK.VI replacement of the Mk.IC played a vital role in the victory in North Africa, roaming widely and attacking targets opportunistically.




Beaufighter Mk.VIC aircraft in the air (pic from Biggles wiki at vignette.wikia.net)




Explosion of a German ship after attack by Beaufighters on a German convoy, probably off the southern coast of Norway and the North Sea (pic from i.pinimg.com/originals):






 The success of the Beaufighter in its anti-shipping role led to the development of the last major variant of the aircraft, the Mk.X, of which 2,205 were made This variant was developed from the MkVI(ITF) interim torpedo fighter and entered service in 1943; it was powered by two Bristol Hercules XVII 1770 hp engines. The Mk.X had a range of 2,366 km (1,470 miles) with 1,700 lb torpedo, and a top speed of 488 kph (303 mph) at 395 m (1,300 feet). In terms of armaments, the Beaufighter Mk.X was more variable than earlier models. It was heavily armed, as were earlier models, with 4 nose-mounted 20mm cannon and six 7.7 mm (0,303 in) machine guns in the wings, but also had a dorsal-mounted 7.7 mm machine gun (NB it is evident that some pre-Mk.X Beaufighters had a dorsal mounted machine gun; others used this turret solely for observation/radar operation by the second crew member). The aircraft could also carry either a single 965 kg (2,127 lb) or 748 kg (1,650 lb) torpedo beneath the fuselage, plus either eight rocket projectiles fitted in racks under the wings or two (113 kg) 250lb bombs. The rocket-armed Mk.X Beaufighters could be used for both air-to-sea missions or for ground attack. Mk.X Beaufighter torpedo fighters featuring a modified version of the AI.Mk VIII radar system in a “thimble” nose, and unofficially known as the “Torbeau”, proved to have excellent air-to-surface capabilities and became the standard variant for Coastal Command for the last two years of the War. In March 1945, Beaufighter TF Mk.Xs of nos. 236 and 254 squadrons managed to locate and destroy five German U-boats in the space of just 48 hours.




Beaufighter TFXs (Mk.X Torpedo Fighter) of the RCAF showing rocket projectile racks beneath the wings (pic from BAE Systems/Ron Smith):


Bristol 156 Beaufighter TFXs



Beaufighter Mk.X armed with rocket launchers and with thimble-nose radar system (pic from tracesofwar.com): 




An attack by a Beaufighter on shipping in the mouth of the Gironde, Bay of Biscay, towards the end of 1944 - this picture was taken by a camera mounted in the aircraft's nose (pic from Australian Memorial at S3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com):





 The last Beaufighter model to be produced (163 in total) was the XIC, made for Coastal Command and similar to the Mk.X yet without the ability to carry a torpedo. Production of the Beaufighter continued until 1945 in the UK and 1946 in Australia and totalled 5.928 units.The last examples still in service were retired in the RAAF in 1960. The Beaufighter also served in a number of other air forces including those of Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the USA - Others ended up in Portugal and Turkey. The Beaufighter had fought in all the major theatres of World War Two and turned out to be an aircraft worthy of the greatest respect and regard.




 A Mk.XTT (target-tower) Beaufighter in post-War role shortly before the type was withdrawn from RAF service (pic from BAE Systems/Ron Smith):

Bristol 156 Beaufighter TT10




The final Beaufighter variant, the XIC, in a state of restoration under the Fighter Collections Restoration Project, at Duxford, in 2013 (pic from upload.wikimedia.org):





Illustration by Ivan Berryman showing a Beaufighter based in malta attacking Italian shipping and aircraft (pic from i.pinimg.com/originals):





The main sources for the text of this topic - the most important first, then in descending order - are as follows:


 “Aircraft of World War Two: A Visual Encyclopedia”, by Michael Sharpe, Jerry Scutts, and Dan Marsh; Parkgate Books, London, 2000 (1st published in 1999 by PRC Publishing Ltd).

 “Fighter: Technology, Facts, History”, by Ralf Leinburger; Paragon Books Ltd, Bath, 2008.

 “The Hamlyn Concise Guide to British Aircraft of World War II”, by David Mondey; Chancellor Press, London, 1994 (1st pub. By Hamlyn in 1982)

 “101 Great Fighters: Legendary Fighting Aircraft from WWI to the Present”, General ed. Robert Jackson; Sandcastle Books, Sheriffs Lench, Worcestershire, 2008

 “Fighter Aircraft: Featuring Photographs from the Imperial War Museum”, by Francis Crosby of the Imperial War Museum Duxford; Published by Hermes House, London an imprint of Anness Publishing Ltd, 2002 and 2007.



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a vastly underestimated aircraft of WW2.

Great post, thanks.

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I remember reading a few Biggles books in my yoof & the Beaufighter featured heavily in those as a result I've always had a soft spot for them. Not the best looking aircraft but obviously an extremely capable & versatile one. Thanks for the article - very interesting :thumbs_up:

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