The Bristol Type 156 Beaufighter (often referred to simply as the "Beau") is a multi-role aircraft developed during the Second World War by Bristol Aeroplane Company in the UK. It was originally conceived as a heavy fighter variant of the Bristol Beaufort bomber. The Beaufighter was a versatile aircraft used in service initially as a night fighter, and later mainly in the maritime strike and ground attack roles; it also replaced the earlier Beaufort as atorpedo bomber.
Variants built in Australia by the Department of Aircraft Production (DAP) were sometimes referred to by the name DAP Beaufighter.
Design and development
Cockpit of Beaufighter F Mk I.
The idea of a fighter development of the Beaufort was suggested to the Air Ministry by Bristol. The suggestion coincided with the delays in the development and production of the Westland Whirlwind cannon-armed twin-engine fighter. Bristol made proposals of a fixed four-cannon version and a turret fighter with twin cannons; the former was preferred by the assistant chief of the air staff. As a torpedo bomber and "general reconnaissance" aircraft the Beaufort had moderate performance but for fighter-like performance Bristol suggested their new Hercules engines in place of the Beaufort's Taurus (another Bristol engine).
Since the "Beaufort cannon fighter" was a conversion of an existing design, development and production was expected far more quickly than with a completely fresh design. Accordingly, the air ministry produced draft Specification F.11/37 written around Bristol's suggestion for an "interim" aircraft pending proper introduction of the Whirlwind. Bristol started building a prototype by taking a partly-built Beaufort out of the production line. This conversion served to speed the process—Bristol had promised series production in early 1940 on the basis of an order being placed in February 1939—and the ministry ordered two prototypes from the line and two built from scratch. Although it had been expected that maximum re-use of Beaufort components would speed the process, the fuselage needed more work than expected and had to be completely redesigned. As such, the first prototype flew for the first time on 17 July 1939, a little more than eight months after the design had started, possibly due to the use of much of the Beaufort's design and parts. A production contract for 300 machines "off the drawing board" had already been placed two weeks before the prototype F.17/39 even flew.
A Merlin-powered, Beaufighter night fighter Mark II of No. 255 Squadron RAF
at RAF Hibaldstow
, September 1941. The Merlin Power Plants
are an early type incorporating exhaust ducting to conceal the exhaust flames for night use, a method later superseded by simple exhaust shrouds.
The first prototype achieved 335 mph (539 km/h) at 16,800 ft (5,120 m), the second prototype when laden with operational equipment was slower at 309 mph at 15,000 ft. Large orders were placed at the start of the Second World War but this meant an expected shortage of Hercules engines. In February 1940, conversion of three aircraft to Rolls-Royce Merlins was ordered; success with the design was expected to lead to production aircraft in 1941. The Merlin engine installations and nacelles were designed for the Beaufighter by Rolls-Royce as a complete "power egg" unit. The first Merlin powered aircraft flew in June 1940. The Beaufighter Merlin installation was later incorporated into the design for what became the Avro Lancaster. However it was found that the Merlins left the Beaufighter underpowered and gave it a pronounced tendency to swing to port, making take-offs and landings difficult and resulting in a high accident rate — out of 337 Merlin-powered aircraft, 102 were lost to accidents. Due to wartime shortages, some Beaufighters were placed into operational service without equipment necessary to feather the propellers. As some models of the twin-engined Beaufighter could not stay aloft on one engine unless the dead propeller was feathered, the lack of feathering equipment caused operational losses and deaths of aircrew.
The Bristol Taurus engines of the Beaufort were not powerful enough for a fighter and were replaced by more powerful Bristol Hercules engines. The extra power presented problems with vibration; in the final design they were mounted on longer, more flexible, struts, which extended from the front of the wings. This moved thecentre of gravity (CoG) forward, an undesirable feature in aircraft design. It was moved back by shortening the nose, as no space was needed for a bomb aimer in a fighter. This put most of the fuselage behind the wing, and restored the CoG to its proper location. With the engine cowlings and propellers now further forward than the tip of the nose, the Beaufighter had a characteristically stubby appearance.
In general — apart from powerplants — the differences between the Beaufort and Beaufighter were minor. The wings, control surfaces, retractable landing gear and aft section of the fuselage were identical to those of the Beaufort, while the wing centre section was similar apart from certain fittings. The bomb bay was omitted, and four forward-firing 20 mm Hispano Mk III cannons were mounted in the lower fuselage area. These were initially fed from 60-round drums, requiring the radar operator to change the ammunition drums manually—an arduous and unpopular task, especially at night and while chasing a bomber. As a result, they were soon replaced by a belt-feed system. The cannons were supplemented by six .303 in (7.7 mm) Browning machine guns in the wings (four starboard, two port, the asymmetry caused by the port mounting of the landing light). This was one of the heavier, if not the heaviest, fighter armament of its time. When Beaufighters were developed as fighter-torpedo bombers, they used their firepower (often the machine guns were removed) to suppress flak fire and hit enemy ships, especially escorts and small vessels. The recoil of the cannons and machine guns could reduce the speed of the aircraft by around 25 knots when they fired.
The areas for the rear gunner and bomb-aimer were removed, leaving only the pilot in a fighter-type cockpit. The navigator-radar operator sat to the rear under a small Perspex bubble where the Beaufort's dorsal turret had been. Both crew-members had their own hatch in the floor of the aircraft. The front hatch was behind the pilot's seat. As there was no room to climb around the seat-back, the back collapsed to allow the pilot to climb over and into the seat. In an emergency, the pilot would operate a lever that remotely released the hatch, grasp two steel overhead tubes and lift himself out of his seat, swing his legs over the open hatchway, then let go to drop through. Evacuating the aircraft was easier for the navigator as the rear hatch was in front of him and without obstruction.
Production of the Beaufort in Australia, and the highly successful use of British-made Beaufighters by the Royal Australian Air Force, led to Beaufighters being built by the Australian Department of Aircraft Production (DAP) from 1944 onwards. The DAP's variant was an attack and torpedo bomber known as the "Mark 21": design changes included Hercules VII or XVIII engines and some minor changes in armament.
By the time British production lines shut down in September 1945, 5,564 Beaufighters had been built in Britain by Bristol and also by the Fairey Aviation Company at Stockport and RAF Ringway (498); also by the Ministry of Aircraft Production (3336) and Rootes at Speke (260).
When Australian production ceased in 1946, 365 Mk.21s had been built.
Bristol Beaufighter Mk 1 in No. 252 Squadron, North Africa.
By fighter standards, the Beaufighter Mk.I was rather heavy and slow. It had an all-up weight of 16,000 lb (7,000 kg) and a maximum speed of only 335 mph (540 km/h) at 16,800 ft (5,000 m). Nevertheless, this was all that was available at the time in Great Britain, as further production of the Westland Whirlwind had already been stopped due to problems with production of its Rolls-Royce Peregrine engines.
The first Beaufighter was delivered to RAF Tangmere for trials with the Fighter Interception Unit on 12 August 1940, and the first operational machines were received by 29 Squadron and 604 Squadron on 2 September.
The Beaufighter came off the production line at almost exactly the same time as the first British airborne interception night fighter radar sets. With the four 20 mm cannons mounted in the lower fuselage, the nose could accommodate the radar antennas, and while early airborne interception equipment was too bulky to fit in single-engine fighters of the day, this was not a problem with the spacious fuselage of the Beaufighter. Even loaded to 20,000 lb (9,100 kg) the aircraft was fast enough to catch German bombers. By early 1941, it was an effective counter to Luftwaffe night raids. The various early models of the Beaufighter soon commenced service overseas, where its ruggedness and reliability quickly made the aircraft popular with crews although it was heavy on the controls and not easy to fly, good landings being a particular challenge.
A night-fighter Mk VIF was supplied to squadrons in March 1942, equipped with AI Mark VIII radar. As the faster de Havilland Mosquito took over in the night fighter role in mid to late 1942, the heavier Beaufighter made valuable contributions in other areas such as anti-shipping, ground attack and long-range interdiction, in every major theatre of operations.
In the Mediterranean, the USAAF's 414th, 415th, 416th and 417th night fighter squadrons received 100 Beaufighters in the summer of 1943, achieving their first victory in July 1943. Through the summer the squadrons conducted both daytime convoy escort and ground-attack operations, but primarily flew defensive interception missions at night. Although the Northrop P-61 Black Widow fighter began to arrive in December 1944, USAAF Beaufighters continued to fly night operations in Italy and France until late in the war.
By the autumn of 1943, the Mosquito was available in enough numbers to replace the Beaufighter as the primary night fighter of the RAF. By the end of the war some seventy pilots serving with RAF units had become aces while flying Beaufighters.
At least one captured Beaufighter was operated by the Luftwaffe – a photograph exists of the aircraft in flight, with German markings.
1941 saw the development of the Beaufighter Mk.IC long-range heavy fighter. This new variant entered service in May 1941 with a detachment from No. 252 Squadron operating from Malta. The aircraft proved so effective in the Mediterranean against shipping, aircraft and ground targets that coastal command became the major user of the Beaufighter, replacing the now obsolete Beaufort and Blenheim.
Coastal command began to take delivery of the up-rated Mk.VIC in mid-1942. By the end of 1942, Mk VICs were being equipped with torpedo-carrying gear, enabling them to carry the British 18 in (450 mm) or the US 22.5 in (572 mm) torpedo externally. Observers were not happy about carrying the torpedo as they were unable to use the escape hatch until the torpedo was dropped. The first successful torpedo attacks by Beaufighters came in April 1943, with No. 254 Squadron sinking two merchant ships off Norway.
A TF Mark X being loaded with RP-3 rockets.
The Hercules Mk XVII, developing 1,735 hp (1,294 kW) at 500 ft (150 m), was installed in the Mk VIC airframe to produce the TF Mk.X (torpedo fighter), commonly known as the "Torbeau". The Mk X became the main production mark of the Beaufighter. The strike variant of the Torbeau was designated the Mk.XIC. Beaufighter TF Xs would make precision attacks on shipping at wave-top height with torpedoes or "60lb" RP-3 rockets. Early models of the Mk Xs carried centimetric-wavelength ASV (air-to-surface vessel) radar with "herringbone" antennae carried on the nose and outer wings, but this was replaced in late 1943 by the centimetric AI Mark VIII radar housed in a "thimble-nose" radome, enabling all-weather and night attacks.
The North Coates Strike Wing of coastal command, based at RAF North Coates on the Lincolnshire coast, developed tactics which combined large formations of Beaufighters using cannons and rockets to suppress flak while the Torbeaus attacked at low level with torpedoes. These tactics were put into practice in mid-1943, and in a 10 month period, 29,762 tons (84,226 m3) of shipping were sunk. Tactics were further adapted when shipping was moved from port during the night. North Coates Strike Wing operated as the largest anti-shipping force of the Second World War, and accounted for over 150,000 tons (424,500 m3) of shipping and 117 vessels for a loss of 120 Beaufighters and 241 aircrew killed or missing. This was half the total tonnage sunk by all strike wings between 1942 and 1945.