Bristol Beaufighter – Night Stalker

During the period between World War One and World War Two a new concept began to emerge in the field of military aviation: the heavy fighter. Cue the Bristol Beaufighter.

Most fighters were single-engine designs with good manoeuvrability but limited range. Designers in a number of countries began to look at an alternative in the form of a twin-engine fighter. It was recognised that this would not be as manoeuvrable as a single-engine design. Althouugh, twin engines would give it more speed and longer range. Plus a nose free from engine mounts would allow the fitment of very heavy armament.

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Early Heavy Fighters

In Germany, the Luftwaffe adopted the Bf 110 Zerstörer (Destroyer) in 1937. Its fearsome firepower of two 20mm cannon and four 7.92 mm machine guns in its nose seemed to make it an ideal aircraft for intercepting enemy bombers and its long-range made it useful as a bomber escort.

In America, the Lockheed P-38 Lightening began development in 1939 and early testing showed that it was the fastest production aircraft in the world at that time.

The RAF was also exploring the heavy fighter concept through the twin-engine Westland Whirlwind. This aircraft first flew in 1938 and, like the P-38, it was fast and heavily armed. However, problems with its Rolls-Royce Peregrine engines led to protracted development which meant that this fighter was late in entering RAF service.

A P-38 Lightning heavy fighter.
The P-38 was a successfulf heavy fighter. Photo credit – Bib Haarmans CC-BY-2.0

Seeing potential in the delays in the introduction of the Whirlwind, the Bristol Aeroplane Company began to privately work on its own design for a heavy fighter.

Founded in 1911, Bristol had designed aircraft for the Royal Flying Corps during World War One and in the inter-war period produced some significant designs for the RAF. This included the Bristol Bulldog biplane fighter and the Bristol Blenheim light bomber.

In 1938 the company produced a new design for the Type 152 Beaufort Bomber, a twin-engine, all-metal monoplane light bomber capable of a respectable turn of speed. However, the Beaufort had issues as a bombing platform. So in 1938 Bristol began work on a new design using elements of the existing Beaufort to create a heavy fighter.

The Beaufighter was built using a lot of design elements from the Beafort
A pair of Bristol Beauforts from 217 Squadron.

It was designated Type 156. The new aircraft used the wings, undercarriage and tail of the Beaufort bomber.

The use of common parts meant that the same jigs could be used to manufacture both the Beaufort and the new fighter. Production could be switched between the two according to demand.

The design of the new aircraft was undertaken by Bristol as a private venture. The RAF had already selected the Whirlwind as its new heavy fighter. So officially there was no need for another similar type.

However, in 1938 it seemed clear that a new war with Germany was looming and that the Whirlwind would not be ready in time. When Bristol showed their new design to the Air Ministry, four prototypes and seven pre-production aircraft were ordered March 1939.

It was also given a name at this time, a combination of Beaufort and Fighter: Beaufighter. The intention was that the new aircraft would be an interim design that would be used only until the Whirlwind entered service.

Beaufighter Design

The new design was for a mid-wing monoplane aircraft of all-metal design powered by two Bristol  Hercules engines, each producing 1,500 hp, replacing the 1,000 hp Taurus engines used in the Beaufort.

The pilot was placed in a small cockpit near the nose of the fuselage and the navigator under a small dorsal bubble canopy.  

The Beaufighter's canopy was very small
The Beaufighter’s canpoy was very small.

The new fighter’s most notable feature was its armament. Consisting of four 20mm Hispano cannons in the nose and six 0.303 machine guns, four mounted in the starboard wing and two in the port wing.

This made it the most heavily armed fighter in the world at the time. Capable of delivering 780 lb of munitions on target in one minute. In comparison, the Spitfire was capable of delivering just 240 lb per minute from its eight machine guns.

Pace of development for new aircraft was little short of amazing. As soon as the Air Ministry order was received, Bristol began work on converting a partly completed Beaufort bomber into a Beaufighter.

The first prototype flew on 17th July 1939, less than eight months after design had started. With first operational Beaufighter was delivered to the RAF on 2nd April 1940.

Like many other heavy fighters, the Beaufighter Mk I proved disappointing as a day fighter. Its performance was well below that of most single-seat fighters. Ontop of that it was demanding to fly compared to the Spitfire and Hurricane.

Night Fighter

However, its heavy armament did make it a formidable bomber destroyer. The first operational Beaufighters did not arrive in time to take part in the Battle of Britain. But, when Germany switched tactics to begin a night bombing campaign against Britain, the Beaufighter found a new and unplanned role as a night-fighter.

In September 1940, the first Beaufighters were used on night sorties against German intruders. However, it wasn’t until November that the first Beaufighters were equipped with AI Mark IV airborne interception radars and formally designated the Mark IF.

The IF Beaufighter variant had a radar mounted in the nose.
The IF variants all had radars mounted in the nose.

On the night of 19/20 November 1940, a Ju 88 was shot down by a radar equipped Beaufighter. In early 1941, improved radar was fitted and during a large German raid on the night of 19/20 May. 22 German aircraft were shot down by British night-fighters.

A shortage of Hercules engines led to the development of the Mark IIF; a night-fighter version powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Merlin XX engines. The next major production of the Beaufighter was the Mark VI. It reverted to Hercules engines and introduced for the first time a dorsal Boulton-Paul turret for the navigator/rear gunner.

The turret was armed with four 0.303 machine guns though the fitment of this heavy turret meant reducing the aircraft’s cannon and machine gun armament.

Costal Command

All Beaufighters intended for use as night-fighters were designated with the F suffix. But concurrently, Beaufighters intended for the anti-shipping role were being produced for Coastal Command.

These were designated with a C suffix. Both the Mk IC and MK VIC were modified to carry bombs and provided with larger fuel tanks. Coastal Command Beaufighters were used extensively in the Mediterranean theatre. They were effectuive and took a large toll on Axis shipping and aircraft.

From mid-1941, Coastal Command also used Beaufighters successfully to attack shipping in European waters.

Beaufighters attacking a ship.
A pair of Beaufighters attacking an enemy ship in 1941.

The MK VIC was modified to carry a torpedo for these missions. It wasn’t especially popular with aircrew: the single under-fuselage escape hatch could not be used to bale out until the torpedo had been dropped!

Export Use

In mid-1942 another new version of the Beaufighter was introduced, the Mk X. This included Hercules XVII engines with superchargers which gave vastly improved low-level performance. Most were set up for torpedo carrying (in which role they became informally known as the “TorBeau”).

However, many were also used with underwing rockets and bombs and in Burma where they became famed for their ability to perform low-level attacks even in poor weather. In this role, they were often able to achieve surprise because of the relative quiet of their Hercules engines: these aircraft were said to be known as “whispering death” by Japanese troops.

The Beaufighter was also used extensively by the  Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) which it was known as the Beaufighter IC (though this covered several models from the MK I to the MK X). In 1943, the Department of Aircraft Production (DAP) authorized the manufacture of Beaufighters in Australia.

These were known as the MK 21 and featured supercharged Hercules engines and the ability to carry torpedoes, rockets or bombs in addition to cannon and machine guns. Over 300 DAP Beaufighters were produced. These saw service with the RAAF in the campaigns in Borneo, New Guinea and the Philippines.

The Beaufighter was also used by the US Army Air Force (USAAF). US Night-Fighter squadrons received more than 100 Beaufighters in 1943/1944.

Although these aircraft began to be replaced by the Northrop P-61 Black Widow night-fighter from December 1944, the Beaufighter continued to be used in night operations by the USAAF over Italy and Western Europe until the end of World War Two.

The Beaufighter cockpit.
The Beaufighter had an extremelyy cramped cockpit, despite being larger than a traditional fighter.

Last of the Heavy Fighters

As World War Two progressed, the heavy fighter concept became less popular. Only the American P-38 Lightening proved effective in the fighter role but the heavy fighters of most other countries found themselves relegated to roles for which they had not been designed (the German Bf 110, for example, also developed into an effective night-fighter).

As night-fighters in particular, these aircraft proved effective. Single-seat, single-engine aircraft do not make good night fighters.

Twin-engine heavy fighters on the other hand were able to carry the necessary avionics and the second crew member could act as the radar set operator. The versatile Beaufighter also proved very effective in low-level attack missions using rockets, bombs or torpedoes in addition to its cannon and machine guns.

The Beaufighter continued in service with the RAF after World War Two, though mainly in the form of the TT Mark 10 target tug aircraft.

The last TT MK 10 was not retired from service until May 1960. After the war, the Beaufighter was used by the air forces of Portugal, Turkey, Israel, Canada and the Dominican Republic.

This aircraft had a long and successful combat history during World War Two, which is more than a little surprising for a design created by cobbling together parts of an existing bomber with a new fuselage and engines.

Its longevity is even more difficult to understand considering that this was intended as no more than an interim solution that would probably only serve for a few months until the Westland Whirlwind was available.

When the Whirlwind did eventually begin to enter RAF service in 1940, it was found to be a major disappointment: it was underpowered and its unusual wing design led to a very high landing speed.

The Westland Whirlwind was a Beaufighter competitor.,
The Westland Whirlwind was a competitor to the Beaufighter that underperformed.

Conclusion

In every respect, the Whirlwind proved to be less capable, less reliable and less robust than the interim Beaufighter. Whirlwind production ended in January 1941 after only a little over 100 examples were completed. Production of the Beaufighter continued until 1946 and almost 6,000 of all marks were produced.

Sometimes, great aircraft are the result of careful planning and design. Sometimes, as in the case of the Beaufighter, they are the result of happenstance and the re-utilization of whatever is to hand.

The heavy fighter concept was largely discredited during World War Two, but the hastily produced Beaufighter was sufficiently capable. It excelled in a range of roles for which it was not originally designed.

It may not have received the same level of fame as other RAF types such as the De Havilland Mosquito. But never has the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” been more aptly illustrated than in the case of the Bristol Beaufighter.

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Specifications

  • Crew: 2
  • Length: 41 ft 4 in (12.60 m)
  • Wingspan: 57 ft 10 in (17.63 m)
  • Height: 15 ft 10 in (4.83 m)
  • Empty weight: 15,592 lb (7,072 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 25,400 lb (11,521 kg) with one torpedo
  • Powerplant: 2 × Bristol Hercules XVII or Bristol Hercules VIII 14-cylinder air-cooled sleeve-valve radial piston engines, 1,600 hp (1,200 kW) each
  • Maximum speed: 320 mph (510 km/h, 280 kn) at 10,000 ft (3,000 m)
  • Range: 1,750 mi (2,820 km, 1,520 nmi)
  • Service ceiling: 19,000 ft (5,800 m)
  • Rate of climb: 1,600 ft/min (8.1 m/s)
  • 4 × 20 mm (0.787 in) Hispano Mark II cannons with 240 rounds per gun in the nose
  • 6 x .303 (7.7 mm) Browning machine guns in wings four starboard two port (optional, replacing internal long range fuel tanks)
  • 1 × manually operated 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Browning for observer
  • Rockets: 8 × RP-3 60 lb (27 kg) rockets
  • Bombs: 2× 250 lb (110 kg) bombs or 1× British 18 inch (45 cm) torpedo or 1× Mark 13 torpedo