Bristol Beaufighter

Before the advent of the Second World War the multi-engined two-seat fighter had received sporadic attention in most countries, but as the fighter was envisaged primarily as a day interceptor, a task which could be fulfilled most effectively by the less expensive single seat single-engined machine, little real effort was placed behind the development of the longer-ranging, heavier combat aircraft, except in Germany where the long-range strategic fighter received close attention from the mid-'thirties, resulting in the Bf 110. Britain's lack of long-range heavy fighters when the war started was a source of acute embarrassment to the RAF single-engined interceptors such as the Hurricane and Spitfire lacked the endurance for effective standing patrols, and it was soon discovered that the heavy long-range fighter would be invaluable to perform a wide variety of tasks. The result was a piece of true British improvisation--the Bristol Beaufighter, which entered service a year after the outbreak of war, at a time when it was most sorely needed.

Built as a company-funded long-range fighter (using major components from the earlier Beaufort torpedo-bomber), the prototype Beaufighter first flew on July 17,1939, with Captain Uwins at the controls. This was little more than eight months after the design had been initiated. Exactly two weeks earlier, before the first flight, a production contract for 300 machines had been placed to specification F. 17/39. This seemingly desperate measure by the Air Ministry was, by 1938 to 1939, not uncommon, as it helped speed up the production of much-needed combat planes.

When No 29 Squadron of the Royal Air Force became fully operational with the Beaufighter Mk IF in October 1940, it marked the beginning of operations by a night fighter that was completely capable of performing its task. For although the Bristol Blenheim IF, also equipped with the new A.I. airborne interception radar, was operational, the Beaufighter had two qualities which the other lacked -- speed and firepower. Once a Beaufighter had detected a German Bf 110 night bomber, a single short burst from its four cannon was often sufficient to shoot down the enemy.

The fact that a heavy twin-engined fighter such as the Beaufighter was available as soon as the late autumn of 1940 was largely due to the foresight and enterprise of the Bristol Aeroplane Company in envisaging the probable need for a high-performance long-range fighter capable of undertaking duties of a more aggressive nature than those foreseen by official specifications. At the end of 1938 L. G. Frise and his design team began the design of what was virtually a fighter variant of the Beaufort general reconnaissance and torpedo-bomber. The initial proposal was framed, as far as possible, to meet the requirements of specification F.11/37, and envisaged an aeroplane using a large proportion of Beaufort components, including the wings, tail assembly and undercarriage, a pair of Hercules radial engines and carrying a battery of four 20-mm. Hispano cannon. The economy of the proposal was of obvious appeal to the government, struggling to meet the vast requirements of a major rearmament program, and, as the Type 156, four prototypes were ordered.

The Beaufighter prototype (R2052) had two-speed supercharged Bristol Hercules radials which were mounted well ahead of the wing leading edges to avoid vibration. This necessitated cutting down on other weight forward of the c.g. and resulted in the Beaufighter's characteristic abbreviated fuselage nose. The main fuselage and the engine mountings were, in fact, the only entirely new components. The outer wings, including the ailerons, flaps and tanks; the whole of the retractable landing gear and hydraulic systems; and the aft section of the fuselage, complete with tailplane, elevators, fin, rudder and tail wheel, were identical to those of the Beaufort, while the centre section, with tanks and flaps, was similar apart from certain fittings. Official trials commenced at an all-up weight of 16,000 lb. after the first prototype's delivery to the RAF on April 2,1940, and a maximum speed of 335 mph was attained at 16,800 feet.

As production continued, additional versions appeared, differing in engines installed and in other ways. Beaufighters were used in many theatres of war and for varied duties, performing particularly well in the Western Desert thanks to their long range. Coastal Command of the RAF received several torpedo-carrying versions which were responsible for sinking a great deal of enemy shipping. The last and most numerous was the superb Mk X, which could carry a large torpedo or bombs and rocket projectiles, and claimed among its victories several German submarines.

The Beaufighter IF was soon bearing the brunt of the action against German night bombers, weighing up to 20,800 lb., it attained a maximum speed of 323 mph at 15,000 feet, had a range of 1,500 miles at 194 mph, an initial climb rate of 1,850 ft./min., and a service ceiling of 28,900 feet. Although the Beaufighter IF handled well it was tricky under certain conditions. There was a strong tendency to swing on takeoff and the danger of flick rolling in the event of an engine cutting suddenly. On landing, the Beaufighter's large flap area pulled the aircraft up rapidly, but there was a tendency to veer from the straight which, if unchecked, resulted in a ground loop, the c.g. being so far aft. The first few Beaufighter Is were delivered without the wing-mounted machine-guns, and initially it was found that when the cannon were fired the recoil caused the nose to dip enough for the pilot to lose his target. The seriousness of this fault was such that thought was given to alternative armament and, with one pair of cannon and the wing-mounted machine-guns supplanted by a Boulton Paul turret containing four 0.303-in. guns and mounted just aft of the pilot's cockpit, the Beaufighter V was produced. Only two examples (R2274 and R2306) were completed, both being converted Merlin engined Mark IIs, and these were used experimentally by No. 29 Squadron during the early months of 1942, but the installation of the turret drastically reduced performance, and the Beaufighter V was abandoned.

A Bristol Type 156 Beaufighter TF.Mk X of No. 254 Squadron Royal Air Force (Coastal Command) - Great Britain 1943

The Beaufighter T.F.X was the final major production variant and passed through several important modification stages without any change in its Mark number. These included, in particular, the introduction of A.I.Mk.VIII radar in a "thimble" nose--this radar having been found suitable for ASV use--and a large dorsal fin (after a trial installation on a Beaufighter 11, T3032) to give the required directional stability and linked with an increase in elevator area to improve longitudinal stability. Before deliveries of the Beaufighter X could begin, a batch of sixty Beaufighter VIs with Hercules XVI engines and provision for torpedo-carrying was built. These were designated Beaufighter VI (I.T.F.)--interim torpedo fighter--and were converted to Mark Xs when more Hercules XVII engines became available.

To the Japanese, the Beaufighter became known as "The Whispering Death" (not be confused with "Whistling Death F4U Corsair) which gives some idea of the speed at which one could suddenly appear, strike and turn for home. Beaufighters were also flown by the air forces of Australia, New Zealand and, in small numbers, the US. In Britain they remained flying as target tugs throughout the 1950s.

When the last Beaufighter (SR919) left the Bristol Aeroplane Company's Weston-super-Mare works on September 21, 1945, a total of 5,562 aircraft of this type had been produced in the United Kingdom. Of these some 1,063 were Mark Vls and 2,231 were Mark Xs. During its operational career it had played a prime role in defeating the Luftwaffe's night "blitz" of 1940-1941, and it had operated in every major campaign of the war, carrying out the last operational sortie of the European war, a strike against German shipping in the Skagerrak, and serving with distinction in the Pacific until the capitulation of Japan. The Beaufighter may have been the product of improvisation but it was a remarkably successful one.

Specifications (Bristol Type 156 Beaufighter TF.Mk X)

Type: Two Seat Day & Night Fighter, Long Range Reconnaissance Fighter, Three Seat Anti-Shipping Fighter & Torpedo Bomber

Accommodation/Crew: A Pilot and Radio/Wireless Operator which also acted as an observer and cannon reloader. The ammunition drums for the 20 mm cannon weighed about 40 lbs (18 kg) each. The pilot sat in the nose with the observer aft of the wings. Access to crew positions was through hatches in the underside of the fuselage. These hatches were also intended for emergency exit. Each hatch could be opened via a quick release in a way that the door opens so that part of it protrudes outwards into the airstream creating a dead-air region through which the crew can drop without risk of injury even in a 400 mph (640 km/h) dive. A knock-out panel on the starboard side of the pilot, a hinged window above the pilot and a hinged hood above the observer provided further emergency exits. Aircraft equipped with gyro-angling gear and a radio altimeter for torpedo attacks often carried a third crew member to assist the pilot with aiming.

Design: Engine Designer Roy Feddon and Aircraft Designer Leslie Frise of the Bristol Aeroplane Company.

Manufacturer: The Bristol Aeroplane Company Limited based at Filton (Bristol), Bristol County, England, Bristol County, England with secondary production facilities at Banwell, Weston-super-Mare (Somerset).

Powerplant: Two Bristol Hercules XVII 14-cylinder sleeve-valve twin-row air-cooled radial engines using a two speed supercharger driving three bladed, fully feathering, constant speed propellers with a diameter of 12 feet 9 inches (3.88 m). Propellers rotate anti-clockwise when viewed from astern. Engines rated at 1,725 hp (1287 kW) for take-off at 2,900 rpm and developing a maximum power rating of 1,735 hp (1294 kW) at 2,900 rpm at 500 ft (152 m) using 100/130 octane/grade fuel. The Bristol Hercules XVII differs from the XVI in having a cropped supercharger impeller, giving it an increase in power for take-off and low altitude work. Designed specifically for low altitude operation, the two-speed surpercharger is locked in the "M" gear and the centrifuges are consequently removed.

Performance: Maximum speed 320 mph (515 km/h) at 10,000 ft (3050 m), maximum speed 305 mph (491 km/h) at sea level; maximum cruising speed of 249 mph (401 km/h) at 5,000 ft (1525 m); service ceiling (with torpedo) 15,000 ft (4570 m); service ceiling (without torpedo) 19,000 ft (5795 m); rate of climb (with torpedo) 1,600 ft/min (490 m/min).

Fuel Capacity: A total of 550 Imperial gallons (2500 litres) in four fuel tanks consisting of two 188 Imperial gallon (854.5 litre) fuel tanks in the centre-section and two 87 Imperial gallon (395.4 litre) fuel tanks in each outer wing section. Long-range fuel tanks when fitted include one 29 Imperial gallon (131.8 litre) fuel tank mounted outboard of each engine nacelle. A 24 Imperial gallon (109 litre) fuel tank can be installed in the port gun bay and a 50 Imperial gallon (227.2 litre) fuel tank can be installed in the starboard gun bay, with the guns removed. An external fuselage drop tank of 200 Imperial gallons (909 litres) was available for ferry purposes.

Oil Capacity: (Mk I) One 17 Imperial gallon (77.2 litre) oil tank behind each engine nacelle, giving a total oil capacity of 34 Imperial gallons (154.5 litres).

Range: 1,470 miles (2366 km) on internal fuel with torpedo. 1,750 miles (2816 km) with torpedo and long range tanks.

Weights & Loadings: Empty 15,592 lbs (7072 kg) with a maximum take-off weight of 25,400 lbs (11521 kg) including torpedo.

Dimensions: Span 57 ft 10 in (17.63 m); length 41 ft 8 in (12.70 m); height 15 ft 10 in (4.83 m); wing area 503.0 sq ft (46.73 sq m).

Fixed Armament: Four fixed forward firing 20 mm Hispano cannon mounted in the fuselage nose with a total of 283 rounds and six 7.7 mm (0.303 in) Browning fixed forward firing machine-guns (four in the starboard wing and two in the port wing) and one flexible 7.7 mm (0.303 in) Vicker "K" machine-gun in the dorsal position. Coastal Command aircraft sometimes had the installation of long range fuel tanks that required the removal of the wing mounted machine-guns.

Offensive/Disposable Armament: A single 17.7 inch (45 cm) British Mark XII torpedo of 1,548 lbs (702 kg) (commonly referred to as an 18 inch torpedo) complete with a Mono Air Tail (MAT) or an American 22.4 inch (56.9 cm) Mark 13 torpedo of 1,927 lbs (874 kg) carried externally on the centreline and two 250 lbs (113 kg) carried on special racks outboard of the engine nacelles. The MAT stabilised the torpedo's flight, and was released upon impact with the water. On aircraft without the wing guns installed eight rockets could be fitted on Mk I underwing rails. Additional racks could be fitted inboard of the engine nacelles allowing up to 2,000 lbs (907 kg) of bombs to be carried. It was not uncommon that a Coastal Command squadron would have half their aircraft equipped with rockets, while the balance carried torpedoes. Depending on the role, standard loadouts were as follows:

  • 1 x Mark XII or Mark 13 torpedo and 2 x 250 lbs (113 kg) bombs under the wings, or

  • 8 x 90 lbs (40.8 kg) AP (armour piercing) and SAP (semi-armour piercing) rocket projectiles, or

  • 8 x 60 lbs (27.2 kg) HE (high explosive) and SAP (semi-armour piercing) rocket projectiles, or

  • 8 x 25 lbs (11.3 kg) HE (high explosive) and SAP (semi-armour piercing) rocket projectiles, or

  • 2 x 1,000 lbs (454 kg) bombs under the wings.

Variants: Bristol Type 156 Beaufighter, Beaufighter Mk IF, Beaufighter Mk IC, Beaufighter Mk IIF, Beaufighter Mk IIC, Beaufighter Mk III (experimental), Beaufighter Mk IV (experimental), Beaufighter Mk V, Beaufighter Mk VIF, Beaufighter Mk VIC, Beaufighter Mk VIC (ITF), Beaufighter Mk VII (not built), Beaufighter Mk VIII (not built), Beaufighter TF.Mk X Torbeau, Beaufighter TF.Mk 10, Beaufighter Mk XIC, Beaufighter Mk XIC, Beaufighter Mk XII (not built), Beaufighter Mk 20 (RNZAF), Beaufighter Mk 21 (RAAF), Beaufighter TT.Mk 10 (target tug).

Equipment/Avionics: Radio equipment mounted in the fuselage between centre-section spars on port side and comprise transmitter and reciever operated by the pilot via remote controls. Intercommunication telephones and signalling equipment was also carried. Navigation, identification and formation keeping lamps, landing flares, auto recognition equipment, oxygen, Fairchild cine-camera unit mounting, fire extinguishers, first aid outfit and a multi-seat 'H' or 'K' type dinghy in blow out storage. Flying rations, emergency rations and water bottle were carried and provision was made for carrying a 4 gallon water tank for desert use.

Wings/Fuselage/Tail Unit: The wings are of a mid-wing cantilever all metal monoplane type. The wing consists of three sections comprising a nearly rectangular centre-section passing through and bolted to the fuselage and two tapering outer sections set at a 5 degree dihedral. Structure consists of two spars having single-sheets webs and extruded flanges, former ribs and stressed-skin covering. Split hydraulically operated flaps between fuselage and ailerons. Metal framed ailerons have fabric covering. The fuselage is of an all-metal monocoque construction in three sections. Structure of Z-section frames and L-section stringers, the whole covered with a smooth metal skin. The tail unit is of a cantilever monoplane type. Tailplane and fin are separate structures with flush riveted smooth metal skin, except that tips of tailplane are made of wood. Rudder and elevators have metal frames and fabric covering. Controllable trim-tabs in elevators and rudder.

Landing Gear: The landing gear are a retractable type. The main landing gear are independent units that are hydraulically raised backwards into the engine nacelle and hinged doors close the aperture. Wheels carried between two Lockheed oleo-pneumatic shock absorber legs and have pneumatically operated Dunlop twin brakes. The tail wheel retracts forward into the fuselage.

History: First flight (R2052) 17 July 1939. The last Beaufighter (SR919) left the Bristol Aeroplane Company's Weston-super-Mare works on 21 September 1945.

Operators: United Kingdom (RAF & RN), Australia (RAAF), Canada (RCAF), New Zealand (RNZAF), United States (USAAF), Turkey.

Units: 52 Operational RAF Squadrons flew the type. 404, 406, 409, and 410 Sqns flew the type in the RCAF.