The Bristol Type 156 Beaufighter, often referred to as simply the Beau, was a British long-range heavy fighter modification of the Bristol Aeroplane Company's earlier Beaufort torpedo bomber design. The name Beaufighter is a portmanteau of "Beaufort" and "fighter".
Unlike the Beaufort, the Beaufighter had a long career and served in almost all theatres of war in the Second World War, first as a night fighter, then as a fighter bomber and eventually replacing the Beaufort as a torpedo bomber. A unique variant was built in Australia by the Department of Aircraft Production (DAP) and was known in Australia as the DAP Beaufighter.
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-engined fighter. By converting an existing design the "Beaufort Cannon Fighter" could be expected to be developed and produced far quicker than starting a completely fresh design from scratch. Accordingly the Air Ministry produced 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 part-built Beaufort out of the production line. This prototype first flew on 17 July 1939, a little more than eight months after the design had started and possible due to the use of as many of the Beaufort's design and parts. A production contract for 300 machines had already been placed two weeks before the prototype flew, as F.17/39.
In general, 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 dispensed with, and a forward-firing armament of four Hispano 20 mm cannons was mounted in the lower fuselage area. These initially were fed from 60-round drums, necessitating the radar operator having to manually change the ammunition drums — an arduous and unpopular task, especially at night and in the midst of a chase with a bomber target. As a result, they were soon replaced by a belt-feed system. The cannons were supplemented by six 0.303 inch (7.7 mm) Browning guns in the wings; four in the starboard wing and two to port. 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 located.
The Bristol Taurus engines of the Beaufort would not be sufficient for a fighter and were replaced by the more powerful Bristol Hercules. This extra power presented problems with vibration. In the end they were mounted on longer, more flexible struts, which stuck out from the front of the wings. This had the side effect of moving the centre of gravity (CoG) forward, generally a bad thing for an aircraft design. It was then moved back into place by cutting back the nose area, which was no longer needed for the bombardier in the fighter role. This put most of the fuselage behind the wing and moved the CoG back to where it should be, with the engine cowlings and propellers now further forward than the tip of the nose, the Beaufighter had a characteristically stubby appearance.
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/torpedo bomber, known as the Mark 21: design changes included Hercules CVII engines, dihedral to the tailplane and enhanced armament.
By the time British production lines shut down in September 1945, 5,564 Beaufighters had been built in England, by a number of manufacturers as well as Bristol: Fairey Aviation Company, (498) Ministry of Aircraft Production (3336) and Rootes Securities (260).
When Australian production ceased in 1946, 365 Mk.21s had been built.
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, as the otherwise excellent Westland Whirlwind had already been cancelled due to production problems with its Rolls-Royce Peregrine engines.
The Beaufighter found itself coming off the production line at almost exactly the same time as the first British Airborne Intercept (AI) radar sets. With the four 20 mm cannons mounted in the lower fuselage, the nose could accommodate the radar antennas, and the general roominess of the fuselage enabled the AI equipment to be fitted easily. Even loaded down to an even heavier 20,000 lb (9 t), the plane was still 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 rugged build and reliability soon made the aircraft popular with its crews.
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 Beaufighters made sterling 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 70 pilots serving with RAF units had become aces while flying Beaufighters.
The Hercules Mk XVII, developing 1,735 hp at 500 feet 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 shipping attacks at wave-top height with torpedoes or rockets. Early models of the Mk Xs carried metric-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 time attacks.
The North Coates Strike Wing (Coastal Command), based at RAF North Coates on the Lincolnshire coast, developed attack tactics combining large formations of Beaufighters on anti-flak suppression with cannon and rockets while the Torbeaus attacked on low level. These tactics were put into practice in mid 1943 and in a 10 month period 27,000 tonnes of shipping were sunk. Tactics were further adapted when shipping was moved from port during night hours. North Coates Strike Wing operated as the largest anti-shipping force of the Second World War, and accounted for over 150,000 tons 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 1942-45.
The Beaufighter arrived at squadrons in Asia and the Pacific in mid-1942. It has often been said — although it was most probably a propaganda invention — that Japanese soldiers referred to the Beaufighter as "whispering death", supposedly because attacking aircraft often were unheard (or seen) until it was too late. (The Beaufighter's Hercules engines featured sleeve valves which lacked the noisy valve gear common to poppet valve engines. This was most apparent in a reduced noise level at the front of the engine.)
The most famous of these was the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in which they co-operated with USAAF A-20 Bostons and B-25 Mitchells. No. 30 Squadron RAAF Beaufighters flew in at mast height to provide heavy suppressive fire for the waves of attacking bombers. The Japanese convoy, under the impression that they were under torpedo attack, made the fatal tactical error of turning their ships towards the Beaufighters, leaving them exposed to skip bombing attacks by the US medium bombers. The Beaufighters inflicted maximum damage on the ships' anti-aircraft guns, bridges and crews, during strafing runs with their four 20 mm (0.787 in) nose cannons and six wing-mounted .303 in (7.7 mm) machine guns. Eight transports and four destroyers were sunk for the loss of five aircraft, including one Beaufighter.
The Canada Aviation Museum presently is storing Beaufighter TF X RAF serial RD867 for future restoration. The museum aircraft is a semi-complete RAF restoration with no engines, cowlings or internal components, received in exchange for a Bristol Bolingbroke on 10 September 1969.
A privately owned Beaufighter is currently undergoing a lengthy restoration in the UK. Its owner hopes to eventually restore it to flying condition.
There are two Beaufighter Mk XXI aircraft on static display in museums in Australia, one at Moorabbin and the other at Camden.
The Midland Air Museum, Coventry, England has a Beaufighter cockpit section on public display. Its identity is thought possibly to be T5298.
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