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Bristol Beaufighter. (Whispering Death)

Walter Colvin

Showlow, United States

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3d fine art render of a Bristol Beaufighter. MKX, of the 54th squadron.
Model by DG Designs.

Bristol Beaufighter. (Whispering Death)
The Bristol Type 156 Beaufighter, often referred to as simply the Beau, was a British long-range heavy fighter derivative 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 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-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 could be 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 part-built Beaufort out of the production line. This conversion would 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.

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 with the start of the Second World War but this meant an expected shortage of Hercules engines. In February 1940, conversion of three aircraft to Merlins was ordered; success with the design was expected to lead to production aircraft in 1941. The engine installations were the same as those used outboard on the Avro Lancaster being matched to the Beaufighter wing through an extra section. The first Merlin powered aircraft flew in June 1940.

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 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 machineguns 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, exceeded only by the later marks of the American B-25 gunship medium bomber with up to
fourteen forward-aimed 12.7mm machine guns. When Beaufighters were developed as fighter-torpedo bombers, they used their firepower (often the machine guns were removed anyway) to suppress flak fire and hit enemy ships, especially escort and small vessels. 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.

The Bristol Taurus engines of the Beaufort were not powerful enough for a fighter and were replaced by the more powerful Bristol Hercules. 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 the centre 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 back 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 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 Fairey Aviation Company at Stockport and RAF Ringway (498); Ministry of Aircraft Production (3336) and Rootes at Speke (260).

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 further production of the otherwise excellent 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 (AI) Night fighter radar sets. With the four 20 mm cannon mounted in the lower fuselage, the nose could accommodate the radar antennas, and the general spaciousness of the fuselage enabled the AI equipment to be fitted easily. 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 soon 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 Beaufighters 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 70 pilots serving with RAF units had become aces while flying Beaufighters.

Four 20-mm. Hispano cannon in the fuselage nose and six 0.303-in. machine-guns in the wings and one 0.303-in. Vickers “K” or Browning gun in the dorsal position. One 18-in. torpedo externally under fuselage. Eight rocket projectiles could be carried as alternative to the wing guns.

Artwork Comments

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