The Bristol Beaufighter was one of the most significant British aircraft of the middle years of the Second World War. Initially developed as a potential fighter aircraft in 1938, it was the most effective British night fighter until the appearance of the Mosquito, and went on to have a second career with Coastal Command, operating as both a long range escort fighter and anti-shipping weapon. Sometimes considered to be a little too heavy, and with a reputation for being difficult to fly, especially on one engine, the Beaufighter was a more than capable aircraft that also played an important role in the Mediterranean and Far East, where it became known as the “whispering death”.
The Bristol Beaufighter was the second generation of aircraft to be developed from the earlier Bristol Blenheim. First came the Bristol Beaufort torpedo bomber, a larger, heavier aircraft than the Blenheim, but very obviously based on its predecessor. The Beaufighter was then developed from the Beaufort (thus the derivation of the name – from the Beaufort Fighter).
Work on the Beaufighter began in 1939. The RAF clearly lacked a long range heavy fighter, and so the Bristol Aircraft Company looked at the possibility of combining the wings, undercarriage, engines and tail plane of the Beaufort with a much slimmer fuselage, to produce a fighter aircraft.
This initial work was carried out without Air Ministry backing. That came on 16 November 1938, when the company was given a contract to build four prototypes of the new aircraft. Initial work progressed quickly, and the first prototype flew on 17 July 1939. The main differences between the Beaufighter and the Beaufort were obviously in the fuselage, which was three feet shorter, and significantly narrower. Most of the difference came at the front of the aircraft, where the nose was dramatically shortened to make room for the large propellers used on the Beaufighter. The engines were moved to a mid-wing position, from their position below the wing on the Beaufort.
The resulting aircraft was actually very similar in weight to the Beaufort (21,000lb all up weight for the Beaufighter, 21,200lb for the Beaufort), so it needed more powerful engines to produce the expected improvement in performance. This caused a serious problem. The Bristol Hercules engine was relatively new, and in somewhat short supply. The first prototype used the Hercules III, and produced a top speed of 335 mph at 16,800ft, but this was without much of its equipment. The second prototype produced rather more disappointing figures. The Air Ministry responded by ordered Bristol to develop the Beaufighter Mk II, which was powered by Rolls Royce Merlin engines. At the same time, Bristol were working on improving the Hercules, and eventually the production Beaufighter Mk I would be powered by the Hercules XI, which could produce 1,500hp when using 100 octane fuel. With these engines, the Beaufighter I could match the performance of the Hurricane.
This would have been disappointing in a day fighter, but it was quickly realised that the Beaufighter would make an ideal night fighter. It had the performance to catch up with the German bombers (although the main German bombers would appear to have the same speed as the Beaufighter, they would normally be travelling at their slower cruising speed to maximise range), and the internal space to carry the early versions of AI radar. It would also carry the heavy firepower required for a night fighter, with four 20mm cannon in the nose, and after the first fifty aircraft six .303in machine guns in the wings (four in the starboard wing and two in the port wing). The ten gun Beaufighter was the most heavily armed fighter yet seen. One flaw with the early Beaufighters was that the cannon used ammo drums rather than a belt feed. This required the observer/ radar operation to manually change the ammo drums, a tricky and time consuming operation during which time any radar contact would be lost. Eventually, in September 1941 a belt feed system was finally adopted.
A small number of Beaufighters began to reach the night fighter squadrons in September 1940, although it would take some months for these first squadrons to entirely replace their Blenheim IFs. However, early night fighter operations didn’t require a large number of aircraft – the fighter was guided to its target by a ground station, making the final approach on its own radar and there was thus a limit to the amount of aircraft that could usefully be in the air at any one time. The Beaufighter made its first operational patrol on the night of 17/18 September, with No. 29 Squadron, at a time when that squadron only had the single Beaufighter.
As time went on, the Beaufighter would serve as a night fighter, intruder, anti-shipping aircraft, torpedo bomber and ground attack aircraft. In many ways its career resembled that of the de Havilland Mosquito, the aircraft that would supersede it (but never entirely replace it).
The Beaufighter entered service as a night fighter in September 1940, just at the start of the night time Blitz. Very early operations were carried out without radar, relying on ground control, searchlights and luck to find their opponents, a very difficult task. Even so, the Beaufighter achieved its first kill on 25 October 1940, without radar.
The first radar kill was achieved on 19/20 November 1940, by F.Lt John Cunningham of No. 604 Squadron. Cunningham would become the best known British night fighter pilot of the war, being given the nickname “Cat’s Eyes” Cunningham after attempts to explain his prowess at a time when radar was a top secret.
The AI equipped night fighter only really came into its own in early 1941, after the arrival of improved radar which reduced the amount of “grass” (interference caused by radar signals bouncing back off the surface of the earth). By the time the blitz ended, the Beaufighters were taking a heavy toll of German bombers, claiming 24 victories on 19/20 May alone. However, it was not the British night fighters that ended the German threat – in the spring of 1941 the Luftwaffe began to move east in preparation for the invasion of Russia, and the heavy bombing offensive against Britain ended.
The night fighter squadrons now found themselves facing a series of different challenges, mostly involving small numbers of German aircraft, or even solo nuisance raids. Low level fighter bomber attacks, where the enemy crossed the channel at close to sea level, then popped up to bombing height, dropped their bombs, and then fled at high speed were difficult to deal with. The appearance of the Focke-Wulf Fw190 would cause its own difficulties, with the German aircraft having a speed advantage.
Despite these challenges, the reduction of German activity and the increasing level of Beaufighter production allowed the night fighter squadrons to begin running their own intruder missions into occupied France, attacking German airbases. The reduced urgency of the night fighter battle would also allow the Beaufighter to be adapted for a wide range of other duties.
Coastal Command received its first Beaufighters in December 1940, when No. 252 Squadron began to use the type on long range convoy protection duties. However, its main role with Coastal Command would be an offensive one. From June 1941 the Beaufighter was used on anti-shipping duties, from a variety of bases around the UK, using its cannon as its main weapon.
The power of the Beaufighter as an anti-shipping weapon was transformed during 1942. In September 1942 work began on equipping the Mk VIC with rockets, while in November 1942 the torpedo armed “Torbeau” entered service, as part of an anti-shipping strike wing based at North Coates, Lincolnshire. This strike wing contained three Beaufighter squadrons, No. 142 with fighters, No. 236 carrying bombs and No. 254 with the torpedoes. The fighters would see off any enemy escort aircraft, the bombers attack any flak ships and the torpedo bombers concentrate on the enemy merchantmen. In March 1943, these wings were further improved when the rocket armed Beaufighters appeared (known as the “Flakbeau” because its role was to attack enemy flak ships ). In all eleven Coastal Command squadrons would operate the Beaufighter in British waters.
The Beaufighter served as both a night fighter and strike aircraft in the Mediterranean. The first Beaufighter squadron to arrive in the Mediterranean had been No. 252, Coastal Command’s first Beaufighter squadron, which arrived in Malta in May 1941 to make attacks on Axis shipping, and remained in the theatre for the rest of the war. In all seventeen squadrons used the Beaufighter in the Mediterranean. Their roles included defensive night fighter duties protected British bases in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, night time intruder missions across Italy and the Balkans and anti-shipping duties all around the eastern Mediterranean. The Beaufighter also had the range required to provide fighter cover over convoys to Malta for much longer than any other British aircraft in the theatre.
The Beaufighter earned its most enduring nickname in the Far East. There it became know to the Japanese as the “Whispering Death”. The Bristol Hercules engines were amongst the quietest in use at the period, especially when compared to the loud roar made by the Rolls Royce Merlin, and the Beaufighter could use its low level speed to make sudden surprise attacks against Japanese supply depots in the Burmese jungle, then disappear as quickly as it came. The first Beaufighter squadron to operate in the Far East was No. 27, which began ground attack missions over Burma in November 1942. The all-metal construction of the Beaufighter gave it an advantage over the Mosquito, which suffered a series of mysterious crashes in the Far East, blamed at the time on problems with the glue used in its wooden construction.
In all eight Beaufighter squadrons served in the Far East, three as night fighter squadrons, initially defending India, and later flying intruder missions over Burma. Of the remaining five squadrons, two began with anti-shipping duties (Nos. 22 and 27), then joined the final three flying ground attack missions against the Japanese positions in Burma. Another three Australian squadrons (Nos. 30, 31 and 93) also used the Beaufighter against the Japanese.
Account of the delivery of a Beaufighter from Egypt to Rome by Michael Goold
History - Squadrons - Variants and Stats