The Bristol Beaufort was one of a series of aircraft derived from the earlier Bristol Blenheim. It was designed in response to two Air Ministry specifications issued in 1935. M.15/35 called for a torpedo-bomber and G.24/35 for a general reconnaissance and bomber aircraft. The aircraft that became the Beaufort was the third Bristol aircraft submitted to these specifications. The first aircraft to be submitted to specification G.24/35 was the Bristol Type 149, which went on to be produced in Canada as the Bolingbroke and in Britain as the Blenheim Mk IV, for use as a light bomber.
The Bristol Type 150 was developed in response to M.15/35. It was based on the Blenheim, with a long nose similar to that used in the Bolingbroke and Blenheim Mk IV. The cockpit was moved forward to make room for the torpedo, while the gun turret was moved back to balance the aircraft.
The Type 149 did not gain Air Ministry approval for G.24/35 because of concerns about the impact it would have on Blenheim production. Bristol’s response was to further modify the Type 150, producing the Type 152 Beaufort, which could satisfy both M.15/35 and G.24/35. The cockpit was moved even further forwards, with the navigator next to the pilot. A single torpedo was carried partly enclosed in the fuselage.
The Air Ministry were interested in the design, but required a four man crew. The original three man crew consisted of the pilot, the navigator/ bomb aimer and the gunner/ radio/ camera operator. It was this last position that caused the Air Ministry some concern. The fourth crew member was a dedicated radio, radar and camera operator. Bristol responded by raising the cockpit slightly. The navigator’s position was moved from the pilot’s cockpit down into the nose, as seen in later Blenheims, while the radar operator was located between the pilot and the gun turret. The roof of the cockpit now extended back to the turret, producing the Beaufort’s distinctive stepped outline. The new aircraft was given its own specification – 10/36 – and Bristol were given a production contract.
The design now ran into engine problems. The existing Bristol Perseus engines could not provide enough power for the new aircraft, while the more powerful Bristol Taurus engines were not yet ready. As a result it would take two years to get from the first contract, issued in August 1936, to the first flight of a prototype, on 15 October 1938. Minor problems with the prototype further delayed the introduction of the Beaufort, and it did not enter squadron service until January 1940, when No. 22 Squadron received its first Beauforts. The first aircraft flew its first operation on 15/16 April 1940, but in May was grounded for a month while a problem with the engines was fixed.
Once these initial problems had been overcome, the Beaufort went on to perform well as a torpedo-bomber. It was Coastal Command’s main torpedo bomber from 1940 to 1943, when it was replaced by torpedo armed Beaufighters (itself developed from the Beaufort). Six home squadrons and three in the Middle East would eventually use the Beaufort.
It would take some time for that force to build up. During 1940 and into the summer of 1941 only two squadrons, No. 22 and No. 42, were equipped with the Beaufort. As the best land based torpedo bomber available, the two Beaufort squadrons were in constant demand, frequently operation in small detachments from points all around the coast. The Beaufort was used in many of the dangerous attacks on the main elements of the German surface fleet, prominent amongst them the Gneisenau, Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen. During one attack on the Gneisenau Flight Officer Kenneth Campbell was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross after making a very low level attack against the enemy ship.
As would often happen with anti-shipping aircraft, more and more guns were crammed into the Beaufort at squadron level. Forward firing nose mounted guns were common, as were beam guns, giving some coverage below the tail.
The Beaufort was particularly successful from Malta. No. 217 Squadron was based there from June to July 1942, when it was replaced by No. 86 Squadron. From Malta the Beaufort played an important role in denying Rommel desperately needed supplies.
A large number of Beauforts were constructed in Australia. These aircraft were powered by the 1,200 hp Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engine, which gave the aircraft rather better performance. Four main variants were produced in Australia. The Mk V used engines built under license in Australia. The Mk VI, VII and VIII all used imported engines, all of the same power. The Mk VI used Curtiss propellers, the Mk VII Hamilton propellers. The Mk VIII was the most important version, making up 520 of the 700 Beauforts produced in Australia. These Beauforts were used by the RAAF in the Pacific, entering service in 1942 and remaining in use until the end of the war.
The only major variant of the Beaufort produced in Britain was the Mk II. This was also powered by the Twin Wasp engine. The first production Mk II flew in September 1941, and provided the expected improvement in performance. However, the supply of Twin Wasps was limited, and after 165 Mk IIs had been completed, they were replaced by improved Mk Is, powered by 1,130 hp Bristol Taurus XII or XVI engines. Production of the Mk II later resumed, and by the time Beaufort production 415 or the 1,200 aircraft produced were Mk IIs.
Even as the first Beaufort was being tested, Bristol began work on converting the torpedo bomber into a fighter. This would combine the engines, wing and tail of the Beaufort with a new slim fuselage and result in the Bristol Beaufighter. Somewhat ironically, this two seat aircraft would later be adapted to act as a torpedo bomber, and replaced the Beaufort.
Statistics (Mk I)
Engine: Two 1,130 hp Bristol Taurus VI, XII or XVI radial engines
Maximum Speed: 260 mph at 6,000 feet
Cruising Speed: 200 mph
Ceiling: 16,500 ft
Range: 1,035 miles
Span: 57 ft 10 in
Length: 44 ft 7 in
Armament: two .303in guns in dorsal turret, optional rear firing nose turret, plus up to three extra .303in guns, one in nose and two in beam positions.
Bomb load: one 1,605lb torpedo or 1,500lb of bombs