The impressive, powerful and heavily-armed Beaufighter was one of Bristol’s most important aircraft contributions to the Second World War.
Originally conceived as the Beaufort Bomber for use during the Munich Crisis following the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, the Beaufighter night fighter and maritime strike aircraft was eventually developed as a private venture against Specification F.37/35. It was based upon re-use of the wings and tail surfaces of the Type 152 Beaufort so that both aircraft could be produced on the same jigs meaning that manufacturing could be switched between aircraft types at very short notice.
The Design Team, led by L.G. Frise, determined that one of the most notable characteristics of the Beaufighter would be the heavy armament of four 20 mm cannon mounted in the lower nose, below the cockpit and six 0.303 machine guns, four in the starboard wing and two in the port wing.
During the early design stages multiple configurations were formalised including a 3-seat bomber with a dorsal gun turret (later designated Type 157). The design was accepted as an ‘interim’ aircraft due to various delays in the production of the Westland Whirlwind.
Designated as the Beaufighter in March 1939, four prototypes and seven pre-production aircraft were ordered, followed by production aircraft (Beaufighter Mk.I) powered by the Bristol Hercules engine.
The first prototype (R2052) was flown unarmed on 17th July 1939 and two types were developed as the Beaufighter Mk.1F for Fighter Command and a Beaufighter Mk.1C for Coastal Command. The Beaufighter Mk.II however was purely a night fighter version and was equipped with much improved Merlin XX engines.
A number of experimental versions were produced during the War, including two examples R2274 and R2306 fitted with a four-gun turret immediately behind the pilot's cockpit. In this variant, the six wing-guns and two of the cannons were removed.
The Beaufighter exhibited weak longitudinal stability and poor characteristics following loss of an engine on take-off. One example, R2268, was fitted with a larger tailplane with twin endplate fins in an attempt to address these problems. The final solution, adopted on later Marks was a 20% increase in tailplane area accompanied by 12 degrees of tailplane dihedral.
The next full production variant was the Beaufighter Mk.VI, fitted with the more powerful Hercules VI and XVI engines and it was this variant that was used as a maritime strike aircraft, carrying rockets or an 18 inch torpedo.
The final variant to achieve large scale production was the TF Mk.X, with a further increase in power. The Mk.XIC was similar to the Mk. X but was not equipped for torpedo carriage. Post-war, a number of Mk. X aircraft were also converted for target-towing duties (as the TT Mk.10.A).
During World War II, the Beaufighter played a significant role in the Battle of Britain protecting the skies over the south of England. Flying at night, all-black painted Beaufighters acted as Night Interceptors in the hands of skilled pilots such as Grp Captain John ‘Cats-Eyes’ Cunningham who were credited with the highest number of ‘Night Kills’ which later turned out to be due to the Beaufighter’s secret AI Radar rather than his exceptional night-vision.
UK production was split between Bristol Aeroplane Company (4,804, including the Weston-super-Mare Shadow Factory), Fairey Aviation Company at Stockport (500) and Rootes at Speke (260). Outside of the UK, the Mk.21 was built in Australia at the Government Aircraft Factory where some 364 aircraft were constructed.
The most significant marks were the Mk.I (915 built); Mk. II (448); Mk. VI (1,831) and Mk. X (2,205).
All in all and with the Department of Aircraft Production in Australia, the grand total was 5,928 aircraft.
It was a TT Mk.10 that flew the final Beaufighter sortie for the RAF on 12th May 1960.
|Mk. I||Mk. II||Mk. X|
|Powerplants (2)||1,560 hp Hercules XI||1,300 hp Merlin XX||1,750 hp Hercules XVII|
|Span||57 ft 10 in|
|Maximum Weight||21,100 lb||20,400 lb||25,400 lb|
|Capacity and armament||Two crew, four 20 mm Hispano cannon, six 0.303 Browning guns, optional carriage of one 1,760 lb 18 inch torpedo, eight 60 lb rockets, or four 500 lb bombs.|
|Maximum Speed||320 mph||327 mph||323 mph|
|Endurance / Range||1,500 to 1,750 miles with additional wing tanks|
|Beaufighter Mk IF||Night fighter variant with AI Mk IV radar equipment, operational from September 1940.|
|Beaufighter Mk IC||Developed for Coastal Command duties with increased fuel capacity and navigator’s table and direction finding equipment. Operational from March 1941.|
|Beaufighter Mk II||Fitted with the Rolls Royce Merlin XX engines and entered service in April 1941.|
|Beaufighter Mk V||Experimental version with a Boulton Paul Type A four gun turret. Two Mk Vs were built, as conversions from Beaufighter IIs, but this model did not enter production.|
|Beaufighter Mk VIF||Powered by the Hercules VI, providing 1,670hp, allowing increased weight and additional external stores to be carried. Fuel capacity was also increased. The radar equipment was upgraded to the AI Mk VI or Mk VII.|
|Beaufighter Mk VIC||Coastal Command version of the Mk VI and was equipped with the Hercules XVII with revised supercharging to increase the power available at low levels. The Mk VIC could carry an 18 inch torpedo or under wing stores.|
|Mk X||The TF Mk X (Torpedo Fighter) first appeared in May 1943 and could carry a wide variety of munitions including torpedo, bombs and rockets.|
|Beaufighter TT Mk 10||Post-war, 34 Mk Xs were converted to perform target tug towing duties, as the TT Mk 10|
|Beaufighter Mk XI||Similar in many respects to the Mk X, but lacking the ability to carry a torpedo|
|Beaufighter Mk 21||A variant of the Mk X constructed in Australia. The first Mk 21 flew on 26th May 1944. 364 were completed up to the end of 1945 and were fitted with 4x Browning 50 calibre machine guns rather than the 6 x .303 installed in British planes.|
|Camden Museum of Aviation, Narellan, Australia www.camdenmuseumofaviation.com.au|
|Australian National Aviation Museum, Moorabbin near Melbourne, Australia. www.aarg.com.au|
Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, London, UK
|National Museum of Flight, East Fortune, East Lothian, Scotland, UK www.nms.ac.uk/national-museum-of-flight|
Beaufighter Mk IC
|National Museum of The United States Air Force, Dayton www.nationalmuseum.af.mil|
|Canada Aviation & Space Museum, Aviation Parkway, Ottawa, Canada www.casmuseum.techno-science.ca/|
Duxford Aerodrome, Cambridgeshire, UK