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.
- Crew: 2: pilot, observer
- Length: 41 ft 4 in (12.6 m)
- Wingspan: 57 ft 10 in (17.65 m)
- Height: 15 ft 10 in (4.84 m)
- Wing area: 503 ft² (46,73 m²)
- Empty weight: 15,592 lb (7,072 kg)
- Max. takeoff weight: 25,400 lb (11,521 kg)
- Powerplant: 2 × Bristol Hercules 14-cylinder radial engines, 1,600 hp (1,200 kW) each
- Maximum speed: 320 mph (280 kn, 515 km/h) at 10,000 ft (3,050 m)
- Range: 1,750 mi (1,520 nmi, 2,816 km)
- Service ceiling: 19,000 ft (5,795 m) without torpedo
- Rate of climb: 1,600 ft/min (8.2 m/s) without torpedo
- 4 × 20 mm Hispano Mk II cannon (240 rpg) in nose
- 1 × manually operated .303 in (7.7 mm) Browning for observer
- Rockets: 8 × RP-3 “60 lb” (27 kg) rockets or
- Bombs: 2× 250 lb bombs or 1× British 18 inch torpedo or Mark 13 torpedo or