Bristol Beaufighter TF Mk X (RD253)Bristol Beaufighter TF Mk X (RD253)

Bristol Beaufighter TF Mk X (RD253)  [@ RAF Hendon]

In October 1938, the Bristol Aeroplane Company submitted a proposal for a twin engined night fighter, heavily armed and equipped with AI radar, to the RAF Air Staff.  Specification F.17/39 was written around the proposal and an order placed for 300 Beaufighters, as the aircraft would be named.  The first of four Beaufighter prototypes (R2052) flew for the first time on 17th July 1939, powered by two Bristol Hercules I-SM engines (forerunners of the Hercules III).  By mid-1940 Bristol had received a second contract, for 918 Beaufighters.  Two variants were now to be produced, the Mk IF (910 built) with Hercules III engines and the Mk IIF (450) powered by Rolls Royce XX Merlins, the Hercules being in short supply due to the Short Stirling bomber programme.  The first Mk 1F, a two-seat night fighter variant, was delivered to RAF Tangmere for trials with the Fighter Interception Unit on the 12th August 1940 and 29 Squadron and 604 Squadron started receiving the first Mk 1Fs during the following autumn.  Both squadrons were reequipping from the Bristol Blenheim to the night fighter role.  The Mk 1Fs started to arrive to 604 Squadron from the 2nd September 1940 and from November with 29 Squadron.  The first Merlin powered Mk IIF flew in June 1940.  However, it was found the Merlins left the Beaufighter underpowered and gave it a pronounced tendency to swing to port, making take-offs and landings difficult which resulted in a high accident rate.  Once a Beaufighter had detected a German night bomber, a single short burst from its four 20-mm. cannons was often sufficient to shoot down the enemy.  The Beaufighter Mk IC (300 built) was a long-range strike fighter variant for RAF Coastal Command and was also used equally as effectively as a ground attack aircraft in the Western Desert.  This variant eventually replaced the obsolete Bristol Beaufort and Blenheim and first entered Coastal Command service with 252 Squadron from December 1940.

Bristol Beaufighter TF Mk X (RD253)Bristol Beaufighter TF Mk X (RD253)

Bristol Beaufighter TF Mk X (RD253)  [@ RAF Hendon]

The Beaufighter came off the production line at almost exactly the same time as the first British Airborne Interception (AI) night fighter radar sets.  Armed with four 20mm cannon in the lower fuselage, radar antennas in the nose, the spaciousness of the fuselage to house the AI equipment and being fast enough to catch German bombers the Beaufighter was an effective counter to Luftwaffe night raids.  Unfortunately delays in the production of AI Mk IV radar equipment prevented the full complement of five Beaufighter squadrons from becoming operational until the spring of 1941, but despite early teething troubles those that were operational enjoyed some success.  The first AI-assisted Beaufighter kill was claimed on the night of 19/20th November 1940, when Flt Lt John Cunningham [“Cats Eyes” Cunningham] and Sgt Phillipson of 604 Squadron were credited with the destruction of a Junkers 88.  Thirteen more Beaufighter squadrons were assigned to the night defence of Great Britain in 1941/42 and many of the RAF's night fighter aces scored their early kills while flying the heavy twin engined fighter.

RD253 was built in 1944 at the Old Mixon Shadow Factory, Weston-super-Mare, Somerset with Bristol Hercules XVII engines.  After fitting out by 19 MU at St. Athan, Glamorgan, RD253 was delivered to the Fôrças Aéreas du Armada (Portuguese Navy Air Force) by sea during March 1945 as one of 16 Beaufighters.  Allocated serial BF-13, RD253 served with Escuadrilha B at Portela de Sacavem until its disbandment 1949.  On withdrawal from service both RD253 and RD220 became instructional airframes at the Lisbon Technical Institute until 1965.  RD253 was then presented to the RAF for restoration during 1965 with the restoration starting in 1967.  Finally restored to a static display condition during 1968 RD253 finally went on display at the RAF Museum in 1972.  In the photograph RD253 is displayed in D-Day invasion stripes which were added in 1994.

Bristol Hercules XVIII engineBristol Hercules 763 engine

Bristol Beaufighter XIC  (JM135 / A19-144)  [@ RAF Duxford]

Marks III, IV and V were “experimental aircraft”.  The Mk III and Mk IV were to be respectively Merlin and Griffon powered Beaufighters with a new slimmer fuselage and an armament of six cannon and six machine guns, while the Merlin XX powered Mk V (2 Mk II conversions built, R2274 and R2306) had a Boulton Paul turret with four 0.303in machine guns mounted aft of the cockpit replacing one pair of cannon and the wing-mounted machine guns.  The Mk VI was the next major variant; Mk VIs for Coastal Command was designated Mk VIC (693 built) and those for Fighter Command Mk VIF (879 built).  The Mk VIC, similar to the Mk IC, started to enter Coastal Command service from mid-1942 while the night-fighter Mk VIF was supplied to squadrons from March 1942 and was equipped with AI Mark VIII radar.  From mid to late1942 the faster de Havilland Mosquito started to enter RAF service in the night fighter role but it was not until the autumn of 1943 that sufficient Mosquitoes were available to replace the Beaufighter as the primary night fighter.  Sixty Mk VICs were completed as Interim Torpedo Fighters from late 1942.  This variant carried either British 18in or US 22.5in torpedoes externally.  254 Squadron made the first successful Beaufighter torpedo attack during April 1943 when two merchant ships were sunk off the Norwegian coast.

In the late 1930's Sir Roy Fedden designed the Bristol Hercules twin row 14 cylinder air cooled supercharged radial engine.  It was very reliable design with the Hercules I (1,290 hp) engine first becoming available in 1939 and was soon followed by the Hercules II (1,375 hp).  In turn these were followed by the foremost variants, the Hercules VI (1,650 hp) and the late-war Hercules XVII (1,735 hp).  These variants powered certain marks of Stirling, Handley Page Halifax, Avro Lancaster and Vickers Wellington.  Power output was steadily increased in the post war era culminating in the 700 series of engines which developed over 2000 hp and powered aircraft like the Handley Page Hastings C1 and C3 and Bristol Freighter.  The design was also licensed for production in France by SNECMA.   A total of over 57,400 Hercules engines were built.  The photograph on the left shows a Bristol Hercules XVIII engine and the photograph on the right shows a fully supercharged 763 engine.

In the Mediterranean, the USAAF's 414th, 415th, 416th and 417th Night Fighter Squadrons (NFS) received 100 Beaufighters Mk VIFs in the summer of 1943 under a "reverse" Lend-Lease arrangement and achieved their first victory in July 1943 when both the 414th and 415th NFS shot down a Heinkel He 115 floatplane in daylight.  The first night kill for the American Beaufighters against a Dornier Do 217 on 23rd January 1944.  Although the Northrop P-61 Black Widow fighter started to replace the Beaufighters of 414 NFS from December 1944 the USAAF continued to fly the Beaufighters until late in the war.  417 NFS became the last USAAF squadron to operate the Beaufighter when it reequipped with the P-61 in Belgium during March 1945.  Interestingly 416 NFS reequipped in Italy with the de Havilland NF.30 Mosquito and operated them from 1944 into 1945.

The aircraft in the above photograph is under restoration and is a composite made up of three different Beaufighters.  It is constructed from two British built Mk XIC aircraft JM135 (A19-144) and JL946 (A19-148), both served with 31 Squadron RAAF, plus one wing and cockpit from an Australian built TF Mk 21.  The intention is to restore to flying condition, unfortunately, there are apparently no suitable flight-worthy Hercules engines available.  Sadly, post war Hercules engines are radically different from their wartime equivalent and would require a major re-design of the Beaufighter wing.  One possibility would be to make a Beaufighter Mk II by changing to Rolls Royce Merlins engines.  In the photograph JM135 is in the RAAF Foliage Green livery that was found to be very effective camouflage over both jungle and sea.

Marks VII, VIII and IX were proposed Australian built variants fitted respectively with Hercules 26 and Hercules XVII engines but were not built.  Two new variants for Coastal Command did soon appear.  These were the TF Mk X torpedo bomber and the Mk XIC, which was not equipped to carry torpedoes.  Both were fitted with 1770hp Hercules XVII engines and had a dorsal cupola containing a rearward-firing 0.303in machine gun.  The TF Mk X was the most important British anti-shipping aircraft from 1944 to the end of the war.  Production of the TF Mk X totalled 2205 aircraft, while 163 aircraft were completed to Mk XIC standard.  Early Mk Xs variants carried centimetric ASV (air-to-surface vessel) radar with the antennae mounted on the nose and outer wings but this was replaced in late 1943 by the centimetric AI Mark VIII radar housed in a radome under the fuselage.  The Beaufighter TF Mk X was also built in Australia as the TF Mk 21 (364 built), the RAAF using it to good effect in the South-West Pacific.  Built by the Australian Department of Aircraft Production (DAP) from 1944 onwards this variant was an attack/torpedo bomber.  Design changes included Hercules VII or XVIII engines, four 20mm cannon in the nose, four Browning 0.50in in the wings and the capacity to carry eight 5in High Velocity Aircraft Rockets (HVAR), two 250 lb bombs, two 500 lb bombs and one Mk 13 torpedo.

Bristol Beaufighter TF Mk X (RD220)Bristol Beaufighter TF Mk X (RD220)

Bristol Beaufighter TF Mk X (RD220)  [@ RAF East Fortune]

Beaufighters started to arrive to squadrons in Asia and the Pacific from mid-1942.  The Mk VIF operated from India as a night fighter and on operations against Japanese lines of communication in Burma and Thailand while the Mk X were flown on long-range daylight intruder missions over Burma.  To the Japanese, the Beaufighter became known as "The Whispering Death" because of the speed at which one could suddenly strike and turn for home.  From late 1944 RAF Beaufighter units were engaged in the Greek Civil War and were finally withdrawn in 1946.  Many Mk 10s were converted to target tug standard as the TT.10 and served with several RAF support units until 1960.

RD220 was constructed at the Shadow Aircraft Factory at Old Mixon, Weston-super-Mare, Somerset.  After fitting out by 19 MU at St.  Athan, Glamorgan, RD220 (see RD253) was one of the 16 Beaufighters delivered to the Fôrças Aéreas du Armada during 1945.  Based at Portela de Sacavem RD220 served with the Escuadrilha B until its disbandment.  Transferred to the Lisbon Technical Institute to become an instructional airframe, RD220 was later transferred to the Museo do Ar at Alverca Air Base in 1966.  Stored outside RD220 was purchased in 1983 by the South African Air Force Museum with the intention to restoring RD220 to a flying condition.  Unfortunately RD220 was put up for sale in 2000 to fund the rebuild of the Museum's Spitfire Mk.IX that had crashed in April 2000.  Bought by the National Museums Scotland that year after raising £190,000 in just two days, RD220 is now undergoing a comprehensive restoration to a static display condition.

SR919 was the last Beaufighter to be built and left the Bristol Aeroplane Company's Weston-super-Mare factory on the 21st September 1945.  When the British production lines shut down 5,564 Beaufighters had been built by Bristol, 498 by Fairey Aviation Company at Stockport, 3336 by the Ministry of Aircraft Production and 260 by Rootes at Speke.  The last flight of a Beaufighter in RAF service was by a TT.10, RD761, from RAF Seletar on the 12th May 1960.  The Beaufighter was also used by the air forces of Portugal, Turkey, and the Dominican Republic and briefly by the Israeli Air Force when some ex RAF aircraft were clandestinely purchased in 1948.