In October 1938, the Bristol Aeroplane Company submitted a proposal for a two-seat twin-engined monoplane night-fighter, heavily armed and equipped with Airborne Interception (AI) radar, to the British Air Ministry as the clouds of war loomed over Europe. A modification of the Bristol Beaufort torpedo bomber, the new aircraft took its name from the combination of its predecessor, the Beaufort, and 'night-fighter'. The Beaufighter prototype, 'R2052', flew for the first time on 17 July, 1939, powered by two Bristol 'Hercules' I-SM engines. By mid-1940, Bristol had received a second contract from the Air Ministry for 918 Beaufighters with two variants in production: the Mark I with Hercules III engines and the Mark II with the Rolls Royce 'Merlin'.
By fighter standards, the plane was a little heavy and also rather slow compared to the Hurricane or Spitfire, with a maximum speed of only 323mph. The two-seater (pilot and observer/gunner) was compact and snub-nosed, giving it the look of a boat with wings, and was quickly nicknamed the 'flying battleship' by aircrews. But it proved to be a purpose-built workhorse and found a niche in the night due to a happy coincidence.
Into the Dark Skies
The Beaufighter Mk I went into production at roughly the same time as the first British airborne radar sets. With four 20mm cannons under the fuselage and six .303 Browning machine guns in the wings, the nose of the aircraft was left clear for mounting the AI Mk IV radar antennae. The newly built Beaufighters were adapted as night-fighters as quickly as possible, the RAF Fighter Interception Unit putting the Beaufighter Mk IF into active service during August, 1940 with 25, 29, 219, 600 and 640 Squadrons. The combination of new radar technology, heavy armament and a decent airspeed compared to that of attacking enemy bombers, the Beaufighter grew into the role of night interceptor. It was a match made in heaven, albeit a dark and starry heaven pierced with searchlights, the wail of air-raid sirens and the hum of enemy bombers.
The Battle of Britain was to all intents and purposes held during the daylight hours, but the London Blitz and the night-time raids against England were the arena where the Beaufighter and its crews cut their teeth. Painted all black with the RAF roundels on wings and fuselage, the secret Beaufighter looked like a threatening moth during the day, and at night, the moth grew fangs and cut down enemy bombers from the sky. While many considered the heavy fighter a very poor and slow-performing aircraft, the 'Beau' soon became a more than capable hunter-killer.
The first AI-assisted Beaufighter kill was claimed on the night of 19 - 20 November, 1940, when Grp Capt John 'Cat-Eyes' Cunningham and Flt Lt Cecil F Rawnsley of 604 Squadron were credited with the destruction of a German Junkers Ju-88 bomber over Oxfordshire. The team went on to down another 18 enemy aircraft at night in their Beaufighter. Many other pilots also found the Beaufighter a dedicated beast:
At 0100, target 'X-Ray 5' appeared and night-fighter 'Dream 3', was immediately vectored into position. Contact was made at 0111 and the bandit was shot down at 0121. Cpt Augspurger, the pilot of the Beaufighter, reported the enemy aircraft to be a Heinkel 111 [German heavy bomber], painted green with yellow stripes. He also reported that it took him quite sometime to identify the target and that he was on his tail for more than ten minutes before he positively identified the target as hostile. He then gave the bandit [enemy aircraft] a burst of a few seconds, received in turn a spray of machine gun fire from the tail gunner followed by small pieces of debris.
- Major J Goldstein, 1 October, 1944
But performance issues with the Beaufighter were to be its downfall. Even with newer versions of the Hercules engine being introduced, these failed to improve the aircraft and the faster Mosquito took over in the night-fighter role during 1942. The Beaufighter did not fade from the frontline, however, seeing service with the Royal Australian Air Force in the interceptor role so successfully that the Japanese nicknamed the heavy twin-engined fighter 'Whispering Death'. The RAF went on to use the Beaufighter in anti-shipping or ground attack roles and many were operated by a variety of other air forces, including the Royal Canadian Air Force, Royal New Zealand Air Force and South African Air Force.
Catch a Glimpse
The Beaufighter is relegated to museum service now, but still attracts a gasp of delight from enthusiasts. The best places to visit the 'Beau' are the The RAF Museum and the Australian National Aviation Museum.
There are also many model kits available of the various Beaufighter types, including 'Cat-Eyes' Cunningham's dramatic black-painted Mk II.