A heavy fighter derived from a light bomber, the Bristol Beaufighter entered service in the summer of 1940 and by the end of the war nearly 6000 of them had been produced, proving highly effective over both land and sea. This is an incredible record for an aeroplane that was designed in a hurry and was incapable of performing the role for which it was originally intended. However, the Beaufighter, or ‘Beau’ as it was commonly known, had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, benefitting from new technology that helped it to adapt.
During the late 1930s most major powers identified the need for heavy fighters, which could either be employed as long range bomber escorts or operate in a defensive role as bomber destroyers. Westland developed the Whirlwind, but problems with its Rolls-Royce Peregrine engine delayed production. As a result, the RAF needed something in a hurry and the Bristol Aircraft Company suggested a variant of their Beaufort Torpedo bomber, which had evolved from their Blenheim light bomber. Ordered in February 1939, the prototype Beaufighter flew in July of the same year and within 12 months Beaufighters were rolling off the production lines, just as the Battle of Britain was raging.
Unfortunately, like Germany’s Messerschmitt Bf110 and Japan’s Kawasaki Ki-45, the Beau was considerably slower than single engine fighters (its top speed was 320mph, compared to 398mph for the Messerschmitt Bf109 and 408 mph for the Focke-Wulf Bf190) rendering it useless for defending RAF bombers during daylight raids or attacking Luftwaffe squadrons protected by a fighter screen. In fact the only heavy fighter with sufficient speed and manoeuvrability for these tasks was the American Lockheed P-38 Lightning.
However, the Beaufighter’s introduction coincided with the release of the British Airborne Interception radar units for night fighters. With plenty of space in its nose cone and fuselage, and armed with four 20mm cannons, the Beau became the RAF’s primary night fighter until late 1943, when it was replaced by the Mosquito.
In another twist of fate, Coastal Command took delivery of Beaufighters and discovered that, once armed with a torpedo or the 60lb RP-3 rockets, they were much better suited to anti-shipping duties than the Beauforts that were actually designed for that task. More than 2000 variants (TF X Torpedo Fighters) were built, making this the most numerous type of Beaufighter.
But it would be in the Pacific where the Beaufighter’s reputation was forged, this time as a ground attack aircraft used for high-speed low-level attacks on Japanese lines of communication. Its Hercules engine had sleeve valves, which were much quieter than the more common poppet type and it was rumoured that as a result enemy soldiers could not hear a Beau approaching at speed, only becoming aware once under attack, only hearing the ‘whisper’ of the engine as it flew away. Impressionable war correspondents reported that the Japanese had nick-named the Beaufighter ‘whispering death’ although it is now believed that this title was invented by British pilots to parody clichéd press reports.
After the war the Beaufighter found new employment, as a target tug, working until 1960, proving that this most versatile aeroplane was exceptionally good at virtually anything apart from the job for which it was designed!