One of the earliest British designed light bombers operated by the RAF during the opening years of WWII was the Bristol Beaufort.
A twin-engined torpedo bomber, the Beaufort owed much of its development to its predecessor which, by the start of the War in Europe had already fallen far behind advances in aircraft design and armament.
Although similar in design to the Blenheim, the Beaufort had a larger wingspan and wider fuselage which could accommodate a fourth crew member. It also featured a larger bomb bay which was designed to house a semi-recessed torpedo or an increased bomb load.
The Beaufort's existing armament of twin 303 Vickers machine guns in the dorsal turret and another single machine gun in the port wing was also increased with additional 303 Vickers machine guns fitted on gimbal mountings in the nose and single guns on pivots on either side. A remote controlled rear-facing 303 browning machine gun was also added under the aircrafts cockpit.
All of this added significant weight and the original engines that had powered the Blenheim were replaced with the more powerful 14 cylinder Bristol Taurus radial engines were added giving the Beaufort an attack speed of 271mph.
In February 1940, the first RAF squadrons, which had been equiped with the two seater Vickers Vilderbeest torpedo bomber biplane, began to receive the new Beauforts but retraining crews took much longer than anticipated with the Beaufort being much faster and heavier than the biplane they had been used to.
The lighter and much slower Vilderbeest had been able to dive at the last minute of the attack and then quickly flatten out before releasing its torpedo — the Beaufort carried too much speed after diving and consequently required a much longer level approach to the torpedo drop. To allow crews to adapt to the new techniques and with a shortage of torpedos available, the first mission flown by the Beaufort were the laying of magnetic mines.
The first RAF torpedo attack of the war came on 11 September 1940, when five aircraft of 22 Squadron attacked a convoy of three merchant ships off Ostend, Belgium with one torpedo hitting and sinking one of the ships.
With the new generation of aerial torpedos taking a while after their release to settle to their correct running depth, they required a slow and steady approach to ensure the torpedo entered the water smoothly and for safety reasons, also had a set distance (usually 270 m) from the release point before they were armed. If the aircraft released its torpedo either to high or too low, it could ‘porpoise’ (skip across the water), dive or break up.
Ensuring a smooth torpedo drop’ meant that during the run-in, the aircraft was totally defenceless to anti aircraft fire with no opportunity to take any evasive manoeuvres. For slower torpedo bombers like the Vilderbeest and the Fairey Swordfish, there was at least a good chance of being able to turn sharply away from the target after release but for the new generation of bombers traveling must faster, the aircraft was forced to fly around or pull up sharply over the ship, usually at full throttle and below mast height. This left a large area of the aircraft exposed to the ship's anti-aircraft battery.
With effective radio altitude measuring equipment only coming into service with US forces toward the end of 1942, The early Beaufort pilots had to guess their height over the water with many torpedos being released too soon or to high or low as the aircraft’s main altimeter was not sensitive enough to give accurate readings at low altitudes.
As soon as the US Radio Altitude Setting equipment started becoming available they were quickly installed in RAF and Coastal Command aircraft with many instruments still retaining their USN stamps and ID plates.
In February 1942 the German warships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen made a dash through the English Channel to link up with the main German battle fleet out in the Atlantic. Of the 28 Beauforts sent out to locate and attack the ships, 3 failed to find them, three were shot down and on one the torpedo failed to release. Only 11 Beauforts sighted the battleships and launched torpedoes, none of which struck a target. An inquiry into the abortive attack concluded that a faster, longer-ranged torpedo bomber than the Beaufort was needed and with Bristol finishing the trials of their new Bristol Beaufighter, the Beaufort was gradually phased out of European service with the remaining aircraft sent to the Middle East and Singapore.
While Beauforts service with the RAF in Europe had delivered mixed and often disappointing results, its service in the Pacific with the RAAF was totally different.
By 1938 the Australian Government had partnered with 3 companies to establish the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation with the aim of developing and producing a locally designed and built fighter and fighter bomber. Production was already underway with the CAC Wirraway Trainer and the Buffalo single-seat fightesr when the 8th production Bristol Beaufort MK I was shipped to Australia to be used as the pattern for the wartime production of an Australian Beaufort.
The first CAC Beaufort flew in August 1941 and the first 50 examples built were designated as Beaufort MK V aircraft which used the US designed and Australian built Pratt & Whitney engines.
Over the course of the war, 700 Australian Beauforts rolled out of the CAC factory going onto serve with newly formed RAAF squadrons in operations against Japanese forces in New Guinea. They attacked shipping in all areas of the South-West Pacific and sank cruisers, destroyers and submarines, as well as bombing and strafing inland supply dumps and troops. They were also used for routine convoy protection and coastal reconnaissance.
By late 1944, the CAC were also building a local version of the faster and more heavily armed Bristol Beaufighter and with the arrival of additional US built P-40 Warhawks, the frontline role of the slower and more lightly armed Beaufort was significantly reduced.
All Bristol Beaufort Instruments listed below come complete with detailed Scale Model, Mango Wood Stand & Plaque plus Printed Fact Sheet featuring photo of instrument in aircraft cockpit.
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