By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2022
“Death will come chasing…whispering in your ear.” — British author Chris Cleave.
“The Bristol Beaufighter played a significant role in the Battle of Britain, protecting the skies over the south of England. Flying at night, all-black painted Bristol Beaufighters acted as night interceptors.” — BAE Systems web site, 2022.
Even before Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, initiating World War Two in Europe, the Royal Air Force (RAF) foresaw an urgent requirement for a long-range, heavily-armed, fighter aircraft with multi-role capabilities to defend the United Kingdom from the German aggression that was certain to come very soon. The Bristol Aeroplane Company decided to offer a heavy-fighter version of their existing, rugged, twin-engine, Beaufort torpedo bomber, which could be readily developed into a faster, more-powerful fighter.
This required the installation of larger, upgraded, high-performance, 1,600-horsepower, supercharged, Bristol Hercules XVII or XVIII 14-cylinder, air-cooled, radial engines to replace the Beaufort’s modest, 1,000-horespower, Bristol Taurus engines, with three-bladed, Rotol metal or wooden propellers. The internal bomb bay was also removed, in order to accommodate four forward-firing, Hispano Mk. I 20x110mm cannon in the lower fuselage area, initially fed from 60-round, drum magazines, which were soon replaced by Mk. II cannon with a belt-feed system, holding 240 rounds per gun, each firing at a rate of 12 rounds per second, and the aircraft was initially referred to as the “Beaufort cannon fighter.”
In March 1939, four months before its first flight, it was officially redesignated the Bristol Type 156 Beaufighter, often shortened to just “Beau” during the war, and after the first 50 aircraft were produced, Bristol added six .303-caliber, Browing machine guns in the wings (two in the left wing, and four in the right wing), making it the most heavily-armed, fighter aircraft in the world at that time, capable of firing as much as 780 pounds of projectiles per minute (13 pounds per second), with recoil so intense that it pushed the nose down and slowed the aircraft by nearly 30 miles per hour every time they were fired. So, this was really the world’s first, aerial “gunship.”
The pilot sat fairly high and clear of the engines, with an unobstructed view for low-level attacks, and he was protected by armor plating and a bulletproof windscreen, as well as the forward, engine placement. He had to enter the aircraft via the rear hatch beneath the fuselage, and climb over an awkward bulkhead to reach the cockpit, while the navigator/observer/radio operator sat on a swiveling chair 18 feet behind the pilot. In an emergency, the pilot could release a second hatch cover behind his seat, and drop through it to bail out, while the navigator used the more-convenient, rear hatch.
The Hercules engines had an unusual, design feature, using sleeve valves, instead of the noisy, valve gear common in newer, poppet-valve (or mushroom-valve) engines, resulting in a reduced noise level at the front of the engines, so the Beaufighter was quieter than many other aircraft while approaching its targets. A British or Australian journalist wrote that Japanese soldiers called it the “Whispering Death,” due to its ability to arrive so quietly, although Japanese sources do not specifically mention this nickname.
In any event, it was absolutely true that the Beaufighter took many enemy convoys, naval vessels, and troop formations totally by surprise, often flying at extremely low altitude, with its propellers routinely clipping tree branches, telephone and telegraph poles, asphalt road surfaces, ships’ masts, and other obstructions enroute to its targets.
The Beaufighter’s fearsome, gun armament was frequently supplemented by the addition of either two 250-pound bombs beneath the wings, or a total of eight RP-3 (Rocket Projectile, 3-inch diameter) unguided rockets, each weighing 38 pounds, with either a 25-pound, 87mm, armor-piercing, or 60-pound, 150mm, high-explosive, artillery-shell warhead attached to the nose section.
They had a range of up to 1,700 yards, and could be fired either singly, in pairs, or as a full salvo of eight rockets. Beaufighter rocket attacks against enemy ground vehicles (including tanks), locomotives, German U-boats and naval vessels, and other targets were absolutely devastating, with prisoners of war confirming the terrifying effects on morale. The 60-pound warhead could literally blow the turrets off of even the best, German Tiger I and Tiger II tanks. Beginning in April 1943, RAF Coastal Command Beaufighters could also carry 18-inch (450mm) Mk. XII, XIII, XIV, XV, or XVII torpedoes, weighing 1,548 to 1,630 pounds. The rocket-armed aircraft were nicknamed “Rockbeaus” while the torpedo-armed versions were called “Torbeaus.”
The first Beaufighters were delivered to the RAF on July 27, 1940, and nearly 6,000 would eventually be constructed within the next five years, in numerous, different variants. By actual fighter standards, it was somewhat heavy and slow, so instead of serving as a pure, air-to-air fighter, the Beaufighter was adapted for multi-role duties, among the first and most-successful of which was as a night fighter, pursuing German bombers, especially during the intense Battle of Britain.
British airborne-intercept (AI) radars were just becoming available, and the large, roomy Beaufighter Mk. IFand Mk. IIF each had sufficient space in their nose sections for the new, somewhat-temperamental, AI Mk. IV (and later, the Mk. VIII) radar, with the navigator’s position equipped with a radar scope, and he would guide the pilot to their airborne targets via intercom directions. Flying from RAF Tangmere in far, southern England, Beaufighters of No. 29 Squadron conducted their first operational sorties on September 17, 1940, scored their first nighttime kill, a Dornier Do 17 bomber, on October 25, 1940, and the first aerial kill by a radar-equipped Beaufighter, a Junkers Ju 88 bomber, on November 20, 1940.
In early 1941, improved, AI radars were installed, and the Beaufighters became truly-effective, night fighters, boldly countering nocturnal, bombing raids by the German Luftwaffe. By March of that year, Beaufighters had shot down half of the 22 enemy aircraft claimed by British fighters, and in early April, Air Marshal Sholto Douglas observed that although radar-equipped Beaufighters “carried out only 21 percent of the sorties at night, they have been responsible for 65 percent of the enemy aircraft destroyed.” On May 19 to 20, 1941, Beaufighters down 24 German bombers and fighters in a single night, making them an invaluable, night-fighting asset. By the end of the Blitz against England, the five Beaufighter squadrons had scored more than 60 aerial victories against intruding, German aircraft.
By March 1942, the Beaufighter Mk. VIF was supplied to RAF squadrons, with the more-advanced, AI Mk. VIII radar, but by then, the faster, DeHavilland Mosquito NF Mk. II aircraft was taking over as Britain’s premier night fighter, and the Beaufighter series was soon relegated to other roles.
The Beaufighter’s most-famous, outrageously-daring, and truly-incredible mission was “Operation Squabble,” which took place on June 12, 1942. Intelligence information collected by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) showed that the German forces occupying Paris, France, paraded down the broad Avenue des Champs-Élysées (the “Elysian Fields,” a form of heaven for dead heroes in Greek mythology) every day between 12:15 and 12:45 PM, so British Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté (born in India, and of partial, French descent), the Commander-in-Chief of Coastal Command, devised an audacious plan to boost the morale of the French by dropping a French, tricolor (blue, white, and red) flag over the Arc de Triomphe in the very heart of the city.
He recruited Flight Lieutenant Alfred Kitchener “Ken” Gatward, age 27, from No. 236 Squadron at RAF Wattisham in East Anglia, and his navigator, Sergeant Gilbert “George” Fern, as volunteers for this “unsafe” mission, since these two men had already completed numerous low-level, daylight attacks, and had the requisite, combat experience. The plan was to fly at very low level down the sprawling, 230-foot-wide, Champs-Élysées boulevard, strafe the marching, German soldiers, and, as a backup target, attack the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) headquarters in the Ministre de la Marine (the former home of the French Naval Ministry.)
Gatward and Fern began practicing for their astounding mission on May 5, 1942, by attacking a shipwreck in the English Channel, and intently studying maps of Paris, to learn the best ingress and egress routes from the city. They obtained a large, French flag from Portsmouth Harbor, had it cut in half lengthwise to create two flags, and attached iron weights to the corners, initially testing them by throwing them off the roof of a tall hangar. Once they perfected the technique, the two flags were installed aboard their Bristol Beaufighter Mk. IC (RAF Coastal Command variant), bearing the identifying code letters “ND-C.”
On June 12, 1942, they took off from Thorney Island Air Base, five miles east of Portsmouth, England, at 11:29 AM in a pouring rain, with a total overcast at 2,000 feet. As they crossed the French coastline near Fécamp, 18 miles north of Le Havre, at 11:58 AM, the cloud cover thinned out, and soon there was bright sunshine over Paris, with excellent visibility. Unfortunately, the intelligence data about the troop parade wasn’t entirely accurate, with the soldiers assembling, but not yet ready to march, so there were no visible, German troops to strafe, and the Beaufighter drew some light, antiaircraft fire from the ground as it circled the majestic, Eiffel Tower (984 feet tall), just one mile south of the Arc de Triomphe, with impunity at 12:27 PM, banking away toward the left, to the Champs-Élysées (1.2 miles long) one minute later.
At this point in the perilous flight, Gatward took a bird strike, a black, French crow, in his starboard (right) engine’s radiator, but continued onward with the mission, flying down the main avenue through the massive city at an altitude of approximately 30 feet, only half the wingspan of his camouflaged Beaufighter, toward the towering, neoclassical, Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile (“Triumphal Arch of the Star”), 164 feet tall, and built from 1806 to 1836 as a monument to those who died in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, after Napolean’s 1805 victory against the Austrian and Russian Empires at Austerlitz, Austria (now within the Czech Republic.)
As Gatward pulled up sharply to cross over the huge arch, Fern released the first bright, tricolor flag down the aircraft’s flare chute inside the rear fuselage, expertly draping the bold, French flag over the grand archway. Next, they dropped down to 30 feet altitude again, and attacked the Ministre de la Marine (sometimes mistakenly referred to as Gestapo headquarters in Paris, which was actually at 84 Avenue Foch, two miles farther west) in the Place de la Concorde (meaning the “Plaza of Agreement,” in French), the city’s greatest, public square, pounding the exterior with their quad, 20mm cannon (the wing-mounted machine guns were removed from many Coastal Command Beaufighters, and replaced by internal fuel tanks holding 89 extra gallons), scattering the German guards, to the everlasting delight of the Parisians, and then releasing their second, French flag above the Nazi Kriegsmarine headquarters.
Gatward turned his Beaufighter back toward England at 12:30 PM, in broad daylight, and landed at RAF Northolt, west of London and only five miles north of the current, Heathrow International Airport, at 1:53 PM. His handwritten, understated, logbook entry for the mission recounted: “Paris – No cover – 0 ft. (feet.) Drop Tricolours on Arc Triomphe &Ministry Marine. Shoot up German HQ. Little flak – No E.A. (Enemy Aircraft.) Bird in stbd. (starboard) oil radiator…61 photos.”
This wildly-audacious attack in downtown Paris provided an enormous morale boost for the British and French, and Gatward was immediately awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, while Fern received the Distinguished Flying Medal. In 1949, the French government also presented Gatward with a tricolor flag, and a huge, wooden crate of champagne. He remained in RAF service for a full, 30-year career, retiring in 1964 as a group captain, equivalent to a full colonel.
So, by mid-1942, the rugged Beaufighter was serving primarily as a ground-attack and maritime-strike fighter, on low-level, strafing missions, and attacking enemy shipping with its quad cannon, eight rockets, and huge torpedoes. It was also ideal for bomber-escort sorties and long-range, interdiction raids, with 660 gallons of internal fuel, and a range of up to 1,750 miles. From as far north as Norway, to North Africa and the Mediterranean, to the Middle East, and in Burma and the Dutch East Indies, Beaufighters proved themselves again and again, approaching the enemy by total surprise at ultra-low altitude, and without warning, thanks to their whisper-quiet engines.
One wartime account stated that the low-flying, heavily-armed Beaufighters brought “a new kind of war against the Japanese. It was aggressive war, war of attack, war of accurate destruction…Aircraft which skimmed the trees, hurtled through the steep valleys of Timor’s (a Japanese-occupied, Pacific island near Indonesia) mountains, the hills screening the noise of their approach. They gave no signs of coming, and their guns’ fury destroyed everything in their path.”
In the Mediterranean Theater, four American night-fighter squadrons (the 414th, 415th, 416th, and 417th) received a total of 100 Beaufighters in the summer of 1943, and began racking up aerial kills over Italy in July, later flying over southern France, as well. In addition, Beaufighters saw active, combat service with the British Fleet Air Arm, the Royal Canadian Air Force, Royal Australian Air Force, Royal New Zealand Air Force, South African Air Force, and Free Polish Air Force, with a total of 59 squadrons of all nationalities in action.
Whether the ominous, “Whispering Death” nickname was invented by the enemy or by an Allied journalist, the fact was that Beaufighters often arrived on-target by achieving complete surprise, ravaging the German Afrika Korpsin North Africa by swooping in very quietly at dune-top height, and then raking enemy convoys with its quad cannon, six machine guns, and eight rockets.
Typically operating in pairs for mutual support, the flight leader would first drop down to almost zero altitude upon detecting an enemy convoy, and attack them ferociously, with all guns blazing. As any potential survivors dove away into roadside ditches, looking back behind them in awe, the second Beaufighter would make its fierce, firing pass, tearing the convoy to pieces.
On June 15, 1944, only nine days after the massive, Normandy invasion by the Allies, 44 Beaufighter TF Mk. Xs of the RAF Coastal Command, including nine torpedo-armed aircraft, and most of the rest carrying RP-3 rockets, took off from RAF Langham, near Holt, England, along the eastern coastline, and flew toward the harbor at Den Helder, at the tip of the North Holland Peninsula in the Netherlands, 35 miles north of Amsterdam, with a fighter escort of nine RAF Mustang Mk. IVs (P-51Ds.) They had received a report that two large, German vessels and 17 escort vessels were preparing to sail into the nearby North Sea.
The Beaufighter TF Mk. X (Mark 10) was the most-numerous model produced, equipped with supercharged engines and AI Mk. VIII radar in a “thimble-nose” radome, allowing for all-weather, daytime or nighttime attacks at very low altitude. Most were also fitted with torpedo-launching gear, as “Torbeaus,” and many Mk. Xs in the later war years were modified to carry four Browning M2 heavy machine guns in .50-caliber inside their wings, in place of the six British .303 medium machine guns.
Costal Command Beaufighters armed with 60-pound rockets and 20mm cannon could literally cut a small naval vessel in half, or sink a larger, 800-ton vessel with very little effort. Some eyewitnesses to these fiery, naval attacks later stated that the Beaus possessed so much raw firepower “that the aircraft seemed to be halted in midair by the (cannon) recoil.”
The first wave of Beaufighters swooped in, firing their rockets, and then their 20mm cannon as they flew closer to the German ships. This forced the enemy gunners to run for cover, just as the “Torbeaus” arrived and dropped their large torpedoes into the bay. When the surprise attack was finally concluded, the British fighters (although many of the pilots and crews were New Zealanders) had sunk two German merchant vessels and one escort vessel, seriously damaged six more, moderately damaged an additional four vessels, and left one escort vessel in distress, calling for assistance. The Beaufighters all returned safely to RAF Langham.
The final Beaufighter variant was the Australian-manufactured, Mk. 21 model, which was similar to the British TF Mk. X, including the .50-caliber machine guns, and the ability to carry a Mk. 13 torpedo, but its possible bomb load was upgraded to two 500-pounders, and the RP-3 rocket capability was upgraded to employ American-made, five-inch (130mm) High-Velocity Aircraft Rockets (HVARs.) These saw considerable action against Japanese forces in the Pacific region.
The most-notable, Beaufighter ace pilot was Wing Commander John Randall Daniel “Bob” Braham, ages 21 to 23, of No. 29 Squadron, RAF, flying a radar-equipped, Beaufighter Mk. IF night fighter from March 1941 through September 1943. Braham shot down 19 German aircraft at night with his Beaufighter, including 13 Do 17, He 111, Do 217, and Ju 88 bombers, six Bf 110G-4 night fighters, and scored 10 more confirmed kills and four probable kills while flying Bristol Blenheim and DeHavilland Mosquito night fighters. German war records officially credited him with a 30th aerial kill, as well. Braham earned the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) with two bars, the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) with two bars, and the Air Force Cross (AFC), as the most highly-decorated airman in RAF Fighter Command, the most-successful, British pilot on twin-engine aircraft, and one of the most-successful, RAF night-fighter pilots.
Overall, the combat-proven, Bristol Beaufighter series consisted of some of the most-rugged, versatile, heavily-armed, multi-role aircraft in the world at that time, tasked with some of the most-daring and hazardous missions, striking abject fear into the hearts of the enemy by appearing seemingly out of nowhere, whisper-quiet and without warning, devastating the enemy force with overwhelming firepower, and then disappearing as quickly as they’d arrived. These were truly some of the world’s first real “gunships,” deserving of a special place in the history of modern, aerial warfare.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe, with two fighter squadrons in Germany, and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.