Entering service with the Royal Air Force in July 1940 the Beaufighter would serve in a number of roles and form the North Coates Strike Wing. Its wartime service also saw the Royal
Australian Air Force use the type and the Bristol Beaufighter would be involved in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea during March 1943. It was eventually retired by the RAF in May 1960.
Bristol set about working on a new design heavily based on its recent Beaufort torpedo bomber.
This new aircraft was to be powered by a pair of Bristol's Hercules engines and would use the Beaufort's landing gear, wings and tail based around a newly designed fuselage. Bristol submitted
this new aircraft during October 1938 to the Air Ministry who ordered four prototypes. Nine months later on the 17th July 1939 the first Beaufighter prototype flew, powered by Hercules I-SM
engines with Captain Cyril Uwins at the controls. The second prototype was powered by the Hercules I-M with the 1,300-hp Hercules II powering the third and fourth prototypes. Just over a year after the first prototype
flight the RAF received their first Mk Is on the 27th July 1940.
The Beaufighter Mk I had a top speed of 320 mph, thanks to its pair of 1,560-hp Hercules XI engines, a range of 1,500 miles and a service ceiling of 29,000 ft. Armament consisted of four 20mm
cannons and six 0.303-in machine-guns, bomb load would consist of four 500lb bombs. This appeared in two sub variants the Mk IF night fighter which had Mk IV Airborne Interception radar installed and the Mk
IC for use by Coastal Command. Reformed on the 15th June 1941 No. 143 Squadron at RAF Aldergrove would be the first to receive the Beaufighter Mk IC.
It would be the Fighter Interception Unit based at RAF Tangmere who would be one of the first squadrons to receive the Beaufighter Mk IF when they started to get theirs on the 12th
August 1940 and, after moving to RAF Shoreham, undertook the Beaufighter Mk IFs first operational sortie on the
4th September 1940. A further five squadrons, Nos. 25, 29, 219, 600 and 604 were equipped with the type by November 1940. No. 219 Squadron scored the aircraft's first aerial
victory when a Dornier Do 17Z was shot down on the 25th October 1940. No. 604 Squadron scored the Beaufighter's first radar assisted victory shooting down a Junkers Ju 88 on the 19th
November 1940. A number of Mk IFs would be sent to operate as long-range fighters in the Western Desert and Mediterranean. Converted for use in the desert the need to improve range saw four
0.303-in machine-guns removed from the wings to be replaced by fuel tanks.
With Bristol's Hercules engines in demand elsewhere it was decided to look for an alternative powerplant in case of a Hercules shortage. This would lead to a Rolls-Royce Merlin powered Beaufighter
Mk II. When two airframes were installed with the 1,075-hp Merlin X inline engine testing showed the centre of gravity in the Beaufighter moved which resulted in directional instability.
This would require the tail end of the aircraft to be redesigned. The production version of the Mk II would be powered by the 1,300-hp Merlin XX, with the first example a Mk IIF flying on the
22nd March 1941, and had a slightly better top speed of 327 mph than the Mk I with the same range and armament. These would begin to enter service the following month.
The Beaufighter Mk IV and V were next. The Mk IV was intended to be powered by the Rolls-Royce Merlin XX, but none were built. Two Mk Vs were and these saw a change in design with the addition of a
Boulton Paul turret in the fuselage with four 0.303-in machine-guns. This would see a reduction in the mounted forward firing armament with the four 20mm cannons reduced to two and four
0.303-in machine-guns removed. These changes to the aircraft hampered its performance and no further Mk Vs were produced.
The Hercules powered Beaufighter Mk VI was next powered by either the 1,670-hp VI or the XVI. This gave the Mk VI a top speed of 330 mph, range of 1,500 miles, service ceiling of 29,000ft and
armament of four 20mm cannons, six 0.303-in machine-guns with the ability to carry eight rocket projectiles. Fighter and Coastal Command started to receive their first Mk VI deliveries in early
1942. This was followed in May 1942 with tests which saw the Mk VI able to be armed with torpedoes. To begin with sixteen Mk VICs would be modified to carry torpedoes and these would enter
service during June 1942 with No. 254 Squadron at RAF Dyce.
The next three intended Beaufighter variants were the Bristol Hercules 26 powered Mk VII, the Hercules XVII powered Mk VIII and Mk IX. These were to be built in Australia but none were produced.
This meant the Beaufighter TF.Mk X was the next production variant, these would be nicknamed Torbeau. Powered by the 1,750-hp Hercules XVII engine it had a top speed of 323 mph, range of 1,500
miles with a service ceiling of 29,000 ft. Armament consisted of four 20mm cannons, six 0.303-in machine-guns, one Vickers 'K' gun, one torpedo and either 2,250lb bombs or eight 90lb rocket
projectiles. The TF.Mk X would be used for anti-shipping operations and would be fitted with AI Mk VIII radar and this combination was to prove effective as shown in one 48 hour period
when five German U-boats were found and sunk by Nos. 236 and 254 Squadrons TF.Mk Xs.
The Beaufighter Mk XI was the next production version, essentially a Mk X but without the ability to carry torpedoes. The Mk XI provided the basis for the Mk XII with the main change being
an increased range but this would never enter production.
The Royal Australian Air Force would also take delivery of a small number of Beaufighters in 1941 and 1942. One of the squadrons to be equipped with the aircraft was No. 30 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force
and they would use the type in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea (2nd March 1943 - 4th March 1943). No. 30 Squadron, RAAF Beaufighters would be among a number of aircraft,
including those of the United States Fifth Air Force, which during these three days would attack a Japanese convoy on its way to Lae, New Guinea which were ferrying troops and supplies.
The following two years would see Beaufighters built under licence in Australia and these would become the Mk 21.
Based on the TF.Mk X the Mk 21, powered by the 1,600-hp Hercules 14, had a top speed of 320 mph, a range of 1,750 miles with a service ceiling of 29,000 ft. Armament consisted of four 20mm cannons
and four 0.50-in machine-guns. The Mk 21 could carry a range of ordnance which comprised eight 5-in rocket projectiles, two 250lb bombs and two 500lb bombs and one Mk 13 torpedo.
The first test flight of the new Beaufighter Mk 21 was made on the 26th May 1944 from Victoria, Australia. In total 365 examples would be built in Australia with the
6th November 1945 seeing the Royal Australian Air Force receiving their final Mk 21.
The final Beaufighter variant was the TT.Mk 10. These were previous Mks converted to serve as target tugs and would be the last of the type to serve with the Royal Air Force, its final sortie
occurring on the 12th May 1960.
During its RAF career the Bristol Beaufighter would serve in a number of roles including night fighter, torpedo bomber and ground attack. During September 1942 Nos. 143, 236 and 254 Squadrons who
operated the type formed the North Coates Strike Wing which would target North Sea shipping. It would be Nos. 236 and 254 Squadrons who undertook the first operation for this new force attacking a
convoy on the 20th November 1942. By the time the war in Europe ended on the 8th May 1945 the North Coates Strike Wing would be credited with sinking over 150,000 tons of shipping.
One of the most audacious operations of the Second World War was carried out by a No. 236 Squadron Beaufighter Mk IC piloted by Flight Lieutenant A.K. Gatword with Sergeant G.Fern as his
observer. This saw them perform a low-level daylight operation on the 12th June 1942 dropping a French Tricolore on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France.
The Bristol Beaufighter would serve with 52 squadrons and was also used as a target tug by the RAF until May 1960. The aircraft would be used by a number of other air forces including the United
States Army Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force and by the time production ended a total of 5,928 had been built.