World War II: Bristol Beaufighter

Bristol Beaufighter black and white photo

SDASM / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 

In 1938, Bristol Aeroplane Company approached the Air Ministry with a proposal for a twin-engine, cannon-armed heavy fighter based on its Beaufort torpedo bomber which was then entering production. Intrigued by this offer due to development problems with the Westland Whirlwind, the Air Ministry asked Bristol to pursue the design of a new aircraft armed with four cannons. To make this request official, Specification F.11/37 was issued calling for a twin-engine, two-seat, day/night fighter/ground support aircraft. It was expected that the design and development process would be expedited as the fighter would utilize many of the Beaufort's features.

While the Beaufort's performance was adequate for a torpedo bomber, Bristol recognized the need for improvement if the aircraft was to serve as a fighter. As a result, the Beaufort's Taurus engines were removed and replaced with the more powerful Hercules model. Though the Beaufort's aft fuselage section, control surfaces, wings, and landing gear were retained, the forward parts of the fuselage were heavily redesigned. This was due to the need to mount the Hercules engines on longer, more flexible struts which shifted the aircraft's center of gravity. To rectify this issue, the forward fuselage was shortened. This proved a simple fix as the Beaufort's bomb bay was eliminated as was the bombardier's seat. 

Dubbed the Beaufighter, the new aircraft-mounted four 20 mm Hispano Mk III cannons in the lower fuselage and six .303 in. Browning machine guns in the wings. Due to the location of the landing light, the machines guns were situated with four in the starboard wing and two in the port. Using a two-man crew, the Beaufighter placed the pilot forward while a navigator/radar operator sat further aft. Construction of a prototype commenced by using parts from an unfinished Beaufort. Though it was expected that the prototype could be built quickly, the necessary redesign of the forward fuselage led to delays. As a result, the first Beaufighter flew on July 17, 1939.



  • Length: 41 ft., 4 in.
  • Wingspan: 57 ft., 10 in.
  • Height: 15 ft., 10 in.
  • Wing Area: 503 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 15,592 lbs.
  • Max Takeoff Weight: 25,400 lbs.
  • Crew: 2


  • Maximum Speed: 320 mph
  • Range: 1,750 miles
  • Service Ceiling: 19,000 ft.
  • Power Plant:  2 × Bristol Hercules 14-cylinder radial engines, 1,600 hp each


  • 4 × 20 mm Hispano Mk III cannon
  • 4 × .303 in. Browning machine guns (outer starboard wing)
  • 2 × .303 in. machine gun (outer port wing)
  • 8 × RP-3 rockets or 2× 1,000 lb. bombs


Pleased with the initial design, the Air Ministry ordered 300 Beaufighters two weeks before the prototype's maiden flight. Though a bit heavy and slower than hoped, the design was available for production when Britain entered World War II that September. With the beginning of hostilities, orders for the Beaufighter increased, which led to a shortage of Hercules engines. As a result, experiments began in February 1940 to equip the aircraft with the Rolls-Royce Merlin. This proved successful and the techniques employed were used when the Merlin was installed on the Avro Lancaster. During the course of the war, 5,928 Beaufighters were constructed at plants in Britain and Australia.

During its production run, the Beaufighter moved through numerous marks and variants. These generally saw alterations to the type's power plant, armament, and equipment. Of these, the TF Mark X proved the most numerous at 2,231 built. Equipped to carry torpedoes in addition to its regular armament, the TF Mk X earned the nickname "Torbeau" and was also capable of carrying RP-3 rockets. Other marks were specially-equipped for night fighting or ground attack.

Operational History     

Entering service in September 1940, the Beaufighter quickly became the Royal Air Force's most effective night fighter. Though not intended for this role, its arrival coincided with the development of airborne interception radar sets. Mounted in the Beaufighter's large fuselage, this equipment allowed the aircraft to provide a solid defense against German night bombing raids in 1941. Like the German Messerschmitt Bf 110, the Beaufighter unintentionally remained in the night fighter role for much of the war and was used by both the RAF and US Army Air Forces. In the RAF, it was later replaced by radar-equipped De Havilland Mosquitoes while the USAAF later supplanted Beaufighter night fighters with the Northrop P-61 Black Widow.

Used in all theaters by Allied forces, the Beaufighter quickly proved adept at conducting low-level strike and anti-shipping missions. As a result, it was widely employed by Coastal Command to attack German and Italian shipping. Working in concert, Beaufighters would strafe enemy ships with their cannons and guns to suppress anti-aircraft fire while torpedo-equipped aircraft would strike from low altitude. The aircraft fulfilled a similar role in the Pacific and, while operating in conjunction with American A-20 Bostons and B-25 Mitchells, played a key role in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in March 1943. Renowned for its ruggedness and reliability, the Beaufighter remained in use by Allied forces through the end of the war.

Retained after the conflict, some RAF Beaufighters saw brief service in the Greek Civil War in 1946 while many were converted for use as target tugs. The last aircraft left RAF service in 1960. During the course of its career, the Beaufighter flew in the air forces of numerous countries including Australia, Canada, Israel, Dominican Republic, Norway, Portugal, and South Africa.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Bristol Beaufighter." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 28). World War II: Bristol Beaufighter. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Bristol Beaufighter." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).