Developed in Britain before the Coup, the Bristol Beaufighter was twin-engined heavy fighter and strike aircraft put into production by the DAP in Australia for the RAAF during WWII.
Originally the Bristol Type 156, the Beaufighter was the result of an urgent need for a heavy multi-role fighter with long range in the run up to WWII. To save time Bristol took the empennage from their Beaufort torpedo bomber and mated them with new engines to a new fuselage to meet. The 1,400hp Bristol Hercules radials that replaced the 1,000 Bristol Taurus engines, with the reduced drag from the narrow fighter fuselage was expected to give Beaufighter a top speed of 335mph, when the prototype made its fight flight on the 17th of July 1939 and testing showed a maximum speed of only 309mph with full military equipment, interest flagged. However the designers at Bristol believed they could do better and the growing menace of night bomber raids preserved the Beaufighter program.
The first production examples reached squadron service just too late, with the FRDU receiving the initial planes in August 1940, and the Halifax government saw little need for the type. With production cancelled, the Bristol designers continued working on the Beaufighter for lack of anything else to do, generating several paper aircraft based on the same components.
During the same period, the Department of Aircraft production in Australia had been tooling up to build the Beaufort, a process hampered by both the lack of an existing aircraft industry in Australia and a lack of cooperation from Britain due to higher priorities there. As a result the Australian Beaufort differed from its parent in many ways, most noticeably in using Pratt & Whitney R-XXXX engines in place of the Bristol Taurus, but many of the finer details had been either amended or greatly simplified to suit local production.
In October 1940 discrete representatives of the DAP approached the managing Director of Bristol (Sir Roy Feddon) directly for further assistance with the Beaufort and some eye towards the Beaufighter. The Beaufighter was particularly attractive for its range and compatibility with the Beaufort, and at the time it was seen as ‘insurance’ for a domestic program the CAC Woomera.
The Woomera was intended to fill an RAAF requirement for a ‘Battleplane;’ this aircraft was to combine the roles of bomber, reconnaissance machine, long-range fighter and torpedo bomber. Australia had not the resources to match individual aircraft to specific roles, and so needed one aircraft to do all that a dedicated fighter could not. The Woomera was still in the design phase and recognising the tall order it represented to the local aircraft industry, the Beaufighter was the perfect understudy. Feddon was sympathetic, and most unhappy with the Halifax Government, but cautious. It is evident from the Bristol design studies that he fed Australia’s ambitions into the process, directing the search for speed not come at the expense of range, and that most unusually engines other than Bristol’s own be taken into account.
By March of 1941 it was apparent that the situation in Britain was not going to change anytime soon, and Feddon placed some of his key personnel in contact with the Australian agents and ordered all existing Type 152 (Beaufort), 156 and related drawings photographed for ‘archival’ purposes. There was some delay in Canada, as the authorities there tried to ‘poach’ several of the Bristol staff, but in late June they arrived at the DAP offices in Melbourne VIC along with their suitcases full for 35mm film.
When the team from Bristol arrived in Australia the Beaufort was not yet in production and the Beaufighter project was given a secondary priority, which meant with the limited resources available it went no where. The Woomera was progressing slowly too, and showing signs of some teething troubles, so the Beaufighter was not forgotten and the last fine tuning of the Beaufort program was done with both types in mind. However the Woomera and Beaufort/Beaufighter were not the only Australian programs in a spot of trouble.
The Royal Navy’s ‘Breakout’ across the Atlantic in the mid year, had left in its wake the end of Australia’s effort to build 18” torpedos, as essential men and equipment were packed up and sent off to Canada. Thus when the first Beaufort was delivered to squadron service in early August 1941 its primary weapon system was reduced to a few dozen pre-war torpedoes in store. This had given the Beaufighter a new popularity on the back of its other great feature, a very heavy gun armament. Originally designed with 4x 20mm Hispano-Suiza cannon and 6x .303 Browning machineguns, the DAP Beau was shaping up to have the same in cannon, with an extra pair of machineguns for a total of 8. The Bristol files contained details of work done in Britain with a view to fitting external bomb shackles, refitting an internal bomb bay and even potentially torpedo, while ideas had filtered out through other channels about the use of 3” UP rockets from aircraft. So given all this the Beaufighter looked to be a better investment than the Beaufort and a much neater match to the RAAF’s requirements with higher performance than the Woomera.
This still left two problems to be dealt with, which version of the ‘Beaufighter’ would be built and what was to power it. Fixing the design was probably the hardest choice, and with the strains of the day it is regrettable, if understandable, that the DAP erred on the conservative side and settled on one little removed from the original Type 156. Other than new engine nacelles, the only major visible difference was cutting the rear deck down by six inches to reduce wetted surface area, and leaving a pronounced ‘hump’ over the pilot’s canopy. although internally there were a number of improvements drawn from both Bristol and DAP Beaufort experience. This type was designated for production as the DAP-A9 (its proposed RAAF type number), and a prototype was flying inside five months, reflecting both the benefit of compatibility with the Beaufort and Australia’s rapidly maturing aircraft industry.
Powering the beast was an easy choice but a difficult decision for both the DAP and Australian Treasury. CAC was already producing the Pratt & Whitney R-1830 under licence and negotiations were in progress to extend this licence to the P&W R-2800, principally for the Woomera and the CAC-15. But the R-2800 was rather more powerful then the Beau could accept without a major design change, and at least 12 months away from production in Australia. This left the Wright R-2600 as the only suitable motor, but a very expensive one (in scarce US dollars), that would be an ‘odd ball’ in the face of Australia’s standardisation on Pratt & Whitney engines.
DAP-A9 Beaufighter Mk.10
NOTE: The name ‘Beaufighter’ stuck to the A9 in both informal and official use, indeed it was made much of specifically to embarrass the Halifax Government in the UK.
- Crew: 2: pilot, observer
· Length: 48 ft 8 in
· Wingspan: 57 ft 10 in
· Height: 15 ft 10 in
· Wing area: ft² (46,73 m²)
· Empty weight: 15,486 lb
· Max takeoff weight: 25,610 lb
· Powerplant: 2× Wright Cyclone R-2600-3 14-cylinder radial engines, 1,600 hp each
· Maximum speed: 325 mph (278 knots) at 10,000 ft
· Range: 1,750 mi (1,520 nm)
· Service ceiling: 19,000 ft without torpedo
· Rate of climb: 1,600 ft/min without torpedo
· 4× Hispano 20 mm cannon (80 rounds per cannon, 320 rounds total) in nose
· 8× Vickers Mk.7 (Aust) machineguns (4× in each wing)
· 1× Vickers Mk.7 (Aust) machinegun in observers bubble
· Rockets: 8× RP-3 or RG-82 rockets or
· Bombs: 2× 1000 lb bombs or
· Bombs: 1× 18 in (457 mm) Mk.XIII torpedo
The Beaufighter was established on DAP’s principal production line at Mascot outside Sydney NSW after an initial prototype run at the Fisherman’s Bend facility in Melbourne, and 230 had been produced in time to equip 4 Squadrons (X,X,X,X) in 6 Group RAAF when it was sent to Russia in 1943. Initial experience in Russia was very positive, the Beaufighter was rugged, easy to maintain and packed a powerful punch. Originally trained for Maritime Strike duties with RAAF Coastal Command, the crews had little difficulty finding their way around the broad Russian landscape at low level, soon making something of a trade mark out of ‘tipityrun’ attacks on pinpoint targets. These heavy high-speed attacks at zero feet ‘from out of nowhere’ were not popular with those on the receiving end. Often lasting no more than 20 seconds for a full Squadron strike, the combined weight of 48 x 20mm cannon and 96 x machineguns, plus any rockets or bombs used could be devastating on poorly dispersed targets, and the effect was only magnified by the lack of warning. In retaining the flame arresting over-wing exhaust pipes of the original Type 156, DAP had inadvertently produced a very quite aeroplane.
However along with the praise, there were a number of complaints about the Beaufighter, and suggestions as to its improvement sent back from Russia. The armament came in for a good deal of complaint, the 20mm Hispano cannon was seen as a fine air to air weapon, but its performance against tanks and other hard targets was rated poorly, the Australian made 80 round drums were both too small for the pilots and too large for the observers to change easily in flight and generally not as reliable as they should have been either. The Squadrons recommended a belt fed weapon, suggesting the Russian 37mm XXX. Likewise the Vickers machinegun was thought to be of marginal use against anything more solid than a tent or truck.
While no longer a fighter, the Beau was also no faster in 1943 than it had been in 1940 and the latest German fighters carried a substantial margin of superiority over the Australian plane. It was not exactly a sitting duck for the Luftwaffe, but at low altitude speed was life and the crews wanted more. The pilots also criticised the lack of rearward visibility from their cockpits, and the observers found the low roofline made movement inside the plane quite awkward, a problem echoed by the pilots who had to perform gymnastics to reach their seats. But by far the largest complaint about the Beaufighter was its lack of protection. Compared to other ground attack machines the Beau was a soft touch, with a minimum of armour distributed to protect the crewmembers. Although appreciative of the concern for their welfare the crews were quick to point out that a live pilot in a dead aircraft 200 miles on the wrong side of the front was no better off than if he had been killed outright. This lack of coverage was felt the most by pilots, who had nothing between them and oncoming flak but an armoured windscreen and a sheet of duraluminium.
The Mk.12 represented the best DAP could do to address these problems in the short term. There was little they could do about the armament except formalise a common field expedient in replacing the 8x.303 machineguns with 4x .50 M2 Brownings obtained under TWMAP, with a another M2 provided for the observer. TWMAP also helped by providing R-2600-20 engines with an extra 300hp each. Unfortunately the additional 600hp had little impact on performance as weight growth ate up any margin it provided, the bulk of that weight came in the form of armour plate, with protection provided to the oil coolers, the underside of the engine cowlings and a new nose that replicated the old one in ¼” steel, a most difficult feat of fabrication in such thick hard material.