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Feature – Last of the Beaufighters

Photo: A colour study from 1959 showing Beaufighter TT.10 RD809 on display at Hendon. PETER GREEN COLLECTION

 

Tugging at Sleeves

The mighty Beaufighter refused to retire from the RAF after the war. Ken Ellis examines its second career, which lasted until 1960

Battle-hardened torpedo-bomber, strike weapon of awesome capability and pioneer night fighter it may have been, but with the advent of peace there seemed little future for the Bristol Beaufighter. That slim fuselage was not capable of taking more advanced airborne interception gear, and the remoteness of the gunner-turned-radar operator back in the fuselage did not help. With its side-by-side crew, the de Havilland Mosquito was the night fighter of choice for the immediate post-war period.

For torpedo or rocket attacks another Bristol type, the Brigand, was gearing up for service, but it proved to be disappointing and, besides, the days of torpedo-bombers were coming to an end.

Victory in Japan Day was celebrated on August 15, 1945 and the following month – on the 21st – production test pilot Ronnie Ellison took TF.X SR919 into the air from the Bristol-administered shadow factory at Oldmixon, near Weston-super-Mare, Somerset. This was the 5,564th and last of the powerful twins to be built in Britain.

Ellison had been at the helm of the first Oldmixon machine, Mk.If X7540, on February 20, 1941 and he made sure he took the honours for the 1,000th (Mk.VI JL762), 2,000th and 3,000th examples. In all, he carried out the maiden flights of more than 1,800 of the 3,336 that originated from the Weston factory.

When the atomic bombs shattered Japanese willpower, there were just six frontline Beaufighter TF.X units left; two each in India (22 and 217 Squadrons) and the UK (254 and 287), one in Burma (27), and another (252) in Greece. The last of these disbanded in December 1946.

The lack of fuselage capacity also worked against the ‘Beau’ as a potential crew trainer. Like many other warhorses, some were headed for re-work and export, but most were destined for scrap.

NEW LIFE, NEW WARS

But there was still life in the revered twin, thanks to its robust characteristics. The 1,770hp (1,320kW) 14-cylinder, two-row Bristol Hercules Mk.XVII radials powering the Mk.Xs were very reliable, plenty were held in reserve and there were huge stocks of consumables. Later versions of the Hercules were fitted to the Handley Page Hastings, Vickers Valetta, Varsity and Viking, so there was a large pool of personnel used to working on them.

In the Far East, the Beaufighter had the edge over its more nimble rival, the Mosquito. The latter’s bonded plywood structure suffered in extremes of temperature and humidity, while the all-metal Bristol type could shrug off such privations. It was in this same theatre that conflicts that could benefit from the Beaufighter’s attributes were developing.

In Burma, 27 Squadron at Mingaladon was still needed to flex its muscles. Despite the surrender, getting the word through to out-of-touch Japanese troops meant that, occasionally, ‘contact’ was required and a burst from the guns of a TF.X often helped to quell resistance. The unit also dropped more than 250,000 leaflets explaining that World War Two had ended.

Having endured the Japanese, on Java the Indonesian nationalist Sukarno seized his moment to declare independence from the previous occupying power, the Netherlands. Militarily, the area was a British responsibility – UK forces were busy rounding up Japanese soldiers and, most importantly, extracting prisoners of war.

Although hoping to avoid a confrontation, one occupying force looks much like another and, from October 1945, British personnel were fired upon by Sukarno supporters. The UK was unwillingly immersed in what would become the bitter struggle for Indonesian autonomy.

Among other assets, 27 Squadron’s Beaufighters were detached to Kemajoran on Java, arriving in November 1945. They went straight into action and, in the space of three months, undertook 300-plus ‘ops’…

The rest of this article is in the current issue of FlyPast, cover dated January 2019. It’s available in UK shops now or can be purchased via the website – www.flypast.com. Alternatively, you can download a digital edition from www.pocketmags.com – simply search ‘FlyPast’.

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