The RAF’s lack of a long-range fighter having the endurance to mount standing patrols was highlighted in the late 1930s. In October 1938, Leslie Frise and his Bristol Aircraft Company team set about the design of an appropriate aircraft based on the earlier Beaufort fighter-bomber and the prototype Beaufighter first flew on 17th July 1939, no more than 9 months later. At the same time, a production contract was placed for 300 aircraft.
The Beaufighter’s outer wings, retractable undercarriage, hydraulics, aft fuselage and tailplane were identical to those of the Beaufort and most other components very similar. However, the new aircraft was powered by 2 x Bristol Hercules engines and equipped with an air intercept radar, 4 x 20mm Hispano cannon and 4 x .303 wing-mounted machine guns. The Mk 1F was delivered to the Fighter Interceptor Unit at Tangmere in August 1940 and entered RAF front line service with No 29 Squadron the following month. It was soon bearing the brunt of the action against Luftwaffe night bombers and, indeed, it played a major part in defending the UK during the ‘Blitz’ of 1940-41. Thereafter, it continued as the principal night fighter until displaced by the Mosquito in 1943 (serving with No 219 Squadron at Tangmere between December 1940 and June 1942).
As the war progressed, additional variants appeared with armament options including the carriage of 8 x 3in rocket projectiles or 2 x 1000lb bombs. The aircraft operated in every major campaign and theatre of war and was employed in a variety of duties; Coastal Command operated torpedo-carrying versions which claimed several enemy U-boats. Eventually, it equipped 52 RAF squadrons.
A total of 5,562 Beaufighters were produced in the UK with the last machine rolling of the production line in September 1945, and a further 366 in Australia where the Mk XXI was built for the RAAF. In addition to the RAF and RAAF, it was operated by eight other air forces. Few aircraft survive today; a Mk X is on static display at the RAF Museum, Hendon, a Mk 1 at the USAF Museum at Dayton, Ohio, and two Mk XXI aircraft at museums in Australia. It is reported that work is currently under way on a privately owned machine in the UK with a view to restoring it to flying condition.