The Bristol BeaufighterEdit
In Biggles in Borneo, Biggles describes the Bristol Beaufighter as "probably the most heavily armed fighter in the world" and he was not far wrong. The Bristol Type 156 Beaufighter originated when Bristol designers identified a need for a cannon armed long range fighter and proposed a design based on the existing Beaufort bomber which was entering production. By using as many parts from an existing design as possible, there was the promise of completing development and entering production very quickly, an idea which was warmly welcomed by the authorities on the eve of the Second World War. The Beaufighter prototype first flew in July 1939, about 8 months after design work had begun. Two weeks before that, a production contract for 300 machines had been placed "off the drawing board".
The Beaufighter Mk.1F entered service with RAF fighter squadrons in September 1940 just around the time airborne interception radar sets were being produced. Although it was not particularly fast, it was fast enough to catch enemy bombers. Its spacious fuselage allowed the easy fitting of radar equipment. And with its heavy armament of four 20 mm cannon and six machine guns, just a few hits would suffice to bring down an enemy aircraft. The Beaufighter proved to be an extremely effective night fighter, which was fortunate as the Luftwaffe was transitioning from day to night raids over Britain in late 1940. The Beaufighter was gradually replaced by the faster de Haviland Mosquito as a night fighter by 1942 but it continued to serve in this role in other theatres of war, even equipping some USAF night fighter squadrons in the Mediterranean theatre until about 1944 or 1945.
The Beaufighter was also developed for other roles such as ship strike and ground attack. The Mk.1C was developed for RAF Coastal Command in 1941 and this soon proved effective as a ship/ground attack aircraft operating out of bases in Lincolnshire and Malta for example. Besides their four 20 mm cannon in the nose and six machine guns in the wings, the aircraft were frequently modified to carry bombs. Later variants, the Mk.VIC and TF Mk.X were equipped to carry rockets and torpedoes and rockets, thus gradually replacing the Beaufort as a torpedo bomber.
The Beaufighter also made a name for itself in the Southeast Asia and Pacific theatres where it was extensive used by RAF and RAAF units for ship strike and ground attack, acquiring the nickname of "Whispering Death" because it could strike silently and very quickly before the enemy knew what was coming.
The Beaufighter and BigglesEdit
Biggles in BorneoEdit
The Beaufighter makes its first appearance in Biggles in Borneo where it is chosen as the strike fighter for Biggles' secret airbase "Lucky Strike" which was situated in a remote mountain plateau in Japanese occupied Borneo. Air Commodore Raymond described it as the ideal aircraft for the job. With its range, it could hit most of the Japanese possessions in Southeast Asia.
Given that the book was written in 1943 and the story set around March to May 1942, the variant Biggles probably used was the Coastal Command Mk.1C which was introduced around mid-1941. Biggles would have chosen a ship-strike/ground attack variant rather than the night fighter Mk.1F as he had no use for the airborne radar. A second possibility was the later Coastal Command variant Mk.VIC which had more powerful engines optimised for low level performance and could carry either bombs or a torpedo. The Mk VIC was introduced in mid-1942, making Biggles' squadron one of the first receive this later variant. Biggles was given a free hand in equipment so he might have chosen the best and latest!
In Chapter 2, Biggles gives Captain Rex Larrymore a rather detailed description of the Beaufighter. Perhaps Johns also meant it for his readers, who might not have been so familiar with the type as they were with the Spitfire, Hurricane or Mosquito. Besides mentioning the four cannon in the nose and six machine guns in the wings, he also says, "There are more guns in the rear cockpit, which is a power-operated turret behind the pilot." Among the other descriptions given by Biggles:
- carries 550 gallons of fuel
- range of 1500 miles
- speed slightly less than 330 mph
- ceiling around 29,000 feet
Johns then goes into an in-depth description of features such as the escape hatches, air brakes, the provision of intercommunication between pilot and gunner and even the fact that the tail wheel can retract! While this might seem a little unusual, it was perhaps Johns' way of impressing upon his young readers how advanced a design the Beaufighter was. At that time, a retractable tail wheel was probably a rare innovation. The Spitfire Mk.IX, a contemporary of the Beaufighter, did not have a retractable tail wheel!
The description is fairly accurate except in two points;
- Biggles describes the Liberator as slightly faster than the Beaufighter--which is not true. Their speeds are compatible with the Liberator slightly slower.
- Biggles mentions the power-operated turret but actual production Beaufighters did not carry one. The navigator or rear gunner position had a flexible mount for Vickers K machine guns under a perspex hood instead. Only in the Beaufighter Mk.V was an attempt made to mount a Bolton-Paul Defiant type powered turret just behind the pilot but this affected the performance so much that only two prototypes were built.
The rear guns are used in the story, though. In Chapter 3, while attacking the Japanese aircraft carrier, Biggles "banked steeply so that Ginger could bring his guns to bear," thus giving Ginger a chance to "beat a triumphant tattoo as his bullets added to the work of destruction."
It would have been more interesting but sadly neither bombs nor torpedoes were ever dropped by Biggles' Beaus.
The Beaufighter features heavily in the story. Three were brought to Lucky Strike base and participated in the first patrol, destroying a enemy patrol boat as well as attacking an aircraft carrier and shore installations at Kuching.
On subsequent days, Biggles and Bertie took Beaufighters to conduct reconnaissance flights to Singapore and Surabaya respectively. Later Algy and Ginger bale out of one when they discover a snake in the cabin, leaving the Beaufighter to crash. The remaining two Beaufighters took part in the strike on Cotabato. There is mention of bombs being dropped, although it is not clear if they came from the Beaufighters or from the Liberator.
The last two Beaufighters were later destroyed by enemy bombers attacking Lucky Strike. Towards the end of the book, an Australian squadron of Beaufighters with R.A.A.F. crews arrived to reinforce Lucky Strike, in time to attack and eliminate Yasnowada's troops as they advanced through the jungle towards the base.
Insert (Fred Leander): W. E. Johns' concept here is quite interesting. In 1941/42 the British had no secret bases on Borneo, but the Dutch had - Samarinda II, north of Balikpapan. From there they attacked Japanese convoys on both sides of Borneo, the larger part of Borneo was under the Dutch East Indies colony. As the Dutch base was discovered by the Japanese the Dutch planes were withdrawn to Sumatra and Java but the ground troops remained, awaiting US reinforcements. However, these never showed up and the base was eventually captured by the Japanese.
Johns bettered this - he sent in some RAAF units instead.
Biggles in the OrientEdit
In Biggles in the Orient, a Beaufighter was part of the mixed aircraft type inventory of Biggles' squadron in Calcutta, India. It was flown by Flight Lieutenant Johnny Crisp during the big Japanese raid on Calcutta. Johnny Crisp was one of two surviving members of 818 Squadron, normally equipped with Hurricanes. By this time, in 1944, the Beaufighter would most probably be the Mk.X variant.
Biggles Delivers the GoodsEdit
In Biggles Delivers the Goods, Johnny Crisp appears again, this time as the commander of a squadron of Beaufighters. He obviously enjoyed his flight at Calcutta so much he converted to the type. His squadron turns up towards the end of the story to attack and destroy two Japanese troop transport ships which were approaching the Elephant Island. Clearly a maritime strike type such as the the Mk.X was being used.
Biggles Hunts Big GameEdit
Bertie and Ginger used this as their means of transport from London to Almaza Airport, Cairo.