Night Owls

With the Battle of Britain at its height the first Beaufighters were delivered to operational units. The new, heavily-armed, long-range fighters were all destined for night-fighter squadrons. The initial batch was fitted with cannon only but also had the airborne interception (AI) Mk IV radar with its characteristic ‘bow and arrow’ nose aerials and wing blade aerials. These machines represented a step-change in the nocturnal war.

From the Filton production line, the ‘Beaus’ were issued to units equipped with Bristol Blenheim Ifs, most of which had been fitted with AI. Getting the Beaufighter ready for its debut were the following squadrons: 25 at North Weald and Debden, 29 at Wellingore, 219 at Redhill and the Auxiliaries 600 at Redhill and Catterick, and 604 at Middle Wallop.

Operations began on September 17 when 29s CO, Wg Cdr S C Widdows, with Plt Off Watson as radar operator, flew an uneventful patrol in R2072. However, the first unit declared operational was 219’s ‘B’ Flight after it had moved to Redhill, and it was one of its pilots who had the distinction of opening the new fighter’s account.

On the night of October 2, Sgt Arthur Hodgkinson was airborne near Kenley to the south of London: “I was vectored out 170 [degrees] and back 350 on to an enemy aircraft [e/a] and I sighted it at about 16,000ft. I observed the enemy flying slightly to my north side ahead of me at a distance of 400 yards. I opened fire at 200 yards — firing approximately 200 rounds in two bursts. I gave a third at 70 yards, but the cannon failed to fire.

“My AI operator observed the e/a dive steeply into cloud. The e/a returned no fire. This aircraft was definitely a Do 17 or 215 as I noticed the humped effect above the forward end of fuselage (where the aerial is) and high wing; also the twin rudders.”

TEAMWORK AND COMPETENCE

Although 219 Squadron and Arthur Hodgkinson gained the prestige of achieving the first victory, perhaps in the public’s perception it was to be the 23-year-old Flt Lt John Cunningham who was the Beaufighters greatest exponent. Given the nickname ‘Cats Eyes’ — as much as a cover for the use of the then secret radar as for public morale — it was something Cunningham detested.

John’s opinion was that night-fighting was a craft that was a combination of the teamwork and competence of the pilot and radar operator with the ground-based radar technology. This was clearly illustrated on the evening of February 15, 1941 when he and his navigator, Sgt Jimmy Rawnsley, departed Middle Wallop in their Beaufighter heading for the Dorset coast, south of Lulworth. Cunningham had flown Hawker Demons with Rawnsley on 604 (County of Middlesex) Squadron before the war.

Establishing their patrol line at 15,000ft (4,572m) under the ‘Starlight’ ground control interception (GCI) station, shortly afterwards they were advised that an intruder was inbound at 12,000ft. Cunningham im mediately descended to 1,00 0ft below the enemy bomber in order to silhouette it above them.

They scanned ahead visually. Rawnsley spotted it high and off to port. The night-fighter navigator later wrote: “John brought the ‘Beau’ wheeling round on its wingtip. The enemy was a tiny black speck still miles away but incredibly distinct against the opal curtain of light. It must have been a 1,000ft higher than we were and it was coming our way fast, growing bigger and more like a Heinkel every second. I turned to look down-light, trying to see how far he could see in our direction. It was certainly very murky looking that way, with the sea and the sky blending into a dull grey haze.

“The Heinkel was soon high overhead, and John was turning in order to keep vertically beneath it. Apparently they had not seen us and continued serenely on their way. John held his position below them, keeping watch through the roof panel. For a very long ten minutes we continued in company, and all the time it was getting darker.

“But now, all too plainly for my liking, the Dorset coast was showing up. Perhaps the German skipper thought the same thing. The Heinkel went into a slow turn to the right. Steadily John went into a shadowing turn, glancing up and down from the bomber to his instruments.”

Their prey was He 111P-2 2911 ‘1G+FR’ of the 7th Staffel of Kampfgeschwader 27 (7/KG27) flown by Ltn Eberhard Beckmann, who orbited it over Lyme Bay until it was fully dark before heading north once more. Cunningham maintained station — then, opening the throttles, closed on the bomber until it was just above them.

Jimmy Rawnsley: “The Heinkel sank slowly into our sights. I waited for the ‘hot tomatoes’ to come streaming back at us when our guns started their giant pounding. For the first few seconds nothing at all seemed to happen. Then through the choking haze of smoke from the guns, I saw a flash of hits on the starboard engine as John shifted his aim.”

At that point the ammunition ran out as the bomber entered a slow descent and Rawnsley, from the navigator’s position, feverishly began changing the 60lb ammunition drums. By then Cunningham had lost sight of his target, but the GCI station vectored them in again as the Heinkel headed west along the coast.

Cunningham set off in pursuit, though the target’s height made the AI radar unreadable. At 3,000ft, the 604 Squadron crew saw some distance ahead a stick of jettisoned incendiaries explode on the ground — followed soon afterwards by a flash of flame as the Heinkel hit the ground at Higher Luscombe Farm, Harberton.

This was the first victory for the pair when flying together, and the first of ten. They also claimed a ‘probable’ and two damaged while flying in Beaufighter If R2101 ‘NG-R’ over the next few months.

MEDITERRANEAN PATROL

Proven as a major tool in blunting the night ‘Blitz’ on Britain, the Beaufighter was later sent in some numbers to the Mediterranean to provide night-fighter defence for the strategically vital island of Malta and the ports of Egypt and the Suez Canal. In March 1943, under Wg Cdr ‘Jasper’ Read, 108 Squadron was formed at Shandur on the Suez Canal to defend Egypt, Libya and Malta.

No.108 had some very notable pilots including fellow New Zealanders, Flt Lt Victor Verity — who had seven and one shared victories — and Flt Lt Henry Edwards, who had seven. It was over Sicily on the night of April 17/18 that Verity, with W/O Farquharson as his navigator, claimed 108’s first success when they intercepted a He 111 over Trapani. Verity opened fire and hit the starboard engine after which the bomber spun away and exploded; it was his final victory.

Three nights later a Beaufighter flown by Fg Off Bob Cowper left Malta in the early hours on an offensive patrol to Marsala in Sicily, where he intercepted a Messerschmitt Me 410 which he engaged and damaged. Later, also near Marsala, Fg Off Reg ‘Fingers’ Foster with Plt Off ‘Apple’ Newton intercepted Uffz Kohler’s Junkers Ju 88C of 10/ZG 26 at 10,000ft. Engaging from 1,000 yards he hit the Junkers in the fuselage and starboard engine and it went down to its destruction.

AEGEAN QUEENS

By 1944 many of the enemy garrisons on islands in the Aegean were dependent on resupply by small coasters, so effective were the air attacks on shipping. In addition the enemy used transport aircraft flying in under the cover of darkness.

In an attempt to interrupt this lifeline, 46 Squadron, headquartered at Edku near Alexandria, sent a detachment to Gambut in Libya in late September. The Beaufighters were to patrol over the Aegean under control of the GCI ship HMS Ulster Queen, resulting in an astonishing run of success, the squadron recording officer noting: “Our score of enemy aircraft up to the end of the month is: Destroyed 11 (2 Do 24s, 1 Ju 188 and 8 Ju 52s), Probable 1, Damaged 3.”

On the first night of operations, September 26, W/O Roy Butler and his navigator had an eventful sortie by any yardstick. Butler reported: “… sighted two green lights crossing in front port to starboard. I executed a hard starboard turn and closed in to approx 250 yards and recognised a Do 24 flying at 300ft. We attacked from dead astern, gave three short bursts, our third caused flame from the wing. We pulled away to port and watched e/a glide down in flames and crash into the sea, burning for five minutes.

“We returned to control, being vectored to another ‘bogey’ crossing port to starboard. We obtained contact, decreased to 100ft, closed in and obtained visual on a Ju 52 land plane. Gave one long burst at 200 yards dead astern and the e/a exploded violently and fell into the sea and burned for ten minutes with a huge pall of black smoke.

“Was informed that two further e/a were north and at 23:25 contact was obtained, closed but overshot and target disappeared. Returned to control and was directed to another target and contact was obtained at 21/2 miles. Closed in to 100ft, over-shooting and recognised a Ju 52 floatplane. Executed a hard starboard orbit and regained contact at 4 miles range and closed in on e/a 3 miles off the coast of Trypete. Gave one short burst from 250 yards dead astern, observed strikes on e/a starboard engine which caught fire. We followed up with a long burst and broke away hard port, climbing. E/a glided slowly down struck the sea and burst into flames.”

Two nights later, Butler and Graham, once more flying in ND243 ‘Q’ (which was named Kampala Queen as 46 was the ‘Uganda Squadron), were again successful when they shot down a Ju 188 off the coast of Melos. On the first night of October the pair worked with Ulster Queen, as Roy Butler described: “…vectored on to another target coming north at low level. We reduced to 500ft, turned and closed 10 miles west of Melos and recognised a He 111 heading 330 degrees at 250ft. We opened fire from 200 yards and gave a 3-second burst from dead astern, strikes were observed and pieces flew off the tailplane, fire started in the starboard wing root and smoke poured from the starboard engine. E/a broke away to port and observed to glide down and strike the sea with a small momentary burst of flame and then disappeared.”

LAST OF THE MANY

After a long and successful career in the Middle East, 89 Squadron had been sent to the Burma theatre where the Beaufighter remained the primary night-fighter. However, there was little ‘trade’ for 89 and 176 Squadrons though both maintained operational detachments based close to the front line. In the early hours of March 4, 1945, one of 89’s crews had a significant double success.

Just after midnight Beaufighter Vlf X8745 — flown by 22-year-old W/O Bert Johnson, an Australian, and his navigator, W/O Chalmers — was scrambled from one of 89’s forward bases at Sadaung, just to the east of Mandalay in central Burma, to intercept a Japanese aircraft in the Pakokku area.

As they reached 17,000ft the ‘bogey’ disappeared and, after orbiting for several minutes, the Beaufighter was directed towards base. Eventually Chalmers gained an AI radar contact crossing from starboard to port at 7,000ft. Johnson turned to come up behind and, closing to 1,500ft, obtained a visual on twin exhaust flames slightly above and to port.

They closed in further, reducing to the target’s speed of approximately 140mph (225km/h) until it started to climb, when it was identified as a Kawasaki Ki-48 Lily twin-engined bomber. However, as Johnson increased power before opening fire, flames leapt out from a broken exhaust ring at which point the Lily saw the ‘Beau’ and did a wing-over and stall turn to port — closely followed by Johnson and Chalmers who gave a short burst, though without visible result.

The bomber climbed and levelled out when Johnson gave another short volley and the Lily went down again with the fighter in hot pursuit. Johnson fired again, hitting the starboard wing, causing pieces to fly off. The Lily did one more wing-over to port and levelled out before Johnson hit its port engine, at which point the wing dropped violently and the bomber slipped away with fire coming from the stricken engine. It went over the vertical and headed below the top of the hills and was claimed destroyed.

BACK TO THE FRAY

After landing, the ground crew did well to refuel and re-arm in just 35 minutes. Just before 2am they were off again, as Bert Johnson described:

“After an uneventful patrol east and west of Sadaung we were returning to base when we were informed of a ‘bogey’ 25 miles north at 1,000ft. Given several vectors which successfully brought us behind the ‘bogey’, which was weaving violently, we increased speed to close-in and contact was obtained at 1,000ft.

“Eventually identified as a Lily at 30 degrees to starboard and 10 below, weaving violently, we turned in behind, closed to within 75 yards and opened fire with a long burst. Strikes were seen on its belly from wing root to tail and pieces flew off. Return fire was experienced but no harm was done. The speed of the e/a dropped off very suddenly and it nosed down with flames coming out of its belly. A reflection of the fire was seen on the ground by the observer at approximately 15 miles south east of Mandalay.”

This was claimed destroyed, though their victim was actually a Mitsubishi Ki-21 Sally. Johnson and Chalmers had taken 89’s ‘score’ to 141 victories. This made it the RAF’s second highest-scoring night-fighter squadron. THE LAST HURRAH!

Almost three weeks later it was the turn of 176’s detachment at Akyab, there to counter Japanese small-scale night nuisance raids. On the evening of March 25, 1945 at a little after 10pm, Fg Offs J I H Forbes and H J Pettridge were scrambled and flew south.

No.176’s operational record book: “They were vectored to the west of Ramree Island for 11/2 hours and were finally vectored onto a low flying ‘bogey’. Forbes closed to 200ft below and identified the bandit from plan view as an Oscar Nakajima Ki-43], so he dropped back to 300ft slightly low and gave a short burst. Hits were observed all over the fuselage and a large explosion enveloped the starboard main plane. The Oscar dropped away to port and faded from the AI tube. The interception took place over the coast and the Oscar may have gone into the sea. Claim one destroyed.”

In the humid tropical skies off the Burma coast, half a world away from the Home Counties where its first victim came down, Forbes and Pettridge’s success became the Beaufighters final victim.

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