Tugging in sleeves

After such an incredible war, the mighty Beaufighter was destined for a rapid and wide-sweeping stand down. Battle-hardened night-fighter, torpedo bomber and a strike weapon of awesome capability, it seemed that there was little use for the big Bristol with the advent of peace.

It was not just that the need had drastically shrunk but the layout that had made the twin so opportune when it first entered service in 1940 was working against it five years later. That slim fuselage was not capable of taking more advanced airborne interception gear and the remoteness of the gunner-turned-radar operator did not help. The de Havilland Mosquito was to be the night-fighter of choice for the immediate post-war pel |o. I.

For torpedo-toting and strike attacks another Bristol type, the Brigand, was gearing up for service. For a variety of reasons, that machine was going to prove a disappointment, but as VJ-Day was celebrated on August 15, 1945, all of this was in the future.

When the atomic bombs shattered Japanese willpower, there were just seven frontline Beaufighter TF.X squadrons; two each in India and the UK, and one in Burma, Greece and Singapore (see the panel) plus ancillary and training units. Of those, the last disbanded in October 1946. Like many other war-horses, some ‘Beaus’ were headed for new lives as instructional airframes, rework and export but most of them were destined for the scrapheap.

NEW LIFE

There was life in the powerful twin yet; benefits were still to be had from the Beaufighter. In the Far East it had the edge over its more nimble de Havilland rival, the Mosquito. The latter’s bonded ply wooden structure suffered in extremes of temperature and humidity, while the all-metal Beaufighter could shrug off such privations. Here was a niche for the robust type’s operational capabilities.

The good turn of speed and endurance combined to make it very well suited for gun laying and target-towing. All three services had an insatiable need for gunnery practice, even in times of operational cuts. While the fuselage had its restrictions in terms of radar, it could take a winch for pulling gunnery sleeves with ease. The airframe could take plenty of knocks and was simple to repair. We shall return to the Beaufighter tug — the last of the breed.

For the renaissance of the Beaufighter as a ground-attack platform and in its new role as a surrogate target, a highlight of its character played a part. The Bristol Hercules radial, particularly in the form of the 1,770hp (1,320kW) Mk.XVII powering the Mk.10s was very reliable, plenty were held in reserve and there were vast stocks of consumables. (RAF designations changed from Roman numerals to Arabic in 1948.) Later versions of the Hercules were powering Handley Page Hastings, Vickers Valettas, Varsities and Vikings, so there was a large pool of personnel used to working on them. All of this boded well for the Beaufighter’s longevity.

While most of the Beaufighter’s ‘second wind’ was in the support role, its ability to bring devastating amounts of weaponry down on spot targets was still in demand.

In Burma, 27 Squadron was based at Mingaladon and its TF.Xs continued to be involved in ‘contact patrols’ — shadowing the army as it moved through the undergrowth locating, isolating and capturing straggling Japanese troops.

Despite the surrender, getting the word through to out-of-touch units meant that, occasionally, ‘contact’ was required and a burst from the guns of a Beaufighter often helped to quell resistance. To further this, 27 dropped over 250,000 leaflets explaining that World War Two was a thing of the past.

Having endured the Japanese occupation, on the island of Java the Indonesian nationalist Achmed Soekarno seized his moment to declare independence from the previous occupying power, the Netherlands, although militarily, the area was a UK responsibility. Britain had enough territorial struggles on its hands and sought to leave Soekarno to deal with the Dutch, while UK forces rounded up Japanese troops and, most importantly, got prisoners of war out safely. But one occupying force looks much like another and from October 1945, British troops were being fired upon. The ‘peace’ had not lasted long; the UK was unwillingly immersed in what would become the bitter struggle for Indonesian independence.

Among other assets, 27 Squadron was detached to Kemajoran on Java. The Beaufighters transited south through Malaya to the new base, arriving in November 1945. They went straight into action and in the space of three months, undertook over 300 ‘ops’. Many of these were a matter of merely showing up, others involved leaflet dropping, but when close support was required, the Beaufighters were not found lacking. No.27 returned to Mingaladon in January 1946 and disbanded the following month.

EFFECTIVE STRIKE POWER

In Malaya, the huge jungle peninsula behind Singapore spreading up to the Thailand/Burma border, insurrection was fermenting and by early 1948 communist dissidents were becoming more organised. Following a slaughter of plantation owners and staff in Perak, a state of emergency was declared on June 17, 1948. With typically British understatement, what was to become an 18-year conflict became known nonchalantly as ‘The Emergency’ and in military-speak as Operation FIREDOG.

The nearest heavy strike unit in the Far East Air Force was 84 Squadron at Tengah in Singapore. Previously a Mosquito FB.6 operator, it re-equipped in November 1946 with Beaufighter TF.10s. A detachment was sent to Kuala Lumpur in July 1948. Across the Indian Ocean at Negombo in Ceylon, 45 Squadron traded in its Mosquito FB.6s for TF.10s in December 1946. It too was put on standby and had a flight of ‘Beaus’ in place at ‘KL’, as it was known, a month after 84 and the whole unit settled there in May 1949.

Between these two, an average of eight Beaufighters was on call to hit what were called Communist Terrorist (CT) bases, supply lines or even bands of insurgents on the march. Until the arrival of the hard-hitting Bristols, Supermarine Spitfire FR.18s equipped with under-wing rocket-projectiles (RPs) were the first responders. In August an electric fault caused an RP to launch from a Spitfire on the ground and a civilian was killed. This put paid to using the single-engined fighter for strikes but they could still make their presence felt with 20mm cannon.

So 45 and 84’s Beaufighters came into their own. Author Robert Jackson in his masterful The Malayan Emergency and Indonesian Confrontation, The Commonwealth’s Wars 1948-1966

(Pen & Sword 2008) summed up the Bristol’s advantages: “With its powerful armament of four 20mm cannon, six 0.303 machine-guns, eight RPs or two 250 or 500lb bombs, each Beaufighter was the offensive equivalent of two Spitfires.”

The first strike was on August 12 on a camp near the Thai border, where a large concentration of CTs had been found — 30 are believed to have been killed in the first salvoes. Five days later came the biggest strike yet, with Beaufighters supplemented by Spitfire FR.18s. The nature of jungle warfare was such that only one CT was killed in this conflagration.

No.84 left for Tengah in November and from there flew its Beaufighters to Habbaniya in Iraq, where it was to start working up on Brigands. In December 1949, 45 Squadron relocated to Tengah and also started coming to grips with Brigands.

It did not forsake ‘Beaus’ totally until February of the following year. Because of that, on February 7 Beaufighters were brought in for a strike on a settlement in Johore — the Malay state neighbouring Singapore. Sadly, five civilians were injured and a revision of just how a strike could be called was instigated. This sortie was the last time a ‘Beau’ was used in anger.

ADDING A THIRD PROPELLER

As mentioned earlier, the TF.10 was regarded as an ideal candidate for conversion to a target-tug. The prototype was NT913 which was converted at Filton in May 1948 and given the designation TT.10.

At least 35 were transformed to the new role up to 1950. The type became an exceptional hard-worker, serving extensively in the UK, the Mediterranean (with the Fleet Air Arm and well as the RAF), the Middle East and Far East.

A winch was placed within the rear fuselage, towing a sleeve via a lug under the tail. The winch was powered by an airstream-driven propeller on a fixed arm extending from the starboard mid-fuselage. When not in use, this propeller was rotated through 90-degrees, so as to create the minimum possible amount of drag. Guards and wires protected the tail surfaces and tail wheel from the tow wire.

A look through the Beaufighter Squadron Directory will give details of the eight (including one Royal Navy and one RAAF) full-blown units that operated tugs examples. By 1951 all but 30 Squadron RAAF had disbanded -see the panel for more on the Australian TT.21.

Final ‘frontline’ RAF squadron to operate the Beaufighter was 167 which re-formed at Abingdon, Oxfordshire, on February 1, 1953 from 3 Ferry Unit. The outfit existed to fly various types long distances to new ‘clients’ and with TT.10s in use in all points east to Hong Kong and Singapore, a ‘Beau’ or two was on strength to keep pilots current. Many second line units flew the yellow and black striped tugs — more details in the panel.

FINAL FLING

During the 1950s and 1960s the Far East witnessed a series of ‘last ever’ flights. This is not surprising as the RAF tended to post the more ‘experienced’ aircraft out there, leaving the newer types to bear the brunt of the ‘Cold War’ in Europe and the Middle East.

In May 1955, 45 Squadron retired the last of its superb de Havilland Hornet F.3 twin-engined fighters at its base at Butterworth, Malaya. Sadly, none have survived through to today, all languishing on the scrap dump.

On May 15, 1959 Seletar on Singapore witnessed the final official flights by Short Sunderland MR.5s.

The operating unit was 205 Squadron and the occasion was not just the last of a type, but of flying-boats in the RAF.

Seletar was the venue for the finale of the Beaufighter. This was TT.10 RD761, on charge with the Station Flight, which provided a variety of services for the RAF, Army and Royal Navy stationed at Singapore.

TT.10 RD761 was typical of the tugs. It was built at Weston-super-Mare in 1945 as a TF.X but never saw ‘sharp end’ service and was stored. After conversion in late 1948 it went off to serve in the target facilities’ role with 17 Squadron at Chivenor, Devon; 5 Squadron at Llandow, Wales, and 226 Operational Conversion Unit, also at Chivenor. It was ferried out to the Far East in 1955, joining the Seletar Station Flight.

On May 12, 1960 flying RD761 Fg Off H Marshall made the RAF’s final sortie and the last flight of a Beaufighter — until such time as The Fighter Collection’s example at Duxford amends the records!

Official photos of this last flight are dated May 16 and this is often quoted in sources. This was the release date of the prints, not of the event!

Eight days later, RD761 was struck off charge, stripped of spares and its forlorn carcass left on the scrap dump. Like 205’s Sunderlands and the Hornets of 45 before that, none of the Seletar ‘Beaus’ found their way into a museum.

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