Thursday, October 03, 2013

War Stories: Bristol Beaufighter Again

A rare colour picture of Beaufighters from RAF 272 squadron patrolling the Mediterrranean off the coast of Malta, c1943 (IWM photo via Bristol Beaufighter page, Facebook)

First I should warn any internet traveller that if you've arrived here expecting commentary about music, travel, rally driving or just plain old snarkiness you are going to be gravely disappointed. This particular article is pure, unashamed, anorakary, so unless you have an interest in the WWII-era military aviation, look away now.

Within 24 hours of me publishing my last piece on the remains of a crashed Bristol Beaufighter in Gusano, Italy, I was contacted by Ewan McArthur who runs Warbird Restoration Services, near Melbourne, Australia. Ewan could identify most of the parts that I'd photographed and provided illustrations from Beaufighter technical manuals. He also made a special journey to the Australian National Aviation Museum at Moorabbin to photograph one of the last remaining Beaufighters. So for those of you sad people who like this kind of thing, here's what I discovered...

Armoured Plate
This was perhaps the easiest part to identify and I'm pleased to say my instinct was accurate. It is indeed a piece of armour plate and protects the front of the cockpit. The hole in the middle is an inspection hatch  -see technical sheet below.

This part was identified with absolute certainty: it's a heavy steel armoured plate fitted in the nose to the pilot against incoming fire
The location of the plate is shown here in this technical sheet. The rectangular opening in the lower part is for an inspection plate (missing). The inspection panel is fitted to the main plate with Dzus fasteners

Machine Gun Mount
These rails turned out to be gun mounts as I had suspected. Without detailed measurements we can't be sure if they are for the fuselage 20mm cannon or the wing machine guns. I've put up the technical sheets for both. Given the position of the hopper or chute located between the two rails it is most likely that the are for the one of the six Browning .303 calibre machine guns: the hopper/chute for the cannon appears to be at the very end of the mounts.  The chute is for voiding the spent cartridges out of the bottom of the aircraft: the bottom photo shows the chute exits on the lower wing surface.

Gun mounting rails. Almost certainly for one of the eight wing-mounted .303 calibre Browning machine  guns. 
Technical schematic showing the locations of the Beaufighter's guns. The aircraft was fitted with four 20mm Hispano-Suiza cannon mounted in the fuselage and eight .303 calibre Browning machine guns in the wings (marked in yellow). The machine guns were fitted asymmetrically: four in the starboard wing and two in the port wing. The reason for this configuration was to balance out the weight of the landing light which was also mounted in the port wing.
This photographs shows the ammunition chute for spent cartridges. It is located approximately two feet from the right side of the structure (as shown in the upper photograph)  -for this reason it is unlikely to be one of the cannon mounts
Technical schematic of the 20mm cannon mountings. The chute for the spent cartridges is positioned at the end of the rails indicating that 'our' part is not a cannon mount
The spent cartridges are ejected into the chute and voided from the under surface of the wing.  Photo of the Beaufighter exhibit at the Australian National Aviation Mueseum, Moorabbin, Victoria, courtesy Ewan McArthur.
This panel is probably the inspection cover of the two machine guns located in the port wing.  The panel 's location can be seen in the top schematic in this series

Undercarriage Mechanism
This contraption is the upper part of the undercarriage mechanism. No equivocation here. I've indicated the location of the part on the technical sheet below. Ewan somehow managed to get a shot right up in the undercarriage (see bottom photo) -even the colour is the same.
This part is from the upper undercarriage mechanism. Its relationship  to the rest of the u/c is shown in the technical sheet below
Technical sheet of the complete Beaufighter undercarriage mechanism.  The section found at Gusano is indicated in yellow
Picture of the radius arm in position on the Moorabbin Beaufighter. Even the color is the same as  the parts from Gusano. Photo courtesy Ewan McArthur

Engine Nacelle Panel
Ewan confirmed that this panel is one from the engine nacelle structure. The detailed photos show fuel and oil hatches. The bottom picture in this series, again taken by Ewan McArthur, is of the nacelle of the Beau exhibit at the ANAM. The location of the Gusano Beau panel is indicated in yellow. The part has been flattened though  -either as a result of the crash or some individual trying to reshape for one reason or another.

This panel is part of the engine nacelle: it has smaller panels for fuel and oil (see below) -the whole structure seems to have been somewhat  -this might have happened in the crash or as a result of human activity afterwards i.e. it was rolled flat for salvage purposes
Clearly marked fuel hatch located on the panel above. I'm not quite sure about it's purpose, though, as fuel wouldn't be delivered through a cover that had to be unscrewed. I'll do some additional research on this...
I'm not quite sure if you can see this but in the centre of this small panel is the word "oil".  The same comment applies to this as "fuel" panel above: it's hard to believe that oil would be checked/changed via a panel that had to be unscrewed every time (Ewan can you help...?)
Here's the location of the panel on an intact aircraft: the Beau exhibit at the Moorabbin ANA museum.   Photograph courtesy of Ewan McArthur

Instrument Panel
I'd like to think that this piece of twisted aluminium is part of the instrument panel. Ewan kindly provided me with a brilliant photo of the Beau cockpit and my first impression was that its from the area indicated below. However there is some doubt. The metal is very thin and Ewan believes it could be part of the wing or even tail spar assembly. It's difficult to get a good ID when the specimens are so mangled.

We've been equivocating over this piece of twisted aluminum. My first thoughts were that it was part of an instrument panel (see below) it could be part of a wing or tail rib
As mentioned in the photo above, I was thinking that the piece of bent aluminium came from somewhere like here but now I'm not sure. In any case it's a great excuse to show a pic of the awesome cockpit of a Beau. Photo courtesy EwanMcArthur

Finale and Acknowledgements
Well I think that's enough for now and we have some closure on the identification of these parts. I should mention that a peculiar  thing happened in the process of writing this and the previous post about this aircraft. I started out thinking it would be an interesting vignette about my travels and a little bit of military aviation history. But as I wrote, fact checked, and dug up more information about this Beaufighter and its aircrew the story began to take on a life of its own. I became intensely interested in the not only in the history of this particular Beaufighter XIc of RAF 272 squadron but the personalities of Flight Sergeant John Horsford, DFM, 21 years old and born to John and Ellen Mary Horsford, Oundle, Northamptomshire and Warrant Officer John Crockatt Watson, 26, son of Thomas and Margaret Mary Watson of Jordanhill, Glasgow.  What was their mission that night (unfortunately we'll probably never know as the squadron records for that month are missing)? What were they like as individuals? Were they friends or was their relationship strictly professional?  What were the exact circumstances of their crash?  Where they strafing and did they hit their target? Did they suffer engine or other mechanical difficulties? Were they brought down by a lucky rifle shot from a German soldier? Did they have families and are there any surviving members (actually I'm still working on that one but so far with a conspicuous lack of success)?  In the end I started to feel I knew these young men. I'm certainly awed and humbled not only by the technical expertise needed to fly this complicated, powerful war machine (at 21, I could just about buy a bus ticket) but the responsibility of unleashing the hell of its formidable armament. Overall I feel privileged to play a small part in the story of this aircraft.

Update (2nd January 2014): since I wrote this post I've discovered this entry on the Aviation Safety Network's site.  The additional snippets of information are (i) that the aircraft's MSN (manufacturer's serial number) was NE639 and (ii) that on the night of the crash the plane was on a mission to engage shipping at Rapallo, near Genoa
RAF 272 Squadron insignia -an armoured knight, couped at the shoulders; motto "on, on". The squadron was disbanded in April 1945
Update (2nd January 2014): This photo was in the possession of the Air Crash Po Valley team. I assume it was found in the personal effects of the deceased aircrew. It was taken in 1944, when 272 Squadron was based in Alghero, Sardinia, and is the official photo of "B" flight.  John C. Watson is present in this photo (2nd row from front, 10th person from the left.  Watson's regular pilot partner, Flight Sergeant Allen Powell is immediately to the right as we look at the photo).  According to Allen Powell, Flight Sergeant Horsford is apparently not in the photo and was not in the B Flight when it was taken so it can be assumed that the picture was the property of John Watson
Lest we forget. The graves of the aircrew, John Horsford and John Watson are located in the remarkable Staglieno Cemetery, Genoa. The pictures are copyright and courtesy of The War Graves Photographic Project. If anybody has any information on their families please let me know

So once again I'd like to express my appreciation to Signor Pierlino Bergonzi, Professor Agostino Alberti and their colleagues of the Aircrash Po and Grupo Ricercatori Aerei Caduti teams and the Muzeo Della Resistenza, Sperongia, for making this experience possible. A special "thank you" goes to Ewan McArthur for contributing the technical sheets, photographs and his knowledge of the Beaufighter  -mate, if I'm ever back in Melbourne (and I probably will be) I'll look you up and buy you a pint or two.

Ewan McArthur at work: photo swiped without his permission (sorry, Ewan) from the Warbird Restoration Sevices site on Facebook


Alan Greaves said...

Late F-I-L's book details the procurement of parts required for assembly of the Beaufighters in Australia. Took him a while to find a pic of the press for forging the prop. His neighbour walked in one day with an open book and asked if the pic was the one he was after. Was it ever.

Copy of book in Canberra naturally. ISBN 0 646 28175 5 "From Small Beginnings" by Robert Ian Ferguson.

I have a few spare copies of the book if interested. Pretty sure the first test flight overpass features, but B&W or colour, I'd have to have a look. Only non-tech [well partly] book I'd read that I couldn't put down. It was written in such a way that it was like walking alongside him throughout his life :D

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Mad Dog said...

Alan: thanks for your comments. I'd be happy to purchase a copy of the book (you can PM me at for address details etc).

I've another Beaufighter story in the pipeline so watch this space...