Bristol Blenheim Light-Medium Bomber / Heavy Fighter / Night Fighter
The British Bristol Blenheim lost more aircrews than any other RAF aircraft during World War 2 - yet it fulfilled roles clearly needed during the early war years.
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Origins of the Bristol Blenheim Light Bomber / Heavy Fighter place it in the 1930s when Lord Rothermere, owner of the "Daily Mail" newspaper, set out a challenge to produce the fastest aircraft in Europe. From this came the Bristol "Type 142" with its sleek design holding much promise. It certainly went on to impress onlookers including Royal Air Force authorities who eventually considered it for military service (indeed it proved faster that some frontline fighters of the day). Specification B.28/35 was drawn up by the Air Ministry in 1935 to cover the conversion process of the fast plane to a three-seat, twin-engined light bomber / heavy fighter form. It was known to Bristol as the "Type 142M" and named Blenheim in RAF service. An initial order of 150 in 1935 followed and this was strengthened by a 1936 order for 434 more (as the Blenheim Mk.I).
Initial users were the airmen of Squadron No.114 during March of 1937 and a stock of hundreds were available when Britain went to war in September of 1939. However, of this total many were already stationed overseas in far-off places like the Middle East and Far East so they held little value in defending the home front and in attacking Axis positions across mainland Europe. The line was continually evolved throughout its early involvement in the war and this resulted in a few more specialized designs including a night fighters and several long-range performers.
Blenheims in Action
Blenheims marked the first RAF violation of German airspace in the war when a flight crossed over into enemy territory on a reconnaissance mission near Wilhelmshaven (September 3rd, 1939). The next day, Blenheims attacked German naval positions at the Elbe Estuary but this force of ten was reduced to just five returning bombers and many of the dropped ordnance failed to detonate. The aircraft was continually pushed into action despite its shortcomings and spent time in the skies above Norway, France and the Low Countries. In these environments the aircraft proved its underperforming self and lacked suitable defensive capabilities - under-powered and under-gunned she was. This led to revisions of the armament suite, namely increasing the overall machine gun count carried. On March 11, 1940, a Blenheim claimed the RAF's first sinking of an enemy submarine (a German U-Boat).
The Blenheim equipped the first night fighter unit anywhere in the world when Squadron No.25 was given the type. During the "Battle of Britain" in the summer of 1940, a Blenheim night fighter claimed the first aerial kill while carrying radar when it downed a raiding German Dornier Do 17 Medium Bomber. The series played a crucial role in the night defense of Britain proper despite its inherent deficiencies in both performance and firepower.
The series soldiered on in anti-shipping sorties across the North Sea and in daring low-altitude runs against German infrastructure when possible. Overseas units were featured in the Middle East, Far East, North African and Mediterranean theaters (including time over Greece and Crete). Finland, becoming the first export customer of the Blenheim back in 1936 (both through direct order and local, licensed production), showcased the light bomber during its wars against the Soviet Union (the "Winter War" and the "Continuation War").
The line eventually served out its usefulness and was gradually replaced from 1942 onward by such designs as the American Douglas "Boston" and British de Havilland Mosquitoes and Bristol Beaufighters. The RAF gave up use of all Blenheims as soon as 1944.