The Bristol F.2B Fighter – bare!

The young Bristol And Colonial Aeroplane Company Ltd was one of the most innovative of the new wave of British aircraft manufacturers formed before the start of the Great War in 1914. Their Bristol Boxkite was a reliable, if somewhat staid performer (see The Shuttleworth Collection’s flying replica, if you can) and their revolutionary monoplane scout, the M.1C, was well in advance of other British ‘fighter’ designs. So much so, that the ‘powers that be’ in the Royal Flying Corps disapproved of it, and banished the few that were ordered to minor theatres of war such as Palestine and Mesopotamia. The M.1C had been designed by Frank Barnwell, but his next aircraft was destined to be wildly successful.

The Bristol Type 12, designated F.2A, and called the Bristol Fighter – affectionately known as the ‘Brisfit’ or ‘Biff’ – was a handsome, two-bay, twin-seat fighter of wooden construction, and powered by the Rolls-Royce Falcon engine of 190hp. The positioning of the lower wing was unusual, in that rather than mounting it flush with the lower fuselage, it was held clear of it on small ‘V’ struts. The ‘Brisfit’ was armed with a single, synchronized, Vickers .303 machine gun on the aircraft centreline for the pilot, and a .303 Lewis machine gun for the observer (who sat close behind him), the prototype, ‘A3303’, first flew on 9th September, 1916. It had been intended to replace all the Royal Flying Corp’s two-seater ‘fighting ‘planes’, such as the Sopwith 1½ Strutter, with the new fighter, and undertake escort missions, photographic reconnaissance, offensive patrols and ground attacks. A contract for 50 F.2A’s was issued, and the new aircraft rushed to the Western Front as soon as possible.

It fell to No. 48 Squadron to be the first unit to use the ‘Brisfit’ on operations, and this occurred during the Battle of Arras, when the British Expeditionary Force was being hard pressed. On the morning of 5th April, 1917, six F.2As from the squadron’s ‘B’ Flight set out on an ‘offensive patrol’. They were led by no less a person than the commander of ‘B’ Flight, Captain William Leefe-Robinson, VC, RFC. Leefe-Robinson had won his Victoria Cross when flying a B.E.2c on Home Defence. He shot down the Schütte-Lanz airship SL-11, of the Imperial German Army, during the night of the 3/4th September, 1916 over the outskirts of London. Unfortunately, this tour with No. 48 Squadron was his first posting to the Western Front, and he had had no time to acquire the fighting skills which would increase his chances of survival. Consequently, when a patrol of Albatros D.III fighters from Jasta II bounced the new Bristol machines, Leefe-Robinson followed the outmoded British tactics of keeping in close formation, and letting the observers use their rear guns to defend the British aircraft. To turn the action into every British flyer’s worst nightmare, the leader of the enemy formation was no less than Baron Manfred von Richthofen. The outcome was predictable; the ‘Red Baron’ and his fellow flyers slaughtered the Bristol Fighters; four were shot down immediately, and the other two were heavily damaged and staggered back across the British ‘lines’, where they crashed in friendly territory. Leefe-Robinson was wounded, but survived the subsequent crash landing, only to find himself in enemy hands.

The next few days showed no improvement, with the loss of eight more F.2A’s. Fortunately, two factors saved the new machine. Firstly, a new, improved version of the Brisfit, the Type 14, the F.2B, stood ready, having first flown on 25th October, 1916. This aircraft had more ammunition for the pilot’s Vickers gun, a wider-span tailplane, more wing area and more fuel, along with a powerful Rolls-Royce Falcon III of 275hp. Secondly, it was suddenly realized that the only way to ‘fight’ the Bristol Fighter was to let the pilot fly it as if it was a single-seater, and aggressively attack enemy aircraft whilst letting the observer/gunner keep his tail clear! Since the F.2B had ailerons on both upper and lower wings (each wing had two spars) and a strong fuselage with a braced frame, it could be thrown around with abandon. Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Edward McKeever, DSO, MC & Bar, DFC, Croix de Guerre, a Canadian pilot with No. 11 Squadron, Royal Air Force, shared no less than 31 victories with a total of 7 different gunners, thereby becoming the leading two-seater ace with the RFC/RAF. The new version of the Brisfit had an endurance of 3 hours, and could climb to 20,000 feet; the maximum speed had increased to 123mph. Orders for the big bruiser of a plane flooded in, eventually totalling 5,277 F.2Bs. There was no way that the Bristol Company could satisfy the demand, so the F.2B was sub-contracted to Austin Motors Company, Sir W.G. Armstrong‑Whitworth & Company Ltd, Gloucestershire Aircraft Company, Harris & Sheldon Ltd, Angus, Sanderson & Company, the National Aircraft Factory No.3, Marshall & Sons and the Standard Motor Co. Ltd, the company which would go on to build the best two-seat warplane of the SECOND World War – the de Havilland Mosquito! This wide-spread production programme made the average cost of a fully equipped F.2B fall to £1,350. With these huge quantities, Rolls-Royce was struggling to keep up with deliveries of the Falcon engine, so other powerplants were either tried or suggested by Bristol’s. These included the 200hp Sunbeam Arab (Bristol Type 15), the 200hp Hispano-Suiza (Bristol Type 16, but the engine was desperately needed by the S.E.5A fighter), the 200hp R.A.F. 4d, 180hp Wolseley Viper and 230hp Siddeley Puma. There was an attempt in the United States to build a version of the Bristol Fighter with a plywood-skinned fuselage and powered by the ubiquitous Liberty L-12A, a V-12 400hp engine, but one that was far too heavy for Barnwell’s design; only a few were built.

The rapid expansion of the F.2B force meant that by 1918 no less than 6 RFC squadrons were on the Western Front, whilst No. 88 Squadron, RFC was fighting on the Italian Front, with two more units in Palestine and Nos. 33, 39, 76, 138 and 141 Squadrons forming part of the Home Defence establishment. When the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps amalgamated on 1st April, 1918, it was the F.2B’s of No.22 Squadron, RAF that made the new Service’s very first sortie at dawn on that 1st of April. By now, some gunners were doubling their firepower by fitting twin Lewis guns on the Scarff ring in the rear cockpit. Similarly, some pilots had a Lewis gun on a ‘pull-down’ Foster mounting fitted above the upper wing, giving themselves the same armament as an S.E.5A. In a few cases this had to be offset as it disturbed the pilot’s compass. When tasked with making ‘strafing’ attacks on trenches or enemy columns, the Brisfit could be fitted with 20lb Cooper or 112lb Hales bombs.

When the Great War ended, there was an urgent need to both reduce the size of the RAF, and also use what remained to police the Empire and the newly acquired Mandated Territories. Since Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Lord Trenchard had determined that the Bristol Fighter was to be one of the ‘standard’ post-war types, the F.2B was spread far and wide. As well as the nine RAF Squadrons with the Occupation Forces in Germany (until 1922), there were Brisfits in the Palestine Mandate (No. 6 Squadron), India (No.31 Squadron on the North West Frontier), Mesopotamia and Egypt (No. 208 Sqn. at Ismailia, until May, 1930). As well as this, the Polish Air Force used 107 F.2B from 1920 to 1932, and New Zealand had 7 from 1919 to 1936.

Post-war, 350 F.2B were re-conditioned, and contracts were let in the 1920s for another 380 (295 new examples and 85 constructed from spares). These latter F.2Bs were MkII, with message hook and tropical equipment to fit them for their Army Co-operation task in Iraq and India. The final batch of Bristol Fighters were classified as the MkIII (from 1925), the first of these being RAF serial number ‘H1420’, and the last 30 were MkIII DC, with the DC standing for Dual Control. These went to the newly formed University Air Squadrons at Cambridge and Oxford as their initial equipment, with the exception of one example, ‘J8430’, which was sent to No. 24, the Communications Squadron at RAF Kenley, for the personal use of HRH the Prince of Wales.

The aircraft you can see here is displayed in the Historic Hangars at the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon, and had a most amazing genesis. In 1919, Mr Boddington, a wheelwright from Weston on the Green, Oxfordshire, bought six new, unused F.2B fuselage frames and used them as roof trusses when he constructed a new barn (he also – initially – constructed the barn doors from Brisfit wings!) In 1965, 4 of these bare fuselages were acquired by the RAF, and put into store at RAF Henlow. Eventually, two of these were swapped in Australia for Hudson turret parts, but another was used to construct the aircraft you can see here. Starting in 1979, at RAF Cardington, the Rolls-Royce Falcon engine was fabricated by using original cylinders, exhaust manifolds, engine bearers and fittings. The partially complete aircraft was brought to the RAF Museum for display in 1986, then taken to RAF Marham, for the Royal Review on 1st April, which marked the RAF’s 75th Anniversary.

The starboard side of the aircraft has been left uncovered so that the internal structure of a typical WW1 aircraft can be examined, whilst the rest of it has been finished as ‘E2466’, the personal aircraft of Captain W F J (John) Harvey, DFC, RAF and Captain D E Waight, MC, RAF. Captain Harvey was the Flight Commander of ‘B’ Flight, No.22 Squadron, whilst at Maisoncelle and Serny, France on 1st July, 1918. If you look closely, you will see that ‘E2466’ was one of those that was fitted with an extra Lewis gun over the top wing. There are, of course a number of F.2Bs still flying, including the lovely example at the Shuttleworth Trust, and another one with Peter Jackson in New Zealand (he also has another airframe under restoration).

The ‘Brisfit’, one of the truly classic aircraft, and a highly significant warplane.

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