Royal Air Force Turned A Torpedo Bomber Into A Flying Flamethrower During World War II
With the weapon installed, the aircraft could spew a terrifying stream of flame behind it, but that doesn't mean it was effective.
Among the many radical and often seemingly harebrained schemes to provide aircraft with additional firepower that emerged during World War II, the British Royal Air Force’s efforts to transform a twin-engined torpedo bomber into an aerial flamethrower certainly stand out. While very few details about this particular project are available, there is at least a film of the flamethrower in action, during trials.
The film, which is three minutes and 35 seconds long, was made by the RAF Film Production Unit and is dated April 1944. It begins with an aerial sequence showing a Bristol Beaufort torpedo bomber carrying the flamethrower, passing at one point over an airfield. It then shifts to a clip where we see the ground crew using a trolley to transport what appears to be a purpose-made cylinder containing the fuel for the flamethrower to the aircraft. Using a mechanism built into the trolley, the ground crew raise the cylinder into the bomb bay of the aircraft.
We then see the Beaufort in low-level flight, with the nozzle of the flamethrower clearly protruding from the bomb bay. As the flamethrower ignites, a jet of fire apparently several hundred feet long is left trailing behind the aircraft. A Douglas Boston, another twin-engined bomber, is seen flying alongside and a little behind the Beaufort, at a suitably safe distance. The film concludes with scenes of the burning ground and vegetation left in the aircraft’s wake.
Developed for the maritime strike role, the Beaufort is today best remembered as being the precursor to the much more successful Bristol Beaufighter, which eventually replaced it. However, 2,130 Beauforts were built, 700 of which were completed in Australia, and served with the RAF in Europe and North Africa as well as in the Pacific theater.
The four-seat Beaufort was powered by Bristol Taurus or Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines. The aircraft’s more typical primary armament consisted of a single 1,650-pound 18-inch torpedo or up to 2,000 pounds of bombs or air-dropped naval mines.
The little information about the flamethrower project that is readily available is provided by historian Tim Mason, who has written extensively on the once-secret work of different British military aircraft trials establishments. For the Royal Air Force, the most important of these in World War II was the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment, or A&AEE, which had been established at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire, in 1918. In his authoritative work The Secret Years: Flight Testing at Boscombe Down, 1939–1945, Mason recounts that a single Beaufort Mk I, serial number EK997, arrived at the establishment in late 1943, where modifications for the flamethrower trials began.
The cylinder, known as an Aeroflame container, was attached to the existing torpedo rack on the Beaufort. The Beaufort may well have been chosen for the trials due to the broad similarities between this canister and the torpedo that it was originally designed to carry. The container carried 1,500 pounds of fuel for the flamethrower that was discharged through a pipe pointing to the rear and extending two feet below the rear fuselage.
While Mason writes that it’s not known whether or not ignition trials took place at the A&AEE, the available film makes it clear that those tests certainly took place. Where they occurred is unclear.
There is no indication in the available sources as to exactly how the Aeroflame was expected to be used had it progressed to frontline service. There are some suggestions the program was connected to fighter defense, which might suggest that aircraft equipped with it were intended to torch pursuing fighters. Earlier in the war, facing the Blitz on the United Kingdom by the German Luftwaffe, the British certainly explored some radical weapons to be used against hostile aircraft. These included aerial mines suspended from long cables that were dropped into formations of hostile aircraft, powerful airborne searchlights to illuminate bombers at night, and even an “emergency fighter,” the Miles M.20, a cheap and easy-to-build aircraft that was completed in just nine weeks.
There is a precedent for an aerial flamethrower intended to ward off enemy fighters. In September 1940, at the height of the Battle of Britain, a Luftwaffe Dornier Do 17 bomber was shot down over southern England. The aircraft’s fuselage was equipped with an infantry flamethrower set up to fire rearward, controlled by the radio operator. This was a trial installation only and the flamethrower apparently failed to work at higher altitudes. The fact that the aircraft in question was shot down by an RAF Hawker Hurricane fighter approaching from the rear seems to confirm its limited utility. Either way, despite evidence that some other German bombers were also outfitted with flamethrowers for self-defense, there is no record of this being a regular occurrence or of there being any success in bringing down an intercepting fighter.
In the British case, however, and in view of the film’s close shot showing small fires on the ground, it seems much more likely that the flamethrower was expected to destroy ground targets. By 1943-44, the threat posed to the United Kingdom by Luftwaffe raids was much reduced and the war in Europe was progressing on the continent. We also do know that the Aeroflame was intended to be ignited “at very low level,” further supporting the idea it was a ground-attack weapon.
With this in mind, it could perhaps have been envisaged for use against enemy vehicles or troops, although the aircraft carrying it would have been notably vulnerable due to both its low-altitude approach and straight-line attack profile. That latter factor would have reduced the flexibility of the Aeroflame and the types of targets that it would actually be able to attack, primarily columns of vehicles or troops. Other potential ground targets for the flamethrower might have been rows of enemy fighters (or other aircraft) sitting unprotected on their airfields.
It’s not necessarily surprising that the Aeroflame did not reach operational service. The flamethrower, as a concept, is a weapon of generally limited utility, beyond its tremendous psychological impact. They have been, almost universally, short-range assault weapons that are most effective in confined areas. Longer-range flame weapons were deployed in World War II, most notably on tanks and other armored vehicles.
These were mostly intended to be brought to bear on specific targets when needed, to best exploit the tactical situation, although they often required a considerable amount of time to be prepared for action. The actual range of their primary weapons was still relatively short, as well.
Perhaps the Aeroflame could have found a niche as a flying infantry support weapon during the invasion of Normandy that began in June 1944, for example, being called into action by a forward air controller. This type of application would fit with the date of the trials seen in the film. However, even in this post-D-Day role, its utility would have compared unfavorably to a flamethrower tank, which could accompany infantry and be reloaded once it had expended its fuel.
Furthermore, the size and weight of the Aeroflame would likely have prevented the aircraft fitted with it from carrying alternative weapons, too, beyond basic defensive armament. In the event, more agile fighter-bombers armed with conventional bombs and air-to-ground rockets proved to be ideal in this type of close air support role.
There is also the very real concern that crews would have felt hauling 1,500 pounds of highly flammable flamethrower fuel into combat. That would have made the aircraft even more vulnerable, and even more of an attractive target, a problem shared by ground-based flame weapons, too.
Although it was apparently destined for failure, the Aeroflame’s development points to a fascinating effort to provide an innovative aerial weapon. The reason for its seeming disappearance from the widely available historical records remains a mystery, however.
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