The Bristol Buckingham; Late and Outclassed

January 27, 2024

When the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command entered the Second World War in September 1939 , they essentially had two types of bomber in service; light ones for tactical use supporting the army and bigger, longer ranged one for uses in, for want of a better term, strategic roles. Among what were considered at the time as heavy bombers were aircraft such as the Vickers Wellington and Armstrong Whitworth Whitley, while the light bomber force was composed primaryily of aircraft such as the Bristol Blenheim and Fairey Battle.

At the start of World War Two the closest thing to a British medium bomber was the Handley Page Hampden, which was oddly designed to the same spec as the Wellington and Whitley, and arguably the Beaufort torpedo bomber. But as the war wore on and with the grinding lessons of combat inflicted upon them, as well the overwhelming need to focus production of what was essential to the war effort, the British pretty much switched to building lighter fighter bomber aircraft for the tactical role and much bigger and more capable heavy bombers for the strategic bombing campaign.

Indeed, it became policy, especially after the passing of the Lend-Lease Act, to rely on American-supplied aircraft to provide for basically all the Royal Air Force’s (RAF’s) medium bomber needs. Which helped kill off the subject of today’s video, the Bristol Buckingham, though to be fair there were several other factors involved, which I shall get to.

Even before the war the RAF had recognized that the pace of advance in aircraft development would mean that the aircraft in service would soon be surpassed in capability and performance, hence the Wellington getting its reclassification. And one of the new aircraft they wanted was a replacement for the Bristol Blenheim, a twin-engine light bomber that was one of the mainstays of the British tactical bomber force and was in active use until 1943.

This realization by the RAF was utterly correct, because despite its comparatively long life as a frontline aircraft, the Blenheim was painfully exposed when facing enemy fighters and anti-aircraft defences.

In 1940 the British Air Ministry issued a specification for a new medium bomber to supplant the Blenheim, which was to be capable of reaching a speed of 300mph (483 km/h) with a 1,000lb (551kg) bombload, dive bombing, and ideally based off an existing aircraft to assist with design and production.

Bristol, who were the principle builder of lighter British bombers at the time, had already been working on the concept of building a bomber variant of the new Beaufighter attack fighter that they were developing. This was welcomed by the British authorities and authorization was granted to build three prototypes in early 1941 with the provisional service name of Beaumont.

But changes in the air war and the political scene meant that requirements were shifting rapidly, and as the new design didn’t seem to add much more capability than the large numbers of American bombers on order and coming into service the specification was once again revised. The need for dive bombing was initially dropped and then the RAF decided that now they wanted a bomber capable of 360mph (579km/h), a maximum bombload of 4,000lb (1,814kg) and a maximum range of 1,600 miles (2,575km).

This required a much larger aircraft with much more powerful engines than the Bristol Hercules radials used on the Beaufighter and projected for use on the Beaumont. So, Bristol had to go back to the drawing board several times and eventually came up with a largely  clean sheet design, the Buckingham.

Unfortunately, all the changes in design parameters and on whether a fresh British bomber of this type was necessary at all considering the availability of solid American medium bombers meant that  it was always not really known by the Air Ministry whether the Buckingham was actually needed at all, making it a much lower priority. Additionally, the Centaurus radial engine that was slated to be used in the Buckingham experienced delays while Bristol worked out issues they were having with their existing line of radial engines that were in heavy demand for use in then-current production aircraft.

As a result, it wasn’t until February 1943 that the prototype Buckingham made its first flight. But it must be said, at first glance the aircraft had a lot going for it.

Bigger than the original design, the new aircraft was powered by two of the new and very powerful Bristol Centaurus engines that produced just over 2,500hp each. With these the Buckingham could carry the specified bombload of up to 4,000lb, and had a top speed of 330mph (531km/h), which was less than the specification had called for, but which was considerably better than comparable medium bombers in service at the time. Endurance was also very good, with a ferry range of 3,000 miles (4,828km).

Defensive armament was also formidable, with the Buckingham hosting a dorsal turret with four .303 Browning machine guns, complemented by another twin set of guns in the rear of the under-fuselage gondola that housed the bombardier. This was rounded off with another four machine guns fixed in the nose for the pilot to use.

Fast, long ranged and well-armed, what’s not to like?

The RAF certainly thought the Buckingham could be useful and placed an order for four hundred of the type. But it soon became apparent that there were issues with the aircraft.

Flight testing revealed that it had stability problems, as well as some other issues, and this required some redesign efforts to rectify. But a more significant problem for the Buckingham was that while Bristol had been having to go back to the drawing board as the Air Ministry’s requirements had been changed during the aircraft’s development and then to correct the issues with the design, another aircraft had come into service that pretty much did everything the Buckingham had been expected to do, and much more.

The De Havilland Mosquito.

This could carry the same sort of loads as the Buckingham, plus additional weapons such as rockets, and it did this at greater speed and with half the crew requirements, though admittedly it had shorter range. Plus the “Wooden Wonder” was already in service in the bomber role, getting into squadrons as early as November 1941.

Indeed, less than a week before the Buckingham prototype had first flown, Mosquitoes were showing just how formidable they were when they conducted a now legendary daylight raid on Berlin that disrupted speeches given by the Nazi party leadership.

Between the Mosquito and the availability of American medium bombers, the Buckingham really did appear to be surplus to requirement. Despite this production begun, though the first aircraft wasn’t delivered until February 1944.

But reality finally started to catch up on the Buckingham, with the order first being cut to three hundred, and then slashed again to basically finishing up whatever was on the line while the RAF decided what to do with them.

Because of their superior range over the Mosquito consideration was given to sending the type to fight the Japanese in the Far East, replacing Vickers Wellington’s being used in the medium bomber role. But that was basically pointless as most of the Wellington units were switching to the far more suitable B-24 Liberator, and so the fifty-four Buckingham B.1 bomber variant built went straight into storage.

The majority of the rest of the aircraft, sixty-four in total, were converted into Buckingham C.1 fast courier aircraft, which carried a crew of three and four passengers, and eventually the bomber variants were also returned to Bristol, stripped of their armament and converted to this configuration as well, except for two that were converted to C.2 standard which could carry seven passengers.

But all this was really a somewhat lackluster attempt to justify the effort that had been expended on building the aircraft. There just wasn’t that much demand for a high-speed transport of this type and so most of them saw none-to-little usage before heading to the scrap yards in short order.

More useful was the more incomplete aircraft that would provide the basis for the production of the Bristol Buckmaster advanced trainer aircraft, but that is another story.

In total 123 Buckingham’s were built, an aircraft that certainly on paper looked interesting, but was literally too little and too late when it finally arrived, a bomber that even when in service could fairly be ranked as a Forgotten Aircraft.

Sources/Related:

https://www.baesystems.com/en/heritage/bristol-163-buckingham

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bristol_Buckingham

https://www.militaryfactory.com/aircraft/detail.php?aircraft_id=1121

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