Bristol Blenheim

by tirial

The Bristol Blenheim, often called "The Forgotten Bomber", was originally built as a civillian plane before the second world war. Quickly outperformed, it is often overlooked.

The Bristol Blenheim was originally built as a civillian plane before the second world war, sponsored by the Daily Mail who wanted something to get their reporters on scene first.

When it was found to outperform the existing fighters, it was presented to the nation and served in roles including fighter, bomber and reconnaisance among others. Often called "The Forgotten Bomber" its achievements, including as a night fighter in the Battle of Britain, have been overlooked in favour of the more glamorous Spitfire and Hurricane day fighters.

The origins of the Bristol Blenheim

The newspaper competition

The Bristol Blenheim, one of the most overlooked aircraft of the Second World War, has its origins in a civilian aircraft. The owner of the Daily Mail, Lord Rothermere, ran a competition to design a fast aircraft to get its reporters to stories before other newspapers. When he was told that no one in Britain was financing the development of fast aircraft, he put up the reward for building a plane that must be "the best in the world".

The winning prototype, called "Britain First" was built to challenge speed records, and was quickly discovered to be 50mph faster than the fighters in service at the time. Viscount Rothermere presented the aircraft to the nation in 1935, and it was developed into the Bristol Blenheim.

The outbreak of war

After the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of the Phony Way, Blenheims flew reconnaissance flights over Germany, as far inland as the Ruhr, to gather intelligence before the war.

On the full outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, it made up the bulk of the RAF's front-line forces. The Bristol Blenheim performed the first reconnaissance and fighter attacks of the war and performed solo attacks against U-boats. Dispatched to try to slow the invasion of Holland and France with daylight raids, the losses the unescorted bombers suffered were horrendous. At  Dunkirk, Bomber Command supported the evacuation by bombing the oncoming troops despite flak fire from both sides and the fighters from both sides engaged over the beach itself.

Manufacturing the Blenheim

Great Britain Manufacturing Blenheim Bombers at the Beginning of World War 2
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A Blenheim Raid

The fighter bomber conducted raids in the early part of the war

Changing roles

As a nightfighter

However, while the daylight of the Battle of Britain belonged to the Spitfire and Hurricane, the Blenheim handled the majority of night fighting over the UK. Equipped with basic radar, it protected the skies, and managed the first radar-guided kill of the war in 1940.

Allowing the development of nightfighting tactics, it had some notable successes until replaced eventually by the Bristol Beaufighter and of course the "Wooden Wonder" - the deHavilland Mosquito.

On the Front Lines throughout

In India, the Blenheim had a prolonged lease of life as a fighter/bomber throughout the war, as the glue that held the Mosquito together did not fare well in heat and humidity.

The later years

Unfortunately as the war progressed the Blenheim was quickly outstripped by other aircraft and its flaws exposed. Daylight raids, one Captainw as quoted as saying the only 25% losses were a good raid, and when they brought the designers in to improve the aircraft, the same pilots were rarely at a second meeting.

Because of the heavy losses, it was switched to nighttime bombing only as unescorted raids left it vulnerable to the newer generation of fighters. A total of three Victoria Crosses were awarded to Blenheim crewmen (according to the RAF site).

By 1943 it had been almost entirely replaced, but its service in the early years of the war was vital. As a bomber it handled a number of raids, taking horrific casualties as the aircraft's speed was reduced by a full bomb loads. As a fighter/bomber it served well early on, but was quickly outperformed by the newer machines.

Speed Problems

The prototype's great speed was never fully realised in production. The weight of the bombs and the redesign to fit cannon both slowed her significantly, leaving her vulnerable to better armed, more modern fighters.


22nd November 1939

Announcing the Blenheim
A Bristol 'Blenheim', from 'The Illustrated War News', Published 22nd November 1939

The last of the Blenheims

Post War service

Over 6,000 Blenheims were built, serving in Canada, Europe and around the world. The last Blenheims on active service were part of the Finnish Airforce, used in every role from bombing to reconnaissance over their long lifespan, and they were finally retired in 1957.

One surviving Blenheim still displays, appropriately painted as a nightfighter.

A complete history

The Bristol Blenheim: A Complete History

First published in 2002 to enormous critical acclaim The Bristol Blenheim draws on Graham Warner's unparalleled knowledge of this remarkable aircraft. A former Blenheim owner, G...

View on Amazon

Technical Specifications

The specifications of the Bristol Blenheim

The specifications for the Bristol Blenheim varied depending on its role. Those below are based on the bomber.

Type: Light Bomber / Nightfighter
Crew: 2/3
Max Speed: 266mph
Service Ceiling: 22,000ft
Range: 1500 miles
Engines: 2 x Bristol Mercury engines
Length: 42 ft 7 inches
Wingspan: 56 ft 4 inches
Height: 9 ft 10 inches
Weight: 15,000lbs

Break a leg

One of the Blenheim's more unusual missions was dropping a metal leg. It was needed by Wing Commander Douglas Bader, whose own had been damaged when he was shot down.

The sole surviving Blenheim

The sole flying Blenheim completes a flypast for the camera in this sequence for FlyingMachinesTV

A DVD History

 Two DVDs are available from Amazon UK, covering the history of the Bristol Blenheim.

The Forgotten Bomber

The Forgotten Bomber - The Story Of The Blenheim Bomber [DVD]

 Originally released in three parts, I found this informative and intelligent. Enjoyable isn't exactly the right word...but intriguing would be closer.

Starting with the crash of the only flying Blenheim after twelve years of restoration, it traces the development of the plane, its wartime service and more.

Updated: 01/31/2015, tirial
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