Beaufighters in the Night: 417 Night Fighter Squadron USAAF
by U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Braxton “Brick” Eisel , Casemate, Drexel Hill, Pa., 2007, $39.95.
Although a lot of histories have been written about individual combat aviation units, Beaufighters in the Night, by Colonel Braxton Eisel, stands out in a crowd because the subject it covers represents something quite out of the ordinary. For one thing, the unit concerned, the 417th Squadron, was one of the relatively few U.S. Army Air Force night fighter squadrons to see extensive operational service during World War II. In addition, the 417th represented a rare instance of “reverse Lend-Lease” in that it was one of only four USAAF squadrons to fly the British-built Bristol Beaufighter.
British air combat experience showed the USAAF that it was ill-prepared for war in many respects. Not least among those deficiencies was the lack of a suitable night fighter. Although one highly promising design, the Northrop P-61 Black Widow, had been selected for production, it was still in the early stages development and would not become available for operational use until the end of 1944. In the meantime, the USAAF had to settle for the Douglas P-70. An adequate night fighter training platform, the P-70—which had been modified from the A-20 Havoc ground attack plane—lacked the performance required of a frontline fighter. For that reason four USAAF night fighter squadrons—the 414th, 415th, 416th and 417th—left their P-70s behind when they deployed overseas in May 1943 and were reequipped in Britain with Beaufighters.
Although the Beaufighter had already established an excellent nocturnal combat record with the Royal Air Force, transitioning to it proved to be no easy matter for the Americans. As Eisel explains in great detail, its characteristics were so different from those of American planes the pilots had previously flown that they had to relearn almost everything. The ground crews had just as difficult a time learning how to maintain the unfamiliar British engines. To make matters worse, the Beaufighters issued to the 417th were used aircraft that had already accrued a considerable number of flying hours in the RAF.
On top of all their other difficulties the USAAF had established no system to obtain spare parts for British-built aircraft, and the squadron was left to work that problem out on its own. Eisel quotes extensively from official squadron records, as well as from interviews with air and ground crewmen, to explain how the 417th managed to overcome these and other obstacles to establish a distinguished combat record in its second-hand British fighters.
In July 1943, the 417th Squadron became fully operational and was sent to Algeria to become part of the Fifteenth Air Force. For the remainder of the war it flew combat missions from a variety of bases in North Africa, Corsica, France and Belgium. The squadron eventually was reequipped with the much-anticipated and far superior P-61, but not until March 1945, less than two months before hostilities ceased.
The 417th, along with the other three Beaufighter-equipped USAAF night fighter squadrons, operated far from the limelight occupied by the more glamorous daylight fighter and bomber squadrons. But the job they did was every bit as hazardous as those of their diurnal counterparts. In fact, as Eisel takes care to point out, the Army Air Forces considered night fighter flying so dangerous that only the pilots who had specifically volunteered for that particular duty were assigned to it.
Like the aircraft themselves, the story of the USAAF Beaufighter squadrons has remained in the dark. Beaufighters in the Night is a well-written, entertaining and highly informative tribute that serves to finally bring this unique and little-known chapter of USAAF history to light.
Originally published in the January 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.