It was 70 years ago, on June 25, 1936, when the first flight of the Bristol Blenheim bomber took place at Filton, near Bristol, England. It was the first all-metal, stressed-skin aircraft ordered for the Royal Air Force and was destined to play an important part in World War II. It was, interestingly, a private venture.
In 1933, Bristol’s chief designer proposed a light twin commercial monoplane, but the company’s board didn’t authorize its construction. In 1934 Lord Rothermere, proprietor of the Daily Mail and an outspoken critic of the Air Ministry, learned of the design and instructed one of his editors to approach Bristol about building the aircraft, which was to have a speed of 250 mph and a range of 1,000 miles. A price of 18,600 pounds was agreed upon.
When the prototype was flown it had a top speed of more than 300 mph. Rothermere was delighted and offered it to the RAF for testing. A proposed military version would carry a 1,000 lb. bomb load at 278 mph at a time when front line fighters barely exceeded 200 mph. About 10 months after the initial order the first production version took to the air. Full-scale production started in January 1937 and deliveries to the RAF started in March. The Blenheim was the first all metal bomber with retractable undercarriage, wing flaps, variable pitch propellers and a power operated gun turret.
At the start of World War II the RAF had 1,089 Blenheims. Most were bombers, but seven squadrons were given a fighter variant with four machine guns mounted in the bomb bay.
The Blenheim was used to attack daylight targets on the continent, mainly at low level, and suffered as a result. If caught by fighters it did not stand much of a chance, but throughout the Battle of Britain Blenheims attacked the French ports that held Hitler’s invasion barges, carried out shipping strikes, and swept German-occupied airfields.
At the old Duxford RAF base, a Blenheim was restored in 1987 and flown for 10 years before suffering a landing accident in 2003. Since then, a team of engineers at the Aircraft Restoration Co. have been repairing it. It is intended to return it to the air as a Mk I Blenheim.