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The Bristol Bulldog was a British Royal Air Force (RAF) single-seat biplane fighter designed during the 1920s by the Bristol Aeroplane Company, with over 400 Bulldogs produced, that arguably became the most famous aircraft during the RAF’s inter-war period.
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In September 1926, the Air Ministry stated a need for a single-seat fighter capable of operating in day and night-time conditions; to be armed with two 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Vickers machine guns and to be powered by an air-cooled radial engine. This requirement was laid down in Specification F9/26. The Bulldog was designed by Frank Barnwell, the Chief Designer of the Bristol company, (who had served as a Captain in the British Army during the First World War), as a private venture to meet the requirements of this specification. The prototype Bulldog, the Bulldog Mk. I first flew on 17 May 1927. After initial consideration of all the types entered to meet the specification, the Bulldog and the Hawker Hawfinch were selected for more detailed evaluation. While the Bulldog’s manoeuvrability and strength were praised by the RAF, it initially had poor spinning recovery properties and was therefore fitted with a lengthened rear fuselage. In this form, it was declared the winner of the competition, having slightly superior speed and was easier to maintain, and required fewer changes to produce an operational aircraft than the Hawfinch.
The Bulldog proved to be quite a successful export to foreign air forces, seeing service with Australia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Japan, Latvia, Siam, Spain and Sweden. The Bulldog was withdrawn from RAF service in 1937, being replaced by the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire, both of which would become legends of the RAF for their contributions during the Second World War. The Bristol Bulldog’s career was not over though, for the type continued to serve with other air forces.
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The Bulldog never saw combat with the RAF, though during the Abyssinia Crisis of 1935-36, Bristol Bulldogs were sent to the Sudan to reinforce Middle East Command. Douglas Bader, better known for his Second World War actions, lost both of his legs when his Bristol Bulldog crashed while he was performing unauthorised flying Aerobatics at Woodley airfield near Reading.
In 1936, Latvia, keen to replace its elderly Bulldogs with more modern aircraft, sold eleven Bulldogs to Basque nationalist forces fighting the Spanish Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, remaining in use until the Battle of Santander. Nineteen Bulldogs also saw combat as part of the Finnish Air Force during the Winter War against the Soviet Union, which began in 1939. The Bulldogs fought well against their Soviet opponent, gaining six kills by five pilots for the loss of one of their own, the types shot down being two Polikarpov I-16s and four Tupolev SBs, both of which were quite superior in terms of technology compared to the Bulldog. In fact, the first aerial victory of the Finnish Air Force was achieved by a Bulldog piloted by SSgt Toivo Uuttu on 1 December 1939, over an I-16. The Bulldogs were used in advanced training during the subsequent Continuation War against the Soviet Union.