Brewster B-339 Buffalo

(Updated April 21, 2017)

Genesis: With the US Navy

The F2A  had won the competition against an early version of Grumman’s F4F ‘Wildcat’. When it was deployed with VF3 aboard USS ‘Saratoga’ in 1939, it was the US Navy’s first all metal monoplane fighter. US Navy pilots liked the tubby little fighter for its manoeuvrability (“it could roll in a telephone booth…”).

Brewster_F2A-3

However, the lessons from the hard-hitting war in Europe soon made it clear that the F2A would not be suitable as a front-line fighter because it lacked a number of crucial features. To name a few: self-sealing fuel tanks, armor plating behind the pilot, sufficient fuel capacity, adequate radio …
When all these essential improvements had been incorporated in a new version (the F2A3) its gross weight had increased substantially. This reduced the rate of climb and caused landing gear problems.  The landing gear frequently collapsed during carrier landings or, more annoying, the wheel struts would start to bend outwards until, after a number of landings, the gear could no longer be retracted and had to be filed down to fit …

F2A3 of VMF-211 with collapsed landing gear on board USS "Long Island"

F2A3 of VMF-211 with collapsed landing gear on board USS “Long Island”

The operational problems with the F2A came on top of the uneasy relations the US Navy had with the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation. The company had started off as a sub-contract0r for components in an old furniture factory in Queens NY. Airframe production was distributed over several floors, the movement of larger units severely restricted by numerous concrete pillars. Completed airframes were trucked out to a hangar at Roosevelt Field on Long Island where final assembly and test flying took place.
Labour relations at Brewster were deplorable. Strikes were common and the trade unions within the plant were not particularly inspired by patriotic ideals.
Having taken a second look at the Grumman F4F ‘Wildcat’ and fed up with Brewster’s’  management problems, the US Navy dedided to concentrate on products from ‘The Iron Factory’  (as Grumman was nicknamed) and declared the remainder of the F2A order surplus. And thus, a modest quantity of F2A’s became available on the ‘free’ market…

The Netherlands Purchasing Commission 

It was once said that the results of the penny pinching by the Dutch government had reduced the defence of the East-Indies to a point where it could be compared to
‘…a millionaire who had his property protected by a small boy with a slingshot…’ 

After the German invasion of the Netherlands (May 10, 1940), the newly established government in exile in London tried to remedy this situation.  A Netherlands Purchasing Commission (NPC) was assembled post-haste in New York. On May 22, 1940 it handed the US authorities a ‘shopping list’  on which fighter and bomber aircraft figured prominently.
Unfortunately the Dutch were not the only ones who were scrambling to re-arm. Since 1938 the US Aircraft industry had been swamped by British and French orders while other countries (such as Belgium and Finland) were also trying to get into the market. President Roosevelt decided that Britain and France would have priority. All other nations had to do with what was left.

Orders for the Buffalo fighter had been placed by the RAF (170), Belgium (40), France and Finland. A member of the NPC (Major Eddy te Roller) had found out that the Belgians would cancel their order for Buffaloes since their country too had been overrun by the invading Germans.  By this and other ingenious machinations the NPC managed to scrape together a total of 72 Buffalo airframes. The next headache were the engines. Major te Roller had to use his considerable skills in his negotiations with manufacturers and second hand suppliers. It would go too far to describe the incredible wheeling and dealing needed to acquire the powerplants (most of them less powerful than required) but finally it was all done and deliveries of the fighters began at Roosevelt Field, Long Island, in March 1941.

Captain Hans Maurenbrecher test flying a Buffalo over Long Island

Captain Hans Maurenbrecher test flying a B-339D Buffalo over Long Island. This machine was damaged prior to delivery and was not delivered to the NEI. It was to be taken over by either the USAAF or RAAF but its final destination is unknown.

The F2A’s were given the export designation B-339C and -D. Most of the acceptance testing was done at Roosevelt Field by Captain (later Major General) Hans Maurenbrecher, supervised and assisted by Major Eddy te Roller.

Technical Specifications
Type B-339C B-339D B-339-23
Powerplant: 1.100hp Wright 1.200hp Wright 1.000hp Wright
Cyclone GR-1820-G105A Cyclone G-205A Cyclone R-1820-G5B
Max. speed: 494 km/u 494 km/u 424 km/u
Rate of climb: 1.500 m/min 1.500 m/min 945 m/min
Range: 1.553 km 1.553 km 1.553 km
Ceiling: 10.000 m 10.000 m 10.000 m
Length: 7,92 m 7,92 m 8,03 m
Height: 3,66 m 3,66 m 3,68 m
Wingspan: 10,67 m 10,67 m 10,70 m
Wing area: 19,42 m2 19,42 m2 19,42 m2
Empty weight: 2.076 kg 2.076 kg 2.146 kg
Max. takeoff weight: 3.125 kg 3.125 kg 3.247 kg
Machine guns: 2x 12,7mm & 2x 7,7mm 2x 12,7mm & 2x 7,7mm 4x 12,7mm
Nr Ordered 24 48 20
ML KNIL Serials B-395 – B-3118 B-3119 – B-3166 B-3167 – B-3186
Nr in ML KNIL Service 24 43 0
B-3162 – B-3166 delivery delayed due to problems at factory. Transferred to USAAF and /or RAAF after KNIL capitulation Additional order – intended for fighter pilot training. Deliveries delayed. All transferred to USAAF / RAAF after KNIL capitulation

Of a total of 92 Brewster Buffaloes ordered, only 67 were delivered in time to see combat. Some crated Buffaloes were aboard a Dutch freighter that reached Tjilatjap early March 1942 but could not be unloaded. They and the remaining Buffalos were handed over the USAAF in Australia.
This table shows what has happened to them:

KNIL Serial USAAF RAAF Remarks
B-3119 “3119” Fate unknown
B-3167 “310” A51-13 WFU Nov ’43
B-3168 “309” A51-12 WFU Nov ’43
B-3169 Australian fate unknown
B-3170 Australian fate unknown
B-3171 No serial A51-1 WFU Sept ’43
B-3172 “302” A51-7 WFU Nov ’43
B-3173 Australian fate unknown
B-3174 “311” A51-14 WFU June ’43 (1)
B-3175 No serial A51-2 W/O Tallarook 8/7/’43
B-3176 “305” A51-9 WFU Jan ’44
B-3177 No serial A51-3 WFU June ’43
B-3178 “307” A51-10 WFU July ’43
B-3179 “308” A51-11 WFU July ’43 (1)
B-3180 “303” A51-16 WFU Nov ’43
B-3181 “302” A51-8 WFU Oct ’43
B-3182 “306” A51-17 WFU Sept ’43
B-3183 “312” A51-15 WFU June ’43
B-3184 No serial A51-4 W/O Laverton, June 16 ’42
B-3195 No serial A51-6 W/O Darwin Oct 29 ’42
B-3186 No serial A51-5 W/O Derby, Sept 25 ’42
WFU: Withdrawn From Use
W/O: Written Off
(1) Parts of these machines, plus parts of of a Buffalo identified as “304” have been used to build the Dutch B339 replica

In Dutch Service

The Buffaloes started to arrive in Java during April 1941. and the last example was delivered by September 1941. Throughout their service in the Dutch East Indies, they underwent numerous field modifications and upgrades as some of the delayed equipment finally became available. However, many of the Model 339Cs and Ds never got reflector gunsights and had to rely on simpler fixed ring-and-bead sights. These were frequently inaccurate because mechanics found them a convenient handhold when they were climbing up and down the airplane…

Brewster-Buffalo-MkI-NEIAF-2-VLG-V-B-3103-Indonesia-1942-01

2 VLG V commissioning ceremony, July 1941

The first operational unit to receive Buffaloes was the 5th Vliegtuiggroep (Air Group) on Semplak [near Bogor] and Andir [near Bandung]. The group was established on  1 June 1941 .
A Transition Squadron (Proef Afdeling), was established to familiarize the pilots with the Buffaloes. This familiarization did not take much time and on 1 July 1941, the ‘Transition Squadron’ was officially established as 2-Vl.G.V. It was the first  fighter squadron completely equipped with Buffaloes. The fact that these machines had the 1100 hp engines fitted (and not the 1200 hp engines as was intended) was not immediately seen as a drawback.

ML-KNIL_2-VLG-V_Logo

Squadron badge ‘ Java Rhinoceros’ carried on the Buffaloes of 2 VLG V

During November of 1941, 1-VLG V was transferred to bases on Borneo, and two new Buffalo squadrons (3-VLV IV and 3-VLG V) were formed, but it was not until the end of 1941 that pilots and sufficient ground crew came out of training.

The strength of a ML-KNIL fighter squadron had been set at 12 operational aircraft plus a similar number as spares. However, under the pressure of wartime deployment, this strength would be reduced to 12 plus six spares and even that level was difficult to attain.

When the Japanese attack against the Dutch East Indies began, 2-VLG V moved up to  Sembawang airfield near Singapore. They fought alongside the Commonwealth Buffalo squadrons defending Malaya and Singapore against an overwhelming Japanese air superiority. During that time, some of the Dutch 339Cs were fitted with armored windshields.
2-VLG V was moved to P1 Airfield on Sumatra, when the Japanese had conquered most of Malaya and were about to overrun Singapore. There they joined 1-VLG V in a last-ditch attempt to defend the crucial Palembang Oil fields and stem the tide of the Japanese advance. After the capitulation of Singapore on February 15,  Japanese paratroopers landed around Palembang on February 19. Despite fierce air raids by Dutch Buffaloes and RAF Hurricanes, a massive sea borne invasion force came up the Musi river and  both squadrons had to be withdrawn to West-Java. There, they joined 3-VLG IV and 3-VLG V in their actions against the Japanese invasion forces in Sumatra.

Meanwhile, on February 9, 1942, 3-VLG IV had been decimated during a Japanese air strike that destroyed most of their Buffalos while on the ground. This squadron had to be disbanded on February 12, and its three surviving Buffaloes were transferred to 2-VLG V.

Dutch Buffaloes early in 1942. To avoid confusion with the Japanese 'Rising Sun'  markings, the Dutch organge triangle has been removed and replaced by a Dutch flag

Dutch Buffaloes early in 1942. To avoid confusion with the Japanese ‘Rising Sun’ markings, the Dutch orange triangle has been removed and replaced by a Dutch flag

The Japanese advance was extremely rapid and by mid-February 1942, the encirclement of Java was almost completed. Daily Japanese air strikes from bases in Borneo, Sumatra and Bali whittled away the Dutch and US fighter strength. When the Japanese invasion of Java began on February 28, 1942, only a dozen Buffaloes were still airworthy. Together with a handful of  British Hurricanes and USAAF P-40’s they briefly fought against impossible odds.  Java fell on March 8, and all Dutch forces in the Indies surrendered on March 9.

The last sortie…

The last operational Buffalo mission was flown on March 7, 1942. Captain J.P. van Helsdingen was given the order to give air support to the Dutch army forces fighting in Lembang. Despite the almost complete Japanese air superiority over Java all available pilots volunteered and van Helsdingen picked four pilots. Just before take-off, van Helsdingen was informed by another pilot that one of the chosen pilots was married. Despite being married himself van Helsdingen took the place of the married pilot. Van Helsdingen, Lt Deibel, Sgt. Bruggink and Ensign Scheffer jumped in the four last remaining Buffalos and  took off
After only travelling 200 meters they ran into three Mitsubishi A6Ms. Deibel’s plane was hit in the oil tank and he had to break off from combat. His wingman, Scheffer, escorted him back to Andir airfield, where Deibel crash landed his aircraft without injury. The other two remained above Lembang, but were now entangled with six Mitsubishi A6Ms. Van Helsdingen was soon shot down, but Bruggink managed to escape into the clouds before returning to Andir airfield. Bruggink and Deibel were awarded the “Military William Order”, the highest Dutch military award.
Van Helsdingen and Scheffer (who died in a Japanese POW camp) were posthumously awarded the honour on 14 July 1948.

Captain J.P. van Helsdingen

Passport photograph of Captain J.P. van Helsdingen

The Buffalo ‘controversy’ 

Some critics maintain the view that the Buffaloes were completely outclassed by the Japanese fighters which opposed them. They say the Model 339C and D were inferior to the Japanese Zero in speed, maneuverability and in climb rate.
Others maintain that the Buffalo was a 1936 design. Its shortcomings, such as no armor plating, no self-sealing fuel tanks etc. were typical for that era. The Hawker Hurricane lacked these features as well, when it first went into action against the Germans in 1939.

When the Australians of No. 453 Squadron went into action around Butterworth and Ipoh (between December 12 and 24, 1942), they found the Buffalo’s performance abysmal. This was mainly caused by the civilian 1100hp Wright Cyclone G-105A engines that had been fitted. These had no superchargers and the pilots continually over-boosted the engines. As a result, all spark plugs had to be replaced after each mission.
It took 30 minutes to reach 20.000 feet and the A6M Zero, cruising at 25.000 feet, was beyond their reach. At altitudes above 18.000 feet, fuel pressure, supplied by the engine pump, fell off and the pilots had to work a manual fuel pump to keep the engine running.  And finally the guns: two of the four .50 cal. guns were synchronized through the propeller. The ammo was preserved in grease and upon firing, the grease would evaporate and the propwash would send it back in a spray that covered the cockpit windscreen.
After their return to Sembawang (Singapore), the squadron thoroughly overhauled their remaining Buffaloes. All unnecessary equipment (such as cockpit heaters, flare chutes and even radios) was removed, as were the two .50 Cal guns in the nose. These “field modifications” lightened the fighter by nearly 1000 lbs. Another modification was to limit the fuel load to 45 gallons. From that moment onward, the RAAF Buffalos had an acceptable performance.

Captain Piet Tideman, commander of 3-Vl.G.V, gave in “Buffaloes over Singapore” the following analysis of the Brewster fighter:
“ …generally it is said that that it was far inferior to the Zero. On the contrary, the Brewster was a good, sturdy, fast fighter with two half-inch armour-plates behind the seat. She would take a hell of a beating. My view is that our drawback during the fighter actions was not an inferior aeroplane, but that we had too few of them and also our armament was too little and too light. Another thing we have to bear in mind is that we were up against the crème de la crème of Japanese fighter pilots…”

The Japanese fighters they came up against were large numbers of Nakajima Ki-43 ‘Hayabusa’ (code named Oscar) and Mitsubishi A6M (code named Zero)  Both types had a superior rate of climb, due to their extremely lightweight construction, but both had no armor plating or self sealing tanks.
The ‘Oscar’ was also lightly armed (a  7,7mm  and a 12,7mm machine gun) and  was slower than the Buffalo. The ‘Zero’ was more heavily armed (two 7,7 mm machine guns and two 20mm cannon). It’s performance was the same as the 1200 hp equipped Buffalo.

Conclusion: Once it had been “Battle Modified”, the  Brewster Buffalo was not a bad fighter. What, then, gave birth to the ‘Buffalo Inferiority Complex’?

In my opinion it was mainly psychological.
For many years the West had laughed at Japanese products. ‘It’s like a Japanese bicyle!’ was a household phrase indicating shabby quality.
During the war in China, the devastating numbers and superior quality of the Japanese fighters and bombers had come as a rude shock to the US commanders.  They sent in detailed reports about the quality and excellent tactics of the Japanese fighters but higher command chose to ignore them.As a result, the Allied commanders were in for the same rude awakening when the Pacific war broke out.
The Japanese forces also had the stimulus of success. They were fighting a textbook campaign, rolling up all resistance before them. While the Allied pilots were retreating and losing. They also had the initiative. They could choose the moments when to attack, forcing the Allied Air Forces had to respond at the spur of the moment.
And finally, many of the japanese fighter pilots had flown in China and had gained battle experience over the past two years.
Most Allied Buffalo pilots had a total flying experience of less than one year, or even (in the case of 453 Squadron) less than six months, flying training school included!.
The Buffalo “As Delivered” was hardly a match for the Japanese frontline fighters, with its civilian spec engine, large fuel load and high gross weight.
Other reasons have to do with organization and logistics.
There were hardly any radar systems and no co-ordinated early warning network. The command and control organization in Singapore was flawed by turf fights and lack of perspective. ABDA command was ludicrously inefficient during the battle for Java.
There was no tracer ammunition available for the Dutch fighters. And their guns frequently jammed in the cold air above 12.00o feet because no low viscosity gun-oil had been issued. And the list of logistical and organizational snafu’s goes on and on…

The Balance
 The Dutch ordered 92 Buffaloes of al types, but – Brewster being a rather unreliable supplier – only 67 had been delivered at the outbreak of the Pacific war. During three months of combat, 30 Buffaloes were lost in air combat, 15 were destroyed on the ground, and a similar number was lost in accidents.
17 pilots were killed in action but against these losses, Dutch Buffaloes claimed 55 enemy aircraft destroyed, a victory-to-loss ratio of almost two to one.
The following table lists the losses I have been able to trace(both in combat and accidents). Corrections and additions are very welcome!

Serial c/n Date Reason of loss
B-396 260 17/01/1942 Crashed into mountain due to bad weather
B-398 262 09/02/1942 Emergency landing after dogfight
B-399 263 07/01/1942 Seriously damaged at Kallang, written off.
B-3100 264 12/01/1942 Shot down near Singapore
B-3101 265 07/03/1942 Last mission flown March 7, ’42. Brugginks plane?
B-3103 267 15/01/1942 Shot down near Singapore
B-3105 269 15/01/1942 Ditched after engine failure. Pilot killed.
B-3107 271 23/02/1942 Written off at Andir.
B-3108 272 06/01/1942 Crashed during take off at Palembang I
B-3110 274 07/03/1942 Emergency landing at Andir .
B-3115 313 23/01/1942 Missing after attacking Japanese fleet.
B-3117 315 07/03/1942 Shot down at Andir, Capt. van Helsdingen killed.
B-3122 320 21/02/1942 Written off Tjiater Pass
B-3126 324 28/01/1942 Destroyed by Japanese on Samarinda II
B-3132 330 (?) 24/01/1942 Shot down at Semplak.
B-3133 331 19/02/1942 Written off at Paroeng.
B-3141 340 02/03/1942 Written off at Andir
B-3142 341 19/02/1942 Written off at Andir
B-3147 346 19/02/1942 Written off at Andir
B-3151 350 23/10/1941 Crashed
B-3153 352 09/03/1942 Destroyed by groundcrew
B-3157 356 09/03/1942 Destroyed by groundcrew .
B-3159 358 24/01/1942 Lost in combat, Pilot T.J. de Waardt killed .
B-3160 359 09/03/1942 Destroyed by groundcrew .
B-3161 360 09/03/1942 Destroyed by groundcrew

The Buffalo Replica
A full scale replica of a Brewster B-339D Buffalo is on display in the Dutch National Military Museum, located at the site of the former Soesterberg Air Base.

TFR03 004

The airplane bears the name of (Sergeant) Gerard Bruggink, one the four pilots who flew the final operational sortie against the Japanese on March 7, 1942.

Buffalo Pilots KIA

Berk, Albertus (10 october 1919 – 29 january 1942) – Brother of Jan.
Berk, Jan (28 april 1922 – 9 february 1942) – Brother of Albertus.
Bers, Antonius Cornelis van (23 march 1918 – 4 december 1941)
Buuren, Willem Antoon Theodoor van (04 july 1919 – 17 january 1942)
Droog, Johannes Nicolaas (13 september 1917 – 28 december 1941)
Groot, Nicolaas Gosewinus “Nico” (1 april 1921 – 18 februari 1942)
Helsdingen, Jacob Pieter van “Piet” (7 march 1907 – 7 march 1942)
Hoogenhuyzen, R.J.J.W. van (???? – 18 january 1942)
Körtz Funneman, Theodorus W. “Funneman” (28 january 1915 – 23 january 1942)
Kuyper, Jan (3 february 1920 – 19 february 1942)
Rothkrans, Robert Adolf (2 november 1918 – 23 january 1942)
Swarts, Frederik (3 march 1918 – 16 january 1942)
Tukker, Johannes Jacob (9 january 1916 – 20 february 1942.
Olsen, Gunnar (25 february 1918 – 28 december 1941)
Voorbij, Adriaan “Adje” (4 november 1915 – 15 january 1942)
Waardt, Theodorus Joseph de “Theo” (1 december 1916 – 24 january 1942)
Wessels, Willem Eduard (21 september 1921 – 24 january 1942)

(Source: ‘Scarafax’ – Warbird Forum Message Board)

 

 

6 Responses to Brewster B-339 Buffalo

  1. Danke für euren hilfreichen Artikel.

    Ich habe euren Weblog schon länger im Feed abonniert.

    Und heute musste mich mal zu Wort melden .

    Macht genauso weiter, freue mich schon auf die nächsten Beiträge

    Like

  2. Besten Dank für euren tollen Artikel.

    Ich habe euren Weblog schon seit einiger Zeit im Feed abonniert.
    Und heute musste mich mal ein schnellen Kommentar da lassen und ein “Danke” hinterlassen.

    Macht genauso weiter, freue mich schon auf den nächsten Beitrag

    Like

  3. Douglas L. Noordhoorn says:

    Nice article! My dad was a technical officer with the ML-KNIL at Andir AFB at the beginning of WW2 and after, during the “Politionele Acties”. I have always been interested in warbirds and their history in general and also in the history of the ML-KNIL.

    Like

    • Kingsleyr says:

      Thanks for your compliment Douglas.
      I hope your dad did not have to spend the war in one of those horrible camps. As a matter of fact, I got my first ideas for my books and this blog by talking to someone like your dad. He too had been at Kalidjati and Andir during January – March 1942. Now I have set myself the task to document and publish what I can about the “forgotten campaign” in which so many good men and women lost their lives.

      Like

  4. Douglas L. Noordhoorn says:

    Well, my dad was made POW as he declined to escape to Australia and leave his family behind. He stayed at Java, though (Struiswijk) and took part in rebuilding the ML-KNIL after the war. After repatration to the NL in 51 he joined the Dutch Airforce, retiring as a Lieutenant-Kolonel in 1964. One of my cousins, though, a Sgt Airgunner on a Glenn Martin, did not survive the war. He died in one of the Hell Ships (Tamahoku Maru). An both of my maternal grand parents and my uncle died in civilian camps…

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s