Brewster Buffalo, Part II

The Buffalo is one of those airplanes with a split personality.  Its performance and combat record against the Japanese is almost universally bad.  Yet a small number of planes, against the massive VVS (Soviet Air Force) had as completely opposite an experience as we can imagine.

After the jump, and with the help of one of this site’s readers, an interesting look at a whole different performance.

I  mentioned the other day in the Gloster Gladiator post that during the Winter War (11/1939-3/1940), Finland received aid from a number of nations.  One of those was the United States.  Finland needed state of the art weaponry immediately.  So a deal was reached with the US Navy and Brewster.  The Navy had just started taking delivery of F2A-1 Buffaloes, even though a new an improved F2A-2 was on the drawing board.  So the Navy agreed to release the remaining 44 F2A-1s for sale to Finland, and they would wait for the -2.

Air_Museum_Tikkakoski_Brewster2_BW372 Air_Museum_Tikkakoski_Brewster3_BW372

As it turned out, those aircraft didn’t arrive until after the end of the Winter War.  In Finnish service they would go by the Brewster company designation, Model B-239, although apparently they were just commonly known as “Brewsters”.  At this point, the Finnish Air Force was a pretty amazing polyglot force.  With a front line strength of about 160 aircraft, it was stronger by 1941 than it had been before the Winter War.  It was made up of Italian Fiat G.50s, Dutch Fokker D.XXIs and British Gloster Gladiators.  Then add in recently purchased French MS.406s, British Hawker Hurricanes and Bristol Blenheims and the new American Brewsters.  In late 1940 Nazi Germany started selling off war booty of captured French equipment; Finland added more MS-406s and some Curtiss Hawk 75s from that source.  There were also a number of reconditioned captured Soviet aircraft on strength.  I can’t imagine a more interesting air force.

Air_Museum_Tikkakoski_Brewster1_BW372

Air_Museum_Tikkakoski_Brewster4_BW372 (1) Air_Museum_Tikkakoski_Brewster6_BW372

Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June of 1941.  Finland joined with Germany in an attempt to reclaim territory recently lost in the Winter War.  This, what Finland called “The Continuation War”, would cut the Finns off from British and American suppliers.  But in time, the Germans made equipment available, and eventually the Finnish Air Force would be mostly remade with German hardware.

Air_Museum_Tikkakoski_Brewster8_BW372 Air_Museum_Tikkakoski_Brewster11_BW372

But when the Continuation War started, the Brewster B-239 was Finland’s most important fighter.  The B-239 model included no pilot armor or self sealing tanks.  It is hard to imagine, but apparently none were ever added either.  The aircraft were also de-navalized, tail hooks and life rafts being removed.  This made the type very light and maneuverable (less that 10% more wing loading than a Zero, and more powerful).  Really the best performing of any Buffalo.  It was very well regarded by Finn pilots, earning the nickname “Pearl of the North”.

Amazing view of the cockpit.  I'm sure some restoration work has been done here, it looks great!

Amazing view of the cockpit. I’m sure some restoration work has been done here, it looks great!

Air_Museum_Tikkakoski_Brewster12_BW372

A wing weapon bay is open for servicing the wing mounted machine gun.

A wing weapon bay is open for servicing the wing mounted machine gun.

Finn engineers and mechanics had a fairly long history of tinkering with foreign aircraft, and they managed to work around several of the type’s reliability issues (most significantly to the engine).  They were well aware of how scarce their resources were, and made a point of maintaining the Brewsters to the highest standard.  At a time when most countries considered 6 months to be the life span of an aircraft in combat, the Finn Buffaloes were in front line combat units from June of 1941, until they were replaced by the Bf 109G in mid 1944.  They finished out the war still flying combat patrols over rear areas.  Finland considered building their own Brewster B-239s, and even built a prototype of a new production model, but manufacturing a whole type is a much bigger job than the sort of parts/modification work the domestic industry was geared towards, and the project came to nothing.

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With the Buffalo in the foreground, there’s a DC-3 and a Fokker D.XXI behind. The Dutch built Fokker had been the best Finnish fighter of the Winter War.

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The open compartments behind the engine are the service bays for the nose armament.

The success of the type is staggering.  Finn pilots claimed 477 kills for 19 losses.  That’s over a 25/1 kill ratio (compare to 11/1 for the Corsair).  All the top Finn aces flew the Brewster at some point; the most successful being Hans Wind with 39 kills (out of 75 total).  And Ilmari Juutilainen, the top non-German ace of all time, scored 34 of his 96 kills in the Brewster.  By the way, if you Google “worst airplane of WWII”, you will get a lot of hits with the Brewster Buffalo.

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The initial salvage operation underway.

Which brings us to the story of Bw 372.  This Finnish Brewster crashed in a lake in June of 1942.  A joint Finnish/Russian salvage team found the aircraft in 1998.  It was sold to the US Navy for restoration and display at the Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fl.  But following hurricane damage to that facility, the plane was gifted (loaned?  the ownership story is an epic in its own right!) to the Central Finland Aviation Museum for restoration and display.  These pictures were taken by new reader of this site Sartenada, who has his own photography blog at Word Press, and was kind enough to make them available to me. The plane’s current condition is amazing, but I must admit to being uncertain as to how much restoration work has actually been done.  So for all of you in Northern Europe, go see it!

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Thanks to our photographer!  That's Sartenada beside the Brewster.

Thanks to our photographer! That’s Sartenada beside the Brewster. A Hawker Hurricane has been added to the display area behind the Buffalo.

The before picture. This is BW 372 before it fell in the lake!

Up Next: Junkers Ju 87B Stuka  

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About atcDave

I'm 53 years old and live in Ypsilanti, Michigan. I'm happily married to Jodie. I've been an air traffic controller for 30 years; grew up in the Chicago area, and am still a fanatic for pizza and the Chicago Bears. My main interest is military history, and my related hobbies include scale model building and strategy games.
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9 Responses to Brewster Buffalo, Part II

  1. Theresa says:

    Leave it to the Finns to figure out how to overcome this plane’s major deficiencies.

    • atcDave says:

      Absolutely!

      I think its really a testament to a dedicated and professional service. Much like the US Navy did with Wildcats vs Zeros.

  2. Sartenada says:

    Thank You. Great post overall. Well, maybe Brewster was extremely suitable for Finnish fighters after all.

    • atcDave says:

      Your photos were a great inspiration, and add a unique perspective to the whole story. So thank you again!

      There is no doubt your countrymen made extraordinary use of an otherwise unappreciated weapon. There are other examples of types that performed poorly finding an uncommon niche where they were well used. But this may be the most dramatic example I can think of. It is truly a strong testament to the expertise and professionalism of those pilots who made such good use of the type’s strengths.

  3. Pingback: The Best/Worst Airplane of World War II | Plane Dave

  4. Terry Brodin says:

    Do the Finns still have this aircraft?
    I read that the US Navy somehow acquired it. If they did, it would be interesting to now how.
    I don’t believe the policy of “oh, that’s US Navy property” would be hard to apply in this case.

    Read back in September that the recovery of the two TBDs (BuNos 1515 and 0298) in Jaluit Lagoon, Marshall Islands is now a dead issue. Another it’s a “national treasure” issue, so I guess the TBDs will continue to slowly corrode until enough “backroom dollars” end up on the correct desk. Then again maybe they’re just upset because the US doesn’t recognize thier claim to Wake Island!

    Funny how AFTER B-17E (41-2446) was pulled out of the swamp, Papua New Guinea claimed it was a “national treasure”. Later she seemed to lose this status, most likely after many dollars found thier way into the right hands.

    Sorry, I tend to frequently rant!

    • atcDave says:

      I believe it is still in Finland. The Navy MIGHT have a hard time claiming ownership here as the aircraft was delivered right from Brewster to Finland. The Navy did have to agree to defer delivery of a purchased aircraft for Finland to get it, but they did in fact get an F2A-2 to fill the order.
      On the other hand, some sort of agreement was reached with the salvage companies that was supposed to result in this aircraft being delivered to Pensacola. After the museum was damaged, the terms were altered. But was it loaned to the Finnish Museum or gifted? I don’t know.
      I do know some aircraft end up on indefinite loan, which may be the case here. It is possible the Finns would have to cough it up if the Navy ever asked for it. But the Navy may have their plates full with enough other projects that this one is on indefinite hold.

      It may become a very interesting story at some point in the future.

  5. Pingback: Aviation Museum of Central Finland / Museo de la Aviación de Finlandia Central / Musée de l’aviation de la Finlande Centrale / Museu da Aviação da Finlândia central | Sartenada's photo blog / Blog de foto de Sartenada

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