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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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!
Up Next: Junkers Ju 87B Stuka
Leave it to the Finns to figure out how to overcome this plane’s major deficiencies.
I think its really a testament to a dedicated and professional service. Much like the US Navy did with Wildcats vs Zeros.
Thank You. Great post overall. Well, maybe Brewster was extremely suitable for Finnish fighters after all.
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.
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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!
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.
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With all respect ,you guys in the U.S. can only see Midway where the F2A is concerned ,& OK it didn’t shine there but just stop & consider,inexperience ,very bad tactics, outnumbered,& also out of 6 Avengers launched 0nly 1 came back,2 out of 4 Martin B26’s were lost,I don’t remember them being thought of as losers & as for the Devastators & Vought SBA’s………………You guys should do a bit more reading,try ‘Bloody Shambles’ an account of the campaigns in the Far East,in the opinion of Jeff Fisken (Buffalo Ace) when he tried the Hawker Hurricane “I thought the Buffalo was better”.Most of the British pilots who sampled both types tended to agree,the REAL problem with Buffalo out there was it’s Wright Cyclone engine which simply wasn’t equal to the task. Yes the F2A-3 was a bad mistake I believe on the Navy’s part,Brewster weren’t going to put up their money being a ‘rip off’ company 1940’s style,the Navy wanted a plane with long range so they went the ‘wet wing’ route, the designer (Dayton T Brown)MUST have warned them,if for no better reason than seeing his own creation fail.The F2A deserves a better ‘write up’ in my opinion,when I was a kid (now 72) I lived next door to a Brit. who trained on them in Florida around ’43 he said the F2A-2 was ‘the nicest most agile fighter I ever flew I never found any vices’.
I believe I mentioned most of this. I think the best summation of the Buffalo is that in its early forms it was at least as good as the early Wildcats. But lacking self sealing fuel tanks and pilot armor neither the early Buffalo nor early Wildcat were quite combat ready.
I spelled out quite carefully in my previous Buffalo post that the American experience at Midway was mostly due to inexperience and bad tactics.
The British experience was more mixed. I have read Bloody Shambles and it is an excellent source. No doubt much of the British frustration with the type was due to poor leadership, underdeveloped support systems and a dispersed deployment. Nonetheless, British Hurricanes faired marginally better and AVG Hawks did much better.
As is the point of this post, Finnish Buffalo use clearly shows that with good pilots, support and leadership a Buffalo squadron could be VERY effective. I mentioned in my “Worst Aircraft of World War II” post that don’t even consider the Buffalo a contender for that title.
It will however, always be a symbol to many of American unpreparedness at the start of the war. Fair or not.
The Brewster was great as a light fighter. With the unreliable electric guns replaced by LKk/42 12.7mm HMGs, RoF was 1000-1100 r/m, 550-850 sync’d! Best version of Browning guns. M/V of the AP, APT, and API shells: 700-835m/s. Who can tell me the bullet weights?
The early F2A did a 1/2 turn in 7 seconds. Not bad for a US made fighter. Good vertical performance too. Not many Allied fighters back then, had an all-around view canopy like it did. All the weight added by the Navy was stripped off by the Finns. The later Navy version could not get out of it’s own way due to all that weight. The weak landing gear design could not handle it, especially on carriers. The F2A lacked the stretch of the Grummans to develop in the years ahead with bigger motors.
My solution? Let Grumman have the carriers. Let the USMC have the stripped down Brewsters for short range cover support till mid-war.
The gun cellenoids faired poorly in the humid tropics. It’s MG53-2 guns were best without them in the S. Pacific. Drop the jam-prone US .30 Cal guns. The RAF .303 works till mid-war against Japanese Zeros…etc.
Saying the Buffalo didn’t have the stretch of the Wildcat strikes me as exactly right. In significant ways it was a less modern and capable aircraft. I think part of why the Finns made such good use of it was they simply had no other choice than to make it work, at least early in the Continuation War they didn’t.
The problem with switching to the British gun is really one of supply and support. The Navy and Marines weren’t looking to add yet another bullet size to their supply needs. The American .50, even if it were just two of them, was probably the best realistic choice.
Performance wise I think it’s fair to say an early Buffalo is somewhere between the Wildcat and Zero. But in this case I think that’s bad news for the Brewster. It lacked the diving speed and structural strength of the Grumman, which proved to be the greatest assets in using kinetic energy to counter the Japanese dog fighting style. Not only that, you need to sacrifice pilot armor and self sealing fuel tanks to maximize that performance, and you end up with just a less capable attempt at matching the Zero. Even IF (I’m not really agreeing with the IF, just speculating) Marines defending Guadalcanal had achieved a slightly better kill ratio with a stripped Buffalo it likely would have been with increased pilot mortality (just based on the high number of pilots surviving bail outs or returning in damaged aircraft). Not a good trade.
I remember several years ago seeing a documentary on dogfighting in the Solomons with pilot interviews from both sides. The pilots all went through the familiar litany of what was wrong with the Wildcat, but when asked if they would have switched planes (with the Japanese) they answered resoundingly no. For all it’s failings, they all felt they owed their survival to the Grumman Iron Works.
Ron you do seem to like the early war underachievers! The one way I’ll definitely agree on the Buffalo is it could have been kept in production longer to equip rear areas (from San Diego to Johnston Is. to Samoa). Given what a critical shortage there was of Wildcats in late 1942 it would have been nice if something “modern” had been available for those rear areas so all Wildcats could be moved to the front.
A few observations to your comment, atcDave, The Buffalo was pretty sensitive to relatively small increases in weight or horsepower. Engines were hard to come by early wartime with Dutch East Indies Buffalos receiving different lots of Buffalos with different power (including rebuilt airline engines) which reports indicate that the strongest powerplants had a big impact on performance but the reported difference in power was about 100HP. Several of the Finnish aces reportedly used turning climbs as a way to break contact with the enemy which reflect your comments that the Brewster was ballpark similar to the Zero but also sensitive to weight (and I’ll add horsepower to the other side of the equation).
Additionally, the Finnish Brewsters were radio equipped encountering a Russian foe which did not uniformly use radios in their aircraft which gave the Finns a large advantage as the Finns practiced ground controlled intercepts and coordinated attacks. The Finns could always choose the conditions for combat and take a favorable position. They could not always get that favorable position because they were also expected to engage the enemy when dispatched but on balance they had a huge tactical advantage in combat.
The most important factor was training and the happy coincidence that the Buffalo was a very stable gun platform. The Finns were relentless in their aerial gunnery. The shot their entire Winter War ammunition allotment prewar for training and pilots had to pass gunnery tests where they put 50% of their shots into an parachute target and 70% of their shots into a ground target. The Finns also would not confirm a kill unless there was wreckage found on the ground in Finland or it was witnessed by ground observers. Many claimed kills over Russia and the sea were not officially credited. Finns spoke routinely (when flying the Fokker D.XXI) about having to kill the rear gunner in a bomber before shooting out the engines individually and having to kill I-16s by shooing out the engine because their bullets could not penetrate the armor plating to kill the pilot. The Finns were so good at gunnery that they could do these things.
Wow Garrett, some very insightful comments. Looks like you’ve read a lot about the Ilmavoimat!
No doubt the training and personnel make the single biggest contribution to the quality of work done.
It remains an interesting “what if” on how the Buffalo would have faired if it were in broader service at the start of the Pacific War. Especially knowing the quality of leadership in Navy fighter squadrons. Thach, Flatley and the rest of what Lundstrum called “The First Team” certainly would have gotten the most out of the type. Again, I don’t mean to say they would have done better than they did; I think the Wildcat and Buffalo are broadly similar in capability. But I do think it wouldn’t have been disastrous.
Very interesting comment on the Dutch Buffalos with refurbished DC-3 engines. Apart from a boost in power, I believe their reliability was dreadful. But obviously there was a big problem with engine availability at that time, like the castrated F4F-3A situation. It took time before there were adequate engines of the desired types. But it would have helped several types if the best, desired engine was always available.
Thanks for the comment Garrett!
Training can certainly help mitigate some problems of material. After all, Hitler, who declared war on the three largest industrial powers in the world thought invading a tiny neutral and mountainous country where every one was trained and armed their entire life wasn’t the best idea.
That could be Switzerland or Finland!
Now we might want to add Israel to the list of tiny countries it would be a really bad idea to attack…
This talk about training got me thinking, never a good sign…
I love the game “War in the Pacific: Admiral’s Edition” and have playing it a lot recently. It simulates the whole Pacific War in extreme detail; one day turns, every pilot and ship skipper (down to PT boats) named, movement of supplies and fuel is critical, base building and pilot/crew training are a big deal, etc…
So of course at the start of the full campaign there are a number of Buffalo units in play. All things considered they are useful and far from the biggest challenge facing the allies at the start. Most relevant to this discussion, VF-2 on the Lexington is equipped with Buffalos at the start. But the proficiency of the pilots makes them a reasonably effective combat unit. And at the start of the war there are no where near enough Wildcats to go around. So leaving VF-2 flying Buffalos for quite some time seems reasonable. It becomes an issue of replacement pools. Since the Wildcat is entering true mass production it is inevitable it will eventually replace the Buffalo, but apart from watching the dwindling replacement pool for Buffalos I don’t really worry too much about them. Their reliability is definitely lower, but they do okay in combat.
And this is mostly true with Dutch and British squadrons too. The Dutch also have a number of Hawk 75 squadrons that I think fare slightly better than the Brewster (same engine, lighter airframe. Which has both good and bad aspects). Of course the Hurricane is slightly better for the British, but that situation parallels the Americans and the Wildcat.
Current game I’ve been playing for about a year and am roughly a year into the war, I still have a number of Buffalo squadrons in the rear areas. They are completely adequate for that job and I see no reason to replace them for the foreseeable future (the game does consider overall airframe fatigue, so at some point they will have to go. But it won’t be December of ’42).
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Pappy Boyington said the Buffalo was a great fighter and could make a turn “in a phone booth.” He said the Navy ruined it by adding 500 lbs. of weight without an increase in power. Hope the Navy Air Museum in Pensacola can recover a Buff sometime in the near future. Apparently another has been located “submerged” off Wake Island.
Yeah it seems to have been a good performer in its earliest form. Of course many types suffered when they were weighted down for war, but the Buffalo seems to have fared particularly badly.
So does that make the Buffalo the best bad fighter or the worst good fighter of WWII?
One of life’s great mysteries…
That is the ultimate proof of “It’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it”!
Had to be embarrassing for the VVS to get pounded by a flying beer keg.
I have a very soft spot for the Buffalo, and massive respect for the Finns who managed to fight a dragon with a rusty butter knife!
Great work, Dave!
Thanks Adam, I like the “rusty butter knife!” What a perfectly apt description.