BUFFALO: Much (historically) Maligned Beast
Posted by Matty on August 9, 2009, 5:01:31
Edited by board administrator October 17, 2013, 11:23:04
--Originally Posted 6/7/10-- |
After reading and thinking for years about modelling this plane, originally developed for the USN, at long last I am finally building a model of the Brewster F2A Buffalo:
Or more precisely its export version, the B-339, sold to (among others) Dutch and (British) Commonwealth nations, for defense (against primarily naval attack) of the Far East. Here Commonwealth B-339s are shown at Singapore, "Malaya" (now Malaysia), prior to WWII. WikiPedia says all B-339s had their life raft cannisters removed from the after cockpit, and the Commonwealth B-339E "...Brewster Mk I as it was designated in British service...(incorporated further modifications) including a British Mk III reflector gun sight, a gun camera, a larger fixed pneumatic-tire tail wheel, fire extinguisher, engine shutters, a larger battery, and reinforced armor plating and armored glass behind the canopy windshield...". In this pic no gunsight is apparent, though the larger tail wheel and missing raft clearly are.
Note undersides are light - undoubtedly sky blue - as are the matching wheel hubs. The two-tone upper camo appears different on the different planes - though this could also be a trick of the surface sheen. Faintly visible under the nearest wingtip is a small roundel, far out towards the tip and offset forward. Also this plane appears not to have any white (caudal) band aft of the roundel (see below) - indeed, the roundel itself is apparently just being painted on - and further evidence (below) argues this must be an early picture, taken weeks and probably months prior to the start of hostilities.
The above is corroborated by the following, "earliest" possible of pictures:
Click on Image to Enlarge Culled from a LIFE Magazine spread dated July 21, 1941, this montage follows a B-339 fresh off the freighter from New York and Brewster's Long Island plant, as it is uncrated and assemled in Singapore. Note the appearance of the crate - if you ever want to do a transport (or a tanker, also used for) shipping planes to the Allies, this is exactly what it looked like. On the aircraft, note all camo edges are hard, with light wheel hubs (bottom) again matching the underside camo, and underwing roundel again far out toward the tip - though rather larger now. Again, squadron markings - which would of course be determined later - are lacking, though the serial number - W8202 - is there.
Conventional "wisdom" has made much of the Buffaloes being "dogs" - based predominantly on their combat record at Singapore and Java - often compared against overall records of the Grumman F4F WildCat, and Curtiss P-40 TomaHawk/KittyHawk - both of which were given far greater chances to succeed. The F4F, in particular, was never thrust, untested, into a new war as in the East Indies, while the P-40 - which was - did not fare much better there than did the Brewsters. Moreover, again per WikiPedia the B-339Es as delivered out of the box, above, were considerably substandard, being "...distinctly inferior in performance to the F2A-2 from the original order...(having) less powerful...Wright R-1820-G-105 Cyclone engine(s) with...1,000 hp...(vs designed) 1,200 hp...(while being) some 900 lb (heavier even to the extent that)...the aircraft was unable to perform loops..."
So - apart from a brief and failed use of them by US Marines to defend Midway - historical judgement on the Buffalo has been passed entirely on this record of their first combat - inherently the most difficult, by far - into which most were thrust 17% underpowered and 15% overweight:
Nevertheless, 40 years since I first saw it, this image of B-339Es from (I also learned, only recently) RAAF 453 Squadron at Singapore, has remained in my imagination. Note the camo again appears different on each plane - and clearly different from the uncrated W8202, above. The wheel hubs are now very dark - apparently black - again matching the color of the underside, particularly noticeable back where a white (caudal) stripe now wraps under the fuselage, just ahead of the tail. The black undersides were apparently left-sides only - an easy recognition marking.
That the caudal bands were - at least, on these aircraft - true white, and not sky blue (as concluded by many a modeller), is unequivocally demonstrated by the slight but distinctly darker shade of the "D" (which would be in sky blue), superimposed directly on the stripe. The spinners - again, appearing different per each plane - are now generally light-toned: white, and/or perhaps sky blue.
Clearly dating from much closer to the Pacific War, the pic shows flyers still greatly confident in their aircraft. Fact was, at that time the latest Brewsters were further along in development, with marginally better speed and maneuverability than the early F4F, which the former had out-competed to become the USN's first all-metal, monoplane fighter. The Brits and Dutch had in fact been ordering the cream of the crop as far as they, or anyone else, knew at the time.
Ironically, it was no doubt this enthusiasm - backed by official tactical doctrine - that would lead many a B-339 pilot to try dogfighting with the Japanese, to his swift demise:
Click on Image to Enlarge This rare color pic of a Singapore "boneyard" really says it all about what happened next - showing hulks of (at least) 9 aircraft, 5 of them Buffaloes, including the nearest, W8207, identified by Wikipedia as from 453 Squadron. Note its portside camo matches that of W8202 - only 5 serial numbers prior - seen earlier coming out of its crate. All aircraft have white caudal stripes, black undersides - coincidentally, again all (clear) views being from the left - and squadron codes apparently severely fading - even washing off (perhaps water-based paint?), though on the second-closest plane - W8156, also from 453 Squadron - an "L" and "Z" remain recognizeable, and on W8207 perhaps traces of an "N", or "V", ahead of the roundel.
These B-339s - substandard to begin with, and many with rebuilt engines, to boot - would claim only a 1.3:1 kill ratio against Japanese (mostly naval) air forces. In contrast, Dutch B-339C and -D models - respectively lighter and adequately (1,200hp) powered - accordingly claimed a 40% higher kill ratio of 1.83:1. This provided a near ideal "real-world experiment" from which we can reasonably conclude that, had all these Buffaloes been up to Brewster standards - that is, with factory-new 1,200hp engines, and at proper weight - their overall record would have improved by roughly 40%, right off the bat. Yet, deployments of the Hawker Hurricane (a burned-out example of which appears in the left-background) and even the undisputedly superior Supermarine Spitfire, right alongside the B-339s and P-40s (both -B and -E models) resulted in much the same for all of them: summary decimation by the Japanese.
On the other hand, less than 1000 miles to the northwest another group, flying mainly (the more obsolete) P-40Bs, racked up a phenomenal kill ratio somewhere between 15- and 20:1, over the same time period: the legendary Flying Tigers. Clearly, something else beside limitations of the allied fighters - any of them - was strongly in play. Which crucial "X-factor" was exhibited nowhere more clearly than by this guy:
Click on Image to Enlarge Geof Fisken, a New Zealander, would ultimately score highest among Pacific War Commonwealth aces - all Brits, Aussies and Kiwis - earning 10 to 13 (depending on how counted/credited) kills. Here a welter of Japanese flags appear on the P-40E in which Fisken would complete his score - yet fully eight of these were in fact earned while flying Buffaloes (of 243 Squadron and later 453 Squadron).
Including Fisken's very first, on 12/16/41, against no less than an A6M2 Zero! Beginner's Luck? Possibly - but certainly not for all the next five fighters he would down - again, all at the guns of his B-339s: incontrovertible proof that even (a) "dogged-down" version(s) of the Brewster could be devastating if used correctly.
Even without knowing any specifics of Fisken's engagements, I would lay odds that, in the great majority if not all of them he did exactly as Chennault did with the Tigers: dove from altitude, cut loose with all available firepower - once and once only - and then ran like hell for distance/time to climb and try it again. An account of one such attack, over Port Moresby, New Guinea - most likely by an Australian or American pilot - was unforgettably described from the receiving end, by IJN Zero pilot and top-scoring (surviving) ace, Saburo Sakai:
"...(From) nearly a mile above us, a single P-40 fighter dove with incredible speed...all guns blazing...(and) ripped through the bomber formation and poured a river of lead into Miyazaki's (A6M2 Zero)...(which) burst into flames (as,)...with tremendous speed the P-40 disappeared below us...Miyazaki's plane drifted slowly down, trailing flame (until)...fire flared out and an explosion tore the Zero into tiny pieces...Everything had happened in three or four seconds..."
I can think of no reason why the chunky Brewster - particularly the overweight B-339E - couldn't also drop out of the sky like a stone, hose shells into one target and continue straight through the dive to run away at top speed, and I have no doubt Fisken - just as, obviously, the above Moresby pilot - independently arrived at this conclusion, to employ it with great success, not to mention survival in the air. Thus, I conclude the Buffalo - especially an uncrippled, factory-spec machine - was essentially just as capable as its allied contemporaries. And that, had the Flying Tigers flown it, instead of the TomaHawk, they would have done just as well!