Brewster Buffaloes for the
Militaire Luchtvaart KNIL

[The original article appeared in Mars et Historica, Vol. 37. Some marginal notes have been added in brackets. To avoid potential confusion with the translation of ‘Indisch’ into ‘Indian’, the term NEI has been used. -- Dan Ford]

By Gerard J. Casius (translated by Jos Heyman)

After the Netherlands had neglected the defense of the Dutch East Indies for years – NEI aviation writer C. C. Küpfer wrote: “it seemed as if the millionaire had his property protected by a small boy with a slingshot” – the end of the 1930s finally saw an expansion of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL) and in particularly the military aviation (ML-KNIL). The famous Glenn Martin bombers could still be easily purchased for hard cash (in 1937 the NEI were the USA’s biggest export customer with Japan (!!) as a second), but after that the US aircraft industry was swamped with orders principally from Britain and France. Whilst Britain and France were at war with Germany from September 1939, the Netherlands remained neutral. President Roosevelt decided that the best way for the USA to keep the Germans at bay, was to help the British as much as possible with weapon supplies. Moreover, the British made significant investments in factory space and machinery to help the American manufacturers to fulfill the orders quickly, something that was also advantageous for the American air force and navy. In this scenario, the Netherlands was a distant third in the race to buy military aircraft against the threat of the Second World War. When the Germans occupied the Netherlands in May 1940, it was already too late for the NEI to catch up.

The ML-KNIL was, as far as equipment was concerned, totally oriented towards the USA but had been forced by the interests of the Dutch industries to waste much time on negotiations and testing of Fokker designs such as the T-IX bomber and the G-2 air-cruiser. Both types would have required another three to four years before they could have been delivered in large quantities whilst in 1939 it was already easy to predict that the engines and all accessories (which the Netherlands could not manufacture but had to buy on an overheated market) would not have been available in time. But the colony had to serve the mother-country and not the other way around.

Ordering the Buffaloes

The surrender of the Netherlands [in May 1940] changed the situation in one blow. It was no longer necessary to muddle along with the Netherlands’ domestic industry. Already at that time a number of Dutch army and navy purchasing missions were operating in the USA, including an agency that was headed by Major-pilot-observer Max van Haselen. In January 1941 he was succeeded by Major-pilot-observer E.J.G. (Eddy) Te Roller, who, along with Captain Paul Valk, had been in the USA for some time to take delivery of twenty Curtiss 75 Hawk fighters for the ML-KNIL. All these missions and agencies were combined in 1940 under the title Netherlands Purchasing Commission (NPC), established in New York, and managed by some well experienced businessmen. It was soon clear that it would require a lot of inventiveness, connections and especially hard cash, to get anything. The NPC did not hesitate and hardly recovered from the shock of the surrender of the Netherlands, a shopping list was submitted to the US authorities on 22 May 1940, who, along with the British, determined the priorities and who was to receive their permission to negotiate with manufacturers. There have been several such authorities but for ease we will refer to the most important of them: the Joint Aircraft Committee (JAC).

Assembly of the second Buffalo (B-396) for the ML-KNIL at Roosevelt Field, Long Island, on 29 January 1941. (Brewster photo 6089, NASM via Casius)

The shopping list included 72 Brewster Buffalo fighters. The Buffalo was not an obvious choice. This type, which dated from 1936, was no longer “state of the art”, but Te Roller knew his business and knew that the Belgians had placed an order of which the first were about to be delivered. Belgium had also been invaded by the Germans and perhaps there was an opportunity to get hold of these aircraft. As such, Te Roller explained in his request that the delivery of 72 Brewsters to the NEI would not require any concessions from the USA as “it was to be expected that Belgium would cancel its order for 39 aircraft and that engines for the other 33 aircraft were available.”

Here we encounter a significant bottleneck in the aircraft market: the lack of engines that runs as a red thread through all transactions. Whilst the JAC could find space for the production of airframes, it could not readily do so for the necessary engines, propellers, instruments, radio or armament. Separate purchase approvals were required for all these. The ’33 available engines’ Te Roller referred to, were Cyclones ordered by Aviolanda and De Schelde for the Dornier flying boats they were building and which, of course, could no longer be delivered. As it was, the Belgian Buffalos did not become available but were quickly acquired by the French and on 16 June [1940] the first six were shipped on an aircraft carrier to France. The remainder went to the British. The NEI request was refused by the JAC.

The NPC continued its search and was tipped off (perhaps by a nervous manufacturer) that there were 28 Curtiss 75A-4 Hawk fighters which had not yet been delivered against a French order as France had, meanwhile, surrendered to the Germans. A request to acquire these aircraft was rejected because the necessary engines were not available. With no other alternative than continuously trying, a new request was submitted but now for 28 Buffalo’s, type 339-16, for which engines would be purchased on the second hand market. This request was approved but Te Roller had to withdraw it as he could not find the engines. At the same time a new request was submitted (number N-114; in the meantime a numbering system had been introduced for all supply requests, N for the Netherlands, B for Britain etc.) for 72 Buffaloes complete with engines and propellers. This one was also rejected but with the notification that a delivery in 1942 would be permitted.

Problems at the Brewster Plant

It must be noted that the circumstances was forcing the NPC to do business with the marginal aviation industries in the USA, of which Brewster Aeronautical Corporation was considered one. The corporation did not have a great reputation, little experience (before the Buffalo project it had manufactured aircraft components as a sub-contractor, including wing floats for Catalinas), and was operating from totally unsuited premises. It was an old furniture factory in Queens, a suburb of New York, where production was distributed over several floors with little room for movement due to concrete pillars. The assembly and test flying of completed aircraft took place from a hangar at Roosevelt Field on Long Island [Note 1]. This resulted in inefficiencies and, moreover, labor relations at Brewster were deplorable. Strikes were common and the trade unions within the plant were not particularly inspired by patriotic ideals. In the long run, and after its relationship with the NEI had ended, this would result in the US Navy taking control of Brewster. Brewster had given the export trade, including that to the NEI, to the Miranda Brothers, a team of arms traders which were not squeaky clean in their dealings and had to explain their manner of business in courtroom on several occasions.

The B-396 ready for a test flight, fitted with a gun-camera and bombs. The delivery flights were mainly undertaken by 1st Lieutenant (later General Major) Hans Maurenbrecher. (Brewster photo, NASM via Casius).

Whilst this may give a negative impression of the Brewster corporation, the Buffalo was a reasonable success. It was the first monoplane carrier fighter of the US Navy and 54 were ordered as F2A-1. Of these 44 were delivered to Finland when the Russian ‘bear’ began its attack. The Finnish made exceptional use of the Buffalo. As a replacement, the US Navy bought 43 F2A-2s which were supplied between August and November 1940. Apart from the already mentioned order of 40 Buffaloes for Belgium, of which, after the French surrender, one went to Finland and 33 to Britain, there was an order for 170 from the Royal Air Force. The latter order was especially intended for squadrons that operated in the Far East, in particular Singapore.

continued in part 2