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A Finnish pilot's view of the Brewster

Following are excerpts from Ilmari Juutilainen's autobiography, Double Fighter Knight, translated by General Heikki Nikunen of the Finnish Air Force and Rear Admiral Paul Gillcrist (ret) of the U.S. Navy. The book was published by Apali Oy, Sammonkatu 64, 33540 Tampere, Finland (fax 358.31.2552.899). It is now out of print, but you may be able to find a copy through Abe booksellers.

Ilmari Juutilainen "Clearly, the best fighter arriving during the temporary peace [between the Russian invasion of Finland in 1939 and the German invasion of Russia in 1941] was the American designed Brewster 239 Buffalo. These were acquired during the Winter War despite the U.S. law which prohibite the sale of war material to the combatant countries. The loophole which permitted the acquisition of the Brewster 239s was a clause in the law which permitted the sale of 'rejected' equipment. It was 'arranged' that the U.S. Navy rejected 44 Brewster Buffaloes which were then sold to Finland at a 'nominal price.'" (Only 43 F2As were released; Brewster shipped one additional aircraft from parts on hand.) (10, from the prolog by Gen. Nikunen)

During the Winter War, FAF fighter squadrons were equipped mostly with license-built, fixed-gear Fokker D.XXIs. By the time of the Continuation War, the Finns had acquired open-cockpit Fiat G.50 Freccias from Italy, Morane-Saulnier 406s from Vichy France, and war-booty export models of the Curtiss P-36 from Germany (captured in France), in addition to the Brewsters.

"Our Brewsters, contemporary fighters, were fat hustlers, just like bees. They had speed, agility and good weaponry too. In addition to that they also had protective amor behind the pilot's back and under his seat [installed by Finnish mechanics]. We were happy to take them anywhere to take on any opponent." (52)

An FAF fighter formation consisted of eight planes in two divisions, with two sections in each division. The forward division attacked. The rear division flew at a higher altitude and "a little behind and off to one side," going into combat only when the situation demanded. (That was the theory. In fact, combat generally degenerated into the usual "furball.") What's most astonishing about Sgt. Juutilainen's fighting style is the extreme close range at which he preferred to fight: he regularly recalls shooting at 50 yards, and speaks of following a MiG-3 plane close that his Brewster was "drafting" on the slipstream. Even a Hawker Hurricane left him undaunted:

"I came in at high speed from above and behind and pulled the throttle back to idle.... The target grew in my gunsight. It was a very clean airplane and looked brand new. Now I was approaching the perfect firing range and looked around me one more time. No other enemies were in sight. The pipper on my sight was just slightly in front of the nose of the Hurricane and my glide angle was about ten degrees. Now I could count rivets on the target and the range was about thirty yards." (95)

In June 1942 Adolf Hitler visited Immola Air Base in a four- engined Focke Wulf Condor escorted by two Brewsters. His mustache, "Illu" recalls, was dark brown rather than the expected black.

The Brewsters constantly changed operational bases, with each plane's mechanic riding in the fuselage baggage compartment so that the planes could be serviced the moment they arrived. They were seldom used against Russian airfields, on the theory that the Russians could easily replace aircraft; instead, the goal was to kill pilots in the air.

In February 1943, Illu's squadron remounted on Messerschmitt Bf-109s from Germany. This was fortunate, because the Russians were now flying more redoubtable aircraft including Spitfires, Mustangs, and Kittyhawks. The war ended for Finland in 1944, by which time Illu had earned two Mannerheim crosses (making him the "double knight" of the title) and was the FAF's top ace, credited with 94 air-to-air kills, including 36 on his pet Brewster, BW- 364.

In his foreword, Adm. Gillcrist gives this list of qualities that in his opinion made Illu such an exceptional fighter pilot:

  • Aggressive--always the one to attack
  • "Superb situational awareness"
  • Good eyesight, always looking around
  • Good at estimating deflection--"a natural shooter"
  • Understood his aircraft, both strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of the plane he was attacking
  • A natural pilot
  • Pushed his aircraft to the edge, fought at the edge (pressing the fight to 20 yards, for example)
  • Physical endurance
  • Self-confidence
  • Coolness under fire

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