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Buffaloes Among the Kangaroos

by Ralph Brading

An unintended consequence of the imminent Japanese invasion of the Netherlands East Indies in early 1942 was the arrival in Perth, Western Australia by ship of a total of twenty one Brewster Buffalos, still in their factory applied NEI Army Air Corps camouflage and markings.

They were initially acquired by the USAAF in Australia. Of the twenty one aircraft fifteen machines were subsequently used by the Royal Australian Air Force, four by the US Army Air Force, and two by both air forces, first by the USAAF and then by the RAAF!

The bulk of these aircraft were Model 339-23's, also apparently known as Model 439's, together with a single example of the Model 339-D. This last aircraft was the happenchance survivor of 72 aircraft ordered by the Dutch government for use in the East Indies, 71 of which were delivered there and lost to enemy action, while this example was held over in the USA for shipment with the 20 Model 339-23's.

All the aircraft were land freighted to Melbourne. Some were assembled by a USAAF team and others possibly by a team of civilian contractors using the workshops of Ansett Airlines at Essendon, Melbourne's commercial airport. They were then test flown and soon went into service. The first batch of six were allocated to the RAAF No. 1 Photo -Reconnaissance Unit at the end of May 1942 for use at Darwin in Northern Australia, only four actually reaching this combat area.

Three-view of RAAF
Buffalo

A further nine machines were sent back to Perth, Western Australia, to equip No. 25 Squadron RAAF, and for some time these Buffalos were the sole fighter defense for Perth and the adjoining port of Fremantle. A photograph of four of these aircraft appears in the Kookaburra publication "Aircraft of the RAAF - 1921-78".

Two more Buffalos eventually reached the RAAF, in a rather curious fashion. When the Central Gunnery School was established at Williamtown Aerodrome just outside Melbourne in October 1942 the base had just been vacated by the USAAF and two aircraft were literally found left behind on the dump! They were reconditioned and taken into service for use for gunnery training at the School.

Fourteen RAAF Buffalos were progressively returned to the Fifth Air Force in Australia for scrapping by January 1944, including one already written off in a landing accident before leaving Melbourne to go north. Two had crashed, one near Melbourne and another near Derby in northern Western Australia, the RAAF pilots, Flt. Lt. R.R. Winter and Sgt. J. Austin, being killed in each case. A third No. 1 PRU [photo reconnaissance unit] aircraft was destroyed by enemy action during a Japanese bombing raid on Hughes Field near Darwin on 29 October 1942.

Little seems to be known in Australia about the five Model 439 and one Model 339D Buffalos retained by the USAAF, other than that of the two aircraft eventually acquired by the RAAF. This makes the sighting of one of them at Essendon Airport in both camouflage and natural metal finish in 1943, reported elsewhere on this site, of particular interest. A second American aircraft crashed into a mountain north east of Melbourne on 1 July 1942 killing the pilot, a Lt. Null of the USAAF, and the rest were presumably progressively scrapped along with the returned RAAF aircraft.

Apart from the photograph of the American model 339-23 (439) with the US serial number 313 shown on page 44 of the Buffalo "In Action" book there is another very good photograph of a US Army Buffalo in Australia in another American publication. This is on page 92 of "Air Force Colors-Volume One" and it shows the sole Model 339D, in this case with the Dutch serial number, 3119, on the rudder.

This brings up the confusing matter of the Buffalo serial numbers. All the aircraft arrived in Australia bearing Dutch serial numbers. In the case of the 339-D mentioned above the full four-digit number was on the rudder, in the case of the twenty Model 339-23's it appears that only the last three digits were used, and these on the fin.

The first six aircraft assembled received RAAF serial numbers A51-1 to A51-6 on the fuselage between the stabilizer and the national roundel; and four arrived in Darwin and went into action. The USAAF administration then assigned interim American serial numbers to the remaining aircraft, 300 (it is thought) to the 339-D and 301 to 314 to the balance, consisting of Model 339-23's.

Aircraft Nos. 300, 303, 304, 306, 313 and 314 were retained by the Americans, the rest going to the Australians, where they initially received serial Nos. A51-7 to A51-15, with US 303 later becoming A51-16 and US 306 becoming A51-17. The Australian aircraft all retained the interim American numbers in yellow on their fins.

It is not known if all this succeeded in confusing the Japanese, but it certainly had Australian air historians scratching their heads for about fifty years, and some minor matters relating to Buffalo serial numbers are still to be cleared up.

This is also the case with the camouflage schemes. It is known that all the Buffalos reached Australia with a factory applied Netherlands East Indies scheme of Dark Olive Drab and Medium Green above and Aluminum below. Current Australian thinking is that this overall scheme was initially retained by both the RAAF and the USAAF, both simply overpainting the NEI national markings with their own.

Some of the Australian aircraft then had their undersides sprayed in Sky Blue, possibly to eliminate the large "US ARMY" lettering under the wings, and this was the case with the example illustrated below.

This illustrates an interim Australian marking scheme, blue and white roundels being later added to the underside of the wings, the red centre being removed from the fuselage markings and the red bar from the tail markings around mid 1943.

The four crashed and one bombed aircraft were all totally destroyed by fire. If any physical remains of a Buffalo could be found anywhere in Australia they would have to have survived the USAAF scrapping process, which was carried out at Eagle Farm aerodrome near Brisbane, in the state of Queensland. Jim Maas has a photograph of a wing taken in an Australian context and there are persistent stories that larger elements including two fuselages may have survived and already left Australia.

Apart from photographs the principal proof of the existence of Buffaloes among the kangaroos is contained in the cryptic entries in a series of "status cards", a simple record which apparently accompanied each aircraft around Australia and fortunately not scrapped with the aircraft it described. These have survived in microfiche form. The Buffalos so recorded were gratefully received in Australia and put to good use by the RAAF in a time of great need, but the small number involved and their relatively unspectacular local war record has meant that they are considered as an `oddity' in the RAAF histories and will remain so in the future.

The Buffalo Trail
around Australia


The following material has been consulted in preparing these notes.

Buffalo Down Under (Red Roo Model Publications)
Australian Airpower-1914 to 1945" Mark Grant (Topmill Pty Ltd.)
Aircraft of the RAAF-1921-78 Pentland and Malone (Kookaburra Publications)
Royal Australian Air Force-1939-1942 Douglas Gillison (Australian War Museum)
Air Force Colors Volume 1 Dana Bell (Squadron/Signal Publications)
Article titled "The Brewster Model 39 and the Australian Connection" in Man and Machines No. 50, May-June 1995 by John Hopton
Updates and Oddities-RAAF Colours, Markings and Camouflage-Aviation History Colouring Book No 30 Ian Baker (published by the author). Ian's help and generous permission to publish the Buffalo drawing from his book is gratefully acknowledged.