A Vision So Noble

Buffaloes Over Singapore

Buffaloes Over Singapore
Buffaloes Over Singapore: RAF, RAAF, RNZAF and Dutch Brewster Fighters In Action Over Malaya and the East Indies 1941-42

(Brian Cull with Paul Sortenhaug and Mark Haselden)

"The Buffaloes were not only out of date, but mostly in poor condition, some having been flown for over 200 hours. Unloaded, they were a delight to fly. Loaded, with four .5-inch guns, each with 650 rounds, 130 gallons of petrol, armour glass and plate, they were impossible to handle."

One of the fascinating bits in this fine history of the air war over Malaya is the effort by 453 Squadron and 21 Squadron RAAF to wring more performance out of the Buffalo. On December 28, when they should have been otherwise occupied, they gathered around to witness the first flight of "the Shadow's 'Super Sports Special'"--the Shadow being Squadron Leader Harper, and the "Special" a stock Brewster 339 with its ammunition boxes half empty, two of its four guns removed, the radio equipment lightened by some unspecified means, the gun ports faired over, and the airframe otherwise cleaned up. The "Special" weighed 1,000 pounds less than its mates, and it was 30 mph faster. "The result was that ... our Buffalo fighters were able to almost match the Zeroes in performance," wrote the station commander, Group Capt. McCauley.

Alas, we hear no more about the "Special," and the Buffalo's baffling performance lapses continued. What these were, in fact, is never made entirely clear. The pilots moan about the reconditioned airline engines, the oil leaks, the pitiful performance, and the guns that misfire as often as not. Said Pilot Officer R.S. Shield:

"I overhauled the enemy but as my windshield was covered in oil, I was able to get only occasional glimpses of him. At 350 yards, as near as I could judge in the circumstances, I opened fire. After one burst, three of my guns stopped; the remaining gun stopped after two further short bursts."

But the authors never really get down to explaining what, in their judgment, was wrong with the planes. These were, after all, a later and somewhat heavier version of the Brewster 239s that fared so well in the hands of Finnish pilots flying against the Red Air Force. Was the fault in the planes, in the pilots, or what? You won't find the answer in Buffaloes Over Singapore.

In large part, this is the result of the authors' fascination with original sources. Like the earlier and admirable Bloody Shambles, it tends to consist of large and undigested quotations from the men on the scene. On one open spread of two pages, only eight lines are from the authors, and everything else is a quotation. This is great stuff, but sometimes I yearn for a bit more analysis on the part of the 21st century writers. These events, after all, were 60 years ago. Surely it's time enough to draw some conclusions?

The photographs are plentiful and great. Unlike Bloody Shambles they're segregated in a section to themselves, and printed on higher quality paper than the rest of the book. (This practice is unfortunately becoming less common as publishers try to save money by printing photos on the same paper stock as the text.) There are mug shots of the Buffalo pilots, including a jolly S/L Harper with multiple swastikas painted beneath his canopy, supposedly from his previous service in Europe. There are lots of good Buffalo shots as well--a fair number of them wrecked.

Personally, I could have done with more pictures from the Japanese side, but the photo section opens with a splendid one, supposedly showing a Buffalo going down under the guns of a Nakajima Ki-27 over northern Malaya. (I say "supposedly" because I've been fooled before by Japanese movie stills, and this could well be one such.) The Japanese side is fairly represented in the text, even though the credits don't include the redoubtable Yasuho Izawa, who has contributed to so many English-language histories in recent years. This leads me to suspect that the information from the Japanese side was mostly picked up from earlier books, notably Bloody Shambles.

My favorite yarn is from Sgt. Geoff Fisken, nearly knocked out of the air on January 12. After making his second victory claim on a Japanese fighter, which exploded just beneath him, Fisken had his Buffalo thrown into a spin from which he couldn't recover. He jumped out, but found himself tied to the falling aircraft by his oxygen tube. So he got back into the spinning plane! "Somehow it managed to come out of the spin and I was able to pull it back to an even keel and return to base." Only then did he realize that he could have escaped simply by taking his helmet off.

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Sorry Saga of the Brewster Buffalo

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