The High Country

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. -- Daniel 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.

Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

NEI order

The NPC persistently tried to have orders for fighters for the ML-KNIL approved. Other types were also considered such as the North American Mustang (in its earlier versions) and the Bell P-39 Airacobra, but also Canadian built Hurricanes. The problem with all these initiatives remained the availability of engines. On 28 October 1940 another request was submitted for 72 Buffaloes (N-196), but this time without the engines. Also approval was requested for the purchase of 140 Wright R-1820 engines (amongst others for these Brewsters) that had been placed on the second hand market by American Airlines, which company was replacing the engines of its Douglas DC-3 transport with a later version. This was again refused although the order for the Buffaloes was approved this time. It is beyond the bounds of this story to discuss the further developments – the above merely served to illustrate the problems Major Te Roller had to deal with.

The eventual result was that the NPC received 31 Cyclone G-105A engines of 1100 hp from the already mentioned stock for the MLD, including spares, intended for the first 24 Buffaloes. In addition 54 G-205A Cyclones (1200 hp) for the remaining 48 Buffaloes were obtained through Brewster which had procured them, after revision at the Wright plant, from Trans World Airlines. The letter of intent provided to Brewster on 6 June 1940 could finally be converted into an order. Thus the ML-KNIL acquired two versions of the Buffalo, whereby the 100 hp less was a significant handicap for the first 24 aircraft.

Five Brewsters of the Second Afdeling, Vliegtuiggroep V (2-VlG-V) [Afdeling = Squadron, Vliegtuig group = Aircraft Group] ready for a demonstration on a propaganda day of the Vrijwillig Vlieger Corps [Volunteer Flyer Corps] at Cililitan (Batavia), July 1941. (Photo Sectie Luchtmacht Historie, Royal Neth. A.F.)

Finally an additional 20 Buffaloes were ordered in February 1941. These were a different version similar to the last F2A-3 version of the US Navy, ie a somewhat longer fuselage and a higher weight. Also there were problems with the delivery of engines, which in this instance was solved through the purchase of 22 Cyclone R-1820-G2 engines that had been traded in by KLM with the manufacturer for stronger engines. These engines were modified by the factory to a G5B configuration which delivered only 1000 hp, ie 200 hp less than the earlier Buffaloes, in a heavier aircraft. A rather unfavorable combination that reduced the already unimpressive maximum speed of the Buffalo from 307 to 264 mph and the climb rate from 4700 to 3100 feet/min. But nothing else was available and it seems that the ML-KNIL had adopted the approach that the lesser aircraft be used for the training of fighter pilots in the hope that more powerful engines would become available at a later date.

As it was, these last 20 Buffaloes never reached the NEI, which was perhaps fortunate. The delivery was delayed through shortages of spare parts and eventually the aircraft were shipped without the exhausts (which were sent later). Eventually they were unloaded in Australia and used by the USAAF and RAAF. It is interesting to note that the Aviodrome recently acquired various remnants of three of these aircraft.

The delivery begins. Buffaloes to Suriname?

Delivery of the Brewsters began at Roosevelt Field, Long Island in March 1941. Most of the test flights were undertaken by Captain-pilot-observer Hans Maurenbrecher, with the assistance of Major Te Roller. The bulk of this series was delivered by end June, except seven aircraft which were completed in July and one in August. The first of the series with the 1200 hp engine (the B3-119) was retained in the US for tests and as a prototype for modifications (which is the reason why this aircraft has been so often photographed). During tests it was damaged and, as such, was not shipped until April 1942 and was also diverted to Australia.

Sergeant-pilot Theo de Waardt of 1-VlG-V at Singkawang, East Borneo, shortly after war with Japan broke out. His Buffalo was not yet fitted with an armor plate behind the seat and no reflector gun sight. He wears a loose set of headphones and does not have a microphone in the oxygen mask. (Photo J.Schellekens via Casius)

Tales of the Flying Tigers

In the meantime the Netherlands West Indies made a claim on the Buffaloes. The USA exerted pressure on the Netherlands to do something about the neglected defense of Suriname [then part of the Netherlands West Indies] where there were extremely important bauxite mines. When the USA threatened with a military invasion of Suriname, the Dutch government in London quickly moved and made plans to improve the defense of Suriname. One of the plans was to send five Buffaloes to Suriname. On 24 October 1941 five Dutch pilots in Britain were ordered to train with the RAF on the Buffalo, but there were some delays. Moreover, the USA indicated that this was not sufficient and a month later sent a military force to Suriname. Although this is not certain, it is likely that the last five Buffaloes of the ML-KNIL were kept back in the USA for the Suriname project. After this was cancelled, they were shipped to the NEI but arrived too late to take part in the struggle. The B3-162 to -166, the last six [sic] of the 72, arrived in Australia in March 1942 and were transferred to the USAAF.

Deployment in the NEI

On 1 June 1941 the 5th Vliegtuiggroep (Air Group) was established on Semplak [near Bogor] and Andir [near Bandung], to be equipped with the Brewster fighters. The 1st Afdeling (Squadron) of this (1-Vl.G.V) was initially equipped with Curtiss Interceptors and a so called Trial Afdeling of Brewsters was established which on 1 July was reorganized as the 2nd Afdeling (2-Vl.G.V). The strength of an Afdeling of fighters was, from an battle order point of view, set at 12 plus 100% spares, but in practice this meant 12 plus six spares and even that was difficult to attain, as will be shown. The 2nd Afdeling (2-Vl.G.V) was the first completely equipped fighter squadron and was equipped with the 1100 hp aircraft. After more Brewsters had been received the Interceptors of 1-Vl.G.V were transferred to Vl.G.IV and were replaced by Buffaloes. Each fighter group was to comprise three Afdelingen and both Group IV and Group V had still to be supplemented with a third Afdeling but it was not until the end of 1941 that pilots and sufficient ground crew came out of training.
The last twenty ML-KNIL 339-23 Buffaloes with the longer fuselage, in the snow at the Brewster plant, early 1942. the Solar exhausts were delayed and the aircraft were shipped to Australia uncompleted. The Aviodrome in Lelystad has recently purchased some remnants of three of these Buffaloes. (Brewster photo, Sectie Luchtmacht Historie)

After the ML-KNIL was mobilized on 1 December 1941 the deployment of the Buffaloes was as follows:

1st Afdeling Vl.G.V (Semplak) 15 aircraft

2nd Afdeling Vl.G.V (Semplak) 14 aircraft

1st Afdeling Vl.G.IV (Madiu) 6 aircraft (plus 13 Curtiss Hawks)

Technical Service (Maospati [near Madiun] and Andir) 25-27 aircraft (in assembly and repair)

About three of the 65 aircraft that had been received had already been written off in accidents and more were being repaired. The 3rd Afdeling of Vl.G. IV was established at Madioen on 9 December 1941 and initially undertook fighter pilot training. Four of the Buffaloes of Vl.G.IV were sent to Ambon on 3 December to provide a symbolic air defense. It was hoped that the last six plus twenty Buffaloes, which were expected by ship shortly, would be used to equip and activate the 3rd Afdeling of Vl.G.V. In anticipation this Afdeling was established on 10 January 1942 and equipped with aircraft from the other Afdelingen. Through this the spares of the other Brewster Afdelingen were exhausted and, due to combat losses Afdelingen were soon merged again.

Flying Tigers
revised and updated

The quality of the Brewster Buffalo as a fighter

The Brewster Buffalo has a remarkable fascination with aviation historians and over the years many articles have been devoted to this aircraft. In general these stories do not rate the aircraft very high. But is that justified?

In the first place it must be established that the Brewster fighter was a product of the 1930s with the associated technologies. State-of-the-art 1936-37 did not include self sealing fuel tanks, armor plating, duplicated control, hydraulic and electrical system, reflector gun-sights and other aircraft niceties that after the start of the war became essential to survive in combat. The Brewster Corporation was too much a marginal supplier to be able to profit from government contracts that introduced these niceties. It is therefore not justified to compare the Brewster with the results that were achieved by – especially later – heavily modified version of the Spitfire, Mustang, Messerschmitt and Focke Wulf.

In addition, the pilots who in 1941-42 entered the battle against the Japanese, were mostly fresh from pilot training, certainly as far as the ML-KNIL was concerned, and had few hours on the Brewsters. Most of them had never fired at an aerial target, whereas neither their leaders could boast too much recent fighter experience. As such Lieutenant Bruinier, who as the sole survivor of three ML-KNIL fighter pilots had returned from a detachment with the RAF in England and had gained experience in modern fighter combat, was a source that was eagerly listened to. But this was all too late and there was no time to restructure the training programme on the basis of this information.

The negative judgment of the Brewster Buffalo is principally based on the certainly disastrous results of the RAF deployment of the fighter over Singapore and Malacca. As far as fighter pilot experience was concerned, the majority of the British pilots were not much better than their ML-KNIL colleagues, although their leaders usually had combat experience from the European theatre. But the British Brewsters were all fitted with the 1100 hp Cyclone G-105A – the majority of the ML-KNIL aircraft had 1200 hp – and they had also been fitted with the abovementioned additional equipment bringing the weight of the aircraft to 2955 kg, about 265 kg (10%) more than the NEI aircraft. Because of this the rate of climb (at sea level) was just 3000 ft/min, very poor compared to the 4700 ft/min of the NEI aircraft.

Harry Simons, who as a pilot for the Kon. Ned. Ind. Luchtvaart Mij. (KNILM) [the NEI civilian airline] was called up as a fighter pilot on the Buffalo, reported that he found the Buffalo a good aircraft provided it was fitted with the 1200 hp engine. He stated: “Although it may sound strange, I still remember the agile maneuverability of the Buffalo and in principle it was a very good aircraft as long as it had 1200 hp. The armament with two light and two heavy machineguns, was on the light side, no self sealing tanks, no armor plating for the pilot, a cumbersome radio installation and just a provisional installation for a reflector gun sight. The long and thin pipe structure for the gun sight was often used by mechanics to help themselves out of the cockpit and I have never flown an aircraft in which the gun sight was properly aligned and had well harmonized machine guns. This, coupled to the youthfulness of the pilots, would have made it impossible for any aircraft to perform better.”

War Trophy
One of the NEI Buffaloes captured by the Japanese on Java was put on display in Tokyo as a war trophy. In the background, difficult to see, is also a captured Boeing B-17C Flying Fortress. (Photo Sectie Luchtmacht Historie, Royal Neth. A.F.).

Microphone on a hook

The Buffalo also had a number of other qualities were it scored better than average. For instance the 200 gallon (750 liter) tank provided for an adequate range, viz four hours at cruise speed (550 hp, 163 mph), or 680 miles (1100 km). This easily allowed the aircraft to reach airfields on Borneo and southwest Celebes and fly standing patrols. Of course in a maximum combat mode the flying time was much shorter, viz one and a half hours. Furthermore the Brewster was built solidly. The construction was based on 7.9g and the reality has proven that a Buffalo with a lot of combat damage could still bring the pilot home safely. Combined with the ample availability of spare components – there were for instance eight complete spare wings – and much cannibalizing of wrecks, the TD [Technische Dienst = Technical Service] managed to reduce the number of aircraft that had to be written off considerably.

The deployment of the Brewsters also revealed some annoying shortcomings. At a high altitude the machine guns tended to freeze. This was remedied with a special grease compound but, through the NPC, special kits with gun heating equipment were also ordered. These would have to be fitted in the NEI. Also the 1200 hp Brewster developed vapor lock in the fuel lines when they flew at high altitudes. To remedy this high pressure Pesco fuel pumps were ordered but in the interim the fuel caps had been modified with a ram-air pipe that created more input pressure in the fuel tanks. Also the machine guns would jam in high g flight. This problem could be prevented by limiting the amount of ammunition. And then there were these minor things that affected flying in combat situations. Like the radios in the Buffaloes, which were commercial transmitters-receivers for sports and business aircraft and were provided with a hand held microphone with a hook to hang it on the instrument panel. Not very convenient when, in the middle of an aerial combat, you want to warn your mate that he has a Japanese on his tail!

Taildragger Tales

Armor plating order

The weakest point of the Buffalo, and in fact all combat aircraft used by the ML-KNIL, was the absence of armor plating and protection of the fuel tanks. The NPC tried to remedy this as a matter of urgency by ordering in June and July 1941 40 mm thick “Safetee Glass” armored glass cockpit front windows panels like those fitted on the RAF Buffaloes, 6 mm thick Jessop armor steel plate to be fitted around the fuel tanks and the pilot seat and a stock of Goodyear Linatex, a natural rubber that was applied to the fuel tanks to ensure that fuel leaks resulting from bullets, were sealed. One can imagine the effort required to modify the Buffaloes with this equipment. The correspondence related to this indicates that when the supply was approved by the JAC, on 13 September 1941, 51 Buffaloes had already been shipped out of the USA and that the 21 aircraft still at the plant, were to be modified there. To what extent it had been possible to modify all aircraft is not known. Obviously the modifications would have a strong negative impact on the performance of the Buffaloes, as the British had already observed.

The weight problem of the RAF Buffaloes had been recognized in Singapore and efforts were made to remedy it, although it was restricted to efforts; there was insufficient time to remedy a large number of aircraft. End December 1941 (the war had been going for three weeks) a modified Buffalo took to the air and amazed everybody. Two of the four Colt machine guns had been removed and the other two replaced by .303 Brownings and the quantity of ammunition was halved. That saved 400 kg. The external radio aerial was removed and replaced by an internal antenna. Flares, the Very signal pistol and cockpit heating had been removed and the radio equipment reduced to a minimum. Moreover, the quantity of fuel had been reduced from 130 to 80 gallons. The modified Buffalo flew 30 miles faster and was better maneuverable. The pilots referred to their hotted-up Brewster as the SSS--Super Sport Special.

Nine Buffaloes of 2-Vl.G.-V that had been sent to Singapore when hostilities broke out, were there fitted with armored glass panels from written off British Buffaloes. The British were, however, impressed by the NEI pilots and their aircraft: “The Dutch pilots are magnificent as both men and flyers. (....) Their planes are much faster than ours and have self-sealing fuel tanks”, reported a mechanic of the New Zealand 488 Squadron who was loaned to the NEI squadron. Another New Zealander, Pilot Officer Pettit, who, for a short time, was assigned to the NEI Buffalo squadron in Singapore as a liaison officer: “(....) I can’t remember anything specific, except discussing with them the relative performance of their aircraft and ours. Our Buffalo’s had 1100 hp, while they had 1200 hp motor (.....) Their aircraft were slightly better than ours (.....) and I think that they knew a lot more about Buffaloes than we did and they were more likely to shoot down a Jap than we were, because, first they had a superior aircraft, and secondly, they were more experienced.” Even so, of the 12 pilots of this Afdeling, seven had graduated from the flying school in 1941 and two in 1940. Only the commander, Captain van Helsdingen (MWO3, graduated in 1934), Lieutenant-pilot Piet Hoyer (graduated Dec. 1938) and Sergeant-pilot Ad Voorbij (graduated Nov. 1938) had more than 18 months flying experience.

Captain Piet Tideman, commander of 3-Vl.G.V, gave in the recently published book “Buffaloes over Singapore” the following analysis of the Brewster fighter: “Coming to an evaluation of the Brewster fighter, especially compared to the Zero by which it was opposed - I think that my views are not directly in line with what is generally said about the Brewster. Generally it is said that that it was far inferior to the Zero. (.....) On the contrary, the Brewster was a good, sturdy, fast fighter with two half-inch armour-plates behind the seat. She would take a hell of a beating. My view is that our drawback during the fighter actions was not an inferior aeroplane, but that we had too few of them and also our armament was too little and too light. Only two .303’s and two .050’s. If only that could have been six or eight wing-mounted .50’s! However, I was happy with the Brewster. Another thing we have to bear in mind is that we were up against the crème de la crème of Japanese fighter pilots.”

To this must be added that with ‘six or eight’ .50’s with ammunition, the Buffalo would have been much heavier and the advantages compared to the British version would have been negated.

Sorry Saga of the Brewster Buffalo

In a few instances RAF pilots flew with NEI Buffaloes, amongst others a former Buffalo pilot, now a Hurricane pilot, whose aircraft was being repaired and who, on 26 February 1942, made two flights in the B-395, the first ML-KNIL Buffalo. He wrote in his log book: “Lone top cover. These Dutch kites are great. Twin-row Cyclones.”. Of course these NEI Buffaloes did not have “twin-row”, ie 14 cylinder, 2000 hp engines. But it indicates to what extent this RAF pilot was impressed by the better results of the NEI version (whereby we assume that the original 1100 hp engine of B-395 had been replaced by the more powerful 1200 hp).

The Japanese were not much better equipped

From the above we can reasonably conclude that the Brewster fighter was burdened with many handicaps. That is true, but in fact, the opponent was not in a much better state of affairs. In air combat the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa fighter of the Japanese army, better known as the “Oscar”, was frequently encountered. This aircraft, too, did not have self-sealing fuel tanks or armor protection. The maximum speed of the Oscar was less than that of the Buffalo, but the aircraft was much lighter (2048 versus 2830 kg) and climbed quicker (to 5000 meter in 5 1/2 minutes, versus 7 1/2 minutes for the Buffalo), in spite of the less powerful engine (970 versus 1200 hp). These performances could only be achieved by the application of much lighter construction and, moreover, the armament of the Oscar was also significantly less: just one  7.7 mm and one 12.7 mm machine gun, half that of the Brewster. The Japanese Oscar fighter pilots of the 59th and 64th Sentai also had the advantage that they had gained substantial battle experience in China.

The other opponent of the NEI fighter pilots was the notorious Mitsubishi A6M, Navy Type 0, the “Zero”. This aircraft had amassed such a reputation that in NEI all Japanese fighters were automatically referred to as Zeroes, whilst in fact, in a large proportion of combat the Oscar was encountered. This fighter type was of a somewhat later generation (first flight in April 1939) and had profited from the experience gained of two years of war in China. The Zero was a carrier based fighter but had also earned great success as a land based fighter. Also the Zero’s performance was due to ultra light construction and the absence of armor plating and self sealing tanks. The maximum speed of 530 km/h was more or less at par with that of the 1200 hp Buffalo, but the climb rate was superior (7 1/2 minutes to 6000 meter). It excelled particularly in its range of nearly 1200 miles (about 1800 km) that could be extended to about 1900 miles (3100 km) with auxiliary tanks. This allowed the Japanese navy to have its bombers escorted by Zeroes over long distances, for example from Kendari to Surabaya, whilst still having time to inflict substantial damage to air and ground targets. It was typical for the ML-KNIL to undertake reconnaissance flights south of Java to detect the Japanese aircraft carriers “from which all these Zeroes had to come!”. It was not realized that the Zeroes had such a long range and operated directly from Borneo and Celebes. Another important aspect was the armament of the Zero, which consisted of two 7.7 mm machine guns and two 20 mm cannons. The firepower of such a cannon was deadly if you were caught by a Zero. The Zero was a big and bad surprise for the NEI pilots the more so as the aircraft were flown by pilots with combat experience from China.

Nevertheless, we must ask ourselves if we should have been so surprised. The first pre-production Zeroes had been sent to China in July 1940, one and a half years before Pearl Harbour. They were very successful there although two were shot sown by Chinese anti-aircraft artillery and the wrecks were thoroughly investigated. By analyzing the size of the fuel tanks, including the drop tank, the cylinder size of the engine, weight and similar data, the Chinese came to a remarkably accurate analysis of the performance of the Zero. A report with this information was sent to Singapore but was somehow missed by the RAF due to the large amount of information that was received.

Perhaps too, the data was simply not judged as credible as it was popular belief that the Japanese could not handle fast aircraft and of course they did not have a high opinion of the technical abilities of the Chinese. The American General Claggett, commander of the US air defense on the Philippines, was given access to this data during a visit to China and he believed the data. In August 1941 General Claggett visited Java and met with KNIL commander Lieutenant General Ter Poorten and ML-KNIL commander General Major van Oyen and his staff. It is difficult to imagine that Claggett did not pass on this information about the new Japanese fighter to Van Oyen. Whatever the case, this information never reached the pilots. Did they want to avoid fear?

In summary we can state that, in 1941-42, the Buffalo was obsolete as a fighter but that, as far as performance in comparison with the opponent, it was not such a disaster as has been suggested. The major difference was in the fact that the Japanese, as the attacking party, always had the advantage of the initiative. The NEI fighter pilots always had too short a notice to approach the enemy. The early warning system on Java was very rudimentary and mostly manned by inexperienced and ill prepared young volunteers. In addition the majority of the fighter pilots had limited flying experience and there had been no time to adequately train them in the tactics of air combat, air-to-air gunnery and other essential matters. As Harry Simons has already said: “with this all (….) not any aircraft could have given a better performance.”

Indeed the millionaire had his property protected by a little boy with a slingshot. But how would affairs in 1941-42 have been if we had received all the goods that we had ordered. It is often thought that if the Americans had delivered faster, matters would have turned out differently. That is without doubt, an illusion. Because we had already received a significant reinforcement, even more than we could have dreamt before the Japanese attack. More than 50 four-engined B-17 Flying Fortresses and 15 B-24 (LB-30) Liberators came to Java and they were flown by well trained and experienced American crews. Sixty five four-engined heavy bombers had been added, in firepower at least a doubling of the power of the ML-KNIL and in the long run it did not make any impact. To put it in the right context, we had ordered 162 (!) B-25C Mitchell medium bombers, not as additional aircraft to but as replacement for the Glenn Martins. That was the scale of thinking at that time. This was already a significant advancement in the way of thinking as, hardly ten years earlier, there was a philisophy of purchases in terms of 10 to 15 biplanes. A lot was expected from the defense of the NEI, but we had totally under estimated the Japanese. The idea that we could defend the NEI archipelago, 4500 km from east to west and 1800 km from north to south, an area larger than Europe, with 200 aircraft, or even 400 or 1000, is evidence of a large degree of ignorance. This, however, does not diminish the admiration for the effort of the brave personnel of the ML-KNIL, and not to forget their colleagues of the Marineluchtvaartdienst [Navy] – now more than 60 years ago.

Note 1: The author has subsequently advised that testflights did not take place at Newark Airport, new Jersey (as indicated in the original article), which was the site where Brewster established a plant later on, but at Roosevelt Field, Long Island.

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

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