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Brewster Buffaloes for the
Militaire Luchtvaart KNIL (part 3)

continued from part 3

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.

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was impressed by the better results of the NEI version (whereby we assume that the original 1100 hp engine of B-395 had been replaced by the more powerful 1200 hp).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.