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Dogfight: Brewster Buffalo v. Curtiss P-40

[The late Erik Shilling posted this message on the Usenet newsgroup rec.aviation.military, 29 Sep 1995. The British pilot was Flight Lieutenant Jack Brandt--son of Capt. Freddie Brandt, half German and half Chinese, a smuggler and riverboat captain on the Yangtze, who was murdered by a warlord's henchmen in 1924. Jack's twin brother was a Hurricane pilot on Malta, and would be killed in December 1941. The boys were born in Shanghai. -- Dan Ford]

By Erik Shilling

For a little over 50 years I had been trying to get in touch with the RAF pilot that flew the Brewster Buffalo in a dogfight I had over Toungoo Burma. At last I succeeded and am enclosing his letter. To bring the reader up to speed I am including a little background on the subject.

A number of [the AVG's] ex-navy and former marine pilots, after see[ing] the RAF in both Singapore and Rangoon flying the Brewster, became disgruntled with Chennault. They though[t] the P-40 was an inferior plane and wanted to trade a squadron of P-40s for a squadron of Brewster Buffalos. I guess it was out of loyalty to the navy and one of its fighters....

Several of them expressed their opinion verbally, and apparently Chennault heard their grumbling. He arranged with the RAF for a dogfight between the Buffalo and a P-40. Much to my delight, I was chosen to fly the P-40.

My adversary happened to be [Flt Lt] Brandt, a pilot fresh from the battle of Britain. The dogfight was flown directly over Toungoo, our training base in Burma. All the men in the AVG were on hand to watch, and so were many RAF pilots, including the Air Vice Marshal [Donald Stevenson] from Rangoon. The contest was to be two out of three fights. I won the first two fights so the third one was called off. Looking back, I think that Chennault had taken a great risk. Suppose I had lost.

The following is an excerpt for a book I wrote, "Destiny: A Flying Tiger's Rendezvous With Fate." I hope you don't mind....

Some ex-Navy pilots in the AVG thought the Brewster Buffalo, originally an American Navy fighter plane, was superior to the P-40. A few criticized Chennault for not getting the Brewster and were angry that the RAF (Royal Air Force) were flying, as a few put it, a better fighter than we had in the AVG. Some didn't hide their feelings and were quite verbal, wondering why we wound up with the P-40, a second-rate fighter. There were some who even wanted Chennault to swap a squadron of P-40s for a squadron of Buffalos.

Chennault was aware of their dissatisfaction with the P-40 and arranged for a RAF pilot to fly to Kyedaw for a fly off between a P-40 and the Brewster. I have to admit I thought he took a wild gamble in arranging such an exhibition. Chennault must have been pretty damn sure of the P-40. His plan proved to me he was able to evaluate a fighter plane's performance from the ground, and he certainly was an excellent judge of an aircraft's capabilities.

Much to my surprise and with an inward feeling of pride, I was delighted the Old Man chose me to dogfight the Brewster. It turned out to be quite a festive occasion. Several high-ranking British, including an Air Vice Marshal, came up to witness the contest. The AVG even put on an aerial review in their honor.

Squadron Leader Brandt was flying the Brewster, and I believe he gained "Ace" status over England during the Battle of Britain. [Jack Brandt was not among the list of British and Commonwealth WWII aces.] Brandt and I took off in formation, climbing to ten thousand feet over Kyedaw. We were flying to the east as we came over the airport, crossing the runway at ninety degrees. When directly overhead, we made a 90 degree turn away from each other, which put us flying parallel to the runway. After a few seconds we turned back toward each other, coming down the centerline of the runway.

We met directly over the heads of those on the ground. The combat was on as our wing tips passed, each pulling his plane into as small a circle as our ships were capable of turning. Again, like many times before, I developed the circle into a 45 degree plane. Each time at the top of the turn, with the Brewster below, I would pull back hard on the stick, doing a one quarter turn spin cutting across the circle, gaining a little each time.

When I finally locked onto his tail, Brandt, in a desperate attempt to dislodge me, dropped his gear and flaps, hoping I would overrun him. I saw his flaps as they started down, so I pulled back on the stick instead of the power. I was able to conserve energy by gaining altitude and at the same time losing speed, I stayed behind him. When he finally decided what he was going to do next, I dove back down on his tail. There was no doubt in my mind that I won fair and square, with no mistakes on Brandt's part. I'm certain the P-40 was the better airplane.

I thought some of you may be interested in Squadron Leader Brandt's viewpoint concerning the air battles over Rangoon, and his answer to my inquiry as to the type of tactics they had use against the Japanese. Knowing the Buffalo was inferior to our P-40, I also asked how were they able to survive against the Japanese. His answer follows:...

"How I wish I could have swapped my aircraft with yours. How it happened and how it developed I don't know, but in matters of combat towards defence we copied the German tactics ie. German fighters came in high above their bombers, dove through our Spitfires, with all guns blazing and continued diving knowing the Spit, was more agile than their aircraft (German). This was so much to our advantage in our Buffalos particularly as the Japs for some reason or other abandoned their bombers to hope to cope with the P-40s. It was great. If you remember the last time they came over Mingaladon we in our Buffalos managed to shoot the lot down. A silent "Thank you" came from Me to your lot....

"The last time I had anything to do with Toungoo was after we left Rangoon and moved to Magwee. Up north a rather aged Brigadier called for us to come to his assistance since he intended to fight the Japs further since he was convinced that there were something like 100,000 Chinese soldiers just over the boarder to help him out. It took me some time to convince him that the Japs were well north of him on the western road parallel to Toungoo. Sadly the very next day they whole of his unit was wiped out by the Japs. I think he must have been in cloud Cuckoo Land."

As you can see the RAF pilots, using almost identical tactics as we did in the AVG, didn't do too badly. Apparently the Buffalos were faster than the Japanese fighters and could out run and dive them but not to the extent of the P-40 could. Also as Commander Brandt says, the Japs were concentrating on the AVG's P-40s. Leaving the RAF pilots some what of a clear field to those in the Buffalos.

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