Flying Tigers
revised and updated

Brewster 339/439 in the East Indies

[Paul Andriessen prepared this synopsis from Hugo Hooftman: Van Glenn Martins en Mustangs, Alle vliegtuigen die hebben gevlogen bij het KNIL, de Indische militaire luchtvaart, published about 1966, which he found at the Dutch Maritime Archives. I'm told that the information about serial numbers is outdated and no longer applies. - Dan Ford]

One of the most important fighter planes used by the Royal Dutch Indonesian Army (KNIL) against the Japanese was the Brewster Buffalo, which was the base of the air force. In 1940 no less than 92 of these airplanes were ordered! First 72 B-339D's of which the deliveries started in March 1941, just before the war began. Later also 20 B-439 was ordered with more powerful engines what has been delivered? This B-439 has a Wright GR-1820-G205A engine which delivered 1200 HP at the start and 1000HP at 14.200 ft while the B-339 had a G 105A which delivered 1100HP at the start.

Probably not all of 72 ordered B-339's were delivered, there were a total of 72 Buffaloes in the service, B-339's as well as B-439's! When the war started at the 8th December 1941 there were only 30 ready for battle. During December one squadron was sent from Buitenzorg (west Java) to Malakka to defend Singapore. On 12 January '42 three of these Dutch Buffaloes came into action near Singapore for the first time. Soon they found a serious problem; the front canopy was not hardened glass. The British Buffaloes from the RAF, who flew with the B-339E with their 900HP engines had armored canopies. Soon after these canopies were mounted on the Dutch Buffaloes, mostly taken from damaged RAF Buffaloes who could not fly anymore.

Only five of the Buffaloes survived the fighting around Singapore, the rest were lost. These five were retreated on Sumatra.

There were only 20 left in reserve, which flew above Ambon, Borneo and Java. The 3VI squadron with 12 Buffaloes was flown by young, newly certificated pilots who left the flying school of Kalidjati at 7 December 1941 to go to Maospati to get their brand new Buffaloes.

When Java surrendered there were only four damaged Buffaloes left. Possibly the Japanese captured these, because they were flying Buffaloes with Japanese signs.

The planes and their pilots in action


The Dutch Buffaloes had bomb racks on which two bombs of 50 kilo's or six bombs of 25 kilo's could be hanged. In this way they have been used and a Japanese destroyer was sunk and several cargo ships were damaged.

The Buffaloes belonged at the 5th aircraft group at Buitenzorg, what existed of two departments of each 12 Buffaloes. Four were based on Palembang I. They arrived there on 25 December 1941 after the evacuation of Singkawang II on Western- Borneo. Two patrols were standing on Pakanbaroe.

The Dutch Buffaloes were send to Singapore to help the RAF who also flew with Buffaloes. The British were armed with 4 machine guns of 12,7 mm while the Dutch were armed with two 12,7 mm and two 7,7 mm guns. There were 12 British Buffaloes of no 21 sq. stationed on Sungei Patani, 32 of 243 sq and 48 sq. at Kallang and 16 of 453 sq. at Sembawang. In total the RAF 60 Buffaloes around Singapore. On 9th December 1941 12 (or 9?) Dutch Buffaloes under the command of Capt. van Helsdingen were added to this number and stationed on Kallang, Singapore.

On the 12th of January 1942 they first came into action. When at 10 am A Japanese air raid happened with 5 Army '97's (Nakajima) KI-27) vaandrigs (reserve officer candidate) Swarts, Scheefer and Sgt. Bruggink took off with their Buffaloes and succeeded in chasing away the Japanese. Vaandrig Swarts did hit one Japanese bomber's engine so it started smoking. In the afternoon the bombers came back. Now Capt. van Helsdingen, Lt. Deibel and Sgt. Bruggink took of. At 4000 m. they came into a fight with 9 Japanese Army 97's. Four were shot down, two by Deibel and one each by van Helsdingen and Bruggink. Deibel himself was shot down, but lightly wounded on his head he managed to save himself with his parachute. After four days hospital he was cured and send away.

On the 15th again the Dutch Buffaloes came into action, when above Singapore van Helsdingen, Swarts and Bruggink again fought with a over powerful number of Navy Zeros. Vaandrig Swarts was shot down and killed.

On the 16th Bruggink went into a battle with a formation bombers without visible results.

Java, Ambon, Borneo

On the 18th January the Buffaloes went back to Java. Capt. van Helsdingen went with 8 Buffaloes to Semplak, Lt. van Rest and Lt. Tideman with twelve Buffaloes to Andir and Lt. de Vries with eleven Buffaloes to Tjilitian, all beginning February '42. On the 9th February the Japanese air force raided the air base Tjililian with 8 Navy- Zeros. The alarm was so late, only 5 of 11 ready to start Buffaloes could take off. Out of six left on the ground only one survived the attack. The rest was destroyed, together with some British Hurricanes and KNILM-planes. From the 5 planes who took off, three were shot down immediately (together with two Glenn-Martins and two FK- 51's), so only two Buffaloes could make a fight. They shot down one Navy Zero. The strength of the 5th fighter sq. was down to 3 planes, all Buffaloes.

On Ambon a patrol of 4 planes was placed at Laha air base. There were even plans to send 36 fighters to Ambon, but this never happened. In fact the patrol at Ambon existed only out of 2 Buffaloes, because during the flight from Java to Ambon one plane was lost with Sgt. van Bers, while the second crashed in a false landing. On the 13th of January '42 both Buffaloes came into action when they attacked a flight of 10 Japanese Navy Zeros. The pilots Lt. Broers and Sgt. Blans fought a hopeless battle. They dived shooting trough the Japanese formation. Almost immediately the Buffalo from Broers was shot into flames, but Broers continued fighting with his burning plane. When the Buffalo went uncontrollable he managed to get out of his plane and saved himself by his parachute, heavily covered with burned wounds. He came into sea, was picked up en brought to a hospital. Sgt. Blans had to continue the fight on his own. With a loud bang his left wing broke away. The sergeant jumped with his parachute and faded away. He had 17 hits in his body. He came into the trees and was found after 7 hours by a rescue team. He survived. In the first week of February the three Buffaloes at Tjililitan were send to Tjisaoek, where also the Buffaloes out of Semplak were standing. Eight Buffaloes took off to attack the enemy above Semplak when on 19th February about 35 Japanese airplanes appeared with at least 20 Navy Zeros. Vaandrig Scheffer and Sgt. 't Hart shot a Navy-O each. Both were shot down themselves, but managed to leave the plane by parachute. Vaandrig Kuipers and Sgt. Groot were less fortunate, they were shot down and killed. The commander, Lt. Deibel, fired twice on a Navy-O, was after 10 minutes fighting wounded by a 20 mm shell, but managed to land safely on Semplak. The real commander, Capt. van Helsdingen had to stay on the ground due to engine failure. Even though the Buffalo pilots reported only two Navy-Zeros ground troops found eleven airplanes crashed in the terrain on their way back to Palembang.. The Dutch lost 4 Buffaloes, while the Japanese on the air base Semplak shot three British Hudson's and two KNILM Sikorsky's into fire.

Twenty Buffaloes came into action on 23 January above Makassar Strait when they took of with two 50 kg bombs each. From a high altitude they dived to the Japanese ships. Eight hits were placed on four Japanese ships, one destroyer and two cargo ships. One of the Buffaloes was shot down. On 24 January the Buffaloes shot two Japanese air scouts.

The Japanese found the Samarinda II air base on this day. They air base placed on east- Borneo was attacked by several Navy-Zeros. Five Buffaloes welcomed them. Two of these fighters were shot down, the pilots killed. One Navy-O survived his crash at Samarinda II almost undamaged, so the Dutch pilots could inspect this plane closely for the first time. On the 28th two of the Dutch Brewsters were shot down and the air base Samarinda II evacuated.

The number of Buffaloes who fought on Malakka and Borneo were with help of the spare planes brought back to 20 and placed on Bandoeng and Buitenzorg, (east and west Java) The pilots, who just left the flying-school came after long wandering at the end of January at Tjililitan air base. Around 31 January 12 Buffaloes were placed at Bandoeng, 8 at Buitenzorg and 11 at Tjililitan. The KNIL also had 8 Hawks at Madioen and 13 Interceptors at Soerabaja.

The eight Buffaloes at Andir came into action when on 20 or 21 February an air alarm was given. The Buffaloes were ordered to circle around Tjiater. When Kalidjati was bombed the Buffaloes were not allowed to attack the Japanese airplanes. There had to be a fighter protection above Bandoeng. A sad decision, because the Dutch Buffaloes could have made severe damage to the Japanese attackers. The 12 Buffaloes went in to a fight with 24 Navy-Zeros. During this fight both sides lost two planes. The B-3122 flown by Sgt. van Dalen was lost above Tjiater.

Sorry Saga of the Brewster Buffalo

Later six Buffaloes from Andir were send to Ngoro on the 25 and 26 February. One of them had to return.

On the 27th February, the day of the battle at Java Sea, five Buffaloes took off together with eight American P-40's to escort 3 American dive-bombers who should attack the Japanese invasion fleet near Bawean. On 1 March the five Buffaloes together with eight P-40's and seven Dutch Hurricanes took off. The Buffaloes were under the command of Lt. de Haas and got to the landing troops first. There were 44 cargo ships in front of the coast, together with hundreds of small landing crafts. The Buffaloes attacked immediately and surprised them completely. They shot until they were out of ammo. When the Japanese attacked Ngoro air base all the airplanes were damaged so badly that they had to be destroyed. Also the Buffaloes...

There were only four Dutch Buffaloes left. Capt. van Helsdingen used them in a last assault at the Japanese in the Tjiaterfortress to support the ground troops near Kembang. The pilots were van Helsdingen, Deibel, Scheffer and Bruggink. Van Helsdingen and Bruggink flew about 200 m. below the other two planes who had to cover the other two planes. Above Lembang they met a Japanese fighter who was attacked by Deibel and disappeared. Some time later they saw three Navy-Zeros. Deibel shot at two planes which turned away. Deibel himself was shot in his oil tank. He dived into a valley and succeeded to escape from the attackers. Flying very low he reached Andir. He landed in a tropical rainstorm. One of the wheels, damaged during the fight ran away from the aircraft so it crashed in a "ground loop". Scheffer landed a minute later. Van Helsdingen and Bruggink were attacked by six Navy-Zeros. Capt. van Helsdingen was shot down and killed. Bruggink managed to escape into a cloud and in a long way back to Andir air base.

This was the last action made by the KNIL against a Japanese "overkill" All four of these last pilots were rewarded with the Militaire Willemsorde (highest Dutch decoration, only given for extreme high bravery during wartime).

Deibel was killed on 12 June 1950 when he crashed his Meteor near Uithuizen in the Netherlands, Scheffer died as POW.

Flying the plane

The Buffalo had a non-retractable tailwheel and was recognizable by his big antenna at the front of the fuselage. It was a strong machine with a heavy landing gear. The wheels retracted in the side of the fuselage. Even though there was a back Armour, the front of the canopy was not armored, what was a big minority. The maneuverability was good, but the climb speed was low. Despite these things it was a good plane in a dogfight.

The Buffalo was designed as a navy fighter based on an aircraft carrier. The KNIL machines were build with a connection piece mounted in the tail to place the arrester hook. This was also the reason why the landing gear was so strong, that was a big pro! The worst thing however, were the wing mounted 12,7mm machine-guns who gave a lot of problems, what's not funny when you are in a dogfight.

The Brewster F2A was the first U.S.Navy fighter build as a single-wing plane. It has been said that the Buffalo was an very unstable plane hat needed 30 minutes to reach 21.000 ft. The Buffalo was designed by Dayton T Brown and R.D.MacCart. The prototype XF2A-1, the 0451, flew in January 1938. The export version was called B-239. Off these 44 planes were delivered to Finland to be used until 1944. The land fighter- model was called B-339. Of this model Belgium bought 40 in the beginning of 1940, but they has not been delivered. The RAF got 170 planes, together with 35 planes originally for Belgium. The Germans must have captured some of the Belgian Buffaloes when they conquered Bordeaux.

The B-339D used by the KNIL was the same as the F2A-3 used by the US navy. Even in April 1942 Buffaloes were made in America with the orange triangles, but it was too late to deliver them. Out of 92 ordered planes likely only 50 had been delivered. At the start of the war there were 30 planes operational and short after that another 20 arrived in Dutch east Indies. These last were B-439's, but what is remarkable, the registration numbers existed out of four digits, like B-3113, B-3119, B-3122 etc. They did not fit in the normal registration-system of the KNIL. It is possible that the true strength of the KNIL had to be camouflaged by these high numbers. Remarkable for example is the fact that, according to the newsreels out of those days, in Indies people believed before December 1941 the KNIL had about 2400! Airplanes. This high number was used in the American press. The B-439's were send to for example Maospati (Madioen) and been made airworthy at the local assemble halls. According to the registrations it must have been more than 30 B439's. America had not enough engines to give these planes 1200 HP!

Other Brewster projects

Lesser known are the plans to buy Buffaloes to defend the West Indies. Before the war the defense of Suriname and the Antilles was given to the KNIL. Since an assault on Suriname with its bauxite-mining was not imaginary, it was planned to place a fighter squadron with Brewster Buffaloes out there. For this, already in September 1941 Dutch pilots got to the RAF fighter school to learn to fly the Buffalo. However, at the end of 1941 allied troop occupied Suriname and placed a strong air force on Zanderij, making the Dutch plans useless. Because of this there were never Dutch Buffaloes on Surinam's soil. There was a plan to send 320 sq. to Suriname and add at least 9 amphibious planes to this squadron. This also never happened. In this period the KNIL also ordered 162 dive-bombers of the type Brewster Bermuda. Sadly, of these 162 Bermudas not even one has been delivered, but do not be surprised if in a dark corner at the Brewster factory in the USA a Bermuda was standing with orange triangles..

The KNIL wanted to form 9 squadrons with each 9 planes, with a reserve of 100% The Bermuda had a Wright cyclone engine of 1600 HP and could make a top speed of 525 km\h, a cruise speed of 350 km\h and get to 2300 km. It was armed with 4 12,7mm machine-guns and a movable 12,7mm at the back of the plane. It could take one 900 kg bomb or three 300 kg bombs or one 800 kg torpedo.

The Brewster SB2A dive-bombers the KNIL ordered has been built, but the battle about the Dutch east Indies was over before the machines could be delivered. All 162 machines were taken over by the US Marines and marked as SB2A-4's, as trainers to VMF 531, the first marines night fighter squadron at Cherry point. This was on the 8th March 1943, more than a year after the end of the battle. The machines had cockpits with Dutch markings.

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

A Vision So Noble

On this website: Front page | Flying Tigers | Chinese Air Force | Japan at War | Brewster Buffalo | Glen Edwards & the Flying Wing | Vietnam | War in the Modern World | The Spadguys Speak | Bluie West One | Poland 1939-1948 | Book Club | Book reviews | Question? | Google us | Website & webmaster | Site map

Other sites: Flying Tigers: the book | Daniel Ford's blog | Daniel Ford's books | Facebook | Piper Cub Forum | Raintree County | Reading Proust | Expedition Yacht Seal

Posted December 2018. Websites © 1997-2018 Daniel Ford; all rights reserved.