Brewster 339/439 in the East Indies (part 2)

continued from part 1

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.

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.