Flying Tigers


Brewster 239 in Finnish service

by Jukka Raustia

Q: Why did the Finns achieve so much with the Buffalo?

A: First off, the Finnish Brewsters weren't Brewster Buffaloes, or Brewster 339's, or F2A-2, which were very bad fighters. They were Model 239's much closer to the original USN F2A-1, which were reported to be delightful to fly. Finnish nickname "Taivaan Helmi" "Pearl of the Skies" reflects this.

Also, Finnish Brewsters had reflector sights and reliable armament of three heavy machine guns and one rifle-caliber mg. (later on four heavy MG's) and seat armour.

The Finnish Air Force also used innovative modern air combat tactics, such as largely relying on finger four / Thach Weave / Schwarm, whatever you call it, against doctrinal Soviet tactics, such as using three plane flights and "Spanish circle" described later on.

In 1941 many of the Finnish Buffalo pilots had had combat experience during the Winter War, and air combat tactics were modified and developed. Mock dogfights were made against captured russian planes. Training with Brewsters hadn't been so good as it might have been, since the severe shortage of aviation fuel in 1940-1941.

The quality of Soviet planes in 1941, when the best kill ratio 67.5 - 1) was achieved, was lower than Brewsters, most common types being used were SB-2, DB-3, I-16 and I-153.

Finally, there was element of luck. The fighter squadron the Brewsters were in most of the war, 24, was commanded by an excellent commander, Major G. Magnusson, a great organizer and tactician who is considered to be "Grand Old Man" of the Finnish fighter aviation. By almost sheer luck, some of the finest pilots of the Finnish Air Force were in the Brewster Squadron when the war started, such as Hans Wind, Ilmari Juutilainen, Joppe Karhunen and Lauri Nissinen, each one of them later on gaining huge kill numbers also with Messerschmitt 109G-2's and G-6's.

The Brewsters probably could have made even more kills, but the Finnish fighter control system during the Brewster's golden age in 1941-42 was abysmal. For an example, sometimes the alert messages were only somekind like this: "Village of Inkeroinen is being bombed" and arrived as much as 15 minutes too late. But by the summer 1944 it was excellent.

Criticism against Finnish ground control system and FAF brass in general has been extremely harsh by Joppe Karhunen, a Brewster ace and an aviation historian.

Q: How was it possible to achieve victories with Brewsters over the Soviet planes even as late as 1944?

A: Tactics, especially using Brewster's good dogfight qualities, excellent command and control, high quality of Finnish pilots and low quality of Soviet pilots.

Q: Is there a Buffalo in a Finnish aviation museum?

A: No. A Finnish copy of Brewster-239, Humu, is on display in Keski-Suomi Aviation Museum in Jyvaskyla. [Click here for more about the Humu]

Q: Is it true that USA sold the Brewsters to Finland only with formal cost of 1$ apiece?

A: No. More about it follows soon.

Q: Why did the Finnish Buffaloes have swastikas?

A: No. Swastikas were used as Finnish AF national insignia, and as symbol in numerous decorations etc. since 1918. In fact, if you look at the modern Finnish decorations you can notice the swastika.

In 1st of April 1945 the swastika insignia was changed into present white-blue-white roundel. Insignia was changed because the Allied High Commission in Finland wanted it. And since swastika didn't get very good P.R. during the WW II the roundel is still the Finnish national insignia.

Q: How was it possible to maintain Brewsters with virtually no spare parts coming in?

A: That's the real miracle. As many FAF pilots have said, the real heroes of FAF were in fact the mechanicians.

Q: What were the nicknames for Brewster Buffaloes?

A: Most common was simply Brewster. They were never called Buffaloes. Some other nicknames were Pylly-Waltteri ("Butt-Walther") and more poetical Taivaan Helmi ("Pearl of the Skies").

Only BW-367, BW-378 and BW-384 [were individually named] as far as I know. BW-367 was named "Tre Bröder" since the money for it was donated by three swedish brothers. BW-378 was named "Otto Wrede" but I don't know why. And BW-384 was nicknamed "Noka" since money for it was donated by workers of Nokia. (The same firm which makes cellular phones nowadays.)

In general, only a few FAF planes have ever carried anykind of nicknames or personal paintings. However, victory markings were painted, usually as white stripes in the tail. (Major Luukkanen used labels of Karelia beer instead...)

Sorry Saga of the Brewster Buffalo


When the Second World War started and Soviet Union asked Finland to start "negotiations" with Soviet Union about Finnish territory, the Finnish Defence Forces were mobilized and suddenly the shortage of money which had troubled all kind of equipment purchases during the 30's was over. Finland was trying to buy military equipment from all directions.

Why Brewsters?

In the USA, the Brewster Export corporation offered Brewster Model 239. It was one of the three US candidates, others were Grumman F4F and Seversky EP-1. The Brewster wasn't considered to be strong candidate in light of US Navy's experience with deliveries, but the Grumman couldn't sell F4F and Sweden had bought all planes in the production line of EP-1.

During the time Finnish Embassy was negotiating with plane makers, the Soviet Union attacked Finland _without official declaration of war_. Only modern fighters in Finland were 36 Fokker D.XXI's, the Soviets had about 2000 fighters and therefore Finnish embassies were instructed to buy any modern fighter planes at all costs, directly from storage. In the USA laws about selling war materials to a country in war weren't an issue, since Finland wasn't in war _de jure_, and there were 44 Brewster 239's just about to be completed for the USN. (Finland hadn't declared war on Soviet Union, and Soviet Union considered their own puppet "People's Government of Finland" being the legitimate government of Finland.)

But there were laws prohibiting selling of armament headed for the USN or the US Army. But with clever lawyers a plot was made; the fighters headed for Finland were declared surplus by the USN, and so they could be bought by the Finland after all USN equipment, such as machine-guns, sights, emergency rafts and instruments were taken away.

And so 44 Brewsters were bought in 16th of December 1939, with a price of 54000$ a piece + delivery costs. (compare this with modern fighter costs...) The Finnish Brewsters weren't equipped with standard Wright R-1820-34 -engines since they weren't available for foreign sales, they were equipped with refurbished R-1820 G-5 -engines instead, taken from DC-3 airliners.

Delivering Brewsters

Three Brewsters were completed and test flown in the USA, the rest 41 planes were assembled and test flown in Trollhattan, Sweden. First planes left New York harbour in 13th of January 1940, and the last planes arrived Sweden in 13th of March. As always with the Brewsters, they were late. The unassembled planes were assembled by Swedish, Norwegian and British volunteers, and were equipped with three Colt MG 53-2 .50 cal machine guns and one Colt MG-40 .30 cal machine gun (.30 cal MG was later on changed into .50 cal), instruments originally bought for licence-made Fokker D.XXI's and British Aldis telescopic sights. (replaced with Finnish copy of German Revi 3/c deflector sights before the Continuation war) Since the Brewster test pilot Robert A Winston arrived in late February, the first test flights were made by Finnish pilots without anykind of advice. The Brewsters were coded with numerals BW-351 to BW-394.

Only six planes arrived to Finland during the Winter War which ended in 13th of March, and they didn't get into anykind of action. The last ones were in Finland by 1st of May 1940.

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

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