History of the F2A Buffalo
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The Brewster Buffalo - in all its variants - holds two very contradictory distinctions: by some it is considered to have been the worst fighter plane of World War II, while at the very same time one singular airframe of its production holds the distinction of being the top scoring fighter aircraft of World War II.
The Brewster F2A, or as it was most commonly known, the Brewster Buffalo first flew in December 1937 as a replacement for the US Navy's biplane fighters. It was the winning design of a competition, which saw three contenders: Grumman, which originally submitted the XF4F-1 biplane fighter but later replaced their entry with the redesigned XF4F-2 monoplane fighter; the Seversky XFNF-1 navalised version of the P-35; and the Brewster XF2A-1. Out of the three, the XF4F-2 was faster but the XF2A-1 was more manoeuvrable, leading the company to win a contract for 54 fighter aircraft. When it entered service in 1939, the Brewster F2A-1 was the US Navy's first monoplane and was a highly promising design. However, like many pre-war designs, reality soon overtook the design.
Problems with the Brewster Buffalo started with the fact it had been built by the Brewster Aircraft Corporation, originally an aviation subcontractor with little experience in the construction of aircraft. Having previously only designed the Brewster SBA scout bomber - a design which would enter service after the Buffalo and which would have a short and indistinct career - it proceeded on designing the XF2A prototype. While this was promising in the type trails, its design hid the fact that Brewster lacked the required know-how to build a naval fighter. Unfamiliar with how to build a folding wing, Brewster circumvented the problem by giving the F2A a short span wing with integrated fuel tanks, which made the type a nimble fighter but ultimately impacted on its climb speed and future performance. The integrated fuel tanks, in turn, made it difficult to repair combat damage: any leaks had to be repaired by taking the entire wing apart. Never having built a naval fighter before, Brewster did not anticipate the forces to which the landing gear would be subjected, and designed it too weak. The decision to design the airframe around the Wright Cyclone engine ultimately meant that it could not be upgraded to more powerful engine designs such as the Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp series. But ultimately, the biggest mistake Brewster made was not predicting future requirements for the type, and designing it without future modifications in mind. Additionally, Brewster's production facilities - a former car factory with production taking place on multiple stories, requiring sub-assemblies to be transported by lift - meant that the company could not build aircraft as fast as other companies. Finally, problems with quality control would lead to serious issues in the type's service life.
The XF2A, F2A-1 and B-239 Buffalo
As designed, the XF2A prototype had a nose-mounted twin-gun armament (one 0.3 and one 0.5 inch gun), but additional requirements saw the initial production model modified with a four-gun armament (one 0.3 and three 0.5 inch guns) and naval equipment. Even these relatively minor modifications already had a considerable impact on the F2A-1 production model's performance, and when severe delays started hitting the delivery timetable with only 5 out of 54 aircraft delivered by November of 1939, the US Navy saw itself forced to reconsider the results of its contest, with an order being placed for Grumman's competing F4F-3 Wildcat.
The outbreak of World War II in Europe saw a number of countries making urgent orders for any available combat aircraft, and it is at this point of its history that Finland, at the eve of its Winter War with the Soviet Union (November 30th 1939 - March 13th 1940), placed an order for any type the US Government agreed to release. 44 F2A-1 aircraft were released for export to Finland as the de-navalised Brewster B-239 variant, with a slightly more powerful engine (950 hp compared to the F2A-1's 940 hp); but Finland's requirements meant the B-239 was almost 800 lb heavier than the US Navy's F2A-1 (5820 lb compared to the F2A-1's 5055 lb). In return for the 44 F2A-1's released for export, 44 improved F2A-2's were ordered for the US Navy. However, Brewster's slow production meant the first of these B-239s only reached Finland by the time the Winter War had ended.
Events meant that Finland's Buffalos ended up entering combat service in the Continuation War which began in June of 1941, fighting against the Soviet Union on the Axis side. Initially superior to anything they encountered, the Finnish Buffalos were also successful through the use of superior combat tactics that could not be countered by the Soviets. Their success in combat started to wane from 1943 onwards when they started encountering new Soviet designs such as the Lavochkin La-5; additionally the lack of spares started to severely impact on their serviceability. By the end of the Second World War only 8 Finnish Buffalos remained airworthy; the last 5 flew on until 1948 when they were put into reserve, only to be scrapped unceremoniously in 1953. In Finnish service, the Brewster B-239 Buffalo scored 477 kills for just 15 losses - a victory ratio of 26 to 1; additionally Finnish Buffalo BW-364 became the highest-scoring single fighter plane of World War II or any conflict with 42 1/2 confirmed kills.
The F2A-2 and B-339 Buffalo
The F2A-2 Buffalo saw the original 940 hp Wright Cyclone engine of the F2A-1 replaced by a 1200 hp variant, driven by a pitched Curtiss Electric propeller; additionally its armament and armour was upgraded. While the F2A-2, would never fire its guns in anger in US service, its export models ended up bearing the brunt of the action both in South-East Asia.
The first export customer for the F2A-2 was Belgium, which ordered 40 B-339B's; just as the first aircraft arrived, Belgium fell under German occupation, and the next six aircraft were diverted to French Martinique where they were stored out in the open and eventually scrapped. The balance of 33 was diverted to the United Kingdom, who briefly used them on Crete and in Egypt where they proved to be inferior compared to Axis types, before relegating survivors to maintenance training units.
The United Kingdom also ordered 170 B-339E's for use in South-East Asia, having found the type unsuited for service in Europe but thinking it would be sufficient for use against 'inferior' Japanese types such as the A5M "Claude" and Ki-27 "Nate". They were assigned to RAF, RAAF and RNZAF squadrons for the defence of Malaya and Singapore.
At the same time, the Netherlands ordered 144 model B-339C and B-339D’s for use in the Netherlands East Indies, the former fitted with refurbished civilian 1000 hp engines, the latter with more powerful military 1200 hp engines. As events turned out, only 24 B-339C’s and 47 B-339D’s ended up being delivered.
In service, both the Dutch and English Buffalos ended up being routed by the Japanese during their assault on Malaya, Singapore and the Netherlands East Indies. While they were capable to combat the Ki-27 ‘Nate’ on relatively even terms if them managed to get airborne in time, they were outperformed by the newer Ki-43 "Oscar". The main issue with both the Dutch and English Buffalos was not as much their performance, but the fact that they lacked any early warning systems, meaning their fighter aircraft often had little warning of incoming raids and thus started combat at a distinct disadvantage. The known construction issues such as the weak landing gear and difficult repairs to fuel tanks meant attrition was high and aircraft often became unavailable when they sustained combat damage that was easier to repair on other types. As a result of this, nearly all of the Dutch and English Buffalos were lost in three months of combat, with just 6 (out of 170) English and 4 (out of 71) Dutch Buffalos remaining airworthy by the beginning of March 1942.
The F2A-3 and B-339-23/B-439 Buffalo
New sets of US Navy requirements saw the F2A-2 design modified into the F2A-3, with the integral wing fuel tanks improved so they were self-sealing; additionally, a new fuel tank was added in the nose, which saw the fuselage lengthened in front of the wing. This increased the type’s range, but the addition of more fuel, protective armour and the possibility to carry underwing armament severely impacted on the type’s performance, which was still fitted with the same engine as the F2A-2. Worse, the increased weight did not do the failure-prone landing gear any good, and soon the US Navy came to the conclusion that the F2A-3 Buffalo had reached its development limits. The 108 aircraft built were soon relegated either to training purposes or handed down to the US Marines. These aircraft would be the only Brewster Buffalos to see combat wearing US colours, first being bloodied in the interception of a H6K ‘Emily’ near Midway on March 10th 1942. But they would go on to become infamous for their role during the Battle of Midway, where 13 out of 19 Buffalos were shot down in an unequal dogfight. Following this rout, surviving aircraft were relegated to stateside training units, remaining in service until 1944.
A de-navalised version of the F2A-3 was built for the Netherlands East Indies Air Force, known as the Brewster B-339-23 or B-439, however it arrived too late to see any service in the Netherlands East Indies. Instead, these aircraft were diverted to Australia where they were initially used as reconnaissance aircraft by the RAAF, before some were re-appropriated by the USAAF for use as base hacks and liaison aircraft.
Evaluating the Brewster Buffalo
So why did the Brewster Buffalo prove to be a success in Finnish hands, yet a disaster when used by nearly anybody else?
First it is important to consider the difference between all of the types. The US F2A-1 and its equivalent Finnish B-239 were the earliest variants available of the type, before numerous modifications added considerable weight to the design. Even so, the power-to-weight ratio remained around 0.16 hp/lb throughout its career. However, the increase of weight meant that the wing loading gradually increased over the various variants, from 24 lb/ft² on the F2A-1 variant to 34 lb/ft² on the F2A-3, making the later variants far less agile.
The main difference, however, was in the combat use of these aircraft. The Finnish Air Force was the only air force to consistently use the Brewster Buffalo under conditions where it enjoyed a distinct advantage. For the first two years of their use, the Finnish Buffalos were confronted by aircraft of which performance matched theirs, but whose pilots did not enjoy the same quality of training or use of tactics. Generally, Finnish pilots were able to maintain the advantage in their encounters with their Soviet opponents, through the use of better early warning systems, and by entering combat with a height advantage. It was only when Soviet pilots with improved training and superior aircraft started entering service in 1943 that the Brewster Buffalos started to lose their advantage in combat.
This was not the case the Buffalos used by the British, Dutch and Americans. In their service against the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, the B-339 and F2A-3 not only had to combat enemy aircraft that were both technically superior and present in superior numbers, but also aircraft which almost always encountered them with a distinct advantage. The lack of advanced warning robbed the defending Brewsters in South East Asia and the Pacific of any combat advantage; additionally these Japanese fighters were usually manned by combat veterans, while the Brewsters’ pilots were relative novices. For example, the infamous encounter over Midway saw combat-hardened veterans of the Imperial Japanese Navy battle US Marines pilots of which over half had just been transferred straight out of flight school; the F2A-3s involved flew alongside F4F-3 Wildcats which performed just as badly under the same circumstances. Combat experience in Malaya showed the British that reducing the amount of ammunition and fuel carried significantly improved the Brewsters' performance against their Japanese opponents, but these lessons came too late to make any difference to the outcome of their use in combat.
Overall, it can be considered that the Brewster Buffalo was a fighter type which, while modern at the time of its conception, had been caught out both by shortcomings in its design and manufacture, as well as by the rapid developments in aviation in the late 1930s.