October 17, 2014

The Buffaloes of Finland

It is an article of faith that the worst fighter plane of WWII was the Brewster F2A Buffalo.  It's pretty difficult to contest this assertion: in the single true fight it was in, the Battle of Midway, it was essentially massacred by the Imperial Japanese Navy's A6M2 Zero, much the same way a high school team would be by the Chicago Bears.  "It is my belief that any commander that orders pilots out for combat in a F2A-3 Brewster Buffalo should consider the pilot as lost before leaving the ground" reads one Marine after-action report.  After Midway, the barrel-shaped plane was relegated to trainer status, then to mechanic training.  Its passing was unmourned, its memory one of ridicule and scorn.  The British and Dutch, who also received versions of the Buffalo, felt similarly.

It fell to the Finnish Air Force to give the Buffalo its taste of glory.


The "Winter War" between Finland and the Soviet Union had ended with something of an unlikely outcome.  The Finns had managed to punch Ivan in the snoot despite being horribly outnumbered... the Soviets had three times as many men, thirty times as many planes, and practically "DIV/0" in tanks.  Stalin's purge had disposed of his best commanders, demoralized the army, and left inexperienced politicos in charge.  The weather was ridiculously cold, and while the Finns were prepared, the Red Army was not at all.  The Finns held off the Red Army for 105 days, and while the peace treaty gave the Soviets captured territory, the Finns had dealt out disproportionate losses.  They suffered around 70000 wounded or killed, while the Soviets took nearly 325000 lost or injured.  Both sides knew nothing had been settled.

The Finns immediately set out to fix their shortage of modern planes.  They managed to pry free some 40 Brewster F2As from the United States, and that's where the redemption begins.  To start with, the Finns were sent not Buffaloes, but the B239.  "B239" was Brewster's in-house model number for the original F2A-1, and was a substantially different plane than the one delivered to the US Navy.

The plane the US Navy wanted had pilot armor, self-sealing fuel tanks, and had been modified for naval use: tailhooks, built-in life raft, and a strengthened body to take the stress of carrier landings.  As the Finnish Air Force didn't have an aircraft carrier, it didn't need all that stuff.  The B239 was more like a Japanese Zero than the Grumman F4F Wildcat it resembled: lightweight and very, very nimble.  It also had a better gunsight than the one in the American version, a reflector sight as opposed to the tube sight in the Buffalo.  The Finns got to practice with the B239 for nearly a year before the Finns went back to war with the Soviet Union.  This time, they were ready.

They worked out tactics very similar to the ones worked out by the US Navy to fight while outnumbered, including a variant of the Thach Weave.  When the Germans began Operation Barbarossa, their ill-fated invasion of the Soviet Union, the Finns joined in as allies.  Thus began the "Continuation War," the push to recover territory lost in the Winter War.  The B239 equipped a single squadron of 37 planes at this time, and immediately began to rack up eye-popping numbers.  By the end of the war in 1945, the B239 victory / loss ratio was a stunning 26:1, 477 to 19.  While the vast majority of these were scored against Soviet biplanes and monoplanes from the Spanish Civil War era, more advanced planes fell to the tubby fighter's guns as well.  It wasn't until late 1944 that the Soviet Air Force began to field fighters that eclipsed the B239.

The B239's pilots weren't the only people who loved the easy-flying fighter (the highest scoring Finnish ace, Ilmari Juutilainen, called it "a gentleman's traveling plane").  Finnish mechanics were able to perform miracles with the B239, keeping them flying despite a total lack of spare parts.  In some cases, this led to a Frankenstein's Monster version of the plane, called the "Humu".

The various Humus, one of which is seen above in a Finnish museum, at first scavenged parts from dead B239s to get one or more working.  Then the wings were replaced by plywood copies, then fuselage and engine were replaced as well; the engine was a Soviet knockoff of a Wright Cyclone.  Some records suggest upwards of six Humus were actually built, with another 90 planned.

In the end, five B239s survived the war, having been replaced in frontline service by German Me-109s.  They were finally withdrawn from use in 1953, when they were scrapped.  The plane considered the "worst fighter of WWII" was better known to the Finns as the "Sky Pearl," and it shows what the Buffalo could have been.

Instead of what it was.

Posted by: Wonderduck at 07:54 PM | Comments (14) | Add Comment
Post contains 813 words, total size 6 kb.

1

Buffalo was definitely not a bad plane - the main problem appeared to be Brewster's inability to produce enough of them to where improvements, incremental and otherwise, could be incorporated into the design and turn an average fighter into a winner.  It is not often realized that Grumman did a major redesign of the F4F Wildcat before it surpassed the Buffalo enough to be accepted by the US Navy.

Given the Buffalo's reputation, it is a tribute to the courage of the Allied pilots who flew them against the Japanese, despite being inferior in everything else. 

Posted by: cxt217 at October 18, 2014 01:45 PM (DclKx)

2 It's not well known that part of why the Finns did so well in the Winter War was that the Swedes were totally reading Red Army codes, and providing decrypts to the Finns in a timely manner, meaning the Finns knew what the Soviets were doing at all times.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at October 18, 2014 02:50 PM (+rSRq)

3 CXT, the Buffalo F2A-2 and -3, the versions the Navy asked for, were indeed bad planes, hideously underpowered for the weight tacked on.  It actually weighed more than a F4F-3 Wildcat.  If they had stayed with the F2A-1, sans armor and all that, it would have been a different story.

But they didn't, and thus a lousy fighter was whelped.

Posted by: Wonderduck at October 18, 2014 03:03 PM (BCjxQ)

4

 If they had stayed with the F2A-1, sans armor and all that, it would have been a different story.

Maybe, but I doubt any pilot would have wanted to fly a F2A-1 against the Japanese, considering it lacked the features of the later versions of the Buffalo and what the F4F had....

...But given how much more sluggish pilots found the F4F-4 handled, compared to previous marks of the Wildcat...Oh well.

Posted by: cxt217 at October 18, 2014 03:34 PM (DclKx)

5 Know what?  I'm just gonna leave this here and go take a nap.

Posted by: Wonderduck at October 18, 2014 04:57 PM (BCjxQ)

6 Back in my Clueless days, I did that once. I wrote an article about Operation Fortitude, and later I realized that I'd written almost exactly the same article about a year previously. I felt suitably embarrassed.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at October 18, 2014 10:37 PM (+rSRq)

7 The P-39 also produced better results at the Eastern Front than in Pacific.

Posted by: Pete Zaitcev at October 18, 2014 11:00 PM (RqRa5)

8 Fortunately, the two posts aren't exactly repeats... one covers the bad side of the Buffalo, the other the good side... but it is, I think, the first plane I've ever given this much coverage to. 

I mean, outside of those that have to show up repeatedly, like the SBD, just because of its relationship to the Battle of Midway.

No, I just posted the first one to give CXT more to chew on... and to take a nap.

Posted by: Wonderduck at October 18, 2014 11:02 PM (BCjxQ)

9 My father was in the Marine defense battalion at Midway. He remembered a Buffalo getting on a Zero's tail. The Zero just did a loop and shot it down.

Posted by: Eadwacer at October 19, 2014 09:53 AM (voYcf)

10 But...but...these aren't buffaloes. These are planes! I was looking for those big animals the Laplanders ride around on in the desert and till their rice paddys with. 

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at October 19, 2014 01:58 PM (DnAJl)

11 In all seriousness, thanks.  I had no idea that the Finns didn't get their Brewsters until after the Winter War. That makes their kill ratio even more impressive. 

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at October 19, 2014 02:01 PM (DnAJl)

12 In the IL-2 Sturmovik flight sim, I played a Continuation War campaign as a Finnish pilot.  After flying the Gloster Gladiator and being regularly outrun by Soviet bombers, the B239 was a revelation!

Posted by: flatdarkmars at October 19, 2014 04:17 PM (NGGzB)

13 Were Brewster's infamous troubles from in play at the Queens factory and/or during the Buffalo/B239 era?        

Their Warminster, PA plant would get a reputation for a 360-degree mixture of corrupt management,  labor unrest,  and inability to engineer good stuff, resulting in the Buccaneer debacle and their apparently sub-par quality of the few license-built Corsairs they managed to produce...

Posted by: Ad absurdum per aspera at October 21, 2014 06:07 PM (ydsh1)

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