Designed and built by the Brewster Aeronautical Corporation, the F2A Buffalo was one of the first US monoplanes with an arrestor hook and other modifications for aircraft carriers. The Buffalo won a competition against the Grumman F4F Wildcat in 1939 to become the US Navy’s first monoplane fighter aircraft. Although superior to the Grumman F3F biplane it replaced, and the early F4Fs, the Buffalo was largely obsolete when the US entered the war, being unstable and overweight, especially when compared to the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero.
Several air forces, including the British Royal Air Force (RAF) ordered the Buffalo and used it in South East Asia.
As explained by Mark Stille in his book Malaya & Dutch East Indies 1941–42, the RAF in the Far East was composed almost entirely of obsolescent aircraft. With the demands of the war in Europe and North Africa, and the start of Lend Lease shipments to the USSR, few aircraft were available to reinforce the Far East. Those that were shipped east were with few exceptions second rate. The RAF did stand up a number of new squadrons in Singapore in the year preceding the start of the war, and in the six months before the start of the war in December 1941, the number of aircrew assigned to the RAF Far East Command doubled. A few combat veterans of the fighting in Europe were assigned to the new squadrons, but most of the new personnel came directly from training units.
The standard fighter for the squadrons of the Far East air command was the Brewster Buffalo. This aircraft was selected not for its capabilities but because of its availability. When war broke out there were four Buffalo squadrons in the Far East including 243 RAF, 21 and 453 RAAF, and 488 (NZ) RAF Squadrons. These squadrons possessed 118 mostly inexperienced aircrew. Of these, 28 were killed or captured during the campaign.
The state of 488 (NZ) Squadron, RAF, can be taken as typical. First formed in Wellington in September 1941, on Sep. 11 the squadron left by ship for Singapore where it arrived on Oct. 11 after a stop in Australia. The squadron was officially designated the following day. The new unit was sent to Kallang Airfield on Singapore where it was based for the duration of the campaign. The squadron commanding officer, Squadron Leader Wilf Clouston, was a good choice to stand up the first New Zealand fighter squadron. He was born in New Zealand and had been flying with the RAF since 1936. After arriving in Singapore, the aircrews were sent to Kluang in Malaya for conversion training on the Brewster Buffalo. None of the pilots, aside from Clouston and his two flight leaders, had any experience. The 21 Buffalos were actually hand‑me‑downs from 67 Squadron when it left for Burma; exactly zero were operational. There were also no tools or spare parts. The New Zealanders pilfered enough spare parts from 243 Squadron and a Dutch squadron at Kallang which also flew the Buffalo to get most of their aircraft operational. During its efforts to reach an operational status, 488 Squadron lost 12 aircraft and two pilots before going into action. The aircraft carried no radios and had to rely on hand signals to communicate once in the air. Training was inhibited by the lackadaisical work schedule established by the British. Hours were restricted to 0730–1230 with most afternoons off. Wednesday was set as a half‑day holiday and no work was permitted on Sunday.
On the first occasion when Buffalos from 488 Squadron met the Japanese, the result was predictable. On Jan. 12, eight Buffalos took off to intercept a raid of 27 bombers escorted by fighters. Before they could reach the altitude of the bombers, they were attacked by Zeros with a height advantage. The Buffalos were forced to disengage; two were shot down and the others damaged for no Japanese losses. A second flight of six Buffalos took off 30 minutes later but only one made contact with the Japanese and the pilot broke off the action in order to survive. The next day, five damaged aircraft were written off. These first engagements confirmed the squadron’s assessment that the Buffalo was outmatched by the Japanese. By Jan. 24, 488 was down to its last three Buffalos. It was re‑equipped with nine Hurricane fighters. After the ground crews got the nine Hurricanes ready by working impossible hours, the Japanese showed up with 27 bombers on the morning of Jan. 27. The bombers dropped their payloads on Kallang; they destroyed two of the fighters and badly damaged the other seven.
However, the Hawker Hurricane was a great improvement over the Buffalo. As a fighter in fact, the latter was a disaster. The British recognized this early on and decided the aircraft was not suitable for employment in Europe. However, against a second‑rate opponent like the Japanese, the Buffalo was deemed suitable enough. The Buffalo’s problem was its lack of speed and maneuverability, both not good problems to have in a fighter. The British added more weight to their Buffalos, reducing their top speed to 204mph and the rate of climb to 2,600ft per minute. The aircraft could not operate over 25,000ft and it took a painful 35 minutes to get to that altitude.
Initially, the Buffalo was heavily armed with four .50‑caliber machine guns. In order to reduce the weight of the aircraft to increase its performance, the RAF replaced the .50‑caliber weapons with lighter .303 machine guns and the amount of ammunition was reduced. The fuel load was also reduced. These modifications created new problems as pilots faced persistent issues with running out of ammunition or fuel.
Malaya & Dutch East Indies 1941–42 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Jim Laurier via Osprey and Crown Copyright
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