The Buffalo originated with a 1935 requirement for a carrier-based fighter to replace the US Navy’s Grumman F3F biplanes. Brewster’s XF2A-1 prototype was selected in June 1938 and the first production aircraft began to enter service as the F2A-1 in April 1939. Slow delivery rates meant that the first squadron, VF-3, only became operational in late 1939, aboard the USS Saratoga.
Only 11 of the 54 F2A-1s produced went to the USN – the remainder were modified and sold to Finland, where they were highly successful in combat against the Red Air Force throughout the Continuation War of 1941-1944. This was partly due to their good reflector gunsights and reliable armament of four .5-inch heavy machine-guns.
However, the decisive factor was the considerable skill and expertise of the Finnish pilots, in marked contrast to their poorly trained Soviet opponents. (The Finns claimed no fewer than 459 Russian aircraft for the loss of 15 Brewsters in combat.)
The Buffalo’s problems really began with the later export versions, especially the Brewster Model 339E, 170 of which were supplied to British and Commonwealth air forces. This was based on the US Navy’s F2A-2, but was distinctly inferior, with a less-powerful engine (1,100hp compared to 1,200hp in the F2A-2).
poor performance The real killer was that RAF-specified modifications, such as improved cockpit armour, had increased the aircraft’s total weight by 900lb, despite the removal of naval fittings such as arrestor hooks and life rafts. Nominal maximum speed was reduced from 344mph to 330mph but, in practice, even this was rarely reached as Brewster frequently fitted reconditioned Wright Cyclone engines removed from Douglas DC-3 airliners instead of the specified ‘new-build’ engines. (The Brewster Aeronautical Corporation suffered from chronic mismanagement – allegations of corruption were rife and quality-control standards were abysmal. In desperation, the US Navy tried to have the company’s president, James Work, removed from his post. Although this attempt failed, in 1942 he was sued for $10m for alleged fraud.)
RAF flight testing quickly established that it would be suicidal to pit Buffalos against the Luftwaffe. The official report concluded: ‘It is strongly recommended that this type should on no account be considered as a fighter without considerable modification.’ However, increasing tensions with Japan prompted the decision to send them to the Far East, as they believed they would easily be a match for any Japanese aircraft.
The reality turned out to be very different – the Buffalos performed even more poorly in tropical conditions than in Europe. Their engines were prone to overheating, and performance was very poor above 10,000 feet. (According to one apocryphal story, a formation of Blenheim bombers had to slow down to avoid outpacing their escorting Buffalos.)
Frantic efforts were made to improve performance by removing most of the armour, replacing the .5-inch with .303-inch machine-guns, and reducing the ammunition load. While these measures helped, the type was still much inferior to most Japanese fighters, and only 20 or so survived the fall of Malaya and Singapore, after which they were swiftly relegated to training duties. •