From: Cape Town, South Africa
This is from an article by Gerard J. Casius in Volume 37 of Mars et Historia:
After the Netherlands had neglected the defense of the Dutch East Indies for years - NEI aviation writer CC Küpfer wrote, "it seemed as if the millionaire had his property protected by a young boy with a slingshot" - the end of the 1930s finally saw an expansion of the Konijnklik Nederlandsch Indisch Leger (KNIL) or Royal Netherlands Indies Army, and in particular the Militaire Luchtvaart (ML-KNIL) or Military Aviation. The famous Glenn Martin bombers could still be easily purchased for hard cash (in 1937 the Indies were the USA's biggest export customer with Japan (!!) as a second), but after that the US aircraft industry was swamped with orders principally from Britain and France. Whilst Britain and France were at war with Germany from September 1939, the Netherlands remained neutral. President Roosevelt decided that the best way for th USA to keep the Germans at bay was to help the British as much as possible with military supplies. Moreover, the British made significant investments in factory space and machinery to help the American manufacturers to fulfil the orders quickly, something that was also advantageous for the US Army Air Force and US Navy. In this scenario, the Netherlands was a distant third in the race to buy military aircraft against the threat of the Second World War. When the Germans occupied the Netherlands in May 1940, it was already too late for the Indies to catch up.
The ML-KNIL was, as far as equipment was concerned, totally oriented towards the USA but had been forced by the interests of the Dutch domestic industries to waste much time on negotiations and testing of Fokker designs such as the T.IX bomber and the G-1 heavy fighter. Both types would have required another three to four years before they could have been delivered in large quantities whilst in 1939 it was already easy to predict that the engines and all spare parts (which the Netherlands could not manufacture but had to buy on a seller's market) would not have been available in time. But the colony had to serve the motherland and not the other way around.
The surrender of the Netherlands changed the situation in one blow. It was no longer necessary to muddle along with the Netherlands' domestic industry. Already at that time a number of Dutch army and navy purchasing missions were operating in the USA, including an agency that was headed by Major Max van Haselen. In January 1941 he was succeeded by Major E.J.G. (Eddy) Te Roller, who, along with Captain Paul Valk, had been in the USA for some time to take delivery of twenty Curtiss 75 Hawk fighters for the ML-KNIL. All these missions and agencies were combined in 1940 under the title Netherlands Purchasing Commission (NPC), established in New York, and managed by some very experienced businessmen. It was soon clear that it would require a lot of inventiveness, networking and especially hard currency to get anything. The NPC did not hesitate and had barely recovered from the shock of the Dutch surrender when a shopping list was submitted to the US authorities on 22 May 1940 who, along with British, determined the priorities of who was to receive their permission to negotiate directly with the manufacturers. There have been several such authorities but for ease we will refer to the most important of them: the Joint Aircraft Committee (JAC).
The shopping list included 72 Brewster Buffalo fighters. The Buffalo was not an obvious choice. This type, which dated from 1936, was no longer "state-of-the-art", but Te Roller knew his business and knew that the Belgians had placed an order of which the first were about to be delivered. Belgium had also been invaded by the Germans and perhaps there was an opportunity to get hold of these aircraft. As such, Te Roller explained in his request that the delivery of the 72 Buffaloes to the Indies would not require any concessions from the USA since "it was to be expected that Belgium would cancel its order for 39 aircraft and that engines for the other 33 aircraft were available."
Here we encounter a significant bottleneck in the aircraft market: the lack of engines that runs as a scarlet thread through all transactions. Whilst the JAC could find space for the production of airframes easily enough, it could not readily do so for the necessary engines, propellers, instruments, radios or armament. Separate purchase approvals were required for all of these. The "33 available engines" Te Roller referred to were Wright Cyclones ordered by Aviolanda and De Schelde for the Dornier flying boats they were building and which, of course, could no longer be delivered. As it was, the Belgian Buffaloes did not become available but were quickly acquired by the French and on 16 June the first six were shipped on an aircraft transport to France. The remainder of 33 went to the British. The Dutch request was refused by the JAC.
The NPC contined its search and was tipped off (perhaps by a nervous manufacturer) that there were 28 Curtiss 75A-4 Hawk fighters which had not yet been delivered against a French order as France had, meanwhile, surrendered to the Germans. A request to acquire these aircraft was rejected because the necessary engines were not available. With no other alternative than keeping on trying, a new request was submitted but now for 28 Type 339-16 Buffaloes, for which engines would be purchased on the second-hand market. This request was approved but Te Roller had to withdraw it as he could not find the engines. At the same time a new request was submitted (number N-114; a numbering system had been introduced for supply requests, with N for the Netherlands, B for Britain, etc.) for 72 Buffaloes complete with engines and propellers. This one was also rejected but with the notification that a delivery in 1942 would be permitted.
It must be noted that the circumstances was forcing the NPC to do business with the marginal aviation industries in the United States, of which Brewster Aeronautical Corporation was considered one. The corporation did not have a great reputation, little experience (before the Buffalo project it had manufactured aircraft components as a subcontractor, including wing floats for Catalinas), and was operating from totally unsuitable premises. It was an old furniture factory in Queens, a suburb of New York, where production was distributed over several floors with little room for movement due to concrete pillars. The assembly and test flying of completed aircraft took place from a hangar at Roosevelt Field on Long Island. This resulted in inefficiencies and, moreover, labour relations at Brewster were deplorable. Strikes were common and the trade unions within the plant were not particularly inspired by patriotic ideals. In the long run, and after its relationship with the Dutch East Indies had ended, this would result in the US Navy taking control of Brewster. Brewster had given the export trade, including that to the Indies, to the Miranda Brothers, a team of arms traders which were not squeaky clean in their dealings and had to explain their manner of business in courtrooms on several occasions.
Whilst this may give a negative impression of the Brewster Corporation, the Buffalo was a reasonable success. It was the first monoplane carrier fighter of the US Navy and 54 were ordered as the F2A-1. Of these, 44 were diverted to Finland in early 1940 when the Russian Bear began its attack. The Finns made exceptional use of the Brewster. As a replacement, the US Navy bought 43 F2A-2s which were supplied between August and November 1940. Apart from the already mentioned order of 39 Buffaloes for Belgium, of which, after the French surrender, one went to Finland and 33 to Britain, there was an order for 170 from the Royal Air Force. The latter order was especially intended for squadrons that operated in the Far East, in particular Singapore.
The NPC persistently tried to have orders for fighters for the ML-KNIL approved. Other types were also considered, such as the North American Mustang (in its earlier versions) and the Bell P-39 Airacobra, but also Canadian-built Hurricanes. The problem with all of these initiatives remained the availability of engines. On 28 October 1940 another request was submitted for 72 Buffaloes (N-196), but this time without the engines. Also, approval was requested for the purchase of 140 Wright R-1820 engines (amongst others for these Brewsters) that had been placed on the second-hand market by American Airlines, which company was replacing the engines of its Douglas DC-3 transports with a later version. This was again refused although the order for the Buffalo airframes was approved this time. It is beyond the bounds of this story to discuss the further developments - the above merely served to illustrate the problems Major Te Roller had to deal with.
The eventual result was that the NPC received 31 Wright Cyclone G-105A engines of 1100 hp from the already-mentioned stock for the ML, including spares, intended for the first 24 Buffaloes. In addition, 54 G-205A Cyclones (1200 hp) for the remaining 48 Buffaloes were obtained through Brewster which had procured them, after revision at the Wright engine plant, from Trans-World Airlines. The letter of intent provided to Brewster on 6 June 1940 could finally be converted into an order. Thus, the ML-KNIL acquired two versions of the Buffalo, whereby the smaller engine power was a significant handicap for the first 24 aircraft.
Finally, an additional 20 Buffaloes were ordered in February 1941. These were a different version similar to the last F2A-3 version of the US Navy, i.e. a somewhat longer fuselage and a higher weight. Also there were problems with the delivery of engines, which in this instance was solved through the purchase of 22 Cyclone R-1820-G2 engines that had been traded in by KLM with the manufacturer for stronger engines. These engines were modified by a factory to a G5B configuration, which delivered only 1000 hp, i.e. 200 hp less than the earlier Buffaloes, in a heavier aircraft, a rather unfavourable combination that reduced the already-unimpressive maximum speed of the Buffalo from 307 to 264 mph and the climb rate from 4700 to 3100 feet/min. But nothing else was available and it seems that the ML-KNIL had adopted the approach that the weaker aircraft be used for the training of fighter pilots in the hope that more powerful engines would become available at a later date.
As it was, these last 20 Buffaloes never reached the Indies, which was perhaps fortunate. The delivery was delayed through shortages of spare parts and eventually the aircraft were shipped without the exhausts (which were sent later). Eventually they were unloaded in Australia and used by the USAAF and RAAF.
Delivery of the Brewsters began at Roosevelt Field, Long Island in March 1941. Most of the test flights were undertaken by Captain Hans Maurenbrecher [who would later command 120 (Dutch) Sqn RAAF and then 121 Squadron RNAF] with the assistance of Major Te Roller. The bulk of this series was delivered by end-June, except seven aircraft which were completed in July and one in August. The first of the series with the 1200 hp engine (the B3-119) was retained in the US for tests and as a prototype for modifications (which is the reason why this aircraft has been photographed so often). During tests it was damaged and, as such, was not shipped until April 1942 and was also diverted to Australia.
In the meantine, Dutch colonies in the West Indies made a claim to the Buffaloes. The USA exerted pressure on the Netherlands to do something about the neglected defense of Suriname [then part of the Netherlands West Indies] where there were extremely important bauxite mines. When the USA threatened with a military invasion of Suriname, the Dutch government-in-exile in London moved quickly and made plans to improve the defense of Suriname. One of the plans was to send five Buffaloes to Suriname. On 24 October 1941 five Dutch pilots in Britain were ordered to train with the RAF on the Buffalo, but there were some delays. Moreover, the USA indicated that this was not sufficient and a month later sent a military force to Suriname. Although this is not certain, it seems likely that the last five Buffaloes of the ML-KNIL were kept back in the USA for the Suriname project. After this was cancelled, they were shipped to the Dutch East Indies but arrived too late to take part in the struggle. The B3-162 to B3-166, the last five of the 72, arrived in Australia in March 1942 and were transferred to the USAAF.
On 1 June 1941 the 5th Air Group was established on Semplak [near Bogor] and Andir [near Bandoeng] to be equipped with the Brewster fighters. The 1st Squadron of this (1-Vl.G.V) was initially equipped with Curtiss Interceptors and a so-called Trial Squadron of Brewsters was established which on 1 July was reorganised as the 2nd Squadron (2-Vl.G.V). The strength of a squadron of fighters was, from an order of battle point of view, set at 12 plus 12 in reserve, but in practice this meant 12 plus six in reserve and even that was difficult to maintain, as will be shown. The 2nd Squadron (2-Vl.G.V) was the first completely-equipped fighter squadron and was equipped with 1100-hp aircraft. After more Brewsters had been received the interceptors of 1-Vl.G.V were transfer to the 4th Air Group (Vl.G.IV) and were replaced by Buffaloes. Each fighter group was to comprise three squadron and both Group IV and Group V had still to be supplemented with a third squadron but it was not until the end of 1941 that pilots and sufficient groundcrew came out of training.
After the ML-KNIL was mobilised on 1 December 1941 the deployment of the Buffaloes was as follows:
1-Vl.G.V (Semplak) - 15 fighters
2-Vl.G.V (Semplak) - 14 fighters
1-Vl.G.IV (Madioen) - 6 fighters (plus 13 Curtiss Hawks)
Technical Service (Maospati, near Madioen, and Andir) - 25-27 fighters (in assembly and repair)
About three of the 65 aircraft that had been received had already been written off in accidents and more were being repaired. The 3-Vl.G.IV was established at MAdioen on 9 December 1941 and initially undertook fighter pilot training. Four of the Buffaloes of Vl.G.IV were sent to Ambon on 3 December to provide a symbolic air defense. It was hoped that the last six plus twenty Buffaloes, expected to ship shortly, would be used to equip and activate the 3-Vl.G.V. In anticipation this squadron was established on 10 January 1942 and equipped with aircraft from the other squadrons. Through this the spares of the other Brewster squadrons were exhausted and, due to combat losses, squadrons were soon merged again.