Brewster 339 in Netherlands East Indies

Last revised December 22, 1999




During 1940, the Dutch government-in-exile sent a purchasing committee to the United States in search of additional combat aircraft to strengthen its forces in the Netherlands East Indies against Japanese expansionist ambitions. Since the Dutch East Indies forces were already equipped with aircraft powered by the Wright Cyclone, the commission concentrated exclusively on aircraft that were powered by this engine. The Dutch ordered the Curtiss Hawk 75A-7, the Curtiss-Wright CW-21B Demon, and the Brewster Model 339C, all powered by the Wright Cyclone engine. 144 Model 339Cs were ordered by the Dutch for use by the Militare Luchvaart-Koninklijk Nederlands-Indisch Leger (Netherlands Indies Army Air Corps, or MK-KNIL). Like the 339B for Belgium, the Model 339C was basically a de-navalized version of the F2A-2.

However, the Wright Cyclone engine was at that time in short supply, and the Dutch government was forced to cut its Brewster order to only 72 planes. There were two separate batches delivered. The first 24 Brewsters delivered to the Netherlands East Indies were powered by Dutch-supplied 1100-hp Wright R-1820-G105 engines, some of which had been taken from DC-3s operated by commercial airlines and reconditioned at the Wright factory. These aircraft were assigned the Dutch serial numbers B3-95 through B3-118. The second batch of 48 aircraft were powered by 1200 hp Wright R-1820-G205 engines purchased directly from Wright. These planes were re-designated Model 339D by the company, and were assigned the Dutch serials B3-119 to B3-167. The two batches were otherwise identical.

The Dutch Model 339C and D were quite similar to the British Model 339E, but did not have the oval opening panel of the British model. The aircraft was equipped with a large fixed tail wheel, and was provided with a 10-foot 3-inch uncuffed Curtiss Electric propeller. The armament consisted of two fuselage mounted 0.303-inch machine guns and two 0.50-inch machine guns in the wings. The Dutch had specified armored glass windscreens, reflector gunsights, self-sealing fuel tanks and gun heaters, but most of this equipment did not get installed before delivery.

Brewsters began arriving in Java during April of 1941. The last example was delivered by September of 1941. Throughout their service in the Dutch East Indies, they underwent numerous field modifications and upgrades as some of the delayed equipment finally became available. However, many of the Model 339Cs and Ds never got reflector gunsights and had to rely on simpler fixed ring-and-bead sights.

Two Brewster squadrons were established, No. 1 and No. 2 Afdelingen of Vliegergroep V (1-VLG V and 2-VLG V) were formed at Semplak on Java. During November of 1941, 1-VLG V was transferred to bases on Borneo, and two new Buffalo squadrons (3-VLV IV and 3-VLG V) were formed.

When the Japanese attack against the Dutch East Indies began, the 2-VLG V moved up to share British airfields near Singapore, and fought alongside the Commonwealth Buffalo squadrons defending Singapore from the Japanese. At that time, some of the Dutch 339Cs were fitted with armored windshields. When the Japanese appeared about to overrun Singapore, 2-VLG V moved to Borneo to join 1-VLG V in a last-ditch attempt to hold back the Japanese onslaught. However, very little could be done there to stem the tide of the Japanese advance, and both squadrons had to be withdrawn to Java.

On Java, 3-VLG IV and 3-VLG V were in action against Japanese forces invading Sumatra. On February 9, 1942 3-VLG IV was decimated when a Japanese air attack destroyed many of their Buffalos while on the ground. This squadron had to be disbanded on February 12, and the three surviving Brewsters were transferred to 2-VLG V.

The Japanese advance was extremely rapid, and by mid-February 1942, the Japanese had taken all of the Dutch East Indies except Java. On February 26, 1942, the Japanese invasion of Java began, but by this time only a dozen Brewsters were still airworthy in all three surviving ML-KNIL Buffalo squadrons. They still fought on against impossible odds. Their last operational mission was flown on March 7, 1942. Java fell on March 8, and all Dutch forces in the Indies surrendered on March 9.

The Brewsters were completely outclassed by the Japanese fighters which opposed them. The Model 339C and D were inferior to the Japanese Zero in speed, maneuverability and in climb rate. During three months of combat, 30 Brewsters were lost in air combat, 15 were destroyed on the ground, and a number were lost in accidents. 17 pilots were killed in action. Against these losses, Dutch Brewsters claimed 55 enemy aircraft destroyed, a victory-to-loss ratio of almost two to one.

Sources


  1. Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, The American Fighter, Orion, 1985.

  2. Jim Maas, F2A Buffalo in Action, Squadron/Signal Publications, Inc., 1987.

  3. Jim Mass, Fall From Grace: The Brewster Aeronautical Corporation, 1932-42, J. Amer. Av. Hist. Soc, p.118, Summer 1985.

  4. William Green, Famous Fighters of the Second World War, Second Series, Doubleday, 1967.

  5. Gordon Swanborough and Peter M. Bowers, United States Navy Aircraft Since 1911, Naval Institute Press, 1990.

  6. Ray Wagner, American Combat Planes, Third Enlarged Edition, Doubleday, 1982.