The Brewster Buffalo had an undistinguished career in British (and American) service. It had originally been ordered by the U.S. Navy in 1938 to be their first monoplane carrier based fighter. By the start of the war in the Pacific at the end of 1941 the Buffalo had been replaced in U.S. service by the Grumman F4F Wildcat. However, in January 1940 the Buffalo was available, and so the British Purchasing Commission ordered 170 of the aircraft.
The Brewster Model 339E supplied to Great Britain was a distinct step backwards from the F2A-2 it was based on. It had a less powerful export engine (1,100 hp compared to 1,200 hp in the F2A-2), but was heavier, with armour protection for the pilot. Despite the removal of the specifically naval equipment needed in the F2A-2, the model 339E was 900 lbs heavier. Top speed was reduced from 344 mph to 330 mph, manoeuvrability was reduced and landing made more difficult. The Wright Cyclone 1890-G105 chosen by Brewster was in short supply, and so many British Buffalos were given second hand engines taken out of Douglas DC-3 airliners.
When the first Buffalos reached Britain it was immediately clear that they were of no use in Europe, and so they were shipped out to the Far East. By December 1941 150 Buffalo Is made up the bulk of the British fighter defences of Burma, Malaya and Singapore. The Buffalo was not the only problem faced by these squadrons. They were short of pilots – indeed many had more aircraft than pilots to fly them – and the pilots they did have were inexperienced. Twenty of the original 169 Buffalos were lost in training accidents during 1941.
When the Japanese invaded northern Malaya on 8 December 1941 the Buffalo did not perform too badly. Against the Ki 27 Nate and Ki 43 Oscar it could at least hold its own, and achieved a respectable number of kills. However, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero outclassed fighters better than the Buffalo. Numbers and the higher quality of their opponent’s aircraft saw the Buffalo suffer increasingly heavy losses. Of the 150 air worthy Buffalos on 8 December 1941, at least sixty were shot down, another forty destroyed on the ground and twenty more destroyed in accidents. Only ten survived to reach India or the Dutch East Indies. It is not entirely clear how many Japanese aircraft the Buffalo squadrons shot down. Eighty were claimed, a terribly low ratio of kills to losses for any fighter aircraft of 1.3 to 1. Most of these aircraft were bombers, so the Buffalo’s performance against the Zero must have been truly dreadful.
In the aftermath of the disaster in Malaya and the fall of Singapore, the Buffalo was a convenient scapegoat. It is true that it was outclassed by the Zero, but a similar number of even the best Spitfires of the day could hardly have changed the outcome of events against such overwhelming odds. The Buffalo I was by no means the best version of the aircraft. The Buffalo’s design had peaked in the F2A-2. Every further change tended to reduce its performance as weight increased.