Published on February 21, 2013
By Thomas Van Hare
Today in aviation history marks the birthday (and coincidentally, the day of the death) of the world’s greatest non-Luftwaffe ace — Ilmari Juutilainen of Finland. What’s even more surprising is that he scored many of his victories while flying a Brewster Buffalo, an aircraft that the US Navy decided was absolutely inferior to its adversaries in every respect. The plane, at least outside of Finland, played a brief and almost universally poor role in World War II.
The reason the Brewster Buffalo performed so well for the Finnish Air Force was that it was not like the F2A Buffalo that was acquired by the US Navy. It was more lightweight, more powerful, and much more maneuverable — by comparison, a little firecracker that in the hands of Finland’s best pilots, soon became the ace-maker of the Winter War (and later Continuation War).
This is the story of Ilmari Juutilainen, the world’s greatest Brewster Buffalo ace.
In the first years of World War II, Finland and the Soviet Union went to war in the frigid forests of their border regions. The Soviets aimed to conquer Finnish territory and expand their land. The Finns, however, were fighting a battle of national survival. Even if the Finnish Air Force was vastly outnumbered by the Soviets, it had a qualitative advantage in aircraft and superior pilots, including volunteers from Sweden.
Early on, Ilmari Juutilainen flew the Fokker D.XXI-3, a single seat, single radial engine monoplane fighter with fixed landing gear that the Finns built under license. The Fokker D.XXI-3 had fixed landing gear and was lightly armored. It was equipped with four 7.92 mm machine guns. While the Fokkers were a match for the Soviet aircraft, after the end of the Winter War, they were clearly outclassed. Critically, the Fokker fighters were under-powered. Nonetheless, a number of aces emerged flying the D.XXI, including Jorma Sarvanto who downed 12 5/6 Soviet planes, including five in one mission (all Iluyshin DB-3 bombers) on January 6, 1940. Ilmari Juutilainen managed to shoot down 2 1/2 Soviet planes in the type.
The Fokker D.XXI-3, for Ilmari Juutilainen, was the plane that gave him the experience and skill she needed. In it, he cut his teeth in his first combats and steadily improved his piloting skills.
The Continuation War and the Buffalo
With the outbreak of the Continuation War, Ilmari Juutilainen was once again thrown into combat. This time, he was flying the Brewster B-239 Buffalo and was assigned with the squadron 3/LeLv 24. The Buffalo would prove a smart and nimble opponent against the less maneuverable Soviet types. Further, by that time, the Finnish pilots, including Juutilainen, had honed their skills and become deadly killers. The Soviets fielded Polikarpov I-153 ‘Chaika’, the Pe-2, and the I-15, as well as bombers such as the Tupolev SB and Ilyushin DB-3. The Soviet Red Banner Baltic Fleet air units arrived in force with their newer, more powerful MiG-3 fighter planes, yet even these proved to be no match for the increasingly skilled Finns.
Throughout the Continuation War, Juutilainen would rack up victory after victory against the Soviets, even when they engaged from higher altitude and in superior numbers. Put simply, he and the other Finnish aces were becoming combat-hardened fighter pilots at a world class level, while the Soviet pilots were generally inexperienced and unskilled. In terms of tactics, the Soviets used formation attacks and considered airplanes to be little more than flying artillery. Fighter defense was meant to keep the bombers safe, in an escorting role that stayed close to the bombers rather than engaged in fighter sweeps to fight for air superiority. The Finns roamed in small teams and used flexible tactics, tactics that proved to be superior in every respect. By the end of the Continuation War, Juutilainen had racked up another 34 kills in the Brewster Buffalo — most were in his personal plane, BW-364 “Orange 4”.
His Greatest Record
In 1943, Juutilainen was transferred to the squadron LeLv 34, which was equipped with the new Messerschmitt Bf 109G fighter planes acquired from Nazi Germany. At this point in the conflict, the Nazis supported the Finns in their battle against the Soviets. The new fighters were a welcome sight for the Air Force, which was finding itself up against ever increasing numbers of Soviet planes that boasted better and better performance.
It was in the Bf 109G that Juutilainen would enjoy his finest months. Despite this, he is still widely known for being one of the leading Buffalo aces. Flying the Messerschmitt, he would down an additional 58 enemy aircraft, bringing his total to 94 and 1/6 victories. No other ace in any other air force except Nazi Germany would score so highly. Within Finland, only one other pilot would score more kills in a Buffalo, that being Hans Wind, though he ended the war with 75 kills.
Finland’s air force ended World War II with 96 aces in its ranks. Together, these aces shot down a staggering 1,435.5 enemy aircraft. Man for man, plane for plane, this record makes Finland’s Air Force the most deadly of any in the entire war. It was to men like Ilmari Juutilainen that the task fell to defend their country against a much larger enemy — and they rose to the challenge.
A Final Note
After hundreds of combat missions and having scored 94 and 1/6 victories, throughout the war, Ilmari Juutilainen’s aircraft was never once hit by an enemy bullet (though he did get hit once by friendly fire from Finnish anti-aircraft forces!). He never lost a wing man either. To the end of his days, it was that last fact, not his total score, that he often referred to with the most pride.
Today’s Aviation Trivia Question
What was the highest single day score achieved by Ilmari Juutilainen during World War II?