Military History Books
by Harold A. Skaarup   www.SilverHawkAuthor.com   
 
Canadian Warplanes 2: Curtiss SBC-4 Helldiver biplane

Curtiss SBC-4 Helldiver biplane

11 Aug 2020.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 5107543)

Curtiss SBC-4 Helldiver two-seat scout bomber and dive bomber aircraft in French Aéronavale colours, being delivered across the border between Canada and the USA at Houlton, Maine, and Woodstock, New Brunswick, prior to Dec 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 5107544)

Curtiss SBC-4 Helldiver two-seat scout bomber and dive bomber aircraft in French Aéronavale colours, being delivered across the border between Canada and the USA at Houlton, Maine, and Woodstock, New Brunswick, prior to Dec 1941..

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 5107675)

Curtiss SBC-4 Helldiver two-seat scout bomber and dive bomber aircraft in French Aéronavale colours, being delivered across the border between Canada and the USA at Houlton, Maine, and Woodstock, New Brunswick, prior to Dec 1941.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 5107677)

Curtiss SBC-4 Helldiver two-seat scout bomber and dive bomber aircraft in French Aéronavale colours, being delivered across the border between Canada and the USA at Houlton, Maine, and Woodstock, New Brunswick, prior to Dec 1941.  The Mobilgas sign behind the pole was a filling station beside the US Customs Office.

When the Second World War began in 1939, Britain and France sent envoys to the USA to buy military aircraft.  Early in 1940, the French government placed an order with Curtiss-Wright for 90 Curtiss SBC-4 Helldiver biplanes. In order to aid them, on 6 June 1940, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Administration ordered the US Navy to fly 50 SBC-4s of the Naval Reserve that were at the time in use by the Navy, to the Curtiss-Wright factory in Buffalo, New York where the 50 planes were to be refurbished to French standards.  This included removing all US markings on instruments and equipment, replacing the American machine guns with French 7.7-mm (.303-inch) Darne machine guns and repainting the aircraft in French camouflage colours and national markings.  Once converted, the aircraft were to be delivered to RCAF Station Dartmouth, Nova Scotia where they were to be loaded onto the French aircraft carrier Béarn.

Several neutrality acts had been passed by the US Congress and signed into law and the Neutrality Act of 1939 allowed for arms trade with belligerent nations (Great Britain and France) on a "cash-and-carry" basis.  This arrangement allowed the the USA to sell materiel to belligerents, as long as the recipients arranged for the transport using their own ships or planes and paid immediately in cash.  Because of this provision, the US could not fly military aircraft into Canada; they had to land in the US and be towed across the Canada–US border.  The 50 aircraft were flown from Buffalo, New York to Houlton Airport, Maine via Burlington, Vermont and Augusta, Maine. Houlton is on the Canada–US border and local farmers used their tractors to tow the planes into New Brunswick, where the Canadians closed the Woodstock highway so that aircraft could use it as a runway.  The Helldivers were then flown to RCAF Station Dartmouth.

 (USAAC Photo)

Curtiss SBC-4 Helldivers in the colours of the French Aeronavale on the Ramp.

 (Jum Bates Photo)

Curtiss SBC-4 Helldivers of the Aéronavale, being delivered via an RCAF barge, to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

The 50 SBC-4s were to be flown to RCAF Station Dartmouth in groups of three.  One of the first groups that left encountered rain and fog while flying between Buffalo and Albany, New York and one of the aircraft crashed.  The remaining 49 aircraft were successfully flown to Nova Scotia to be loaded onto Béarn and the light cruiser Jeanne d'Arc.  Because of space limitations, only 44 of the SBC-4s could be carried on FR Béarn; because she also had 25 Stinson Model HW-75s (also known as Stinson 105s), 17 Curtiss H75-A1s (US Army Air Corps P-36 Hawk and six Brewster F2A-2 Buffalos for the Belgian Air Force.  The Jeanne d'Arc carried 14 crated, unassembled aircraft, eight Stinson Model HW-75s and six Curtiss H75-A1s.

The two ships sailed from Halifax on 16 June 1940 bound for Brest, France.  Two days later, Brest fell into German hands and both ships were ordered to Fort-de-France, Martinique, in the French West Indies, an island in the Lesser Antilles in the eastern Caribbean Sea.  They arrived on 27 June, five days after France surrendered to the Germans.  The SBC-4s were unloaded and rolled to a field at the Pointe des Sables region and stored in the open.  Under tropical climatic conditions, the aircraft stored in the open slowly rotted, became no longer airworthy and were eventually scrapped.

 (RAF Photo)

Curtiss Cleveland Mk. I, RAF (Serial No. 2669M).

Five of the French aircraft could not fit on FR Béarn and were left at RCAF Station Dartmouth.  In August 1940, the RAF acquired them, designated them "Cleveland Mk. Is" and shipped them to England on the aircraft carrier HMS Furious.  They were assembled at RAF Burtonwood, Lancashire, and delivered to RAF Little Rissington, Gloucestershire and later used by No. 24 (Communications) Squadron at RAF Hendon, Middlesex, in the UK.  These aircraft were never used operationally and became ground trainers.