Indochina Helldiver "SB2C-5"

Gallery Article by Mark L. Rossmann on Oct 9 2018



As WWII ended the colonial powers shifted their priorities to retaining territory before the war. Japanese Army and Air Force staff remained in many places as allied governments moved to reclaim their former empires, this was slow to occur as post WWII was reeling to recover from this worldwide catastrophe. The Potsdam conference had divided Indochina along the 16th parallel, with Nationalist Chinese in charge of the north and the British in the south. Under General Gracey's 1600 man force the 60,000 man Japanese garrison took orders to maintain peace. Even the Japanese Air Force got into the act by flying over 100,000 miles and carrying over 45,000 pounds of supplies. On September 22nd, 1945 Gracey's men started to release 1700 very angry French troops locked up since March of "45" by the Japanese. Finally, French General LeClerc arrived on October 5th with a vanguard of 1000 soldiers that was soon to number 25,000. In early 1946 after French success against the Viet Minh, the Japanese were beginning to be sent home.

The air war over French Indochina represents a very interesting and unique period of modern history. A war fought with obsolete weapons, against an enemy without a single aircraft, a situation unheard of in modern times. It was a war that paralleled the long struggle that was to occur for 30 years with French and U.S. involvement. There was extraordinary variety of aircraft that served in the conflict. From seized Japanese Oscars, Jakes and a Rufe, through French-built Ju-52's acting as bombers. British Spitfires, Mosquito's and U.S. KingCobra, C-47's, Invaders; Hellcats on through to Bearcats, the French war effort in the air had a truly broad spectrum of aircraft.

There is some information about the "Helldiver", which to some, after 12 years had its best days in battle, in the sky over Indochina.

The Helldiver was conceived over the need to replace the SBD Dauntless Dive Bomber. It was faster, heavier, but had difficult handling characteristics and less range than the SBD. It became known by various nicknames: Big-Tailed Beast, Beast, Two-Cee and Son-of-a-bitch 2nd Class. Built by Curtis, its first flight was December 18th 1940 and introduced into service in 1943. Users were the U.S. Navy, U.S. Army (A-25), Royal Thai A.F, French A.F, Portuguese Navy, Hellenic A.F. and finally retired by the Italian A.F. in 1959. Because of its poor handling characteristics, the Royal Navy and Royal Australian A.F. cancelled their orders.

Among its major faults, the Helldiver was underpowered, had a shorter range than the SBD, was equipped with an unreliable electrical system, and was often poorly manufactured. The Curtiss-Electric propeller and the complex hydraulic system had frequent maintenance problems. One of the faults remaining with the aircraft through its operational life was poor longitudinal stability, resulting from a fuselage that was too short due to the necessity of fitting on to aircraft carrier elevators.The Helldiver's aileron response was also poor and handling suffered greatly under 100 mph airspeed; since the speed of approach to land on a carrier was supposed to be 98mph, this proved problematic. The 880 changes demanded by the Navy and modification of the aircraft to its combat role resulted in a 42% weight increase, explaining much of the problem.

In operational experience, it was found that the U.S. Navy'sCorsair andHellcat fighters were able to carry an equally heavy bomb load against ground targets and were vastly more capable of defending themselves against enemy fighters. The Helldiver however, could still deliver ordnance with more precision against specific targets and its two-seat configuration permitted a second set of eyes. Helldiver had the advantage in range over a fighter while carrying a bombload, which is extremely important in naval operations. Air-to-ground rockets ensured it's precision attack against surface naval and land targets, while avoiding the stresses of near-vertical dives and the demanding performance requirements that they placed on dive bombers.

Click on images below to see larger images

This is the last version of the Helldiver. 

In 1949, the French navy selected 110 surplus SB2C-5 Helldivers as the replacement for its elderly SBD Dauntless dive bombers, themselves WWII veterans. Two squadrons were purchased, equipping Flottille 3F and Flottille 16F; both frontline aircraft carrier squadrons.

The Helldiver flew off three French aircraft carriers, the large British-built fleet carrierArromanches, and the two WWII-veteran escort carriers,Bois Belleau(ex-USS Belleau Wood CVL-24) andLafayette(ex-USS LangleyCVL-27).

The French encountered some minor training and maintenance problems early on but quickly overcame these, and as soon as the two squadrons were ready, they immediately deployed to Asia to help in the Indochina War. The standard armament for France's Helldivers was American-made M64 500 pound bombs, or (more commonly) the HVAR "Holy Moses" unguided air-to-ground rocket. Four of these could be carried under each wing, and the weapon was extremely effective against the Vietnamese communists. A number of French Helldivers were also wired to carry the AN/APS-4 radar pod, operated by the erstwhile rear crewman.

During the period 1951-1954, the two Helldiver squadrons flew with tremendous effect in Indochina. They were extremely reliable, had good range, were very tough, and could deliver ordnance with great accuracy. In short, they were perfect for what France needed during the conflict. Although the Corsair is most often associated with France's war in Indochina, on a per-plane basis the Helldiver was possibly the most single effective type, delivering sortie after sortie with great effect.

France's war in Indochina culminated with the disastrous 1 May-7 May 1954 defeat at Dien Ben Phu, and the conflict ended that summer. The Helldiver had given excellent service in the counter-insurgency role but the planes were worn out. The two operating units transitioned to either the Corsair or the Avenger, and beginning in 1954 all serviceable Helldivers were split up between the 1st, 2nd, and 54th Flottilles, where they were used as support and test planes. France retired its last Helldivers in 1958.

Specifications :
 (US)   (FR)
LENGTH 36 ft 8 in 11. 20 m
WINGSPAN 49 ft 9 in 15. 20 m
HEIGHT 16 ft 11 in 5. 10m
WEIGHT 11 000 lb (empty)/ 16 607 lb (full) 4 990 kg (empty)/ 7 550 kg (full)
MAX SPEED 281 mph 452 km/ h
RANGE 1 110 nm 1 786 km
OUTPUT 1 700 hp 1 267. 67 kW

Two 20 mm guns.
Two 7, 62 mm guns.
"Holy Moses" HVAR

This is a Pro-Model SB2C-4 I picked up at an upper Midwest IPMS contest. The plastic was crisp, no flashing, but the decals were dried out, but not to be used for this model.
To convert to a -5, I had read, somewhere, that the interior cockpit was modernized to be similar to a P-47D.
So, I cracked apart an old Monogram P-47 bubble top I had made many years before; 

  • A. I tore out the cockpit and with some modifications it was fitted into the front end of the fuselage. 

  • B. The gunner/radioman rear interior remained the same. I didn't place the rear fifties in back as some pictures showed aircraft without them. 

  • C. The 4 bladed prop came off the same cannibalized Monogram P-47.

  • D. The bomb-bay is about 2 feet longer than the -4's but I didn't modify the kit to show this.

  • E. Used the Ultracast U.S. Navy AN/APS-4 Radar Pod, #48007.

  • F. Paint: Tester rattle can Deep Sea Blue, Semi-Gloss black Propeller

  • G. Decals: Berna, from France, BD 48-90 "Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver". It contains decals for five Helldiver's and cost was about $18.00.

    • Code 3.F-1, Flotille 3.F, Bach Mai field battle of Dien Bien Phu April 1954.(used for this model)

    • Code 9.F-9, Flotille 9.F, Carrier Arromanches, Indochina November 1952.

    • Code 3.F-16, Flotille 3.F, Bach Mai field battle of Dien Bien Phu April 1954.

    • Code 9.F-7, Flotille 9.F, Carrier Arromanches, Indochina November 1952.

    • Code 10.S-10, Flotille 10.S,Naval Airstation, Frejus-St. Raphael, 1953

Overall am satisfied with the turnout of the model


Mark L. Rossmann

Photos and text by Mark L. Rossmann