It’s the winter and it’s Covid and it’s lockdowns. Weekends that should normally be spent with swimming lessons, gymnastics classes, museum visits and snow removal have been reduced to walks in the snow, the creation of complicated snow bunkers, patiently waiting on Amazon deliveries, listening to podcasts and reading.
So you can imagine that any diversion would be welcome.
My mother was going through some of her stored items in her basement. When she found some old pictures she invited me and the little one over to take a look. For some reason, I really enjoy looking at old pictures and doing the mental math to figure out distant relations. It was pretty cool to show my daughter the pictures of her grandmother (as a 6 year old), her great grandmother and her great-great grandmother all at once.
Maybe I should be adding “photo scanning” to that list of winter activities that I should be pursuing.
Then I came across an old newspaper. Check this out:
This is a Toronto newspaper from June 1940. As you would expect from the date, the yellowing front page is filled with war stories. I am not sure a lot of these articles would hold up to fact checks of today but given the distances, times, technology and the fury of the invasion, this may have been the best reporting possible.
CREATIVE Legal Interpretation
Most of us know how the story ends (quick spoiler: Initially pretty crappy but ultimately good after a long go at it). That said, I am much more interested in that flying thingy, so let’s take a closer look:
That would be a Curtiss SBC Helldiver and looking closely at the rudder, I see what has got to be the French ‘tri-colore’ but I do not see a roundel on the fuselage. The caption below the image states:
Headed for service with the Allies, one of 50 Curtiss dive bombers released by the US Navy under the ‘trade-in’ plan is shown here being towed across the Canadian border at Houlton Maine, whence it will be flown to a Canadian port for transfer overseas. Several more bombers were towed across today. Under the plan, the bombers are turned back by the U.S. Government to manufacturers for credit on new ships, and they are then sold to the Allies and flown to the borderThe Evening Telegram June 13, 1940
I could not help but wonder why would anyone need to tow a dive bomber into Canada? Especially in a way that was rigged as haphazardly as using ropes and pickup trucks. I also wondered where Houlton, Maine was and why would they be towed from there.
Turns out the answer has to do with some creative interpretation of legislation.
In early 1940, the French placed an order with Curtiss for 90 SBCs. Why would the French want to have anything to do with a biplane on the eve of a German invasion? “Because that is what was readily available; they were desperate for anything; and everyone was gearing up for war” are the typical canned answers to these early war acquisition questions. I have no reason to argue.
But the reason why these bombers were strapped to Ford pickups is due to the prohibitions in the Neutrality Acts of the mid to late 1930s, particularly the one in 1939. That last act contained the famous “cash & carry” provision. This meant that so long as the French could pay up front and had the ability to ship them home, then they could get what weapons they needed.
Of course, there were ways to help speed things up and not violate the Act. Soon after the French placed that order with Curtis, Curtiss found itself to be working like a used car lot:
- FDR traded 50 of the Navy’s “reserve” Helldivers back to Curtiss and got ‘credit’ for new planes;
- Curtiss then they used these already built planes to partially fulfill the French order;
- Once these used planes arrived at the plant in Buffalo NY, they were ‘refurbished’, outfitted to French standards and painted in French markings.
The plan was then to deliver the aircraft to the port facility in Canada where they would be loaded onto French ships. The Neutrality acts clearly prevented the U.S. from flying military aircraft into Canada. But, if they were otherwise moved across the Canada–US border, then, yeah… “totally Neutral.”
That is where Houlton, Maine comes in. When it comes to border cities, this place is unique. Let me show you a map:
That is the Houlton airport to the left and that is Canada on the right. That is so close, you could almost throw a baseball from the airport fence and hit Canada. I’m willing to bet that little dead end road at the upper left is the 1940 road that crossed the border and upon which the Helldivers were towed by ‘local farmers’ into what is New Brunswick, Canada. There the Helldivers were met with RCAF pilots who took off from the highway and flew them to RCAF Station Dartmouth.
Three days after that photo was taken, these SBC Helldivers as well as a pile of other aircraft were on French ships bound for Brest. France fell to Germany while the ships were en route and the ships were diverted to the island of Martinique in the Caribbean. The planes spent the rest of the Second World War stored in the open and were eventually scrapped without ever flying a single sortie or dropping a single bombe for the Armée de l’Air.
You never know what you can find in an old box of photographs and to be honest, I could not determine why this newspaper was kept. The picture and caption was enough to pique my interest and figure out what was going on.
I’m no expert on the Neutrality Acts or their interpretation. I am not sure whether there were any prosecutions under them. I suppose allowing a few RCAF pilots to walk onto the tarmac on a US airport to fly these planes out of the US could have been seen as ‘aiding a belligerent’ and run counter to the purpose(s) of the Act. Now, I am all about legal creativity and Lord knows, I have done my fair share of it. But isn’t towing them 25 feet down the road to those very same pilots essentially the same thing? Consider that ‘returning’ planes to the manufacturer to speed up delivery schedules by months was not considered to be aiding a belligerent. Without knowing more, I’ll chalk this one up as another example of the ageless “spirit” vs “letter” of the law debate.
Normally I would continue this article with a build of a model. Maybe I would take a stab at reproducing that image as a kind of vignette. Now that would be a very cool project. However, there are a few reasons why I won’t be doing that anytime soon! Firstly, I have never seen a kit for the SBC Helldiver one and I had to do a search to see what is available. There are models of the Curtiss SBC in 48th scale by Classic Airframes as well as at least one vacuformed kit. In 72nd there is a Heller kit out there if you dare.
Secondly, while there is a gorgeous build of the Classic Airframes kit by a master modeler. He admitted almost throwing out the kit multiple times during his three month build. My thinking is that if that guy had trouble with this kit, then a mere mortal like me should just admire it from afar… until someone else makes one.
Very interesting post. The SBC is also an interesting subject. Thanks for researching this story.
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Great story, beautiful aircraft, one of my favorites. I’ve built two in 1/72, kitbashing the Heller and Matchbox kits.
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Ultimately do you know where those planes ended up? Hint, it isn’t France.
I wrote they ended up suntanning on a beach in Martinique- was that wrong?
No, you are correct. I missed it. There is a great photo of them on the hillside on the island.
Having lived in the great State of Maine for 23 years, I can tell you that Houlton is a fair drive from civilization! To do believe the Houlton airport started life as an Army Air Force base before Loring AFB was built after WWII. I can see inspiration for a cool diorama from this post!
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Thank you for that info! I’m now curious why they built the airport so close to the border. I found another site with some great pictures here: http://silverhawkauthor.com/canadian-warplanes-2-curtiss-sbc4-helldiver-biplane_1082.html. Over the weekend, Model Buddy Ian and I have been talking about replicating this scene in 48th but using a Buffalo and not a Helldiver. It’s been far too long since I last visited Maine such a beautiful state.