US Navy Service
The U.S. Navy would not accept the SB2C until 880 modifications to the design and the changes on the production line had been made, delaying the Curtiss Helldiver's combat debut until November 11, 1943 with squadron VB-17 on the USS Bunker Hill, when they attacked the Japanese-held port of Rabaul on the island of New Britain, north of Papua New Guinea. The first version of the SB2C-1 was kept stateside for training, its various development problems leading to only 200 being built. The first deployment model being the SB2C-1C. The SB2C-1 could deploy slats mechanically linked with undercarriage actuation extended from the outer third of the wing leading edge to aid lateral control at low speeds. The early prognosis of the "Beast" was unfavourable as it was strongly disliked by aircrews due to its size, weight, and reduced range than the SBD it replaced.
In the first Battle of the Philippine Sea, 45 Helldivers were lost because they ran out of fuel on the return to their carriers.
The litany of faults that the Helldiver bore included the fact that it 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 by necessity of the SB2C to fit on aircraft carrier elevators. The Helldiver's aileron response was also poor and handling suffered greatly under 90 knots airspeed; since the speed of approach to land on a carrier was supposed to be 85 knots, 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.
The problems began to be solved with the introduction of the SB2C-3 beginning in 1944, which used the R-2600-20 Twin Cyclone engine with 1,900 HP and Curtiss' 4-bladed propeller. This substantially solved the chronic lack of power that had plagued the aircraft. The Helldivers would participate in battles over the Marianas, Philippines (partly responsible for sinking the Musashi), Taiwan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa (in the sinking of the Yamato). They were also used in the 1945 attacks on the Ryuku Islands and the Japanese home island of Honshu- in tactical attacks on airfields, communications, and shipping. They were also used extensively in patrols during the period between the dropping of the atomic bombs and the official Japanese surrender, and in the immediate pre-occupation period.
An SB2C Helldiver flown by Marine First Lieutenant Frederick C. Lambert pictured in flight over the Marshall Islands on October 23, 1945. Visible below are the Japanese cruiser Kashima and U.S. destroyer escort Thornhill (DE 195).
[Source: National Museum Of Naval Aviation]
An oddity of the SB2Cs with 1942 to 1943-style tricolor camouflage was that the undersides of the outer wing panels carried dark topside camouflage because the undersurfaces were visible from above when the wings were folded.
In operational experience it was found that the U.S. Navy's F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair 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.
It was the advent of air to ground rockets which allowed the precision attack of ocean surface and shore based targets without the stress and performance issues of near-vertical dives that dive bombers had to endure that ensured the SB2C was the last purpose-built dive bomber produced.
Postwar, the SB2C remained in active service in the US Navy until 1947 and naval reserve units until 1950. Surplus aircraft were sold to the naval air forces of France, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Thailand. Greek SB2Cs served in combat in the Greek Civil War with additional machine guns mounted in wing pods. French SB2Cs flew in the First Indochina War from 1951–1954.
Built at Curtiss' St. Louis plant, 900 aircraft were ordered by the USAAF under the designation A-25A Shrike. The first 10 aircraft had folding wings, while the remainder of the production order omitted this unnecessary feature. Many other changes distinguished the A-25A, including larger main wheels, a pneumatic tail wheel, ring and bead gunsight, longer exhaust stubs, and other Army specified radio equipment. By late 1943 when the A-25A was being introduced, the USAAF no longer had a role for the dive bomber. After offering the Shrike to Australia, only 10 were accepted before the Royal Australian Air Force rejected the remainder of the order, forcing the USAAF to send 410 to the U.S. Marines. The A-25As were converted to the SB2C-1 standard but the Marine SB2C-1 variant never saw combat, being used primarily as trainers. The remaining A-25As were similarly employed as trainers and target tugs.
A comparable scenario accompanied the Helldiver's service with the British. A total of 26 aircraft, out of 450 ordered, were delivered to the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm, where they were known as the Helldiver I. After unsatisfactory tests that pinpointed "appalling handling", none of the British Helldivers were used in action.
American Aid provided the Greek Air force with ground attack and some AT-6 aircraft from surplus US Navy stocks with 336 Sqn. Greek Air Force equipped with at least 37 Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldivers from mid 1949 until 1953, before they were replaced with F-84Gs. The Helldivers joined Greek Spitfires and thwarted the attacks of long Communist columns encircling villages, blowing transports, attacking their camps in the mountains with napalm and stopping Albanian, Yugoslavian and Bulgarian troops penetrating into Greece.
Greek SB2C-5s had minor changes for their COIN operations:
Hard rubber tail wheel (for carrier use) was replaced by a bigger pneumatic tire for use
on landing strips.
Rear gunner station and its twin MGs were deleted, as no aerial opposition existed and
extra weight was used for bombs and extra machine guns.
Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldivers saw a relatively brief combat service. Nevertheless, they proved their worth by delivering precise and highly destructive attacks, especially when the Communist guerrilla attempted to fight the Greek National Army in open ground.
Between 1949 and 1954 France bought 110 SB2C-5 Helldiver aircraft to replace their ageing SBD-5 Dauntless that had been flying in combat in Vietnam. The French Aeronavale flew the Helldiver from 1951 to 1958.
Some of these planes were allotted to Escuadrille 9F stationed onboard the carriers Arromanches, Bois-Belleau and Lafayette, during the First Indochina War. The Helldivers soon became well thought of by the French troops on the ground during the battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Sometimes only feet above the ground the pilots flew countless sorties strafing and bombing the Viet-Minh troops with a total disregard to the heavy flak. These would be the last combat missions for the Helldiver but probably the most effective missions in the aircraft’s history.