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The Sopwith Camel

The most famous fighter of World War One

MORE than a century after the first fighter planes saw combat over Europe, the future of the jet appears focused on improvements in on-board technology, with the Tempest project looking to incorporate mind-reading flight systems along with artificial intelligence to create a state-of-the-art successor to the Typhoon.

For those of us with a little too much knowledge of the career of Clint Eastwood, the 1982 film Firefox may spring to mind – in it, Eastwood plays a USAF pilot smuggled into Russia to steal their new jet whose weapons system is controlled by the mind; the plot based on the novel of the same name by Welsh author, Craig Thomas.

It seems a world away from the planes used in dogfights during World War One involving pilots of the Royal Flying Corps, the precursor of the RAF: fixed-wing biplanes whose weapons’ ‘system’ was a machine gun controlled by the hands rather than the mind, and on-board ‘technology’ a synchronizer preventing the pilot shooting off his own propeller.

Developments in these aircraft continued throughout the 1914-18 conflict, with one of the most famous being the Sopwith Camel, a plane famous for both its name and its strike rate against the enemy.

While speeds in excess of Mach 2 (1500mph) are commonplace amongst the jets of the modern era, the Camel flew at just over 100mph – a plane that today would struggle to catch a half-decent family hatchback that was being driven flat out.

It was December 1916 when Harry Hawker, the Australian aviation pioneer who was the chief test pilot for Sopwith, took it on its first flight: powered by a 110hp Clerget engine, it was flown around the Brooklands racing circuit in Surrey, coming into full service the following year.

With its predecessor, the Sopwith Pup, deemed as no match for its German counterparts, the War Office issued the first production contract for a batch of 250 Camels, with more than 1300 of the F1 variant produced in 1917. Sopwith only accounted for around 10% of the total Camels built, Boulton & Paul constructing the majority, with other aviation companies accounting for the remainder.

Pilot's view from the cockpit of a Camel, June 1918

(Pilot's view from the cockpit of a Camel, June 1918)

The forward-firing synchronised machine gun – twin 30-calibre Vickers weapons – was mounted under a raised fairing which was the inspiration for the Camel name, combined with the ability to carry up to four 20lb bombs. Originally called the ‘Big Pup’, the Camel name was later adopted as the plane’s official title. A more powerful 150hp Bentley rotary engine model, the Camel 2F.1, first flew in March 1917 and was mainly used for naval service.

It was popular with experienced pilots, although steering was described by some of those less well-versed in the world of aviation as ‘challenging’ – while its light and sensitive controls allowed for extreme manoeuvrability, the aircraft’s centre of gravity with a full fuel load was altered, making it prone to crashing on take-off. While 413 Camel pilots were shot down in combat, 385 were lost in non-combat ‘accidents’, mainly due to issues with the plane’s handling.

The two-seater training version helped ease the pressure on new pilots and reduce the casualty numbers, but it was still joked that the Camel offered RFC pilots three cross options: a wooden cross (death), the Red Cross (hospital), or a Victoria Cross (medal).
Camels being prepared for a sortie.

(Camels being prepared for a sortie)

Despite its problems it did prove its worth in combat, its success seemingly based around an incredibly fast right turn; its forward weight and the torque of its powerful engine gave it a unique edge over its rivals. Figures for success rate give the Camel more victories in dogfights than any other plane during the First World War, and it was labelled by aviation author Robert Jackson as “one of the most superb fighting machines ever built”: around 1,300 German aircraft were shot down by Sopwith Camels.

No. 4 Squadron of the Royal Naval Air Service, RNAS, also a precursor of the RAF, took delivery of Camels while stationed near Dunkirk in June 1917, with a first dogfight victory claimed on July 4. By February 1918, 13 squadrons were flying Sopwith Camels, and the skills of the pilots and abilities of the plane ensured that the Allies were able to secure air superiority in the final year of the conflict.

One of its most successful pilots was the Canadian, Major Billy Barker, who shot down 46 aircraft and balloons over a 12-month period – the cross he secured was the Victoria version. In October 1918, while flying another Sopwith plane (a Snipe) over France, he encountered a formation of Fokker D.VIIs, and suffered severe injuries in the battle, eventually landing just inside Allied lines. He spent several months in hospital, only being deemed fit enough to head back to England in January 1919. Barker eventually died at home in Canada in 1930, aged just 35, never having fully recovered from the wounds inflicted over France in 1918.

As well as offensive service over France, Camels played an important role in defending British airspace, with the RNAS flying aircraft from Eastchurch and Manston airfields against German bombers. The main problem for the British public, however, was the fear night-time raids induced, with the RFC forced to divert planes from France to bolster home defences – by mid-1918 seven home defence squadrons were operating Camels, many equipped with navigation lights.
Major Wilfred Ashton McCloughry MC, the commanding officer of No. 4 Squadron AFC, and his Sopwith Camel, 6 June 1918

(Major Wilfred Ashton McCloughry MC, the commanding officer of No. 4 Squadron AFC, and his Sopwith Camel, 6 June 1918)

Some Camels were also equipped with overwing Lewis guns, with modifications made to allow firing without affecting the pilot’s night vision, with improved ammunition available which was considered unsafe to fire from the centrally mounted machine guns.

After hostilities ended in 1918, the Camels saw further service during the Russian Civil War, operating in British Units flying from land bases and Royal Navy warships deployed to the Caspian Sea. It was, however, less than a year after the Great War ended that the Air Ministry declared the Sopwith Camel obsolete – many scrapped and just a few remaining as museum exhibits to this day.

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