Sopwith Camel

The aerial threat now gone, the Canadian directed over the airfield. The pungent stench of burnt matter could be smelled in the air. While still approaching Dorignies, he noticed the still rising column of smoke over the destroyed hangar. The burnt remnants of the three Albatroses lay in front of him, still giving off smoke. The wooden barrack was still smoldering, too, but the soldiers around it were probably busy trying to extinguish the fire. This time the Germans were at their posts and when the Camel only appeared nearby, they sent long machine gun bursts in his direction. Collishaw made a turn and headed for the frontline. He proudly reported to the headquarters that Dorignies airfield had sustained severe damage, he himself having destroyed three aircraft on the ground and two in midair.

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The history of WWI aviation development showed that the era of designers and visionaries, who drew aircraft designs later realized by the skillful hands of versatile specialists, was a matter of the past. So was is the legend of aviation pioneers. All personnel of then newly created air services belonged to that era.
Sopwith Camel has secured its place in the legend of those aerial struggles. A famous fighter of combat pilots. Although the S.E.5, sometimes considered the best Allied WWI fighter, was more modern, the Camel overshadowed it anyway. This heroic association is doubtless a consequence of the timing of its frontline arrival. In mid-1917 the British could in no way successfully deal with the Axis air forces. Hopelessly obsolete machines such as the D.H.2 or F.E.8 were destroyed in great numbers along with their pilots, while imported French aircraft could not help much. The worst came in April 1917. 40% of British aircrews lost against twice lesser German losses. It was also tragic in that it happened with German aircraft operating in half the strength of the British ones.
The Camel came as a relief. Beginning to restore balance on its arrival at the front in June 1917. Changes of design trends will unable it to match German aircraft again a year later. But once attained legendary status remained. Reequipement of the newly born (1.04.1918) RAF with modern planes will again be too slow. Camels tried as hard as they could but the situation was becoming dramatic. Efecting in the irony reading the RAF’s name as “Royal April Fools”. This expression having been often used by pilots who despite that… kept fighting.

B/w Camel flown by commander of Flight C of 5 Sqn, Capt. A.H. Cobby, at Leighterton in England in late 1917.  [Kagero archive]


Origin of design
Sopwith’s “Faire sans dire” policy (do without talking) directed the whole life of Thomas Sopwith, a recognized British aviation pioneer. He initially dealt with aeronautics, eventually becoming attracted by aircraft. As he was a good pilot himself, he opened a flying school, and in 1911 left for the US, where he took part in aircraft shows. The experience he gained made him determined to build his own machines. Soon he constructed the first British flying boat. Prior to WW1 he mainly manufactured to supply the needs of naval aviation. In his work he was aided by equally respected designers: engineer Herbert Smith, chief of workshops Fred Sigrist and test pilot Harry Hawker.
In 1913 this cooperation resulted in an aircraft purpose-built for aviation shows – the Sopwith Tabloid – and the success of its floatplane version in the 1914Schneider Cup competition strenghtend the company’s position. Outbrake of world war brought with it the arming of the Tabloid and commencement of mass production. Mainly for the RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service). It also concerned a few other military types, initiating the Sopwith Strutter, Sopwith Pup and Sopwith Triplane being the famous ones.
The simple reason for the Sopwith F.1 to exist was the equipment crisis. Signs of it appeared as early as 1916, when the aircraft used by the RFC and RNAS, either British or French made, proved obsolete compared to the Fokker DI used then by the Germans. It was even more true in case of Albatros DI and DII fighters with two synchronized guns. Cecil Lewis wrote that for Allied pilots “to face a Fokker was equal to the death sentence”. Pilots’ morale needed to be raised.
It was probably at that time that Sopwith Aviation Co. Ltd. in Kingston on Thames near London, was informally encouraged to consider upgrading Sopwith Pup with a more powerful engine and arming it with two machine guns. The aircraft was to be faster and more maneuverable. The two guns, so far unprecedented in British military aviation, were to restore its combat advantage. Both the RFC (Royal Flying Corps) and RNAS were interested.