Sopwith Camel

The cool morning of July 22, 1918 was slowly awaking. The hum of engines being warmed up could be heard at the advanced airfield, and mechanics were working amidst little Sopwith Camel biplane fighters of 203 Sqn RAF.

The most numerous crew worked at two airplanes that stood aside and had Cooper bombs slung underneath. These two were to be the first to ascend in a moment.
Major Raymond Collishaw and Captain “Titch” Rochford leant over the map. The squadron leader had decided to attack the German airfield where a reconnaissance machine had discovered aircraft the preceding evening. It did not take them long to choose the direction of the approach, as they were merely 40 km away from the target. A moment later both pilots took seats in the cockpits of their Camels and, aided by the ground crew, started the rotary engines. Curls of bluish fumes puffed out, the engines roaring at the highest revs for a while to change to a monotonous rattle after that. A quick good-bye and the two Camels rolled along the airfield surface. After several seconds they were in the air, making a right turn and heading east.

The first Sopwith F.1 with a Clerget 9Z rotary engine of 110 hp was first flown on Christmas of 1916 by Harry Hawker.  He is here before the flight on a snow-covered Brooklands field. [Kagero archive]

For a while Ray Collishaw watched the still turning wheels of the landing gear. He always did that after takeoff. The blow caused by the propeller thrust him with great force. The wind blew all over the Canadian’s head, which was protected with a pilot’s cap, and it moved the ends of the scarf wrapped around his neck and face. The eyes were protected by goggles. Although it was a summer morning, the air getting into the cockpit was cold and penetrative. From the right side he was approached by “Titch” Rochford pointing at the machine guns with the hand. Ray nodded and they pressed the triggers almost on the same instant. The test bursts confirmed that both the guns and ammunition belts were in order. They were ready for combat.
Visibility was perfect. Ragged white clouds floated slowly in the blue sky at various heights. They crossed the frontline at 3,000 m. What they saw was a moon landscape with bomb craters, ruined villages, scorched trees, and trenches extending for a few kilometers into enemy territory. In places, columns of smoke rose into the sky. The landscape was evidently different beyond the frontline area. The Camels were now flying above the saturated green of forests, fields and meadows crossed by rivers and country roads.
The pilots were scrutinizing the space around and verifying their direction. At last they saw a town with a railroad station. The tracks here ran in three directions. A steel caterpillar was slowly advancing along one of the silver threads, its head hidden in clouds of white vapor. The Camels continued along the track for a few minutes until they reached a road that crossed it. The aircraft bunted and dived towards the ground. The country road now turned south and disappeared in a thick birch forest.
The two Camels roared over the forest clearing. Although there was a sea of green below, Collishaw and “Titch” knew that the road would take them straight to their destination. Therefore they were careful not to lose the sight of it for the foliage. Finally they noticed a church tower in the distance – it was Dorignies, their objective.
The forest ended suddenly. The Camels roared low above the ground straight at white houses with red roofs. A turn left, and in front of their engines they saw a wide field with mechanics walking around undisturbed. Across the airfield was a camouflaged single hangar, and a barrack and tents were situated aside. Without a moment of hesitation, the Camels, engines roaring, directed straight at the hangar.
It was a complete surprise. “Titch” Rochford dropped his bombs, hitting the building. Flames and clouds of smoke rose up. The 11 kg Cooper bombs destroyed the hangar’s roof, flames having already begun to devour it. In the meantime, Ray Collishaw had dropped his bombs on the tents and the wooden barrack. Clouds of dust accompanied by red flashes of explosions rose into the air. Although the engines roared, the blasts could still be heard.

Production of the Camel began in the Spring of 1917, when the British air forces were sustaining heavy losses on the western front. The Camel and S.E.5 outclassed German Albatroses, which had ruled in the French sky for half a year. [Kagero archive]