National Museum of the USAF

Snoopy’s Doghouse

The History of the Sopwith F.1 Camel

Cover Story

National Museum of the U.S. Air Force Journal Summer 2014

© 2014 By Mark Carlson

All Rights Reserved.

If you ask the average person to name a First World War fighter, you will most often get one or both of two answers. Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s red Fokker Triplane or the Sopwith Camel.

Surprisingly, it was not Canadian ace Arthur “Roy” Brown, who was erroneously credited with shooting down the “Bloody Red Baron” that made the nimble Sopwith Camel into a household name, it was a beagle.

For years Charles Schulz’s Snoopy, as the famous World War One flying ace, climbed into the cockpit of his trusty Camel doghouse and dueled with the Red Baron, usually resulting in a line of bullet holes being stitched into his own plane. Shaking his paw at the sky he shouted “Curse you, Red Baron!”

But there is no denying the role the Sopwith Camel has played in military aviation history.

Pilots who were loyal to it said the Camel could mean the difference between a Victoria Cross, a Red Cross or a wooden cross.

As an example of the aegis of fighter design by 1918, the Camel was the result of years of concentrated trial and error, improvements and failed concepts.

When the Great War began in the summer of 1914, very few military thinkers had any concept of what the new and unproven aeroplane’s role would be. Most single- or two-seat aircraft of the day could only manage a top speed of 100 mph for two hours. They were fragile, prone to frequent breakdowns and totally at the mercy of the weather.

But once the battle lines had been drawn on the Western Front, it became clear that observation planes could be used to reconnoiter enemy troop movements and artillery positions. Suddenly a new tool of war was born, and the skies over the trenches droned with the unique sound of airplane engines.

Then, to prevent an enemy plane from flying unchallenged over their own lines, some pilots and observers began to carry rifles and light machine guns into the sky. The chatter of gunfire cracked out of the blue as the aeroplanes tried to bring one another down. But it proved to be a difficult matter to shoot down a darting target from a moving platform.

In time the first true fighters were born. Until an effective synchronization mechanism was designed to allow the machine guns to be fired through the spinning propeller, a host of impractical ideas had been tried and discarded.

By the spring of 1915 the “Fokker Scourge” was tearing great holes in the ranks of British and French squadrons. The nimble Fokker E.III Eindecker, the first true fighter carried a single 7.92mm machine gun. It and other, newer planes soon made names like Oswald Boelcke and Max Immelmann into the new heroes of the German Empire. The age of the fighter ace had begun.

Thomas “Tommy’ O. M. Sopwith had set up a flying school in 1911 with a Howard Wright Biplane, a Burgess-Wright Biplane and a Bleriot. Tommy Sopwith founded the Sopwith Aviation Company in June 1912 at Kingston upon Thames.

The Burgess-Wright was the basis for Sopwith’s first aircraft the Sopwith-Wright Biplane. It was the first of many designs to come from the small factory at Canbury Park outside London. With such successful competition as Vickers, A.V. Roe, Farman and Bristol well established the 24-year old sportsman Sopwith had to find a niche in the military aviation market. The new company went into collaboration with a boat company on the Isle of Wight to develop a revolutionary flying boat called the “Bat Boat.” With a laminated Consuela hull it was a single-engine pusher biplane for the Royal Naval Air Service. While only six were built, it did serve to introduce the up-and-coming new company to the Royal Flying Corps.

Other planes soon rolled from the factory. The Sopwith Sociable, the Adrmiralty and even an early torpedo plane, the Type C.

Sopwith eventually farmed out much of its military contracts to other companies in order to fulfill its obligations. In all over 16,000 planes bearing the Sopwith name were built.

As hostilities between the Central Powers of Germany and Austro-Hungary and the Allies heated up, Sopwith grew until it employed more than 5,000 people. Early fighter designs included the Baby, a mainstay of the RNAS throughout much of the war, the Sparrow, and in 1915, the Scout, which later became known as the Pup. Beginning as a special plane for Harry Hawker and called “Hawker’s Runabout, the Sopwith Pup was a very popular plane with its RFC and RNAS pilots, even though it only carried a single .303 Vickers machine gun equipped with the Sopwith-Kauper Synchronizer.

One of the Pup’s more remarkable uses was as the first aircraft to land on a ship, HMS Furious. It was the first Sopwith to be named after an animal, starting the legend of Sopwith’s “Flying Zoo.”

The Pup was followed by the Tripehound, which soon simply became known as the Tripe or the Triplane in May 1916. The famed test pilot Harry Hawker flew the prototype and put it through some remarkable aerobatics, prompting the RNAS to evaluate it for front-line service. Entering combat in late spring of 1917 its spectacular rate of climb and ceiling made it more than a match for the German Albatros D.IIIs on the Western Front.

Only four squadrons were equipped with the Tripe, including No. 10 RNAS, under the command of Raymond Collishaw. His planes were painted black, and became famous as the “Black Flight.” Some of Collishaw’s planes were named “Black Maria,” “Black Prince,” “Black Death,” “Black Roger” and “Black Sheep.”

The Tripe’s initial success prompted the German Air Service to consider Triplane designs. The result, of course was Anthony Fokker’s superb Dr.I Triplane.

But design flaws that made maintenance and repair very difficult, as well as some structural weaknesses prompted the Air Ministry to pull the Tripe from service.

Enter the Camel.

Tommy Sopwith’s company, only five years old had matured into a respected manufacturer of advanced fighter planes.

The Great War was the only major conflict in which the aerial armadas were built by craftsmen. Since the Wright Brothers first flew their tiny Flyer in December 1903, aircraft had to be built by hand. Rather than rolling off the huge assembly line factories as would be done a generation later, every plane had to be built by highly skilled workers in wood and fabric. Each wing rib and spar, every longiron and panel was hand-shaped and fitted to the airframe. Before a new fighter was covered in the cotton fabric it looked like a highly complex three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

Designed by Sopwith’s Chief Engineer Herbert Smith, who also created the Pup and Tripe, the new plane was intended to be an improvement over the earlier planes and eventually, replace them. Known officially as the Sopwith F.1 Big Pup, it was a larger, heavier and more advanced design than its predecessor.

A square cross section fuselage made construction simpler and faster and plywood was used to strengthen the walls and floor of the cockpit. The cowling was aluminum.

Nearly 90% of the plane’s weight was in the forward seven feet, which included the engine, guns, main fuel tank and pilot’s seat.

The Pup had been 19 feet long with a 26.5-foot wingspan; it weighed 787 lbs and was powered by a le Rhone 80 hp rotary engine. It could fly at 111mph for three hours.

The newer plane had some improvements in design and size. It was nearly six feet longer with a 28-foot wingspan, and weighed 930 lbs. Powered by a beefy 930 hp Clerget 9-cylinder rotary engine the F.1 could fly 300 miles at 115 mph.

Twin Vickers .303 machine guns doubled the new plane’s firepower.

At the suggestion of Sopwith works manager Fred Sigrist, the lower wing was given a slight 3-degree dihedral while the upper wing was straight. This too simplified construction. Viewed from the front, the Camel’s upper and lower wings appear to converge slightly at the wingtips.

Since the war began, pilots had been plagued with guns that jammed in the cold air at high altitudes, so Sopwith’s designers fitted a metal fairing over the twin Vickers guns to contain the heat from firing. The humped fairing gave the new F.1 the name “Camel.”

Harry Hawker flew the first prototype on December 22, 1916 at Brooklands. In his hands the new plane was shown to have great agility.

The RFC’s No. 60 Squadron began testing the Camel in March of the following year. A few minor changes were made to the design, until it was accepted for service two months later. Sopwith contracted other companies to meet the Air Ministry’s order, including Ruston Proctor Co, Portholme Aerodrome Ltd, Boulton & Paul Ltd, British Caudron Co. Ltd, Clayton & Shuttleworth Ltd, and Hooper & Co. Ltd. In all, these companies built more than 5,400 Camels in several variants.

As soon as they took to the skies, student pilots found the Camel difficult to fly. In fact, more Camel pilots died in training than were killed in combat.

Because of the greater proportion of weight being so far forward and with the torque of the Clerget engine it was both maneuverable and very delicate on the controls. But once a pilot learned how to handle it, they grew accustomed to its quirks.

For instance, a left turn required more effort to overcome the engine’s torque, so pilots soon learned to make a left turn by doing a 270-degree right turn. The Camel was tail-heavy in level flight, so they needed to maintain some constant forward pressure on the stick. Yet they did like the excellent visibility in all directions, which many earlier planes lacked.

These traits were an indicator of how far and fast fighter plane design had come in just three years. For those pilots who mastered it, the agile Camel proved to have more than enough maneuverability to take on the best that Germany could put in the air.

The United States entered the war in April 1917, and to the War Department’s dismay they found that the U.S. aircraft industry was totally unable to provide American pilots with suitable planes to fight the German fighters then in service. General William “Billy” Mitchell, who worked under General John J. Pershing in Paris, had to find a way to equip the ranks of American airmen who would soon arrive in France.

The inescapable solution was to use French and British aircraft. The American Air Service pilots would first fly with RFC and French Aéronautique Militaire squadrons to learn the new science of aerial combat.

Of course, there had been Americans already fighting in the skies over the Western Front since 1916, when the French organized new squadrons composed of American volunteers. The famed Lafayette Escadrille soon turned out some of the most successful pilots, including Raoul Lufbery, James Norman Hall and Charles Nordhoff.

Many of these men later joined the U.S. Air Service and became the nucleus and forerunner of an air armada that would one day rule the skies over Europe in yet another war.

In June 1917 the new F.1 Camel began flying with the Royal Naval Air Service’s No. 4 Squadron at Dunkirk, and then with No. 70 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. Seven months later thirteen RFC squadrons were equipped with the Camel.

Pilots learned that the Camel performed best at low- to mid-altitudes, where its quick agility gave them the edge. “When you become a Camel pilot,” veterans said, “you will fly it forever.”

The most successful single aircraft of the RFC was Major William Barker’s Camel, S/N B6313, in which he shot down 46 planes and balloons from September 1917 to September 1918. Other Camel aces were Billy Barker and Dennis McLaren.

The Camel was one of the first effective night fighters, being used over the Home Islands against German night bombers and airships. While the majority of the Zeppelin raids had ceased by 1917, they still appeared over Britain to drop bombs from above the clouds. Modified with a high-mounted Lewis machine gun armed with incendiary bullets, Camels fought off German night raiders over the Allied lines and across the Channel.

The most famous and highest-scoring ace of the war was Baron Manfred von Richthofen, who shot down at least 80 Allied planes in a single year. Most of his kills were in the trusty Albatros, but by the end of 1917 Richthofen was in the new Fokker Dr.I Triplane. His fame as the “Bloody Red Baron” had assured his name would live on long after the war. Yet the ceaseless grind of battle had taken its toll on the young officer, and in April 1918 Richthofen was a tired, disillusioned 25-year old veteran. On April 21, he was flying alone near Morlancourt Ridge close to Australian lines in the Somme River Valley. He spotted the Sopwith flown by Lt. Wilfrid May of No. 209 Squadron. May was inexperienced, and tried desperately to shake off the relentless red Triplane behind him. Richthofen was in turn attacked by Canadian pilot Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown, who dove steeply on the red plane, which caused the Red Baron to pull away from May. Then Richthofen resumed his attack. Brown made a tight turn in his Camel. He got the Fokker in his sights and fired. At some point Richthofen was hit by a single .303 round in the chest, causing him to die almost instantly.

While Brown was officially credited with the kill, the Aussies claimed him as well. Their claim is supported by the fact that hundreds of guns were firing on Richthofen, and all used the same caliber round as the Camel’s Vickers. The fatal bullet struck the German ace from underneath.

Thus was the most celebrated victory of the Sopwith Camel, deserved or not.

When the bulk of American pilots reached France in the spring of 1918 they were trained to fly and fight in the nearly-obsolete Nieuport 17 and 21, and older model SPAD VII. Among these was Eddie Rickenbacker who gained fame as America’s Ace of Aces with 26 victories.

But some lucky Yanks were sent to fly with the RFC and joined the 17th and 148th Aero Squadrons. They flew the nimble and state-of-the-art Sopwith.

The 17th and 148th Aero Squadrons did well against the Abatros D.V and Fokker D.VII fighters over France and Belgium. New York native Lt. George A. Vaughn Jr. had been with No. 84 Squadron RFC flying the workhorse of the RFC the S.E.5, and shot down seven Germans before joining the American 17th Aero Squadron. In the Camel he brought down six more enemy planes. Lt. Elliott (sometimes spelled Eliot) White Springs of South Carolina had been under Major Billy Bishop flying S.E.5s in No. 85 Squadron, where he shot down three German planes. He then joined the 148th Aero Squadron. In the Camel he brought down at least ten more Germans. Springs was known for attacking superior numbers, such as when he dove on five Fokker D.VIIs on August 22. His official total was sixteen victories.

Lawrence K. Callahan of Kentucky was with Springs in No. 85 and shot down three Germans before moving on to the 148th. There he added to his victories in the Camel,

Other American Camel aces were Clayton Bissell with six victories, Howard Burdick with eight, Jesse Creech with seven, Howard Knotts with six and Robert Todd with five. Not to minimize their feats, it must be remembered that by that time, the German Air Service was a shadow of its former glory. Most of the famed pilots like Richthofen and Boelcke were dead, and the remaining aces being ground down by fatigue, poor morale and attrition.

By war’s end the Sopwith Camel had already gained a reputation as an excellent fighter and helped to secure and hold what would, in a later war, be called “air superiority.”

More than 1,280 enemy planes fell to the Camel’s twin machine guns, making it the highest scoring Allied fighter of the Great War.

The Museum’s Sopwith F-1 Camel was built by USAF personnel in 1974 from original Sopwith blueprints. It is painted in the colors of George Vaughn Jr. of the 17th Aero Squadron.