Sopwith Camel

Sopwith Camel taking off

The Sopwith Camel was credited with the destruction of 1,294 enemy aircraft during World War I, thus claiming the unique distinction of obtaining more air-to-air victories than any other single type in that conflict.

Developed from the Pup, the Camel was utterly conventional for its time, wings and fuselage comprising wire-braced wooden structures with fabric covering. Standard engine was the Clerget 130 h.p. unit, but some were equipped with 110-h.p. LeRhone powerplants. In large part, the engine accounted for the Camel’s unusual maneuverability, for everything heavy—pilot, engine, fuel, armament–was in a compact area, which tended not to impede the sharp torque of the rotaries. Right-hand turns could thus be executed with extreme precision and rapidity. The Camel could be spun very quickly and the elevator was extremely sensitive. It was said some pilots, required to make a 90 degree left turn, preferred turning 270 degrees rightward… which seemed faster! However, the Camel was thus a very tricky machine to handle, and could kill careless pilots in a hurry.

Those who survived solo flights in Camels quickly became devotees, and learned to use the aircraft’s eccentricities to initiate or escape situations as necessary. Like the Messerschmitt of a later era, cynics of the period suggested that, once a pilot had learned to handle this machine, it was difficult to fly a “normal” airplane.

The Camel’s nickname came from the fairing over the two Vickers guns, close mounted under the hump. These beltfed, late model Mk.I and II llmm guns had a high rate of fire for the time, and their tight mounting made them easier to aim.

Various of the eccentricities of the Camel, especially compared to the relatively docile trainers of the period, prompted production of a two-seat, dual-control training version.

The combat record of Sopwith’s last major WWI fighter design is filled with extraordinary fights.

Captain J.L. Trollope of Number 43 Squadron shot down six Germans in one day-two D.F.W. two-seaters, an Albatross Scout, and three other two-seaters just before afternoon tea.

Captain H.W. Woollett of No. 209 Squadron equaled the feat a few days later, downing a Pfalz, a Fokker, and four other machines in a twenty-four hour span.

The Camel had delivered Allied air superiority in the West by January of 1918, and from then until the end of the war, they never surrendered the advantage over any significant area, or for any major span of time.

On 21 April, 1918, the Camel was involved in the most famous and debated victory of the war. Captain A.R. Brown led Number 209 Squadron’s eight Camel patrol near the Somme, and joined a dogfight between two Dr.I’s and a pair of R.E.S’s, in turn gaining the unwelcome attention of a mixed flight of fifteen Dr.I’s and Albatros D.Va’s. Brown tore off, diving after a red Fokker, pumping a quick burst into it. Some debate who actually downed or killed von Richthofen, but what is sure is that he died as a result of injuries sustained either in the fight or the landing, some eighty victories to his credit. The Germans had drawn considerable ground fire, and the battle was confused.

Naval Camels also performed brilliantly during the war. Almost all R.N.A.S. Camels were powered by 150-h.p. Bentley rotary engines.

The Camel was subject of many unusual mission and experiments, and accomplished many breakthroughs in aerial warfare technology…first night victory (a Gotha over East London, 1/25/18), first specialized carrier-gear equipped fighter, last Zeppelin shot down, but probably the first over the open sea, first extensive dive-bombing testing, and the first airship use of a “parasite” fighter. Even a specialized night fighter version was evolved and delivered, equipped usually with LeRhone engines, damped exhaust, lighted panel, etc.

The 5,490 Camels built served in the British, Canadian, American, Belgian, Greek, and associated air forces during the war, and many others afterward. They served worldwide, the 2F.1 version seeing regular duty on ten capital ships and seventeen cruisers of the Royal Navy during the war, more from many countries after.

The massive Camel program fully occupied the Sopwith firm and eight major subcontractors.