Sopwith Camel – another classic British fighter of World War I

by Chris Chant on 20/06/2011

Grainy black and white photo of a Sopwith Camel fighter plane on the groundThe Camel was without doubt the most successful fighter of World War I in terms of the number of aircraft it shot down, its long-established figure of 1,294 aerial victories in the period between July 1917 and November 1918 having been revealed by research in the 1970s as a gross underestimate of a figure that has since been revised upward to 6,500 or more. One of the reasons for the Camel’s success in air combat was its extraordinary aerial agility, perhaps matched only by the Fokker Dr I, which was smaller and had significantly lower performance, resulting from the concentration of the fighter’s major masses (propeller, engine, fuel and oil tanks, armament and ammunition tanks, and pilot) in the forward 7 ft 0 in (2.13 m) of the machine as close as possible to the centre of gravity position. This manoeuvrability was not without its problems, however, for these main masses’ concentration around the centre of gravity combined with the torque, small inertia, and gyroscopic effect of the rotary engine produced a very tight turning circle that to port resulted in the nose lifting and to starboard in the nose dropping and, unless considerable port rudder was then applied, a rapid entry into a tight spin.

Operational experience in the first genuine fighter-versus-fighter combats during World War I soon revealed that when all other factors such as pilot skill were equal, victory generally went to the fighter that possessed the best blend of parameters such as power/weight ratio, speed, climb rate, agility, structural strength, weight of armament, and pilot’s fields of vision. As far as the Royal Flying Corps was concerned, the aerial fighting of 1916 had revealed that while the Airco (de Havilland) D.H.2 and Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b, both of which were sturdy but slow, had been adequate to combat the Fokker E-type monoplanes that had been the world’s first true fighters with fixed forward-firing armament, by mid-September of that year these pioneering British warplanes, both of the pusher-engined type, had been rendered obsolete by the advent of the Albatros D I and D II with their armament of two fixed forward-firing machine guns. The D.H.2 and F.E.2b had been supplemented and then supplanted as first-line fighters in British service by the Sopwith Pup and Triplane, whose beautiful flying characteristics and considerable agility had allowed the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service to gain a measure of parity with, if not actual superiority over, the units of the Imperial German air services, but these were essentially interim fighters with comparatively low-powered engines and an armament of only one machine gun, and it was clear that a faster and more heavily armed single-seater were needed urgently to give the British air services a fighter with which to match the inevitable developments of the Albatros fighters. As early as the late summer of 1916, however, Herbert Smith had started work on a new fighter to succeed his Pup and Triplane. Whereas these two important but limited types had been most notable for what might be described as their delicacy of concept and elegance of handling, even though both aircraft were in fact structurally strong, the new fighter was schemed as an altogether more aggressive machine with no greater size but fixed forward-firing armament that was twice as heavy and provision for a considerably more powerful engine. The resulting aeroplane was the F.1, a designation indicating Fighter no. 1, and this was a small biplane of conventional aerodynamics and structure but generally unprepossessing appearance. The first example of this new fighter, which was passed by Sopwith’s experimental department in December 1916, was powered by the Clerget 9Z air-cooled nine-cylinder rotary engine rated at 110 hp (82 kW). This F.1 was clearly a linear descendant of the Pup, but had a deeper fuselage with two 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Vickers guns that had their breeches just forward of the cockpit, under a raised fairing that was soon likened to the hump of a camel and led to a nickname that soon became in effect the type’s name even though it was never officially adopted.

The airframe was completely conventional in structure, and was wholly typical of both its period and Smith’s design practices. As originally schemed, the F.1 was to have had equal dihedral on the upper and lower wings, but the engineer Fred Sigrist then decided that the upper wing should be flat so that it could be constructed in one piece and thus speed production and, by the rule-of-thumb thinking that characterised much of the design process in those days, the dihedral angle of the lower-wing panels was doubled to compensate for the lower of upper-wing dihedral. In the event, production aircraft had an upper wing that was constructed in three sections, but no attempt was ever made to restore equal upper- and lower-wing dihedral angles.

The F.1 was a very slightly unequal-span biplane of wooden construction covered mostly with fabric except on the extreme forward part of the fuselage, which was skinned with light alloy panels. The core of the structure was the fuselage, which was of rectangular section with a rounded upper decking and based on an internally wire-braced structure of four longerons and associated spacers. As noted above, from front to rear this fuselage carried the powerplant, oil tank, pilot’s open cockpit, fuel tank, and tail unit. This last was of wood and steel tube construction and comprised single horizontal and vertical surfaces, the former including a wire-braced tailplane carrying plain elevators, and the latter including a wire-braced fin carrying a plain rudder that was hinged at its lower end to the vertical knife-edge in which the fuselage terminated.

The staggered wing cellule was of wooden construction, and was based on upper and lower wings that were basically identical in planform with constant thickness and chord to their raked tips; wire-connected plain ailerons were fitted on the outboard ends of both wings’ trailing edges. The dihedralled halves of the lower wing extended from the lower longerons, while the outer panels of the flat upper wing extended from a centre section that incorporated a cut-out in its trailing edge above the pilot’s cockpit and was carried over the fuselage by two outward-canted sets of cabane struts. The upper and lower wings were separated on each side by a pair of parallel interplane struts, and the whole wing cellule was braced with the normal arrangement of flying and landing wires. The airframe was completed by the landing gear, which was of the fixed tailskid type with a main unit based on a two-wheel axle carried at the closed ends of two wire-braced V-type struts extending downward and outward from the lower longerons. As noted above, the powerplant was based on one rotary engine, of which many types were fitted during the course of the Camel’s extensive production: this engine was installed at the front of the fuselage inside a fully circular light alloy cowling, and drove a two-blade wooden propeller of the tractor type.

The exact number of the F.1 prototypes and the relationship of these to each other is not wholly clear, but it seems likely that the first four prototypes (F.1, F.1/1, F.1/2 and F.1/3) were built as private ventures, the F.1 making the type’s first flight with the powerplant of one Clerget 9Z engine, rated at 110 hp (82 kW), during January 1917 and in the hands of Harry Hawker. The F.1/1 was the so-called ‘Taper-Wing’ Camel, and had tapered rather than constant-chord outer wing panels separated on each side by one I-type interplane strut. The F.1/2 has not been identified positively, but may have introduced a cut-out panel in the upper-wing centre section to improve the pilot’s upward field of vision. The F.1/3 was powered by one Clerget 9B engine rated at 130 hp (96.9 kW). These four prototypes with a one-piece upper wing were followed by two additional prototypes ordered by the Admiralty for evaluation as a new fighter type for the RNAS. After these two machines had made their first flights, the F.1/3 was officially evaluated at Martlesham Heath during March 1917, and it was this that became the pattern for the first production aircraft even though this prototype was revised in May 1917 with the powerplant of one Le Rhône 9J air-cooled nine-cylinder rotary engine rated at 110 hp (82 kW) and then in July 1917 with the powerplant of one Clerget 9B engine rated at 130 hp (96.9 kW). In May 1917 the second prototype for the Admiralty was tested with the first example of the new Bentley AR.1 (Admiralty Rotary no. 1) air-cooled nine-cylinder engine designed by Lieutenant W. O. Bentley and rated at 150 hp (112 kW). This engine was the world’s first air-cooled aero engine to be made with aluminium as the material of its cylinders, and entered production as the BR.1 (Bentley Rotary no. 1).

The F.1/1 prototype was also tested at Martlesham Heath during May 1917 with the Clerget 9B engine rated at 130 hp (96.9 kW), but its landing speed was higher and its performance in no way superior to that of the prototype with the same engine and constant-chord wings. This marked the end of the ‘Taper-Wing’ Camel’s development especially as the manufacture of a series of steadily shorter-chord wing ribs was necessarily more time-consuming and costly than the mass production of identical ribs. As noted above, the top wing of production aircraft was produced in three sections, probably in an effort to ease the problems of assembly and maintenance, the ailerons were longer than those of the early prototypes, the standard engines were the Clerget 9B, Le Rhône 9J and Bentley BR.1 units, and the shaping of the aluminium panels behind the engine was of the modified shape that first appeared on the F.1/3 prototype.

With the Clerget 9B engine, the Camel had the same dimensions as the BR.1-engined variant with the exception of its slightly greater length of 18 ft 9 in (5.715 m), but differed in details such as its empty weight of 950 lb (431 kg), maximum take-off weight of 1,482 lb (672 kg), maximum speed of 97.5 kt (112.5 mph; 181 km/h) at 6,500 ft (1980 m) declining to 92 kt (106 mph; 170.5 km/h) at 15,000 ft (4570 m), climb to 6,500 ft (1980 m) in 6 minutes 0 seconds, service ceiling of 19,000 ft (5790 m), and endurance of 2 hours 45 minutes. With the Le Rhône 9J engine, the Camel had the same dimensions as the BR.1-engined variant with the exception of its slightly greater length of 18 ft 8 in (5.69 m), but differed in details such as its empty weight of 889 lb (403 kg), maximum take-off weight of 1,422 lb (645 kg), maximum speed of 106 kt (122 mph; 196 km/h) at sea level declining to 97 kt (111.5 mph; 179.5 km/h) at 15,000 ft (4570 m), climb to 6,500 ft (1980 m) in 5 minutes 10 seconds, and service ceiling of 24,000 ft (7315 m).

Later a number of aircraft were fitted with the Gnome Monosoupape rotary engine rated at 150 hp (112 kW), and this engine was provided with a ‘blipper’ switch allowing the ignition system to be cut so that the engine ran on one, three, five, seven or nine cylinders as conventional throttling was impossible with a rotary engine: this system did allow the power of the engine to be varied but, as it did not prevent fuel reaching any cylinder whose spark plug was deactivated, presented something of a fire hazard as the reactivation of the spark plug(s) could result in the detonation of any unburned fuel and was in any case almost always notable for the release of a large sheet of flame. With the Gnome Monosoupape engine, the Camel had the same dimensions as the BR.1-engined variant but differed in details such as its empty weight of 930 lb (422 kg), maximum take-off weight of 1,441 lb (654 kg), maximum speed of 98 kt (113 mph; 182 km/h) at 15,000 ft (4570 m), climb to 6,500 ft (1980 m) in 5 minutes 5 seconds, service ceiling of 22,000 ft (6705 m), and endurance of 2 hours 15 minutes.

Black and white photo of a German Gotha bomber plane on the ground, being inspected by two military menDelivery of the Camel by Sopwith began during May 1917, and BR.1-engined Camels of the RNAS’s No. 4 Squadron were in action for the first time at the beginning of July 1917, when five of the aircraft attacked 16 Gotha bombers to the north-west of Ostend. Flight Commander A. M. Shook submitted a claim for one Gotha shot down in flames and Flight Sub-Lieutenant S. E. Ellis put in a claim for another bomber driven down out of control. By the end of July 1917 the Camel equipped Nos 3, 4 and 6 Squadrons of the RNAS, while No. 9 Squadron of the same service received its first Camel on July and was completely re-equipped by the beginning of the following month. Other RNAS units that received the Camel at this time in replacement for the Triplane were No. 8 Squadron between July and September, and No. 10 Squadron during August.

The first production contract for the Camel placed by the War Office, which was responsible for the RFC, was allocated to Ruston Proctor & Co. in May 1917 and was for a total of 250 aircraft with the Clerget 9B engine, later orders adding a further 60 aircraft. The War Office’s second contract was placed with the Porthole Aerodrome Ltd. in June 1917 and was for a total of 50 aircraft later increased to 100 machines all with the Le Rhine 9J engine. Just one week later Sopwith received a War Office contract for an initial 200 aircraft that were later supplemented by another 250 machines, and these aircraft were powered by the Clerget 9B or Le Rhône 9J engine. A different engine apparently meant a different synchronisation system: the standard equipment of the Clerget-powered Camel was the Sopwith-Kauper No. 3, which was a mechanical interrupter gear, while aircraft with the Le Rhône engine used the somewhat better Constantinesco C.C., which was a hydraulically operated gear.

Pilots used to the viceless tractability of the Pup and Triplane fighters or to the stable 1½-Strutter found the Camel very different and, in the experience of many pilots, dangerous. The Camel’s response to control inputs was very rapid, the elevators being especially powerful, and as noted above very careful handling was required in the turn, although skilful pilots were able to exploit the fighter’s extraordinary turning capability to whip round onto the tail of an unwary opponent. In general, however, pilots who succeeded in mastering the aeroplane’s handling characteristics thought that the Camel was the ideal fighter. The Camel lacked the stability of the contemporary Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a as a gun platform, but its almost incredible agility allowed it to hold its own as a warplane until the end of the war despite its comparative lack of power. The Camel’s optimum fighting altitude was about 12,000 ft (3660 m), and at that height a skilled Camel pilot could dictate fighting terms to virtually any German fighter.

Black and white photo of Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Collishaw as a young man, sitting in the cockpit of his fighter plane and smilingThe Camel was flown by such distinguished pilots as Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Collishaw (third on the British ‘ace’ list with 60 victories), Major Donald MacLaren (fifth equal on the British ‘ace’ list with 54 victories), Major William Barker (seventh on the British ‘ace’ list with 53 victories, and Captain Henry Woollett (19th on the British ‘ace’ list with 35 victories including six German warplanes shot down in one day during April 1918). The first unit of the RFC to be equipped fully with the Camel was No. 70 Squadron, which had replaced its 1½-Strutters by the end of July 1917. In that same month No. 45 Squadron began to re-equip with Camels, and many other fighter squadrons switched to the little Sopwith fighter in the following months.

As 1917 continued, production of the Camel gathered pace: by the end of March some 135 of the fighters had been delivered, another 471 machines left the factories in the next three months, and an additional 719 aircraft followed in the last three months of the year. The year’s total of 1,325 must have consisted almost entirely of F.1 Camels as deliveries of the 2F.1 Camel shipborne variant’s production model did not start until early 1918. In 1917 a total of 1,546 Clerget and 540 Le Rhône engines of British licensed manufacture passed inspection for the British flying services, and delivery was also made of another 879 Clerget and 1,314 Le Rhône engines of French manufacture. Deliveries of the Bentley BR.1 had reached 269 engines by the end of 1917. At the end of December 1917 contracts were given given to Ruston Proctor & Co. for 150 aircraft and to Boulton & Paul Ltd. for 200 aircraft: these orders brought the total of F.1 Camel fighters ordered in the course of 1917 to 3,450 aircraft. Hundreds more were going to be needed, and it must have seemed probable that engine deliveries would be outstripped by airframe production, for the types of rotary engine that were used to power the Camel were also in great demand for several other types of warplane. It may possibly have been in anticipation of this situation that one aeroplane was evaluated during August 1917 with a Gnome Monosoupape rotary engine rated at only 100 hp (74.6 kW) and driving a two-blade propeller of 8 ft 7 in (2.62 m) diameter, which was the type generally associated with the Airco (de Havilland) D.H.5 fighter. Despite the use of the larger-diameter propeller, the performance of this aeroplane did not compare favourably with that of the standard Camel of the RFC with the Clerget or Le Rhône rotary engine.

Although it is virtually certain that operational use was planned for the Camel with the Monosoupape engine rated at 100 hp (74.6 kW), for the trials aeroplane had full armament and was also evaluated with a primitive oxygen system for the pilot, but was in fact probably used only in moderately small numbers for training purposes because of its indifferent performance coupled with the fact that the engine was regarded as simpler to control than the Clerget or Le Rhône.

On all fronts the Camel was used until the Armistice ended World War I in November 1918. Just under two weeks before this occurrence the Royal Air Force, which had come into being at the beginning of April 1918 as an amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service, had 385 Camels with the Bentley engine, 1,342 Camels with the Clerget engine, and 821 Camels with Le Rhône engine of the standard or Monosoupape types. With the exception of the machines of the home defence variant described below, these Camels were not significantly different from those that had entered service some 18 months earlier, and by this time the little fighter had earned a redoubtable reputation as a truly martial machine wherever it had fought. In service many pilots made their own minor modifications to the type: some liked to have the windscreen forward of the gun breeches to facilitate jam clearing, the cut-out in the centre section was frequently enlarged to provide better upward fields of vision, and a rack for four 25 or 20 lb (11.3 or 9.1 kg) bombs was often added under the fuselage just to the rear of the main landing gear unit for improved capability in the ground-attack role, which was a task that the Camel undertook with increasing frequency and success during the Battles of Ypres and Cambrai in the second half of 1917.

The Camel was also operated by four squadrons of the US Air Service in France during 1918 after the USA had bought 143 examples of the Clerget-powered Camel in June. The USA had also bought a number of the Gnome Monosoupape engine rated at 150 hp (112 kW), and the Air Service contracted the task of installing these engines in the Camel to Boulton & Paul.

After World War I the US Navy had at least six Camels, two of which were allocated to the battleships Texas and Arkansas. These aircraft were flown from platforms above the guns of a main turret, and were fitted with a combination of jettisonable wheels and flotation gear. A small number of Camels also went to Canada, where the first of the total of at least four such aircraft survived to July 1927.

The Camel was also flown by four escadrilles (squadrons) of the Belgian army air service, which may have received as many as 36 examples of the Camel although this number remains unconfirmed. A few of these aircraft remained in Belgian service until 1922. During World War I some pilots of the Royal Greek naval air service also flew the Camel. Camels were also flown by the Slavo-British Aviation Group. Some of the 20 Camels given to Poland in 1920 also went into action again in August of that year, flown by the Eskadra Kosciuszkowska, based at Lwów, against the Russians in the Russo-Polish War (1919/21).

Some Camels went to Russia in 1918 with the British expeditionary forces aiding the White anti-communist forces against the Reds who had seized control of Russia after November 1917 and were seeking to consolidate the country into the USSR. The Camel remained operational in Russia up to 1920 with Nos 47 and 221 Squadrons of the RAF.

The Camel was introduced to the home-defence role during August 1917 with the task of intercepting and destroying any German airships and/or bombers that might attack the UK. At the beginning of the following month Captain C. J. Q. Brand and Lieutenant C. C. Banks of No. 44 Squadron proved that while it was a decidedly tricky proposition, the Camel could indeed be flown at night. Early night combats showed that pilots were momentarily blinded by the flash of their guns, and it was considered that there was danger in firing explosive and incendiary ammunition through the propeller.

A special version of the Camel was therefore developed for the night fighting role, and mainly involved the conversion of existing airframes: two 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis guns were installed on a double Foster mounting above the centre section, and the cockpit was moved slightly to the rear of the upper wing so that the pilot could operate the guns effectively as the reloading process involved drawing the weapon backward and downward on the quadrants of the Foster mountings so that the pilot could reach the upper part of the guns’ receivers to remove the empty drum magazines and fit fresh ones. Another change was effected in the fuel system: in the standard Camel the main fuel tank was located behind the pilot’s seat, but in the night fighter the standard tank of a Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2e was fitted between the cabane struts within the fuselage. Four other alterations were the removal of one of the upper horizontal spacers in the fuselage’s primary structure to permit the rearward movement of the cockpit; the reinforcement of the upper longerons with strengthening pieces glued and bound to the inboard sides of the longerons, which unfortunately rendered the cockpit somewhat more cramped than that of the standard Camel; the modification of the flying controls with a B.E.2e rudder bar instead of the standard Sopwith component; and the addition of navigation lights and flare brackets. The standard engine for this home-defence variant was the Le Rhône 9J unit.

In service there was some variation in the armament of the modified home-defence Camel, for some pilots kept one of the Lewis guns at a 45° upward angle, and others opted to retain one Vickers gun despite its disadvantages.

Losses of the standard Camel fighter when operated in the ground-attack role were high, and in an effort to overcome this problem Sopwith introduced during February 1918 an armoured trench-strafing development. This was the TF.1 Camel armed with two 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis guns in a fuselage installation designed to fire obliquely forward and downward, and a third 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis gun on the centre section. The TF.1 was powered by the Le Rhône 9J engine and was otherwise a simple modification of the standard F.1 Camel, but the type did not enter production. The development was nevertheless useful, for it provided much data useful in the design of the more advanced TF.2 Salamander.

The accident rate suffered by the Camel at training establishments was notably high, and many of these accidents resulted from the difficulty encountered by inexperienced pilots in effecting with sufficient speed and dexterity fine-adjustment fuel control of the engine after take-off, when their reaction to a sudden loss of power was not fast enough to prevent the Camel from entering a spin. A two-seat version of the Camel was therefore made, with the second cockpit in the same position as that of the night fighter. The flying controls, instruments, air speed indicator heads and landing wires were all duplicated, the fuel system was revised, and no armament was installed.

In overall terms, orders were placed for 5,695 examples of the F.1 Camel and its variants, but at least 100 of these aircraft were cancelled and others may not have been completed. In addition to the parent company, companies that built the Camel included Boulton & Paul Ltd., British Caudron & Co. Ltd., Clayton & Shuttleworth Ltd., Hooper & Co. Ltd., March, Jones & Cribb Ltd., Nieuport & General Aircraft Co. Ltd., Portholme Aerodrome Ltd., and Ruston, Proctor & Co. Ltd.

Black and white photograph of an unmanned Sopwith Snipe fighter plane resting on grass Camel aircraft were used for various experimental purposes at the Royal Aircraft Establishment: for spinning experiments one aeroplane was fitted with an enlarged rudder and elevators; two aircraft were fitted with self-sealing tanks in February 1920; and two other aircraft were extensively used in inverted-flight experiments. Production of the F.1 and 2F.1 variants of the Camel continued to the end of World War I and totalled 5,490 aircraft, of which 4,165 were produced in 1918. Had World War I continued into 1919, the Camel would have been replaced everywhere by the Sopwith Snipe, and in the peace that followed World War I the Snipe remained the RAF’s standard single-seat fighter for some years.

It is probable that a few examples of the F.1 Camel were operated from platforms on board Royal Navy warships, (the type was certainly used in this role by the US Navy, as indicated above), but a different version of the Camel was developed specifically for the shipborne role. This variant differed sufficiently from the F.1 to be given a new company designation, namely 2F.1 Camel. The prototype of the new configuration, was was produced as a conversion from F.1 standard with the powerplant of one Clerget 9B engine rated at 130 hp (96.9 kW), was first flown as early as March 1917 even before the F.1 entered operational service.

The 2F.1 was differentiated from the F.1 by a fuselage constructed in two parts, a centre section whose reduced span trimmed overall span by 1 ft 1 in (0.33 m), lower-wing panels of correspondingly reduced span, and a revised upper-wing centre section cabane arrangement with the struts canted outward considerably less sharply than in the F.1. The halves of the fuselage were joined at a point immediately to the rear of the cockpit, and the object of this change, which also required modification of the controls to the moving surfaces of the tail unit, was to allow the aeroplane to be stored more economically in separate pieces within the very limited hangar space available in the aircraft carriers of the period.

The need for a shipborne development of the Camel was spurred by a number of reasons, of which one of the most significant was the desire of the Royal Naval Air Service to engage and destroy the Imperial German navy‘s force of airships, which were used not only to undertake bombing attacks on the UK but also to provide a long-range reconnaissance capability for the surface units of the High Seas Fleet. For this task the RNAS expressed a preference for a gun armament disposed to fire obliquely forward and upward, and as a result the armament of the 2F.1 Camel comprised one 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Vickers fixed forward-firing machine gun on the port upper side of the forward fuselage with synchronisation equipment to fire through the propeller disc, and one 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis gun installed over the centre section on a mounting which enabled the weapon to be swung back for reloading and for upward firing: for this reason the structure of the 2F.1’s centre section differed from that of the F.1 so that the gun passed through the central cut-out.

The other details of the 2F.1 Camel included a span of 26 ft 11 in (8.20 m) with area of 221.00 sq ft (20.53 m²), length of 18 ft 6 in (5.64 m), height of 9 ft 1 in (2.77 m), wheel track of 4 ft 5.125 in (1.35 m), empty weight of 956 lb (433 kg), maximum take-off weight of 1,523 lb (691 kg), maximum speed of 99 kt (114 mph; 183.5 km/h) at 10,000 ft (3050 m) declining to 90.5 kt (104 mph; 167 km/h) at 15,000 ft (4570 m), climb to 6,500 ft (1980 m) in 6 minutes 25 seconds, service ceiling of 19,000 ft (5790 m), and endurance of 3 hours 0 minutes.

Later aircraft were fitted with the Bentley BR.1 rotary engine rated at 150 hp (112 kW), and these aircraft differed from the baseline standard in details such as their length of 18 ft 8 in (5.69 m), empty weight of 1,036 lb (470 kg), maximum take-off weight of 1,530 lb (694 kg), maximum speed of 108 kt (124 mph; 200 km/h) at 6,500 ft (1980 m) declining to 101.5 kt (117 mph; 188 km/h) at 15,000 ft (4570 m), climb to 6,500 ft (1980 m) in 6 minutes 0 seconds, and service ceiling of 17,300 ft (5275 m).

Production of the 2F.1 Camel was entrusted to Beardmore Ltd. and amounted to only a comparatively few aircraft delivered from February 1918. Late contracts placed with the Fairey Aviation Co. Ltd. and Pegler & Co. Ltd. were later cancelled.

The 2F.1 Camel was operated from ships in exactly the same way as the Pup that it generally replaced in this role: a short runway, which was in fact little more than twice the Camel’s length, was built on the forecastle of some light cruisers, while others had a comparable platform built on top of a gun turret. A rather longer take-off run was possible on battle-cruisers, which had an enlarged version of the platform on one of their turrets. In all cases the tail-guide trestle first used for the Sopwith Pup was fitted. The 2F.1 was also flown from the aircraft carriers HMS Furious, Pegasus and, later, Argus, Eagle and Vindictive. The 2F.1 Camel was also used, most enterprisingly and daringly, from lighters towed at high speed by destroyers. Lighters of this type had been developed for the transportation of flying boats across the North Sea in order to increase their radius of action, but by using them to carry single-seat fighters the RNAS gave itself a method to make daylight attacks on Zeppelins over the North Sea, and on German seaplane bases.

The first attempt to fly a Camel from a lighter was made by Colonel C. R. Samson at the end of May 1918, shortly after the creation of the RAF as an amalgamation of the RFC and RNAS, and the effort nearly cost this experienced and highly capable airman his life. There was no proper flying-off deck as the take-off system comprised only a pair of troughs running the full length of the lighter. Samson’s 2F.1 had been specially adapted with its standard wheels replaced by a pair of skids that ran in the troughs. Samson opted for this expedient in part to enable the experiment to be conducted as soon as possible, and in part to provide some assurance that the aeroplane would keep straight and not topple off the side of the lighter before it was properly airborne. With the lighter towed by the destroyer Truculent, making 32 kt, Samson started his 2F.1 into motion but the aeroplane then jumped from the tracks, fell over the bows and was run over by the lighter. The wreckage surfaced some 400 yards (365 m) astern of the lighter, which was still being towed at high speed, and then an uninjured Samson bobbed to the surface.

Although unsuccessful in its primary purpose, the trials did yield useful information, however, in the fact that it was now appreciated that at high speed the lighter dropped its stern with the result that the aeroplane had in fact tried to take-off uphill. The track system was now discarded, a 30 ft (9.14 m) platform, higher at the back than the front, being installed so that it was level when the lighter was moving at speed. The first successful take-off was then made by Lieutenant S. D. Culley at the end of July 1918.

When the Harwich Force of light cruisers, destroyers and coastal motor boats set out for the Heligoland Bight in the evening of a day in August 1918, three of the destroyers were towing lighters carrying flying boats and Redoubt was towing a lighter with a 2F.1 Camel, with Culley as pilot, loaded on board. Early on the following morning the force was off Terschelling, and six CMBs departed in search of German ships. The flying boats could not take-off as a result of the long swell, the lack of wind, and an overload of fuel and ammunition. Soon after the CMBs had set off, four German seaplanes arrived on the scene to shadow the Harwich Force. Then just before 08.30 the Zeppelin L-53 was sighted at a height of some 15,000 ft (4570 m). The commander of the Harwich Force turned his ships out to sea and ordered a smokescreen to be laid, and this drew the airship in toward the ships. Then Culley lifted off in his 2F.1 Camel, reached an altitude of 18,000 ft (5485 m) with the airship 1,000 ft (305 m) above his fighter, manoeuvred so that the two craft were approaching head-on with the airship now only 300 ft (91 m) higher than the fighter, and pulled up the nose to fire. One of the guns jammed almost immediately, but the airship caught fire and broke into two sections. The L-53 was the last Zeppelin airship to be destroyed in World War I.

Detail from a stained glass memorial window to Sir Thomas Sopwith, face of an angel wielding a sceptre with cross on top; colours are white, blue, red and yellow.The 2F.1 Camel remained in service for a time after the Armistice, and at least one continued to fly operationally. Early in 1919 Vindictive was operating in the Baltic during the campaign against the Bolsheviks, and her 2F.1 Camel carried out many patrols over Baltic waters. The type was also used on aircraft carriers for experiments with arrester gear at a time when the arrester cables were longitudinal and had a wooden ramp under their forward ends. As the aircraft ran up the ramp the friction of the cables in the undercarriage hooks increased until the machine was brought to rest. The Camel had three hooks under the spreader bar of the undercarriage, and a special guard was fitted in front of the wheels to prevent damage to the propeller.


Sopwith F.1 Camel

Type: fighter

Accommodation: pilot in the open cockpit

Powerplant: one Bentley BR.1 air-cooled 9-cylinder rotary piston engine rated at 150 hp (112 kW) for take-off

Performance: maximum level speed ‘clean’ 108 kt (124 mph; 200 km/h) at 6,500 ft (1980 m) declining to 101.5 kt (117 mph; 188 km/h) at 15,000 ft (4570 m); climb to 6,500 ft (1980 m) in 6 minutes 0 seconds; service ceiling 17,300 ft (5275 m); endurance 2 hours 30 minutes

Weights: empty 977 lb (443 kg); maximum take-off 1,470 lb (667 kg)

Dimensions: span 28 ft 0 in (8.53 m); length 18 ft 6 in (5.64 m); height 8 ft 6 in (2.60 m); tailplane span 8 ft 2.5 in (2.50 m); wheel track 4 ft 8 in (1.42 m); wing area 231.00 sq ft (21.46 m²)

Armament: two 0.303 in (7.7 mm) Vickers fixed forward-firing machine guns with 250 rounds per gun in the upper part of the forward fuselage with synchronisation equipment to fire through the propeller disc, and up to 100 lb (45 kg) of disposable stores carried on one hardpoint under the fuselage rated at 100 lb (45 kg), and generally comprising four 25 lb (11.3 kg) Hales bombs or 20 lb (9.1 kg) Cooper bombs

[Photo of memorial window by Sue Hasker]

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