A leading British fighter plane of World War I, the Camel was a rotary-engined, single-seat fighter biplane.
The air war over the western front in France during World War I saw the development of military aircraft from unreliable observation and artillery-spotting platforms to specialized attack and defense systems. Fighter aircraft soon were developed from existing planes or designed from scratch to bring down enemy observation, spotting, and bombing craft. Great Britain was, in 1917, in need of an effective fighter plane to combat several superior German aircraft, as well as to overcome the losses from the so-called Bloody April of 1917, a period in the air war that had seen many German fighter airplanes preying successfully on slower and less effective Allied fighter and observation planes.
Sopwith had a number of aircraft in World War I, many of them quite successful. The Sopwith Tabloid, an early single-seat tractor-engine design, was employed early in the conflict and became famous for bombing German zeppelin sheds at Cologne and Düsseldorf. Later planes, such as the Two-Seater, nicknamed the “1½ Strutter,” for the formation of the wing struts, saw combat in 1916. Sopwith also built a triplane (similar, but not identical, to the popular German Fokker triplane, which was supposedly based on the Sopwith design) and later the popular Sopwith Pup, which gave decent performance (more than 90 miles per hour) with a very low-powered engine (an 80-horsepower Le Rhone). The Pup was a stable aircraft and pilots enjoyed flying it. The Camel, which entered service in mid-1917, was considered by some to be a refinement and improvement of the Pup. If so, it was an extensive one.
The Camel’s distinguishing characteristics were the humplike sheet metal covering the two machine guns directly in front of the pilot, which gave the craft its nickname, and the pronounced dihedral (the angle away from horizontal) of the lower wings. In addition, it had a much more powerful engine and more powerful armament: two machine guns either both in front of the pilot, synchronized to shoot through the propeller blades, or, in some cases, one synchronized gun and another machine gun mounted on the upper wing above the pilot. Compared to modern warplanes, the Camel was rather small. The wingspan was only 28 feet; the length of the craft was almost 19 feet. From the ground to the top of the upper wing was only 9 feet. Fully loaded with pilot and ammunition, the plane weighed about 1,500 pounds. In an era when the ability of the craft to stay in the air was measured in terms of endurance rather than a specific range of miles, the Camel could spend 2.5 hours in the air, and traveled at a maximum speed of 113 miles per hour—a very good speed for that time. Like most World War I aircraft, it was built of a wooden framework for the fuselage and wings, with fabric stretched over the plane and then stiffened and tightened with airplane dope. The wings were braced to the body with wooden struts and rigging wires. Like all World War I aircraft, it had fixed landing gear carrying inflatable rubber tires. The cockpit was small and cramped. Over 5,700 Camels were built, including marine versions that could take off from launching ramps erected on large warships; these versions had a folding fuselage for stowage aboard ship.
Two things are said of the Camel today: it was an effective “killer” of enemy aircraft, and it also had a bad habit of killing its own inexperienced pilots. As for the latter, the Camel’s bad reputation was partially deserved and difficult for it to shake. The powerful Bentley, Le Rhone, or Clerget rotary engine, which was mounted only a few feet ahead of the pilot, created from 110 to 150 horsepower, as well as a great deal of torque in the direction that the engine and propeller were spinning. As the craft still weighed less than a ton when loaded, such a significant amount of weight (guns, pilot, and engine) at the front of the plane meant that turns in the direction of the engine’s spin were considerably faster than turns in the opposite direction. Novice pilots could quickly find themselves out of control, especially when turning immediately after takeoff. Eventually, pilots became used to (and were warned of) this tendency and the Camel went on to great success; however, given that mishaps unrelated to combat cost the lives of over three hundred Camel pilots, the problem was more than passing.
Even with its early reputation, the Sopwith Camel was eventually to become, along with other British fighters such as the SE-5A and the two-seat Bristol Fighter, one of the distinguishing aircraft of the British aerial forces during World War I. Difficult to learn to fly, yet very capable in the hands of a competent pilot, the Camel helped the British forces achieve domination of the skies over the western front during the final years of World War I. Pilots flying the Camel in British and other air services shot down 1,294 enemy aircraft, while just over four hundred pilots died in combat while flying the Camel. This is a very high kill ratio, made even more impressive when it is realized that this was all accomplished from July, 1917, when the Camel entered service, to the end of the war in November, 1918—only sixteen months. The structural and design elements that made the Camel hard to learn to fly also made it extremely maneuverable, and it was especially fast in turns.
Many pilots flew the Camel, and many became extremely effective, becoming aces—denoting that they had shot down five or more enemy aircraft. Perhaps the most famous was Canadian William Barker, who, while flying for the Royal Flying Corps and later the Royal Air Force, downed fifty enemy planes, forty-six of them in the same Sopwith Camel, and who eventually won the Victoria Cross. Kenneth Unger was the highest-scoring American ace who flew the Camel, with fourteen victories, and American Field Kindley, who also flew the Camel, shot down twelve. No list of Camel pilots would be complete without mentioning Canadian Roy Brown, who flew a Sopwith Camel and shot down ten aircraft; his last victory being over the “Red Baron,” German ace Manfred von Richthofen.
Within a few years after the war, most Camels were scrapped; very few survive. One, which was flown by Field Kindley, is on display in the United States at the Aerospace Education Center in Little Rock, Arkansas. Interestingly, in the 1960’s, the Camel again reached the world’s attention with the cartoon character Snoopy, the big-nosed beagle in Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, whose fantasy exploits in his Sopwith Camel fighting the “Red Baron” delighted millions.
Aerodrome, The. “Aces and Aircraft of World War I.” (www.theaerodrome.com) A detailed Web site devoted to World War I aviation, including a concise description of the Camel, its specifications, and brief history. Aerospace Education Center. “Sopwith Camel F-1.” (www.aerospaced.org/permart/sopwith.htm) A Web site on the only surviving original Sopwith Camel, built between 1917 and 1918, in the United States. Angelucci, Enzo, ed. The Rand-McNally Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, 1914-1980. Chicago: Rand-McNally, 1981. An exhaustive illustrated guide to all military aircraft from 1914-1980, with discussion, illustrations, and technical specifications. Jane’s Fighting Aircraft of World War I. Reprint. London: Studio, 2001. The definitive reference work on aircraft for the years from 1914 to 1919. Tallman, Frank. Flying the Old Planes. New York: Doubleday, 1973. Contains an account of a modern flight in a Sopwith Camel, written by the pilot, an antique aviation pioneer. Whitehouse, Arch. The Years of the Sky Kings. New York: Doubleday, 1959. An account of the development of aerial combat in World War I, written by a pilot who flew in the Royal Flying Corps through most of World War I.
Manfred von Richthofen
Royal Air Force
World War I
The Sopwith Camel was one of the best-known fighter planes of World War I.