The Sopwith Story


The Sopwith Story

By JR Hafer, aviation writer

Thomas Octave Murdoch Sopwith born in January 1888 and at the age of 24 he founded The Sopwith Aviation Company in Kingston England upon Thames River. He had become interested and pursued yachting, motor boat racing and especially fond of aviation.  

The first Sopwith manufacturing facility opened December 1912 in a former roller skating rink at Canbury Park in South West London. A collaboration with a boatyard on the Isle of Wight producing the Sopwith “Bat Boat” in 1913, resulting in a flying boat with a laminated hull which could operate on water or land.

During the First World War The Sopwith Aviation Company became a primary aircraft manufacturing company that designed and supply airplanes mainly for the British Royal Naval Air Service, Royal Flying Corps and later Royal Air Force. Sopwith was most notably famous for the “Sopwith Camel”. But there was a progression before and after the famous “Sopwith Camel”

The Sopwith aircraft were used in varying numbers by other allies such as the French, Belgian, and American air services during the War.

The company manufactured over 16,000 aircraft and employed approximately 5,000 people. More of the Sopwith aircraft were constructed by subcontractors rather than by Sopwith Aircraft Company itself. Some of the subcontractors included the Fairey Company, Clayton and Shuttleworth, William Beardmore and Company and Ruston Proctor.

World War I was an extremely bloody war that engulfed Europe from 1914 to 1919, with huge losses of life and … Also Known As: The Great War. However WWI also brought forth vast new inventions and speedily innovations such as new types of aircraft and the uses of them, though for destruction at the time.

In December 1914, the Sopwith Aviation designed a small, two seat biplane powered by an 80 hp Gnome rotary engine, which was called “Sigrist Bus” after Fred Sigrist, Sopwith’s Plant Manager. The Sigrist Bus initial flight was on 5 June 1915, though it set a new altitude record that same day on its first flight, only one was built and it ended up serving as a company runabout.

Sigrist Bus wasn’t for naught though, it was the basis for a larger aircraft; the Sopwith Land Clerget Tractor which was designed by Herbert Smith and powered by a 110 hp Clerget engine. Just like its fore runner the Sigrist Bus, each of the upper wings where there was no true centre section. It was connected to connected to the fuselage by a pair of short (Half) struts and a pair of longer struts, forming a “W” when viewed from the front, this giving rise to the aircraft’s popular nickname of the 1½ Strutter. The first prototype was ready in mid to late December 1915, ready for official testing by early January of 1916.

The 1½ Strutter was constructed of the conventional, wood braced, fabric covered and wire. The pilot and gunner sat in widely separated tandem cockpits, with the pilot sitting in front, giving the gunner a good field of fire for his Lewis gun. The aircraft had a variable incidence tailplane that could be adjusted by the pilot in flight, and airbrakes under the lower wings to reduce landing distance.

The Vickers-Challenger interrupter gear for the guns were introduced in late 1915. Later aircraft were either fitted with the Ross or the Sopwith-Kauper gears. None of these early mechanical synchronization gears were very reliable and it was commonplace for propellers to be damaged, or even entirely shot away while pilots were shooting their guns in dog fights.

Various makeshift ring mounting, were fitted to some early 1½ Strutters as an interim measure so two-seaters could carry four 25 lb bombs under the wing which could be replaced by two 65 lb bombs for anti-submarine patrols.

From the beginning a dedicated light bomber version was planned, with the observer’s cockpit eliminated to allow for more fuel and bombs to be carried in the manner of the Elephant and the B.E.12, with an internal bomb bay capable of carrying four 65 lb bombs.

In 1915, Sopwith Aircraft Company also designed and produced an aircraft for the company’s test pilot Harry Hawker to test, and became Harry’s personal plane. The aircraft was a single-seat, biplane powered by a 50 hp rotary engine. This one became known as Hawker’s Runabout. They seemingly liked their “Runabouts”…   

Sopwith next developed a fighter influenced by the former progressions of designs, though more powerful and controlled laterally with ailerons rather than by wing warping. This aircraft was a single seat biplane with a fabric covered wings. The cross axle type main landing gear supported on V-struts attached to the lower fuselage, It was known as the Sopwith “Pup”…

The prototype and most production Pups were powered by the 80 hp Le Rhône rotary engine. Armament was a single Vickers machine gun synchronized with the Sopwith-Kauper synchronizer.

A prototype was completed in February 1916 and sent to Upavon for testing in late March. The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) quickly ordered two more prototypes and placing an order. Sopwith was heavily engaged in production of the 1½ Strutter, and produced only a small number of Pups for the RNAS. Deliveries commenced in August 1916.

The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) also placed large orders for Pups. The RFC orders were undertaken by sub-contractors Standard Motor Co. and Whitehead Aircraft. Deliveries did not commence until the beginning of 1917. A total of 1,770 Pups were built by Sopwith (96), Standard Motor Co. (850), Whitehead Aircraft (820), and William Beardmore & Co.

The RNAS received its first Pups in May 1916 for operational trials. The first Pups reached the Western Front in October and proved successful, with the squadron’s Pups claiming 20 enemy machines destroyed in operations over the Somme battlefield by the end of the year. The first RFC Squadron to re-equip with the Pup which arrived in France in December and quickly proved its superiority over the early Fokker, Halberstadt and Albatros biplanes. After encountering the Pup in combat, Manfred von Richthofen said, “We saw at once that the enemy airplane was superior to ours.”

The Pups were distinguishable by the addition of vents in the cowling face.

The Pup’s lighter weight and larger wing surface area gave it a better rate of climb. Agility was increased by adding aileron to both wings. The Pup had half the horsepower and armament of the German Albatros, but was more maneuverable, especially over 15,000 ft due to its low wing loading. Ace James McCudden said that the Pup had twice the better turning radius than the Albatros’ and was a remarkably fine machine for general all-round flying. It was extremely light and well surfaced that after a little practice one could almost land it on a tennis court.” However, the Pup was also longitudinally unstable.

At the peak of its operational deployment, the Pup, by spring 1917, was already outclassed by the newest German fighters and the RNAS had replaced theirs with Sopwith Tri-planes and then Sopwith Camels.

Squadron Commander E. H. Dunning landing on HMS Furious in a Sopwith Pup on August 1917. Sopwith Pups were also used in many pioneering carrier experiments.

The Pup began operations on the carriers in early 1917; the first aircraft were fitted with skid undercarriages in place of the standard landing gear. Landings utilized a system of deck wires to “trap” the aircraft. Later versions reverted to the normal undercarriage.

Pups were used as ship-based fighters on three carriers: HMS Campania, Furious and Manxman. A number of other Pups were deployed to cruisers and battleships where they were launched from platforms attached to gun turrets.

A Pup flown from a platform on the cruiser HMS Yarmouth shot down the German Zeppelin L 23 off the Danish coast on 21 August 1917.

The U.S. Navy also employed the Sopwith Pup with famed Australian / British test pilot Edgar Percival for testing the use of carrier borne fighters. In 1926, Percival was catapulted in a Pup off the battleship USS Idaho at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The test must have been a success because the USN has had carrier borne fighters ever since.

The Sopwith Pup has seen extensive use as a trainer. Student pilots completing basic flight training in the Avro 504k often graduated to the Pup as an intermediate trainer. The Pup was also used in Fighting School units for instruction in combat techniques. Many training Pups were in fact reserved by senior officers and instructors as their personal runabouts while a few survived in France as personal or squadron ‘hacks’ after the type was withdrawn from combat.

The airplane was officially named the Sopwith Scout! It was not named the “Pup” The “Pup” was only the nickname and it arose because pilots considered it to be the “pup” of the larger two-seat Sopwith 1½ Strutter. The name never had official status as it was felt to be “undignified,” but a precedent was set, and all later Sopwith types apart from the Triplane acquired animal names Camel, Dolphin, Snipe etc., which ended up with the Sopwith firm being said to have created a “flying zoo” during the First World War.

Just like the earlier Sopwiths, the 1½ Strutter was too lightly built and the structure didn’t withstand strenuous air combat service for long. Additionally the aircraft was too stable to be a good dogfighter. The last front line 1½ Strutters in the RFC were replaced by the Sopwith Camel in late October 1917.

The Sopwith Camel was the most famous of the Sopwith family of aircraft. It was a biplane fighter introduced on the Western Front in 1917. Sopwith had tried to make this fighter more durable and a better air combat machine. However it had sever drawbacks, with a short-coupled fuselage, heavy, powerful rotary engine, and Sopwith had concentrated on firepower with the latest twin synchronized machine guns.

The Camel was difficult to handle and soon garnered a bad reputation among pilots. The engine was overly sensitive to the fuel mixture control, and the wrong setting caused engine failure during takeoff. Crashed due to inexperience or imprecise procedure, on takeoff, when a full fuel tank affected the center of gravity, often caused catastrophic results. The Camel also was bad to spin and know for its characteristics, where any stall resulted in that miserable uncontrollable and often unrecoverable spin.

The Camel was markedly tail-heavy. Unlike the Sopwith Triplane, the Camel lacked a variable incidence tailplane, so that the pilot had to apply constant forward pressure on the control stick to maintain a level attitude at low altitude. The aircraft could also be rigged so that at higher altitudes it was able to be flown “hands off.” A stall immediately resulted in a particularly dangerous spin.

Though difficult to handle, the  experienced pilot enjoyed an unmatched maneuverability and a superb  fighter. Pilots flying the Sopwith Camel were credited with shooting down at least 1,294 enemy aircraft, more than any other Allied fighter of the war. It also served as a ground-attack aircraft, especially near the end of the conflict, when it was outclassed in the air-to-air role by newer fighters.

By 1918 better aircraft had been invented, faster and with better high altitude performance. When fighting Germans in March 1918, flights of Camels stopped the advancing German Army. Because of this the Camel remained in service until the armistice.

Unlike other biplanes, the Camel was indeed unpleasant to fly. The Camel could maneuver well because of the placement of the engine, pilot, guns, and fuel tank, but controlling the engine torque made flying it difficult and dangerous.

Intended as a replacement for the Sopwith Pup, the Camel prototype was first flown by Harry Hawker at Brooklands on 22 December 1916, powered by a 110 hp Clerget 9Z. Known as the “Big Pup” early on in its development, the biplane design was structurally conventional for its time, featuring a box-like fuselage structure, an aluminium engine cowling, plywood-covered panels around the cockpit, and fabric-covered fuselage, wings and tail. For the first time on an operational British-designed fighter, two .303 in Vickers machine guns were mounted directly in front of the cockpit, firing forward through the propeller disc with synchronization gear. A metal fairing over the gun breeches, intended to protect the guns from freezing at altitude, created a “hump” that led to the name Camel. The bottom wing was rigged with dihedral but not the top, so that the gap between the wings was less at the tips than at the roots. Approximately 5,490 Camels were built by Sopwith and its subcontractors.

The Camel proved to have a good margin of superiority over the Albatros D.III and D.V and offered heavier armament and better performance than the Pup and Tri-plane. In the hands of an experienced pilot, its maneuverability was unmatched by any contemporary type. Its controls were light and sensitive. The Camel turned rather slowly to the left, which resulted in a nose up attitude due to the torque of the rotary engine. But the engine torque also resulted in the ability to turn to the right in half the time of other fighters, although that resulted in more of a tendency towards a nose down attitude from the turn. Because of the faster turning capability to the right, to change heading 90° to the left, many pilots preferred to do it by turning 270° to the right.

Agility in combat made the Camel one of the best-remembered Allied aircraft of the First World War. It was said in jest to offer a choice between a “wooden cross, red cross, and Victoria Cross.” Together with the S.E.5a and the SPAD S.XIII, the Camel helped to establish the Allied aerial superiority that lasted well into 1918.

Major William Barker’s Sopwith Camel became the most successful fighter aircraft in the history of the RAF, shooting down 46 aircraft and balloons from September 1917 to September 1918 in 404 operational hours flying. It was dismantled in October 1918. Barker kept the dashboard watch as a memento, but was asked to return it the following day. Camel remained in service until the Armistice.

Then Came the Sopwith Snipe:  



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