Along with the Fokker DR.1 Triplane, the Sopwith Camel is the image most people have of the WWI fighter. It was certainly the most successful Allied fighter of that war. The Camel's origins lay in the line from the Sopwith Admiralty Type 9700 (better known as the One and a half Strutter) of 1915 and the Sopwith Admiralty Type 9901 (better known as the 'Pup') of 1916. The Sopwith Biplane F.1 was a heavier more powerful Herbert Smith design which eventually utilised a variety of powerplants (including the 100hp Gnome Monosoupape, 110hp Le Rhone, 130hp Clerget, and 150hp Bentley B.R.1 ) and for the first time carried two synchronised forward firing Vickers machine guns as main armament. It was the raised fuselage over the gun breeches that gave rise to the nickname 'Camel'. With the bulk of the aircraft's mass in the front 2.5m of the aircraft, it was subject to a strong gyroscopic effect from the rotary engine. This made it a tricky aircraft to handle by the inexperienced, but once understood it proved to be highly manouverable. The first of two prototypes was completed on December 22, 1916. Trials began in March 1917, and production began on May 7. The Camel entered service in June 1917 with 4 Squadron RNAS (who scored their first Camel victory on June 4 by Canadian Alexander Shook) and soon after with 70 Squadron RFC. Their first Camel victory was scored by New Zealander Capt Clive Collett on July 27. The Camel proved to be most effective at or below 12,000' feet and made an effective complement to the SE.5a which performed better at altitude. As well as a day fighter the aircraft was used as a night fighter (notably against Zeppelins with some fitted with twin lewis guns on the upper wing in place of the usual Vickers), from naval vessels and lighters, and fitted with underwing racks carrying four 25lb cooper bombs as a light bomber. Development of the type included the prototype tapered wing F.1/1, the shorter wingspan 2F.1 naval version (used in shipboard trials), and after some success in the bombing role, a prototype TF.1 armoured 'Trench Fighter was also created. Although not produced, it did contribute to the later TF.2 Salamander. Total Camel production is generally reported at 5,490. As well as RFC and RNAS service (later RAF) the aircraft was also operated during World War One by three French and four US Squadrons (17th, 41st, 148th, and 185th). Post-war the type was also operated by the Belgian, Greek, and Polish Air Forces.
A number of New Zealanders are known to have flown the Camel in combat. Several rated as aces including the above mentioned Clive Collett of 70 Sqn RFC who brought down 12 opponents from four different Camels. Captain Harold 'Kiwi' Beamish RNAS flew 355 hours in Camels, and achieved 10 of his 11 victories in that time. New Zealand born Captain Herbert 'Gill' Watson joined the Australian Flying Corps and while serving with the Camel equipped 4 Squadron downed 14 opponents between April and October 1918. A number of pilots are also known to have died flying Camels. Some of these deaths reflect the difficulties of operating the aircraft. On July 22, 1917 (soon after the Camel was introduced), RNAS pilot Flt Sub-Lt Leslie Brett spun in immediately after takeoff at Mudros on the Island of Lemnos. Capt John Allan failed to recover from an intentional spin in B5693 while engaged in practice at 2 School of Special Flying on May 20, 1918. 2nd Lt Brian Mahoney crashed in D9569 on September 3 1918 while with 189 (Night) Training Squadron. Some deaths were combat related. Lt John Courtney while flying with 4 Squadron AFC was shot down by anti-aircraft fire in B5635 near Illies in France on April 7, 1918. Camel F6029 piloted by 2nd Lt Stuart Richardson was seen to crash and burn near Boursies after an engagement on September 23, 1918. One further pilot died shortly after the end of the war - Lt Thomas Burns was killed in an accident on December 16, 1918 while with 44 Squadron.
The Sopwith Camel has not been operated in New Zealand, and no genuine example is to be found here (less than ten exist worldwide). New Zealand does have several replicas. These are:
Last Update:- 20 May, 2002
© 2002 Phillip Treweek, all rights reserved