Aerial combat along the Western Front during World War I was a very fluid situation, with air superiority shifting frequently between the Allied air forces and those of the Germans. A partial solution to this problem came about in June 1917 with the introduction of the Sopwith Camel, a truly state of the art aircraft. During the course of this blog, we'll follow both the development of the Camel, as well as its combat record.
While the Sopwith Pup, predecessor of the Camel, held the line in the early years of World War I, it was no match for the newer generation of German fighters, such as the Albatross D. III. As a result of this, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) realized the need of a fighter which was both faster and more heavily armed than the Pup. Though the Camel was often referred to as Big Pup during its design phase, a metal fairing over the gun breeches, intended to protect the guns from freezing at altitude, created a hump, which caused pilots to call the aircraft a Camel, though this name was never designated officially. Initially named as the Sopwith F.1, the design effort of the Camel was led by Herbert Smith, the Chief Designer at Sopwith. The Camel had a standard design for its time, using a wire-braced wooden box-girder fuselage structure, an aluminum engine cowling, plywood engine panels around the cockpit and a fabric-covered fuselage, wings and tail. Though similar to the Pup in several respects, the Camel had a bulkier fuselage. The Camel had the distinction of being the first British-designed fighter to carry two belt fed .303 caliber Vickers machine guns mounted directly in front of the cockpit. The Vickers guns were synchronised to fire forward through the propeller disc. This arrangement first utilized the Sopwith firm's own sychroniser design, but after the mechanical-linkage Sopwith-Kauper units began to wear out, the highly accurate and easier-to-maintain, hydraulic-link Constantinesco-Colley system replaced it from November 1917 onward. In addition to the two front-mounted machine guns, each Camel could carry four 25 lb.Cooper bombs for ground attack missions. The upper wing featured a central cut-out section to improve upward visibility for the pilot. Camels were powered by a number of rotary engines, most commonly either the Clerget 9B or the Bentley BR1, with several other engines adapted to power the Camel in case of an engine shortage. The first test flight was conducted in December 1916 and was highly successful with a contract signed in May 1917 for an initial order of 250 aircraft.
The handling of the Camel was different from that of earlier biplanes, due to the weight distribution. The engine, fuselage, pilot, guns and fuel were grouped within the front seven feet of the aircraft, which made the aircraft difficult to fly for less experienced pilots. About ninety per cent of the weight was within the seven foot grouping. This forward center of gravity could cause problems with both takeoffs and landings, as well as a tendency to spin. The aircraft was also known to be tail heavy in level flight at low altitudes, requiring a steady forward pressure on the control stick to maintain altitude. While these handling characteristics often challenged pilots, they also made the Camel extremely maneuverable and lethal in combat when flown by an experienced pilot. The aircraft of World War I used a number of designs of rotary engines. These engines had a unique operating technique in which the engine crankcase and cylinders would rotate, while the crankshaft was stationary. The weight of the spinning engine mass created a gyroscopic effect, which would impact the flight characteristics of the plane. The induced torque effect into the airframe created a limitation for the rotary engines as aircraft grew in size, requiring rpm above 1,400 revolutions per minute with increased horsepower. Camel pilots soon discovered that turns were much quicker and easier to make to the right, which was the same direction as the engine rotation.
Entering service on the Western Front in June 1917, the Camel quickly gained air superiority over the best German fighters, to include both the Albatross D.III and D.V. First assigned to No. 70 Squadron with the RFC, the Camel proved a capable dogfighter. Flying with other Allied fighter aircraft such as the French Spad S.XIII, the Camels made a major contribution toward maintaining aerial supremacy over the Western Front. By the end of the war, fifty RFC squadrons were equipped with Camels. In addition to RFC service, one-hundred forty-three Camels were purchased by the American Expediionary Force, equipping several squadrons. Camels were also flown by Belgian and Greek units. In addition to its use by the RFC, a Camel derivative was developed for use by the Royal Navy. Designated the 2F.1, this aircraft had a shorter wingspan than the land based Camel variants with one of the Vickers machine guns replaced by a .30 caliber Lewis gun firing over the top wing. The 2F.1 was also utilized to conduct experiments by the Royal Navy the determine the practicality of using them as parasite aircraft, launched from British airships. Camels also served in the role of night fighters, though some modifications were needed. The muzzle-flash from the twin Vickers machine guns played havoc with the pilot's night vision. To correct the problem, Lewis guns firing incendiary ammunition were mounted on the upper wing. The night fighter cockpit was placed farther aft than the arrangement on day fighter Camels to enable the pilot to more easily reload the Lewis guns. In spite of it's problems, the Sopwith Camel proved to be the most lethal aircraft of World War I, with Camels accounting for the loss of 1,294 enemy aircraft, as well as the destruction of German ground installations and supplies in the ground attack role.