Hundreds of types of aeroplane took part in the
battles over the fronts of World War One but only two deserved to
be called the 'best of the best'. The first is the best fighter
Germany produced in WWI, the Fokker D.VII, and the second, the most
famous and most successful Allied plane, the Sopwith F.1 Camel.
Each of these two aircraft became a legend. The war came to an end,
and yet in the years which followed the fame of these two planes
became even greater.
During mid-1916 the Sopwith Pup was the most modern RFC fighter.
This aircraft had a reasonable performance but its main deficiency
was its limited armament which consisted of a single Vickers machine
gun. At this time, new German fighters were already being equipped
with two machine guns. The Royal Aircraft Factory (R.A.F.) was the
first to implement Air Ministry demands, which urgently called for
twin machine gun fighters. This machine, the S.E.5, soon became
another Allied legend when the R.A.F. modified it into the S.E.5a.
Thomas Sopwith's company decided to improve the successful Pup design.
The prototype of the new fighter appeared on December 22, 1916.
At first sight it was very similar to the Pup, but it was in fact
a new design. Two synchronized Vickers machine guns, a powerful
110h.p. Clerget 9Z engine, an upper wing without dihedral and a
distinctive 'hump' between the engine cowling and cockpit - all
of these features created the distinctive look of the new fighter.
An apparently simple design, this aircraft became forever established
in world aviation history with the short and appropriate name Camel.
Of course, its resemblance to a real camel was minimal, but its
'hump' left no choice for any other name.
The first few planes were sent to France for combat evaluation in
March 1918 but soon a couple of shortcomings were discovered, which
were corrected in the next few weeks. No. 70 Sqn RFC was the first
unit to be re-equipped from the obsolete 1½ Strutters to
the new type in July 1917. By the end of Summer yet more units had
been re-equipped with Camels and when its advantages over other
types became clear, no less than nine subcontractors were asked
to contribute to its mass production.
But the Camel was not an easy machine to handle and the inexperience
of many young pilots caused some serious flying accidents. Nevertheless,
extraordinary maneuverability, a fast climb rate, good speed and
powerful armament made the Camel a really superb fighter. More than
5,000 were built and no less than 1,294 aerial victories were scored
by this type - the best possible proof that the Camel deserved to
be called a legend.
Even if the Camel's merits were not so great, there was perhaps
one which justified the price of a thousand others:- on April 21,
1918 in the sky over Sailly-le-Sec, a small French village, pilots
of No. 209 Sqn met a bright red painted German Fokker Dr.1. It was
unmistakably the Red Baron. The details of his death even today
are still questioned, but the pilot of one of the Camels, Captain
was officially credited with this 'kill'. It was not any ordinary
air victory, it was a turning point in the history of the War.
Many aces and other, experienced, pilots fell in love with this
'elegant ugly plane'. Canadian pilot Donald MacLaren become top
scorer on the Camel: all of his 54 aerial victories were achieved
flying Camels; another Canadian ace, William Barker, attained 46
victories from a total score of 50, flying only one particular Camel,
B6313; John Gilmour had 36 victories; William Jordan, 39; and Henry
After the end of the Great War the Camel had one more opportunity
to perform a combat role: in 1919 it took part in the battles over
Bolshevik Russia with the British Expeditionary Corps. Apart from
the United Kingdom, Camels were used by Australia, the US, Greece,
Estonia, Latvia, Belgium, and Poland.
The Camel remained on reserve until 1919, but new types like the
Sopwith Snipe and the Martinsyde Buzzard relegated the 'old soldier'
from the front line. The Ministry of Aviation declared the Camel
obsolete on August 7, 1919. Most of the Camels were scrapped but
a few have survived to the present. Now they are physical witnesses
to that romantic but cruel epoch, when one simple but successful
design could change the history of the war in the air.
Sopwith F.1 Camel, B6313, No 28 Sqn RFC, flown
by Captain William Barker, Grossa airfield, Italy, February
Sopwith F.1 Camel D6402, No 43 Sqn RAF, flown
by Captain H W Woollett, Touquin, Summer 1918.
Sopwith F.1 Camel F2137, No 46 Sqn RAF, flown
by Captain Donald R MacLaren, Athies, October 1918.
Sopwith F.1 Camel B6390, No 13 Sqn RNAS, flown
by F/Cdr R Collishaw, Ostende, December 1917.
Sopwith F.1 Camel B7270, No 209 Sqn RAF, Bertangles,
flown by Captain A R Brown, April 1918 .
Sopwith F.1 Camel ,s/n unconfirmed, No 37 Sqn
RAF/RFC (Home Defense), flown by Lt. Hollington, Stow Maries,
Sopwith F.1 Camel, s/n unconfirmed, No 44 Sqn
RAF/RFC, flown by Lt. W A Pratt, Hainault Farm, early 1918.
Sopwith F.1 Camel, possibly F1955, B
Flight of A detachment, South Russia Instructional
Mission, Ekaterinodar, 1919, flown by Captain SM Kinkead.