The Sopwith Camel Downed 1,294 Enemy Aircraft

The Sopwith Camel, one of the most successful British fighters of World War I, entered service in 1917. Its nickname partly came from the distinctive hump in front of the cockpit, which housed part of its Vickers machine guns.

Initially described as a “squat contrivance” by a pilot, the fighter soon garnered a reputation for exceptional maneuverability, advantageous in aerial combat.

This agility was largely due to the concentration of the engine, armament, fuel, and cockpit in the aircraft’s forward section. However, this design also made the Camel challenging to fly and prone to spins.

The Camel was widely used on the Western Front, including by several American squadrons. Among its notable pilots was Lieutenant Junior Grade David S. Ingalls of the U.S. Naval Aviators, who became the Navy’s only fighter ace of the Great War with six kills. The aircraft was responsible for downing 1,294 enemy planes in 1917 and 1918.


Sopwith Aviation Company

The Sopwith Aviation Company, following the success of the Pup, developed the fiery and temperamental Sopwith F.1 Camel, a biplane that earned both fame and notoriety.

Camels being prepared for a sortie.
Camels being prepared for a sortie.

The prototype F.1 was powered by a 110 h.p. Clerget rotary engine, but the first production models were equipped with the more powerful 130 h.p. Clerget. Various F.1s were also fitted with different engines, including the 110 h.p. Le Rhone, the 150 h.p. BRI, or the 100 h.p. Monosoupape.

The biplane featured fabric-covered wings with wire-braced wooden spars and ribs, as well as steel-tube wing-tips and trailing edges.

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Notably, only the lower wing was designed with dihedral. The broad center section of the wings necessitated outwardly splayed center-section struts, and a skylight in the top wing was incorporated to enhance the pilot’s visibility.

The fuselage was constructed as a wire-braced wooden box girder. Beyond the aluminum panels behind the cowling and the plywood that made up the cockpit’s sides and top decking, the rest of the fuselage was covered in fabric. The undercarriage was designed in a split-axle format, featuring relatively short steel-tube vees and comparatively large wheels.

This combination of design features contributed to the Camel’s distinct flying characteristics, making it a standout aircraft of its time, renowned for both its capabilities and its complexities.

The Sopwith Camel 1,294 Downed Enemy Aircraft

The Sopwith Camel was equipped with a single rotary engine and armed with twin synchronized Vickers machine guns. Although it was challenging to pilot, in the hands of a skilled aviator, it excelled in maneuverability, an essential quality for the low-speed and low-altitude dogfights characteristic of that era.

The Sopwith 2F.1 Camel used to shoot down Zeppelin L 53, at the Imperial War Museum
The Sopwith 2F.1 Camel used to shoot down Zeppelin L 53, at the Imperial War Museum

Camel pilots are credited with shooting down a remarkable 1,294 enemy aircraft, making it the most successful Allied fighter of World War I in terms of aerial victories. As the war drew to a close, and as aerial combat technology rapidly progressed, the Camel found a new role as a ground-attack aircraft, having been somewhat surpassed by newer fighter designs.

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The primary version of the Camel was the F.1 model. However, several other variants were developed to meet specific needs. These included the 2F.1 Ship’s Camel, designed for operation from aircraft carriers; the Comic, a night fighter version; and the T.F.1, a heavily armored “trench fighter” intended for attacking fortified ground targets.

There was also a two-seat trainer version for instructing new pilots. The Camel remained in service with the Royal Air Force until January 1920, when the last of these iconic aircraft were retired.

Skilled Pilots

In the skilled hands of an experienced aviator, the Sopwith Camel was capable of outperforming nearly all contemporary aircraft, with the Fokker Triplane being a notable exception. From its deployment to the front lines in July 1917 until the Armistice, the Camel was credited with downing an impressive 1,294 enemy aircraft.

Engine: The Camel typically used rotary engines, most commonly the Clerget 9B or the Bentley BR1.
Engine: The Camel typically used rotary engines, most commonly the Clerget 9B or the Bentley BR1.

However, for novice pilots, the Camel often revealed a more challenging aspect of its nature. Its remarkable agility was in part due to the torque effect of its rotary engine, which caused the nose to drop during right-hand turns and rise during left-hand turns. Without proper correction, a tight turn could easily lead to a deadly spin.

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The Clerget rotary engine had its peculiarities as well; if the mixture wasn’t properly weakened after take-off, the engine would choke, potentially causing the aircraft to stall and spin to the ground. As a result, the Camel had a high casualty rate among trainee pilots.

Blinding Pilots

Night-flying units using the Camel faced another issue: the flashes from the twin Vickers guns temporarily blinded pilots. To address this, a special version was developed where the pilot’s seat was positioned further back.

Nicknamed for its Hump: The aircraft was nicknamed "Camel" due to the hump-shaped protective covering over its machine guns.
Nicknamed for its Hump: The aircraft was nicknamed “Camel” due to the hump-shaped protective covering over its machine guns.

This variant was equipped with twin Lewis guns on a double Foster mounting above the center section, which could be pulled down for reloading or angled upwards for firing. This model also featured a streamlined headrest in the cockpit, a large cut-out in the center section, and occasionally, cut-outs in the lower wing roots for improved visibility.

The Sopwith 2F.1 Camel, designed for naval use, was another notable variant. It had a shorter wingspan, and its rear fuselage could be detached for easier shipboard storage.

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Distinguished by thin steel-tube center-section struts, external rocking levers on the fuselage, and its armament (one Vickers gun on the port side of the cowling and a Lewis gun above the center section), these Camels operated successfully from both aircraft carriers and lighters towed by destroyers.

A New Fighter

In response to the limitations of the Sopwith Pup against advanced German aircraft like the Albatros D.III, and as a stopgap replacement for the interim French Nieuport 17s, the Sopwith Camel was developed. This new fighter was designed to be faster and more heavily armed. Herbert Smith, the chief designer at Sopwith, led the development of this new aircraft, initially named the Sopwith F.1.

The Camel was one of the first aircraft to place the pilot's controls and instruments in a manner that became standard in future fighters.
The Camel was one of the first aircraft to place the pilot’s controls and instruments in a manner that became standard in future fighters.

During its early stages, the Camel was informally known as the “Big Pup.” Its distinctive feature, a metal fairing over the gun breeches to prevent freezing at high altitudes, resembled a hump, prompting pilots to nickname the plane “Camel.”

However, this moniker was never officially adopted. The first prototype of the Camel took flight on December 22, 1916, piloted by Harry Hawker in Brooklands, Weybridge, Surrey, and was equipped with a 110-horsepower Clerget 9Z engine.

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The British War Office issued the first production contract for 250 Camels in May 1917. Throughout that year, 1,325 Camels, primarily the initial F.1 variant, were manufactured. By the end of its production run, around 5,490 Camels of various types had been constructed. The naval version of the Sopwith Camel, known as the “Ship’s” Camel 2F.1, began production in early 1918.

Cooper Bombs

The Sopwith Camel showcased a typical design of its time, featuring a wire-braced wooden fuselage, aluminum engine cowling, plywood cockpit panels, and fabric-covered body, wings, and tail.

Although it shared similarities with the Pup, the Camel had a more substantial fuselage. A significant innovation in British fighter design, it was equipped with two 0.303 inch (7.7 mm) Vickers

machine guns, mounted in front of the cockpit and synchronized to fire through the propeller disc. Initially, the Camel used Sopwith’s own synchronizer, but this was later replaced by the more reliable and maintenance-friendly Constantinesco-Colley hydraulic system from November 1917. For ground attacks, it could also carry four Cooper bombs.

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The aircraft’s lower wing was set with a 5° dihedral angle, while the upper wing was flat, resulting in a narrower gap between the wings at the tips than at the roots. This design, suggested by Fred Sigrist, Sopwith’s works manager, was intended to simplify construction. The upper wing also had a central cutout to improve the pilot’s upward visibility.

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Various rotary engines powered the Camel, most commonly the Clerget 9B or the Bentley BR1. To prevent production delays due to potential engine shortages, several alternative engines were also used to power the aircraft.

Tendency to Nose-Down

The Sopwith Camel, unlike its predecessors the Pup and the Triplane, was known for being challenging to fly. Its extreme maneuverability and tricky handling were attributed to the concentration of most of its weight (engine, pilot, guns, and fuel tank) within the front seven feet of the aircraft, coupled with the significant gyroscopic effect from the rotary engine’s rotating cylinders.

Sopwith Camel near Zillebeke, West Flanders, Belgium, 26 September 1917
Sopwith Camel near Zillebeke, West Flanders, Belgium, 26 September 1917

The Camel’s rotary engine created a unique flying characteristic: it turned more slowly to the left, leading to a nose-up position, but could turn right much faster than other fighters, though this caused a tendency for a nose-down attitude during right turns. Some pilots adapted to this by turning 270° to the right instead of making a 90° left turn.

New pilots often found the Camel daunting, and there were frequent crashes during takeoff due to the forward-shifted center of gravity when fully fueled.

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The aircraft was tail-heavy in level flight, contrasting with the Sopwith Triplane, and lacked a variable incidence tailplane, requiring constant forward stick pressure to maintain level flight at low altitude.

The Camel could be rigged for “hands-off” flight at higher altitudes, but stalling could lead to a dangerous spin. It was humorously said among Royal Flying Corps pilots that flying the Camel meant choosing between “a wooden cross, the Red Cross, or a Victoria Cross.”

Home Defence Role: It was also used for home defense against German air raids over Britain.
Home Defence Role: It was also used for home defense against German air raids over Britain.

To mitigate these challenges, a two-seat trainer version was developed. Lieutenant Colonel L. A. Strange, from the central flying school, recounted in his memoir how they modified several Camels with smaller fuel tanks to install dual controls. This significantly reduced the high number of accidents during solo training flights.

Despite its difficulties, the Camel’s agility made it one of the most renowned Allied aircraft of World War I. Aviation author Robert Jackson commented that while it was potentially dangerous for inexperienced pilots, in the hands of a skilled pilot, the Camel became an exceptional fighting machine.

The Sopwith Camel Enters the War

The Sopwith Camel began its service in June 1917 with the Royal Naval Air Service’s No. 4 Squadron, based near Dunkirk, France, marking the first squadron deployment of this aircraft type. Its inaugural combat mission and first claimed victory occurred on July 4, 1917.

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By the end of that month, the Camel was also in use with No. 3 and No. 9 Naval Squadrons, and had entered operations with the Royal Flying Corps’ No. 70 Squadron. By February 1918, it became the primary aircraft for 13 squadrons.

In service, the Camel demonstrated superior maneuverability compared to the German Albatros D.III and D.V, and outperformed the Pup and Triplane in terms of armament and overall performance. Alongside the S.E.5a and the SPAD S.XIII, the Camel played a pivotal role in regaining and maintaining Allied air superiority well into 1918.

One of the most notable pilots of the Camel was Major Billy Barker, who used his personal aircraft (serial no. B6313) to achieve most of his combat victories. From September 1917 to September 1918, over 404 operational flying hours, Barker used this Camel to shoot down 46 enemy aircraft and balloons, making it one of the most successful fighters in the history of the Royal Air Force.

Sopwith Camel an Early Night Fighter

The Sopwith Camel played a crucial role in home defence, particularly against German daylight bombing raids by aircraft such as the Gothas from July 1917 onwards.

Operated by the Royal Naval Air Service from Eastchurch and Manston airfields, the Camel’s deployment was a response to public outrage over night raids and the inadequate defence of London. Consequently, the Royal Flying Corps redirected Camels initially destined for the French front to Britain for home defence.

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In July 1917, 44 Squadron RFC was reformed and equipped with Camels for this purpose. By March 1918, home defence squadrons were broadly equipped with the Camel, and by August 1918, there were seven squadrons operating these aircraft in Britain.

When German attacks shifted to nighttime, the Camel adapted to nocturnal operations. Home defence Camels were fitted with navigation lights to serve as night fighters.

Some Camels underwent further modifications, such as replacing Vickers machine guns with overwing Lewis guns and repositioning the cockpit to help the pilot reload the guns. These modified Camels, known as “Sopwith Comics,” allowed for safer use of incendiary ammunition and preserved the pilot’s night vision.

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Throughout 1918, the Camel proved effective in intercepting and downing German bombers, culminating in its role during the last German air raid on Britain on the night of 20/21 May 1918. In this raid, 74 Camels and Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5s confronted 28 Gothas and Zeppelin-Staaken R.VIs, resulting in significant German losses.

Additionally, the Camel night fighter was used by 151 Squadron to counter German night bombers over the Western Front. These aircraft were not limited to defensive roles; they also conducted night intruder missions against German airstrips. Over five months, 151 Squadron claimed 26 German aircraft shot down.

Sopwith Camel Ground attacker

By the middle of 1918, the Sopwith Camel had become less effective as a day fighter compared to the latest German aircraft like the Fokker D.VII, especially in terms of climb rate, level speed, and high-altitude performance.

Despite this, it continued to be a valuable asset for ground-attack and infantry support roles. The Camel was particularly effective in inflicting damage on German ground forces through the use of 25 lb Cooper bombs and low-level strafing runs, although it experienced significant losses itself.

The delayed development of the Camel’s successor, the Sopwith Snipe, meant that the Camel remained in operational service for these roles even after the Armistice was signed.

Speed: The aircraft could reach a top speed of about 115 mph (185 km/h).
Speed: The aircraft could reach a top speed of about 115 mph (185 km/h).

During the German spring offensive in March 1918, Camel squadrons were integral to defending the Allied lines, actively disrupting the advancing German Army from the air. According to aviation historian Jackson, some of the most intense air operations occurred during the British Fifth Army’s retreat, where the Camel provided crucial aerial support.

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Camels operated at various altitudes, with some flying as low as 500 feet for surprise strafing runs on ground forces, while others provided cover from higher altitudes against enemy fighters.

These strafing attacks played a significant role in the British efforts to halt the offensive, often causing confusion and panic among the German troops. As the offensive subsided, the Camel continued to maintain aerial superiority for the remainder of the war.

Sopwith Camel Parasite Fighter

The Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) utilized the 2F.1 variant of the Sopwith Camel, which was specially designed for operations from naval platforms. These aircraft were capable of launching from platforms mounted on the turrets of major warships and from some of the earliest aircraft carriers.

Sopwith 2F.1 Camel suspended from airship R 23 prior to a test flight
Sopwith 2F.1 Camel suspended from airship R 23 prior to a test flight

Additionally, the Camel could be operated from aircraft lighters, which were modified barges. These lighters had to be towed at sufficient speed to enable the Camels to take off. This method allowed for the launching of interception sorties against enemy air raids from more strategic positions than those offered by shore bases alone.

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In the summer of 1918, the RNAS conducted experimental trials using a single 2F.1 Camel (N6814) as a parasite fighter. For these trials, the Camel operated in conjunction with Airship R23, which acted as a mothership.

Sopwith Camel Service After the War

After World War I, the Sopwith Camel was actively involved in further military engagements, particularly during the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War. British squadrons, equipped with Camels and S.E.5s, were deployed to the Caspian Sea region.

These aircraft were instrumental in bombing Bolshevik bases and supporting Royal Navy ships, leading to Allied control over the Caspian area by May 1919. From March 1919, the Camel also provided direct support to the White Russian forces through reconnaissance, ground attacks, and escort missions.

Navalised Camels on the aircraft carrier HMS Furious prior to raiding the Tondern airship hangars
Navalised Camels on the aircraft carrier HMS Furious prior to raiding the Tondern airship hangars

In the summer of 1919, No. 47 Squadron, using Camels, carried out offensive operations near Tsaritsyn, targeting enemy airfields at Urbabk, cavalry units, and riverine traffic. By September, the squadron moved to Kotluban, shifting focus to disrupting enemy communication lines.

Towards the end of 1919 and into early 1920, RAF units supported General Vladimir May-Mayevsky’s anti-Bolshevik volunteer army, particularly during intense battles around Kharkiv. In March 1920, with the withdrawal of the remaining forces, the RAF deliberately destroyed their leftover aircraft to prevent them from being captured by the enemy.

The wreckage of the Red Baron's plane
The wreckage of the Red Baron’s plane

One of the most notable achievements of the Sopwith Camel was the shooting down of the infamous Red Baron by pilot Roy Brown on April 21, 1918. Or so the history books taught us. It is now considered that he was killed by Australian ground fire.