Developed in late 1916 and first flown in combat in June 1917, the British Sopwith F.1 Camel was responsible for shooting down more enemy aircraft than any other Allied fighter during World War I. From its introduction until the Armistice, the Camel accounted for no less than 1,294 victories.
It was used extensively by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), but was also employed by several U.S. Army Air Service Squadrons.
Based on aviation pioneer Herbert Smith’s Sopwith Pup, the Camel was larger and heavier but also deadlier. The single-seat fighter biplane, which was powered by a rotary engine, was equipped with two forward-firing synchronized machine guns just ahead of the cockpit. Those guns were enclosed in a cowling that resembled a “hump” and as a result the aircraft soon earned its “Camel” nickname, which was subsequently adopted as the official name of the model of aircraft.
The Camel could reach a maximum speed of 117 mph and could climb up to 10,000 feet in just about ten and half minutes. Its maximum ceiling was 19,000 feet and the aircraft had a range of 300 miles.
While its unmatched maneuverability meant that the Camel was difficult to defeat in a dogfight, its handling characteristics also made it equally difficult for trainee pilots to learn and to master—and as a result more than 380 men died during training, nearly as many who were killed while operating the F.1 in combat. One issue was that the engine, armament, fuel and pilot were all positioned within the front seven feet of the aircraft, which give it a very forward-oriented center of gravity. As a result it was easy to turn, but also easy to over-turn where less experienced pilots could quickly lose control. However with a skilled pilot at the controls, the Camel proved deadly when going up against German aircraft such as the Fokker Dr.I Triplane of Fokker D. VII.
Another notable downside of the aircraft was that at the end of the war when it was employed as an early night fighter, the placement of the machine guns forward of the pilot would result in gun flashes that would blind the pilots and essentially ruin their night vision. This was eventually remedied by replacing the belt fed Vickers machine guns with twin Lewis guns mounted on the top wing panel.
During the First World War, a variant of the aircraft—the 2F.1—operated as a dive bomber carrying two 50-pound bombs. Additionally, the Camel was used on early aircraft carriers but also launched from Royal Navy battleships and cruisers. There were even tests to determine how the Sopwith Camel could be launched from an airship, and the British conducted tests from R.23 airships.
However, while the aircraft weren’t actually employed with airships, it was a Camel—piloted by Lt. S.D. Culley—that has the distinction of shooting down and destroying the last German Zeppelin, L53, on August 11, 1918. Culley’s aircraft, which is just one of eight known original Sopwith Camels still in existence, is on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.
As many as 5,747 Camels, including F.1 and 2F.1 variants, may have been produced. The Camel that helped break the Germans in the war was retired in January 1920, after just three years in service.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.