5 Sopwith Fighters From WWI in 35 images

Jesse Beckett

During World War I, the Sopwith Aviation Company was one of the most important manufacturers of aircraft. They created some of the best aircraft during of the war, and also supplied the planes to other nations involved in the conflict.

Pup

By early in 1916, the Germans were controlling the skies over the Western Front. Their monoplane Fokker Eindecker fighters could out manoeuvre their Allied counter parts, but also saw the first use of a gun synchronisation gear, which allowed a machine gun mounted in line with the aircraft to fire through the spin or the propellers. This capability allowed the Germans to dominate until the Allies produced aircraft with this capability also.

Sopwith Pup side view, 1916
Sopwith Pup side view, 1916

This period between August 1915 to early 1916 was known as the “Fokker Scourge”.

Naturally, faced with this new threat, the Allies were forced to produce new aircraft capable of battling the Eindecker. Sopwith aided in this, producing the Pup bi-plane. It was originally know as the Admiralty Type 9901, and had a top speed of 112 mph, and used a single forward firing Vickers 7.7 mm machine gun. It also had with that was 20% smaller than the Sopwith 1½-Strutter, the company’s previous aircraft.

These short wings are what earnt it the name Pup. It first flew in February 1916.

 

Sopwith Pup in flight (1917).
Sopwith Pup in flight (1917).

 

Sqn Cdr E. H. Dunning attempting a landing on HMS Furious in a Sopwith Pup (August 1917).
Sqn Cdr E. H. Dunning attempting a landing on HMS Furious in a Sopwith Pup (August 1917).

 

Pup with 100 hp Gnome Monosoupape engine.
Pup with 100 hp Gnome Monosoupape engine.

Triplane

The Pup was a success, but Sopwith wanted to make something even better, they did this with the Sopwith Triplane.

The Triplane, nicknamed “Tripehound” by pilots, was essentially a heavily modified version of the Pup, with an extra wing, and a more powerful engine. The greater lift provided by the extra wing gave it exceptional manoeuvrability and climb rate. Famous German WWI fighter ace Manfred von Richthofen stated that the Sopwith Triplane was the best Allied aircraft in the air at that time.

Serial N5387 of No. 1 Naval Squadron.
Serial N5387 of No. 1 Naval Squadron.

Once again, Sopwith had created another success with the Triplane as it could outclimb and out turn Germany’s aircraft, and was subsequently used by the Royal Naval Air Service.

Canadian No.10 Squadron of the Royal Navy Air Service known as Black Flight claimed 87 aerial victories in 12 weeks with Sopwith Triplanes.

Triplanes of No. 1 Naval Squadron at Bailleul, France.
Triplanes of No. 1 Naval Squadron at Bailleul, France.

The capabilities of the aircraft spurred a design obsession in Germany with tri-wing aircraft. 34 tri-wing prototypes were designed by German manufacturers, eventually spawning the Fokker Dr.1 triplane, made famous by the Red Baron.

The Triplane did have a few weaknesses however, including the potential for structural failure under high loads, and only having one machine gun, compared to two in many German fighters. Despite its success, only 140 were built.

Raymond Collishaw’s Triplane, serial N533. Collishaw flew several Triplanes, all named “Black Maria.”
Raymond Collishaw’s Triplane, serial N533. Collishaw flew several Triplanes, all named “Black Maria.”

 

French naval Triplane.
French naval Triplane.

 

Sopwith Triplane G-BOCK (“N6290”) at Shuttleworth Uncovered, 2013. Photo TSRL CC BY-SA 3.0
Sopwith Triplane G-BOCK (“N6290”) at Shuttleworth Uncovered, 2013. Photo TSRL CC BY-SA 3.0

 

A Sopwith Triplane on display at RAF Museum London. Photo Nick-D CC BY-SA 3.0.
A Sopwith Triplane on display at RAF Museum London. Photo Nick-D CC BY-SA 3.0.

 

Triplane prototype.
Triplane prototype.

 

Sopwith Triplane Serial N5486 during its service with the Red Army.
Sopwith Triplane Serial N5486 during its service with the Red Army.

 

Triplane cockpit.
Triplane cockpit.

Camel

Sopwith’s next aircraft would once again be another great success. The Sopwith Camel replaced the former Pup and first saw combat in the summer of 1917. For a while, it would be the best fight aircraft on either side.

It used various different engines in case of supply shortages, with horsepower ranging between 100 and 150. The rotating mass of its larger engine affected the handling significantly, and while when flown right the Camel would reward you, it could quickly turn nasty on an inexperienced pilot.

Royal Flying Corps Sopwith F.1 Camel in 1914-1916 period.
Royal Flying Corps Sopwith F.1 Camel in 1914-1916 period.

The torque of the engine pulled the aircraft to the right, making right hand turns far quicker, which was often exploited in dogfights. Experienced pilots would often execute a three-quarters right turn instead of a one-quarter left turn.

It also finally came with twin 7.7 mm Vickers machine guns, matching the firepower of the German aircraft.

The Camel was unforgiving but well liked by its pilots. Over 1,000 were built and were used in a wide variety of roles, including ground attack and as stowed on ships.

The Sopwith Camel is believed to have been the aircraft that took down the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen on the 21st of April 1918. The famous ace was killed while in a dogfight with Canadian pilot Roy Brown, however to this day it is unknown exactly where the shot came from that killed him, with many suspecting a well placed rifle shot from the trenches below.

In late 1918, Camels fought against 40 Fokker D. VIIs, which outclassed the Camels. This dogfight would be the largest of the war.

A downed Sopwith Camel near Zillebeke, West Flanders, Belgium, September 26, 1917.
A downed Sopwith Camel near Zillebeke, West Flanders, Belgium, September 26, 1917.

 

Sopwith Camel at Air Service Production Center No. 2, Romorantin Aerodrome, France, 1918.
Sopwith Camel at Air Service Production Center No. 2, Romorantin Aerodrome, France, 1918.

 

Pilot’s view from the cockpit of a Camel, June 1918.
Pilot’s view from the cockpit of a Camel, June 1918.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Harry Cobby sitting in the cockpit of a Sopwith Camel.
Harry Cobby sitting in the cockpit of a Sopwith Camel.

 

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

 

Royal Flying Corps Sopwith F.1 Camel in 1914-1916 period.
Royal Flying Corps Sopwith F.1 Camel in 1914-1916 period.

 

The Sopwith 2F.1 Camel used to shoot down Zeppelin L 53, at the Imperial War Museum, London. Note mounting of twin Lewis guns over the top wing.
The Sopwith 2F.1 Camel used to shoot down Zeppelin L 53, at the Imperial War Museum, London. Note mounting of twin Lewis guns over the top wing.

 

Belgian Sopwith Camel flown by Adj. Léon Cremers with n° 11 Squadron “Cocotte” marking.
Belgian Sopwith Camel flown by Adj. Léon Cremers with n° 11 Squadron “Cocotte” marking.

 

Portrait of Major Wilfred Ashton McCloughry MC, the Commanding Officer of No. 4 Squadron AFC, and his Sopwith Camel, June 6, 1918.
Portrait of Major Wilfred Ashton McCloughry MC, the Commanding Officer of No. 4 Squadron AFC, and his Sopwith Camel, June 6, 1918.

Dolphin

Three months after the Camel first flew, Sopwith engineers were already working on their next improvement. This led to the Dolphin.

The Dolphin varied from the preceding aircraft of the time, with a water cooled V8 engine for power, and a upper wing that was mounted 13 inches back from the lower wing, to maintain the correct centre of gravity. The upper wing was also mounted almost on top of the fuselage, with the pilots head poking through, giving him excellent visibility. This did however cause some fears of injury to the pilot if the plane crashed, although these fears would later fade as this didn’t happen as common as was previously thought.

Dolphin fitted with two upward firing Lewis guns and Norman vane sights.
Dolphin fitted with two upward firing Lewis guns and Norman vane sights.

Four machine guns were used this time, with two firing forward and two firing slightly upwards. The upwards firing machine guns were later deemed rather useless, resulting in many pilots removing them.

The 200 hp engine gave the aircraft impressive speed, and it was also very agile, allowing it to fly faster and higher than many aircraft before it.

A geared Hispano-Suiza 8BE engine on display at the NMUSAF.
A geared Hispano-Suiza 8BE engine on display at the NMUSAF.

The Dolphin entered service in 1917 and proved effective enough for over 1,500 to be produced.

Dolphin cockpit.
Dolphin cockpit.

 

Canadian Air Force Dolphins of No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron at RAF Upper Heyford, December 1918.
Canadian Air Force Dolphins of No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron at RAF Upper Heyford, December 1918.

 

No. 87 Squadron Dolphin flown by Cecil Montgomery-Moore. A Lewis gun is mounted atop the lower right wing.
No. 87 Squadron Dolphin flown by Cecil Montgomery-Moore. A Lewis gun is mounted atop the lower right wing.

 

Sopwith Dolphin reproduction built by James Henry “Cole” Palen Jr, founder of Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, in flight during one of the museum’s early-1980s airshows. Photo JeffreyDMillman CC BY-SA 3.0.
Sopwith Dolphin reproduction built by James Henry “Cole” Palen Jr, founder of Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, in flight during one of the museum’s early-1980s airshows. Photo JeffreyDMillman CC BY-SA 3.0.

 

Third prototype at Brooklands Airfield.
Third prototype at Brooklands Airfield.

 

Dolphin fitted with two upward firing Lewis guns and Norman vane sights.
Dolphin fitted with two upward firing Lewis guns and Norman vane sights.

 

Snipe

The Sopwith Snipe was the company’s last aircraft of the war. This aircraft used an impressive 230 hp Bentley rotary engine which enabled it to reach altitudes as high as 25,000 ft. For these altitudes, the aircraft’s cockpit was heated, and the pilot used an electronically heated suit and an oxygen supply.

Sopwith Snipe at the RAF Museum in Hendon. Photo Oren Rozen CC BY-SA 3.0.
Sopwith Snipe at the RAF Museum in Hendon. Photo Oren Rozen CC BY-SA 3.0.

Unfortunately the Snipe arrived too late in the war to make any significant difference, only eight weeks before the armistice was signed.

William George Barker’s 7F.1 Snipe.
William George Barker’s 7F.1 Snipe.

One notable engagement was by Major William Barker on the 27th of October 1918, where he battled 15 Fokker D. VIIs. Severely wounded, he took 4 down before himself crashing. He was awarded the Victoria Cross medal for his actions on that day.

Sopwith 7F.1 Snipe.
Sopwith 7F.1 Snipe.

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The Snipe stayed in service until 1927, years after the Sopwith company itself was closed down.