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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.