The Sopwith Camel was powered by a single rotary engine and armed with twin synchronised machine guns and whilst proving difficult to handle, it provided for a high level of manoeuvrability to an experienced pilot, an attribute which was highly valued in the type's principal use as a fighter aircraft. In total, Camel pilots have been credited with the shooting down of 1,294 enemy aircraft, more than any other Allied fighter of the conflict.
The main variant of the Camel was designated as the F.1; several dedicated variants were built for a variety of roles, including the 2F.1 Ship's Camel, which was used for operating from the flight decks of aircraft carriers, the Comic night fighter variant, and the T.F.1, a dedicated 'trench fighter' that had been armoured for the purpose of conducting ground attacks upon heavily defended enemy lines. The Camel also saw use as a two-seat trainer aircraft.
The Camel's predecessor, the Sopwith Pup, was no longer competitive against newer German fighters such as the Albatros D.III; consequently the Camel was developed specifically to replace the Pup, as well as the Nieuport 17s that had been purchased from the French as an interim measure. It was recognised that the new fighter needed to be faster and have a heavier armament.
Early in its development, the new aircraft was simply referred to as the "Big Pup". A metal fairing over the gun breeches, intended to protect the guns from freezing at altitude, created a "hump" that led pilots to call the aircraft "Camel". However,the aircraft was never officially designated with this name.
The Camel had a mostly conventional design for its era, featuring a wooden box-like fuselage structure, an aluminium engine cowling, plywood panels around the cockpit, and fabric-covered fuselage, wings and tail. While possessing some clear similarities with the Pup, it was furnished with a noticeably bulkier fuselage. For the first time on an operational British-designed fighter, two 0.303 Vickers machine guns were mounted directly in front of the cockpit, synchronised to fire forwards through the propeller disc. In addition to the machine guns, a total of four Cooper bombs could be carried for ground attack purposes.
Unlike the preceding Pup and Triplane, the Camel was considered to be difficult to fly. The type owed both its extreme manoeuvrability and its difficult handling to the close placement of the engine, pilot, guns and fuel tank (some 90% of the aircraft's weight) within the front seven feet of the aircraft, and to the strong gyroscopic effect of the rotating mass of the cylinders common to rotary engines.
The Camel soon gained an unfortunate reputation with pilots. Some inexperienced pilots crashed on take-off when the full fuel load pushed the aircraft's centre of gravity beyond the rearmost safe limits. When in level flight, the Camel was markedly tail-heavy. Unlike the Sopwith Triplane, the Camel lacked a variable incidence tailplane, so that the pilot had to apply constant forward pressure on the control stick to maintain a level attitude at low altitude. The aircraft could be rigged so that at higher altitudes it could be flown "hands off". A stall immediately resulted in a dangerous spin.
In June 1917, the Sopwith Camel entered service with No. 4 Squadron of the Royal Naval Air Service, which was stationed near Dunkirk, France; this was the first squadron to operate the type. Its first combat flight and reportedly its first victory claim were both made on 4 July 1917. By the end of July 1917, the Camel also equipped No. 3 and No. 9 Naval Squadrons; and it had become operational with No. 70 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps.
The Camel proved to have better manoeuvrability than the Albatros D.III and D.V and offered heavier armament and better performance than the Pup and Triplane with its controls being light and sensitive. The Camel turned more slowly to the left, which resulted in a nose-up attitude due to the torque of the rotary engine, but the torque also resulted in being able to turn to the right quicker than other fighters, although that resulted in a tendency towards a nose-down attitude from the turn. Because of the faster turning capability to the right, some pilots preferred to change heading 90° to the left by turning 270° to the right.
Major William Barker's Sopwith Camel was used to shoot down 46 aircraft and balloons from September 1917 to September 1918 in 404 operational flying hours, more than any other single RAF fighter.
An important role for the Camel was home defence. The RNAS flew Camels from Eastchurch and Manston airfields against daylight raids by German bombers, including Gothas, from July 1917. The public outcry against the night raids and the poor response of London's defences resulted in the RFC deciding to divert Camels that had been heading to the frontlines in France to Britain for the purposes of home defence; in July 1917, 44 Squadron RFC reformed and reequipped with the Camel to conduct the home defence mission. By March 1918, the home defence squadrons had been widely equipped with the Camel; by August 1918, a total of seven home defence squadrons were operating Camels.
When the Germans switched to performing their attacks during nighttime, the Camel proved capable of being flown at night as well. Accordingly, those aircraft assigned to home defence squadrons were quickly modified with navigation lights in order that they could serve as night fighters. A smaller number of Camels were more extensively reconfigured; on these aircraft, the Vickers machine guns were replaced by overwing Lewis guns and the cockpit was moved rearwards so the pilot could reload the guns. This modification, which became known as the "Sopwith Comic" allowed the guns to be fired without affecting the pilot's night vision, and allowed the use of new, more effective incendiary ammunition that was considered unsafe to fire from synchronised Vickers guns.
The Camel was successfully used to intercept and shoot down German bombers on multiple occasions during 1918, serving in this capacity through to the final German bombing raid upon Britain on the night of the 20/21 May 1918. During this final air raid, a combined force of 74 Camels and Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5s intercepted 28 Gothas and Zeppelin-Staaken R.VIs; three German bombers were shot down, while two more were downed by anti-aircraft fire from the ground and a further aircraft was lost to engine failure, the heaviest losses suffered by German bombers during a single night's operation over England.
The RNAS operated a number of 2F.1 Camels that were suitable for launching from platforms mounted on the turrets of major warships as well as from some of the earliest aircraft carriers to be built. Furthermore, the Camel could be deployed from aircraft lighters, which were specially-modified barges; these had to be towed fast enough that a Camel could successfully take off. The aircraft lighters served as means of launching interception sorties against incoming enemy air raids from a more advantageous position than had been possible when using shore bases alone.
By mid-1918, the Camel had become obsolescent as a day fighter as its climb rate, level speed and performance at altitudes over 12,000 ft (3,650 m) were outclassed by the latest German fighters, such as the Fokker D.VII. However, it remained viable as a ground-attack and infantry support aircraft and instead was increasingly used in that capacity.
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