Of the many famous aircraft manufacturers in the period 1914-1918, one
of the most recognizable names would have to be that bearing Thomas Octave
Murdoch Sopwith's name. The Sopwith Aviation Company Ltd of Kingston-on-Thames
was formed in 1912 and produced many outstanding designs prior to its
demise in 1920, some of which are illustrated here.
A development of the pre-war Tabloid, the Schneider entered RNAS use
in February 1915.
Sopwith Schneider 3717
FSL J. M. d'A Levy
3717 was delivered to Felixstowe on 22 July 1915 and was flown by FSL
J M Levy on anti-Zeppelin patrol. On 12 August 1915, Levy was shot down
by AA after attacking Zeebrugge harbor and taken POW. 3717 was sunk and
later salvaged by the Germans, ultimately being placed on display. The
only national markings carried by 3717 were the small Union Jacks on the
The next progression in the floatplane evolution was the Baby. This
was basically a Schneider fitted with a Clerget (110 or 130hp) in a new
horseshoe shaped cowl.
Sopwith Baby N1017
N1017 arrived at the Dunkerque NAS on 31 May 1917 where it was given
the name 'BITEM'. Note the Lewis machine gun alongside the cockpit fixed
to fire through the propellor, plus the second one on the top wing to
fire above the propellor arc.
Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter
The first Sopwith design to see widespread service was the Land Clerget
Tractor - better known as the 1 1/2 Srutter due to the arrangement of
its cabane struts. The Strutter was produced in two variants: a single-seat
bomber was used by the RNAS Wings as well as license-produced in France
(in fact the French built more Strutters than the British); and a two-seat
fighter which was used by both the RNAS and the RFC.
A presentation aircraft named 'Britons in Egypt No. 2', 9739 went to
No. 3 Wing RNAS, Manston on 28 August 1916, and arrived at Luxeuil-les-Bains
on 22 September. On 25 February 1917, FSL L. E. Smith and AM R. S. Portsmouth
were shot down by Off.Stv. Gottlieb Vothknecht of Jasta 24 for his first
victory. Portsmouth was killed, while Smith was taken POW and later died
of his wounds.
"Good heavens, your aircraft has had a Pup!!" With these
words a legend was born. The Sopwith Pup indeed appears to have been whelped
from the 1 1/2 Strutter. Maneuverable and able to hold its height in a
turn, the Sopwith Pup went on to become a firm favorite of both the RFC
and the RNAS. The only drawback was its single gun. At a time that the
German Albatros was mounting two Spandau machine guns the Pup only carried
a single Vickers.
Sopwith Pup A6175
Lt. R. S. Capon
No. 66 Sqn RFC
On 24 April 1917, six Pups of No. 66 Sqn RFC were flying escort for
nine Strutters of No. 70 Sqn when they were attacked by enemy aircraft.
Lt. R. S. Capon in A6175 was shot down by Oblt Lorenz of Jasta 33 and
taken POW. Capon had been the first combat loss for No. 66 Sqn.
"It seemed light and elegant and yet wiry... what it lacked in
quickness it made up in the smoothness and grace of its movements. A Triplane
looping looked like no other machine and gave the loops an individual
quality. Irreverent pilots said it looked, when doing aerobatics, like
an intoxicated flight of stairs..." so wrote Major Oliver Stewart
of the Sopwith Triplane.
The Triplane was an attempt to improve on the Pup's already impressive
performance by replacing the Pup's two wings with three wings of reduced
chord but the same span, resulting in much more lift. The reduced chord
also improved the pilot's visibility. Once again the only disappointing
feature was the single Vickers - which in some cases was corrected by
the fitting of a second gun. So successful was the Triplane that the Germans
and the French set about emulating it.
The French with the Nieuport and the Germans with their Albatros Dr.I,
Pfalz Dr.I, and the most famous of the lot, the Fokker F.I (later called
the Dr.I) Triplane.
Sopwith Triplane N5449
No. 8(N) Sqn RNAS
Arriving at 8(N) on 28 February 1917 and originally named JOAN, BINKY
III was photographed on its back after being overturned on landing by
FSL J. A. M. Allen on 15 March 1917. F/Cdr P. A. Johnstone sent a red
and green Albatros down OOC on 3 May 1917. On 10 August, FSL E. D. Crundall
was forced to land after being hit by ground fire and N5449 was then shelled
for eight hours. After being repaired, N5449 went to 1(N) where it was
flown by FSL Spence during which he scored two victories.
When one thinks of First World War aviation, two aircraft types invariably
come to mind. One has already been mentioned, while the other also shared
the F.1 designation. The Sopwith Camel has come to symbolize (rightly
or wrongly) the British fighter in WWI. Highly maneuverable and as deadly
to the novice pilot as to the enemy, the Camel concentrated all its weight
within the first seven feet of the fuselage. This resulted in a massive
torque effect and made for very fast right hand turns. However in the
hands of an inexperienced pilot this same responsiveness could be deadly
and Camel accidents resulted in many deaths among its own pilots.
FSL J. W. P. Ellwood
No. 3(N) Sqn RNAS
On 27 August 1917, FSL J. W. P.
Ellwood of No. 3(N) Sqn RNAS crashed near St. Pol. After repair B3781
went on to 9(N) and 10(N) where it was lost on 18 March 1918 with FSL
G. T. Steeves being taken POW. The top view is included to show the hearts
repeated on either side of the center section. Although the cowl is depicted
here as being red, it may have been black.
Sopwith 5F.1 Dolphin
The Sopwith Dolphin represented almost as radical a departure from
standard Sopwith designs of the day as did the earlier Triplane. First
off the Dolphin was powered by the Hispano-Suiza V-8 whereas most previous
Sopwith designs made use of rotaries.
However the most obvious change was the position of the upper wing.
In the Dolphin the wing was lowered and featured reverse stagger. This
allowed for excellent upwards visibility, but caused concern in the event
of overturning. After initial wariness, the Dolphin turned out to be an
excellent high-altitude fighter. The Dolphin was also the first British
multi-gun fighter with two fixed Vickers and two Lewis guns in the center
section. Most, however, had just one Lewis.
Sopwith 5F.1 Dolphin C4131
Captain William Mays Fry
OC C Flight
No. 79 Sqn RAF
C4131 was flown by Captain W. M. Fry when he scored his 11th
victory on 11 May 1918. Also flown by Lt. V. G. Snyder, C4131 featured
a black and white checkerboard on the turtledeck.
Sopwith 7F.1 Snipe
The final Sopwith design to see widespread service was the 7F.1 Snipe.
The Snipe returned to the tried and true rotary power that had served
Sopwith so well, albeit the more powerful 230hp Bentley BR.2. By the Armistice
of 11 November 1918, four squadrons had converted to the Snipe while postwar
use saw 11 squadrons using the type.
Sopwith 7F.1 Snipe E8015
No. 43 Sqn RAF
While flying E8015 Mulcair reportedly downed a Fokker D.VII on 30 Octover
1918, however RAF Communique No. 31 makes no mention of this, but does
credit him with on in No. 27 as a shared victory with Lt. R. S. Johnston.
King: Sopwith Aircraft 1912-1920, Putnam 1981
Datafile No. 60: Sopwith Baby, Albatros 1996
Sturtivant/Page: Royal Navy Aircraft Serials and Units 1912-1919, Air-Britain
S. K. Taylor photo
C&C (GB) 19/1
Henshaw: The Sky Their Battlefield, Grub Street 1995
C&C (USA) 17/2
Sturtivant/Page: The Camel File, Air-Britain 1993
Datafile No. 46: Sopwith Snipe, Albatros 1994
Crundall: Fighter Pilot on the Western Front, William Kimber 1975
Hadingham: The Fighting Triplanes, Hamish Hamilton 1968