The Sopwith Camel was the most famous British fighter aeroplane of World War One. The Camel, so-called because of the hump-shaped protective covering over its machine guns, shot down more enemy aircraft than any other Allied fighter ‘plane during World War One.
The Sopwith Camel was very difficult for a novice pilot to master. The Camel was highly manoeuvrable in flight but difficult to handle because 90% of the aircraft’s weight was placed in just a seven feet section. The Sopwith Camel needed a very specific fuel mixture and when it stalled in flight, a common problem for inexperienced pilots, the Camel spun badly. However, once a pilot had mastered the Camel’s idiosyncrasies, it came into its own.
The Sopwith Camel came into combat service in June 1917. Experienced pilots were equipped with an aircraft that had superb manoeuvrability and firepower. The Camel was equipped with two .303 Vickers machine guns that were mounted directly in front of the pilot. They fired at what was directly in front of him. The propeller was safe as the Camel was equipped with synchronisation gearing to protect it when the machine guns were fired. The rotary effect of the Clerget engine meant that the Camel was awkward to fly when turning left. However, it was twice as fast as any other fighter ‘plane when turning right and experienced pilots usually turned to the right and went nearly full circle when they wanted to turn to the left – it was usually quicker and less of a struggle with the controls.
In the hands of an experienced pilot, the Sopwith Camel was more than a match for the German Albatros fighters. While it was not particularly fast (it had maximum speed of 115 mph), the strength of the Camel was its mobility and manoeuvrability when in the air. In the 17 months it was in service during World War One, the Camel was credited with 1,294 kills – an average of 76 kills a month.
From mid-1918 on, the Camel was used as a ground attack aircraft. The failure of the German’s Spring Offensive in 1918 and the mass of American troops arriving in France had given the Allies the advantage. The blockade of Germany’s ports also meant that the nation was being starved of all produce, including fuel. The Germans could not adequately supply its air force and it became less and less effective. Therefore, the Camel and many other Allied fighters were used to support the infantry’s advance towards the German border. Some Camel’s were fitted out to carry 25lb bombs to attack German strongholds.