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An encyclopediae of 1914-18 aircraft types

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The British Fighter Powerhouse

Origins

Thomas Sopwith This is strange that both Allies most prominent fighter companies started with "S". SPAD in France and Sopwith in UK. The company was a relative newcomer. Indeed Thomas Octave Murdoch (Tommy, later Sir Thomas, born 1888) Sopwith, was a known, young daring-do wealthy gentleman, a sportsman interested in aviation, yachting and motor-racing, hot air ballooning, expert ice skating and motor cycling. A flurry of activities perhaps related to a gun accident that killed his father at ten. He was hooked by flight after seeing John Moisant crossing the Channel as a passenger and he later flew himself on a Farman with Gustave Blondeau in Brooklands. He was a self-taught pilot, flying a Howard Wright Avis monoplane, flying in 22 October 1910 but crashing after just 300 yards. This did not deterred him and by the newt month he obtained his certificate from the Royal Aero Club. Better still, in December he won a £4000 prize for the longest flight between England and the Continent. The prize and fame helped him funding the Sopwith Flying School at Brooklands. Two years later he associated with Fred Sigrist and others to create the Sopwith Aviation Company. At the end of the year he has rebuilt and modified a Wright Model B, helping Harry Hawker to win the British Michelin Endurance prize. Definitively on a raising curve, he moved his staff and built a much larger facility at Kingston upon Thames. There and in other plant, the company would produce around 16,000 planes, a record for any British aircraft manufacturer, many more when taking in account Fairey, Clayton and Shuttleworth, William Beardmore and Company and Ruston Proctor. He earned the Order of the British Empire and became a Sir in 1918.

Factory developments

Sopwith Schneider Of course the company would be always remembered for the legendary Sopwith Camel, the one fighter that emulated the Spitfire of WW2, fast and supremely agile, preferred by aces, which helped secured the mastery of the sky for the entente in the fall of 1917 and 1918. But many more models preceded this landmark, or followed it without really ever reach that fame again. By 1917 the company leased the National Aircraft Factory No.2, helping the production of Snipe, Dolphin and Salamander fighters. Starting with 200 in 1914, the company had 6000 in 1918, spread between facilities. But postwar years were harsh, between the absence of orders and punishing taxes. Recycling planes with the civilian Dove and swallow never saved the company from bankruptcy. One facility was sold to Leyland Motors while all the assets, including patents, and even the team were now part of the H.G Hawker Engineering Company in 1920. So Sopwith passed into posterity through Hawker Aircraft, and Hawker Siddeley.

Sopwith Bat
RNAS Sopwith Bat, 1911

RNAS Sopwith 860 torpedo bomber, 1914
RNAS Sopwith 860 torpedo bomber, 1914

Sopwith Composite baby
Sopwith Composite baby of 1915

Sopwith Lineage

The earliest models, prewar, were the Three-seater and Bar Boats, were used by the RAF and RNAS, and produce din small quantities, only 16 and 6 respectively. Next, the two-seat tractor biplane called Sociable remained a Royal Naval Air Service prototype tested in 1914. The single Sopwith 1913 Circuit of Britain floatplane was created to win Daily Mail Circuit of Britain Air race, but unfortunately withdrawn after a landing accident at the end of the race. The next Admiralty Type C was a torpedo bomber, not adopted. Three prototypes were made and tested. The next Sopwith Special torpedo seaplane Type C succeed in successfully launch a torpedo, but was never ordered. The next race plane, called the 1914 Schneider Racer was a winner, also a production model. 136 were built. The land-based variant was called the Tabloid. The Gunbus was an interesting export model aimed at the Greek Navy. These were Pusher Seaplanes with a front .303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis gun and underwing bombs. 12 Seaplanes and 23 land Gunbuses were built, the latter retained as trainers until 1915 by the RNAS. The next Sopwith Admiralty Type 137 was an experimental two-seat naval biplane floatplane which answered British Admiralty specifications. They were used for torpedo dropping experiments in 1914. The Sopwith Admiralty Type 807 was derived from a Cicruit of Britain floatplane, produced to 12 machines and three would later participate in the Dardanelles campaign onboard seaplane carrier HMS Ark Royal.

Sopith Baby Floatplane
Sopwith Baby Floatplane (1915)

Sopwith Pup
The Sopwith Pup was the first tremendous success as a fighter, compared to the Nieuport 11, Bristol Scout and Fokker Dr.I, later developed into the Camel.

The heavy Sopwith Type 860 was a seaplane torpedo bomber ordered by the admiralty for the RNAS to 22 units. The Sopwith Two-Seat Scout was a RNAS Anti-Zeppelin scout biplane which met little success, 24 were delivered. It had a fixed tailskid landing gear, with a cross-axle type main gear and twin wheels. The next Baby was a light and nimble model declined in floatplane and land-based versions. It was Sopwith first major success with more than 380 delivered in 1915. The next fighter arrived in 1916 as an incremental success with 1,770 built. It was the Sopwith Pup, which definitely placed the Sopwith company on the map. Designed by Herbert Smith, it was produced and used up to the end of the war. When replaced in 1917, the Pups served also as advanced trainers. They were used by many air forces. The Belgian ace Willy Coppens learned his trade and earned its victories on a Pup. Many also dubbed it the "British Nieuport" as they had many common points, using the same Le Rhône air-cooled rotary engine and a single synchronized machine gun. The Sopwith 1½ Strutter was a very famous model, the proverbial "jack of all trades" of both the RNAS, RAS, with about 1500 planes for UK, and no less than 4500 for France. It was slow but dependable but in France was replaced by the Breguet 14 and Salmson 2 when available. In between Sopwith also worked on a three-seat general purpose aircraft, named aptly the Sopwith Long Range Tractor Triplane (L.R.T.Tr), which first flew in 1916 but failed to impress. Another prototype, the Sopwith Bee was a late 1916 small personal plane used by Harry Hawker, Sopwith's chief test pilot, propelled by a 50 hp (37 kW) Gnome Omega rotary engine and used for aerobatics.

Sopwith 1-1/2 Strutter
The Sopwith 1-1/2 Strutter was a brilliant reconnaissance and multipurpose two seater, used until 1918 in large quantities.

Sopwith Triplane
A pinprick in global Sopwith production, but considered a success, the Sopwith Triplane was one of the most influential design of the war, copied by Fokker which created the legendary Fokker Dr.I

The Sopwith Triplane was an experiment, first military triplane to see operational service. About 147 joined the Royal Naval Air Service squadrons in early 1917 and flew with success but as the Camel arrived it was ultimately preferred as a standard and no further orders came. Only 147 were delivered in all. This model was also tested with a Hispano-Suiza engine. What followed was one of the most amazing fighters of WW1, the mythical Sopwith Camel. Named after its bulged over the Vickers machine guns partially enclosed in the engine hood, it was a development from the Pup with two machine-guns and a more powerful engines, ranging from Le Rhône, Clerget, Gnome-Rhône, or bentley roraty engines from 100 to 150 hp. The Camel was agile, sturdy, well armed, and fast. But it was considered was considered to be difficult to fly, to the point of being feared by beginners. But once its instability was known and mastered, these defaults were turned into the qualities of a true fighter. This extreme manoeuvrability was due to the placement of 90% of the weight at the front, combined to the strong gyroscopic effect of the rotary engine. It was also tail-heavy and lacked a variable incidence tailplane, so pilots had to be constantly on the watch for the next move. hands off indeed, the Camel would have immediately stalled and enter a dangerous spin. Unforgiving, it left a trail of accidents and crashes that generated many reports. However a palliative measure was later found, as a two-seat trainer version with dual control was gradually adopted. As such, the Camel was mass-produced by many factories until the end of the war. It was also used by the American Expeditionary Force, United States Army Air Service, the US Navy, France, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Greece, Russia and many other aviations, for some until the end of the 1920s.

Sopwith Camel
The Sopwith Camel was the most produced Fighter of the war, and reputed difficult to fly.

From then on, all other models made by Sopwith were over shadowed by the Camel, which was the preferred mount of many aces and veteran pilots. Most planes that followed were prototypes, with a few exceptions, Sopwith trying the Sopwith B.1 light bomber, the Hippo two-seat fighter, Sopwith Cobham two-seats bomber (3 tested), Sopwith AT "Aerial Target", a very advanced radio controlled guided missile, but also production fighters like the Sopwith Dragon (200 built). It was in fact a Snipe prototype fitted with a radical engine, the 320 hp (239 kW) ABC Dragonfly I radial. 200 airframes were stockpiled waiting the delivery of these engines. Only a few were completed, and declared obsolete in 1923. The Snipe was the last large-production fighter of the company. This was to be the successor of the Camel, but it came too late to see full replacement. At first it was designed as slightly smaller than the Camel, intended to be powered by similar engines and sturdier, with a better view from the cockpit. No official order came, it was a private venture started in September 1917. The second tested the Bentley BR.2, a 230 horsepower engine. Tests soon turned into an official order for more. Mass production started as 4,500 were ordered but ended in early 1919 with just a fraction delivered. Some saw action long after the war, in the Russian civil war in particular.

Sopwith Snipe
The Sopwith Snipe was basically a smaller, sturdier, more powerful Camel, a "little brute" cut short by the end of the war.

Sopwith Dragon
The Sopwith Dragon was one of the last Sopwith fighter.

Another interesting model, which first flew in May 1917 but was only introduced by February 1918 was the Sopwith Dolphin. Herbert Smith focused on visibility on this fighter, with a distinctive negative wing stagger which preserved the pilot's vision. It was coupled with a 200 hp Hispano-Suiza 8B and was much more stable than the Camel. It was also particularly well armed with two fixed, synchronized Vickers machine guns, and two Lewis guns mounted on the forward cabane crossbar at an angle, firing over the propeller disc. But this last feature proved unpopular and was often discarded in the field by pilots. Some 2,072 were manufactured and provided to the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force. Since it used the same engine as the SPADs, the French also planned to produce it under licence in France. In fact it has been already manufactured by Darracq Motor Engineering Company and the SACA (Société Anonyme des Constructions Aéronautiques) facility was setup for mass-production as well. After problems with the engine drive, the Dolphin Mk III was created, using a direct-drive version of the engine. The model was also used by the American, Canadian, Polish and Ukrainian air forces.

Sopwith Dolphin
The Sopwith Dolphin in flight was well armed and preserved the pilot's vision, and was the most produced of these 1918 fighters.

Another interesting model was a fighter tailored for strafing attacks; the Sopwith Salamander, which first flew on 27 April 1918. Basically it was an armoured Snipe. Indeed, the sturdy structure was fit for these life-saving additions when flying low. It flew at 200 kph thanks to its Bentley BR2 rotary engine, 230 hp and could carry 4 × 25 lb (10 kg) bombs. A mass-production 1400 was ordered, but only 497 iof the first batch were completed before it was canceled. It was to be delivered by Wolseley Motors, the Air Navigation Co., Glendower Aircraft, Palladium Motors and the National Aircraft Factory No. 1. Sopwith was not all fighters, due to its strong ties with the RNAS, a torpedo-bomber model named T.1 was also the first landplane specifically designed for carrier operations. Completed too late for service, the many produced took the name of Cuckoo. This was an idea of Commodore Murray Sueter, the Air Department's Superintendent of Aircraft Construction. 200 hp (149 kW) Sunbeam Arab engine, and later 275 hp (205 kW) Rolls-Royce Falcon III engine. The Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service also operated six mark II. A massive assault on north German ports was planned by Beatty involving the HMS Courageous and HMS Glorious, HMS Argus, HMS Furious, and HMS Campania was planned.

Sopwith Rhino
Sopwith Rhino.

In the end, the very last planes: The experimental Sopwith Bulldog, to replace the Bristol F2B Fighter as a two-seat fighter reconnaissance aircraft. The first prototype was given a 200 hp (149 kW) Hispano-Suiza 8 water-cooled V-8 engine, the second a 360 hp (267 kW) ABC Dragonfly radial engine. The name resurfaced after the war on a brand new model. The Sopwith Buffalo was a development of the previous model, armoured two-seat aircraft for fast low-altitude reconnaissance flights. Powerful, fast and stable it was deemed to be an excellent contact patrol aircraft, that armistice cut short. The Rhino, one the other hand was a triplane single-engine bomber aircraft propelled by a Beardmore Halford Pullinger (BHP) six-cylinder, water-cooled inline engine, 230 hp (170 kW), that can carry 450 lb (205 kg) bombs in an innovative, removable "bomb pack" in the internal bomb-bay. The Sopwith Swallow/Scooter was a 1918 British parasol wing fighter, and the Sopwith 8F.1 Snail as an improved Camel while the Snapper was a official replacement for its successor, the Snipe which was not even in service yet; It was canceled because of the failure of its ABC Dragonfly air-cooled radial engine. The Snark was yet another replacement for the Snipe, this time a triplane, but propelled by the same ABC Dragonfly. Three were built, that flew after the war. They were very heavily armed with two synchronised Vickers guns inside the fuselage and four Lewis guns under the wings. They showed good performances but like the Snails, their engine proved their undoing, being prone to overheating and severe vibration. So no serie was undertook after the war; The company turned to civilian aircraft, for transport, touring or competition, but eventually without large orders, the company ended operation.

Sopwith Snark
Sopwith Snark 1918

Sopwith Cuckoo
Sopwith Cuckoo, RNAS torpedo bomber, world's first aircraft carrier-based type in 1918


Thomas Sopwith Documentary 1984

Detailed Models list

Military and production models are in bold. Production figures are in brackets.
  • Sopwith-Wright Biplane (1912)
  • Sopwith Hybrid Biplane (1912)
  • Sopwith Three-seater(1912) (16)
  • Sopwith Bat Boat (1913) (6)
  • Sopwith Sociable (1913) Prototype
  • Sopwith 1913 Circuit of Britain floatplane
  • Sopwith Admiralty Type C (1914) (3)
  • Sopwith Special torpedo seaplane Type C
  • Sopwith 1914 Schneider Racer
  • Sopwith Type SPGN or "Gunbus" (1914)(12+23))
  • Sopwith Admiralty Type 137 1914 (2)
  • Sopwith Type 806 1914 (1)
  • Sopwith Type 807 1914 (12)
  • Sopwith Type 860 1914 (22)
  • Sopwith Two-Seat Scout 1914 (24)
  • Sopwith Tabloid (1914) (42)
  • Sopwith Baby 1915 (386)
  • Sopwith 1½ Strutter 1916 (1439+4500)
  • Sopwith Pup 1916 (1,770)
  • Sopwith L.R.T.Tr. 1916
  • Sopwith Bee 1916
  • Sopwith Hispano-Suiza Triplane 1916
  • Sopwith Triplane 1917 (147)
  • Sopwith Camel 1917 (5,490)
  • Sopwith B.1
  • Sopwith Hippo
  • Sopwith Cobham Twin Engine Bomber
  • Sopwith AT "Aerial Target"
  • Sopwith Dragon 1918 (200)
  • Sopwith Snipe 1918 (497)
  • Sopwith Dolphin 1918 (2072)
  • Sopwith Salamander 1918 (497)
  • Sopwith Cuckoo 1918 (232)
  • Sopwith Bulldog 1918
  • Sopwith Buffalo 1918
  • Sopwith Rhino 1918
  • Sopwith Scooter 1918
  • Sopwith Swallow 1918
  • Sopwith Snail 1918
  • Sopwith Snapper 1918
  • Sopwith Snark 1918

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