During World War I U.S. naval aviators in Europe flew almost exclusively foreign-built aircraft, among them the Sopwith F.1 Camel. The Camel was one of the most successful fighters of the war, being flown by the British Army’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) as well as the U.S. Army and Navy.1 The biplane was fast, maneuverable, and reliable. British aviation historian Kenneth Munson wrote: “Controversy over whether the Sopwith Camel or the [German] Fokker D.VII was the finest fighter aircraft of World War I will probably always persist; but the Camel is undisputed champion in terms of enemy aircraft destroyed, its tally—during only sixteen months of operations—being 1,294 victories.”2
Developed from the earlier—and very successful—Sopwith Pup, the Camel had a conventional biplane appearance. A variety of engines powered the prototypes and early production aircraft, with ratings up to 150 horsepower. The aircraft’s short nose and stocky fuselage featured a “hump” forward of the cockpit that partially housed the aircraft’s twin Vickers .303-caliber machine guns, synchronized to fire through the two-blade propeller. The hump undoubtedly led to the Camel moniker, initially an informal label that was later made official.
The first Camel was completed on 22 December 1916, and the RFC and RNAS began receiving production aircraft in mid-1917. It was an immediate success as a fighter, scout, close air support, and bomber aircraft. In addition to the twin Vickers (with up to 600 rounds of ammunition), the Camel could carry four 24-pound bombs or two 40-pound phosphorous bombs. Alternatively, a 112-pound high-explosive bomb could be carried aloft.
But it was as a fighter that the Camel achieved renown, with a single victory making it world famous. On 21 April 1918, the famed German fighter ace Baron Manfred von Richthofen—the “Red Baron”—was killed when his Fokker Dr.I was shot down by a Camel piloted by Captain Roy Brown of No. 209 Squadron, Royal Air Force.3Victories were chalked up at a rapid rate by Camel pilots, with aerial kills being scored over England (German bombers and Zeppelins), France, Italy, the Aegean, Macedonia, and Russia.
Among those Camel victories were six—five aircraft and one balloon—garnered by U.S. Navy Lieutenant David S. Ingalls while flying with the No. 213 Squadron, RAF. He was the only U.S. Navy fighter ace of World War I.
The Royal Navy flew the F.1 but sponsored the 2F.1—often called the “Ship’s Camel”—specifically for shipboard use. This may have been the first aircraft developed for that role. The 2F.1 variant had only one hump-mounted Vickers .303 machine gun, to the left of the centerline, and featured a Lewis .303 machine gun fitted above the upper wing (with a 47- or 97-round magazine). For shipboard use, it had a shorter wingspan and a two-piece fuselage, joined behind the cockpit so it could be broken down for stowage. An extra fuel tank took the place of the right-side hump gun.
On the morning of 19 July 1918, the pioneer British carrier Furious, in company with a force of light cruisers and destroyers, launched two flights of 2F.1 Camels against the Zeppelin sheds at Tondern, Germany. The first flight of three aircraft bombed one of the large airship sheds. Of the four aircraft in the second flight, one went down at sea when its engine failed, another crashed shortly after takeoff, and the third made a forced landing in neutral Denmark. The fourth plane made it to Tondern and destroyed another Zeppelin shed with its bombs. Each of the destroyed sheds had contained an airship; the Zeppelins L.54 and L.60 thus fell victim to carrier air strikes.
Only one plane from each flight was able to return to the Furious, and they had to come down in the water alongside because of problems with the landing procedure on the ship’s abbreviated landing deck. As a result of the losses, the Admiralty decided against further carrier strikes from the Furious.
The effect of the raid on the Germans was considerable. Airship historian Douglas Robinson wrote: “Until the Armistice the [German] Naval Airship Division lived in constant fear of a similar attack on one of the other bases . . . because of its exposed position, Tondern was maintained on a standby basis as an emergency landing ground only.”4
Subsequently, 2F.1 Camels were launched at sea from another platform. It was Royal Navy practice for ships to tow to sea floatplanes that, when a Zeppelin was sighted, would be cut loose to take off and climb to attack. But floatplanes were too slow to intercept Zeppelins. RAF Colonel Charles R. Samson, who had been the first Royal Navy pilot to solo, proposed using a destroyer to tow a fighter to sea on a barge. When the warship reached full speed at more than 30 knots, the fighter—fitted with skids for landing gear—would take off with a deck run of just a few feet.
A barge was fitted with a “flight deck” and a device to lock the plane in place until the pilot had run its engine to maximum power. Colonel Samson had troughs built onto the deck to mate with the skids on the aircraft to guide the fighter in rough water. A 2F.1 was loaded on the modified barge and a destroyer towed the 40-foot “carrier” to sea. As the destroyer picked up speed, Samson climbed into the Camel’s cockpit. A crewman—tethered to the barge with a line so he would not be blown overboard—turned the plane’s propeller and the engine started at once. After Samson had warmed up the engine, a signalman on the barge flagged the destroyer and the sleek ship held steady at 31 knots. Samson opened his throttle, and the Camel tugged at its restraining wire. He pulled the release toggle and the cable holding back the plane came loose. A moment later the plane was airborne . . . or almost so.
The biplane started to leave the deck and then faltered. The skids apparently left their troughs and fouled a crossbar. The plane fell into the water in front of the onrushing barge, which slammed into the airplane, pushing it and the pilot underwater. Luckily, Samson escaped from the wrecked plane and was plucked from the water, wet and frustrated but otherwise all right.
The flight deck was modified so it would be horizontal when the barge was pulled at high speeds, another guide was constructed to keep the tail of the airplane up and straight for the first four feet of its run, and wheels replaced the skids. On 31 July, Flight-Sub-Lieutenant Stuart Culley successfully took off from a slightly longer, 58-foot barge.
Then, on 11 August in the North Sea, Lieutenant Culley launched from a towed barge against the Zeppelin L.53. As the Camel climbed above 14,000 feet its controls got sluggish; at 17,000 feet the engine coughed. After gaining another 1,000 feet of altitude, Culley broke through a layer of clouds and found himself in bright sunshine some 200 feet below the German airship. But his plane would go no higher.
Pulling back on the control stick, Culley literally hung the Camel on its propeller until the plane was aimed straight at the airship. He then triggered the plane’s two machine guns. The Vickers jammed after seven rounds were fired; the Lewis fired a double drum of incendiary bullets into the Zeppelin. Bursts of flame shot from the L.53, and moments later its charred metal frame dropped into the sea. Only one man escaped, having bailed out from 19,000 feet, possibly a record for the time.
But now the young British pilot had problems. As Culley’s guns stopped firing the Camel fell into a stall, dropping 2,000 feet before he regained control. With his fuel almost gone and the British task force nowhere to be seen, Culley headed toward the Dutch coast. In the distance several fishing boats appeared, and he decided to put down near them. As he approached, the “fishing boats” seemed to grow in size until he realized his mistake. They were destroyers! And, there were cruisers. It was the task force that had taken him to sea. Culley brought his plane down on the water and was picked up. A derrick salvaged the fighter.
British naval historian S. W. Roskill wrote of the destruction of the L.53: “So ended an undertaking which Culley himself called ‘an excellent example of cooperation between the Royal Navy and the very new-born Royal Air Force.’ But . . . it has also a wider significance in terms of history, for it was almost certainly one of the very first instances of a successful air interception by a ship-borne fighter aircraft.”5
The British also experimented with launching Camels from temporary platforms atop gun turrets on battleships and cruisers. This scheme caught on with the U.S. Navy and after the war six ex-U.S. Army Camels were transferred to the Navy: four F.1 aircraft brought back to the United States (given numbers A5658, A5659, A5729, A5730) and two 2F.1 models (A5721, A5722).
Platforms were erected over a 14-inch gun turret of the U.S. battleship Texas (later BB-35) while the ship was in England in November 1918; later a platform was added atop another turret at the New York Navy Yard. The first takeoffs from the Texas were not made, however, until fleet maneuvers in the Caribbean the following spring with two Camels, a Hanriot HD-2, and a Sopwith 1½-Strutter assigned to the ship. The first flight was made by Lieutenant Commander Edward O. McDonnell in a Camel on 10 March 1919, while the ship was at anchor in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
A similar platform was erected on the battleship Mississippi (later BB-41), and she operated a Hanriot HD.1. In all, three flights were made from each ship during the maneuvers. After taking off the planes landed ashore.
Six additional U.S. battleships were fitted with turret platforms and takeoffs were made by British-built Camels and several other American and foreign aircraft. The last U.S. Navy flights from battleship gun turrets were recorded in August 1920 when the Navy ended its experimentation with that form of shipboard aviation.
Led by Sopwith, several British firms produced Camels during World War I, with a total of 5,490 being built. There was one purely “American” Camel: The late cartoonist Charles Schulz could magically (and artistically) transform Snoopy’s doghouse into a Camel fighter for millions of newspaper readers of his comic strip.
The Camel’s career was relatively brief, with the last combat flights probably flown by Poles against the Russians in 1920. The success and popularity of the aircraft was summed up by one anonymous wit who declared: “It became so famous that the Arabs named an animal after it.”6
1. Four U.S. Army Air Service aero squadrons—the 17th, 41st, 148th, and 185th—used the Camel. The aircraft is described in great detail in H. F. King, Sopwith Aircraft 1912–1920 (London: Putnam, 1980), pp. 146–178.
2. Kenneth Munson, Aircraft of World War I (London: Ian Allan, 1967), p. 108.
3. The Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service were merged on 1 April 1918 to form the independent Royal Air Force. Claims for the downing of von Richtofen’s aircraft are many and include an unknown infantry rifleman of the Australian 51st Battalion and Sgt C. B. Popkin, a Vickers gunner with the 24th Machine Gun Company, 4th (Australian) Division.
4. Douglas H. Robinson, The Zeppelin in Combat: A History of the German Naval Airship Division, 1912–1918 (Henley-on-Thames: G. T. Foulis, 1962), p. 321.
5. Capt. S. W. Roskill, RN, “The Destruction of Zeppelin L.53,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (August 1960), p. 78. Culley’s Camel—serial N6812—subsequently was placed in the Imperial War Museum, London.
6. King, Sopwith Aircraft 1912–1920, p. 178.