One-shot #11: Sopwith Camels

The Sopwith Camel is probably the most iconic British military plane of the Great War. Its predecessor, the Pup, was already a beloved staple of British war aviators (who became the RAF a year after the introduction of the Camel, in 1918) – but had been outclassed by the superior German aircraft. While Pups were still used until near the end of the war, the Camel featured superior maneuverability, a containment shell to keep the guns from freezing which gave it its characteristic “camel hump” and accompanying name – and a high mortality rate on takeoff.

In the hands of a skilled aviator, the Camel was remarkable in every way. It was incredibly maneuverable, due to most of its mass being concentrated right around the cockpit, allowing for hairpin turns and crazy stunts. It could both chase and evade the until-now superior German planes with ease. But the same characteristics that made it a deadly weapon in the hands of an Ace made it a death trap for the pilot. Upon takeoff, the planes often crashed as inexperienced flyers didn’t account for the gyroscopic weight imbalance and the ultra-sensitive controls. Its extreme maneuverability made it too sensitive for those that didn’t have superior reflexes. Nevertheless, after successful testing at the end of 1916, the first order for 250 Camels was placed.

After their mass production began in early 1917, as expected, H. D. Girdwood was there to capture them – shiny and unscathed – far away from combat, probably before they had ever flown across the channel:

“The Eyes of the Army – Sopwith Camels ready for a patrol over the German lines.” From Realistic Travels; numeration “68” is irrelevant because… it’s from Realistic Travels.

Girdwood was a master tradesman when it came to staging scenes far from the Front, where he was in fact not allowed. Having staged a scene, he and his Realistic Travels team would then have time to pose figures and set up their equipment in such a way as to create a compelling, high-quality, well-framed stereo pair that took advantage of the controlled circumstances & their proximity to very little danger.

This was not unusual amongst the major manufactures of Holmes-style stereoview cards; Underwood and Underwood, and to an even greater extent Keystone View Company, did the same thing. So yes, this is more or less another propaganda piece, a stereo card meant to appeal to the masses for its superior photographic qualities, in which the War was glamorous and just, and the men and equipment neat and tidy, with their uniforms perfectly buttoned and smiles on their faces. Nothing like the reality, where the vast majority of Camels were shot down or crashed through accident, and where those that didn’t were soon decommissioned in favor of more advanced aeronautical engineering.

But I’ll be damned if seeing this image doesn’t make me wish I had a pilot’s license, just so I could take one of the remaining replica Camels out for a spin!


5 Replies to “One-shot #11: Sopwith Camels”

  1. I adore these old WW1 fighters. I have some images somewhere I will let you see. You can use them if you like. Brilliant to see these old photos. I like to try and imagine what happened next when looking at old images. I note an engineer in the background, a vital part of the equation and needed to work profoundly hard all hours in all weather. The better pilots without exception used to get involved with maintenance with the ground crew too… The pilots joked the Sopwith Camel either offered the aviator a Wooden Cross; The Red Cross or the Victoria Cross! I too would love to of flown one.

  2. Yeah, the engineers need to be given their due! My grandfather, with whom I was very close, serviced & loaded bombs onto P-47 Thunderbolts during the Second World War… he’d be up at 3 in the morning, getting the things ready to fly, in the dead of winter. When he gloves wore through, his fingers would stick to the bombs and he’d have to rip them free. Tough stuff, my Pops… I have a lot of his war things framed and hanging in the apartment.

    But yeah, if I could fly 1 plane, it would either be a Sopwith Camel or a Farman Pusher type (MF.7 / MF.11 etc)… they’re classics, and you gotta love the classics!

  3. Actually it’s a Sopwith Snipe of 43 Sqn, RAF. The pilot is Lt. Edward Mulcair, 22 years old. The photo was taken after the war, so he made it.

    1. Thanks for the information, Steve! Would you happen to know when precisely this might have been taken? I’m trying to build an index for Realistic Travels cards, as well as their approximate (or precise) locations & capture dates.

  4. Steve is right on. It is a Snipe of No. 43 Sq. The plane in the background is a Camel, though. This Snipe (E8015) was in service as late as 1922.

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