Sharp-shooting and the recklessness of youth: The story of the RAF Museum's Sopwith Camel

By Culture24 Reporter | 17 June 2014

Flown by comic hero Biggles and known as the sharpest shooter of World War I in the air, a Sopwith Camel has made its latest move ahead of a major RAF Museum exhibition

A photo of people standing around a World War one plane on tarmac outside a museum
A sojourn for the Sopwith at London's RAF Museum© RAF Museum
Rolled propeller-first into an exhibition space which will become the home of a major exhibition, First World War in the Air, opening in December, the unmistakable Sopwith is one of 1,575 made by Norwich manufacturers Boulton and Paul Ltd. A total of 5,490 Camels were created.

Elements of confusion have ensued during expert research into the museum’s example of the Thomas Sopwith design which became the highest-scoring plane of the war. Restoration work in 1936 revealed an unrecognised serial number, with the F6314 – part of a batch of 200 Camels, delivered between September and November 1918 – identified as the likely candidate.

A photo of people standing around a World War one plane on tarmac outside a museum
© RAF Museum
Thought to have been placed in storage the following year, the aircraft, which had a flying time of slightly more than two hours, was not listed as one of the six Camels still used by the RAF after the start of 1920.

Ex-Camel pilot and journalist Grenville O Manton bought the engine-less plane in spring 1923.

"My idea was to carry out a major ‘mod’ and transform that which I had known in 1917/18 as a magnificent, fierce and incredibly manoeuvrable fighter aircraft into a demure and docile aeroplane,” said Manton, outlining a plan to replace the rotary engine with a lower-powered one in a book, The Camel Fighter, produced in 1964.

“All I could get was a 45HP six-cylinder Anzani which, even in those days, was obsolete.”

Much of the early work took place at the bottom of a garden in the Hertfordshire town of Bushey.

Working behind the house of a friend, Manton enlisted a local workman to enlarge the top centre section for improved visibility, but the first attempts to start the Anzani, envisaged as a high-wing monoplane with a flat-twin motor, failed in 1985 when the motor power tipped the machine on its nose and broke its airscrew.

A photo of people standing around a World War one plane on tarmac outside a museum
© RAF Museum
A further conversion, including a nose revision and uncowling of the engine, concluded with Manton using a field for a final assembly and test flight, helped by a farmer near Tring.

"As I taxied up the gentle slope from the dell into the broad expanse of the field, and taxied to and fro on the not-so-smooth surface to gain the feel of the machine, I became aware of the ineffectiveness of the rudder in coping with the strong, gusty cross-wind which was blowing,” he reported.

“I had not sat in a cockpit for years, so I was right in deferring operations until the weather was more favourable…then with the impatience and recklessness of youth I became determined to get the Camel airborne and ignore the unkindness of the weather.

“So with my team of helpmates I went out to the field one day when the air was chilly, a wind was blowing and the sky threatened.

“The engine was started and, after ‘chocks away’, I moved off with full throttle. I found myself airborne.”

The underpowered machine, alas, was rendered a dangerous proposition to fly, although Manton and a friend, the Dutch Captain L.van Oppen, took to the air “not more than twice” in a plane with insufficient power and an inadequate rudder area.

Manton’s advert to dispose the Camel, placed in Motor Sport magazine, attracted a builder who intended to fly the Camel back to North Wales, despite having never flown before.

Manton persuaded him to abandon his plan, returning a fortnight later to tow the Camel back to Wales behind his Fiat.

Timeline of the Sopwith’s journey to Hendon

A black and white photo of a world war one plane
Late 1935 The Camel resurfaced, having been purchased by Mr DC Mason of Hornchurch, Essex. His letter, published in the January 1936 issue of Popular Flying, stated that it was in good condition and that he hoped to fly it.

April 16 1936 An edition of Flight reveals ownership of the has passed to Mr RGJ Nash, a racing driver. It is stored at Brooklands, where repairs were undertaken including the fitting of a Clerget rotary.

June 27 1936 The plane is taxied past the enclosures at the RAF Pageant at Hendon by Flt Lt Sealey. It was ‘riddled with dry rot’, so could not be flown.

May 1937 On static display at Royal Aeronautical Society Garden Party, Heathrow.

Jun 1939 Displayed at the Science Museum.

1939-1945 Stored, probably at Brooklands.

April 1950 Paintwork touched up at No. 39 MU RAF Colerne, Wiltshire, together with more extensive work on other aircraft from the Nash collection, in preparation for display at Farnborough.

July 7-8 1950 Displayed at the RAF display, Farnborough, partly repainted and fitted with Dunlop motorcycle tyres, sub-standard cowling and incomplete instrument panel.

July 19-21 1951 Displayed at the Royal Aero Club Jubilee as part of the 50 years of Flying display.

December 1953 Sold along with eight other historic aircraft by Mr Nash to the Royal Aeronautical Society, with two provisos: that they retained the title Nash Collection and were not flown when restored.

June 13 1954 Displayed with six other Nash Collection aircraft at the Royal Aeronautical Society Garden Party at London Airport (Heathrow). Former owner Mr Manton saw it there and recognised it as his former aircraft by the holes he had made for the engine mountings.

May 1955 On view at RAF Honington, Suffolk.

July 1956 To No.15 MU Wroughton, Wiltshire, with other Nash Collection aircraft. Some repair work undertaken.

September 1956 Displayed with other Nash Collection aircraft at the RAF Lichfield (Fradley) Battle of Britain Display.

August 1957 Taken by road to RAF Hendon for storage with other Nash aircraft.

September 15 1957 Displayed at the Royal Aeronautical Society Garden Party at Vickers airfield at Wisley, Surrey.

November 4 1957 Displayed at RAF Hendon on final day of operational flying.

1958 Restoration started at Hendon, but little done, other than inspection of the airframe.

1959 Moved with the rest of the Nash Collection to the BEA Engineering base at London Airport (Heathrow). Restored in the BEA hangar, mainly during 1958-1962. All fabric and plywood was renewed and the enlarged top wing cut-out restored to standard. The lower right hand longeron was badly oil soaked at the forward end, and was replaced using Sopwith drawings supplied by the Hawker Aircraft Co. A new tail skid was manufactured to original drawings. The original wing spars were retained but all wing ribs were replaced. All the work was done to flying standard.

October 1963 Run up at Heathrow for the first time. The aircraft was then regularly ground run and taxied at Heathrow and later stored there with airscrew removed and guns wrapped, as it was thought to valuable to be flown.

January 9 1964 Passed on loan to the RAF Museum and stored at RAF Henlow – assembled on January 10.

July 4 1965 Two short ground runs of the engine at Henlow – the last time the engine ran. Fuel tank drained for last time the following day.

June 19 1966 Displayed at Royal Aeronautical Society Centenary Garden Party at College of Aeronautics, Cranfield.

June 14 1968 Displayed at the RAF's 50th Anniversary Celebration Review at RAF Abingdon.

September 1968 Displayed at the Horseguards Parade, London. Soaked in a violent downpour at one stage.

October 20 1971 On display in main hall at RAF Hendon, where it has been ever since.

March 1992 Purchased with rest of Nash Collection by the Ministry of Defence.

July 11 2001 Moved by road to RAF Benson, Oxon to act as the ceremonial centrepiece at the reforming of No. 28 Squadron to operate the new Merlin helicopter.

July 19 2001 Moved to a temporary museum facility at RAF Wyton for storage and preparation for suspended display in the new lottery-funded building at Hendon.

October 30 2001 Moved by road to the newly-opened restoration facility at the RAF Museum, Cosford.

April 17 2002 Returned to Hendon to act as the backdrop for the turf-cutting ceremony for the Milestones Building. The Camel was nominated as the first exhibit for the new building, and was displayed in the car park for the event.

April 2 2003 Moved into the new Milestones of Flight building at Hendon.

September 2004 Gifted to the museum by the MoD along with the rest of the former Nash Collection.

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