RAF Museum's Sopwith Camel "flies" again as First World War gallery takes shape

By Richard Moss | 03 October 2014

The RAF Museum has put one of its star exhibits, the Sopwith Camel, high in the rafters of its new First World War Gallery

a photo of a a plane being hoisted and supported as it is moved into position towards a factory ceiling
Sopwith Camel is suspended from the ceiling of the Grahame White Factory at the RAF Museum Hendon.© RAF Museum
The Sopwith Camel, arguably the most famous Allied fighter plane of the First World War, has taken its rightful place in what promises to be the world’s best exhibition about air warfare during the First World War.

A surviving example of the venerable bi-plane has been carefully suspended from the ceiling of the historic WWI Grahame-White aircraft production factory on site at the RAF Museum’s at Hendon, where it will be a key exhibit in their First World War in The Air permanent exhibition, opening to the public in December 2015.

Exploring the earliest days of the Royal Flying Corps, and the Royal Naval Air Service which came together to form the Royal Air Force in 1918, the Grade II-listed building will  be home to an exhibition that explores the experiences of the people who took to the skies in the fledgling days of aerial combat and the machines in which they did it.

But it’s the Sopwith Camel that is the most recognisable object in a story, which when compared to the Battle of Britain and the air war in World War Two, is comparatively unknown. 

Yet as Ross Mahoney, Aviation historian at the RAF Museum explains. “The war in the air was vital to the outcome of the First World War."

“It changed the character of war and by 1918 air power became a key element of the combined arms team that ultimately delivered victory for the Britain, France and America on the Western Front.

“More broadly, air power affected the conduct of the war at sea with the introduction of aircraft carriers and airborne anti-submarine patrols and at home where strategic bombing brought the war to the home front. This latter aspect illustrated what was to come in the Second World War.”

So where does the Sopwith Camel sit within this sweeping narrative?

In a war of rapid technical development on air, land and the Sopwith Camel appeared over the trenches of the Western Front in 1917 and quickly went on to become the most effective British fighter.

As part of what is now referred to as the “air superiority” role over the Western Front the aeroplane was also used a home defence and night fighter and by 1918, it was equipped with small bomb racks and used as a ground attack aircraft.

“In effect by the end of the war it was a multi-role fighter, in some ways similar to the Hawker Typhoon of the Second World War,” says Mahoney, who adds, "the Camel was responsible for shooting down more enemy aircraft than any other allied aircraft in the First World War. In total it downed 1,294”.

Despite this impressive success rate and adaptability, it wasn’t the easiest plane to fly.

“It was highly maneuverable, which gave it many advantages in the air against its enemies,” explains Mahoney. “However, this maneuverability made it a challenge to new pilots who emerged from training.

“Pilots were typically trained in quite stable aircraft so the Camel represented a new challenge to them. Also, in level flight it had a tendency to be tail heavy, which meant that pilots had to apply forward pressure on the control stick to maintain level flight.”

Ironically, it was this challenging handling that also made it such a success, thanks to a unique design employed by the aircraft’s designer, Herbert Smith.

“Ninety per cent of the Camel’s weight came in a seven feet section of the airframe. However, it also had excellent firepower, in the form of two Vickers machine guns, which made it a potent fighting platform.”

The men who flew this “fighting platform”, without parachutes, were of course taking enormous risks.

Arthur Stanley Gould Lee whose memoir, No Parachute, A Fighting pilot in World War I, recounted his adventures during 118 patrols. He later admitted: “There were few flyers with any experience of air fighting who were not obsessed to some degree, though usually secretly, with the thought of being shot down in flames.”

But, says Mahoney, the experience of pilots changed widely. “Life expectancy varied depending on the period of the war and the amount of combat going on. In periods of high intensity combat it could be as little as 11 days.”

Despite these odds, several aces emerged from the pilots of the RNAS, RFC and RAF.

“One notable name was Raymond Collishaw who was a Canadian who joined the Royal Naval Air Service and is credited with 60 confirmed kills,” says Mahoney.

“Collishaw flew the Camel in 1918 while commanding No. 2013 Squadron RAF (a former RNAS unit) and shot down at least 19 aircraft while flying it. He stayed in the RAF and eventually became an Air Vice-Marshal in the Service.”

Visitors to the new exhibition will encounter stories of pilots like Collishaw and many others, including ground crews, factory workers and members of the local North London community that lived around Hendon.

But it’s the ancient planes of nearly a century ago, with the Sopwith Camel flying highest above them, that will naturally fascinate. 

Click below for a gallery of images showing the Sopwith Camel installation.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More on this story:

Sky's the limit for one lucky writer as RAF Museum announces blogger-in-residence post

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

RAF Museum to open First World in the Air permanent exhibition in December 2014

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