A diary of the Sopwith Aviation Company and its products through 1917
The four-year-old Sopwith Aviation Company goes into 1917 as a significant designer and supplier of front line fighter aircraft to both the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps. Over 400 of the innovative Sopwith ‘1½ Strutters’, ‘Pups’ and ‘Triplanes’ developed during 1916 have already entered service and there are a further 1,600 on order. With demand way outstripping Sopwith’s own manufacturing capacity in Kingston upon Thames most of those are being built by fourteen contractors spread all over the country. The French have also spotted the unique value of Sopwith designs buying an initial batch of ‘Triplanes’ and deciding to build ‘Strutter fighters’ and ‘Strutter bombers’ in France in large numbers, possibly thousands.
In Kingston whilst most of the company’s employees beaver away on existing orders, the Design and Experimental team are already engaged on the next generation of designs. Their first prototype two-gun single-seat ‘F1’ fighter is already under test at Brooklands and they are building at least two more. The first ‘F1’ has a 110hp Clerget but it has been designed around the 130hp engine. They are also developing a 130hp floatplane which, ordered as an ‘Improved Baby’, is evolving into a new type unsurprisingly looking much like the ‘F1’.
The photographs of the first ‘F1’ in the snow at Brooklands reveal some unique features. The flat one-piece top wing is contrasted by lower wings with considerable dihedral (5ᴼ up-sweep). A very short nose and shortened rear fuselage makes it much squatter than a ‘Pup’. The twin Vickers guns are right at the nose and are partially buried with their ammunition feeds under a hump fairing which is also intended to protect the pilot from the slipsteam. Inevitably with this unique hump it is soon nicknamed ‘Camel’.
The Admiralty’s Commodore Murray Sueter continues to pursue his vision of transforming naval strategy with aerial torpedo attacks. Well aware of the limitations the large Sopwith and now even larger Short floatplanes developed for that work, he sent a personal letter to Thomas Sopwith on 9th October 1916 marked ‘Most Secret’ requesting “Will you please go into the question, with as little delay as possible re-Torpedo carrying aeroplane with 4 hours fuel and pilot (1) to carry 1x1,000lb locomotive torpedo (2) to carry 2x1,000lb locomotive torpedoes. Aeroplane will probably be discharged by catapult, giving an acceleration of 90ft/sec in 60 feet”. With the design complete the Sopwith experimental team are building a prototype large sturdy 200hp torpedo-carrying biplane alongside their smaller prototypes in the old Roller Skating Rink in Kingston.
On 1st January, almost a month after the RNAS confirmed arrangements are in hand to supply strengthened centre plane struts for all ‘Pups’, the RFC in France is advised by the War Office that “it has been decided to increase the size of the centre-section strut on the 80hp Sopwith to dimensions shown on attached drawings”.
On 2nd January RFC 45 Squadron continues its intensive two-seat ‘1½ Strutter’ training at Ste-Marie-Cappel with twenty-five flights, over twenty-three airborne hours practice at formation flying, four-aircraft formation reconnaissance, gunnery and photography. This training is starting to pay off, nobody broke anything.
On 3rd January the Eastchurch based experimental broader chord wing ‘Triplane’ N5423 fails to return from an altitude test. Fl Lt Johnston is picked up from the sea off Dieppe by a French trawler.
At the first meeting of the newly constituted Air Board on 3rd January President Lord Cowdray gains general agreement that the Air Board should be responsible for selecting the designs of aircraft and seaplanes with their engines and accessories. The Air Board, the Aeronautical Supply Department of the Ministry of Munitions and the Air Executives of the Army and Navy are all to move into the Hotel Cecil on the Strand to ensure the closest possible collaboration.
On 3rd January Aeroplane magazine publishes this cartoon “Work in the Erecting Shop” signed by S Harris which it received with a Christmas Greeting “from certain employees of the Sopwith Company”. In the hurly-burly of urgent production the workers and the Sopwith ‘Strutter’ suffer every imaginable mishap. Note an imperturbable fabric lady in their midst and the Admiralty Inspector on the left.
Having completed the first three of their Admiralty order for thirty two-seat Sopwith ‘Strutters’ in December, Mann Egerton is starting to complete the first of 20 single-seat ‘Strutter Bombers’. On 4th January N5204 is accepted at their Norwich factory probably with several others also due to go overseas.
8(Naval) Squadron at Vert Galand is now fully equipped with Sopwith ‘Pups’ but on 4th January Ft Lt Todd in ‘Pup’ N5193 is killed in Manfred von Richthofen’s first tangle with a ‘Pup’ whilst A626 is forced down after combat with seven enemy aircraft. The pilot is taken prisoner and A626 is captured largely intact. (below, unusually without wheel covers and possibly with Leutnant Mallinckrodt who claims the victory)
8(Naval) Squadron pilots claimed victories with ‘Pup’ N5194 on 4th January and on 7th January, the same day that pilots of N5198 & N5199 are shot and wounded in combat, N5189 crashes on a delivery flight just short of Vert Galand and RFC 45 Squadron ‘Strutter’ 7793 is wrecked in a forced landing.
Some of the newer Sopwith types are starting to arrive in the minor theatres of war most notably in the Aegean where RNAS 2 Wing has A, B, C and D Flights (now termed Squadrons). The mother-ship HMS Ark Royal is permanently moored by their Mudros main base on the island of Lemnos. B Squadron is at Thermi on the island of Mitylene for anti-submarine patrols and reconnaissance and bombing of Turkish supply routes. C Squadron is on Imbros for reconnaissance and bombing of the Gallipoli Peninsular, the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara and the Constantinople railway. Whilst A Squadron on the island of Thasos and D Squadron at Stavros on the coast of Salonika are responsible for reconnaissance and bombing in southern Bulgaria and the lower Struma.
The first new Sopwith machines to arrive are a few single-seat ‘Strutter Bombers’ and two-seat ‘Strutter’ fighter escorts for A Squadron on Thasos. On 9th January N5110 escorted by N5086 flies a hundred miles to aim 4x65lb bombs at the railway station, river bridge and tented encampment at Tatar Bazarjik. Reconnaissance photographs are taken and they return unmolested by aircraft or ground fire. Next time N5086 goes out on reconnaissance they chase a train which stops and troops run out firing at them. They retaliate with their machine gun from 900 ft observing several men dropping before they can take cover.
On 9th January Commander Samson’s favourite Isle of Man steam packet turned seaplane carrier HMS Ben-my-Chree which has done such sterling service with the RNAS East Indies & Egypt Squadron (EI&ES) based at Port Said is hit by shells from 3 miles away on the Turkish mainland whilst in the harbour on Castelorizo the most easterly of the Greek islands. The fourth shell hits the hangar and an intense fire is started fuelled by petrol whilst further 6 inch or 17 pounder shells arrive at six or seven a minute hitting the bridge and underwater. The ship is abandoned after 35 minutes. One Officer and four men are injured but the whole crew reach the shore. Ben-my-Chree burns until the next morning and bomb explosions continue for three more days. ‘Schneider’ floatplanes 3770 and 3778 are got off damaged but repairable whilst ‘Baby’ 8188 is destroyed.
After the wrecking of ‘Schneiders’ 3744 at Yarmouth & 3761 off Westgate last week, there are now just 102 survivors of the 236 ‘Schneider’ and ‘Baby’ floatplanes built by the Sopwith Aviation Company. Ben’s ‘Baby’ is however one of very few that has perished as a direct result of enemy action. There are more machines to come. Blackburn are well underway with orders for 76 ‘Baby’ floatplanes including five for the French Government and the Admiralty has now decided to buy 120 with 130hp Clerget engines in place of 110hp. Blackburn are expecting an order for 40 this month whilst 80 are being ordered from Fairey Aviation and their contractor Parnall with the Fairey variable camber wings. For familiarisation with ‘Baby’ airframe construction Sopwith-built 8194 is being sent to long-established shopfitters & cabinet makers George Parnall & Sons Ltd. who are building Avro 504s in Bristol. Their aircraft erecting shop is in the Coliseum skating rink in Park Row.
On 10 January Sqdn Ldr Cave-Brown-Cave flies Beardmore-modified ‘Pup’ 9497 with its arrester hook off the dummy ship’s deck at RNAS Grain but the machine is to be dismantled and packed off back to Beardmore.
Meanwhile at Beardmore another Pup, taken from the production line and allocated the out of sequence serial number 9950, is being experimentally extensively modified for ease of shipboard stowage.
Aimed at replacing the ‘Baby’ floatplanes on HMS Campania, Beardmore have been working on this ‘Aeroplane Folding Scout S.B.3d Type for some months with help from the Sopwith design team. S.B. stands for Sopwith-Beardmore.
The photographs (above) show it to have un-staggered wings with extra paired interplane struts close to the fuselage to support the wing when folded back along the fuselage, an undercarriage which can be retracted to reduce the height for below-deck storage and air filled flotation bags down the rear fuselage to keep it afloat whilst it is recovered from the sea alongside the ship.
Six days ago the War Office issued an instruction to renumber twelve ‘Pups’ of 8(Naval) Squadron as RFC A6681 to A6692. On 10th January having realised that they do not belong to the Army the instruction is cancelled.
It seems there is no established procedure for telling the operators in France about modifications being incorporated in new build aircraft. On 12th January Officer Commanding 5th Army Air Park writes that more than half of 8(Naval) Squadron ‘Pups’ have variable incidence tailplanes and the necessary fin and the remainder have fixed tailplanes but the Navy Supply Depot are unable to supply spares for fixed tailplane machines. As a result he has started modifying variable incidence parts as spares for fixed tailplane machines. This immediately causes OC No.2 Aircraft Depot to write to RFC Headquarters in France to say it had not been realised that two types of tailplanes exist. They send a terse memorandum to the War Office in London asking which is to be standard. In fact all Pups are by now being built with the simpler fixed tailplanes.
On 14th January Dover based ‘Baby’ 8195 is crashed and wrecked on take-off from the English Channel.
On 14th January at St Pol, Quartier-Maître Le Garrec making his first flight in a Sopwith ‘Triplane’ takes off in No.4 with the tail too high. The propeller clips the ground and shatters throwing the aircraft several metres through the air before landing on its nose and destroying the undercarriage. (below)
Le Lieutenant de Vaisseau de Laborde requests a replacement machine and does not have to wait long as the next day the fifth of the ten French ‘Triplanes’ ordered on Sopwith in August is delivered to St Pol where they fit Vickers guns and Alkan-Hamy or Scarff-Dibovsky synchronisation gear. British Sopwith ‘Pups’ and ‘Triplanes’ are now normally being fitted with Sopwith-Kauper gun synchronisation gear.
On 15th January RFC 54 Squadron ‘Pup’ is shot down on escort duty and the pilot killed whilst A644 suffers engine failure at 600ft and forced lands in a small field losing its undercarriage on a fence.
Strategic bombing raids by RNAS 3 Wing’s ‘1½ Strutters’ are being hampered by lack of men, machines and spares. Captain Elder has loaned machines to the French and is having to send his best pilots to the ‘Pup’ and ‘Triplane’ naval squadrons forming to support the RFC on the Western Front. Determined to press-on he writes to the Admiralty on 15th January “The shortage of engines and more than anything else the shortage of engine spare parts to put the engines I have in running order is chronic. Cannot something be done to supply the few necessary spare parts so that the material that is already available at least can be used. I am continually having rubbed into me by the French the benefit of this Wing and the necessity of largely increasing it”.
In October 1916 the first fifteen French-built Sopwith ‘1½ Strutters’ were operational, mostly with the bomber group at Luxeuil alongside those loaned by RNAS 3 Wing. At least two more Escadrilles, Sop29 and Sop123, are now fully equipped with French-built ‘Strutters’. Many more are on their way with orders for up to six hundred each being built by Amiot-S.E.C.M. in Colombes, Bessoneau in Angers, Hanroit in Billancourt, Loure et Olivier in Levallois-Perret, R.E.P. in Lyon and Sarazin Freres in Puteaux.
Following last week’s cartoon of work in the Sopwith aircraft erecting shop, Aeroplane magazine publishes this sequel also by S Harris depicting the perils of testing an engine.
On 17th January three months behind the original plan as most of his trained crews had been diverted to squadrons already at the front, Major Sholto Douglas starts deploying his first command RFC 43 Squadron and its Sopwith ‘Strutters’ from Northolt to France. The first machine away stalls and crashes on take-off killing both crew. Then the weather breaks forcing one flight to fly down the Thames passing RFC Headquarters at Adastral House near Blackfriars Bridge below the height of the top floor windows. The squadron stops overnight at Lympne before crossing to St Omer and then flying ten miles south to their new base at Treizennes. They sleep on the floor of empty cold huts in snow and bitter cold. The weather has been like this over northern France for the last ten days severely restricting any flying.
On 18th January RFC ‘Strutters’ 7801 and A896 are wrecked at Castle Bromwich and North Camp Station.
On 21st January RNAS Grain based ‘Schneider’ floatplane 3756 is crashed and wrecked.
On 23rd January Sopwith ‘Triplane’ N5440 is delivered to RNAS Eastchurch with tailplane and elevators 2ft 1in shorter in span than the original ‘Pup’ type surfaces. These are intended to improve control response and allow the machines to be dived vertically with greater ease. Eastchurch reports: “The decrease in horizontal tail area has resulted in making the machine much more handy. The fore-and-aft stability is not so good but there is sufficient control to get the machine out of any position whilst fighting. The alteration has improved the machine from a war point of view.” All machines are to have the new tailplanes as they come available.
Sopwith’s Canbury Park Road factory in Kingston, still building ‘Strutters’ and ‘Pups’, is now in full flow with ‘Triplane’ production.(below) They are on plan to deliver sixteen to Brooklands this month and two more French machines without engines to Dover, a significant addition to the twenty-seven previously built.
On 23rd January whilst RNAS 5 Wing ‘Strutters’ are out practising formation flying despite twelve degrees of frost, RFC 45 Squadron ‘Strutters’ have their first major engagement for three months. ‘Strutter’ A1078 is shot down killing both crew, the observer in 7792 is wounded in the leg whilst A1083 claims an Albatross sent down and two other enemy aircraft are damaged. The fourteen aircraft which fly include two formations of four making a first attempt at oblique camera photo reconnaissance but they are thwarted by the weather.
It has also been snowing further south at Ochey and Luxeuil, (above) but in the frigid cold on 23rd January thirty-two 3 Wing ‘Strutters’ set out to raid the Burbach blast furnaces. There is great difficulty starting the engines, there are accidents on the ground and many of those who do get airborne suffer engine failures or find difficulty in picking up their formation positions in the recently reorganised flights. Ten bombers reach the target escorted by five two-seat “Strutters” who fight off four enemy aircraft one of which is shot down. One of the bombers also claims a victory. In N5121 Fl Sub Lt Stevens thinks he has released his four 65lb bombs but one still hangs out of the rear left hand bomb door jamming it partially open. After landing Stevens gets out and attempts to free the bomb. Remarking to a mechanic that “it will need a crowbar to shift it”, he restarts the engine and taxis towards the hangar but the vibration is enough to loosen the bomb, which strikes the hard frosted soil and explodes with a blinding flash. Stevens is seriously injured with bomb splinters in his left leg and burns to his face, two mechanics are killed and an officer and three other mechanics are seriously wounded some of them apparently by bullets.
On 23rd January 8(Naval) Squadron ‘Pup’ pilots of N5181 and N5197 both claim aircraft shot down whilst the pilot in N5186 claims a two-seater down before he himself is shot down and injured.
On 24th January 8(Naval) Sqdn ‘Pup’ N5198 is shot down killing the pilot, 43 Sqdn ‘Strutter’ A2392 wrecked in a crash killing both occupants and 70 Sqdn ‘Strutter’ A1515 is wrecked in a forced landing whilst on photo escort.
Since Basil Watson’s first distance flight in his homebuilt Sopwith ‘Sparrow’ on 29th November he has made others and been giving flying displays. On 24th January he flies the machine from Point Cook, Melbourne 166 miles to Warrnambool in 5 minutes under two hours. The Warrnambool Standard reports this as a record non-stop cross-country flight for Australia, the first aeroplane ever to visit this part of the Commonwealth and the first airmail service to Warrnambool. Basil delivers three letters to the Mayor who greets him at the racecourse after he has circled over the town to give people a chance to see his machine. A letter from the Mayor of Melbourne concludes “I hope when this cruel war is over and victory crowns our efforts, we, all over the Commonwealth, will be able to fly from one State to the other”. Basil is to “loop the loop and perform other outstanding feats” in a flying display at the racecourse on Saturday.
Another Isle of Man steam packet HMS Manxman (above) was commissioned last month as a seaplane carrier with a small forward hangar for two fast-response ‘Baby’ floatplanes using the short sloping bow ramp and a hoisting crane behind the larger stern hangar for big Short floatplanes. Fl Lt Rutland, often tagged ‘Rutland of Jutland’ as the only pilot to take any significant part in the Battle of Jutland, has consistently argued that only wheeled aeroplanes can hope to fly high enough and fast enough to attack a Zeppelin airship at its ceiling and that they should be flown from ships preferably with 600ft flush decks. As Manxman’s senior flying officer he has to make do for now with a 60ft foredeck ramp and makes two flights confirming that it requires a strong wind along the deck for a Sopwith ‘Baby’ on a wheeled trolley to become airborne. His view that Sopwith ‘Pups’ are a better proposition has been conceded and ‘Pups’ are soon to replace the ‘Baby’ floatplanes on HMS Manxman and HMS Campania despite the need to ditch in the sea and float long enough to be hoisted back aboard the ship.
After the bomb explosion at Ochey two days ago, twenty-two test drops have resulted in two bomb jams. On 25th January a Court of Enquiry hears evidence from witnesses of the accident and finds that the cause was the bomb jamming after being released allowing the arming vane to unscrew from the spindle making the bomb dangerous and free to function. The probable cause of the jam being the different type of rear bomb doors fitted on these Westland-built ‘Strutter Bombers’. “No blame is attributed to anyone for the bomb jamming but the accident might have been prevented if the pilot had reported the condition of the bomb before taxying his machine in.” It seems that the strengthening recesses stamped into the doors can lead to “an unequal fall of the bomb” as it pushes them open and a bomb fin getting jammed inside the bomb bay. It is recommended that the longerons are packed to allow these doors to lie flush and need no strengthening projections, recesses or cutaway portions. The underside of the stamped recesses can be seen on the open rear bomb door of 3 Wing ‘Strutter Bomber’ N5116. (below)
Interesting additions to the facilities at Brooklands are a pair of Bessonneau wooden-girder canvas covered portable hangars in front of the original Sopwith sheds in these recent images. (below) The aircraft appears to be Sopwith-built ‘Strutter Bomber’ N5112 back from Eastchurch before going off to 3 Wing at Luxeuil. Note the tail of a prototype ‘F1’ Camel sticking out of the Sopwith shed with the Byfleet footbridge behind and the 1915 Type RFC hangar and bell tents in front of the farmhouse.
Bessonneau have not been able to keep up with the demand for their hangars in France let alone overseas but licensed manufacture of frames and canvas covers is now underway in Britain.
On 25th January Capt Lees in ‘Pup’ A635 achieves RFC 54 Squadron’s first victory, an Albatross DII destroyed.
On 26th January 45 Squadron ‘Strutter’ A1074 is shot down in flames killing both crew and 8(Naval) Squadron ‘Pup’ N5181, also on photo escort duty, is wrecked in a forced landing after damage in combat.
On 26th January the Sopwith Board Meeting seals a patent application for “improvements in means for synchronizing the firing of a gun with the rotation of the propeller” clearly associated with the Sopwith-Kauper gear and records that “Mr Sopwith having been requested by the Italian Government to allow them to build the old type Schneider Cup seaplanes, it was resolved that the plans should be handed over to Mr Sopwith to dispose of as he thinks fit”.
On 27th January I (Naval) Sqdn ‘Triplane’ N5436 claims a victory as does RFC 54 Sqdn ‘Pup’ A652 sending a two-seater into a spinning dive, the right hand top plane comes off. That day 45 Sqdn ‘Strutter’ A1076 crashes on take-off and 70 Sqdn A1922 crashes trying to avoid another machine when landing.
On 27th January the first Sopwith ‘Pup’ built by Whitehead Aircraft A6150, after trial assembly at their factory in Richmond upon Thames (below), is delivered to Farnborough for acceptance tests. The following day Whitehead ‘Pup’ A6151 arrives for a thorough quality check by the Aircraft Inspection Department (AID).
On 28th January 9914 is the second Beardmore-built ‘Pup’ to arrive at East Fortune this week (above) for service on HMS Manxman. Especially adapted for Zeppelin interception they have sheet metal protection on the wing surface behind the rocket rails and, in place of the Vickers gun, a tripod in front of the pilot for a Lewis gun firing up through the top wing aperture. They have the distinctive Beardmore tricolour striped elevators.
On 28th January a cylinder bursts on 45 Sqdn ‘Strutter’ A1071 as it is running up and flies off damaging 7780. 7788 damages its undercarriage on landing and the next day is wrecked in a forced landing after engine failure whilst three give chase to an enemy aircraft and get some rounds fired despite guns jamming, one pilot using the locally improvised “window in the top plane” to position his aircraft ideally for the rear gunner.
On 29th January six RNAS 5 Wing ‘Strutters’ leave Coudekerque in crystal clear weather to raid hostile shipping but as far as Ostend see nothing except frozen foam along the beach and way out to sea after four nights with temperatures as low as 22 degrees of frost. Bitterly cold at 12,000ft they turn and after five minutes driven by the raging easterly wind almost bomb their own destroyers before realising they are already off Malo.
On 30th January 54 Sqdn ‘Pup’ A640 crashes landing in a ploughed field after an engine failure.
On 31st January the French Minister for War writes to the British Aviation Supplies Depot in Paris thanking “the British Naval Aviation for putting an 80hp Sopwith at my disposal for examination and study. It has been decided it would not be suitable for the French Aviation to organize the manufacture of machines of this type at present. I will despatch it at once to the destination you desire”. (There is no known identity for this ‘Pup’)
On 31st January 8(Naval) Sqdn is withdrawn from Vert Galand to regroup and re-equip with Sopwith ‘Triplanes’. Since 26th October they have shot down 20 enemy aircraft but more crucially have played their part in keeping most enemy aircraft away from the battlefields allowing the RFC to continue their photo reconnaissance and artillery direction work relatively unmolested.
Commodore Murray Sueter’s proposals for floatplane torpedo attacks on the German Fleet at Wilhelmshaven are not thought likely to succeed but he is now put in command of a force based at Otranto on the heel of Italy to attack the Austrian Fleet at Pola and other naval targets in the Adriatic. In addition to 310hp Short Torpedo floatplanes he will have Sopwith “Strutters” as escort fighters with Short and Sopwith “Baby” floatplanes for work along the barrage protecting allied fleets in Otranto from enemy U-boats. Without Sueter’s direct support the Sopwith team stop further work on their experimental 200hp “T1” torpedo landplane and store the part completed fuselage in the factory roof.
Development flying of the ‘F1’ Camel prototype continues at Brooklands. It apparently now has an cut-out in the centre of the top wing, possibly to compensate for the small rudder or tail-heaviness. (above) There are other ‘F1’ Camel prototypes under construction but by the end of January the Admiralty are so impressed by the potential of the design that they have already given Sopwith Aviation a production order for fifty machines. Other new orders in January have been 50 ‘Pups’ and 20 ‘Triplanes’ on Sopwith, another 50 ‘Strutters’ on Vickers, 40 ‘Baby’ floatplanes on Blackburn and 80 camber-wing ‘Baby’ floatplanes on Fairey and their contractor Parnall.
Sopwith has completed a record 52 new aeroplanes in January whilst overall production of Sopwith machines in the month has exceeded 160 easily beating last month’s record 97. That total includes 41 ‘Pups’: 16 from Sopwith, 23 from Standard Motors and 2 from Whitehead. Of the 101 new ‘Strutters’ 18 were from Sopwith (all bombers), 9 from Fairey, 14 from Mann Egerton (7 each fighters and bombers), 26 from Ruston Proctor, 22 from Vickers and 12 bombers from Westland. Sopwith also completed 18 ‘Triplanes’ including 4 for the French Navy whilst Blackburn delivered five or more ‘Baby’ floatplanes.
Ruston Proctor have recorded “Nieuport gun ring removed” against many of the “Strutters” delivered this month. The RFC might at last be getting better supplies of their much preferred Scarff gun rings.
Strutters’ are the latest Sopwith type to appear as a floatplane. In mid January, the French Hanroit aircraft company delivered the first of seventeen it is building for the French Navy. (above)
From 1st February 1917 German U-boat commanders are permitted to wage unrestricted warfare. The plan to block Britain’s supplies of food and material from around the world is made easier by the discovery that the English Channel is not as well defended against submarine movements as they thought and they no longer have to go round the north of Scotland to get into the Atlantic. There are 49 U-boats based in North German ports and 33 in Belgian ports up to a third of which could be active at any time. Sopwith ‘Baby’ floatplanes and ‘Strutters’ are regular workhorses in RNAS Dover and Dunkirk’s work detecting and restricting U-boat movements and attacking Belgian port installation. On 1st February 1(N)Squadron ‘Strutter’ 9417 from St Pol photographs ammunition stores along the Bruges canal and U-boats in the harbour.
There is still only one RFC ‘Pup’ squadron in France but on 1st February the RFC gain the command of 3(Naval)Squadron when it officially replaces 8(N)Sqdn at Vert Galand. The English and Canadian pilots with an Australian, a New Zealander and an Irishman inherit twenty-one of 8(N)Sqdn’s ‘Pups’ but “many are verging on the worn-out”. That first day 3(N)Sqdn ‘Pup’ N6161 is shot down and captured with the pilot taken prisoner.
Elsewhere on 1st February Australian R S Dallas claims his third ‘Triplane’ victory downing an LVG in 1(N)Squadron’s N5436 whilst 2(N)Squadron ‘Strutter’ 9417 claims a two-seater down in smoke and RFC 45 Squadron’s A1072 suffers a seized engine and forced landing.
On 1st February RNAS 3 Wing in south-east France has a hundred aircraft, (above) 94 of them Sopwith types but only 34 are serviceable and the standard Type 9400S ‘Strutter’ fighters with a 37 gallon 275 mile range are of limited use even when based closest to enemy territory at Ochey. The priority has to be keeping the few Type 9400L long-range ‘Strutter’ fighters serviceable with their 57½ gallon 362 mile range for escorting the bombing missions of the 54 gallon 372 mile range Type 9700 ‘Strutter Bombers’. The unreliability and short life of the Clerget engines in their ‘Strutters’ is forcing 3 Wing to accept a squadron of inferior but more reliably engined American Curtiss R2s. They are however due to be amongst the first to get the huge Handley-Page 0/100 twin-engined strategic bomber.
On 2nd February 8(N)Squadron ‘Pup’ N5191 is shot down and the pilot killed.
It appears that Sopwith’s January output of eighteen ‘Triplanes’ included not two but four French machines delivered to Dover. Two of those now have their French engines installed, one was flown to St Pol last week, the seventh of the ten on order arrives there on 2nd February. Marked F7 & F9 they are actually SP.13 & SP.14. On 3rd February three French ‘Triplanes’ attack a large biplane over Ypres without a conclusive result.
On 3rd February in Australia Basil Watson flies his homebuilt Sopwith ‘Sparrow’ from Warrambool to Hamilton before giving a flying exhibition at the Show Ground. In unfavourable strong southerly winds he takes off in 50 yards and circles up to 4,000ft for a 25 minute display of “perpendicular diving and climbing, speed flights, somersaulting and rapid turning with the machine side on”. Taxying to park after landing, the propeller hits a hidden post lying in the long grass and is badly damaged.
At 4.45am on 3rd February eight “Strutters” of RNAS 5 Wing, now 4 & 5(Naval)Squadrons, attempt to leave Coudekerque to bomb Bruges Docks and its U-boats. Veteran ‘Strutter’ 9382 (above) is one of only two machines to reach Bruges. The intense cold has frozen the “castor oil to a tallow consistency”, engines will not pull or fail altogether. One ‘Strutter’ crashes through two stout willow trees and the pilot walks away from “not much more than a pile of matchwood”. Another machine lands on the beach and, caught by the tide, is floating nearly vertically in 8ft of water before it is towed in but becomes stuck fast in the sand. Despite the efforts of 30 or 40 French soldiers to haul it out, they have to wait for the tide to recede to disarm it and dig it out.
On 4th February Dover-based ‘Baby’ floatplane 9405 “falls into the sea” and 7(N)Squadron ‘Strutter’ N5505 is crashed. Both are recorded “beyond repair”.
The second Whitehead-built ‘Pup’ A6151 has passed its inspection by a Sopwith team and the Government AID at Farnborough has been flown to Filton where RFC 66 Squadron is forming. It is joined in the snow there on 5th February by Standard Motors-built ‘Pups’ A663 & A674. (below)
On 6th February RFC 45 Squadron are finally authorised to fly their ‘Strutters’ over the lines on the Western Front. On that day the clock in A1084 is reported to have indicated 160mph in a steep pursuing dive before expending all their ammunition and returning through a barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Like 70 Squadron, their role in the Headquarters Army Wing is to provide a permanent defensive umbrella for the Corps Wings’ vulnerable observation aircraft which are working directly with specific army units on the ground. Typically in formations of two or four aircraft at heights of 8 to 10,000 ft 45Sqdn undertake line patrols directly over the trenches, defensive patrols 4 or 5 miles behind the German Lines and offensive patrols some 8 miles beyond that. Any of these can include photo reconnaissance. On 7th February a five aircraft photographic patrol at 10,000ft ends after two of four “very fast” enemy single-seaters are sent down whilst ‘Strutter’ 7789 plunges to earth with the wings folded up with fatal consequences for the crew.
On 7th February, after six inches of snow at Coudekerque in recent days, five 4 & 5(N)Squadron “Strutter bombers” with two ‘Strutter’ escorts bomb Bruges harbour whilst 1(N)Squadron’s N5172 photographs German warships for the first time in the Darse. ‘Strutter’ N5102 is shot down killing both crew and the aircraft is captured. On 8th February they make another shipping raid despite their ground speed reduced to 40 mph by easterly winds and on 9th February nine more set out to raid Ghistelles aerodrome, five actually getting there.
Beardmore-built SBIII prototype 9950 arrived at Eastchurch by rail from Glasgow on 2nd February. Despite the Sopwith ‘Pup’ fuselage it makes an unusual sight with its un-staggered folding wings and tucked up undercarriage. (above and below) Its extra weight precludes the carrying of rockets but it has the upward firing Lewis gun tripod in front of the pilot. On 7th February it is flown at Eastchurch for the first time by Sqdn Cmdr Busteed.
In the first week of unrestricted warfare German U-boats sink thirty-five vessels in the Channel and Western Approaches forcing the Navy to consider stationing more aircraft along the south coast to tackle this menace.
What is believed to be the second ‘F1 Camel’ prototype is photographed (above) looking very like the first but with a 130hp Clerget engine, a less steeply sloped hump and a small windscreen. It has no cut-out yet in the one-piece top wing and small square side panels to access the rear of the engine. The Sopwith experimental team are busy building more prototypes in the Skating Rink. Following closely behind this second ‘F1 Camel’ prototype are at least three more and the two similar ‘FS1 Improved Baby’ floatplanes ordered by the Admiralty in late December.
The issues with the Council over wall thicknesses, fire escapes, drains and acetylene workshops in the Sopwith factory extensions appear to be resolved as the third extension is occupied and construction of the fourth is underway including the three story offices on the corner of Canbury Park Road and Elm Crescent. However on 8th February a letter from the Kingston Borough Surveyor calls Sopwith’s attention to “the building erected along the forecourt of the third factory extension in Elm Grove which is in front of the building line and which is contrary to the building regulations and Act of Parliament”. The reply the next day from Company Secretary Musgrove simply states “We have been compelled to erect this on account of new War Office and Admiralty orders for the storage of ‘dope’ in a certain temperature which had to be carried out immediately”.
On 8th February 5(N)Squadron ‘Strutter’ 9385 is wrecked.
On 9th February 45 Squadron ‘Strutters’ on a photographic sortie get into a spirited fight. The pilot of A1084 with guns jammed desperately throws it into a loop but half of the tailplane collapses. With a gun un-jammed they pepper the pursuer who breaks off apparently badly damaged and survive to nurse their machine back over the lines to a crash landing. The machine has logged 68 flying hours and is “not worth reconstruction”.
On 9th February an Air Board conference concludes that a monthly output of 80 ‘Pups’ will be required. It views with concern that the record month of January still produced less than 50 and notes that Sopwith are expected in a few months to supplant ‘Pup’ production with ‘F1 Camels’ which will leave only Beardmore, Standard Motors and the fledgling Whitehead Company as ‘Pup’ suppliers.
On 10th February 43 Squadron ‘Strutter’ A1107 crashes with an injured pilot after being hit by AA fire, the crew of A2386 are both wounded in combat with seven enemy machines whilst A2388 glides back to safety with a shot-up engine but the observer dies of his wounds. ‘Strutter’ A2399 suffers an engine failure on delivery to 43 Squadron running into a ditch to be deleted after just five flying hours whilst veteran 5(N)Squadron ‘Strutter’ 9383 is crashed and also damaged beyond repair.
On 10th & 11th February ‘Baby’ floatplane 8150 goes out from Great Yarmouth after reports of enemy U-Boats as does 8150 from Dunkirk. The oddly-numbered Blackburn-built ‘Baby’ N300 joins others on HMS Campania.
On 11th February 54 Squadron ‘Pup’ A639 shoots an Albatross C which is last seen in a nose dive whilst A642 forces down a two-seater. The engine cowl of ‘Strutter’ N5090 comes off in flight and they make a forced landing in a ploughed field. The long-established patented Sopwith method of attaching cowls using an external wire clamping ring in interlocking groves around the fuselage and the cowl is very practical and has been much copied but some units are fitting additional external clips from the fuselage to the cowl. The aircraft depots in France are not just modifying ‘Strutters’ to improve the performance by fitting some with 130hp Clergets. They are about to test an alternative interrupter gear designed by Captain Ross of 70 Squadron. Recent trials with a smaller 12ft span tailplane to improve agility gave sluggish control and difficulties in recovering from dives. Also proving unsuccessful are current 46 Squadron trials with a ‘Strutter’ fitted out for artillery observation.
On 12th February two C Squadron ‘Strutters’ of RNAS 2 Wing from Imbros in the Aegean escorting a Henri Farman F27 on an anti-submarine patrol up the Dardanelles are caught in a surprise attacked by a Fokker Eindekker which they chase away but it manages to fire at the Farman which is forced to land near Kephez Point. The crew burn the aircraft before being taken prisoner.
On 13th February an RFC 54 Squadron ‘Pup’ sends an enemy machine down in a nose dive. While 5(N)Sqdn ‘Strutters’ are patrolling the Belgian coast, two ‘Pups’ dive into their formation causing an observer to open fire. It is noted that “the Germans have very similar aircraft on this coast”.
On 14th February 5(N)Squadron go out in the dark at 3.20am to follow the coastline and bomb Bruges where they are caught by searchlights and subject to AA fire. At midday enemy aircraft bomb the RNAS St Pol Depot killing one man, seriously injuring sixteen and destroying several aircraft.
On 14th February the French fly their eighth Sopwith ‘Triplane’ to St Pol from Dover. Marked F6 this one is actually SP.15.
On 14th February the pilot of 54 Squadron’s A642 becomes first RFC ‘Pup’ pilot lost in action when attacked returning from an escort duty with a failing engine. His controls are hit and he crashes into a building to become a prisoner of war with a wounded arm. 3(N)Squadron ‘Pup’ N6172 drives down a two-seater but the attrition continues when N5186, N5195 & N5197 crash on landing as does 8(N)Squadron’s N5183 at Rue by the Somme. (below)
With Sopwith’s Kingston factory breaking output records, the RNAS perceives a bottleneck in Sopwith’s final assembly operations at Brooklands and a shortage of ferry pilots. On 14th February the Assistant-Director of Air Services issues a directive to the Captain Superintendant, Central Supply Depot, White City: “Owing to the necessity of getting machines to Dunkirk as soon as possible....the Fifth Sea Lord has approved of all Triplanes and Pups being sent direct by naval motor lorries to Dover for erection and trial from Sopwith’s works. They will be erected by naval ratings at Dover and tested by Lt Andrew. Any ratings now at Brooklands should be sent to Dover. Procedure to come into force forthwith.” Sopwith are not at all keen on this arrangement.
Among the new Knights in the Honours announced this week are Sir William Ashbee Tritton who played such a prominent part in the development of the tank, Sir George Buckham Vickers’ chief gun designer and Sir William Douglas Weir, Chairman of Scottish pump (and now ammunition shell) manufacturer G & J Weir, successful Director of Munitions for Scotland and the Ministry of Munitions’ Controller of Aeronautical Supplies on the new Air Board. Flight magazine reflects the general welcome for the overarching new powers of the Air Board with this cartoon depicting their key role in co-ordinating the supply of new aircraft to the fighting forces. (below)
With two additional divisions from England the British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig is taking over more of the French front line south of the Somme to release French resources for the major allied joint offensive planned to start on 1st April but Haig now tells the War Cabinet the RFC will not be fully ready and the air situation is even worse than he feared after continual postponements of the arrival of new squadrons and replacement aircraft through the winter. There will be a shortage of four to seven fighting squadrons below what was promised and seven to ten below what he had asked for and a further shortage of two new-type corps squadrons whilst five squadrons scheduled for re-equipment would remain unconverted. “Our fighting machines will almost certainly be inferior in number and quite certainly in performance.” This is despite the RNAS secondment of 3(N)Squadron’s ‘Pups’ attached to RFC 22 Wing and on 15th February the sixteen Sopwith ‘Triplanes’ of 1(N)Squadron attaching to RFC 14 Wing, with the promise during March of the return of 8(N) Squadron re-equipped with Sopwith ‘Triplanes’ and 6(N) Squadron with Nieuport Scouts.
After just six days at Farnborough the first Whitehead-built ‘Pup’ A6150 (above) went not into active squadron service but to the RFC Central Flying School at Upavon where this photograph shows it to be unarmed and built with the now outdated adjustable incidence tailplane.
The promoters of Basil Watson’s barnstorming tour of Western Victoria in his homebuilt Sopwith ‘Sparrow’ have received approval from the Postmaster General's Department to carry official experimental airmail some 300 miles from Mt Gambier in South Australia back to Melbourne. Only specially issued souvenir letter cards marked "Australian Aerial Mail" are carried which sell for 1/- each plus penny postage. On 15th February he loops-the-loop twice over Mt. Gambier Town Hall before setting out with a sealed mail bag on a 26 minute flight to the racecourse at Casterton.
The recent decision to launch ‘Pups’ not ‘Baby’ floatplanes from the foredeck ramps of His Majesty’s Ships has triggered Admiralty orders for two extra batches of thirty ‘Pups’ from Beardmore, N6100 to 29 & N6430 to 59. This brings Beardmore’s total orders for ‘Pups’ to one hundred and ten of which about twenty are delivered including four pictured in the snow at East Fortune with their rocket rails and Lewis gun tripods. (below) They are preparing to operate from HMS Manxman.
On 15th February 3(N)Squadron ‘Pup’ N6160 sends a scout down in a spin. The pilots of RFC 54 Sqdn ‘Pups’ A645 and A654 are killed one in combat and the other apparently by anti-aircraft flak whilst A647 is damaged and has to make a forced landing. 45 Sqdn ‘Strutter’ A1072’s engine chokes and it forced lands in fog whilst in England N5166 is crashed and wrecked on its delivery flight from Westland Aircraft at Yeovil to RNAS Cranwell.
On 16th February French Triplanes F1 & F7, now SP9 & SP13, intercept two German bombers over Dunkirk and send a German aircraft down pouring smoke whilst Manston-based Triplane N5424 is one of six machines sent up unsuccessfully to intercept a German Sablatnig SF 5 floatplane attacking shipping off the east Kent coast for the second time in two days. 3(N)Squadron ‘Pups’ N5188 & 9898 share a victory shooting down a Roland over Bapaume. 9(N) Squadron ‘Strutter’ 9897 goes out for the first time from Dunkirk with wireless telegraphy to report sightings of naval siege guns and 5(N) Squadron ‘Strutters’ bomb Bruges again. 43 Squadron ‘Strutter’ A959 is wrecked in a forced landing during a Defensive Patrol whilst eight month old prototype ‘Triplane’ N500 now with 8(N)Squadron gets tail high on take-off damaging the propeller and coming to a halt on its nose. (below)
There are now ten ‘Strutters’ in the Aegean and on 17th February one from C Squadron on Imbros aims two bombs at an enemy gunboat and one on the seaplane hangar at Kusa Burna but its Bristol Scout escort never returns. By now three Sopwith-built ‘Strutter Bombers’ 9715, 18 & 27 and a Mann Egerton-built two-seat “Strutter” N5223 have arrived at Otranto in southern Italy for Commander Sueter’s Adriatic attack force.
On 17th February the Sopwith Board approve the accounts for the 1915/16 and seal patent applications for improved axle arrangements, wind brakes, windscreens, adjustable seats and operation of the empennage.
The RNAS have always been willing to accept the relatively lightweight construction of Sopwith’s machines to take advantage of their exceptional performance. The RFC are more cautious. Following their Central Flying School recommendation that the strength of ‘Pups’ be “checked for dive and sharp flatten out”, structural strength tests on ‘Pup’ A631 have been completed by the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough by progressively loading the wings of the inverted machine with sand-bags. Various ‘Pup’ factors of safety from 6 and 7.95 are being officially quoted meaning the aircraft’s structure can support 6 or perhaps 7.95 times the standard flying loads during extreme manoeuvres.
When a 43 Squadron ‘Strutter’ broke up shortly after they arrived in France, Sholto Douglas concluded that they are rather fragile if roughly or clumsily handled. To reassure his pilots he does thirteen continuous loops with his adjutant in the back who has not strapped in and is hanging on for dear life. Douglas is angry with himself for not warning him. His delighted pilots think it is an enormous joke and are somewhat reassured.
On 19th February a French pilot at Luxeuil in a Sopwith-built ‘Strutter’ makes “several pretty sharp turns, descends very steeply with full motor and levels the machine out very sharply”. The right wing separates from the fuselage and the machine dives motor full on vertically into the ground. The French view is that it broke up in the pull-out through structural weakness and ‘Strutters’ must be strengthened by modifications. The RNAS observers’ views are that in such a sharp pull-out from a steep power dive any aircraft would be overstressed.
Basil Watson remains in Casterton five days until the 20th February when he leaves for Hamilton and Warrnambool picking up more mail bags for Melbourne. He is photographed (above) leaning on the propeller of his home-built Sopwith ‘Sparrow’ at Warrnambool with well-wishers and his tour promoters who are travelling in motor cars carrying emergency cans of fuel, although fuel and oil have been sent to the planned destinations well in advance. He continues the same day to Camperdown landing at the race course where a flying exhibition has been arranged for Saturday 24th February before he goes on to complete the air mail delivery to Melbourne.
During February the Deutsche Luftkreigsbeute Ausstellung (Exhibition of German trophies from war in the air) is being held “am Zoo”, presumably Berlin Zoo. Using the acronym DELKA, the poster by Julius Gipkens declares the Patron to be His Royal Highness Prince Henry of Prussia. Among the aircraft displayed is Sopwith ‘Schneider’ 3717 which has seen active service at Zeebrugge since being captured there in August 1915.(below)
Sopwith ‘Baby’ 8153 has also been in German service since being captured returning from dropping bombs on the Hoyer Airship Base in March 1916.(below)
Photographs courtesy of Brooklands Museum, RAF Museum, Fleet Air Ar Museum, National Archives and private collections of Mike Goodall, Philip Jarrett and others
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