What Was the World War I Sopwith Camel?

A British Sopwith Camel parked in a grass field on a sunny day.

USAF Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The iconic Allied aircraft of World War I (1914-1918), the Sopwith Camel, entered service in mid-1917 and helped the reclaim the skies over the Western Front from the Deutsche Luftstreitkräfte (Imperial German Air Service). The evolution of an earlier Sopwith fighter, the Camel mounted twin-.30 cal. Vickers machine guns and was capable of around 113 mph in level flight. A difficult aircraft for novices to fly, its idiosyncrasies made it one of the most maneuverable aircraft on either side in the hands of an experienced pilot. These characteristics helped make it the most lethal Allied fighter of the war. 

Design and Development

Designed by Herbert Smith, the Sopwith Camel was a follow-on aircraft to the Sopwith Pup. A largely successful aircraft, the Pup had become outclassed by new German fighters, such as the Albatros D.III, in early 1917. The result was a period known as "Bloody April," which saw Allied squadrons sustain heavy losses as their Pups, Nieuport 17s, and older aircraft were downed in large numbers by the Germans. Initially known as the "Big Pup," the Camel was initially powered by a 110 hp Clerget 9Z engine and featured a visually heavier fuselage than its predecessor.

This was largely composed of fabric over a wooden frame with plywood panels around the cockpit and an aluminum engine cowling. Structurally, the aircraft featured a straight upper wing with a very pronounced dihedral on the lower wing. The new Camel was the first British fighter to utilize twin-.30 cal. Vickers machine guns firing through the propeller. The metal fairing over the guns' breeches, which was intended to keep the weapons from freezing at higher altitudes, formed a "hump" that led to the aircraft's name. A nickname, the term "Camel," was never officially adopted by the Royal Flying Corps.


The fuselage, the engine, pilot, guns, and fuel were grouped within the first seven feet of the aircraft. This forward center of gravity, coupled with the significant gyroscopic effect of the rotary engine, made the aircraft difficult to fly, particularly for novice aviators. This was a significant change from earlier Sopwith aircraft, which had been considered fairly easy to fly. To facilitate the transition to the aircraft, two-seat trainer variants of the Camel were produced.

The Sopwith Camel was known to climb in a left turn and dive in a right turn. Mishandling the aircraft often could lead to a dangerous spin. Also, the aircraft was known to be consistently tail heavy in level flight at low altitudes and required steady forward pressure on the control stick to maintain a steady altitude. While these handling characteristics challenged pilots, they also made the Camel extremely maneuverable and lethal in combat when flown by a skilled pilot, such as Canadian ace William George Barker.

Sopwith Camel Specifications


  • Length: 18 feet 9 inches
  • Wingspan: 26 feet 11 inches
  • Height: 8 feet 6 inches
  • Wing Area: 231 square feet
  • Empty Weight: 930 pounds
  • Crew: 1


  • Power Plant: 1 × Clerget 9B 9-cylinder Rotary engine, 130 hp
  • Range: 300 miles
  • Max Speed: 113 mph
  • Ceiling: 21,000 feet


  • Guns: twin-.30 cal. Vickers machine guns


Flying for the first time on December 22, 1916, with Sopwith test pilot Harry Hawker at the controls, the prototype Camel impressed and the design was further developed. Accepted into service by the Royal Flying Corps as the Sopwith Camel F.1, the majority of the production aircraft were powered by 130 hp Clerget 9B engines. The first order for the aircraft was issued by the War Office in May 1917. Subsequent orders saw the production run total around 5,490 aircraft. During its production, the Camel was fitted with a variety of engines including the 140 hp Clerget 9Bf, 110 hp Le Rhone 9J, 100 hp Gnome Monosoupape 9B-2, and 150 hp Bentley BR1.

Operational History

Arriving at the front in June 1917, the Camel debuted with No.4 Squadron Royal Naval Air Service and quickly showed its superiority over the best German fighters, including both the Albatros D.III and D.V. The aircraft next appeared with No. 70 Squadron RFC and ultimately would be flown by over fifty RFC squadrons. An agile dogfighter, the Camel, along with the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a and the French SPAD S.XIII, played a key role in reclaiming the skies over the Western Front for the Allies. In addition to British use, 143 Camels were purchased by the American Expeditionary Force and flown by several of its squadrons. The aircraft was also used by Belgian and Greek units.

Other Uses

In addition to service ashore, a version of the Camel, the 2F.1, was developed for use by the Royal Navy. This aircraft featured a slightly shorter wingspan and replaced one of the Vickers machine guns with a .30 cal Lewis gun firing over the top wing. Experiments were also conducted in 1918 using 2F.1s as parasite fighters carried by British airships.

Camels were also used as night fighters, though with some modifications. As the muzzle-flash from the twin Vickers wrecked the pilot's night vision, the Camel "Comic" night fighter possessed twin Lewis guns firing incendiary ammunition mounted on the upper wing. Flying against German Gotha bombers, the Comic's cockpit was situated farther aft than the typical Camel to allow the pilot to more easily reload the Lewis guns.

Later Service

By mid-1918, the Camel was slowly becoming out-classed by new fighters arriving on the Western Front. Though it remained in frontline service due to development issues with its replacement, the Sopwith Snipe, the Camel was increasingly used in a ground support role. During the German Spring Offensives, Camels attacked German troops with devastating effect. On these missions, the aircraft typically strafed enemy positions and dropped 25-pound Cooper bombs. Replaced by the Snipe at the conclusion of World War I, the Camel downed a minimum of 1,294 enemy aircraft, making it the deadliest Allied fighter of the war.

Following the war, the aircraft was retained by several nations, including the U.S., Poland, Belgium, and Greece. In the years after the war, the Camel became entrenched in pop culture through a variety of films and books about the air war over Europe. More recently, the Camel commonly appeared in the popular "Peanuts" cartoons as the favored "plane" of Snoopy during his imaginary battles with the Red Baron.


"Sopwith 7F.1 Snipe." Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, 2020.

"William George 'Billy' Barker." Library and Archives Canada, Government of Canada, November 2, 2016.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "What Was the World War I Sopwith Camel?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/world-war-i-sopwith-camel-2361448. Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). What Was the World War I Sopwith Camel? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-i-sopwith-camel-2361448 Hickman, Kennedy. "What Was the World War I Sopwith Camel?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-i-sopwith-camel-2361448 (accessed June 8, 2023).