The Sopwith Aviation Company was a British
aircraft company that designed and manufactured aeroplanes mainly for the
British Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service and later Royal Air
Force in the First World War, most famously the Sopwith Camel. Sopwith
aircraft were also used in varying numbers by the French, Belgian and
American air services during the War.
The company was founded in Kingston-upon-Thames by Thomas Octave Murdoch
(Tommy, later Sir Thomas) Sopwith, a well-to-do gentleman sportsman
interested in aviation, yachting and motor-racing, in June of 1912. The
company's first factory premises opened that December in a disused ice
rink. During the First World War, the company made more than 16,000
aircraft and employed 5,000 people. Many more of the company's aircraft
were made by subcontractors than by Sopwith's themselves. These included
Fairey, Clayton & Shuttleworth, William Beardmore and Company and Ruston
Proctor. The Sopwith company was wound up in 1920 after failing to achieve
sufficient success with civilian products (which had prompted the purchase
of ABC Motors in 1919) to compensate for the drop in military aircraft
orders after the end of the War and a potential large demand from the
government for Excess War Profits Duty.
Initially, Tom Sopwith himself, assisted by his former personal mechanic
Fred Sigrist, led the design of the company's types. Following a number of
unremarkable pre-war designs for the Royal Naval Air Service, such as the
Three-Seater and Bat-Boat, Sopwith's first major success was the fast and
compact (hence the name) Tabloid, a design which first showed the
influence of the company's test pilot, the Australian Harry Hawker. A
float-equipped version of this aircraft won the Schneider Trophy in 1914.
The landplane version used by both the RNAS and RFC at the start of the
war. With higher power and floats, the type evolved into the Sopwith Baby,
which was a workhorse of the RNAS for much of World War One.
In 1916, Herbert Smith became Chief Engineer of the Sopwith company, and
under his design leadership its other successful World War I types
included the larger Type 9901. This aircraft, better known as the 1 1/2
Strutter due to its unconventional cabane strut arrangement, was used from
1916 by both the RNAS, RFC and the French Aviation Militaire as a
single-seat bomber, two seat fighter and artillery spotter and trainer.
Soon after came the small and agile single-seat Scout, which quickly
became better known as the Pup because of its obvious descent from the 1
1/2 Strutter. The Pup and 1 1/2 Strutter were the first successful British
tractor fighters equipped with a synchronising gear to allow a machine gun
to fire through the rotating propeller. This gear was known as the
Sopwith-Kauper gear from its designers, although several other designs
were used later. The Pup was widely used on the Western Front by the RFC
and from ships by the RNAS from the autumn of 1916 to the early summer of
1917, and was considered a delight to fly by its pilots. It continued in
use as an advanced trainer for the remainder of the War.
Experimentally equipped with three narrow-chord wings and a more powerful
engine, the Pup led to the Triplane, which was used only in small
quantities in the spring of 1917, but became well-known for its startling
fighting qualities, put to best use by Raymond Collishaw's famous 'Black
Flight' of 'Naval 10' (10 Squadron, RNAS). This flight was so called due
to the black identification colour of the flight's aircraft, which in turn
led to their naming as Black Maria, Black Prince, Black Death, Black Roger
and, rather lamely, Black Sheep. Such was the impact of this type that it
spawned a large number of experimental triplane designs from manufacturers
on all sides, although only the Fokker Triplane achieved any subsequent
In the early summer of 1917 the twin-gun Camel fighter was introduced.
This aircraft was highly manoeuvrable and well-armed, and over 5,000 were
produced up until the end of the War. It destroyed more enemy aircraft
than any other British type, but its difficult flying qualities also
killed very many novice pilots in accidents. It was used, modified, as
both a night-fighter and shipboard aircraft, and was flown in combat by
the Belgian and American Air Services as well as the British.
Later still in front-line service came the stationary-engined four-gun
Dolphin and the ultimate rotary-engined fighter, the Snipe. The Snipe saw
little wartime service, being issued only in small numbers to the Front,
but William George Barker, the Canadian Ace, won a Victoria Cross flying
one in an epic single-handed dogfight against enormous odds.
Towards the end of the war the company produced the Cuckoo torpedo-bomber
and the Salamander armoured ground-attack development of the Snipe, but
these types were too late to see action. Many other experimental
prototypes were produced throughout the war, mostly named after animals
(Hippo, Gnu etc), leading to some referring to the 'Sopwith Zoo'.
Following World War One, the Sopwith Snipe was chosen as the standard
fighter of the much-reduced Royal Air Force, and soldiered on until
finally replaced in the late 1920s.
Sopwith attempted to produce aircraft for the civil market based on their
wartime types, such as the Dove derivative of the Pup and the Swallow, a
single-winged Camel, but the wide availability of war-surplus aircraft at
knock-down prices meant this was never economic.
Upon the liquidation of the Sopwith company, Tom Sopwith himself, together
with Harry Hawker, Fred Sigrist and Bill Eyre, immediately formed H.G.
Hawker Engineering, forerunner of the Hawker-Siddeley Aviation company.
Sopwith was Chairman of Hawker-Siddeley until his retirement. Hawker and
its successors produced many more famous military aircraft, including the
inter-war Hart, Demon, World War 2 Hurricane , Typhoon, Tempest, and the
post-war Sea Fury, Hunter and Harrier. Incredibly, these later jet types
were manufactured in the exact same factory buildings used to produce
Sopwith Snipes in 1918.