Friday, September 26, 2014

Project Sopwith phase 1

Yes, I know it has been a while!

It's been a while since the last post. Meeting deadlines, schmoozing at Gencon, and computer malfunctions have been keeping me busy. The good news is I have two book illustration jobs completed this year. The most challenging project has been Lords of the Sky: Fighter Pilots and Air Combat, from the Red Baron to the F-16 by Dan Hampton, published by Harper Collins. It stretched my comfort zone and it was fun. Slowly but surely I'm getting the new drawings worked into the site. At least they do show up in the galleries. One project is a whole new layer of pages for each individual aircraft type. It may be a while before it’s complete. I took a break from the Fokker D.VII project to clean up some troublesome profiles, and prepping for the next batch on my list. I plan a second installment on the Sopwith 1½ Strutter. I will focus on Britain's first steps towards ship-launched naval fighters. There will also be profiles for the US, Russian Empire Soviet State, and other eastern countries.

Project Sopwith

Britain was slow to use tractor aircraft with synchronized machine gun. Most British fighters up to this time were pusher aircraft. Even with introduction of the Sopwith 1½ Strutter, Pup and Triplane , the British fought at a serious disadvantage during The Battle of Arras and Bloody April of 1917. It would take the introduction of the Sopwith Camel and the RAF SE.5a to turn the tide of battle.


The Sopwith 1½ Strutter was a British one or two-seat biplane multi-role aircraft of the First World War. It is significant as the first British-designed two seater tractor fighter, and the first British aircraft to enter service with a synchronized machine gun. It also saw widespread but rather undistinguished service with the French Aéronautique Militaire. The Sopwith 1½ Strutter was built in both one and two-seater models. In the latter version, the gas tank was dangerously positioned between the pilot and observer. This design flaw prompted some airmen to joke that the designer of the aircraft must surely have been German. Not long after its introduction, the 1½ Strutter was replaced by the Sopwith Pup.

Home Defense

Sopwith one and a Half Strutter - 1916
Sopwith 1½ Strutter “Comic Fighter” W/n B'762, No.78(HD) Sqn RFC

Based at Martlesham Heath during summer-autumn 1917 and reallocated to Home De fence on August 1917. This aircraft did not have a specific pilot and used by all pilots of 78 Squadron. With its twin upward-firing guns, Sopwith 1½Strutter B762 was one of a number of such aircraft employed for Home Defence in a single-seat form. It served with 78 Squadron from the autumn of 1917, having replaced BE2 and BE12 variants.

Sopwith one and a Half Strutter - 1916
Sopwith 1½ Strutter “Comic Fighter” W/n A'6901, No.78(HD) Sqn RFC

Essentially an Admiralty sponsored design, carrying their Type 9700 designation, the Sopwith 1½ Strutter. This type was also operated by the RFC. Serial no A 6901, seen above, was the first of a 100 aircraft batch produced by Hooper & Company Ltd of Chelsea for the RFC. This particularly was one of the four single-seat home defense fighter variants built.

This was by no means the end of the Sopwith two seater’s service. The type's long range and stability were good qualities for a home defense fighter and it served with three home defense squadrons, No. 37, No. 44 and No. 78 Squadrons. Most of the 1½ Strutters supplied to home defense units had been built as two-seaters but many were converted ‘in the field” to single seaters in order to improve performance. Some of these single-seaters were similar to the bomber variant but others were of different type, known (like similarly adapted Sopwith Camels) as the Sopwith Comic. The cockpit was moved back behind the wings and one or two Lewis guns, either mounted on Foster mountings or fixed to fire upwards, outside the arc of the propeller, replaced the synchronized Vickers.

Since September 1917 German bomber aviation had revised its plan of air campaign against the British Isles: after eight daylight raids the losses of important strategic bombers were too high, therefore, the decision was made to conduct all forthcoming raids only at night. At that point the newly created British Home Defence did not have a dedicated type of fighter interceptor. The majority of planes serving in Home Defense were fighters retired from the front line — a few two-seater Sopwith 1½ Strutter fighters among them.

Captain F.W. Honnett, Flight Commander of “A” Flight No. 78 Sqn (HD) RFC, suggested a modification of one of the 1½ Strutters by moving the pilot's seat and all the controls into the observer's position, his argument being poor visibility from the regular pilot's seat. The original pilot’s position was faired over, and the plane was equipped with a night searchlight.

The first three 1½ Strutters modified to the new standard by the Southern Aircraft Repair Depot joined 78 Sqn in September 1917. During the night raid over London on the night of October 31st/November 1st 1917 they opposed twenty-two enemy Gothas. 78 Sqn pilots dubbed this unusual plane the ‘Comic fighter’. Initially the armament of this aircraft consisted of only a single course Vickers gun; later Comics were equipped with a Lewis gun on a flexible Foster mounting. It should be also mentioned that at least one aircraft, namely B762, had two Lewises on a special fixed mounting and could fire at a 70° angle.

1½ Strutter Comics were intensively used by 78 Sqn until February 1918, flying night intercept missions against Gothas and Giant R-planes. Due to the poor performance of this type, it was never put into series production. At the beginning of 1918 the night fighter version of the famous Sopwith Camel (which ironically received the official name Sopwith Comic) replaced the 1½ Strutter Comic and other obsolete night-fighters in many Home Defense units.

In French Service

Sopwith one and a Half Strutter French Aéronautique Militaire in Escadrille Sop 640, circa 1918
Sopwith 1½ Strutter French Aéronautique Militaire in Escadrille Sop 640, circa 1918.
Sopwith 1½ B2 French Aéronautique Militaire, Escadrille Sop 131 s/n 3, Summer 1917
Sopwith 1½ B2 French Aéronautique Militaire, Escadrille Sop 131 s/n 3, Summer 1917.

The French, who until now had been a prime supplier of aircraft to both the RFC and RNAS, saw the RFC using the Sopwith 1½ Strutter as two-seat fighters to good effect during the July 1916 Battle of the Somme and were impressed enough to promptly negotiate a license to build the aircraft and put it into large scale production. Indeed, of the total 5.720 examples built. 4,200 were French-produced. As it was, the French chose to produce the 1½ Strutter in both single-seat bomber and two-seat reconnaissance form, but ran into delivery problems, as a result of which the mass of French aircraft were not delivered until the summer of 1918, by which time they were obsolescent, if not obsolete. As a two seater, the machine was usually powered by a 110hp Clerget that gave a top level speed of 106 mph at sea level, along with a ceiling of 15,000 feet.

Sopwith B1, France, Escadrille Sop 107 s/n 105 Summer,1917
Sopwith 1½ B2 French Aéronautique Militaire, Escadrille Sop 107 s/n 105, Summer 1917.

In comparison, the single-seat bombers, with their various 110hp or 130hp rotaries could carry a bomb load of up to 224lb and had a top level speed of 102mph at 6.560 feet. Of the French machines, 514 were purchased by the American Expeditionary Force, while the type also served in small numbers with the air arms of Belgium, Latvia, Romania and Russia.

Sopwith B1, France, Escadrille Sop 107 s/n 105 Summer,1917
Sopwith 1½ B2 RFC S/N 36 (N912) France 1917.

Of the S50 aircraft delivered to the RNAS, around 130 were of the single-seat bomber variety, which could carry up to 300lb of weapons in the shape of twelve 25lb bombs, while the two seaters lifted 224lb, or four 56lb bombs. The type's performance was such as to lead to orders not just from the RFC, but from several other nations and the machine's broader program history is dealt with earlier in the chapter on French aircraft. The image is of an RNAS 1 1/2 Strutter departing from atop one of a capital warship's main turrets. This kind of operation was to become relatively routine from April 1918 onwards.


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