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“CURSE YOU, RED BARON,” declares one of America’s most recognizable World War I pilots, at least in his imagination. However, Snoopy can be proud that in real life Sopwith Camels like his were involved in the famous German pilot’s combat demise.
To me, the nexus of all this came through a movie introduced for the 2015 Christmas season, recent articles in The Wall Street Journal and London’s Daily Mail, a poster uncovered while I was rummaging through R&T’s 50th anniversary memorabilia and my usual pile of aviation sources.
In April, 1967, R&T offered a full analysis of the Sopwith Camel, complete with its illustrious pilot courtesy of Charles Schultz. And these days, premiered November 6, 2015, Snoopy in his Sopwith Camel is co-starring with pals in The Peanuts Movie by Schultz.
The British Sopwith Camel was the best fighter plane in World War I, its pilots credited with more victories than those flying any other plane. The Camel was also one of the most challenging planes to fly; this, because of its rotary powerplant.
This heavy engine block spinning with the propeller generated a strong gyroscopic effect giving the Camel exceptional maneuverability—but only to the right. The same effect made the Camel sluggish on turning left.
Pilots learned to exploit this in combat, though woe unto those needing an abrupt left maneuver. The Ace of Aces WWI Air Combat Game has a Rotary Series based on these flight characteristics.
Introduced in December 1916, the first Camel F.1s had 110-hp Clerget engines. Other later ones were powered by the 150-hp Bentley B.R.1., as in Bentley Rotary; Bentley Motors Limited didn’t produce cars until 1919. The Camel could reach 113 mph at 10,000 ft., with a service ceiling of 19,000.
Among 2F.1 versions modified for Royal Navy use, one made history on August 11, 1918. A Camel pilot took off from a barge towed by a British destroyer and went after a German dirigible, L.53, wreaking havoc from 19,000 ft. The Camel struggled at its service ceiling, while its pilot emptied its guns into the dirigible, seemingly with no effect. Then the L.53 burst into flames and fell to the sea.
This was the world’s first aerial victory for a shipboard-launched aircraft. There’s a lively discussion at the Great War Forum concerning whether this actual Camel is displayed at the Imperial War Museum in London.
With a wingspan of 28 ft., the Camel was of average size for a WWI fighter. The German Fokker Dr. I Dreidecker (triplane) had a span of 23 ft. 7 in.; the Fokker D.VII’s upper wing spanned just a bit more than 29 ft. By comparison, a modern Cessna 172’s span is 36 ft. 1 in.
Baron Manfred von Richthofen, considered the WWI ace-of-aces, flew various fighter planes, though the Dr.I Dreidecker (triplane) was his most famous—and last. The story is oft told, with two recent newspaper items giving it fresh nuances. On December 13, 2015, The Wall Street Journal published “Snoopy Remembers the Red Baron, but Few Germans Do,” by Daniel Michaels and Sarah Sloat. It’s estimated that at most one of three Germans today has heard of the once-famous pilot.
And, on October 18, 2015, London’s Daily News had an article, “Mystery of who killed the Red Baron is finally solved: Final moments of fearsome German flyer are described in an eye-witness account that has come to light after almost 100 years.”
By way of background, on April 21, 1918, the Red Baron was pursuing a Sopwith Camel piloted by a novice Canadian pilot when a second Camel, flown by another Canadian, Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown, intervened. During the ensuing three-plane dog fight, at perhaps only 400 ft. off the ground, Richthofen was hit by a single bullet, crash-landed and died.
Controversy has long existed: What about the trajectory of the fatal shot? Was it Brown’s Camel that fired it? Or was Richthofen killed by ground fire? And, if so, by whom?
Notes the Daily Mail, “Lieutenant Donald Fraser describes how von Richthofen’s plane was ‘wobbly and irregular’ immediately after the machine gun operated by Sgt. Cedric Popkin opened up on him.”
I wouldn’t bet the controversy is over, but one thing remains undisputed: Two Sopwith Camels, Snoopy’s aircraft of choice, combated Richthofen’s Dreidecker, to the Baron’s demise. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015