The Grahame-White Factory at Hendon is a virtual shrine to early aviation. Even setting aside the prominent rôle its founder, Claude Grahame-White, had in the establishment of aviation in the U.K., and the significance of the early factory buildings themselves (Grade II* Listed), the Royal Air Force Museum, London, has chosen to display some superb early aircraft (plus some replicas) in this wonderful setting. It is a pity, therefore, that few people choose to taken the 400 yard walk, through what was part of the former RAF Hendon site, to reach this treasure trove. On a day when the main collections were very busy, I had this gem all to myself for more than 30 minutes! I think my trusty Nikon was feeling rather fatigued when I finally dragged myself away.
In World War One, the rotary engine was king, lighter than the heavy, water-cooled inline engines, the main problem came from the gyroscopic effect of the whirling mass of cylinders around the stationary crankshaft. So it was natural that the Sopwith Aviation Company would choose the 110 hp Clerget rotary engine for their new Type 9400 two-seat fighter/reconnaissance/bomber aircraft ordered by the British Admiralty for their Royal Naval Air Service squadrons. The prototype first flew in December, 1915, and was a docile aircraft with almost no vices. The first unit to reach the front lines on the Western Front was No. 5 Wing, RNAS in February 1916. The Royal Flying Corps urgently needed the Sopwith design, for their forthcoming joint attack with the French on the Somme sector of the front. The Admiralty had absorbed the total Sopwith production, so other aviation companies such as Vickers and Ruston-Proctor were sub-contracted for the RFC orders (as the Sopwith Type Two-seater). No. 70 Squadron, RFC were the first Army unit to arrive at the front, with machines diverted from Admiralty orders. When the new aircraft entered action, they became the first British aircraft to be equipped with a synchronised, forward-firing armament (a Vickers .303″ machine gun); it also had a single Lewis gun on a Scarff mounting for the observer, in the rear cockpit. As such, the armament was a surprise to the Germans; Captain Geoffrey Hornblower Cock, MC, RFC shot down 13 German aircraft – mostly Albatross D.V – between April and July 1917. Almost no-one referred to the Sopwith by its type number; because of the half-length cabane struts, making a ‘W’ arrangement between the fuselage and the upper wings (there was no centre-section, as such) it was universally known as the ’1 1/2 Strutter’. Many uses were found for the Sopwith, with single-seater fighters (twin Vickers) and single-seater bombers (more fuel and internal stowage for the 260lb bomb load) joining the two-seat fighter and bomber versions. British production totalled 1,439, and French production was even higher at around 4,500. As well as Britain and France, other users included Russia and Japan (both licence built), Belgium, the United States, and Australia. Outclassed by 1918, even when fitted with the 130 hp Clerget 9B, the last ‘Strutter’ unit was No. 70 Squadron of the newly created RAF, on Home Defence duties from Goldhangar and Stow Maries in July 1918.
The aircraft you can see here is a replica, built from original Sopwith plans by Viv Bellamy at Land’s End Aerodrome in the late 1970s. It flew just twice (registered as G-BIDW) in 1980, then was acquired by the RAF Museum, and fully refurbished (including fitting a genuine Clerget 9B, from Museum stocks) at their Cardington facility. It depicts ‘A8226′, a Ruston-Proctor built aircraft, on the strength of ‘C’ Flight, No. 45 Sqn. RFC in 1917. Unfortunately, the real ‘A8226′ was shot down by Leutnant Max von Müller, of Jagdstaffel 28 on 27 May, 1917; both Captain L.W. MacArthur and 2nd Lieutenant A.S. Carey were killed.
The 1 1/2 Strutter didn’t stop fighting when the Armistice arrived. Soviet and White Russian forces both used it, as did both sides during the brief Polish – Soviet War (1919 – 1921). There are several other aircraft preserved in museums (France, Belgium), with a genuine aircraft being restored to fly in New Zealand, as well as other flying replicas. This was a really significant WW1 aircraft.