Intended as a replacement for the Sopwith Pup, the Camel prototype was first airborne with Harry Hawker at the controls on 22nd October 1916. Powered by a Clerget rotary engine generating 110 hp, it boasted 2 x .303 Vickers machine guns firing through the propellor disc via synchrinisation gear. A metal fairing above the gun breeches created a “hump” that led to the name Camel..
The Camel entered service in June 1917 with No. 4 Squadron RNAS based near Dunkirk. The following month, it became operational with No. 70 Squadron RFC. By February 1918, 13 squadrons were equipped with the Camel and, ultimately, a total of 50 RAF sqns (RFC and RNAS combined) operated the machine.
Notwithstanding its initial reputation of being unpleasant to fly, in the hands of an experienced pilot the Camel proved to be a superlative fighter. Its controls were light and sensitive and its manoeuvrability was unmatched by any contemporary type. It owed both its performance (and difficult handling characteristics) to the placement of the engine, pilot, guns and fuel tank (some 90% of the weight of the craft) within the front seven feet of the aircraft, coupled with the strong gyroscopic effect of the rotary engine. Indeed, the resulting torque gavea significant “pull” to the right. In the hands of an expert, this characteristic could be exploited to give exceptional manoeuvrability in a dogfight. A 3/4 turn to the right could be done in the less time than a 1/4 turn to the left.
The Camel was credited with shooting down 1,294 enemy aircraft, more than any other Allied fighter of the war. By mid-1918, it was becoming limited by its speed and comparatively poor performance at altitudes above 12,000 ft, however, and was therefore re-assigned as a ground-attack and infantry support aircraft. During the latter stages of the conflict, flights of Camels harassed the German Army and inflicted high losses via 25 lb bombs and ultra-low-level strafing.
No fewer than 50 RFC and RNAS squadrons were equipped with the Camel at one time or another, and the air arms of 10 other nations operated the aircraft. A total of some 5,490 were built of which 7 survive today – an airworthy model exists in California and others are on static display at the Imperial War Museum and RAF Museum, Several airworthy reproductions exist around the world.