The Sopwith aviation company left a long lasting mark on the landscape of military aviation and their final scout of the war was every bit as memorable. Following the design departure of the Dolphin, which, while very successful wasn’t widely accepted, Sopwith opted to return to their more familiar rotary powered designs.
Conceived as a replacement for the iconic Camel, the Snipe as it would become known, had a smaller frame than the Camel before it. A notable change from the Camel was the seating position of the pilot, he sat much higher. (Though a note from September 1918 written by Major C.C Miles commented that the 43 squadron Snipes being delivered had wildly different seat positions, leading to concerns regarding the gunsight accuracy.) As a result of this (generally) higher seating position, a larger cut out was taken from the top wing offering better visibility and not dissimilar to the seating arrangement to the Dolphin, though it was nowhere near as extreme.
No official order for a Camel replacement had been given so the company built two prototypes as a private project in September 1917. The first Snipe was completed in October, powered by a Bentley AR1, while the second came a month later with a Bentley BR.2 up front. The latter proved to be a winning combination and prompted a government contract for six prototypes.
Tweaks were made to the general design for the third prototype, a more uniform fuselage shape combined with a wider wing section and smaller tail. When official flight testing began in December 1917 the aircraft reached 119mph. After further changes to the wing the Snipe was able to compete for the Specification A.1(a) which searched for a high altitude single seat fighter with a top speed of 135mph.
Following trials competing against designs from Osprey and Boulton, the Snipe was declared the winner, with 1700 orders being placed in March 1918.
As a result of the construction, the Snipe was considerably heavier than earlier Sopwith designs, though this also made the airframe stronger. It also wasn’t considered particularly fast for 1918 but it was very manoeuvrable and far easier to fly than the Camel. The Snipe also offered better visibility infront and above. It had an excellent rate of climb and performed well at high altitudes.
Following the design and testing process the Snipe arrived in France in March 1918, joining the Aeroplane Supply Depot at St-Omer. Lieutenant L.N. Hollinghurst flew to 24,000ft in 45 minutes. His early comments following the flight were that the aircraft was very tail heavy and had poor rudder but was generally quite manoeuvrable. Another pilot that flew the Snipe in these early trials was Lt-Col H A Van Ryneveld, who claimed that the Snipe was “vastly superior to any scout on the front.”
Front Line Service
No.43 squadron based at Fienvillers which took on the new fighter to replace its Camels in August 1918. Training on the new fighter was completed by the end of September, which didn’t leave much time for the Snipe to make an impression. As mentioned above, in September 1917 Major C.C Miles of 43 Squadron wrote a number of notes outlining quality control problems with both the airframes and Bentley engines. No. 4 Squadron Australian Flying Corps flew the Snipe from October 1918 as well. Early feedback from pilots on the squadron was generally favorable, though a number of pilots did not enjoy the heavy ailerons and underperforming rudder.
43 squadron snipes saw very little action before the armistice, this wasn’t helped by the fact that Snipes were not permitted to fly over enemy territory until after September 1918, meaning that the early days of the squadron operating the Snipes, they made more use of their remaining Camels.
Once the squadron was fully equipped with the new Sopwith it wasn’t long before they chalked up their first claimed victory in the type on the 27th September. 43 Squadron went on to claim 11 victories, with 10 of those being against the legendary Fokker D VII.
The Australians had more success claiming numerous victories during the latter months of the war, including 8 Fokker D.VIIs on the 29th October, with only one Snipe lost.
The Snipe’s Shining Hour
A famous Snipe pilot was Canadian William G Barker who was flying as part of No. 201 Squadron in Snipe E8102 which he had been given for personal evaluation. After two weeks of the evaluation barker came across enemy aircraft over France. Barker found a two seat German machine, which he shot down but he was then jumped by a formation of 15 Fokker D.VIIs. The ensuing battle would have made a hectic sight. Barker was wounded three times and lost consciousness twice during the encounter. Despite these injuries he still managed to shoot down three of the German aircraft. Barker was awarded the Victoria Cross for this actions.
Much like the Camel before it the idea of a ground attack fighter was revisited using the Snipe airframe. Like the ground attack Camel the Salamander featured two guns firing forwards and downwards from the underside of the aircraft as well as additional armour on the underside. The majority of these machines featured strengthened wings to deal with the added pressure of this low level work.
A small number of Salamanders were delivered to 157 Squadron in France just before the war, however no real sorties were flown before the end of the war and as such the squadron was disbanded.
Unlike Sopwith’s other fighters of the war, the Snipe saw a long service life following the Armistice. Initial post war operations were with the British Army of occupation in Germany. A role which the Snipes played a part until 1919. After their return they took over home defence duties from the Camels. 12 Snipes were used during the Russian civil war in 1919, with at least one Snipe being pressed into service by the Bolsheviks after being captured.
Two seat training versions of the Snipe became part of regular training for new RAF pilots shortly after the war. Two cockpits squeezed into the Snipe’s short frame was an impressive feat.
The type’s main use post war came in Ireland and Iraq. The time in Ireland saw Snipes used during the Irish War of independence in the 1920s.
Following a league of nations mandate in 1920, Iraq became an important area of British attentions. There was much resistance from the Kurdish community against the British rule and this led to the situation looking very concerning for the British by 1923. Fortunately the arrival of a flight of Snipes saw things take a different turn. The Sopwith fighters carried out strafing runs and regular patrols over the cavalry below.
The Snipe proved itself to be a potent fighting machine and was powered by the peak of Rotary engine development but, much like the Dolphin covered previously it appeared too late in the war to leave an impression. Aircraft development post war, along with the move to radial engines led to the Snipe quickly becoming outclassed and the aircraft were ultimately retired in 1926. The Snipe’s departure from the RAF’s inventory marked the final Sopwith aircraft to be in service with the force.
Out of the production run of over 1,500 airframes, only two original Snipes remain, with one replica on display which includes original parts.
There have, in recent years been a number of airworthy replicas take to the skies, meaning that the world population of Snipes has grown considerably. Given the relatively low numbers of Snipe’s remaining, this post will cover some of the replica aircraft as well.
E6938 – Canada Aviation and Space Museum
The Canada Aviation and Space museum contains a great deal of Sopwith history, with an original Camel in the collection as well.
E6938 was built by Nieuport and General as part of a batch of 100 that the company were contracted to build. Nieuport’s entire production run was not delivered until after the Armistice, meaning that ‘938 saw no active service. The last record of this Snipe’s service is a move to No.37 Squadron in January 1919. In 1926 the airframe was punched by an ex Royal Flying Corps pilot, Reginald Denny. Denny was now an actor and moved the airframe over to california, it was used for ground shots in Howard Hughes’ “Hells Angels”.During the 1930s and 40s the airframe moved between a number of different museums for public display including a brief stint at Los Angeles Airport in February 1953.
Later in 1953 a seven year restoration process began at Pacific Palisades, the Snipe only flew once following this rebuild and was shortly loaned to the United States Air Force museum at Dayton.In February 1964 ‘398 was purchased by the Canadian War Museum and started what would become a short flying career in May of that year. The Snipe flew for the last time in June 1967. E6938 was taken on a short tour of England in 1970, being displayed at Cranwell and the Science museum before a complete recovering in 1987. A new museum building was opened in 1988 and the Snipe has been on public display ever since.
E8102 – Canadian War Museum – Ottawa
Another Canadian Snipe relic is the fuselage of Snipe E8102. This is all that remains of William Barker’s Snipe. This is the exact aircraft that Barker was flying when he was awarded the Victoria Cross as outlined above in the history segment of this post. Though only a partial survivor, this relic surely must rank as one of the most significant surviving aviation artefacts from the Great War.
E8105 – National Air and Space Museum Washington
This Snipe was built in August 1918, by the Ruston Proctor company of Lincoln. This aircraft first received an american civil registration in 1928, owned by Leo Langevin. Langevin restored the snipe and recovered the aircraft, he also put a 130hp Clerget in place before selling the airframe to Myron Romberger.
In 1951 the aircraft was acquired by a name synonymous with First World War aviation, Cole Palen. the Snipe was one of the first aircraft purchased for the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Museum.
Palen flew the aircraft at public displays until 1966 when the airframe was damaged in a forced landing. Following further restoration work the Snipe returned to Old Rhinebeck as a static exhibit in As part of the repairs, an original BR2 engine was fitted. In 1987 Palen lend ‘105 to the National Air and Space museum for a new WW1 display. As part of this display the Snipe received more cosmetic work before going on public display in 1991. Following Palen’s death in 1994, the Snipe was donated to the museum, where it remains today.
“E6655” The Royal Air Force Museum Hendon
Arriving at the Museum in 2012, the Sopwith Snipe had long been on the RAF Museum’s wish list and was finally realised with the arrival of E6655. The construction of this airframe began back in 2009, when a number of Snipe parts were made using unused parts from Pup and Dove rebuilds over the years. A number of new build elements were also constructed by Skysport engineering.
An original Bentley BR2, built by Humber Motor company, was found for the project and upper ailerons had also been acquired in 1972. Various wooden parts including struts and wing ribs were also found over the years as well as cockpit ancillaries.
In November 2010 the existing collection of original parts were gathered and send to The Vintage Aviator Limited (TVAL) in New Zealand. (TVAL have played an important part in a minor resurgence of the Snipe over the past few years, and will feature again in the rest of this replica section.) Over the next two years construction of this composite machine was carried out and the airframe arrived at Old Warden in August 2012.
In October 2012 the Snipe was transported by road to Hendon, where the aircraft has been on display ever since, aside from a trip to the Royal International Air Tattoo at Fairford in 2013.
The original E6655, which the aircraft represents was one of 150 Snipes built by coventry Ordinance works in March 1918. The aircraft is displayed in a post war all over silver scheme.
While the RAF Museum’s example features a number of original components, TVAL have also been responsible for three other Snipe replicas. Two of these have moved to other locations around the world, while the most recent example (yet to publicly fly) “E7643” remains with the collection.
Fantasy of Flight
Notable examples include Kermit Weeks’, which resides at his Fantasy of Flight museum in Florida. Kermit’s aircraft wears the markings of E8102 and is powered by an original Bentley BR2 engine.
This Snipe wears the markings of William Barker’s VC winning aircraft.
A fascinating insight into the test flying of the Sopwith Snipe can be seen in the two videos below from the man himself. Well worth watching if you’re a fan of WW1 aviation. Full credit goes to Kermit Weeks for these fantastic videos.
WW1 Aviation Heritage Trust
2015 saw the WW1 Aviation Heritage Trust expand its fleet of aircraft with the arrival of the Albatros D.Va and Sopwith Snipe. The Snipe performed at Old Warden initially, flying at the Best of British and Wings and Wheels shows. Shortly after the final appearance at Old Warden the Snipe was flown down to Stow Maries, a largely complete First World War RFC aerodrome, where the Snipe flew at the Trust’s own event in August. The Snipe now resides in the P.A.Wood car dealership where the Trust are looking for a generous buyer to buy the aircraft and allow the trust to continue displaying it in this country.
This Snipe wears the colours of a 70 squadron aircraft; F2367. It was an amazing moment to finally see a Snipe leap into the sky from Old Warden’s runway back in July and hear the unique sound that a 230hp rotary engine creates. Hopefully a suitable buyer can be found for the aircraft and we can look forward to seeing it join the other Sopwith’s nearing completion in the country.
A Sopwith Reflection
That is the final instalment of the Warbird Tails look at the Sopwith fighters of World War 1, it has been a long road putting all of this information together and I hope it has provided something interesting for readers and kept you coming back for regular updates. It has been fascinating to track how the attitudes and fortunes of one company changed throughout the First World War and how quickly things change. I hope to revisit this classic and iconic company next year as we hopefully see the Camel and Triplane take to the skies again at Old Warden.
As the New Year comes around, I’ll be starting another profile series, this time looking across the Atlantic and with a much longer life, Curtiss.