Establishing a Strong Pedigree
Perhaps no aircraft manufacturer’s name is as synonymous with British fighters of the First World War than the Sopwith Aviation Company. Established by the young English aviation pioneer, Thomas Sopwith, in 1912; the company provided Britain and its allies with a string of modern and capable fighters through much of that conflict. While the company bearing Sopwith’s name liquidated in 1920, it was far from the end of Sopwith’s own interests or involvement in aviation. In that same year, Sopwith along with test pilot Harry Hawker and two other men co-founded H.G. Hawker Engineering; that company would be renamed Hawker Aircraft in 1933 and give Great Britain some of its most famous aircraft types until its own dissolution in 1963.
Sopwith was a young company run by young men, mostly still in their 20s. As such, their designs tended to be more experimental and innovative than those of some of their counterpart companies. Beyond Sopwith himself, the nucleus of the company was formed of Australian born test pilot, Harry Hawker and Engineer, Fred Sigrist. Slightly later, Herbert Smith would join the company as a designer.
The origin of the 1 ½ Strutter is found in a 1914 Fred Sigrist design of a small, two place biplane which first flew in summer of 1915 and was nicknamed “Sigrist’s Bus” as the only example of it built was used as a company transport.
The aircraft design was increased in size and given a more powerful Clerget engine. Christened the LCT, short for Land Clerget Tractor, the prototype aircraft took to the air for the first time in December of 1915. After a testing period, the aircraft was accepted into the Royal Naval Air Service in April of 1916 and the Royal Flying Corps in July of that same year.
An Immediate Improvement
Until the introduction of the new Sopwith fighter, British fighter aircraft were built with rear mounted engines in a pusher configuration; while this gave the pilot and observer a completely unrestricted view forward, it left the aircraft very vulnerable to attacks from the rear as the observer could not easily if at all protect that area of the aircraft from his nose mounted gun position.
Unofficially nicknamed the 1 ½ Strutter by the military, the new aircraft was the first British built fighter to have a tractor configuration engine and synchronizing gear for the pilot controlled forward firing gun. The observer was moved to a position behind the pilot and could easily defend the rear quarters of the aircraft with a ring mounted machine gun
Beyond the advantages of a tractor configuartion for the engine and improved armament, the aircraft also was a very advanced machine for the time. While largely of conventional construction, the 1 ½ Strutter was a very clean and efficient design which proved reliable and possessed the range and endurace to fly missions deep behind enemy lines.
Despite all the advances the aircraft brought with it, it was not without shortcomings. It was a very stable aircraft and lacked the agility to truly dominate other fighters in a dogfight situation. It also was built lightly, a hallmark of all Sopwith aircraft that placed limits on maneuvers that could be done safely with it, such as steep dives.
While these shortcomings would ensure the aircraft would not have a long career as a fighter, the stability and range would ensure that it kept some degree of value as a bomber and recconaissance platform to the end of hostilities and beyond.
Perhaps the aircraft’s most significant role in the larger picture of aviation was in giving the Sopwith name prominence and placing the young company in good stead with the British military as a supplier. The 1 ½ Strutter was the beginning of Sopwith’s prestigious line of fighter aircraft.
From the Somme to the Steppe
The 1 ½ Strutter’s first major action came with the Battle of the Somme, which lasted from July to November of 1916. At the outbreak of the battle, the RFC had only a single squadron of the type and that had been made up of aircraft transfered from the RNAS.
For most of the offensive, the RFC aircraft gave a very good account of themselves and proved to be very popular with their crews. The aircraft had the range and endurance to penetrate deep behind German lines and had the armament to fight their way out.
As with so many combat aircraft of the First World War, the 1 ½ Strutter was eclipsed in a relatively short span of time. By the time the second RFC squadron equipped with the type was activated in Autumn of 1916, the Albatros D series fighters had reached German fighter squadrons and were throughly outclassing the Sopwith fighter.
While the Somme offensive was considered a loss for Germany, the Albatros D series fighters, which debuted towards the end of the battle, marked Germany’s return to air superiority along the Western Front of the war and set the stage for the devastating losses they would hand to the RFC during the Battle of Arras in April and May of 1917.
Before 1917 was out, the RFC had completely replaced the 1 ½ Strutter in front line units; retasking it with home defence, recconaissance and training duties.
While British forces had put the aircraft to second line duties, it saw significantly longer action on the front lines in French service. In fact, through license production, the French built the lion’s share of 1 ½ Strutters at a total 4,500 examples.
The French used the aircraft primarily in the bombing role, it was used to replace their aging Farman and Breguet bombers, and equipped a majority of French day bomber units until the end of hostilities.
In the final years of the war, French built machines began finding their way to the militaries of other nations such as Belgium, the USA and Russia.
The end of the First World War was not the end of the 1 ½ Strutter. Several British and French built examples were sent to Russia and were used by both the Red and White sides of the Russian Civil War. Several examples of the type in that conflict were captured by Poland and used by them in the Polish-Soviet War, which lasted from 1919 to 1921.
The type was also used by the Greek navy in the Greco-Turkish War of 1919 to 1922.
Between war time and post war operations, 1 ½ Strutters were known to have flown in military service or been listed on the civil registers of no less than 20 countries.
What Remains and Learning More
With a combined total of over 5,900 examples between British and French production lines, plus smaller numbers built in Russia and Japan, it is surprizing that only four original 1 ½ Strutters are known to still be with us today.
Two originals are in France; happily, one of them has been restored to airworthy status.
A third is kept in a museum in Belgium.
The fourth seems a bit elusive at the time of writing. It was a machine that spent some time on the Argentine civil register and then an American museum before being put in the hands of the Vintage Aviator Collection in New Zealand in 2010. At the time of writing, I can find no information on the current location or status of this aircraft.
Happily, for those who can’t easily access one of the originals, there are several replicas of the 1 ½ Strutter either in museums or flying in various location around the world.
The following link will take you to the website of Memorial Flight, home of the airworthy original:
Link to Memorial Flight homepage