The Sopwith 1½ Strutter was a British one or two-seat biplane multi-role aircraft of the First World War. It is significant as the first British-designed two seater tractor fighter, and the first British aircraft to enter service with a synchronised machine gun. It also saw widespread but rather undistinguished service with the French Aéronautique Militaire.
Design and development
Designed by the Sopwith Aviation Company, originally for service with the Royal Naval Air Service, the 1½ Strutter was so nicknamed because each of the upper wings (there was no true centre section) were connected to the fuselage by a pair of short (half) struts and a pair of longer struts, forming a "W" when viewed from the front. The aircraft had airbrakes on the lower wings and was powered by a 130-hp (97 kW) Clerget rotary engine.
The main armament was one fixed .303-in Vickers machine gun and up to four 56 lb (25 kg) bombs. In the two-seat version, the observer was armed with a Lewis gun on a Scarff ring mount. In December 1915, the Vickers-Challenger interrupter gear was put into production for the Royal Flying Corps and in a few weeks a similar order for the Scarff-Dibovski gear was placed for the RNAS. These gears were fitted to early 1½ Strutters until it was possible to standardise on the improved Ross gear, although the Sopwith-Kauper gear was also used. None of these early mechanical synchronisation gears were very reliable and it was not uncommon for propellers to be damaged, or even entirely shot away.
Some early production aircraft were initially built without the forward firing gun because Vickers guns, as well as the necessary synchronisation gears, were in short supply. The Scarff ring mounting was also very new, and production was at first slower than that of the aircraft requiring them. Various makeshift Lewis mountings, as well as the older Nieuport ring mounting, were fitted to some early 1½ Strutters as an interim measure.
From the beginning, a dedicated light bomber version was planned, with the observer's cockpit eliminated to allow for more fuel and bombs to be carried, in the manner of the Martinsyde Elephant and the B.E.12.
The prototype two-seater flew in December 1915 and production deliveries started to reach the RNAS in February 1916. By the end of April, No. 5 Wing RNAS had a complete flight of the new aircraft, using them both to escort the Wing's Caudron G.4 and Breguet bombers and to carry out bombing raids themselves. The War Office had ordered the type for the RFC at the same time, but because Sopwiths were contracted to the Navy for their entire production, the RFC orders had to be placed with Ruston Proctor and Vickers, and production from these manufacturers did not get into its stride until August. Since the Somme offensive was planned for the end of June, and the type was far more urgently required by the RFC than by the RNAS the situation was clearly farcical, and in the event some aircraft had to be transferred from one service to the other - allowing No. 70 squadron to reach the front by early July 1916, with Sopwith-built Strutters originally intended for the navy.
At first No. 70 did very well with their new mounts. The period of German ascendency known as the Fokker scourge was long over, and the 1½ Strutter's long range, coupled with its excellent armament for the period, enabled effective offensive patrolling deep into German held territory. Unfortunately, by the time No. 45 Squadron reached the front in October the new Albatros fighters were appearing in the Jagdstaffeln. By January 1917, when No 43 Squadron arrived in France, the type was totally outclassed as a fighter; although it was still a useful long-range reconnaissance aircraft. Like most early Sopwith types, the 1½ Strutter was very lightly built, and its structure did not stand up very well to arduous war service. It was also far too stable to make a good dogfighter. The last front line 1½ Strutters in the RFC were replaced by Camels in late October 1917.
This was by no means the end of the story as far the Sopwith two seater's service was concerned. The type's long range and stability were both good qualities for a home defence fighter, and it served with three home defence squadrons, No. 37, No. 44 and No. 78 Squadrons. Most of the 1½ Strutters supplied to home defence units had been built as two seaters, but many were converted "in the field" to single seaters in order to improve performance. Some of these single seaters were similar to the bomber variant, but others were of different type, known (like similarly adapted Sopwith Camels) as the Sopwith Comic. The cockpit was moved back, behind the wings, and one or two Lewis guns, either mounted on Foster mountings, or fixed to fire upwards, outside the arc of the propeller, replaced the synchronised Vickers.
The RNAS used most of their 1½ Strutters as bombers (in the Aegean and Macedonia as well as in France) and as shipboard aircraft. In this service it was known as the Ship's Strutter and flew from aircraft carriers and other warships of the Royal Navy.
The largest user of the Sopwith, however, was the French Aéronautique Militaire. By October 1916 it was obvious that the pusher Farman and Breguet bombers of the time had become totally obsolete, and pending the appearance of French tractor aircraft the Sopwith was ordered in very large numbers from French manufacturers - in three versions, the SOP. 1A2 (two seater reconnaissance), SOP. 1B2 (two seater bomber) and SOP. 1B1 (single seater bomber). For want of a better alternative the French Sopwiths had to soldier on long after they had become obsolete, and were not fully replaced by later types until early 1918. Three Belgian and three American squadrons also flew French-built Sopwiths, and some seem to have been supplied to Russia. Surplus French Sopwiths were used by several countries post-war.
1½ Strutters were also used by the Soviets and White Russians during the Russian civil war and Polish-Soviet war. Three were captured during this war and used by the Poles in 1919-1920. Other captured ones were used by Baltic states.
Original Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter aircraft are preserved at the following locations. Replica aircraft are not listed.
Specifications (1½ Strutter)
Published - July 2009
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