SE5 versus Camel – a fighter pilot’s view

Arguments still rage as to what was the Royal Flying Corps’ best fighter aircraft of the first world war. Was it the nimble, dancing Sopwith Camel, described by aviation historian Robert Jackson as “…one of the most superb fighting machines ever built…”? Or was it the more workmanlike SE5, the fifth articulation of the Scouting Experimental from the designers at the Royal Aircraft Factory in Farnborough, heralded by the same historian as “… the Spitfire of world war one…”?

Before achieving such high rank in the 1940s, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir William Sholto Douglas had been a fighter pilot on the Western Front in 1917, and Officer Commanding 84 Squadron. He had many good-natured arguments with an equally famous flying contemporary, Harold Balfour, as to the relative merits of the Camel and the SE5:

“I have to concede,” Douglas wrote in his memoir Years of Command, “that the SE5 was not as manoeuvrable, but it was manoeuvrable enough, and because of its greater speed and rate of climb, I have always thought that it was a better fighting machine.”

A particular attribute of the SE5, he said, was its ability to readily pick up speed in a dive, allowing a pilot to charge down on its prey (a favoured method of attack) or quickly escape from an unequal fight: “From the point of view of morale, this was important because the SE5 pilots knew that they could nearly always get away from trouble just so long as they avoided being taken by surprise.”

The SE5 retained its performance at high altitude, which the Camel did not. The faster the SE5 dived, the steadier the aircraft became as a gun platform. The Camel, on the other hand, became increasingly unstable and began to vibrate in a dive, which made good shooting difficult to achieve.
Author: Sean Feast