The Sopwith Tabloid – Zeppelin killer!
Tags: 20lb Hales bomb, aircraft, Antwerp, Aviation, Belgium, Don Cashmore, Dusseldorf, England, First World War, Fred Sigrist, Germany, Gnome rotary engine, Grahame-White Aircraft Factory, Hendon, history, London, museum, RAF Cardingdon, RAF Museum, Reginald Marix, RFC, RNAS, Royal Navy, Schneider Trophy, Sopwith Tabloid, T O M Sopwith, warbird, Zeppelin L IX
T.O.M Sopwith, along with Fred Sigrist, had formed the Sopwith Aviation Company in 1912. He was already an accomplished aviator, having won a £4000 prize for a long-distance flight between England and the European Continent in 1910, and used the money to start his first aviation business. It was logical, therefore, that Sopwith would wish to promote the company by producing an aircraft which could compete in the many aviation contests of the day, and act as a advertisement for their designs. The project was handed over to ‘Uncle Fred’ Sigrist, who designed a neat little single-bay biplane, which, because of its small size, became known as the ‘Tabloid’. Structurally, the Tabloid was very simple, a rectangular box of four wooden longerons, internally wire-braced and fabric covered. The equal span wings – which had wing-warping for control – had parallel interplane struts, and the upper wing was connected to the fuselage by four short cabane struts. Power came from a reliable 80 hp Gnome Lamda seven-cylinder rotary engine, which was enclosed in a most unusual aluminum cowling. This was wedge-shaped with only two small inlets at the front to allow air in, and a larger opening underneath to let hot exhaust air flow out. The roomy cockpit could accommodate two people, if required.
The biplane had been constructed in secrecy, and it was decided to modify the Tabloid into a twin-float seaplane, fit a 100 hp Gnome Monosoupape engine, and take a run at the 1914 Schneider Trophy race, due to be held off the shoreline of Monaco. The little Sopwith, flown by C. Howard Pixton and carrying the race number ’3′, walked away from the opposition at 87 mph, completed the 28 laps of the 10 kilometre course in 2 hours 9 minutes and 10 seconds, and caused a sensation. Needless to say, military interest in Great Britain in the tiny Sopwith – as a single seater for ‘scouting’ purposes – was now being shown by both the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Flying Corps; this version was projected to have a combat range of around 310 miles and a maximum speed of 92 mph as a landplane. The Royal Navy ordered developed versions on floats as the Sopwith Schneider and the Sopwith Baby.
The War Office had ordered nine of the Sopwith aircraft as the ’80 hp (Gnome) Tabloid/Scout’ in January, 1914, and added another three in March; this was the month that Sopwith Aviation became a Limited Company. When World War One began on the 28th July, 1914, both RNAS and RFC units moved forward to hastily prepared landing grounds in Northern France and Belgium. Some RNAS machines had a Lewis machine mounted on the center section and angled to fire over the top of the propeller arc, but most pilots used an assortment of revolvers, rifles and even shotguns in an attempt to attack enemy machines; later, one Tabloid would have a Lewis firing through the propeller, which was equipped with ‘deflector plates’ like those pioneered by the French aviator Roland Garros. Winston Churchill, who had been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty and was therefore leading the Royal Navy, urged the ad hoc RNAS units to take offensive action against Germany. This was easier said than done. Two of the Tabloids sent out from England had been rejected by the RFC at Farnborough as being ‘difficult to handle’; RNAS pilots tested them, and found them acceptable, flew them to RNAS Eastchurch (HMS Pembroke II) in Kent, then on to Western Front. These machines, numbered, ’168′ and ’169′ were destined to play an important part in the early fighting.
Both the Imperial German Army Air Service, known at that stage of the War as the Fliegertruppen des deutschen Kaiserreiches, and the Marinefliegerkorps (the German equivalent of the RNAS) had acquired airships for both reconnaissance and bombing duties. The German Army used mainly wooden-framed Schütte-Lanz airships, whereas the German Navy rejected these, and relied on aluminum-framed Zeppelin machines. Indeed, it was the early Zeppelin raids on the Belgian city of Antwerp in 1914 that probably prompted Winston Churchill to urge action on the RNAS. On the night of 24/25th August, a German Zeppelin struck at Antwerp, to which Belgian forces had retreated. Nine bombs were dropped injuring three Belgian policemen, and killing or wounding a total of 26 individuals. One of the royal palaces was hit (some members of the Belgian royal family were in residence at the time), and this caused great apprehension amongst the population. The RNAS were locally based, it is thought at the Belgian military landing ground of Wilrijk, near Antwerp, and had been raiding the advancing German Army and carrying out reconnaissance missions. On the 22nd September, four RNAS machines of various types had attempted to strike the Zeppelin sheds at Cologne and Düsseldorf. One shed had been hit by one 20lb bomb, but it had failed to detonate (possibly by being dropped from too low). No major damage had been achieved. With Antwerp on the point of falling to the enemy, one last attempt was made on the lair of the Zeppelins.
On 8th October two Tabloid aircraft were readied, No. 167 to be flown by Squadron Commander Spenser Grey, and No. 168, which was assigned to Flight Lieutenant Reginald Marix. Grey was to attempt to bomb the Cologne sheds, whilst Marix was to attack the Zeppelin base at Düsseldorf. Their bombload was 2 x 20lb Hales bombs (which only carried about 4½ lbs of explosive, each) – the aircraft carried no other armament. To make matters worse, the Germans had advanced so far that a forward landing ground for the RNAS machines, which was needed because they did not have sufficient range to launch the raid from Antwerp and return, was no longer available to them. They decided to go anyway. Grey encountered bad visibility, couldn’t find the airship sheds at Cologne, and bombed a ‘target of opportunity’ instead – the railway station, which was packed with troops. Marix, meanwhile, had found the Düsseldorf sheds and dived on them. Unfortunately, thanks to the unsuccessful September raid, the Germans had moved in defensive machine guns, and Marix’s Tabloid was hit repeatedly; despite this, he managed to release his Hales bombs from around 600 feet. By a stroke of luck, Zeppelin L IX (Production No. LZ 25) had recently been towed inside the airship shed, and its just under 1,000,000 cubic feet of hydrogen gas detonated. The Zeppelin, the aircraft shed and an adjacent workshop were totally destroyed in the blast. Marix didn’t make it back to base of course, landing in Belgian territory that was about to be over-run by Germans. He left No. 168 in the hands of local Belgian police, and attempted to organize some RNAS mechanics to travel back with him and recover the aircraft. Sadly, the RNAS detachment was about to pull out of Antwerp to Ostend, and then retire to the U.K. Soon afterwards, Antwerp fell, and no less than 95% of Belgian territory found itself in German hands for the duration. Both Spenser Grey and Reginald Marix were awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
In 1976, a Nottingham-based Rolls-Royce engineer, Don Cashman, decided to build a new Sopwith Tabloid. This wasn’t to be a replica, but a genuine reproduction, making use of original drawings supplied by British Aerospace, Kingston. The project moved ahead, under the auspices of the Popular Flying Association (project number, PFA/67-10186); taking some 2,400 hours of work, the aircraft was completed in 1980, and was assigned the registration G-BFDE by the Civil Aviation Authority. One concession to modernity was to use of a Continental PC60 engine (a conversion of a former Ground Power Unit) which produces about 90 hp. The first flight (22nd June, 1980) was at the Rolls-Royce airfield at Hucknall, near Nottingham, and the pilot was the company Test Pilot, John Lewis.
For the next two years, G-BFDE was a regular on the U.K. display circuit, performing at air shows at Duxford, Cosford, Old Warden, Middle Wallop, Cranfield, and many other venues. Unfortunately, in September, 1982, the little Sopwith’s starboard undercarriage collapsed on landing, and the aircraft turned turtle. No-one was hurt, but the damage was extensive. After 134 flights, G-BFDE’s career was over. Fortunately, the Royal Air Force Museum had already expressed an interest in acquiring the Tabloid, so Don Cashmore set out to rebuild the aircraft to static display standard; whilst he was doing this, he altered the engine bearers to accommodate an original rotary engine. In March, 1983, it was shipped to the RAF Museum’s restoration centre at the former RAF Cardington. By the time it left in November, a genuine Gnome rotary had been fitted, along with a suitable wooden propeller; it was put on public display on reaching the RAF Museum, Hendon. The Tabloid was sent back to Cardington in March, 1989 to be partially re-covered and to have the tail number ’168′ painted on. On its return it was placed in the Bomber Hall, to commemorate one of the very first successful bombing raids. By 2005, ’168′ had moved to the other side of the Hendon campus, to the genuine WW1 Grahame-White Aircraft Factory, where many WW1 aircraft are housed, with a final move coming in 2010 (when I photographed it) to the annex which is the rebuilt Grahame-White Watch Office Building.
The Sopwith Tabloid – truly an iconic aircraft