Sopwith 2b2 Rhino

 

Few aircraft companies in Britain could claim to embrace the triplane arrangement as enthusiastically as Sopwith. While it would be building legendary biplane fighters such as the great Sopwith Camel that the company would be remembered for, it had enjoyed some moderate success with its aptly named Sopwith Triplane fighter which served with the Royal Naval Air Service’s “Black Flight”. Within three months of entering combat the flight had downed 87 German aircraft and the performance of the Triplane was such that it sparked off 1917’s triplane craze in Germany that ultimately led to the famed Fokker Dr.I.

Sopwith Triplane

The Sopwith Triplane didn’t catch on as well as hoped with British forces however and only 147 airframes were built, a comparatively small number for the time. Neither did it attract the hoped-for foreign interest although French, Greek and even Russian forces trialled the aircraft; in the latter case at least one example made its way in to the ranks of the embryonic Red Air Force post-revolution.

While Sopwith would primarily focus on biplanes, they continued to push for research in to triplanes to meet Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service requirements. In 1916, after the RFC issued a requirement for a long-range escort fighter and airship-destroyer, the company began work on another relatively large triplane in response. The resulting aircraft, the rather mechanically-named Sopwith Long Range Tractor Triplane (LRTTr), was a three-bay, narrow chord wing design that featured a streamlined nacelle in the middle of the top wing for a gunner to be positioned. The Sopwith LRTTr was an extremely clumsy aircraft in the sky and by the time of its first flight was already rendered obsolete by the introduction of more capable biplane designs featuring synchronised machine guns that negated the need for the upper wing nacelle.

Sopwith Long Range Tractor Triplane LRTTr

Only the prototype Sopwith LRTTr (right) was built but Sopwith were not dissuaded by this lack of success. On the contrary, they were still so enamoured with the triplane layout that they actually began drawing up a new triplane without there being an actual requirement having been issued by the RFC or RNAS. This time however the aircraft was to be wholly different beast being tailored for the bombing role rather than as a fighter. Experience gained on their previous efforts were put to good use in this new design and the aircraft featured only a single bay within its triplane wings which gave the aircraft a more advanced look to it.

It was intended for the aircraft to carry its offensive armament internally in an effort to streamline the design and so the fuselage was deepened to feature a small bomb bay under the pilot’s seat. It was intended that the aircraft would be armed with 450lbs of bombs that would be first fitted on to a self-contained pack which would then be loaded in to the aircraft. The pilot would be given a forward-firing .303 Vickers machine gun synchronised with the propeller while a defensive gunner had a .303 Lewis machine gun in the rear cockpit.

Sopwith approached the British authorities with their new proposal but were met with opposition since they were working on an aircraft that hadn’t been requested. Nevertheless, the design sufficiently impressed them to grant Sopwith a license to build two prototypes for testing as a private venture. There was in fact reason for Sopwith to be optimistic. After German Gotha bombers began attacking London, the British War Office recommended doubling the size of the RFC with the great majority of new squadrons being equipped with bombers. Airco’s DH.9 looked set to swallow up most of the orders but if Sopwith could prove their new aircraft superior then they might be able to tender it as a replacement in the following year.

Construction of the prototypes began in mid-1917 and the first Sopwith 2B2 Rhino was completed in October before being test flown from Brooklands. Driving the Rhino’s two-bladed propeller was a 230hp Beardmore Halford Pullinger in-line, water-cooled engine; an aeroengine that was widely available at the time and that had powered the prototype DH.9. The engine was mounted ahead and above of the weapon bay with the fuselage curving up toward it the look of which helped inspire the Rhino name. Unfortunately, this engine and its installation would lead to criticism from observers since it was proving unsatisfactory in the DH.9 with poor performance at altitude while its position on the Rhino made the aircraft very nose heavy making it something of a handful to land safely.

Sopwith 2b2 Rhino bomber

The first prototype (above) was nevertheless submitted for official testing in February 1918 which was undertaken at Martlesham Heath. It was joined by the second prototype the following month which was nearly identical except that the simple pillar mounting for the rear gunner was replaced by a more modern scarff ring. Unfortunately, the aircraft proved disappointing. Compared to the similarly powered DH.9, the Rhino was 10mph slower and had a significantly lower rate of climb both of which was of great concern to the RFC who were already unhappy with the speed of the early DH.9s they were receiving. Official figures showed that the Rhino had less endurance than the DH.9 and had a marginally smaller bombload.

Sopwith 2b2 Rhino bomber prototype martlesham heathSopwith knew any effort to develop the design would be fruitless since 1917’s triplane craze which it had largely helped create was now well and truly over. While it was true that triplanes had the advantage of being able to use shorter span wings than an equivalent biplane which made them smaller targets in the air than an equivalent DH.9, the trade-off however was that they were often heavier than their biplane counterparts and they incurred far more drag. They were also prone to cross wind interference which was especially dangerous on landing. As the air war dragged on over the trenches it became increasingly obvious that speed was going to be the deciding factor and the newer biplanes were leaving triplanes behind. Sopwith would continue to dabble in triplane designs up until the end with their last aircraft, the Sopwith Snark, being developed in both biplane and triplane forms.

The two Rhino prototypes would be returned to Sopwith where they would have a short career testing new propeller designs before they were disposed of to join the list of British aviation oddities of World War I.

Advertisements

Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a F5475 at the Brooklands Museum

A collection of pictures of a replica Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a marked as F5475 on display at the Brooklands Museum in Surrey.

All photos were taken on April 5th 2016
Photos: Tony Wilkins


The fuselage section was built on site at Brooklands and wears “1st Battalion Honourable Artillery company”. titles. Unfortunately, the tight confines of the Wellington Aircraft Hangar where the fuselage is stored do not allow for great photo angles but it was still exciting to view this piece of history.

For more images of British military equipment and museums please visit the Galleries section or follow Defence of the Realm on Instagram

If you have photographs or articles you wish to contribute to Defence of the Realm than you can email them to defencerealmyt@gmail.com. If successful you will of course be given full credit for your contribution and can even promote your own website/blog/social media account.

In To The Hands Of The Enemy

In 1915, the entente powers opened up a new front against Germany and her allies of Austro-Hungary and Bulgaria intended to relieve the pressure on Serbia. The Allies used Greece as their base to strike north through the Balkans but it would prove too little, too late for Serbia which fell in December 1915. The new front was now aimed at liberating Serbia and also to relieve some of the pressure on the Western and Eastern Fronts. The British contingent, known as the British Salonika Army being named after the second largest city in Greek Macedonia, comprised of two full Army Corps (XII and XVI) as well as a contingent of staff officers and support from the Royal Flying Corps’ 16th Wing.

armstrong whitworth F.K.3.jpg

Armstrong-Whitworth F.K.3 (Aviastar.org)

Within the ranks of the RFC in Greek Macedonia was No.47 Squadron equipped with, among others, the Armstrong-Whitworth FK.3 general-purpose biplane. The FK.3 was designed in response to the perceived obsolescence of the Royal Aircraft Factory’s BE.2 biplane which operated in the artillery spotting role. Early FK.3s offered little improvement however and plans for it to replace the already established BE.2 were shelved with it instead becoming little more than a training tool based in Britain. Perhaps by some oversight, No.47 Squadron took its FK.3s to Greek Macedonia in 1916 to support the British Salonika Army and in doing so become the only squadron to field the aircraft abroad.

Among the new pilots to join the squadron’s ranks at this time was 20-year old 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Cecil Stopher. Born in Woolwich, London he joined the Army in 1915 gaining a commission in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers before requesting a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. Completing his training in November 1916 he arrived in Salonika shortly after and was assigned to fly the squadron’s FK.3s on spotter and reconnaissance duties.

armstrong whitworth F.K.3 6219

Stopher’s aircraft (theauxiliaries.com)

A little over three months after joining No.47 Squadron, on February 12th 1917 the now 21-year old 2nd Lieutenant Stopher took off in FK.3 Nr.6219 from a neighbouring French aerodrome to rejoin his squadron at their forward base. There was heavy air activity that day with No.47 Squadron reporting sporadic encounters with German aircraft and so when Stopher was reported overdue it was assumed he had been shot down enroute. However, a few days later the British intercepted a German wireless communication stating that Stopher had in fact gotten lost and mistook the Bulgarian airfield at Demi Hissar in southern Macedonia for his own. Having landed safely he was taken prisoner and his intact aircraft was seized.

Stopher would join over 5,000 British, Serbian and French PoWs at the Bulgarian prison camp at Philippopolis (despite the Greek name the city is actually located in Bulgaria and is known today as Plovdiv). The camp was built on the grounds of a former cholera hospital and prisoners were forced in to labour details helping build canals, bridges and roads in the Bulgarian countryside. Stopher would not be repatriated to Britain until January 1919.

armstrong whitworth F.K.3 6219 Bulgarian markings

6219 in Bulgarian markings (Theauxillaries.com)

As for his aircraft, Nr.6219 was pressed in to Bulgarian service serving with the 1st Aeroplanno Otdelenie Division. Perhaps reflecting on their own machines, Bulgarian pilots were impressed with the aircraft even if the RFC pilots were less so. Having become accustomed to the aircraft the Bulgarians repainted the aircraft with black crosses but retained the 6219 serial number and turned the aircraft on its former owners. In the period between Autumn 1917 and Spring 1918 the aircraft flew a number of offensive operations against the Allies. Official records show 42 missions credited to the aircraft in total that ranged from reconnaissance to strafing and night-bombing.

Then on the night of May 23rd-24th 1918, the aircraft took off with Lieutenant Usunoff at the controls and with Lieutenant P. Atasanoff as observer for a night attack mission. Using small 12.5kg (27lb) bombs and their machine gun they harassed British forces between Gümüsdere and Lake Takhino. During an attack on a British position at Gorasanli the aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire forcing the Bulgarians to turn for home however a short while later one of the engine’s cylinders began misfiring before stopping completely. Usunoff managed to glide the aircraft down near Struma, landing it in a boggy field where it began to sink. The two Bulgarians left the aircraft semi-submerged in the bog and began walking back to their lines. The FK.3 was beyond salvageable and never flew again.

Cavalry of the Clouds, 1987

A fascinating documentary produced in 1987 covering the true exploits of the Royal Flying Corps, one of the precursors to the Royal Air Force, during the First World War. What makes this documentary somewhat unique is that it includes many interviews with the actual men who fought in the air on the Western Front. Unfortunately none of these men are alive today which makes these interviews all the more special with regards to the preservation of history.

The documentary discusses why men would volunteer for the Royal Flying Corps, their training and their experiences. Particularly interesting are the men’s sentiments regarding the Red Baron himself, Manfred Von Richthofen, which flies in the face of his legendary status.

Highly recommended.