In late 1915, Sopwith designed and built what came to be known as 'Harry Hawker’s Runabout', a small low-powered single-seat biplane for the company’s chief test pilot.
From this it developed the Sopwith Pup, a single-bay biplane with a fabric-covered wooden framework and staggered equal-span wings. It was powered initially by an 80 hp le Rhone rotary engine and armed with a single fixed, synchronised Vickers machine-gun.
Completed by early February 1916, the new aircraft (serial 3691) made its first flight that month and was evaluated by the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) with which it was officially named the Sopwith Type 9901.
The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) saw the evaluation report and also placed an order for what it would call the Sopwith Scout although the type was very quickly dubbed the 'Pup' by its pilots, who recognised its lineage from the same company’s larger 1½ Strutter.
Original Sopwith Pup N5195 is now displayed at the Museum of Army Flying.
By the end of June 1916, orders for the Pup had been put in place by both the RNAS and RFC and the new fighter entered service with the former’s No 1 Wing in early September 1916. It quickly earned its spurs in short order by shooting down a German LVG two-seater on the 24th of the same month.
The RFC took delivery of its first Pup three weeks later and by the end of 1916 was operating the type with No 54 Sqn in France. Over the next few months more RFC squadrons were equipped with the Pup which was noted for its ability to maintain height during the twists and turns of dogfighting. Unfortunately however, it quickly became evident that the type was severly under armed.
The Pup ultimately served with a total of three frontline RFC squadrons (Nos 46, 54 and 66 Squadrons) as well as two Home Defence units (Nos 61 and 112 Squadrons) who were formed in the summer of 1917.
Original Sopwith Pup B1807 (G-EAVX) awaits restoration at Henstridge.
Experiments with a more powerful engine for the Pup were undertaken by the RFC with the fitting of a 100 hp Gnome Monosoupape in the spring of 1917 although the type’s performance remained much the same. An even more powerful 110 hp le Rhone was also tested but it was found to create balance problems, particuarly on landing and so this variant was abandoned.
The Pup enjoyed a level of air superiority over its enemy counterparts whilst serving with the RFC from its introduction in late 1916 until mid-1917. Sadly, it began to be outclassed by Germany’s newest crop of fighters as well as what was to become its successor, the Sopwith Camel.
The last frontline RFC unit to operate the Pup was No 54 Squadron who replaced its Pups with Camels in December 1917. Although no longer in front line service, the RFC continued to use the Pup extensively for pilot training.
Meanwhile, the RNAS had enjoyed success with the Pup, the type equipping a total of four Senior Service units (Nos 3, 4, 8 and 9 Squadrons) as well as the Seaplane Defence Flight with which it was used to protect shipping and escort slower seaplanes on reconnaissance work.
RNAS Pup N6454 is manhandled aboard HMS Furious in August 1917.
One of the most important uses of the Pup in RNAS service was its work in the development of deck-flying from ships.
Initially used aboard seaplane-carrier vessels, equipped with a short flying-off decks. There were however no provisions for alighting back onto the deck so Seaplane variants were fitted with flotation bags thus enabling them to be hoisted back onboard after ditching. The type was never fitted with proper floats and so began a programme of test-flying which was to set the standard for naval flying.
Rather than face the discomfort and potential destructive impact of ditching, it was decided to investigate taking off from a short platform mounted atop a ship’s gun turret. This also allowed for the aircraft’s precarious return to the ship’s deck, both feats which were pioneered by the Pup.
In June 1917, Flight Commader F.J. Rutland was the first to fly a Pup off a 20ft platform, fitted to the light cruiser HMS Yarmouth.
Squadron Commander E.H. Dunning brings a Pup aboard HMS Furious in August 1917.
Even more spectacularly, on 2nd August that year, Squadron Commander E.H. Dunning became the first man in history to return an aircraft on to the deck of an aircraft carrier. He landed a Pup on a specially prepared 'flight-deck' fitted to the forward end of HMS Furious.
Sadly, Dunning was killed just a few days later when attempting another deck-landing on the same vessel.
Sopwith Pup N6438, named “Excuse Me!”, was used for RNAS deck-landing trials with skids.
These experiments led to wider shipborne use of the Pup and at least six light cruisers were fitted with the short platform as tested on HMS Yarmouth. The Pup was also used extensively for the trials of arrester-gear systems as well as skid undercarriages. The latter were adopted when Pups were later deployed aboard HMS Furious in 1918.
Although the Pup enjoyed only a short career on the front line, it was much loved by its pilots and was developed into the post-war two-seat Dove Sports Biplane, an example of which is maintained in airworthy condition (in a single-seat Pup configuration) by the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden in the UK.
Sopwith Dove G-EBKY at Old Warden has been converted to Pup configuration as RNAS 9917.
Three original Pups survive today, two of which are currently on display at RAF Cosford and at Middle Wallop.
A total of 1,847 Sopwith Pups were built.