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In 1916, the German Air Corps, Die Fliegertruppen, had gained air superiority over the Allies thanks to a new and technologically advanced plane, the Fokker E1 monoplane fighter – the Eindecker. This was an externally braced mid-winged monoplane powered by a 7 cylinder Oberursel rotary engine giving a top speed of 81 mph and an operational ceiling of 9,840 feet. On the face of it the unremarkable ‘Eindecker’ was not a war winner until it was fitted with the newly developed synchronizer gear, the Fokker Stangensteuerung system, which allowed the pilot to fire a single 7.92 mm machine gun through the spinning propeller directly in front of him. Instead of having the challenging task of controlling the plane and aiming the gun as a separate unit at the same time in the Eindecker the pilot simply aimed the entire aircraft.

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The first Eindecker victory, though unconfirmed, was on 1 July 1915 when Leutnant Wintgens forced down a French ‘Morane-Saulnier Parasol’ monoplane. Three days later Wintgens downed another ‘Morane Parasol’ starting what allied pilots called the ‘Fokker Scourge’ when Eindeckers and their skilled pilots were chopping the inferior and poorly armed allied aircraft out of the sky at the rate of two a day….

“Hearsay and a few lucky encounters had made the machine – the Eindecker -respected, not to say dreaded by the slow, unwieldy machines then used by us for artillery observation and offensive patrols.”

CECIL LEWIS ‘Sagittarius Rising’

“… hundreds, nay thousands of machines have been ordered which have been referred to by our pilots as ”Fokker Fodder" … I would suggest that quite a number of our gallant officers in the Royal Flying Corps have been rather murdered than killed."

NOEL PEMBERTON BILLING MP

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As the aerial slaughter continued over the Western Front in the old Drill Hall on Townshead Terrace in Richmond a new fighter was being developed to redress the balance. It was the ‘Sopwith Scout’ known to its pilots and service crews as the ‘Pup’. A lightweight traditional styled biplane powered by a single Le Rhone air-cooled rotary engine of 80 horsepower, the ‘Sopwith Pup’ could reach a maximum speed of 111 mph and a service ceiling of 17,000 feet, outstripping the Eindecker in every respect. It was faster, far more manoeuvrable and with a single .303 Vickers machine firing through the propeller far more deadly than the Eindecker Even the German fighter ace, the Red Baron was impressed. After his first encounter with a ‘Pup’ in combat, Manfred von Richthofen commented “We saw at once that the enemy aeroplane was superior to ours.” After months of flying clumsy and poorly armed aircraft the Royal Flying Corps liked them too…

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“When it came to manoeuvring, the Sopwith Pup would turn twice to an Albatros’ once”. (The Albatros was its German equivalent.) "It was a remarkably fine machine for general all-round flying. It was so extremely light and well surfaced that after a little practice one could almost land it on a tennis court.

RFC ACE James McCudden

The man commissioned to build these new aerial aggressors was a carpenter, John Alexander Whitehead who was born in 1876. Although he was an ambitious man John Whitehead was not particularly lucky. At the age of 16 he emigrated to America and settled in California where he married Clarissa, a professional pianist. He became a US citizen and made a lot of money in the timber trade but lost it almost as quickly. When his marriage to Clarissa began collapsing and his personal debts mounting in 1914 John Whitehead returned home to England to start again. As a skilled carpenter and a good judge of timber he soon found a job with the ‘Aircraft Manufacturing Company’ in Hendon. The following year, May 1915, he and four employees set up the ‘Whitehead Aircraft Company’ in the old Drill Hall on Townshead Terrace in Richmond and soon got a commission to build the new Sopwith ‘Pup’ fighter designed by Herbert Smith.

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At the time Whitehead’s manufacturing process consisted of building the aircraft in sections in Richmond and then transporting the parts out to Hanworth Park where they were assembled and test flown. To improve the efficiency and speed of his operation John Whitehead bought Hanworth Park and erected construction sheds on the site. Sopwith Pups continued in frontline service until early in 1918 when they were replaced by the faster twin-gunned Sopwith Camel. The withdrawn Pups still saw useful service as trainers and home defence fighters and many were used by officers for personal transport.

After the 1st World War, the Pup disappeared from the British scene. Only 8 found their way to the civil register, all of which had disappeared by 1924. The flying examples seen today are reproductions. Although the original aircraft are gone the spirit that designed and flew them into battle with such skill and determination survived into the 2nd World in the shape of the Spitfire and Hurricane and the pilots of the Few.

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‘Whitehead Aircraft Company’ continued producing Pups until the end of 1918 when output ceased. In just over 2 years the Richmond Factory had made 820 of these fine aircraft. In 1919 John Whitehead’s luck turned against him and the ‘Whitehead Aircraft Company’ went bankrupt. Financed by his father Whitehead and his family emigrated to Canada where he became involved in a project to dig a tunnel through the Rockies. This didn’t work out either and in 1929 Whitehead returned home to the UK and bought Cockayne Hatley Estate in Bedfordshire where he began growing apples. It was to be his most successful venture. Over the next 10 years he developed the estate into the largest apple orchard in Europe with over one million Cox’s Orange Pippin trees. Sadly in 1978 these were deemed uneconomic and the trees were grubbed up and burnt . John Alexander Whitehead was saved the anguish of witnessing the destruction of his prized trees. He had died in June 1949 after a long illness.

The Sopwith Pup in flight

— from Martyn Day