In June 1917, the type entered service with No. 4 Squadron of the Royal Naval Air Service, near Dunkirk. Its first combat flight and reportedly its first victory claim were both made on 4 July 1917. By the end of July 1917, the Camel also equipped No. 3 and No. 9 Naval Squadrons; and it had became operational with No. 70 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. By February 1918, 13 squadrons had Camels as their primary equipment.
The Camel proved to have better manoeuvrability than the Albatros D.III and D.V and offered heavier armament and better performance than the Pup and Triplane. Its controls were light and sensitive. The Camel turned more slowly to the left, which resulted in a nose-up attitude due to the torque of the rotary engine. But the engine torque also resulted in the ability to turn to the right quicker than other fighters, although that resulted in a tendency towards a nose-down attitude from the turn. Because of the faster turning capability to the right, to change heading 90° to the left, some pilots preferred to do it by turning 270° to the right.
Agility in combat made the Camel one of the best-remembered Allied aircraft of the First World War. RFC crew used to joke that it offered the choice between "a wooden cross, the Red Cross, or a Victoria Cross" Together with the S.E.5a and the SPAD S.XIII, the Camel helped to re-establish the Allied aerial superiority that lasted well into 1918.
Major William Barker's Sopwith Camel (serial no. B6313, the aircraft in which he scored the majority of his victories), was used to shoot down 46 aircraft and balloons from September 1917 to September 1918 in 404 operational flying hours, more than any other single RAF fighter.
Home defence and night fighting
An important role for the Camel was home defence. The RNAS flew Camels from Eastchurch and Manston airfields against daylight raids by German bombers, including Gothas, from July 1917. The public outcry against the night raids and the poor response of London's defences forced the RFC to divert Camels from France to home defence, with 44 Squadron RFC reforming on the Camel in the home defence role in July 1917. When the Germans switched to night attacks, the Camel proved capable of being flown at night, and the home defence aircraft were modified with navigation lights to serve as night fighters. A number of Camels were more extensively modified with the Vickers machine guns being replaced by overwing Lewis guns, with the cockpit being moved rearwards so the pilot could reload the guns. This modification, which became known as the "Sopwith Comic" allowed the guns to be fired without affecting the pilot's night vision, and allowed the use of new, more effective incendiary ammunition that was considered unsafe to fire from synchronised Vickers guns. By March 1918, the home defence squadrons were equipped with the Camel, with seven home defence squadrons flying Camels by August 1918.
151 Squadron Camel night fighters were also intercepting German night bombers over the Western Front, and carrying out night intruder missions against German airstrips, claiming 26 German aircraft downed in five months of operations.
The RNAS operated 2F.1 Camels from platforms mounted on the turrets of major warships, from some of the earliest aircraft carriers, and from aircraft lighters which were specially modified barges, which were towed fast enough that a Camel could be launched from one against incoming air raids from a more advantageous position that shore bases allowed.
By mid-1918, the Camel had become obsolescent as a day fighter as its climb rate, level speed and performance at altitudes over 12,000 ft (3,650 m) were outclassed by the latest German fighters, such as the Fokker D.VII. However, it remained useful as a ground-attack and infantry support aircraft. During the German offensive of March 1918, squadrons of Camels harassed the advancing German Army, inflicting high losses (although suffering high losses in turn) through the dropping of 25 lb (11 kg) Cooper bombs and low-level strafing. The protracted development of the Camel's replacement, the Sopwith Snipe, meant that the Camel remained in service until after the Armistice.
In summer 1918, a 2F.1 Camel (N6814) was used in trials as a parasite fighter under Airship R23.