Tag Archives: RAF

Spy in the sky – the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit in the Second World War

Today we have satellites travelling in orbit around the earth which can take incredibly detailed photographs of what is happening on the ground below, an invaluable aid to intelligence agencies everywhere. Surprisingly, Britain also had its own sophisticated ‘spy in the sky’ during the Second World War. Blue painted Spitfires armed with cameras instead of guns took tens of millions of aerial photos over enemy territory, ten million of which survive today and are stored in archives in Edinburgh.

Spitfire mk11
Danesfield House

The centre for this reconnaissance was RAF Medmenham based at Danesfield House 60 miles west of London, a Base rivalling the code-breaking Bletchley Park in its secrecy; and it was here that one of the most important stories of the war unfolded. With the clever use of a simple stereoscope the workers at Medmenham were able to scrutinise the spy photographs and bring every building and fold in the land to life in 3D. This enabled them to measure the height and width of objects and so gave a more accurate picture of their targets. Operatives at the Base assessed railways, factories, shipyards, and buildings; and they were always on the lookout for something ‘unidentified’, searching for anything unusual which might have a bearing on the course of the war.

The Photo Interpreters (PI’s) at Danesfield House were tasked with providing up to date and incredibly accurate information about the movements of the German war machine – during the war 80% of Britain’s intelligence came from photo reconnaissance and interpretation. The most important example of the work done at RAF Medmenham was Operation Crossbow which identified and hunted down something which had never been seem before – Hitler’s mysterious ‘V-weapons’, the new pilotless drones and rockets which could potentially have led to Germany finally winning the war.

Air reconnaissance really ‘took off’ in 1940 when the RAF created a special wing – the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, and the secret of its success was its adapted Spitfires. These planes were painted a pale blue to be camouflaged against the sky at 30,000 feet, which was the perfect height for taking the photographs. The guns on the reconnaissance Spitfires were replaced by cameras but pilots didn’t worry about this as they had a cruising speed of 365 miles an hour and knew that no German plane would be able to catch them for most of the war, not until the Germans produced their jets in 1944 were the Spitfires in any real danger of pursuit. The planes from RAF Medmenham, flown by both British and American pilots, were able to cover great distances which allowed them to reach Berlin, they even photographed the entire Ruhr in a single mission. These pilots were incredibly skilled in flying alone, navigating to their target where they had to fly a straight and level course to prevent distortion of the photographs which were taken of targets out of sight directly beneath them. To achieve this they would roll the plane on their initial pass above the target to identify the key features, and then come in for a second pass when they took the pictures. Each plane had five very large cameras which were able to identify and photograph something as small as a man on a bicycle from 30,000 feet. To ensure the best quality images the cameras had to be heated at altitude whilst the pilots in their cockpits were left to endure the freezing cold for 5 hours at a time. Once the planes arrived back at base the PI’s took over.

The analysis of the aerial spy photos was three-phased. Stage 1 – as soon as the plane landed the films were developed and the negatives viewed. If something needed acting on immediately (say within about 24 hours) for example shelling or bombing a bridge where German troops were crossing, these would be given priority. Stage 2 – the photos were then developed; it seems almost impossible to believe, but 36 million prints were made during the war. The priority pictures were dealt with and the rest sent to Medmenham where the PI’s identified any targets which would need to be dealt with during the next week. Stage 3 – items which were more long term, factories or dams for example, were dealt with last.

Scrutinising and interpreting the photographs was not an easy task and PI’s were often recruited from professions where people were used to working precisely and in detail – many mathematicians, geologists and archaeologists were recruited from Oxford and Cambridge universities. As well as these skills a PI needed to think laterally and creatively and so staff were recruited from Hollywood with their artists eye for detail, some actors were also employed at Danesfield House, including Dirk Bogart. Around 150 women worked with the men as PI’s, helping to both identify targets and assess the damage inflicted in bombing raids to see if they had been successful or if the RAF needed to go back again.

Other countries had their own ‘spy planes’, but what made Medmenham unique was the way that they processed the information by taking ordinary 2D photos which had been shot in an overlapping sequence and looking at them through a stereoscope to create a 3D image. The pictures overlapped each other by 60% to give a very detailed image which the PI’s became experts at interpreting. It was this expertise which identified something strange in May 1942. A reconnaissance Spitfire pilot had seen something unusual at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast where he photographed a new airfield which had three large concrete and earth circles beside it. A great deal of attention was paid to the photographs, but no one could identify what the circles were, and after concluding that they might possible have something to do with sewage the pictures were shelved.

The story of Medmenham and Peenemunde might have ended there if it had not been for a curious incident in March 1943 when two German generals who had been captured in North Africa were bugged talking at Trent Park Military Prison. They were discussing a new secret weapon, a rocket which would soon be targeting England and would probably change the course of the war. On 23rd June 1943 the RAF spy planes were sent out to scour Germany and northern France to see if they could find any evidence of these weapons. Hundreds of photos were analysed by the PI’s who were told to look for tubes which could fire missiles at Britain from France – a daunting job when no one at that time had any idea what a missile site might look like. One keen-eyed PI spotted a tube on its side in one of the strange circles at Peenemunde, and with this knowledge they went back over previous photos and found a picture of one of the rockets in an upright position; thanks to their 3D technology they were able to work out the height of the object from its shadow – an impressive 14m.

Peenemunde

Churchill’s chief scientific advisor Lord Cherwell refused to believe that Hitler had the technology to build such weapons so Medmenham needed to get more detailed information than could be seen from their simple 3D stereoscopes, what the needed was a Wild photogrammetric survey machine used for land surveys to get the detail needed to convince Cherwell. The problem was that the Wild machines were only available from Switzerland (a neutral country). Squadron Leader Ramsey Matthews arranged for a Swedish intermediary to buy two Wild A6 machines which were then shipped through Germany to Sweden before being flown to England. It was now possible to use the machines to analyse photos and get a greater understanding of Peenemunde, measuring the rockets and test sites with incredible accuracy so that scale models could be built, models which were convincing enough to persuade Cherwell that Hitler did indeed have a secret weapon.

Wild A6

Spy planes were sent out again and brought back more alarming photos from St Pol in northern France where they had found huge concrete bunkers and had no idea what they were for. Photos from 30,000ft didn’t help so pilots were sent in at just 30m high to get detailed close-up images; PI’s correctly identified these massive concrete structures as rocket launch sites. If Hitler was to be thwarted something needed to be done, and fast.

Aftermath of the Peenemunde raid

On 17th and 18th August 1943 more than 500 bombers set off from Britain to destroy Peenemunde. The raid did very severe damage putting back the missile programme by 8-12 weeks, but more importantly some of Germany’s most important rocket scientists were killed in the raid. The missile sites in northern France were then bombed as well even though the huge thick concrete domes were effectively bomb proof. The only bomb that could touch them was the 12,000lb Tall Boy and the even bigger Grand Slam bombs designed by Barnes Wallis. The bombs created a mini-earthquake which caused the huge domes to shift on their foundations (although not destroy them) effectively putting the sites out of action.

La Coupole at Helfaut-Wizernes

After the air-raids Hitler moved his V-weapons programme deep into Germany and Poland so that it could not be hit by the Allies again, so Medmenham turned its focus to finding launch sites in northern France – the ramps for the VI’s hidden in woodland were difficult to spot but, with perseverance, 96 sites were eventually identified by the PI’s, and on 1st December 1943 a V1 rocket was identified on a ramp for the first time. This was one more piece to the puzzle and the Photo Interpreters looked back at the 96 sites in northern France and were able to correctly identify them as V1 storerooms and launch sites aimed at Southampton, Portsmouth, and London. More importantly, VI’s fired from these sites would also be able to reach the proposed beachheads for the Allied invasion of Europe, for D Day to be successful the launch-sites would have to be wiped out before any invasion force set out – Operation Crossbow was planned to bomb the V1 sites, beginning on 23rd December 1943.

V-1 ready for launch

From early 1944 Medmenham was given a second focus – to help invasion planning by monitoring German activity in northern Europe, and every platoon commander on D Day had maps of minefields and defences in the area he was attacking, all supplied by RAF Medmenham. When the first V1’s began to land on London just days after D Day in June 1944 the PI’s again put all of their energies into looking for the launch-sites which had been moved from the woodlands and were now even more cleverly concealed in factories and amongst buildings. As the Allied invasion forces advanced they overran the V1 emplacements, and the last doodlebug fell on London 7th September 1944. One day later the first V2 travelled from mainland Europe at supersonic speed, coming out of nowhere with no warning to crash into Chiswick in London with devastating consequences. There was no defence against the new threat as V2 launch sites were mobile and so difficult to spot in time. Thankfully the Allied forces had already advanced to a point where the launch sites were soon pushed back out of range of England.

In a few short months Hitler’s V-weapons killed about 9,000 people in England, who knows how many more would have died and how much longer the war would have gone on if not for the work of the air reconnaissance at RAF Medmenham. And Operation Crossbow.

ROYAL AIR FORCE: CENTRAL INTERPRETATION UNIT © IWM (CH 16105)/ ALLIED CENTRAL INTERPRETATION UNIT, 1941-1945. (CH 16105) Flight Lieutenant H H Williams demonstrates the Wild A5 ‘Stereo-autograph’ plotting machine to press visitors at Medmenham, Buckinghamshire. A vital piece of photogrammetric equipment, the Wild A5 produced accurate maps from stereoscopic pairs of photographs, and was in constant use at the CIU and ACIU throughout the war. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196665
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Czech pilots of the RAF

In my last article I explained how the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, reached an agreement with Hitler in September 1938, an agreement which resulted in Germany annexing the Sudetenland and eventually taking over the whole of Czechoslovakia. There were many brave Czechs who wanted to fight against the Nazis but could not do so once their country had fallen; this article explains what happened to some of them.

In the weeks after Germany occupied Czechoslovakia thousands of soldiers and airmen managed to escape the county and joined the French Foreign Legion until the Second World War finally began in September 1939. Czech airmen then transferred to the Armée de l’Air and fought in the Battle of France. After the German Blitzkrieg and the rapid defeat of France around 4,000 Czech military personnel sailed to Britain and offered their services to the besieged island kingdom.

Blitzkrieg

On 2nd July 1940 Benes, the Czech Prime Minister in exile, asked the British Government to allow Czech airmen to help defend Britain; within a month a Czech fighter squadron and a Czech bomber squadron had been formed. The Czech pilots were an asset as they already had combat experience and nurtured a deep hatred of the Germans, whilst the British needed every pilot they could get to fight off the expected invasion by Hitler. By the end of August a second Czech fighter squadron was operating in the skies above south-east England. Many people are unaware that almost 20% of the pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain were not British. The foreign forces consisted of 147 Poles, 101 New Zealanders, 94 Canadians, 88 Czechoslovaks, 29 Belgians, 14 French, 10 Irish, 7 Americans, and 1 Palestinian. The Czech pilots soon gained a reputation for aggressive combat, no doubt fuelled by the loss of their homeland. One of these – Jacob Frantisek – was the third most successful pilot during the Battle of Britain with 17 ‘kills’, and was one of just a few ‘Triple Ace’ pilots (to qualify as an Ace you must have brought down 5 enemy planes). It is interesting to note that out of the top ten fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain (all whom shot down at least 14 enemy planes) 50% were not British and included one Czech, one Polish, one Australian and two New Zealanders.

The foreign squadrons had an impressive record against the Luftwaffe and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, head of RAF Fighter Command, said that he was not sure that Britain would have won the aerial battle without them. In recognition of their contribution the foreign pilots were visited at their base by King George VI, whilst the Polish and Czech airmen and their exploits were a common feature in the media. One of these pilots was the aforementioned Josef Frantisek who has been credited with shooting down 17 enemy aircraft in September 1940 alone, and is considered to be one of the top ‘scorers’ of the entire war even though his career as a fighter pilot was short.

Jossef Frantisek

Frantisek was born just before the outbreak of the First World War with a spirit of adventure which led to him joining the Czechoslovak Air Force, and which made it hard for him to obey orders when the armed forces were told not to resist the German invasion in 1939. He fled to Poland and served with the air force there, flying low to drop hand grenades on the attacking Germans. When Poland was defeated three weeks later Josef fled to Romania where he was interned before escaping; he travelled through the Balkans until he eventually reached Syria where he embarked for France. Once there he flew against the Germans until France was defeated and he made his way to Britain where he joined the RAF, his fourth air force in little more than a year.

Frantisek was a bit of a ‘Lone Wolf’ who would break away from the rest of his squadron to fight alone, often flying incredibly close to the enemy before opening fire or pursuing them back across the English Channel, and this is what ensured his high number of kills. Many British pilots thought that he was reckless, but it may simply have been that Josef Frantisek felt that he had nothing to lose, he had watched the German war machine roll over Europe and believed that winning the battle in the skies over Britain was the last hope of defeating Hitler. In one of his own reports Frantisek described how swarms of Messerschmitt 109s attacked so he played hide and seek with them in the clouds, during the engagement he almost collided with a German bomber and then shot down two enemy planes in a few minutes before he was hit, he ended the sortie in a cabbage field north of Brighton where he said he ‘made an excellent landing’. Josef’s short but highly successful career with the RAF ended on 8th October 1940, the day after his 27th birthday, when he crash-landed in a field in Surrey; his plane flipped over and he died instantly. No one is quite sure what happened – whether it was a lack of fuel or perhaps just sheer exhaustion – but the Allies lost a truly great pilot that day. Not long after Frantisek’s death Hitler felt that his Luftwaffe could not gain control of the skies above Britain and his invasion was postponed.

Karel Kuttelwascher

With the Battle of Britain won the foreign pilots continued to fly with the RAF against the Germans. Another Czech hero was Karel Kuttelwascher who joined the Czechoslovak Air Force when he was 18 and had already done 2,200 flying hours before the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia. Three months after the invasion he escaped to Poland hidden in a coal train, then to France where he helped the fight against the Germans before escaping to Morocco where he got a ship to England and joined the RAF. He flew for two years with No. 1 Squadron in which time he shot down enemy planes and took part in attacks against the German battle cruisers ‘Scharnhorst’ and ‘Gneisenau’. From mid-1942 Kuttelwascher flew night intrusion missions in which he flew a long-range Hurricane over enemy bases to take out German bombers as they were taking off or landing, a time when they were low and slow so vulnerable to his cannon. His ‘Night Reaper’ plane was very successful as he destroyed 15 bombers and badly damaged 5 more in just three months. On one memorable sortie he shot down three Heinkel bombers in just four minutes; Kuttelwascher was so successful that he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross twice in just 42 days. The media idolised successful pilots like Kuttelwascher and they began to call him ‘The Czech Night Hawk’; with18 kills he was the top-scoring Czech pilot of the Second World War.

Josef Koukal

Czechoslovak airmen did not only serve as pilots, they were also involved in Transport Command, Ferry Command, photo reconnaissance, air-sea rescue, and in dropping agents into enemy territory, including their homeland. 480 Czechs paid the ultimate price and did not live to see the peace – 273 of these deaths came from the bomber crews of 311 Squadron which suffered incredible losses. There were 1,500 Czechs still serving in the RAF at the end of the war, but these heroes did not receive the welcome they deserved when they returned home.

The Communists took control of Czechoslovakia in February 1948, and it was the belief of the new authorities that anyone who had fought for the western allies was suspect, probably a traitor; many of the former pilots were arrested, and Karel Janoušek, who had been head of the RAF Czech Inspectorate during the war, was imprisoned for 15 years. Many other airmen were dismissed from the forces and all of them were victimised, their wartime heroics forgotten. One example of how these Czech heroes were treated is Josef Koukal who, like Frantisek and Kuttelwascher, had made his way to the RAF via the air forces of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France. In September 1940 he was shot down over the Isle of Sheppey, and although he was thrown clear of his plane in an explosion his clothes caught fire and he suffered burns to 72% of his body. Over the next two years Koukal underwent 22 operations at ‘The Guinea Pig Club’, the specialist burns unit at The Queen Victoria Hospital. Despite his extensive burns and two pieces of shrapnel in his right eye (which remained there for the rest of his life) Koukal was determined to fly again, his doctors could not dissuade him and he resumed operational flying in May 1943. Koukal returned to his homeland after the war, but after the Communist takeover in 1948 he was persecuted by the State Security Police. Koukal refused to be provoked so they could not arrest him but he, his wife, and their two sons were restricted to living in a single room without running water or a toilet for the next 14 years. Koukal died of a heart attack in 1980 and it was not until November 1989, after the Czech ‘Velvet Revolution’, that he finally received recognition from his homeland for the part he played in fighting to free Czechoslovakia from Nazi German control. Koukal was ‘politically and morally rehabilitated’ by the new non-Communist regime and posthumously promoted to the rank of Colonel in the Czechoslovak Air Force; at the same time the other men who had flown with the RAF were finally officially recognised. Many had already died but those who still survived and were now in their 70’s and 80’s were overnight celebrities who were finally able to show their uniforms and medals with pride, and spent as much time as possible visiting schools and clubs so that their story could finally be told.

You can find out more about these brave Czech pilots on the Free Czechoslovak Air Force webpage

Josef Koukal

Joy Lofthouse – the girl who flew Spitfires for the RAF in the Second World War

During the Second World War women took on many jobs that were previously reserved for men. One such job was with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). The ‘Attagirls’ delivered planes from the factory to operational airfields, which freed up male pilots to fly missions.

One of the 164 women who flew these planes was Joy Lofthouse, who died this week aged 94.

Please do take a look at his article and listen to Joy, who was interviewed earlier this year. A remarkable lady who did a remarkable job for her country.

RIP Joy Lofthouse.

 

Remembering ‘The Few’

Battle of Britain

I often wonder how it would have felt, as a civilian in southern England, to live through the summer of 1940. After the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in France and the heroic evacuation from Dunkirk everyone was waiting for the Germans to cross the English Channel. Waiting for Hitler to add Great Britain to his list of conquests. We are lucky to be able to look back at history and see the events of that summer from both sides of the conflict. How much easier it would have been for people then if they had known what we know now.

Hitler’s plan to invade the United Kingdom, code-named Operation Sealion, depended on getting his forces safely across the English Channel. The key would be to make sure that the Royal Navy could not interfere with the invading army; and that would mean having complete control of the skies. To achieve this, the Luftwaffe needed to defeat the Royal Air Force.

As Commander-in Chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding’s main worry in the summer of 1940 was lack of pilots. At the beginning August 1940, when the battle was entering its fiercest phase, there were 1,434 allied pilots available. By the end of the month 840 of these pilots had been lost, an average of 120 a week. The RAF’s training units could not keep up, and only managed to provide 260 new pilots during that month. As the battle progressed new pilots were sent up too soon, and their inexperience often cost them their lives. In opposition, the Germans were turning out more pilots than could be absorbed by the front-line forces during the same period. It was lucky for Britain that, during the early days of the battle, Goring considered the fighter arm as defensive and of secondary importance to the bomber squadrons, giving Dowding time to build up his forces. It also worked to Britain’s advantage that Goring was known for dismissing as unimportant anything he did not understand. This led to him calling off the attacks on radar stations, which he said were not necessary for success. A decision he was later to regret.

In July 1940, Goring planned to tempt the RAF out for a full-scale battle and destroy it in just a few days, leaving the way open for the invading troops. To do this he sent up the Luftwaffe to seize control of the Straits of Dover on 10th July. However, the RAF pilots proved far more tenacious than Goring had anticipated, and the battle raged on. By the end of July the RAF had lost 150 planes. The Luftwaffe losses ran at 268. Goring knew that he could not keep up these losses for ever so, in August, the Luftwaffe began to attack Fighter Command’s airfields, operations rooms and radar stations. If the RAF could be destroyed on the ground the battle would be won.

Battle of Britain working on plane

Dark days for the people of Britain, who felt that they were standing on the brink. Yet victory was theirs, and when the battle was over a new chapter in the war began. For many those facts are enough. But for me the Battle of Britain is not just about numbers. It is about the men who climbed into their planes, time after time, day after day. Battling exhaustion, injury and fear just as much as they battled the enemy planes. How can we imagine what it was like for them? The answer is – we can’t. But we can get some idea of what these men lived through from their memoires.

Battle of Britain pilots

In my novel, ‘Heronfield’,  David Kemshall is a fighter pilot. For me it was incredibly important to make the scenes of battle, his emotions, and his relationships as real as possible. For this I drew on the book ‘Smoke Trails in the Sky’ in which Anthony Bartley recounts his remarkable experiences as a fighter pilot in World War 2.  Anthony Bartley was one of ‘the few’ who Winston Churchill referred to in his famous speech. A select band of whom the majority (82%) were British; but what is often forgotten is that pilots from thirteen other nations fought by their side. In the summer of 2015 let us remember those who, 75 years ago, fought for the freedom of Great Britain.

Nationality Pilots Men killed % of pilots killed
Great Britain 2543 418  16%
Poland 147 30   20%
New Zealand 101 14   14%
Canadian 94 20   21%
Czechoslovakia 87 8   9%
Belgium 29 6   20%
South Africa 22 9   40%
Australia 22 9   40%
Free French 14 0 0%
Irish 10 0 0%
United States 7 1   14%
Southern Rhodesia 2 0 0%
Jamaica 1 0 0%
Palestine 1 0 0%
Total 3080 515 17%

 

Remembance Sunday Parade and Ceremony held at Number one hangar (Museum) Royal Air Force Cosford with Group Captain James the Senior Officer Present.
Remembrance Sunday Parade and Ceremony held at Number one hangar (Museum) Royal Air Force Cosford

 

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few

Sir Winston Churchill

 

With thanks to the RAF museum for the use of the photographs

http://www.rafmuseum.org.uk

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