An in-house produced film with detailed commentary, depicting everyday life at Royal Air Force (RAF) Wyton, the home of the RAF's photographic reconnaissance section, the Logistic Reconnaissance Wing, during the Cold War. The film follows a photographic reconnaissance task from initial request to the completion of the final interpreted prints, thus illustrating the professional and technical capabilities of the photographic staff at RAF Wyton.
An English Electric Canberra flies low overhead as the camera focuses on a large sign at the entrance to the station, highlighting the station's badge and motto "Verum Exquiro" ("Seek Out the Truth") approved by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1956. An adjacent plaque commemorates the granting of the Freedom of Huntingdon to RAF Wyton in 1955. A comprehensive account of the history of RAF Wyton is then given, addressing RAF Wyton's inception as a training airfield with the Royal Flying Corps in 1916, the first airborne operation of World War Two; a photographic reconnaissance of Kiel harbour by a Blenheim aircraft, which departed from RAF Wyton in September 1939, and the arrival in August 1942 of the Pathfinder Force, under the command of Group Captain Donald Bennett.
In 1953 RAF Wyton's first Photographic Reconnaissance Units (PRU) arrived, forming part of the Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre (JARIC), alongside nearby RAF Brampton. Wyton's primary function as part of JARIC is collect and document a photographic record of enemy targets required for the defence of the country during wartime. Unlike some other operational flying stations, RAF Wyton plays a peacetime role too, by meeting the requirements of the Armed Forces, Government Departments and commercial interests who require photographs for a vast range of purposes: from mapping the area of a whole country to the photograph of a single building. RAF Wyton's customers include: the Directorate of Military Survey, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, the Scottish Development Department, Ordnance Survey, the War Office, the Admiralty, and many overseas territories. With so many requests from different organisations, the Joint Aerial Reconnaissance Intelligence Board (JARIB), a central authority, sift requests and allocates priorities. The authorised requests are then passed to JARIC at RAF Brampton who in turn ensure the Board's requests are met by RAF Wyton.
Two Squadrons are stationed at Wyton, 58 Squadron, equipped with Canberras, and 543 Squadron, equipped with Vickers Valiant bombers. The Canberra is specially equipped for vertical and oblique photography by day and night, as is the Valiant, which has additional facilities for Radar Reconnaissance. An order designated JARIG 19 is received by teleprinter: "Carry out vertical photography at 5,000 ft and low level oblique photography at 200 ft at Little Barford Power station, two mile south of St. Neots".
Reconnaissance planning staff prepare full details so the crews can locate the precise area for photographic coverage. Maps are prepared and the technical details involved including aircraft type, height to fly, lines of flight over the target, cameras and lenses, the weather and other matters are determined. The selected crews are briefed and orders issued: 58 Squadron to fly the low altitude traverses, and 543 Squadron the medium height traverses. Oblique photographs give greater detail but the scale varies according to the distance between the camera and the target, and therefore cannot be used for map making. Map production requires photographs from a greater height which give constant scale and cover a large area of ground. As an example, a topographic map of Malta is displayed that was created from a single negative covering an area of 95 square miles. Meteorological conditions from all over the world are received by teleprinters and a detailed weather map is prepared for the crews. Cloud or fog at or below the flying height can obscure the target, so several alternative tasks are allocated so the flights are not aborted.
After their final briefing the crews have a pre-flight meal in the mess. A careful selection is made to provide a menu with items that do not cause discomfort at high altitude. Today's menu: Fruit juice or soup, poached fish and egg sauce, grilled gammon steaks and poached eggs, boiled or sautéed potatoes, French beans, fruit and cream, and tea or coffee. In-flight rations for a three to six hour period are issued to each crew member including soup, fruit juice, sandwiches, chocolate, sweets and chewing gum. After they have eaten, the crews then proceed to the changing room and get changed into flying clothing appropriate to the mission. As neither aircraft are flying at high altitudes on this mission, only basic clothing is required: overalls, flying boots, a lifejacket fitted with a SARAH beacon, and a protective helmet complete with oxygen mask, microphone and earphone. Ventilated suits are available for use in hot climates thus reducing perspiration and fatigue. Parachutes and inflatable dinghies are already installed in every aircraft seat. The crews collect their flight bags and proceed to the aircraft.
The capabilities of the Canberra as a photographic reconnaissance aircraft are then examined in detail. The Canberras seen in this film are a modified version of the bomber that has been in service with RAF since 1951, its range and speed making it ideal for all photography. Powered by two Rolls Royce Avon engines it can fly for 3,000 miles at 450mph without refuelling. The Canberra carries three preloaded cameras each carrying 100 feet of film yielding 500 negatives. A maximum of nine cameras may be deployed to yield 3,900 negatives. The Valiant being a larger aircraft carries more cameras mounted together in a frame forming a single unit easily installed in the bomb bay. After flight the cameras are removed to a dust free atmosphere for the films to be retrieved, and then are reloaded with new film stock for the next mission. One vertical camera with 250 feet of film produces 300 negatives nine inches square. To exploit the full potential of the aircraft, eight vertical cameras are set in a fan formation. Each camera is set at a different angle to its neighbour and using 2,400 feet of film yielding 2,000 negatives which from a height of eight miles covers an area 18 miles wide and 390 miles long. Negatives overlap by 60% for technical reasons associated with map making. This type of photography enables the use of a stereoscope to view photographs in three dimensions (3D) and the height calculation of objects on the ground. At night aircraft using flares set to illuminate the target at a predetermined height can give negatives almost as good as in daylight, a large flare is equivalent to 2,400 million candle power. High altitude night cameras designed to capture every reflected ray of light have twin lenses with a common shutter so each lens takes alternate negatives.
The crew of the Valiant board their aircraft, ready to complete their pre-flight checks. In service with the RAF since 1955, powered by four Rolls Royce Avon engines the Valiant was the first of the V bombers powered able to fly 4,250 miles at 500 mph. The crew comprises of two pilots, two navigators and one electronics officer who commence the pre-flight checks lasting half an hour. An overseeing technical officer responsible for all technical aspects of the photographic task also flies with the crew. Flight checks completed, the crew disembark and wait in the scramble room. Alarm bell rings, they rush to their aircraft and within two minutes are ready for take off. The Valiant departs. The Canberra crew are seen taxying past the Control Tower and await instructions from Air Traffic Control. Inside the Control Tower ATC officers are seen monitoring radar screens and talking down pilots in blind conditions. The RAF crash crew respond to a practice alert from the Control Tower, speeding out to one of Wyton's runways, with the facility to discharge 5,000 gallons/minute in a 500ft jet of foam to fight aircraft fires with.
The Canberra now departs and flies in a high-low sequence as the navigator directs the pilot to the target so the cameras are at the predetermined height and orientation, and starts the cameras taking images at 1/2000 second exposures every eight seconds. Meanwhile the crew of Valiant XD858 are approaching the target. With the aid of electronic devices on the Valiant, it can travel thousands of miles without ever seeing ground. The two navigators and the electronics officer control the aircraft and descend to 5,000 feet. Radar now directs the approach to the target and final accuracy achieved by a navigator at the nose window with maps who fine tunes the navigation equipment to the target. The commentator notes that in wartime the pilot cannot break away to avoid defences until he has completed the photographic run. A simultaneous radar reconnaissance is carried out by the Valiant crew as the aircraft traverses the target. A radar plot can show the major features of the ground surface. A comparative view of a map and a radar image of the Isle of Wight is displayed and the good correlation is apparent. Radar provides images at night, without flare illumination, and in all weathers. The screen images are photographed for later interpretation by experts. Use is made of Polaroid film to provide instant images for examination in the aircraft.
The film features examples of surveys undertaken during the past few years. During two months of 1960 a Canberra of 58 Squadron photographed 200,000 square miles of Somalia for mapping purposes. Three Canberras from 543 Squadron surveyed the whole of Thailand to bring the existing maps up to date. In 1961 543 Squadron photographed Christian da Cuna, confirming the shape of this island for the first time. Other surveys conducted include surveys of damage caused by Hurricane Hattie in Belize in 1961, an animal count in Tanganyika, British Guyana in 1962, and of the hundreds of small islands in the South West Pacific. Each survey provided the myriad details required for accurate maps.
The Canberra and Valiant arrive back at Wyton where ground crew quickly remove the cameras and rush them to the Duty team in the processing section. Speed is vital under war conditions to produce negatives that correlate with the wireless report from the aircraft as it left the target area. Negatives are ready for viewing six minutes after the aircraft arrived at dispersal, and are viewed on a light table by an interpreter who locates the target information and telephones Headquarters. During film processing, the crews are interrogated by the Debriefing Officer and the information obtained included in the sortie report.
For large volumes of film constant processing machines are used, processing negatives at ten feet a minute and printing the thousands of prints required at a rate of 40 feet a minute, or 630 an hour depending on the size. Half a million prints are produced at Wyton each year, which are checked for accuracy and compared with maps before being dispatched. Every year 1,000 pounds of silver are recovered for recycling during routine maintenance. After being cut into 9 inch squares the positive prints from St Neots are inspected. The overlapping vertical prints may be viewed as stereo pairs with the aid of a stereoscope, providing a three dimensional picture, and measurements, especially of height, made. The allocated task, JARIG 19, is nearly complete. For mapping tasks the prints are sent to the Survey Liaison Section (SLS) rather than Coverage Section. This small but important Army detachment from the Royal Engineers is permanently stationed at Wyton, and controls all aerial photography required to make new maps or update existing ones. The SLS is responsible for briefing the crews taking the photographs, selecting the cameras and calibrating the lenses.
Modern aircraft require servicing according to a rigorous schedule. Valiant XD858 is seen inside a hanger surrounded by aircraft mechanics. As well as the aircraft itself complicated radio, radar and electronic equipment of kinds require maintenance by skilled electronics engineers, likewise for the cameras, camera mounts and their associated equipment. A NAAFI tea van arrives providing a welcome break. There are many sections required at a RAF station to keep the aircraft flying: the removal and replacement of the all-important Black Box recorder, the packing of parachutes, standby generators and engine workshops. Behind the flying and technical sections is an administrative backing providing housing, feeding, off-duty facilities and healthcare for a total personnel count of 2,000 men and women at RAF Wyton.
Film cuts to "Headquarters Administrative Wing" building, followed by clips of various buildings and activities including scenes in the messes, kitchens, bakery, crew playing games, transport on site and accommodation buildings Corporals and higher ranks are allocated their own room, while Aircraftmen are housed five to a room. Officers and Sergeants have facilities equivalent to large hotels. 350 families live in houses at Wyton. The kitchens can provide up to 1,000 meals at one sitting, huge quantities are consumed every week including 7cwts of sugar, 1cwt of bread rolls, ¾ ton of meat, 4½ tons potatoes, 8,500 eggs, 100lbs of tea. A small hospital with an operating theatre and dentist help maintain the health of all staff.
The RAF Police are an important element, responsible for all security aspects of the Station. A Guard Dog and Handler are seen on patrol at night. A teleprinter connection to Hendon, London, is used for all requests of resupply, both technical and non technical. All forms of sporting activities are catered for and several players have represented United Kingdom as well as the RAF in many events, especially in rugby where the station has won the RAF Rugby Cup.
The film closes with a parade, the Air Officer commanding taking the salute from the Guard of Honour as the station band plays the Royal Air Force March Past. The commentator notes that RAF Wyton is ready 24 hours every day for the never ending task of aerial photography.
- Related period
- 1945-1989 (content)
- Royal Air Force Wyton Film Unit (Production company)
Sharpe, Steve (Production individual)
Margetts, Alan (Production individual)
Macdonald, Liam (Production individual)
Macfadden, David (Production individual)
Pointing, Ethel (Production individual)
Greenhaw, Malcolm (Production individual)
Gray, John (Production individual)
Harrison, Dave (Production individual)
John, Mike (Production individual)
Sampson, Barry (Production individual)
Austin, Dave (Production individual)
Bray, John (Production individual)
- Production date
- Place made
whole: Number Of Items/reels/tapes 1
- Catalogue number
- AMY 559