27 December 2023 to 25 February 2024
Spotlight exhibition with general admission
Spies in the Skies: Second World War Aerial Reconnaissance shines a spotlight on the squadrons tasked with flying behind enemy lines to gather intelligence from the air.
The Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) would operate far behind enemy lines in specialised aircraft. They would often fly unarmed, with their weapons swapped for high-performance cameras.
This winter, discover the incredible stories of the crew and aircraft who gathered crucial information from the war-torn skies of Europe. Learn the history of RAF aerial reconnaissance and get up close to the PRU's aircraft, gathered together under one roof.
Lockheed 12A Electra Junior G-AFTL
A civilian aircraft which was adapted for use as a reconnaissance aircraft by the Secret Intelligence Service in 1939. Flown by Sidney Cotton, one of the founding fathers of the PRU, this was the last British civilian aircraft to leave Berlin before the outbreak of the Second World War. This year, the Electra flew again as G-AFTL for the first time since 1940, having undergone extensive restoration.
Westland Lysander Mk IIIA V9312
Built in 1940, Westland Lysander V9312 served as a reconnaissance aircraft with 225 squadron, flying over 30 sorties in 1940-41. After suffering damage in 1942, V9312 was converted to a target tug and shipped to Canada, where it served until 1944. Beginning in 2003, V9312 underwent a 15 year restoration, flying again in 2018. It is the only airworthy British-built Lysander of its kind.
Supermarine Spitfire PR Mk XI PL983
First flying in October 1944, PL983 saw service from 1945 onwards, flying in missions across Europe as part of 4 Squadron until Germany’s surrender. After the war PL983 served as the personal transport of the American Air Attaché, before being flown in the Lympne International Air Race by Lettice Curtis , breaking the 100km closed circuit record. After several civilian owners, PL983 was acquired by the Aircraft Restoration Company and refitted to its wartime specifications and 'PRU Blue' livery.
© Liam Shaw
Supermarine Spitfire PR Mk XI PL965
Flying over 40 reconnaissance sorties in 1945, PL965 flew over German cities, including Berlin, taking images for target maps and damage assessment. Following the Second World War, PL965 was acquired by the Royal Netherlands Air Force, where it was used as an instructional airframe until 1960. After going on display in the Dutch National War and Resistance Museum, PL965 flew again in 1992, and is one of two airworthy Spitfire PR Mk XIs.
Supermarine Spitfire FR Mk XIVE MV293
A fighter reconnaissance Spitfire built in late 1944 at the Keevil Supermarine factory, MV293 moved between maintenance units before being shipped to India. It flew with the RAF and Royal Indian Air Force, then was used for instruction by the Indian Air Force Technical College. In 1978, it returned to the UK for Doug Arnold’s Warbirds of Great Britain collection, then passed to The Fighter Collection in 1985, flying again in 1992. Spitfire MV293 is now restored to its authentic RAF markings, including camera windows in the fuselage sides.
Supermarine Spitfire PR Mk IG R7059 Replica
Painted in pale pink camouflage for sunrise and sunset operations, our replica represents Spitfire PR Mk IG R7059, completed in 1941 as a Mk I fighter. It served as a photo reconnaissance aircraft with No.1 PRU and was originally piloted by James Morgan. Morgan would go on to command 682 Squadron in Italy.
Behind enemy lines
80% of intelligence gathered in the Second World War came through photographic reconnaissance. The PRU's work was invaluable to Allied war efforts but came at a great cost, with the unit suffering one of the highest loss ratios of the war.
From the location of the German battleship Tirpitz to the existence of the newly developed V-1 Flying Bomb, the information gathered by the PRU was instrumental in the Allied victory.
Sidney Cotton's Lockheed Electra
Looks can be deceiving and it may not be apparent on first inspection of this civilian aircraft, in its civilian livery and non-military markings, that this was one of Britain's first spy planes. This is the Lockheed Electra 12. The Lockheed Electra was a perfect camera platform. It could be fitted with cameras in the cabin and in the leading edge of the wing and it meant that with its inconspicuous livery, in the years before the Second World War, this aircraft would have gone relatively unnoticed in the skies of Europe. Reconnaissance was incredibly important in times of warfare, and in the 1930s, as Germany became more closed off to the rest of the world, reconnaissance from a ground perspective became virtually impossible.
Photo reconnaissance is often a form of intelligence that is overlooked or not really understood. It's not just the taking of the images but it's the interpretation of what has been taken that is so crucial. It's actually said that around about 80% of all Britain's wartime intelligence actually was taken from photo reconnaissance and that began with the Electra 12. Just a few days before Germany's invasion of Poland, this aircraft was in Berlin. When it departed Berlin it was the last British civilian aircraft to depart before the outbreak of the war.
The Lockheed 12 was the follow on to the very successful Lockheed 10, 10 seater, that is always going to be heavily linked to the story of Amelia Earhart and her co-pilot Fred Noonan. Flying a Lockheed Electra 10, Amelia Earhart and her co-pilot were attempting to circumnavigate the globe, when on what was virtually their last leg on the 2nd of July 1937, communication was lost and the mystery of what happened to them that day has not been solved. Despite this high-profile loss, between 1936 and in 1941 around 130 Electra 12s were produced. Both the Lockheed Electra 10 and the Lockheed 12 remain popular aircraft in civilian hands.
Reconnaissance in time of war has always been hugely important from the earliest introduction of flying machines, be they balloons or heavier than air aircraft, this type of reconnaissance could then be carried out over the horizon. From the start of the First World War, aircraft began to be equipped with cameras, initially handheld and eventually actually attached to the aircraft. This allowed mapping of the trench networks and again a better use of that type of intelligence.
By the mid-30s most aerial reconnaissance in the RAF was done by just a handful of people. Despite the RAF having designated aircraft capable of taking aerial photographs, in the years before the Second World War, as tensions with Germany grew, flying a military aircraft over their airspace was just not possible, hence why a civilian aircraft would fill that need. The Lockheed 12 was equipped with six luxurious and comfortable seats and a lavatory in the rear of the aircraft. Capitalizing on the innovations at the time, the aircraft was also quite fast and it had a reasonable range as well, for flying corporate passengers across the US.
There are many myths and legends that have built up around this aircraft, but a name that will always be associated with this particular Lockheed 12 is Sidney Cotton. After the start of the First World War, Sidney Cotton, an Australian businessman, would enlist in the British forces joining the Royal Naval Air Service as a pilot. As a result of his experiences flying during the First World War, he came to realize that the pilot's equipment of the day was not adequate. This experience led him to design the first bespoke one-piece flying suit. The Sidcot Suit would become very popular with pilots, but it has led on to advances in flight suit technology that we see modern-day fighter pilots wearing today.
After the end of the First World War, Sidney Cotton would remain involved in aviation getting involved in photo mapping, where his first involvement with cameras on airplanes began. Sidney Cotton would become involved with Dufaycolor - an early colour film processing technique. Having obtained the rights to sell Dufaycolor outside of France, he was regularly flying business trips into Europe and it's around this time that he is approached by MI6 and asked to actually start undertaking these flights. His initial flights with the French were not overly successful. The aircraft themselves were loathed to fly beyond the frontier and the camera equipment and the camera operator often didn't take photographs of the key military installations. This led Sidney Cotton to essentially state that for this job to be done properly he needed his own aircraft and his own crew. This would be provided, through elicit means, by MI6, leading to the purchase of this aircraft.
When he was given his aircraft - Golf, Alpha, Foxtrot, Tango, Lemma, he made a number of modifications to it. One was to have a panel removed from the cabin door so photographs could be taken whilst in flight. Two panels were also created underneath the aircraft for downward looking F24 cameras and there was provision also for two Leica cameras fitted within the leading edge inboard of the engines. So we've come over to the stores here at Duxford, to take a look at an item in the museum collection. In this case, an Air Ministry aerial camera.
I think it was an F24 automatic camera, vertical camera and it was to... as I was a photographic reconnaissance operator, later pilot, later it would have given a very small scale picture, but enough for what our boys wanted it for. This type of camera would have been fitted in the underneath of the Lockheed Electra facing down. When fitted on aircraft they would have been been set so that they overlapped. That would mean that two images taken next to each other could be looked at together through a stereoscopic viewer and the stereoscopic viewer would allow interpretation of the image by looking at things like heights, shadows, by almost giving a 3D effect through that viewer. The RAF at this time were struggling keeping their cameras working when flying at altitude or in cold temperatures and he came up with an innovation whereby hot air ducted from the engines was blown over the cameras to remove condensation and to remove the risk of freezing up.
The size of the Electra 12's cabin also allowed for the provision of additional fuel tanks and rumours say that he possibly fitted as many as two extra tanks behind the pilot and co-pilot and there's certainly evidence that one of those was fitted to increase the range and therefore the endurance of the photographic sorties. Despite being in the employer of MI6, he was able to fly his civilian registered Electra 12 with relative immunity over the skies of Europe.
When flying over Germany, his flight plans were dictated by the German government, but he often managed to negotiate and arrange for his flights to go off track to areas that he wanted to photograph. On a number of occasions he flew high ranking German dignitaries and members of the military forces on board the aircraft and there are rumours that whilst they were on board, he also was able to take photographs of the installations they were flying over. Using his cover promoting his film business, he was often able to fly his airplane to locations that would be out of the reach of many other individuals and organizations.
The RAF's two main reconnaissance aircraft at the time would have been the Westland Lysander and the Bristol Blenheim. The Lysander was a very stable but slow aircraft. The Bristol Blenheim, on the other hand, while a little bit quicker, was required to fly relatively low to undertake its aerial reconnaissance missions and this was something Sidney Cotton wanted to move away from. Through experimentation with different types of cameras, different types of lenses, he was able to maintain blowing air over the cameras themselves to stop them from condensing at the higher altitudes, that level of detail in the photographs from a much higher level. Coupled with his innovation of blowing air over the cameras, to stop them condensing, at higher altitudes, it allowed him to take photographs of a much wider area, in every single frame. Unfortunately, once the Second World War would begin, the use of a civilian aircraft over hostile territory would begin to become impossible. As such, he realized a fast modern aircraft would be required to fly high and avoid enemy attention. Cotton played a part in that, he brought to the notice, of the powers that be, the urgent need for a high-speed aircraft for aerial recon.
And his idea moved towards using the Spitfire. He was able to acquire two to be modified with additional fuel tanks and removal of armament. Sidney Cotton's concept was proven when in the first four months of the war, the RAF photographed 2,500 square miles and in doing so lost around 40 aircraft. In the same period, Sidney Cotton's fleet of two Spitfires covered twice that distance - 5,000 square miles and didn't suffer a single loss. The story of Sidney Cotton and the Electra are often full of myths. There is often a mention of three of these cameras facing downwards in the fuselage floor of the Electra. During the restoration at Sywell, the restorers have found only two blanking plates in the underside and no evidence of room to have fitted a third.
The cameras themselves are relatively bulky, so even when mounted facing downwards, they would have protruded above the floor, which also possibly goes against the idea that these cameras were used whilst people were on board not knowing that the photographs were being taken. With the story of the Electra, Sidney Cotton often makes reference to cameras mounted in the leading edge of the wing. During the restoration of the aircraft, evidence was found where cameras could potentially have been mounted. Sidney Cotton, in various accounts, refers to occasions where, with dignitaries on board he overflew installations and pressed a button on the instrument panel with which opened up a window and allowed these cameras to be used whilst flying over these installations.
The issue with this, is that there doesn't appear to have been any evidence of technology to allow those window ports to open, even if the cameras had been fitted. So it was unlikely that the cameras in the leading edge could have been used in such a clandestine way. On occasions, he had rubbed up against authority possibly the wrong way. We saw in the end of the First World War where he resigns his commission due to disagreements with senior officers and something similar happens to him at the start of the Second World War as well, when having proved the concept of photo reconnaissance and the need for faster more capable aircraft, his services are no longer required, when the fledgling photographic unit is absorbed into the mainstream RAF.
While it may be the case that some elements of this story have been exaggerated and embellished, Sidney Cotton and the use of the Electra, his contributions to the development of aerial reconnaissance, are undeniable.
In the years before the Second World War, the Lockheed Electra would have gone relatively unnoticed in the skies of Europe. With its inconspicuous livery it could fly around as much as any airliner would have done in Europe at the time. But while flying over Germany and the rest of Europe, it was able to take photographs.
The Second World War from 30,000 feet
As the war progressed, the PRU was equipped with aircraft specifically designed for reconnaissance. The Supermarine Spitfire PR Mk XI was unarmed, with its guns replaced with cameras. It could reach altitudes exceeding 30,000 feet and achieve speeds of over 400mph.
The PR Mk XI photographed the infamous Möhne dam, gathering intelligence on the success of the 1943 Dambusters raid.
The only two remaining airworthy PR Mk XIs, PL965 and PL983, will be displayed in the spotlight exhibition.
To allow better opportunities for photography, between 3pm and 4pm on the following dates the exhibition hall will be fully lit.
- Friday 2 February
- Tuesday 6 February
- Saturday 10 February
- Sunday 11 February
- Wednesday 14 February
- Friday 16 February
- Saturday 24 February
- Sunday 25 February
Thank you to the private owners and IWM onsite partners who have helped bring Spies in the Skies: Second World War Aerial Reconnaissance together.