Monday, July 22, 2013

Spies In The Sky - Taylor Downing


I’m finding it hard to get any writing done at present despite some brilliant new books arriving and crying out for something to be said about them on ABR. Fortunately, to kick ABR’s July 2013 off, Finnish author Heikki Hietala has come to my rescue with his review of a book on the development of photo reconnaissance during the war. Spies In The Sky is, pleasingly, readily available as a good-sized paperback and brings the elite PR units and boffins to a much wider audience. Enjoy.

Photographic reconnaissance came of age during World War 2. First effectively used during the Great War (photographs of battlefields were used to discover enemy positions and plan for offensive manoeuvers) it was only in the 1930s that the technology provided military planners with the requisite tools for real, far-reaching results.

Spies In The Sky, entertainingly written by Taylor Downing, charts the development of the men and machines that served so well in WW2 and had a significant effect on the battle to defeat the Third Reich. The book is focused on the British effort. This is only fair since the Germans really did not develop photo reconnaissance at all and the Americans were largely happy to watch over the shoulder of the British in this regard.

The chronological record of photo reconnaissance and photo interpretation first sheds light on Sidney Cotton's maverick enterprises in the field of PR. His privately-funded photo equipment and aircraft, as well as his talent in developing the flight and photo techniques necessary, yielded very good results but his headstrong character, and unwillingness to let the military have a say on how PR should be done, led to his being separated from the Air Ministry. Still, he took some of the very last images from Germany just prior to the outbreak of the war and, without his work, PR would not have been as advanced as it was when the war finally erupted.

A large portion of the book is devoted to the unique PI centre of RAF Medmenham and with very good reason. A handful of very talented men and women were installed at the mock-Tudor mansion of Medmenham with a view on the Thames and ample space. That space soon ran out as the process of PI was refined as a three-stage interpretation sequence of images with each stage providing vital output for war planners. With the war in full swing millions of images arrived at Medmenham to be checked and acted upon within a couple of hours of being exposed over enemy territory. The same expansion into hastily-built huts that happened at the code-breaking centre of Bletchley Park occurred at Medmenham too and, at the end of the war, the mansion was surrounded by a rambling collection of buildings housing thousands of people hard at work.

On the technology side the use of the Wild A5 Stereo Plotter and other tools to identify military targets and new weapon development are very well recounted in SITS. It is revelatory to see how skilled operators were able to recognise tiny objects in the images, sometimes shot from 30,000 feet, and provide a coherent description of what the object might be. The hunt for, and identification of, the V1 and V2 launch sites is a case in point (albeit one told many times elsewhere). The dedication of the men and women who spent the war at Medmenham, staring at stereo photos for hours on end, is readily identifiable in the book, and the reader gains an admiration for them.

And, of course, the aircrew too. The men who flew unarmed but highly-tuned Spitfires and Mosquitos into enemy airspace to gain a strip of photos of some part of the landscape were skilled and brave beyond belief. There are heart-rending stories of how PR pilots decided to turn around to make another pass over an important target even as enemy fighters were closing in and how a Mosquito PR op almost went wrong when a Messerschmitt 262 appeared out of nowhere and robbed the Mossie of its only asset - superior speed. Teamwork between the pilot and the navigator saved themselves, the aircraft and the film but the tale of the fight brings you to the edge of your seat.

The book also discusses the organisational problems faced by the PR and PI communities. As is so often the case, no one wanted the PR and PI people when they were still forming the operational readiness they wanted to have but as soon as they delivered success after success everyone wanted a share of the glory. Medmenham was many times threatened with division into Bomber Command PI, Fighter Command PI and American PI sections but the leaders of the base stood firm and resisted all such idiotic turf war initiatives. This enabled Medmenham to keep on processing millions of images through the three-stage identification process and deliver identification results that affected the war throughout its course.

Personal accounts and stories of notable personalities are included in just the right proportion to the big picture which makes this a very enjoyable book to read. Familiar names such a Tony Hill, the low-level oblique image wizard pilot, and Constance Babington Smith (herself an author on PI) and many others are all given credit for their selfless dedication and courage. Anecdotes of funny incidents in the PI community liven up the narrative, which, naturally, is a little grim in the early days of the war.

I have no hesitation in recommending this book to any WW2 aficionado who wants a balanced background book on this often overlooked, but absolutely vital, part of the war effort.

Heikki Hietala is the author of Tulagi Hotel, a story about a former US Marine pilot who buys a surplus Vought Kingfisher and sets up a hotel on a small island in the Pacific as he struggles to adjust to peacetime life.

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