Evidence in camera

I recently finished Evidence in camera, a 1957 history of the aerial reconnaisance carried out by the Allies during World War 2. The book is by Constance Babington-Smith, a WAAF officer who started in December 1940 as a trainee surveillance interpreter. By 1943 she was head of her own section dedicated to examining aircraft and aircraft factories.

Evidence in camera tells how experiments in aerial photography began in the 1850s and ’60s. Aerial surveillance proper began in World War 1, leading to the development of fighter aircraft:

At the start of the war some of the Army diehards had felt it was unsporting to photograph the German rear positions, but these scruples were soon forgotten. By mid-1915 both sides were hard at it, and both sides were realizing that steps must be taken to prevent the enemy from recording their secrets from above. This need stimulated the rapid development of aircraft equipped with guns, for the work of the reconnaissance planes was so vital that they had to be protected — by an escort of specialized fighting aircraft.

In World War 2, British use of aerial surveillance owed much to the pushiness of Frederick Sidney Cotton. An Australian, Cotton co-founded a front company for surveillance missions that was later subsumed into the Royal Air Force, and he constantly campaigned for more planes and staff.

Aerial surveillance was often underappreciated in the early stages of the war. Surveillance reports were disliked by Bomber Command in particular, as the reports often revealed that bombing raids had failed or had been aimed at decoys. Evidence in camera is named after a weekly photo magazine published to encourage bomber pilots’ interest in, and acceptance of, what the photographic interpreters were seeing.

Later, Babington-Smith herself was instrumental in analyzing Germany’s development of the V-1 at Peenemünde in 1943:

When the door opened … it was [Wing Commander] Douglas Kendall, still with his coat on, and carrying his brief-case. He looked a bit white and tired, I thought.

I heard you want to see me, Babs he said.

Yes, I do. I want you to look at something I’ve found at Peenemünde. Don’t you think it might be a catapult for pilotless aircraft?

I showed him one of the single prints, and he was so silent for a minute that I thought he must share the [dismissive] view of the Industry Section [interpreters].

Then he said: That’s it! Let’s see the pair, and he quickly set my stereoscope over the two photographs …

Late through that night I worked feverishly with Kendall to trace back the history of the Peenemünde Airfield Site. We found that the first experimental ramp had been built late in 1942, during the interval between the earliest two covers of the area. Kendall himself measured and analysed the ramp and then started drafting an immediate report … Before daylight next morning Kendall’s report on both Peenemünde and Zinnowitz was on its way to London, with the news that the nature of the most imminent cross-Channel threat was at last established beyond doubt. It was going to be a flying bomb.

The initial V-1 launch sites were destroyed by bombing in December 1943. But aerial surveillance was much less successful in neutralizing the threat of V-2 rockets:

From September 8th, 1944, when the first V-2 was launched against England, throughout the months during which the drizzle of rockets continued, innumerable sorties were flown to pinpoints that had been reported as launching sites, and the interpreters searched thousands upon thousands of photographs. But … The only hope of spotting a V-2 launching site was if a photographic aircraft happened to pass overhead when a rocket was set upright being fuelled. Otherwise there was virtually nothing to see, for the Meillerwagen were easily concealed under trees. It was a one in a million chance, and even if it occurred it would not provide a target for attack, as the sites were completely mobile … Such impotence, such lagging far behind reports from other sources, was something quite new for photographic intelligence.

Coincidentally, a few days before I finished the book, an Evidence in camera Web site was launched. Eventually it will feature a catalogue of aerial surveillance photos with prints for sale.

The book itself will be republished in March.

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