Spies In The Sky The Secret Battle

Title:                      Spies In The Sky The Secret Battle

Author:                 Taylor Downing

Downing, Taylor (2011). Spies In The Sky: The Secret Battle For Aerial Intelligence During World War II. London: Little, Brown

OCLC:    751716734

D810.S7 D695 2011


Date Posted:      March 2, 2016

Reviewed by Hayden Peake.[1]

After the invasion of North Africa in November 1942, a photointerpreter (PI) in the US Air Force’s 3rd Reconnaissance Group commanded by Col. Elliott Roosevelt reported sighting a column of German tanks in the desert. When a British PI checked the same imagery, he sent an immediate corrective: “For tanks read camels.”[2] The more experienced Brit had-been trained by the Central Interpretation Unit (CIU) at RAF Medmenham. Spies in the Sky is the story of that unit.

British historian Taylor Downing begins his account with a review of the origins of photointerpretation during WWI; after which the RAF lost interest in the technique.[3] In the interwar period, some progress was made when the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) sponsored secret reconnaissance flights flown by Sidney Cotton, a civilian. But by the start of WWII, the RAF had only seven trained PIs, and, when they couldn’t satisfy the demands for coverage of German military and industrial targets, Cotton was hired to establish a top secret, unofficial RAF unit to meet their needs. Soon after, the RAF formed an official photointerpretation organization that served all military branches, and on 1 April 1941, RAF Medmenham began operations.

In many ways, RAF Medmenham was analogous to Bletchley Park, where the Enigma codebreakers worked.

Danesfield House, a large Victorian country mansion—now a luxury hotel—was requisitioned for the PIs, and soon its grounds were covered with temporary huts to accommodate the staff. Photography taken by RAF reconnaissance units was interpreted by a staff recruited from universities and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and trained as PIs. Downing calls them “boffins at war.” (pp. 112ff) They included Sarah Oliver (daughter of Winston Churchill), actor Dirk Bogarde, and Constance Babington-Smith, who led the team that found the V-1 weapons at Peenemunde. By 1943, American and allied PIs were part of the CIU.

While Downing describes the Pl tasks of targeting, damage assessment, and photogrammetry, he also recounts the adventures of the pilots who risked their lives in unarmed aircraft to collect the imagery. The legend of Wing Commander Adrian Warburton, a favorite of Elliott Roosevelt, is a fascinating example. (pp. 157ff)

Less glamorous but more persistent were the challenges faced by managers who battled logistical problems and incessant service rivalries. A prominent example involved Roosevelt, who lost a dispute over who should command the PIs after the Americans at RAF Medmenham outnumbered their allies. (pp. 232ff).

Spies in the Sky is an inspiring chronicle of the vital contribution of PIs to the major operations in WWII and to the postwar profession for which they paved the way.

[1] Hayden Peake is a frequent reviewer of books on intelligence and this review appeared in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, p. 122). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Di recto rate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found on line at http://www.cia.gov.

[2] Babington-Smith, Constance (1957). Air Spy: The Story of Photo Intelligence In World War II. New York: Harper and Bros. pp. 161-62.

[3] For a history of Allied aerial reconnaissance during WWI, see Finnegan, Terrence J. (2011). Shooting The Front: Allied Aerial Reconnaissance in The First World War. Stroud, UK: Spellmount

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