Operation Crossbow

Title:                      Operation Crossbow

Author:                  Allan Williams

Williams, Allan (2013, 2015). Operation Crossbow: : The Untold Story of Photographic Intelligence and the Search for Hitler’s V Weapons. London: Arrow Books

OCLC:    752790227

UG765.G7 W555 2014


Date Posted:      December 15, 2016

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[2]

British historian Allan Williams is Curator of the National Collection of Aerial Photography at Medmenham. The collection, he writes, documents the “triumphs of photographic intelligence during the conflict.” (p. 10) Operation Crossbow, which he describes as “the hunt for the flying bomb,” involved “over 3,000 sorties… and 1.2 million prints” for interpretation. (p. 9) Still, his characterization of the operation as a triumph seems an exaggeration. The more than 7,000 V1s successfully launched killed some 6,000 Londoners, injured 18,000 more, and destroyed 750,000 homes in about 80 days. Then came 1,900 V2s, the supersonic missiles that struck without warning, of which 500 hit London, killing 2,724 and injuring 6,467. (p. 7) And these figures, provided by Williams, don’t include the missiles that struck Paris and Antwerp. (p. 302)

It is true that, beginning in November 1943, the interpreters had targeted launch sites and manufacturing locations which were bombed by the RAF. And this accounts for Operation Crossbow’s success, he explains, since, in bombing launch sites and support facilities, the Allies reduced the V2 launch rate below the quantity needed to change the course of the war. It is also true that the launches stopped as the Allies advanced toward Germany. Which event had the greater effect is not discussed.

Leaving aside the adjectival reservations, Operation Crossbow does provide a detailed and well documented—with primary sources—account of the role aerial reconnaissance and photo interpretation played in WWII. Williams begins before the war and tracks the players—British and American, many with famous names—along the sometimes bumpy road of progress through to the end.

The photo interpreter best known to Americans, Flt. Off. Constance Babington-Smith, headed the section that interpreted the image, that showed the flying bomb “sitting on a ramp, ready to fire,” (p. 178) at Peenemünde, Germany. After the war in Germany ended, she was seconded to the Americans and worked in the Pentagon. She was the first British woman to be awarded the American Legion of Merit for her work. (p. 361) In 1957, she wrote Air Spy[3], a book about her wartime experience. It was the first to bring attention to the role of photo interpretation in the war.

Operation Crossbow is a good account of WWII aerial reconnaissance and will be of interest to PIs everywhere.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (21, 3, Fall/Winter 2015, 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 Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov

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

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