Air Reconnaissance in the Second World War
by Del C. Kostka
In 1919, the great arsenals of the world lay in ruins. After four years of bitter
conflict, weary governments eagerly scrapped the instruments of war that spread
so much carnage and destruction across the continent of Europe. A global peace movement
and tight fiscal budgets conspired to keep military development to a minimum during
the post-war era, and in almost every nation’s air service the discipline that suffered
the most was aerial reconnaissance. It would be a shortsighted policy. Just twenty
years after “the war to end all wars," an even greater global crisis would once
again prove the indispensable nature of strategic aerial reconnaissance in modern,
Legacy of the Great War
Without question, air reconnaissance had an enormous impact on military operations
during the First World War. Airborne observers provided clarity and situational
awareness for battlefield commanders (Tactical Intelligence), and air photo interpreters
provided information about the enemy’s strength, logistics and capabilities (Strategic
Intelligence). But the intelligence value of air reconnaissance in the First World
War was considered secondary to the role that aviation played in guiding artillery
fire. Airborne artillery spotting, when combined with new wireless communication
and artillery technologies, constituted the most lethal weapon system of the war.
In fact, airborne artillery spotting was so effective that most post-war military
strategists considered air reconnaissance simply an extension of ground operations.
The Inter-War Years
One strategist who did not discount the broader strategic potential of air reconnaissance
was Capt George W. Goddard, Chief of the US Army Air Corp Photographic Research
Division. During the 1930’s, Goddard designed new stereographic cameras specifically
for air photo reconnaissance, developed a portable film processing laboratory, and
even drew up plans for a new specialized reconnaissance aircraft.  Realizing
the political and fiscal restraints on military research and development, Goddard
used peacetime aerial mapping to test his methodologies. In July of 1934, the Army
Air Corps staged a flight of 10 Martin B-10 bombers from Washington DC to Fairbanks,
Alaska. Although the primary intent of the mission was to showcase airpower, the
flight also mapped 30,000 square miles of Alaskan territory en route using Goddard’s
new cameras and photogrammetric techniques. 
While Goddard used peacetime practicality to sell his reconnaissance theories in
the United States, the mood in Europe was decidedly different. The rise of Adolf
Hitler and Nazi Germany in the early 30s resurrected Nationalism and political discord
not felt since the Great War. In response to rising tension and the portent of armed
conflict, the French began flying covert photographic reconnaissance missions over
western Germany in 1936.  In Britain, the leading proponent of aerial reconnaissance
was RAF Wing Commander Frederick W. Winterbotham, Chief of Air Intelligence in the
Secret Intelligence Service. Winterbotham lobbied tirelessly throughout the Air
Ministry for resources to conduct aerial reconnaissance of Germany’s growing military
and industrial infrastructure. Needing an ally to oversee actual flight operations,
Winterbotham recruited Frederick Sydney Cotton, an Australian pilot with extensive
aerial reconnaissance experience during World War I.  With Winterbotham’s assistance,
Cotton procured a Lockheed A-12 Super Electra and made extensive modifications to
turn the twin-engine, civilian aircraft into an airborne intelligence collection
platform. Extra fuel tanks were installed to increase range, and a concealed, remotely
controlled opening was built into the bottom of the fuselage. Three cameras were
installed, one mounted vertically and two set at an angle to take oblique photographs.
All three cameras could be operated from the pilot's control wheel.  In the spring
of 1939, Cotton flew 15 covert missions over targets in Germany, Italy, and the
Mediterranean. Winterbotham used the successful mission to rationalize the need
for a new high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft with the speed, climb, and ceiling
to avoid enemy fighters and anti-aircraft defenses in time of war.  Predictably,
Winterbotham’s appeal fell on deaf ears at the Air Ministry.
While Cotton diligently photographed German and Italian facilities in Europe and
North Africa, the Germans were engaged in aerial intelligence gathering of their
own. The German secret reconnaissance unit was under the command of Lt. Col. Theodor
Rowehl, himself a former reconnaissance pilot in World War I. Rowehl began flying
reconnaissance missions as a civilian working for the Abwehr, the German military
intelligence organization. He used a Heinkel He 111 aircraft with the civil markings
of Deutsche Luft Hansa Airline (now Lufthansa) to covertly collect photographic
images over British and French territory.  A more concerted Abwehr effort was
directed towards the Soviet Union, their closest ally at the time. Rowehl, now a
commissioned officer in the Luftwaffe Air Intelligence Branch, directed almost 500
long-range flights over Soviet airspace using specially modified Dornier Do 17 reconnaissance
aircraft to pinpoint Soviet airfields, transportation arteries and railheads. One
of Rowehl’s Dornier spy planes even crashed inside the Soviet Union complete with
cameras and exposed film, but Stalin was blinded by his false alliance with Germany
and did not realize the stray Nazi aircraft was part of a larger effort to prepare
for Hitler's planned invasion. 
In September of 1939, as the tide of war once again broke across the continent of
Europe, the intelligence component of each militarized nation included a small and
innovative core of aerial reconnaissance professionals, but the dedication and enthusiasm
of pre-war air intelligence proponents concealed a significant shortfall of equipment,
personnel and resources. How each nation’s military developed and implemented strategic
reconnaissance and air photo interpretation would have a significant influence on
the war’s outcome.
The Royal Air Force Shows the Way
At the start of the war, the RAF did not have a specialized photo reconnaissance
aircraft. RAF doctrine assigned long range reconnaissance to the twin-engined Bristol
Blenheim bomber which had a top speed of 266 mph and a maximum ceiling of 24,000
feet. Short range reconnaissance was handled by the aging Lysander army cooperation
aircraft with an even more pedestrian speed of 230 mph.  Neither aircraft had
the slightest chance of penetrating a German airspace teeming with ME-109 interceptors.
Such was the mortality rate among early reconnaissance flights that Fred Winterbotham
and Sydney Cotton, now an RAF Flight Commander, reiterated their call for a specialized
reconnaissance aircraft.  In 1939, the only RAF aircraft with the speed, ceiling
height and dependability to conduct long range strategic reconnaissance missions
into German airspace and return unmolested was the Supermarine Spitfire, the mainstay
of Britain’s air defense. Winterbotham and Cotton took their appeal for a Spitfire
reconnaissance aircraft directly to Air Marshall Hugh Dowding, the powerful Commander
in Chief of RAF Fighter Command. 
The odds were against Dowding authorizing Spitfire aircraft for reconnaissance work.
Britain was bracing itself for the storm to come, and every Spitfire would be a
valuable commodity against a Nazi war machine that had already pulverized Poland
and was postured to repeat their 1914 sweep across Belgium. Fortunately, Dowding
was one of the more visionary military commanders of the era. In the years preceding
World War Two, he was a driving force behind Britain’s development of both the Spitfire
and Hawker Hurricane fighters, and in establishing the Radio Direction Finding Stations
we now know as RADAR.  After carefully weighing the merits of the request, he
responded by saying “I begrudge giving up any Spitfire, but I must take a broader
view of the question.”  On October 16 1939, Air Marshall Dowding released two
new Spitfires for dedicated reconnaissance operations. 
Sydney Cotton immediately launched into a major modification of the precious Spitfires.
Each Spitfire was stripped of guns, radio and all unnecessary equipment, thus reducing
its total weight by 450 pounds. The gun ports were sealed, and any joint or gap
in the fuselage was filled with plaster in order to make the aircraft as aerodynamic
as possible.  The engines were also modified to optimize performance at very
high altitude and give the reconnaissance Spitfires an effective ceiling of up to
40,000 feet. To improve visibility, the cockpit canopy was replaced by a sliding
hood with a teardrop shaped blister on each side. Two F24 cameras with 5 inch lenses
were mounted vertically within the wings and synchronized to provide two, slightly
overlapped photos.  Finally, Cotton painted his aircraft a pale shade of blue
to make the plane less conspicuous to an observer looking from below.  On 18
November, a Spitfire completed its first photo reconnaissance mission over Aachen,
Germany. Low cloud cover prevented the pilot from collecting any useful photos,
but the speed, altitude and maneuverability was everything Witherbotham and Cotton
hoped for.  The RAF had found its first specialized reconnaissance platform.
An RAF Photographic Reconnaissance Spitfire in flight
Although the first two Photo Reconnaissance Spitfires proved the concept, they also
revealed problems and issues with both process and equipment. First, operating at
high altitude often resulted in frozen cameras, fogged lenses or cracked film. RAF
engineers solved this problem by ducting hot air from the engine through the camera
bays.  Second, a Spitfire lacked the range to penetrate deep into German held
territory. The overall weight of the aircraft was definitely a consideration, but
since rate of climb was not considered critical, it was felt an adequate tradeoff
would be to install an extra 29 gallon fuel tank within the fuselage. Later iterations
of reconnaissance Spitfires had greater fuel capacity within the wings and also
carried a 70 gallon drop tank.  In all, thirteen versions of reconnaissance
Spitfires were produced, each building on the range, ceiling and collection capability
of its predecessor. By the end of the war, reconnaissance Spitfires enjoyed an effective
range of over 2000 miles, a service ceiling of 42,600 feet, and a top speed of 445
mph.  The only interceptor in the Luftwaffe arsenal that could even touch it
was the Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter, but it was introduced too late in the
war and in too few of numbers to be a factor. 
A final problem identified by the prototype Spitfires concerned the quality of photography
rather than the aircraft itself. From 40,000 feet, a 24-inch focal length camera
with a 5 inch lens simply did not provide a photograph of sufficient clarity and
detail.  A 36 inch focal length camera was available, as were lenses in 8, 14
and even 20 inch varieties, but the basic principles of photography prohibited a
quick or easy solution to the problem. In photography, the longer the focal length
of a camera, the greater the scale and detail of the image. However, a longer focal
length also means that a smaller area is being captured in each photograph. Another
factor that affects the clarity of an image is the physical size of the film negative.
A larger film negative provides a higher resolution image, but it also requires
a larger camera and limits film capacity. To overcome these technical tradeoffs,
air reconnaissance missions were flown at various altitudes, with different types
of cameras fitted with lenses of differing lengths. 
The overwhelming majority of Spitfire reconnaissance sorties collected photographs
vertically from high or very high altitude, but when an air photo suggested the
presence of a significant target, it often necessitated a second, more detailed
photo be taken from low altitude for verification.  Low level sorties were also
required due to a low cloud ceiling. The dangers of low level air reconnaissance
were obvious: it put the aircraft back in range of anti-aircraft guns, and below
the watchful gaze of German fighters who circled like hawks above high value targets.
To improve the odds of low level reconnaissance, the RAF developed a new version
of Spitfire designed specifically for the mission. The Mk VII carried the eight
machine guns of a standard Spitfire, but with an extra fuel tank inside the fuselage.
It had one obliquely mounted camera that could turn 90 degrees left or right of
the aircraft, and two vertically mounted cameras with lenses of varying length.
Finally, it was painted a solid shade of pale pink to help disguise it against a
low cloud bank.  45 Mk VIIs were produced and they collected an abundance of
valuable intelligence, but their routine sorties were among the most hazardous missions
of the war.
Air Photo Interpretation
While the RAF was forging new reconnaissance methods and capabilities in the air,
an equally important aspect of strategic intelligence was being developed in the
remote village of Medmenham, England. Hidden within a stately estate house was the
headquarters of the British Military Intelligence (MI4) Central Interpretation Unit
(CIU).  The CIU had been formed in the late 1930’s for the expressed purpose
of deriving strategic intelligence from reconnaissance photography. The British
Air Ministry recruited talented individuals from a broad range of civilian occupations
such as teachers, geographers and archaeologists to serve as photo interpreters,
and developed an intense curriculum of air photography training. Winston Churchill’s
daughter Sarah served throughout the war at Medmenham as a skilled intelligence
The strategic value of the intelligence derived through CIU air photo interpretation
methods cannot be overstated. In 1940, after the British Expeditionary Force evacuated
the continent from Dunkirk and as the Battle of Britain raged, the only option for
retaliation left open to the British was RAF air strikes against economic and military
targets in German occupied territory. However, the premium placed on Strategic bombing
by pre-war air advocates fell far short of Bomber Command’s actual ability to identify,
select and destroy significant targets.  Without the structured, methodical
identification of targets provided by CIU analysts, RAF air strikes would have little
Perhaps the most vivid example of a sustained strategic bombing campaign whose success
hinged on air photo reconnaissance and interpretation was Operation Crossbow, the
Allied plan to destroy German V rocket production and launch sites along the Baltic
coast. In late 1942, MI4 became aware of a secret weapon production facility somewhere
near Peenemunde, Germany. The area became a frequent subject of interest for photo
reconnaissance missions, and on June 23, 1943 the relentless scrutiny paid off.
A routine photo captured a long, cylindrical object on a flatbed trailer parked
outside of a mysterious facility.  It was the Allies’ first glimpse of the dreaded
V2 rocket designed to terrorize London and major population centers. On August 17
and 18, the British deployed over 500 Lancaster and Halifax bombers to drop nearly
36,000 tons of explosive bombs on the Peenemunde rocket facility. The RAF and USAAF
would stage three more raids of V weapon production facilities over the next year,
each proceeded by intense photo reconnaissance in order to select precise targets,
and each followed by thorough Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) flights. 
June 23, 1943, a watershed moment in air photo interpretation history; an RAF reconnaissance
sortie detects a German V2 rocket in transit.
German Growing Pains
While British collaboration, innovation and unbiased thinking paid huge dividends
for the RAF, the German experience was much different. Despite the early aggressiveness
of Rowehl and the air reconnaissance unit, the German Luftwaffe remained mired in
the politics and compartmentalization that characterized the Nazi system. Hermann
Goering himself had very little interest in air photo reconnaissance.  The Luftwaffe
Air Intelligence Branch was given very little latitude to pursue new technologies
and techniques, and German Air Intelligence officers were often given additional
duties such as propaganda and censorship.  The Luftwaffe also had very unique
political baggage that restricted the independence of strategic reconnaissance operations.
The principles of Blitzkreig, the “lightning war” that so easily overran Poland,
Belgium and France, mandated extremely close coordination of ground and air operations.
 It can even be argued that the Luftwaffe’s primary reason for existence was
support of ground forces. This is the reason they never developed the heavy strategic
bombing capability they lacked during the Battle of Britain, and it was the reason
Luftwaffe Air Intelligence focused almost exclusively on tactical, rather than strategic
intelligence. Germany simply had no systematic air photo interpretation equivalent
to MI4’s CIU. 
Nevertheless, Rowehl and his reconnaissance unit flew tactical intelligence collection
missions over Allied territories with whatever resources the Nazi war machine would
provide. An assortment of Junkers Ju 88's, Dornier Do 17's and Messerschmitt Bf
110's were used to fly photo-reconnaissance sorties.  In contrast to the RAF
philosophy of using a stripped down, high-performance Spitfire for high altitude
reconnaissance, the Luftwaffe applied very few modifications to their reconnaissance
aircraft, and flew fully armed in order to drop bombs on targets of opportunity.
 As the war progressed, the British air defense system virtually eliminated
Luftwaffe reconnaissance flights over Britain until September of 1944 when the Germans
unveiled the Arado Ar 234, a jet powered strategic bomber and reconnaissance platform
with the speed and ceiling to penetrate British airspace.  Even then, Luftwaffe
Air Intelligence tended to restrict reconnaissance flights to pre-raid tactical
collection and post-raid BDA missions. 
The American Experience
When the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) entered the European air war they
also lacked an aircraft designed specifically for aerial reconnaissance, and like
their British counterparts before them, the Americans learned from bitter experience
the value of having an aircraft with the speed, altitude and range to avoid enemy
fighters.  The earliest American attempt to replicate Spitfire reconnaissance
capabilities was the F-4, a factory modified Lockheed P-38 which replaced the Lightning’s
guns and cannon with four high-quality reconnaissance and mapping cameras. The F-4
had inherent speed, altitude and range qualities, and was a favorite of both pilots
and maintenance crews. In all, over 200 F-4 and F-5s based on the P-38 would be
produced, and hundreds more stock P-38s were field modified to accommodate photo
reconnaissance.  In mid-1943, the North American P-51 Mustang arrived and quickly
established itself as the premier air superiority fighter of the war. Its reconnaissance
variant, the F6, eventually became the dominant reconnaissance model flown by the
USAAF in Europe. 
The USAAF also organized their air photo interpretation doctrine based on RAF procedures
and tactics.  US photo-reconnaissance operations in Europe were based at RAF
Mount Farm airfield near Dorchester, England. Photography from USAAF flights was
transferred to Medmenham where US Army photo interpreters worked and trained alongside
more experienced CIU interpreters.  One significant American contribution to
air intelligence was the development of nighttime air photo reconnaissance. In 1939,
the U.S. Army Air Force asked Professor Harold Edgerton of the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology to design a flash lamp strong enough to enable nighttime aerial photography.
Edgerton, who had earlier developed a high-speed Strobe light to freeze motion in
scientific experiments, spent the next four years developing and testing a flash
unit thousands of times more powerful than his original Strobe.  Thanks to the
Edgerton flash unit, nighttime reconnaissance provided vital intelligence about
enemy strengths and troop movements to both USAAF and RAF planners. By 1943, American
reconnaissance efforts had grown substantially in both quality and quantity, and
the close collaboration between USAAF and RAF photo reconnaissance units helped
ensure success in the combined strategic bombing campaign.
Air Reconnaissance in the Pacific
In Europe, American air reconnaissance had the luxury of an experienced and supportive
mentor. The situation in the Pacific was entirely different. Although the British
had territorial possessions throughout the South Pacific, they had not performed
the meticulous baseline reconnaissance of Japanese military facilities and infrastructure
as they had the Germans. The security conscious Japanese kept an extremely tight
lid on any potential intelligence about their home islands, and there was virtually
no pre-existing information available on the location of the most lucrative strategic
targets.  The great distance across the Pacific was a tremendous obstacle. After
the American airfields on Wake Island and Luzon were lost in the early months of
the war, most strategic points of interest were beyond the range of all but carrier
borne aircraft. From a strategic reconnaissance perspective, the Allied task was
Fortunately, the Americans were not alone in their Pacific mission. Both the Royal
Australian Air Force (RAAF) and Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) had well established
air reconnaissance capabilities throughout the South Pacific. Flying an assortment
of bi-planes, converted cargo transports and flying boats, the RAAF and RNZAF made
up for equipment shortfalls with sheer determination and vigilance. Australian and
New Zealand reconnaissance squadrons patrolled the sea lanes and coastal shores
of Japanese held islands, and diligently carried out search and rescue missions
for downed Allied airmen.  The Australians also pioneered the concept of airborne
forward air control, coordinating close air support for ground forces directly from
overhead reconnaissance aircraft during the hectic jungle battles of New Guinea.
 All of these low-level reconnaissance missions were performed at great peril,
especially early in the war when the Japanese enjoyed almost total air superiority.
The American air reconnaissance effort was initially limited to blind tactical forays
across vast stretches of ocean in search of Japanese naval forces. The random nature
of tactical air reconnaissance missions in the Pacific left much to fate and chance.
Perhaps the most prominent example of air reconnaissance in the Pacific, and one
that illustrates both the luck and importance associated with tactical air reconnaissance,
is the American victory at Midway. On June 3 1942, a Japanese Aichi E13A "Jake"
reconnaissance plane from the cruiser Tone located the US fleet about 200 miles
northeast of Midway, but failed to report the presence of American aircraft carriers.
Simultaneously, a Douglas SBD torpedo bomber from the carrier USS Enterprise found
the Japanese fleet and fixed it for immediate attack.  The resulting time delay
between strikes and counter strikes proved critical to the outcome of the battle.
The first true US strategic reconnaissance capability in the Pacific began in April
of 1942 when Capt. Karl L. Polifka established the 8th Photographic Squadron at
Port Moresby in New Guinea. Polifka had been allocated five F-4’s specially modified
with additional fuel tanks. Unfortunately, due to weather and mechanical failure
only one F4 made it beyond a staging base in Australia, but with his lone F-4 Polifka
almost single-handedly mapped the area surrounding New Guinea and New Britain. It
was an extremely grueling mission due to the long distances and unpredictable weather,
but the results were invaluable during MacArthur’s New Guinea campaign of 1943.
 Later in the war, the USAAF introduced the F-13, a modified Boeing B-29 Superfortress
designed specifically to conduct long range aerial reconnaissance. On Nov. 1, 1944,
an F-13 flew a 14 hour mission from Saipan to Tokyo at an altitude of 32,000 feet,
the first US aircraft to fly over Tokyo since the Doolittle raid in April of 1942.
Once the US established air supremacy in the Pacific, F-13s flew hundreds of missions
over the Japanese mainland, and mapped virtually every significant target in Japan.
A P-38 reconnaissance variant being prepped for a mission at Saipan’s East Airfield.
Note the camera bays on the side and bottom of the central nacelle that have replaced
the nose armament.
For their part, the Japanese did appreciate the value of air reconnaissance. Japan
boasted a well developed aviation industry and produced excellent quality specialized
reconnaissance aircraft such as the Kawanishi H8K "Emily" and the Mitsubishi Ki-46
"Dinah". Prior to the war, the Japanese performed meticulous aerial mapping
of Malaysia and the Philippines, but narrow minded thinking and bitter inter-service
rivalry prohibited the Japanese from fulfilling their full potential in air reconnaissance.
Japan actually had two distinctly different air services; one under the direction
of the Army and one a component of the Navy.  To say that the Japanese Army
and Navy did not cooperate and share information is a major understatement. In fact,
their relationship was overtly hostile. There was no exchange of strategies, intelligence
or resources in the Japanese military, and in both cases the primary mission of
their respective air service was to support the tactical requirements of the parent.
 In the end, once the Japanese lost air superiority their reconnaissance aircraft
were far too vulnerable to American fighters to be effective.
Airborne Intelligence Comes of Age
Aerial reconnaissance and air photo interpretation played a huge role in the Allied
victories in both the European and Pacific theaters, but they were by no means the
only forms of intelligence derived through airborne collection methods. World War
Two also saw dramatic advances in electronic warfare. Signals Intelligence (SIGINT),
the science of using radio waves and electromagnetic energy to detect electronic
signals, includes two unique intelligence disciplines; Electronic Intelligence (ELINT)
is the process used to detect and analyze enemy radar and electronic navigation
emissions, and Communications Intelligence (COMINT) refers to the interception and
decoding of enemy radio communications.  Once again it was the Allies who took
the lead in the exploitation of airborne SIGINT. Flying a variety of specially modified
aircraft collectively known as “Ferrets,” USAAF and RAF flight crews collected valuable
intelligence on the location and capability of enemy radar stations, and the presence
and bearing of German radio navigation beacons. 
One of the more celebrated intelligence successes of World War Two was code name
“Ultra,” the British operation to detect and decrypt German signals traffic. The
fact that British Intelligence had access to Germany’s communication code was one
of the most closely guarded secrets of the war. The British were very cautious in
deciding when to use the information they derived from Ultra, lest the Germans become
aware that their secret code had been broken. It was none other than Fred W. Winterbotham,
the RAF Squadron Leader who had done so much to advance the cause of aerial reconnaissance
at the start of the war, who was in charge of deciding who would receive intelligence
gleaned from Ultra, and when they should receive it.  Winterbotham often tasked
reconnaissance sorties over areas of interest identified through Ultra decrypts.
If the Germans saw a British reconnaissance aircraft pass over that particular area,
they would assume the British discovered their knowledge through air photo interpretation
rather than Ultra. Thus, air reconnaissance helped preserve the secret of Ultra,
and on several occasions the imagery brought home for analysis helped verify the
accuracy of the Ultra decrypt. 
Leaving Their Own Legacy
No discussion of aerial reconnaissance during World War Two would be complete without
a word about the pilots and air crews who flew the actual air missions. Sitting
alone in a freezing cold cockpit for hours at a time, wartime air reconnaissance
pilots risked death every time they took off on a mission. Navigation was a special
challenge for reconnaissance pilots. Flying without radio contact, the pilot had
only a map and a compass to find his way deep into enemy airspace, locate his assigned
targets, and return safely to his point of origin. Each weather situation had its
inherent danger. A pilot might have to fly above a cloud bank for hours without
seeing a landmark, or he might have to burn fuel reserves flying an endless zigzag
pattern when the weather was clear. Fuel was a constant consideration. A pilot had
to monitor the fuel gauge and continually calculate fuel consumption rates in order
to return home safely.
The extremely high altitude required of a typical reconnaissance flight held other
unique challenges. Prior to the war, very few pilots had any experience flying above
20,000 feet.  At 35,000 feet, the new reconnaissance pilot suddenly found himself
trying to manipulate aircraft controls in a sub-arctic environment where the temperature
could easily fall to 50 degrees below zero. Pilots often wore so many layers of
clothing that they had to be hoisted into the aircraft by helpful ground crews.
 Oxygen deprivation was another constant hazard of high altitude flight. Oxygen
masks and filtration systems were very primitive in 1940, and hypoxia, a loss of
consciousness or coherence due to oxygen deprivation, was a very real danger. 
If the cold and altitude sickness weren’t enough, an even greater peril of high
altitude missions was the condensation trail that could appear at any time behind
the aircraft. A contrail sent an open invitation to enemy fighters. If an air predator
could not climb to reconnaissance altitude in time to engage, it would certainly
be waiting on the return flight. Reconnaissance pilots even attached mirrors to
their canopies in order to spot the dreaded contrails and drop below condensation
altitude as quickly as possible in order to dissipate the telltale white ribbon
dragging behind the aircraft. 
The dangers of low level reconnaissance are legendary. Only the most experienced
pilots were selected for low level reconnaissance sorties, usually against high
priority coastal targets protected by an umbrella of anti-aircraft guns and interceptor
aircraft. It is a testament to the courage and daring of reconnaissance pilots that
low level assignments were the most sought after, and most volunteered for, of all
reconnaissance missions. 
A low-level, oblique reconnaissance photograph of a German radar installation at
Auderville, France, taken on February 22, 1941 using an F24 side-facing camera.
The Second World War has been called “the last good war”. In the United States and
Allied Nations, we remember World War Two as a great human effort of tireless work,
brilliant thinking, incredible risk and collaborative spirit. Air reconnaissance
in World War Two was all of that, and a critical element in an Allied victory that
at times seemed improbable.
Show Footnotes and Bibliography
. Walter J. Boyne, “Reconnaissance on the Wing,” Air Force 82:10 (1999),
available at http://www.afa.org/_private/Magazine/Oct1999/1099recon.asp
. John Thomas Farquhar, A Need to Know: The Role of Air Force Reconnaissance in
War Planning, 1945–1953 (Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama: Air University
Press, February 2004), 8.
. Ibid, 8.
. Judson Knight, “Aviation Intelligence,” Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence,
and Security, n.d. Web, 16 May 2012, http://www.faqs.org/espionage/An-Ba/Aviation-Intelligence-History.html
. Farquhar, 9.
. Farquhar, 9.
. Dr. Alfred Price, Targeting the Reich: Allied Photographic Reconnaissance Over
Europe, 1939-45, (London, Greenhill Books, 2003), 9.
. Farquhar, 10.
. Air Chief Marshal Sir John Wheeler, The Early PR Operations: Photographic Reconnaissance
in World War Two Seminar (London, Royal Air Force Historical Society, June
10, 1991) 9, available at http://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/documents/Journal%2010%20-%20Seminar%20-%20Photo-Recce%20in%20WWII.pdf
. David E. Fisher, A Summer Bright and Terrible: Winston Churchill, Lord Dowding,
Radar, and the Impossible Triumph of the Battle of Britain (Shoemaker and
Hoard, 2005), 63.
. John Ray, The Battle of Britain: Dowding and the First Victory, 1940
(London, Cassel and Company, 1994), 31
. J. Rickard, “Photo Reconnaissance Spitfires,” historyofwar.org, n.d. Web 15
May 2012 http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_spitfire_PR.html
. Price, 10.
. Farquhar, 11.
. AIRRECCE, “The Story of Photographic Reconnaissance,“ airrecce.co.uk. n.d.
Web, 24 Apr 2012, http://www.airrecce.co.uk/WW2/ww2_index.html
. Ibid, 17.
. David Wilkes, “From Colditz to D-Day: Amazing aerial images taken by daring
Allied pilots on secret missions during World War II.” The Daily Mail, (London),
23 Nov 2009, available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1230025/Google-Earth-Second-World-War-Amazing-aerial-images-taken-daring-Allies-revealed-Hitlers-weapons.html#ixzz1vmzjTzmi”
. Ray, 21.
. Paul R. Baumann, “History of Remote Sensing: Aerial Photography,” State University
of New York, n.d. Web, 21 May 2012, http://fatwaramdani.wordpress.com/2008/10/21/history-of-remote-sensing-aerial-photography-part-2-period-world-war-ii-1960
. Global Security Archive, “Weapons of Mass Destruction, Peenemunde – 1943,”
n.d. Web, 18 May 2012, available at http://www.global security.org/wmd/ops/Peenemunde.htm
. Christopher R. Elliott, “Luftwaffe Photo Reconnaissance in World War II: Part
I,” Air Pictorial (November 1980), 437.
. Price, 45.
. Ibid. 39.
. U.S. War Department, Military Intelligence Division, German Military Intelligence,
1939-1945 (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America), 286
. Century of Flight, “Aviation During World War Two,” n.d. Web, 20 May 2012,
available at http://www.century-of-flight.net/Aviation%20history/WW2/bombing%20in%20the%20Bristol%20area.htm
. Century of Flight
. Farquhar, 11.
. eNotes, “Aerial Reconnaissance,” Web, 28 May 2012, http://www.enotes.com/topic/Aerial_reconnaissance
. Farquhar, 10.
. MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections, “World War Two Nighttime Reconnaissance,”
n.d. Web, 20 May 2012, available at http://libraries.mit.edu/archives/exhibits/nightphoto/index.html
. Royal New Zealand Air Force, “The RNZAF in World War II,” Web, 28 May 2012,
. Carl A. Post, “Forward air control: a Royal Australian Air Force innovation,”
Air Power History, December 22, 2006.
. John W. Whitman, “Japan's Fatally Flawed Air Forces in World War II,” Aviation
History, September 2006.
. Farquhar, 12.
. Ibid, 12.
. Stroud History, “Frederick William Winterbotham,” n.d. Web, 17 May 2012, available
. Price, 15.
. Wheeler, 12.
. Air Marshal Sir Alfred Ball, Spitfire Operations: Photographic Reconnaissance
in World War Two Seminar (London, Royal Air Force Historical Society, June
10, 1991) 17, available at http://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/documents/Journal%2010%20-%20Seminar%20-%20Photo-Recce%20in%20WWII.pdf
. Ibid, 18.
. Wheeler, 12.
. Ball, 17.
Copyright © 2012 Del C. Kostka
Written by Del C. Kostka. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Del Kostka at:
About the author:
Del C. Kostka is a staff officer at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency in St. Louis, Missouri. He has a Masters Degree in Operational Arts and Military Science from the US Air Force Air Command and Staff College.
Published online: 07/07/2012.