Skip to content

Legacy of Liberation: RAF Photo Reconnaissance’s eyes in the sky

In the Second World War, many brave pilots gave their lives flying risky spying missions across the world in pursuit of Liberation.

Here, we look at vital work the Photo Reconnaissance Unit: the Allies’ eyes in the sky.

Photo Reconnaissance in the Second World War

Names among the Runnymede Memorial’s many

Runnymede Memorial

The Runnymede Memorial is Commonwealth War Graves’ largest air forces memorial in the world.

Some 20,000 Commonwealth airmen and women of the Second World War are commemorated by name on Runnymede’s many stone panels. 

Those commemorated represent a multitude of Commonwealth nations and air services, lost on operations from bases in the UK and North and Western Europe.

You’ll find every branch of the Commonwealth’s military aviation services represented at Runnymede too: Bomber Command; Fighter, Coastal, Flying Training and Maintenance Commands; and the Photo Reconnaissance Unit.

The number of Photographic Reconnaissance Unit personnel on Runnymede is small compared with the other Allied air services here, but their sacrifice was still great and their wartime contribution immense.

Flight Sergeant Mervyn Anthony Jones

Mervyn Anythony Jones in his Jockey uniform stood next to a racehorse.Image: Mervyn in his earlier career as a prize-winning jockey (Spitfire AA810 Project)

Mervyn Anthony Jones of Llanelli, Wales, was a champion jockey in his pre-war life. 

Horse racing ran in his blood and both Mervyn and his brother William, competed in the 1940 Grand National at Aintree, with Mervyn coming out on top.

Mervyn had a short flying career with 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU). Signing up in September 1941, Mervyn flew just 11 missions before losing his life, shot down over Norwegian fjords in April 1942.

Mervyn’s name is inscribed with his fellow photo recon pilots on the Runnymede Memorial, a testament to the dangers facing these airmen.

Flight Sergeant Robert Duncan Campbell Tomlinson

Flight Sergeant Robert TomlinsonImage: Flight Sergeant Robert Tomlinson (Spitfire AA810 Project)

South African-born Robert Tomlinson departed from RAF Wick in Northern Scotland on 18 March 1942.

For those on the ground, the sight of Robert’s Spitfire, decked out in blue PRU camouflage, soaring into the clouds was the last time they’d ever see him.

Long past his expected return time, search parties went out looking for Robert. Although the sounds of aircraft were heard in the clouds, Robert and his craft were never found.

The likeliest explanation was Robert got lost navigating over the sea and ran out of fuel. As his body was never found, Robert is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.

You can read more about Flight Sergeants Mervyn Jones and Robert Tomlinson on For Evermore: our online archive of Commonwealth casualty stories from across the World Wars.

FOR EVERMORE: STORIES OF THE FALLEN
FOR EVERMORE: STORIES OF THE FALLEN

Introducing For Evermore: Stories of the Fallen - the exciting new way to read and share stories of the Commonwealth's war dead. Got a story to share? Upload it and preserve their memory for generations to come.

Share and read stories

Where else are Second World War photo reconnaissance pilots commemorated?

Commemoration for recon pilots doesn’t stop at Runnymede. Photo reconnaissance operations took place globally, so the sites commemorating fallen airmen reflect this.

You’ll find photo recon pilots on cemeteries and memorials throughout the Allied operating areas. The Allies’ spies in the sky were everywhere.

As well as locations in the UK, France and North and West Europe, a handful of the memorials and cemeteries commemorating photo recon pilots include:

Use our Visit Cemeteries and Memorial tool to learn more about our sites commemorating Commonwealth aerial recon pilots.

Wing Commander Adrian Warburton

Adrian WarburtonImage: Adrian Warburton: one of the finest recon pilots of the war (public domain)

Adrian, known as “Warby” to his squad mates, had been christened aboard a submarine, captained by his father, the Grand Harbour in Valletta, starting a connection with Malta that would come to fruition in the Second World War.

Warby was educated at St Edward’s School, Oxford, where other storied RAF airmen Guy Gibson and Douglas Bader had attended.

Before the war, Warby worked as a clerk and also volunteered as a Private in the Territorial Army in the Royal Tank Corps but ultimately Adrian’s fate lay in the sky.

In 1938, Adrian joined the RAF and was posted to 608 squadron for North Sea patrol duty. Adrian’s outspoken nature came to the fore when he criticised his obsolete Blackburn Botha aircraft and he was transferred to Malta as an observer.

Four days into his Maltese stay, Warby’s pilot status was reinstated.

On the island nation, Adrain developed into a highly-skilled, daring pilot. His audaciousness was a key characteristic of Adrian’s attitude to flying and reconnaissance. 

On 10 November 1940, for instance, a huge concentration of Italian battleships was spotted in Taranto Harbour, Italy, not far from Malta. On the 11th, Adrian flew a recon mission over the Italian fleet, flying so low and close he could read each vessel’s hull-painted names. 

The information Warby uncovered was used to great effect in the Fleet Air Arm’s daring biplane-led raid on Taranto Harbour, which took place on the night of the 11th.

Adrian was quickly establishing himself as the Royal Air Force’s leading recon pilot. Throughout his career, Adrian was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with 2 bars, the Distinguished Service Order and a US Distinguished Flying Cross for his mixture of skill and courage.

As well as Malta, Adrian flew missions over mainland Europe, North Africa, and Italy.

In mid-1943, Adrian was given command of a wing of four photo recon squadrons. With them, he helped coordinate important intelligence-gathering flights for Operation Husky: the Allied Invasion of Sicily.

In April 1944, Adrian was appointed RAF Liaison Officer to the US 8th Army Air Force 7th Photoreconnaissance Group but continued to fly.

On the morning of 12 April, Adrian took off from the UK on a flight alongside another aircraft for missions over Germany. The two planes were to separate, carry out their objectives, and rendezvous later at a Sicilian airfield. Warby never arrived.

Adrian was officially missing until 2002 when his remains were discovered in a field in Bavaria near the village of Egling an der Parr, around 30 miles west of Munich. Adrian was still in his downed craft’s cockpit. Evidence suggests he had been shot down.

Adrian Warburton is now buried in Durnbach War Cemetery

Photo Reconnaissance Unit

What was photo reconnaissance in the Second World War?

WW2 era recon pilots being handed big chunky film cameras from ground crew in the process of loading them into an aircraft.

Image: A photo recon crew loads cameras into their aircraft on Malta (© IWM ME(RAF) 2388)

In warfare, intelligence gathering is key and knowledge really is power. Knowing where the opponent is, what they're doing, and their potential capability is vital for all military planners and commanders. 

Gathering and processing that information is a complex, multi-strand affair. Photoreconnaissance was one of the tools available to the Allies in the Second World War, spearheaded by the Royal Air Force.

Photo reconnaissance in the Second World War was essentially using specialist aircraft for reconnaissance and military intelligence gathering operations. Planes had proven their worth in scouting and photo roles during the First World War and the camera technology had developed in the inter-war years to give them even greater potential.

It performed an incredibly important function: giving visual insight or confirmation of enemy troop movements, force dispensation, logistical strength, geographic information, and anything else military planners could find strategically or tactically useful.

What was No.1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit?

Crest of the No.1 First Reconnaissance UnitImage: the post war crest of 1PRU (public domain)

No.1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (1PRU) was the first dedicated photo and aerial recon unit of the Royal Air Force of the Second World War.

It was established formally in November 1940 but had grown out of a civilian operation at Heston Aerodrome. 

Civil aviator Sidney Cotton and the RAF’s Maurice Longbottom argued successfully that aerial recon undertaken by small, fast aircraft could prove useful to the Allied war effort and so 1PRU was born.

From there, the RAF’s aerial recon capabilities grew and grew, but 1 PRU did not stay as a single unit.  Instead, it was split into five separate squadrons in 1942.

As the war progressed, further photographic recon units were created and refined. For example, the Mediterranean Allied Photo Reconnaissance Wing (MAPRW) served as a joint Allied recon unit in the Mediterranean theatre.

By the war’s end, there had been three Photographic Reconnaissance Units, drawing in elements of Commonwealth air forces around the globe. Each focussed on a different theatre or task such as 3PRU, which was created to photograph and assess damage post-bombing runs.

Analysing the photos

A female Central Interpretation Unit Photo Interpreter studying aerial reconnaissance photos.

Image: A Central Interpretation Unit Photo Interpreter studying aerial recon photos (IWM)

One of the key strengths of Allied photoreconnaissance during the Second World was the ability to receive, prioritise and interpret the information received rapidly and efficiently.

The key organisation behind this skill was the Central Interpretation Unit (CIU) based at RAF Medenham. Thousands of photo Interpreters (PI) worked tirelessly to properly analyse the data and sent it to commanders and planners for its strategic and tactical use.

The scale of the CIU and the work of the photo recon pilots is staggering. By 1945, RAF Medenham was handling 25,000 negatives and 60,000 prints daily. RAF reconnaissance flights were yielding up to 50,000 images per day. Some 5,000,000 prints had been produced by 1945.

CIU PIs used some neat tricks to dive deeper into the photos they were given. For instance, photos overlapped each other and with a simple stereoscope could turn a 2D image into a 3D one. PIs could then analyse shadows and other features to get accurate measurements and even solve puzzles.

Operations Hydra

Peenemunde aerial photo showing the facility and annotated as according to the RAF.

Image: The RAF's annotated photo of the Peeneumunde proving grounds and V-weapon launch site (public domain)

One example of aerial reconnaissance and the CIU working in tandem is August 1943’s Operation Hydra.

The operation’s story really begins in May 1942 when a recon pilot spotted a new concrete airfield complex at the Peenemunde Army Research Centre: a German military installation on the Baltic Coast.

Three large earth and three large concrete circles were spotted in the pilot’s photos. The CIU spent hours poring over the images but couldn’t determine what the circles were and so the photo was shelved.

A leak from a recording of a conversation between two German generals interred at Trent Park Military Prison gave a hint as to the new site at Peenemunde’s purpose. The pair discussed a new secret weapon: a rocket that could cross continents and strike the UK and potentially knock it out of the war.

In June 1943, spy planes were once again sent up to begin their eagle-eyed overview of northern France and Germany, searching for any clues for these deadly new weapons.

Hundreds of new photos were taken and analysed but finally, a PI was able to spot shadows coming from a long cylindrical object on its side stored within one of the mysterious circles at Peenemunde: a possible clue?

Going back over the old aerial recon prints of the facility helped PIs to one of the cylinders on its side. Using stereoscopic techniques, they were able to calculate the cylinders’ length: 14 metres, or just the right size for a large missile.

Further spy flights in June 1943 showed worrying new facilities popping up in Northern France, particularly La Coupole near Calais, alarming UK authorities. A plane sent in at just 30 metres above the ground scouted La Coupole and confirmed Allied fears: more rocket sites were being built.

Although now we know the V-1 and V-2 threat to the UK was comparatively minimal, and these weren’t the wonder weapons Germany needed to win the war, the contemporary threat of these previously unknown weapons was huge.

Between 17/18 August 1943, 500 bombers left the UK with Peenemunde as their target. The raid smashed the proving ground, knocking the V-weapon launch sites out of action.

Sites in Northern France were also hit, but their huge concrete domes held strong against all but the heaviest Allied bombs. Despite not achieving total devastation, sites like La Couple were damaged enough to render them inoperable.

Production of the V-1 and V-2 rockets and their launch sites were then pushed back further into Germany or occupied Poland. These were targeted in a systemic campaign known as Operation Crossbow using the same winning combination of:

D-Day

An aerial photo of the Normandy coast line circa 1944.

Image: A strip of Normandy coastline photographed for Operation Overlord (© IWM MH 24845)

Aerial reconnaissance was an important ingredient for the success of D-Day and Operation Overlord in June 1944.

The Allies by now were close, or had essentially already achieved, air superiority and were able to send thousands of photoreconnaissance sorties over Normandy in the build-up to the D-Day landings.

Some 3,200 aerial recon missions were flown by the Allies in the months leading up to Overlord. In the final weeks and days before British, American, and Canadian forces came ashore, recon pilots were flying up to 80 sorties a day.

Aerial recon photography gave the Allied invasion force a major advantage. All platoon commanders on D-Day and the Normandy Campaign were given maps of minefields and enemy defences: all information gleaned from the info they got from the photoreconnaissance units.

Bombing of targets in Normandy began in earnest in April 1944 with the imagery and photographs of the recon pilots a major aid for the bomber crews and strategists involved. In the run-up to D-Day, the Allies began targeting infrastructure like railways and oil storage hubs to cripple the Wehrmacht’s ability to fight, as well as targeting military defences and installations.

For several months, the commanders on the ground, sea and air were constantly fed a steady supply of photos of Normandy, aiding the overall success of Operation Overlord.

What kind of aircraft did Second World War photographic reconnaissance pilots fly?

A spitfire painted with invasion stripes and photo recon blue.

Image: An iconic Spitfire painted in PRU blue (public domain)

The Royal Air Force and its Commonwealth counterparts used a variety of different aircraft for photoreconnaissance throughout the Second World War, as seen in the career of Adrian Warburton.

The most important, however, was the ubiquitous Supermarine Spitfire.

The Spitfire is one of the most glamorous and iconic fighter planes of the war but it found its feet as an incredible photo recon plane. Fast with good handling and range, the Spitfire was an ideal platform for photo recon modification.

Guns and cannons were ripped out and replaced with cameras. The cameras used by aerial recon were large but impressive bits of kit, capable of photographing a man on a bike from as far up as 30,000 feet. 

The recon planes were painted “PR blue” to camouflage them against the sky. Despite not being armed, pilots at the controls of their Spitfires were confident that their 365-mph cruising speed would get them out of trouble.

PRU pilots had to be incredibly skilled, especially in flying and navigating alone. The best images needed to be taken at straight and level courses to avoid blurring. To do this, the pilot would make two passes over the target area: one to identify key features and another to photograph them.

Another of the key aircraft for recon pilots was the De Havilland Mosquito. 

The wooden-framed craft was capable of extreme long-range and altitude missions and was even faster than the Spitfire in some configurations, cruising at over 450 mph. Until German jets started appearing in late 1944, nothing could catch the Mosquito.

A legacy of liberation written in the skies

The important intelligence gathering of the Commonwealth’s photographic reconnaissance pilots helped the Allies win the Second World War.

As ever, this came at a cost but the hundreds of recon pilots in Commonwealth War Graves care mark the exceptionally high cost paid by the Commonwealth in the pursuit of liberation in Europe and the conclusion of the war in the Far East.

Tags Legacy of Liberation D-Day RAF Second World War