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Wing Commander Adrian Warburton DSO* DFC** – ‘The Absolute King of Photographic Reconnaissance’
Second World War Air Force United Kingdom
Wing Commander Adrian Warburton
View record on CWGC
Wing Commander Adrian Warburton (Public domain)

Wing Commander Adrian Warburton, aka Warby, was born on 10 March 1918 in Middlesbrough in Northern England.

Adrian was the son of Geoffrey Warburton DSO, a highly regarded First World War submarine captain, and was even christened aboard a sub moored in Valetta Grand Harbour, Malta.

Adrian was schooled at St Edward’s School, Oxford. In a coincidence, two more storied British airmen of the Second World War, Douglas Bader and Guy Gibson, were also educated at St. Edward’s.

After school, Adrian joined a London accountancy firm as a clerk. He also joined the Territorial Army in 1937 before transferring to the RAF in 1938. He was commissioned as an Acting Pilot Officer in September and confirmed as a full Pilot Officer in October. 

Interestingly, Adrian struggled to achieve the minimum standards and only just passed training, earning his pilot’s wings in May 1939.
In October 1939, Adrian married Betty Mitchell. He was 21; she was a 27-year-old divorcee with a nine-year-old daughter in parent’s care. Their relationship was a strange one. Warby rented a cottage for the couple but rarely visited his new wife, socialising and staying in the Officer’s Mess as per RAF regulations.

Adrian did not even tell the RAF he had married either. In July 1940, the pair met in Blackpool to agree a divorce. This was agreed on, but no divorce papers were served.

Destination Malta

In September, Adrian as navigator, was assigned to a crew delivering three Martin Maryland aircraft to Malta for recon purposes. This was 431 Flight, the unit Warby would earn his reputation with.

Adrian initially showed a low standard of flying, risking one of the newly delivered aircraft in a botched landing. On one flight, Adrian took off so badly that the wheel was wrenched from his plane’s undercarriage and had to land immediately.

However, he was soon building up his experience and confidence. On 30 October, Warby shot down an Italian seaplane, although two days later he was struck when a bullet hit him during a dogfight. Warby survived, despite one of his craft’s engines catching fire, and even extracted the bullet while returning to base.

On November 11, 431 Flight were tasked with reconning Taranto Harbour, Italy, in preparation for a raid conducted by the Fleet Air Arm. Poor visibility hampered the mission but Warby told navigator John Spires they were going in low and to bring a pencil and paper to mark the enemy vessels’ locations. 

Managing total surprise thanks to the cloud cover, Warby was able to bring his plane in low and make two full flights around Taranto’s harbour.

Reports say Adrian flew so low you could read the names of the ships at anchor. The information gleaned that day was so good that the Fleet Air Arm decided to press its attack home that very night, sinking several Italian ships.

Steadily, Adrian quickly earned a reputation as one of the RAF’s leading reconnaissance pilots. He took calculated risks and was audacious in his approach, but the quality of his information gathering and photography was enough for RAF higher-ups to overlook his protocol breaches and general individualistic approach to flying.

431 flight was developed into No.69 Squadron in early 1941. Around this time, Warby earned his first Distinguished Flying Cross.

On 14 April 1941, Warby was accidentally shot down by an RAF Hurricane which mistook his Maryland for a German JU 88.
1941 also saw Warby photograph the entire 250-mile road linking Tripoli and Benghazi in Libya. It was believed it would take up to six sorites to photograph the route sufficiently. Adrian did it in one attempt.

The year was also when Adrian met and struck up a romantic relationship with Christina Ratcliffe. They quickly became one of Malta’s golden couples, although they never married, and after he left Malta in October 1943 for the last time, Adrian never saw Christina again.

North Africa & Italy

A bar was added to Adrian’s DFC in September 1941. Warby and two of the navigators he regularly flew with, Sergeants Bastard and Moren, were posted to Egypt for rest. It wouldn’t be long before Adrian was airborne again.

Adrian had been posted to No.233 Squadron, a training unit, for his “rest tour” but quickly had himself reassigned to No.2 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (2PRU) were he continued to perform above and beyond expectation.

At this time, Air Vice Marshal Hugh Lloyd described Adrian as “the absolute king of photographic reconnaissance, the pearl of the Mediterranean.”

On a return to Taranto, he flew an extremely low run around the harbour, in the face of intense flak. At one point, the internal cockpit door was blown open, but camera operator Corporal Ron Hadden reported that, despite their precarious situation, Warby was calmly flying throughout with no signs of fear.

The squadron Operational Readiness Book recorded that they had taken photographs of two battleships, nine submarines, two destroyers, one torpedo boat, a hospital ship, and a merchant ship.

Warburton also reported on four battleships, four cruisers, six to eight destroyers, and nine merchant ships. With the port engine shut down owing to oil failure, they were then chased by four Macchi C.202 fighters, which they evaded.
By March, Adrian had earned the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

In November 1942, Warby was shot down again over Tunisia. He was able to crash land at Bône, which had recently been captured by the British Army. He then made his way to Gibraltar, borrowed a Spitfire and flew back to Bône to ick up his undamaged camera, and on his return Luqa, Malta, shot down a JU88.

1943 saw Adrian busy again, only he had toned down his earlier flamboyant characteristics and started taking his leadership role in No.69 Squadron, and subsequently 683 Squadron, 336 Wing, seriously.

He personally flew all missions to photograph Pantelleria, a heavily defended island near Sicily. He also photographed the landing beaches on Sicily in preparation for Operation Husky. US General George Patton and Commander-in-Chief Middle East Harold Alexander all personally praised Warby’s work on Sicily.

Warburton & Roosevelt
Warby in the cockpit of one of his many wartime aircraft (Public domain)

In 1943, Warby formed a close relationship with US airman Elliot Roosevelt, son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was commanding all photo recon in North Africa. Adrian left Malta to take up his position in La Marsa, Tunisia, as part of the newly created RAF North African Reconnaissance Wing.

Warby was involved in a collision in La Marsa in November 1943 when his vehicle was hit by a speeding truck. Adrian suffered a broken pelvis and was expected to be hospitalised for three months.

In 1944, Adrian was keen to work with General Roosevelt in Italy alongside his former wingmates. According to Canadian pilot Bill Carr of 638 Squadron, Warby then performed the following:

Growing tired of being bedridden, he climbed out of the window, "borrowed" a vehicle, and made his way to the airport. There, he located some old friends who helped him cut off his cast. He borrowed shorts and a shirt, and a Mark IX Spit from a friendly squadron commander, and flew to see us of his old squadron, now located in Italy.

Soon after, Roosevelt was transferred to England and Warburton went alongside him, despite still being officially listed as sick. The new 325th Reconnaissance Wing formed part of the 8th Army Air Force, HQed at RAF High Wycombe. On 1 April, Adrian was made Liaison Officer, stationed at RAF Mount Farm in Oxfordshire.

Death & legacy

On 12 April 1944, Adrian took off in from RAF Mount Farm in a P-38 Lightning to take photographs of targets in 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 is now buried in Durnbach War Cemetery.
Adrian Warburton was one of the finest pilots of the Second World War but his legacy, compared with Bader and Gibson, remains relatively unknown.

Constance Babington Smith, head of the CIU at RAF Medenheam, summed Warby up thusly:

“The photographic pilot has to have all the accuracy of the bomber pilot, as well as the alertness and tactical skill of the fighter pilot. In addition, he must be an individualist who can make quick responsible decisions entirely on his own. And he must have the persistent purpose and the endurance not only to reach his target but to bring back the photographs to his base. In all these things Warburton excelled… 

“The names of Bader and Gibson are rightly famous, but the name of Adrian Warburton has hardly been heard outside the circle of those who actually knew him, and there is no single mention of him in the official RAF history of the Second World War.”

Adrian was awarded several medals during his career:

Distinguished Flying Cross & two bars
Distinguished Service Order & bar
Distinguished Flying Cross (US)