Photographic reconnaissance (PR) during World War 2 is a vast subject spanning the whole length of the conflict and ultimately covering all theatres in which British and Commonwealth troops fought. I have been researching RAF PR operations and aircrew during World War 2 for more than 20 years. I find the subject fascinating and, in my opinion, it does not get the recognition it deserves. PR in the RAF evolved from an experimental concept using high-performance fighter aircraft into the primary means of gathering intelligence on the Axis war effort, not only in North-West Europe but also in North Africa and the Mediterranean and along the Indian frontier and into Burma. The only RAF aircraft to serve continuously throughout the war in the PR role was the Supermarine Spitfire. Stripped of all excess weight and carrying cameras and additional fuel instead of armament, PR variants of the Spitfire ranged across enemy territory to bring back imagery of military and industrial installations. Relying on great altitude and speed, plus the ability of their pilots to avoid detection and interception, they penetrated deep into enemy airspace in order to bring back photographs that specialist interpreters could scrutinize to determine the enemy’s activities. The superior performance of the Spitfire even led the USAAF to adopt the type for some of its own reconnaissance needs. The versatility of Reginald Mitchell’s original design allowed for constant modification and improvement, and so the latest PR variants generally stayed one step ahead of enemy efforts to gain a performance advantage for their fighter aircraft. Spitfires were responsible for some of the most significant intelligence finds of the war, from low-level obliques of new German radars in France to locating the Bismarck along the Norwegian coast before she attempted to sortie into the Atlantic. They also carried out routine monitoring of all manner of Axis targets, be they Japanese airfields in Burma or Italian merchant shipping in the Mediterranean.
Initially formed as an experimental development and test unit in Britain, the ‘Photographic Reconnaissance Unit’ (PRU) grew from a small, clandestine flight into an operational group fulfilling the photographic requirements of not just the RAF but also a wide variety of other clients, from the Admiralty and War Office to the Ministry of Economic Warfare and US Eighth Air Force. As demands for the PRU’s services grew and better versions of the Spitfire slowly became available, new reconnaissance units were formed, both at home and overseas, to meet the ever-growing need for aerial intelligence. Initially limited to operating from the British Isles, the first PR Spitfires were not permanently issued to overseas units until 1942. Spitfires operating from Malta and North Africa helped keep watch on German and Italian forces, whereas those operating in South-East Asia flew over the jungles of Burma to monitor the movements of the Japanese. Although the Spitfire was supplemented in the PR role by the Mosquito from late 1941 onwards, it remained one of the RAF’s primary strategic reconnaissance platforms until the end of the war. In 1943, the great range of the Mosquito, together with its high cruising speed, almost led to the phasing out of the PR Spitfire altogether. It was not until senior officers within the PR organization pointed out that, for many mission profiles, the Spitfire was a much more survivable aircraft and more economical in use that the decision was reversed. In fact, their arguments actually led to an increase in both PR Spitfire production and the number of units operating the type. As the tide of war slowly turned against the Axis powers, and preparations for the return of Allied armies to Europe began, an expansion and re-organization of PR assets took place with units being allocated to directly fulfil the needs of the forces that would be fighting on the Continent. In parallel with the evolution of the PR organization, the Spitfire aircraft themselves were gradually improved with better cameras and enhanced performance. This improved performance was vital, especially for those aircraft operating over Europe, where the environment was very hostile and the Germans were making great efforts to intercept reconnaissance aircraft. It is notable that, with the appearance of German jet-powered fighter aircraft at the end of 1944, Spitfires were far more likely than other Allied reconnaissance machines to survive in areas where jets were known to be operating. Serving until the very end of the conflict, PR Spitfires allowed the Allies to carefully monitor the activities of the Axis powers and plan the conduct of the war accordingly.
Flying an unarmed aircraft deep into enemy territory, relying solely on your own abilities, required a special sort of courage. In order for a PR mission to be a success, it was not only necessary for the pilot to find and achieve good photographic coverage of the target, he also had to safely return home with his films. PR aircrew were amongst the most highly decorated individuals in the Commonwealth air forces. Indeed, it was a member of No 1 PRU, Flt Lt Alistair Taylor, who became the first pilot in the whole RAF to be awarded three DFCs during the war, all for his outstanding photographic work. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to have spoken to a number of World War 2 PR pilots, many of whom flew both Spitfires and Mosquitos. Despite the very high workload associated with flying a PR Spitfire, the majority preferred it over the Mosquito, citing that, if intercepted, they were much more likely to evade their attacker in a Spitfire. When Tony Holmes originally contacted me to ask if I would consider writing a book on PR Spitfire units, I immediately wondered how I was going to condense such a huge topic into about 35,000 words while still providing as much information as possible. As such, the book is really only an overview on the subject but I hope I have managed to shed more light on the scale and scope of PR Spitfire operations, not only those flown from bases in Britain and in support of the Allied forces fighting in North-West Europe, but also those carried out over the Mediterranean and Burma: both theatres which have in the past received only scant coverage. The contribution to victory made by blue reconnaissance Spitfires, the men who flew them and the organization behind them, is out of all proportion to the relatively small number of aircraft involved.
You can find out more in the book here.