Saturday 8 January 2022

Weekend: Homecoming of a WW2 Pirate's Ship

A very telling episode in British WW2 history is the remarkable story of Sidney Cotton and his associates.  If you don't already know it, a very brief summary appears below.  

Anyhow, the aircraft in which Cotton flew some of his most daring MI6-sponsored missions, a Lockheed 12A, eventually wound up in the USA and has recently been up for sale.

I have it on good authority (and you heard it here first, for sure) that it has been bought by an unnamed British interest and is being readied for return to the UK, restored to its original British aircraft registration G-AFTL.  For WW2 air buffs, if and when it happens, this truly will be a red-letter day.

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It is often said that when war breaks out, initially it is in the hands of the Gentlemen; but that things will only get properly underway when the Players take over.  If ever a man epitomised this, it was Sidney Cotton.  At the same time, consummate players like Cotton are often, how shall we put it, not always wholly reliable when it comes to things like, errr, facts.  Many of the accounts you'll readily find about Cotton are based on self-serving, highly embellished claims by the man himself and shouldn't be depended upon as regards details.  In particular, he was prone to laying claims to the deeds of others.  But the truth is more than exciting enough and, in very brief outline, goes as follows.

Cotton, an Australian, served with distinction in the Royal Naval Air Service in WW1.  In between combat missions he designed the 'SidCot' flying suit which protected pilots against the cold, wet and flying oil they encountered in the cockpit, a design which remained in production until the 1950s  Along with many early aviators he saw limitless opportunities in using aircraft for novel purposes, and was involved in many buccaneering commercial enterprises around the globe in the inter-war years.  Biggles had nothing on this man.

In the year or so before the outbreak of WW2 the RAF realised it needed to get back into the business of purposeful aerial reconnaissance, an activity and skill that for several reasons had effectively lapsed between the wars.  It commenced an extensive programme of quiet recce, mainly of Italian positions across the Mediterranean and North Africa, using regular RAF resources (mostly flying boats).  But by 1938-9, flying badged military aircraft missions against Germany itself, both for ourselves and the French, was not on.  So, sponsored by MI6 and its French opposite number the Deuxième Bureau, the word went out: can we find a civilian who'll be able to do it on a clandestine basis?  Cotton was "known to the authorities", eminently qualified, and only too happy to oblige.  With secret Anglo-French funding he acquired a couple of high-tech, all-metal Lockheeds and a smaller Beechcraft, along with a daring young co-pilot and a base at Heston.

Cotton at the controls
G-AFTL in particular was cleverly modified, James Bond-style, (Cotton and Fleming were friends, naturally) to conceal a suite of cameras behind sliding panels, in the underbelly and the leading edge of a wing root.  On spurious commercial pretexts, Cotton and his merry men flew an impressive series of flights across a range of target areas, most significantly across Germany - sometimes even with German passengers aboard.  One of their sorties was the first operational recce mission of the war - actually, just hours before war was declared - over the German fleet at Wilhelmshaven, bringing back vital photos. 

The war having been declared, the RAF formally took over responsibility for air recce, using its carefully trained fleet of Blenheim light bombers, of which more later.  However, Cotton's "civilian" crews still had an important role.  Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland and Italy were all neutral at the start of the war, but of potential value to the Germans in one way or another.  So up-to-date aerial recce was urgently needed, to map them out accurately and from a military perspective.  The Lockheeds, again on spurious "civil" journeys, were ideal for the task.  They only became redundant in this role when Germany moved against the Low Countries and then France itself late in the spring.

It will be great to have G-AFTL back in blighty again.  Its new owners are being very coy about who, when and where - so, watch this space.

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So much for the Lockheeds: what of Cotton?  He was lobbying for a revolutionary idea.  First, some perspective.  The original use of aviation in WW1, right from the very first days in 1914, had been for reconnaissance.  The second use was for shooting down the enemy's recce aircraft!  Hence, the received wisdom was that recce results (at first, visual; later, photographic) had to be fought for.  So the RAF's plans before WW2 revolved around a relatively fast armed aircraft - the Blenheim light bomber, operated by Bomber Command, which upon its initial introduction was faster than any biplane then in service with the RAF.  From the very first week of WW2 they started flying Blenheims for recce against German targets, in ones, twos, threes, even in fives and sixes.

Bravely flown as they were, they were shot down in alarming numbers and, sadly, brought back precious few photographs (albeit occasionally of very good quality).   By 1939-40 the Blenheim was no longer up against slower biplanes; and the training of its crews and the cameras it carried were only geared to what would now be regarded as low-level photography.  They were sitting ducks.  Notwithstanding Bomber Command's legendary willingness to take casualties (and this was even before Bomber Harris took over), the Air Ministry at the top was less sanguine.  These casualties "were not to be borne".

They had before them an alternative concept, being pitched by Cotton and others.  Precisely whose original idea it was is open to debate (there are at least 3 main candidates) but the proposal was clear enough.  Instead of fighting for your photos, send an ultra-fast aircraft, at high altitude, with cameras of much longer focal length - and obtain your pictures unopposed.  Bomber Command strongly resisted this idea but, greatly assisted by the secrecy of Cotton's outfit (still officially reporting to MI6), work rapidly started on putting the concept into practice on a very small scale: one aircraft, to be precise.

Of the technical desiderata, the ideal cameras were not at first available; but urgent development work was put in hand to acquire what was needed.  Meantime, there was a really obvious candidate for the aircraft - a Spitfire.  (Needless to say, Fighter Command initially declined to hand one over, but they were outranked.)  Cotton stripped out the armament, ballast and armour, sanded the machine down, painted it blue, made various other clever tweaks to the airframe and engine, added more fuel tankage - and fitted cameras.  The result was something that flew faster and higher than a Spitfire had done before and, most importantly, was comfortably able to outclimb and outrun Me109s.  It was the first of several marks of recce Spitfire, getting progressively more advanced in every dimension as the months went past, that were operational before the fall of France.

Their success rate, both in terms of the photos they acquired and their survival rate, was vastly superior to that of the brave Blenheims, as was immediately obvious to all.  It should have been no contest; but Bomber Command mulishly and indeed deviously resisted the inevitable for many months of intra-service wrangling to come.  They were, however, basically bypassed** with the formation of a well-equipped "strategical reconnaissance" organisation at RAF Benson near Oxford, squarely based on Spitfires (and later Mosquitos, and later still with US personnel and assets).  This was complemented with a new science/art of "photographic interpretation", centred at Medmenham down the road on the Thames - as much advanced from WW1 photo analysis as was the recce itself, and developed just as rapidly; initially by maverick civilians who were the strong-willed equivalents of Cotton in their own sphere. 

The exploits and achievements of this entirely new strategic organisation had no parallel in Germany, and rival Bletchley Park for their importance in WW2.  Stories galore for another day.    

To start with, all this was under the highly resourceful and decidedly unconventional command of Cotton, now an RAF Wing Commander.  During its pioneering development phase, everyone recognised it couldn't be any other way: cameth the hour, and so cameth the man.  And the achievements of his revolutionary endeavour were extraordinary, in a very short space of time.  However, he was putting noses seriously out of joint, up and down the land and over in France.  The final straw came - and Cotton went - after he accepted money from French industrialists to spirit them out of Paris in RAF aircraft just before Hitler arrived.  That was Sidney Cotton for you.  Definitely a player.

Come home soon, G-AFTL ...



** Such is the bizarre nature of service politics that Bomber Command was allowed to carry on using its own costly recce in parallel to the new purpose-built strategic setup for more than a year.  One of the Command's motives was to ensure that only its own people carried out Bomb Damage Assessment - they were determined to mark their own homework.  Eventually they were called up on this too, much to their disgust - as it was proved conclusively that their bombing was not even remotely as accurate as they claimed.  Though his Command's relations with Medmenham were often strained, to his credit Bomber Harris personally came to value its accurate output.


Anonymous said...

I've recently been checking out the not so well known 1939 census, when unsurprisingly TPTB decided they needed to know exactly who was in the UK - who would need to be interned, who had useful experience (and could be special constables etc - this was marked on the census). While it'd been redacted to remove people who were still alive in the 1980s, it's a really useful document for family history.

I'm intrigued by that, because, despite the £x,000 fines threatened for not filling in the Cansus, I've forgotten to fill in and post both the 2011 and 2021 censuses. I'm known to the tax man, the local council, NHS, the local education authority, so sending chase-up letters would have been trivial. I'm just wondering

a) how many others have ignored the census
b) if the reason for seemingly non-existent enforcement are that there are several million more "Britons" than HMG want to know about - certainly Tesco and others who ought to know think our population is nearer 80 million than 70.

I did look at the job ads for people to knock on doors in areas with low census compliance - not a job I would have fancied, but one that could perhaps be profitable for the right (i.e. dishonest) person, paid to look the other way.

Nick Drew said...

Anon - we've written about the Census here

population numbers for many 'important' administrative matters are established by "waste water epidemiology", i.e. analysis of sewage. For lots of purposes it's extremely accurate.

TPTB have the authority to take data and samples from all sewage facilities down to individual septic tanks. It's been invaluable for Covid analyses

djm said...

Thats a cracking article, ND, thank you & HNY

Suff said...

A great post Nick.Something to give pride in our rich tapestry of achievements.Much needed while a lot of our history is being memory holed. Keep them coming. An interesting point you raise about the problems of allowing organisations to mark their own homework. Maybe that should have been a lesson learnt and applied to all government organisations.

Old Git Carlisle said...

It was interesting to note that there was a significantly higher rate of pay quoted for London.

How the hell was this justified as those appointed must already be resident in London and no extra expenses would be incurred.

Anonymous said...

Thanks ND. I see the reluctance to ask hard questions is now two decades old, started under Blair and seamlessly continued by the Tories.

Dom has another free substack, well worth a read. Such a pity he's made himself basically unemployable in politics as a "back room boy".

He quotes Scott Aaronson on Covid origins, another dog that refuses to bark.

"It’s important to understand that, even in the worst case—that (1) there was a lab leak, and (2) Shi and Daszak are knowingly withholding information relevant to it—they’re far from monsters. Even in Viral‘s relentlessly unsparing account, they come across as genuine believers in their mission to protect the world from the next pandemic.

And it’s like: imagine devoting your life to that mission, having most of the world refuse to take you seriously, and then the calamity happens exactly like you said … except that, not only did your efforts fail to prevent it, but there’s a live possibility that they caused it. It’s conceivable that your life’s work managed to save minus 15 million lives and create minus $50 trillion in economic value.

Very few scientists in history have faced that sort of psychic burden, perhaps not even the ones who built the atomic bomb. I hope I’d maintain my scientific integrity under such an astronomical weight, but I’m doubtful that I would. Would you?"

Anonymous said...

Scott Aaronson in the comments to his blog post

"The most fundamental confusion in this subject—the thing people had to get past before the serious discussion could even start—is the idea that “natural origin” and “plandemic” are the only two possibilities. We know for a fact that WIV, like many other virology labs around the world, was and is collecting dangerous viruses and engineering them to make them even more dangerous. That’s hardly a secret; papers about it are regularly published in journals including Science and Nature. Virologists have been doing this with the noble goal of predicting which natural viruses have the potential to evolve to cause a pandemic, and thereby averting a pandemic. The question is whether this work, instead, inadvertently caused the COVID-19 pandemic. To answer that question, it would obviously help to have full details about exactly which experiments WIV was doing on which viruses between 2016 and 2019. Incredibly, unbelievably, WIV has refused to divulge that information for the past two years."

DJK said...

Thanks, very interesting. And thanks for the links to the census comment and Cummings' Substack.

Timbo614 said...

Co-incidentally there is an obit. in The Times today:

Wilf Oldham obituary
One of the last surviving veterans of the airborne assault on Sicily, as well as the ill-fated ‘Bridge Too Far’ Battle of Arnhem.

As many will know these airborne ops were carried out by glider and as recounted some initially and disastrously at night!

He was born on August 28, 1920. He died on November 26, 2021, aged 101.

Bill Quango MP said...

Not just GB at this trick.

“German aerial reconnaissance of Scotland, for military use during the Second World War, was first carried out by Theodore Rowehl in 1938-9. Under the guise of checking out new air routes for the German airline, Lufthansa, he used a civilian Heinkel He-111 fitted with concealed cameras to clandestinely photograph the North Sea coast of Scotland and England, the Channel coastlines of both England and France and the Baltic coast as far as Leningrad.”

Very similar story. His Small pre war Unit successfully used the JU52 civilian transport fleet to photograph airfields, docks, factories, wherever they flew.

The Soviets made no attempt to stop German reconnaissance. Which enabled the Luftwaffe to find, film and flatten hundreds of airfields in the opening days of the Barbarossa campaign.

The German elite reconnaissance unit became KG200. The elite bombing, testing, captured aircraft evaluation unit.

Nick Drew said...


Yes, and the Germans had superior cameras! But they missed two critical tricks: (a) use of fast, high-altitude planes, and (b) no authoritative, centralised expert photo interpretation.

On (a) it is sometimes suggested there was no point for Germany in developing long-range strategic air recce because they thought they were going to win the war before Xmas; or, there were no strategic industrial targets within reach for them, being all located in the USA, etc etc. All this is cobblers: good strategic recce across the UK, North Africa etc etc would have been beneficial to them.

(b) is interesting. The Germans would take photos (- often stereo pairs, as we always insisted upon wherever possible -) but instead of having them interpreted them centrally by experts, they would hand them over to the field commanders or staff officers who had ordered them. These confident fellows would ignore the stereo option, take out a magnifying glass, and proceed with their amateur analysis, doubtless convincing themselves they'd seen whatever they wanted to see. Total waste of effort.

Same thing had happened here in WW1 (and Bomber Command was only a little bit better). But fortunately it was recognised for the abortion it is. So - experts it was to be. Also, because sometimes the news from the photo was bad news (e.g. those Bomb Damage Assessments), in WW2 all Allied photo interpreters were officers, the less likely to be bullied out of their assessments. (This, BTW, changed post-war, but the expertise remained and the habit had become established within NATO that the expert's considered pronouncement, however unwelcome, was to be respected. In such a context, NCOs of suitable skill can do the job just as well.)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post - and replies.

As any WW2 anorak should know Cotton invented the 'camotint' colour which was not a pure blue but a 'duck egg blue/green' later adopted (i.e. nicked by the A.M.) by the RAF as 'Sky' as the common underside colour in the early temperate camo schemes.

He also pioneered novel camo schemes on other PR aircraft such as the Hudson.

I believe Cotton lost one of the early recon Spitfires in France by being rather stupid/disobeying orders and this aircraft was captured by the invading Germans. photo exists of two sentries standing next to said aircraft.

My recollection is that this was the final straw for Cotton as far as the RAF wee concerned.

The Germans used the pressurised JU86 as a high altitude recon aircraft over the UK and Egypt. Towards the end they used the Arado 234 jet which was to all intents and purpose invulnerable.

Elby the Beserk said...

To put it succinctly, that generation had balls. Where are they now?

I'm currently waiting on this, which looks a belter. Not to mention Fitroy MacLean's wonderful "Eastern Approaches".$002f$002fSD_ILS$002f0$002fSD_ILS:1591408/$N?

"Abstract: Born in 1921, Fenwick Owen had an extraordinary life, which careered between some of the biggest moments in history and took him to the ends of the earth, meeting (and even living with) some of the 20th century's most well-known people along the way, including Eisenhower, Jackson Pollock, and Marlene Dietrich. After eye-opening schoolboy exploits with his classmates Christopher Lee and Queen Elizabeth II's cousin (whilst his father ran away with the family's nanny), Roderic spent the 1930s trying to fit in at Eton and Oxford and getting into various mischief all the while. In the summer of 1939, he witnessed Nazi Germany when he went to stay with a friend, and only managed to get home the day before war broke out. He served first in the ambulance service in the north of England and then in air raid shelters during the Blitz, before joining the RAF and being stationed in Italy."

Bill Quango MP said...

It’s a fascinating subject Mr Drew.

The famous Ariel photographic scene in the film, A Bridge Too Far of the panzers in the woods. The intelligence officer trying to convince his superiors that a panzer division is lying in wait. They reject the evidence.

However, the reality is, as always, a bit different.
The scene is true. The intelligence officer, real name Brian Urquhart, did obtain a photograph. Possibly, he even requested the sortie. Though accounts are not clear and his account, which is very much like the film clip, has some flaws.

The actual photograph was not available to examine when the book, and subsequent film, were made. It had been sent, as had very many reconnaissance photographs, to the respective nations for use for reconstruction work. It was discovered, only by chance in the 2010s. The Photograph is a high level one, taken by a spitfire PR, flown from England.
The unit assigned to take the pictures were a high level, static position, photographic unit. They did not make, and were not equipped to do low level sweeps.

The RAF identified from the photos taken a collection of tanks.
AFV. Halftrack artillery. Flak and supply, fuel and service Areas.
They identified the tank vehicles, from this very high level picture, as Pz IV and Pz III.

I cannot tell what any of the things I am supposed to notice, actually are. Could be anything. The Photograph is a top down, high altitude view of a track through some woods. Like a WW1 reconnaissance photograph.

Notwithstanding the RAF would have had access to the original negatives to have enlarged, unlike the Dutch print, it still would be quite a task to identify. The RAF identified, these vehicles as, shall we say, second line. Training tanks and motorised vehicles for the HG Pz training regiment. That supplied replacements for the Herman Goering panzer division, who operated in The Hague.

And they were most probably correct.

That was most likely why the senior British planning staff, wrong on very many other planning issues, were probably right to not be too worried about these reconnaissance pictures. They already knew they were in the region, from Dutch resistance and ultra.

The tanks that defeated the allies at Market Garden, came mostly, from Germany, as reinforcements.
The tanks already in the Arnhem area, were known about and expected.
And planned for.
Extra troops and lift being assigned to 1st airborne in the planning stages.

Good scene.
Like much of the film, mostly true, too

But it was the veteran experience of the German commanders and their rapid, and effective German response that really defeated the operation.

E-K said...

Sorry to put it bluntly but... so stale pale male.

No-one's interested in this sort of thing outside of an eccentric clique.

The latest Beeb's Around the World in 80 Days is the new truth.

Nick Drew said...

Kev - so have you seen the new James Bond, then?

you'll love it !!

full of, errrr, diversity ... but the stale pale male is without doubt the hero, as "they all" acknowledge! (I had thought that "white saviour" ethos was now taboo, but apparently not)

(also full of Aston Martins - including, in a rare lapse of taste, the dreaded DBS, sad to say)

DJK said...

E-K's right. Nobody under 60 is interested in this stuff. The future is with the likes of the Edinburgh slavery and colonialism review. I quote from the description of one of the problem sites that they have identified: "British Linen Bank, St Andrew Square: The Bank was established to support the Scottish linen industry, a substantial proportion of whose products were exported to the Caribbean and North America to clothe enslaved people. Some of its managers also owned Caribbean plantations."

Or how about this: "University of Edinburgh Medical School: Known as the ‘first medical school of Empire’. Many physicians and surgeons trained at Edinburgh went on to practice medicine on slave ships and on colonial plantations worked by enslaved Africans."

Anything in the past == support for the British Empire == complicit in slavery.

Anonymous said...

A fascinating article. Thank you ND.

lilith said...

I have a large number of my grandfather's wartime books which I hope to get around to actually reading. Fabulous titles like "Life Without Ladies". Some of them are propaganda and some are contemporary accounts, mostly air campaigns.

dearieme said...

I suppose that everyone descended from the people who worked in Lancashire cotton mills is linked to slavery, the Nazi bastards.

At one time some of my ancestors lived in a house called Cotton Lodge. I am doomed.

Nudey Father Jack said...

Anyone who wears cotton today is complicit in the slavery of the 1700s.
Tear their clothes off.

Elby the Beserk said...

dearieme said...
I suppose that everyone descended from the people who worked in Lancashire cotton mills is linked to slavery, the Nazi bastards.

At one time some of my ancestors lived in a house called Cotton Lodge. I am doomed.

12:10 pm

Read again, dearime, I speak as one whose father and grandfather were in the rag trade in Manchester, old enough to just remember the mills still working, and how magnificent those mills are.

So. Cotton workers in Manchester during the US Civil War **refused** to handle southern cotton, even though it left them wageless and having to skive. That's a labour movement that I can support, and I am proud as a Manc manqué of them.

Lils and I are off up there in March, first time I've been North since my mother died back in 2005. Last relly up there. Picking up City v Brighton and a gig as well - The Deep South, visiting old haunts and showing Lils where I was dragged up in Bramhall & Woodford. And supping a pint of Robbies at our old family local, where Mum & Dad drank before the war, where I had my first pint at a pub aged 14 (I was hugely tall even then). Same family landlords, 3 genes now, and a City pub through and through. Just over the road from the now demolished AV Roes, where they had Vulcans for us to watch take off. Magnificent.

E-K said...

Thanks Nick


I am interested and I am under sixty (just.)

I disagree with my own point that this is uninteresting because it is. Sadly it's become something one has to read about on obscure blogs !