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|
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.