|Historical Name of Location||Medmenham, England, United Kingdom|
Contributor: Alan Chanter
ww2dbaseMany books have been written about Bletchley Park and the amazing people there who were involved in secretly breaking the Enigma communication codes in order to gain vital intelligence about the enemy and his intentions. Few people, myself included, will perhaps be aware of the similarly important intelligence gathering activities, by Allied photographic interpreters, which commenced in May 1941 at Danesfield House in rural Buckinghamshire, England, United Kingdom.
ww2dbaseBuilding upon the covert aerial photography flights made by Sidney Cotton's "Heston Flight" during the early months of the war, the Royal Air Force, in Jun 1940, under the leadership of Chief-of-Staff Air Vice-Marshal Richard Peck (1893-1952), took over responsibility for conducting photo-reconnaissance flights; to effectively photograph, record and map a visual picture of everything that was happening in Nazi occupied territory.
ww2dbaseThe new command initially had two serious problems to resolve in order to perform its role. The first was to find and train the necessary specialists who would be needed to interpret the photographic images, and the second was to obtain the specially adapted aircraft with which to conduct its spying missions. The first was solved by moving suitably trained personnel from their original home in Wembley (which had just been bombed by the German Air Force, Luftwaffe) to Danesfield House which the Air Ministry requisitioned to house a new Joint Service Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) Unit. Danesfield house, given the title of RAF Medmenham (from the name of a nearby village), was a mock-Tudor mansion situated above the River Thames between Henley-on-Thames and Marlow. It would become the main headquarters for all RAF and USAAF air intelligence research for the rest of the war.
ww2dbaseChoosing the right aircraft for photo-reconnaissance missions was essential. The mainstay of the RAF's Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU), established in Jul 1940 under the command of Wing Commander Geoffrey Tuttle DFC (1906-1989) were the fast, streamlined Supermarine Spitfire PR Mk.XI aircraft together with the twin-engine de Havilland Mosquito aircraft which, from early 1942, with its greater range was easily capable of long-distance missions to as far afield as northern Norway or the north of Italy. The role of the photo-reconnaissance pilot was almost unique in World War II. Unlike bomber or fighter pilots who could generally be classed "expendable", the photo-reconnaissance pilot in his unarmed aircraft would be alone in hostile skies and facing the myriad hazards of enemy opposition, weather conditions, extremes of temperature, and without any hope of assistance should it be required. His priority needed to be to get his valuable pictures safely home if they were to be of any value to the waiting interpreters. Initially placed under Coastal Command Headquarters, by the autumn of 1940 the PRU had grown to eleven squadrons (although some of the aircraft issued were, initially, some quite unsuitable squadron "hacks") which Tuttle split into four (later five) detached flights based at Wick and St. Eval, with remaining aircraft at Heston and Benson.
ww2dbaseAll prospective photographic interpreters posted to Medmenham were first required to undertake a compulsory fortnight-long introductory training course where they learnt how to identify objects on the ground from photographs taken from high in the air, how to use the Wild A5 stereoscopic viewing frame which gave a 3-dimensional image, and how to distinguish signs of enemy military activity. The course was devised by Douglas Kendall, a photographic expert who had worked with the pre-war "Aircraft Operating Company" and then, under the aegis of British intelligence, with Sidney Cotton until, that maverick officer had been dismissed and his independent unit seized by the RAF in Jun 1940. Kendall was later succeeded by Pilot Officer Alfred Stevenson who, by the end of the war, had successfully trained some 1,300 would-be photographic interpreters. The hand-picked staff, described by Cambridge University archaeologist Glyn Daniel (1914-86) as "an ill assembled collection of dons, artists, ballet designers, newspaper editors and writers," was an eclectic mix of boffins, academics and "civilians in uniform", including quite a few women, They were nonetheless some of the cleverest people in Britain.
ww2dbaseDuring 1942 and 1943, the Medmenham site was gradually expanded and became involved in the planning stages of practically every subsequent operation of the war, and in every aspect of intelligence. By 1945, the daily intake of material averaged 25,000 negatives and 60,000 prints, and by VE-day, the print library held five million prints from which 40,000 reports had been produced. From an early establishment of 114 officers and 117 other ranks working there, by 1945 there would be around 550 officers and 3,000 other ranks (including as many as 150 female photographic interpreters) plus a large number of Americans.
ww2dbaseLike Bletchley Park, RAF Medmenham soon became split into various sub-sections specialising in their own areas of interest. Section A, for instance, dealt with enemy shipping. Section C studied enemy airfields, of which there were more than 400 in France and Belgium alone. Section E, led by WAAF officer Molly "Tommy" Thompson, devoted itself to spotting all kinds of camouflage and with the briefing of other photographic interpreters on what to look out for and how to spot it. Section F concentrated on railways, roads, river and canal transport. Section L focused on aircraft identification. The aptly named Section N was devoted to night photography. In Section Q, Geoffrey Dimbleby and his team searched for decoy sites that were attempting to divert the bombers away from their intended targets (around Cologne they quickly identified some seventeen different decoy sites). Other sections focused on industry, army sites and bomber targeting and damage assessment. For the photographic interpreters, working long shifts, day and night, the continuous tasks could be highly taxing and required much patience and attention to detail.
ww2dbaseOf particular significance at Medmenham was their use of stereoscopic images to find the V-1 ski-shaped launching sites in Northern France, WAAF officer Constance Babington Smith (1912-2000), who had been a pre-war journalist on The Aeroplane won fame for being the first to identify the Vergeltungswaffe 1 missile. By Dec 1943 Medmenham had managed to build a comprehensive picture of the particular roles of the various buildings on each site. Through the PRU missions, Medmenham was able, on 11 Jun 1944, to accurately signal to the Allied Chiefs-of-Staff, the code-word "Diver" indicating that an attack was imminent. Two days later the German V-Weapons Campaign commenced.
ww2dbaseThe Peenemünde Army Research Center on the coast of the Baltic Sea was also of considerable interest to the interpreters. The scientific community were initially divided as to what the Germans were up to there, but physicist Dr. Reginald Jones was positively able to identify the strange cylinders that had been spotted as being the A4 (V-2) rockets. The interpreters were similarly able to confirm the existence of the German Me 163 Komet rocket plane as well as finding evidence of the test flights of the Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe jet fighter.
ww2dbaseAnother important activity at Medmenham was in Section V which was responsible for model-making. This section used the PRU's photographs to create magnificent three-dimensional scale models as recognition guides for aircrews. It was precision work which required great skill and fine attention to detail. Located in the basement of Danesfield house, which had been converted into a carpenter's workshop, but soon spreading to outbuildings scattered throughout to grounds, chief model maker, Geoffrey Deeley (1912-1952), a distinguished sculptor, and his team would create, with the photographs used as guides, accurate models of entire landscapes which could be as large as 20 square feet in size and which included such items as cliffs, beaches, ports, harbours, and specific groups of buildings such as radar stations. By the time the war ended. Section V's model-makers had churned out more than 1,400 models. Some, like the models of the Ruhr Dams used to brief Guy Gibson's Dam Buster squadron being extremely elaborate. Section V's biggest task, however, involved building ninety-seven separate models of the Normandy beaches as part of the preparations for D-Day. This also involved making plaster moulds from the originals in order to provide the required number of duplicates needed by the many units that would be involved in the invasion. Such was the importance given to knowing as much as possible about the Normandy defences that even the rows of obstacles on the foreshore were modelled.
ww2dbaseWith the cessation of hostilities in Europe in May 1945 some sections closed almost immediately, whilst others worked on tasks for the Control Commission in Germany. The RAF added many temporary wooden structures in the grounds, and the site was subsequently purchased by the Air Ministry in 1948 to become the Divisional Headquarters for No. 90 Group RAF (Signals). The Grade II listed house would become officers' living accommodation, with its Grand Banqueting Hall used as the Officers' Mess. The house was eventually sold to the milk processing company Carnation in 1977, to become its corporate headquarters. It then became a country house hotel in 1991 in which form it exists today.
Jeremy Harwood: World War II From Above (AURA, Quarto Publishing, 2014)
Chaz Bowyer: Royal Air Force Handbook 1939-1945 (Ian Allan, 1984)
Wikipedia: Danesfield House
Last Major Update: May 2019
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Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, Aug 1939