Sidney Cotton file photo [30819]

Sidney Cotton

Given NameFrederick
Born17 Jun 1894
Died13 Feb 1969
CountryAustralia, United Kingdom


ww2dbaseA pioneer in aerial photography and intelligence gathering, Frederick Sidney Cotton, the son of wealthy Australian landowner Alfred and Annie Cotton, was born on 17 June 1894 on a cattle station in Queensland, Australia. In 1910, his family moved to England where he attended Cheltenham College which was where he developed a passion for aviation. The family returned to Australia in 1912 and Sidney began training in livestock on a station in New South Wales. But at the outbreak of World War I he sailed backed to England, and in 1916 joined the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and was eventually posted to the Western Front as a bomber pilot.

ww2dbaseIn 1917, while serving in France, the inventive Cotton developed a fur-lined one piece flying suit to overcome the cold pilots experienced while flying at high altitude. His Sidon flying suit would become the standard issue for both the RFC and RNAS airmen as well as being adopted by the French and US Army Air Corps. Even some German pilots took to wearing the Sidon suit and, it is reported, that the celebrated Ace, Baron von Richthofen, was wearing one when he was shot down and killed.

ww2dbaseBut an over-confident Cotton could be both stubborn and obstinate. After just 18 months of service he quarrelled with his Commanding Officer when accused of disobeying a direct order; resigned his commission in protest, and returned home to Australia where he sat out the remainder of the war.

ww2dbaseIn Oct 1917, he married Regmor Agnes Maclean; they would have a son After divorcing Maclean in 1925, in 1926 he married Millicent Joan Henry, whom he had met in Canada.

ww2dbaseWhen peace came, Cotton returned to Europe, where he pursued an adventurous career in civil aviation, while amassing a fortune from speculations on the Stock Exchange and through buying and selling land. He also became deeply interested in photography, investing heavily in Dufaycolor, a company that had pioneered a new type of colour film. It was through this involvement that he struck up a friendship with American Alfred J. Miranda Jr., who was closely connected with Dufaycolor. It was Miranda who introduced Cotton to Squadron Leader Frederick Winterbotham at the time of the Munich Conference. Winterbotham, extremely well-connected and attached to the Air Ministry, was actually a leading light in the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Winterbotham, at that time, was on the lookout for a businessman with an aeroplane who had experience in flying over Europe and might be persuaded to engage in some covert aerial photography for him. In Sidney Cotton he found just the man he needed to further his scheme.

ww2dbaseThe Clandestine Flights

ww2dbaseWinterbotham persuaded Cotton to commence clandestine reconnaissance flights over Germany, and Miranda arranged for a Lockheed 12A light aircraft to be flown to Britain from the USA; it reached Southampton in January 1939. Meanwhile, Winterbotham was on the lookout for a suitable co-pilot who was also a trained engineer. He recruited Canadian Flight Lieutenant Robert Niven (1913-42) who was almost at the end of a RAF short-service commission as the ideal man for the job.

ww2dbaseCotton and Niven set about modifying the Lockheed for its secretive missions. Additional fuel tanks increased the range by 900 miles and a hole was cut in the floor of the passenger cabin to accommodate a large aerial camera, nearly six feet long, which Winterbotham had obtained from the French Deuxième Bureau. This hole served a dual purpose - in the event of an emergency anything incriminating could be jettisoned through it well before the Lockheed reached the ground.

ww2dbaseBy the end of February 1939, the Lockheed was ready. Cotton and Niven flew it from Heston to Toussus-le-Noble, southwest of Paris, and over the following months, in the guise of business, they secretly obtained photos of many German cities, airfields, fortifications, etc. Cotton now argued with the French about the erratic course they insisted he flew over the target area and the quality of the photographs that were taken. To secure better photographic coverage he proposed the substitution of three smaller RAF cameras in place of the French camera - one of them pointing straight down, the others angled slightly to the left and right. But when the French turned the suggestion down Cotton angrily walked out on them.

ww2dbaseCotton and Winterbotham, nonetheless, were still determined to continue with their aerial espionage. A new Lockheed was ordered, with extra fuel tanks located behind the cockpit. Three RAF F24 cameras (their serial numbers hastily scratched off so that, in the event of a forced landing there would be no obvious link with the RAF) were fitted in the fuselage; the holes for them cut to be slightly larger than the camera's lens to allow warm air from inside the aeroplane to be sucked over the cameras to stop them from freezing up. With the Lockheed painted a natty light duck-egg green, which Cotton said was the best possible high-altitude camouflage, he and Niven flew to Malta in June 1939, and from there, with a cover story that they were surveying a possible new route for Imperial Airways, they commenced covert photo-reconnaissance flights around the Middle East. In Malta they were joined by Flying Officer Maurice "Shorty" Longbottom as their aerial photographer. Posing as a wealthy Englishman with a passion for photographing ancient ruins from the air Cotton flew over Sicily taking photographs there. On 16 June, Cotton and Niven photographed two Italian-controlled islands in the Dodecanese before heading for Cairo, from where they photographed Massawa in Italian Eritrea and a possible submarine base under construction in Italian Somaliland. On their return flight to Malta, they photographed Italian troop movements, airfields and other military installations in Libya.

ww2dbaseWar Loomed

ww2dbaseReturning to Heston at the end of the month Cotton and Niven began more flights over Germany with the Lockheed fitted with two Leica cameras concealed behind panels in the wings operated by a trigger in the cockpit. Cotton's cover story was that he was trying to sell Dufaycolor film to the Germans, On 28 July, Cotton flew to Frankfurt to attend an international air show and while there invited the Commandant of Berlin's Templehof airfield for a pleasure flight. He suggested flying down the Rhine to Mannheim and back again. So with his German guest sitting back and admiring the aeroplane, Cotton's secret cameras discretely clicked away, photographing the Rhine and the Westwall ("Siegfried Line").

ww2dbaseOn 17 August, Cotton and Niven flew to Berlin, secretly taking photographs of areas north of the city. They were still in Berlin when the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was announced. With all civilian flights officially grounded. They waited impatiently on board their aircraft, until permission was belatedly given for them to take off. Theirs would be the last civilian aeroplane to get away from the city. As they headed towards the Netherlands, they spotted the port of Wilhelmshaven in the distance and so with a hand-held Leica camera they photographed, from the cockpit, the German fleet which appeared to be preparing to put out to sea.

ww2dbaseSidney Cotton Joined the RAF

ww2dbaseAir reconnaissance played little part in the Polish and Norwegian campaigns and even in France the RAF was using unsuitable Blenheim IV aircraft for photo-reconnaissance missions. Flying at high altitude to avoid Luftwaffe fighters their F24 cameras were notorious for freezing up making the resulting pictures quite unusable. Sidney Cotton, was summoned to the Air Ministry by Air Vice-Marshal Richard Peck, who wanted to know what special equipment he was using to get his pictures. Cotton replied that he was using standard RAF cameras and that the problems the Blenheim aircraft were experiencing was caused by condensation, not freezing. This problem he had solved himself by directing hot air, from his Lockheed's engine ducts, around his cameras. The RAF experts present refused to accept his explanation. So determined to prove his point, Cotton took off again on the following afternoon and returned with crystal-clear photographs of Flushing and IJmuiden which he triumphantly produced to the Air Vice-Marshal. The other senior RAF officers present erupted. One even argued that Cotton should be arrested for deliberately flaunting authority. Cotton stormed out of the room but, much to his surprise, was summoned back on the next day to meet with Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall, the RAF's Chief of Staff, and offered, with the acting rank of Wing Commander, the setting up of an experimental photo-reconnaissance unit. Cotton insisted on being remaining independent of RAF control and insisted on having carte blanche over the choice of men, machines and equipment.

ww2dbaseThe Heston Flight

ww2dbaseWhat was dubbed "the Heston Flight" was in business. Cotton's Lockheed and Beechcraft were joined by two Blenheim IVs, and Squadron Leader "Tubby" Earle was recruited as the head of photographic development. Pilot Officers "Shorty" Longbottom, Bob Niven, Hugh C. Macphail and S. Denis Slocum became the units first pilots along with Flight Sergeant "Wally" Walton and Leading Aircraftsmen Rawlinson, Mutton and Eggleston as the flight's photographers. They were assisted by thirteen ground crew to maintain the aircraft. But Cotton had set his heart on obtaining some Spitfires. Eventually, Air Vice-Marshal Peck obtained two of them from Maintenance Command, much to the initial displeasure of Sir Hugh Dowding, the head of Fighter Command.

ww2dbaseStreamlined and with their guns removed Cotton's engineers raised the Spitfire's maximum speed to 396 miles per hour, and with an additional fuel tank their range to 650 miles. By the end of 1939, these Spitfires had flown 15 high-altitude reconnaissance missions without loss and photographed a number of German towns as well as sections of the Westwall ("Siegfried Line") and the fortifications along the German border with Belgium. As a reward Dowding gave Cotton a dozen more Spitfire aircraft.

ww2dbaseThe Air Ministry, nonetheless, were not so impressed. Although the Spitfires were bringing back numerous photographs, the height at which they were flying meant that the scale was too small for intelligence use. Cotton quickly found the answer. Harold Hemming, an old friend and Managing Director of the Aircraft Operating Company owned the only Swiss manufactured Wild A5 Stereo plotter in Britain. The machine gave the photographs increased depth even when taken from as high as 34,000 feet. This effectively allowed Hemming's technicians to interpret Cotton's photographs and produce detailed maps from them. The Air Ministry's concerns had been resolved.

ww2dbaseCotton Dismissed

ww2dbaseMany high-ranking officers in the RAF never forgave him for what they saw as a blatant attempt to play the RAF off against the Admiralty. When he refused to obey orders to evacuate the 300 men he now commanded in France following the German invasion in May 1940, it was, for many, the last straw. Eventually, on 17 June, Cotton, with the last of his men, was forced out of France. But as he disembarked back at Heston, he was handed a letter from the Air Ministry which informed him that his unit was to be officially absorbed into the RAF. Officialdom decreed that he had outlived his usefulness. The following February he was asked to resign his commission. He would play no further part in the war.

ww2dbasePost World War II

ww2dbaseCotton's post-war career was also dogged by bad luck in private business. While he was sometimes wealthy in later life he was reluctant to profit from his wartime innovations and even waived his patent rights on the Sidcot suit. Then, in 1947, he was hired by Prince Mohammed Bakhtawar Khan, to assist Osman Ali Khan (Nizam of Hyderabad) in resisting integration into the Dominion of India. Cotton transported gold reserves for the Dominion of Pakistan, which was an ally of the Nizam and, during the first India-Pakistan War, he undertook airlifts of weapons, supplies and medicines from Hyderabad into Pakistan. The Hyderabadi forces were defeated and Nizam surrendered in September 1948. Cotton later faced charges of gun running, was convicted and fined £200.

ww2dbaseIn 1951 he married Thelma "Bunty" Brooke-Smith, a former secretary, who, became his third wife; they would have a son and a daughter together. He later worked in oil exploration and civil engineering and, in the late 1960s, he collaborated with a biographer, Ralph Barker, on a book entitled Aviator Extraordinary: the Sidney Cotton story.

ww2dbaseSidney Cotton was living at Ford Manor, Lingfield, Surrey, England, United Kingdom when he died on 13 February 1969 aged 79.


ww2dbaseFlight Lieutenant Robert Niven remained with the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit until mid-August 1940, when he was transferred to Ferry Command. In November 1940 he was promoted Squadron Leader in No.59 Squadron of RAF Coastal Command. He was killed in 1942 while attacking a German convoy near the Frisian Islands.

ww2dbaseGroup Captain Frederick Winterbotham served throughout the war as the head of the Air Section of MI6. As such he was heavily involved with the top secret code breakers of Bletchley Park and the formation of this "Special Liaison Units", which were attached to every field headquarters that received Ultra communications, Winterbotham was responsible for recruiting and training the SLU personnel for their Top-Secret role. In 1974 his book 'The Ultra Secret' would finally reveal to the world the important role that Bletchley had played in the defeat of the Axis nations.

ww2dbaseSquadron Leader Maurice 'Shorty' Longbottom along with Vicker's Chief Test Pilot Joseph "Mutt" Summers would, in 1943, conduct the flight trials of Barnes Wallis (qv) bouncing bomb that was employed by 617 Squadron in the famous Dambusters raid of May 1943 (Operation Chastise). Tragically he would be killed in an air crash at Haines Bridge, Weybridge in January 1945.

Jeremy Harwood: World War II From Above (Quarto Publishing 2014)
Chaz Bowyer: Royal Air Force Handbook 1939-1945 (Ian Allan Ltd, 1984)
Edward Davidson and Dale Manning: World War II - The Personalities (Arms and Armour Press, 1997)
Wikipedia - Sidney Cotton

Last Major Revision: Jan 2021

Sidney Cotton Interactive Map

Sidney Cotton Timeline

17 Jun 1894 Sidney Cotton was born on a cattle station in Goorganga, Queensland, Australia.
22 Sep 1939 Sidney Cotton was made a Squadron Leader and honorary Wing Commander of the RAF.
13 Feb 1969 Sidney Cotton passed away in Uckfield, Sussex, England, United Kingdom.
17 Feb 1969 Sidney Cotton's remains were cremated following a service at Dormansland Parish Church in Lingfield, Surrey, England, United Kingdom.

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