Friday, August 8, 2008


As we came to the end of our trip, one of the things I got to thinking about was those white crayon lines in the sky. Watching them while on the ground; and probably leaving them behind our airliner as we headed for home.

Contrails over Oyama Lake.

I'm sure we are all too familiar with contrails as one of the graffiti marks of modern technology on our world - it seems wherever you might be, there are contrails overhead. They are modern, but the first examples were not only harbingers of the new world, but literally a matter of life and death.

As far as I know, there are no photos of the Photo Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) aircraft 'contrailling' on their reconnaissances in World War Two over Europe. These would have been the first regularly-seen contrails, put up by high-flying specially adapted aircraft, primarily Spitfires and later Mosquitoes. These aircraft were an 'eye in the sky' - and while we take things like satellites and Google Earth for granted today, back then aircrew laid down their lives trying to get the pictures back.

One of the most famous reconnaissance photos ever, taken after the dams raid.

I understand they could 'pull a contrail' without realising,
drawing a big 'here I am' arrow at themselves. Their Camotint camouflage wouldn't be much use then. They had no guns, an aircraft full of fuel or (worse) fuel vapour. Yes, they were high and fast, but not always, nor always high enough and fast enough. They were hard to catch, but that didn't mean they were invulnerable - sometimes there might be an enemy fighter up-sun.

Today there are a few Spitfires and Mosquitoes in Photo Reconnaissance (PR) colours, including examples in the National Museum of the United States Air Force (something the Brits had sorted and the Americans thus used) and in the RAF and RAAF Museums. However, they've never got the credit they deserve, because they were top secret during the war.

A rare Spitfire PR.XI seen at IWM Duxford some years ago, in its high-altitude blue scheme and American 'star and bar' markings.

A Spitfire PR Mk.IA about to leave on one of the first reconnaissance mission of World War Two, in 1939-40.

The PR boys were the original 'Alone, unarmed and unafraid' flyers. But in reality they were alone, unarmed, and fools if they weren't aware of the risk they ran. They all had fellow airmen that just didn't come back. Usually that was all they knew. What had happened (mechanical failure, hypoxia, enemy attack, navigation errors) was unknown...

That then meant someone else had to go until someone did get back with the photos.

A publicity photo of an oblique F-24 aerial camera being fitted to a PR Spitfire as the pilot 'looks on'. This example is one of the earlier unpressurised machines, as indicated by the side access door, done away with when the cockpit was pressurised in later versions. Either way, it was a very uncomfortable, cramped ride.

A very interesting underside photo of a Spitfire PR.XI. The underside (vertical) camera ports can be seen as dark circles under the rear fuselage. The two cameras were angled slightly, allowing a wide swathe (10 miles or so) of ground to be photographed in one run - provided that the camera didn't fog up, freeze or the mechanism fail - which it sometimes did. The little teardrop shaped bumps on the wings cover the fuel pumps for the 'wet' wing - the entire forward wing section was rubberised inside and then used as a fuel tank. The stripes are D Day recognition strips to assist in avoiding friendly fire incidents, placing this photo sometime soon after June 6th 1944.

They flew for up to ten hours, any minute of which could be their last, and they'd almost certainly not see what killed them. Or perhaps worse - while straining to see in an inadequate rear view mirror was spotting a small dot, below and behind - an enemy fighter slowly gaining ground and altitude. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. I've heard: "Oh, they flew a Spitfire without guns?" Quiet heroism takes many forms.

High over London

But the earliest days of massed contrails were the
marks of a new battlefield, famously photographed over St Paul's Cathedral, London, in 1940:

And St Paul's was image of the centre of 'home' to those fighting for the future of civilisation. High up there were young men (of an average age of 20) flying, fighting, and dying at 300 or more miles an hour. Later, the Germans turned to bombing London.

On 29 December 1940, Daily Mail photographer Herbert Mason braved an air raid to spend the night on the roof of Northcliffe House in Fleet Street. He captured what became the defining image of the Blitz - St. Paul's emerging defiantly from the smoke of surrounding burning buildings. The image appeared in the Daily Mail two days later, with evident retouching, under the headline 'St. Paul's Stands Unharmed in the Midst of the Burning City'. Ironically, only four weeks later, the photograph was reproduced by the Berliner Illustre Zeitung who used it not to show the resilience of the blitzed city, but to show that London was burning to the ground.
Hindsight sometimes blinds us to what is commonplace today but was shockingly new then. Official War Artist Paul Nash put contrails in his painting of the Battle as an iconic aspect of that combat.

Paul Nash, Battle of Britain, 1941, Imperial War Museum IWM16756 © Imperial War Museum.

USAAF Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses pulling contrails in the high, cold, blue. Note also the prop-tip vortices also creating contrails.

Without aircraft to stop the Germans that high...

Without the Battle in 1940...

Without Britain's intransigence, in the face of the Blitz...

Without the United States Army Air Forces by day and the Royal Air Force by night...

Without the knowledge from photo-reconnaissance...

Churchill's 'new dark age' of 'perverted science' might have come to pass.

(Perverted science: A PRU photo of the German research station at Peenemunde. In fact, Peenemunde test stand VII, with a V-2 ballistic rocket launch set up. At Peenemunde, using slave labour, the German Army under Werner von Braun laid the groundwork for both intercontinental ballistic missiles and the space race.)

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