Women of Intelligence: Winning the Second World War with Air Photos

Women of Intelligence: Winning the Second World War with Air Photos

by Christine Halsall


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In World War II, an ornate Victorian mansion overlooking the River Thames at Medmenham was the Headquarters of the Allied Central Interpretation Unit. It was here that the air photography, obtained by reconnaissance aircraft flying over the whole of enemy and occupied Europe, was analyzed by Photographic Interpreters; the Intelligence produced from their reports influenced virtually every Allied operation during the war. An analytical mind, curiosity, the ability to search for clues and recognize the unusual were essential qualities for the Interpreters and found in men and women from scientific and artistic backgrounds. Women made up half of the work force. Now the women of Medmenham tell the story of their wartime life and work—in their own words.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780750982450
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 02/01/2018
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Christine Halsall volunteered working in the Medmenham Collection—the national archive of PI history, as Collection Biographer.

Read an Excerpt

Women of Intelligence

Winning The Second World War With Air Photos

By Christine Halsall

The History Press

Copyright © 2012 Christine Halsall
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-8651-2


The Road to Medmenham

The Duke of Wellington is quoted as saying: 'All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don't know by what you do; that's what I call "guessing what was on the other side of the hill".'

Throughout the history of warfare, commanders on land and at sea have sought ways of seeing over 'the other side of the hill' to gain knowledge of their enemy's force dispositions and resources before engaging in battle. The introduction of aircraft to gain a bird's-eye view of the enemy, and of photography to provide an objective and permanent record of his capabilities, made this possible and changed the nature of warfare. Not only was military information 'captured' for use on the battlefield; it also provided longer-term intelligence in the planning of future operations.

Aviation and photography, developing along parallel paths, became an entirely new profession in the world of military intelligence and was first used to considerable effect in the First World War. In the Second World War, in terms of quantity, aerial photography produced more information on enemy activity than any other source. Moreover, the information was factual, could be provided very rapidly in comparison with most other sources, and could also be directed to provide intelligence on almost any territory required and on a wide variety of subjects.

It was during the period 1939–45 that women played a significant part in photographic intelligence, a role that continues to the present day. With their male counterparts, a large number of them were based for most of that time in an ornate mansion overlooking the River Thames in the small village of Medmenham, in Buckinghamshire. Today, the house is a luxury hotel providing comfortable and peaceful surroundings for its guests. In wartime, with rather fewer creature comforts, the men and women who worked there analysed air photographs and saw over 'the other side of the hill' into enemy and occupied territories. The intelligence gained from their observations and reports was used in the planning of virtually every Allied wartime operation.

Just after the war, Cyril Ticquet, an RAF officer at Medmenham wrote:

Let me introduce you to a spy. Not the kind you read about in novels, but the real, live 1939–45 version. The kind that saw to it that the Germans could pull no surprises, and then did the same for Japan. He is middle-aged with lined cheeks and thinning hair. You would guess that he used to have a school or university job, and you would be right. He, and hundreds of other men and women like him, spent their days staring at the innermost secrets of the enemy, discovering in advance his most hidden schemes.

While the many young men and women at RAF Medmenham during the Second World War would have raised their eyebrows at the 'lined cheeks and thinning hair' description, they would have recognised Ticquet's description of their wartime work.

The history and development of aviation and photography have been well documented. Women's achievements in these spheres are less well known, despite being involved from their inception, and this short account will seek to redress the balance.

Although it was work by an English physicist on the density of hydrogen in the latter half of the eighteenth century that provided the means whereby humans could take to the air, it was the French who dominated early ballooning. On 15 October 1783 JeanFrançois de Rozier was the first person to ascend into the air in a balloon tethered to the ground by an 80ft rope. Just six weeks later, the first free (non-tethered) flight, with passengers, took place over Paris.

It could be assumed that involvement in early ballooning was an exclusively male preoccupation, with ladies' feet staying firmly on the ground; however, in May 1784, just seven months after Rozier, three French ladies ascended in a tethered balloon. It was a French opera singer, one Elizabeth Thible, who was credited with being the first woman ever to leave the ground in free flight. On 4 June 1784 she ascended in a hot air balloon and floated for over a mile above Lyon as part of a group entertainment for the King of Sweden.

One of the most colourful early balloonists was Sophie Blanchard, whose husband Jean-Pierre, together with a colleague, had been the first balloonist to cross the English Channel from France in 1795. Sophie's first ascent came in 1804 when JeanPierre's entertainment business was losing money and she was sent aloft as a 'novelty' to help solve their financial problems. She enjoyed it so much that she became the first woman to turn professional and pilot her own balloon. When her husband died in 1809, after suffering a heart attack and falling out of his balloon, Sophie set about paying off their debts by performing stunts to attract the crowds. Staying aloft all night, crossing the Alps, parachuting dogs (and herself on several occasions) and launching fireworks were just a few of the exhibitions that drew huge crowds from all over Europe. Napoleon appointed her 'Aeronaut of the Official Festivals' and she reportedly planned a balloon invasion of England. Alas, in 1819, while setting off a firework display from her hydrogen-filled balloon in a display over the Tivoli Gardens in Paris, the gas ignited and Sophie gained the dubious distinction of becoming the first woman to be killed in an aviation accident.

The potential advantages of using balloons for military reconnaissance purposes was soon recognised on both sides of the Channel. In England, the first balloon ascent and the first military flight of 20 miles by an army officer took place in 1784. The British military establishment remained unimpressed, however, and while recognising that making observations by balloon had advantages over climbing the highest vantage point available, they decided not to pursue the possibilities. The French were initially more enthusiastic, using a balloon for aerial observation in two engagements in the 1790s, but then discontinued the venture. Although military ballooning then fell into abeyance, or abandoned altogether by the European powers until the mid-nineteenth century, ballooning for entertainment purposes, many of which included women, continued to attract appreciative crowds.

As progress in aviation, other than for 'amusements', was put on hold, photography became the new popular pastime and this time the English led the field. In January 1839, Henry Fox Talbot reported to the Royal Society in London on his 'art of photogenic drawing', a process called 'Calotype' that based the prints on light-sensitive paper: his first image was of a lattice window in his home at Lacock Abbey. Three weeks earlier Louis Daguerre had displayed his 'Daguerreotypes', which were pictures on silver plates, to the French Academy of Sciences. Fox Talbot made further improvements to his process that reduced the exposure time necessary for the image to develop and, by introducing the use of a fixing solution, enabled the picture to be viewed in bright light. Most importantly, the negative image of the Calotype process could be used repeatedly to produce more positive prints. It was this unique quality that led to its universal adoption and the demise of Daguerreotypes. The reproduction of any number of positive prints was a tremendous boon for private and commercial photographers and raised possibilities for military use.

One of the great Victorian inventions had arrived. By the mid-nineteenth century photography had been taken up with enthusiasm by the leisured classes, interested in both the arts and sciences, and with sufficient money and time to pursue the new hobby. From the very beginning, women on both sides of the Atlantic were active in the field of photography. Fox Talbot's wife, Constance, while assisting him in his work, also took her own pictures and processed them. Anna Atkins (1799–1871) used photography at an early stage to record her botanical specimens. In 1843 she became the first person to print and publish a photographically illustrated book, with 424 photographs of British algae.

The marketing of the first camera for amateur use by Kodak in 1888 put photography within the reach of many more people and increased its popularity. Another popular optical form actually predated photography; this was the stereoscope, which gave the viewer a three-dimensional image of the subject when used with two offset pictures. Although originally only used for entertainment purposes, stereoscopy and the 3D image were to be of paramount importance to military intelligence in the years to come.

In the spring of 1858, the skills of aviation and photography were brought together by Felix Tournachon, a French photographer and journalist, bearing the pseudonym 'Nadar'. Tournachon took the first aerial photographs over Paris, using a camera fixed to the basket of his tethered balloon. He was soon producing excellent aerial views despite the tendency of the balloon to spin and the problem of having to sensitise, expose and develop the wet photographic plates while still aloft. The possibilities of combining balloons and photography revitalised the interest of the military establishment in several countries. The production of more accurate battlefield maps was made possible by using the overall perspective gained from a balloon combined with photographs. Tethered balloons were used in the American Civil War for reconnaissance purposes and to direct artillery fire by a system of predetermined flag signals or telegraph.

In England, photographs were taken successfully from free balloons, at a higher altitude than Nadar, in 1863, and dry gelatine plates that could be developed after descending were introduced. Once again the military establishment considered ballooning too expensive to pursue, but a change of mind soon came about, for in 1878 a training establishment was set up by the Royal Engineers at Woolwich with the advancement of military ballooning, including photography, as its raison d'être. In 1883 cameras were fitted to free balloons and timed by clockwork to take exposures in a regular pattern. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, extensive use had been made of balloons by the French and British for reconnaissance and communication purposes in several military campaigns.

The invention and development of the internal combustion engine caused the science of flight to change forever on 17 December 1903. On that day the first manned flight was accomplished by Orville Wright in a powered, fixed-wing aeroplane called Flyer at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The first flight lasted only 12 seconds, and the aircraft travelled just 120ft over the sand dunes, but by the end of the day Orville and his brother, Wilbur, had achieved a 59-second flight of 852ft. Flight was no longer totally subject to the vagaries of wind and weather, as the 12hp engine and a movable, vertical rudder put the pilot in charge of the aircraft's speed and direction.

Flying fixed-wing aircraft was taken up with tremendous enthusiasm in countries all around the world, by men and women. Each year saw new milestones reached, and then exceeded, in pilot achievement and aircraft construction. Photographs were first taken from aeroplanes in 1909, with America and France leading the way. John Moore-Brabazon was the first Englishman to make an officially recognised aeroplane flight in England in May 1909. He also transported the first live cargo in an aeroplane that November, when he put a piglet into a wastepaper basket strapped to a wing strut, thereby proving that pigs could fly.

The years 1910 and 1911 were ones of firsts in aviation. On 8 March, Moore-Brabazon was awarded the Aviator's Certificate No. 1 and became the first person to be granted a pilot's licence in Britain. In France, on the very same day, Raymonde de Laroche, an actress and experienced balloonist, received her pilot's licence from the Aéro-Club de France, the first to be awarded to a woman. She also carried the distinction of being the first woman in the world to fly solo. Edith Cook was reportedly the first British woman to pilot a plane, in the early months of 1910, but she died a few months later while parachuting out of a balloon. That summer Hilda Hewlett opened Britain's first flying school at Brooklands, a motor-racing circuit in Surrey, and it was there that she became the first woman in Britain to receive a pilot's licence on 29 August 1911. She received Certificate No. 122 from the Royal Aero Club after completing the test in her own biplane. Also in 1911, Harriet Quimby was awarded a pilot's certificate by the Aero Club of America and became the first woman to fly the English Channel, but died in an aircraft crash the following year.

Following the Wright brothers' initial flight in 1903, the French military showed renewed enthusiasm for further involvement in powered aircraft. The War Office was not so encouraged, preferring to continue with experiments on airships, and even after a successful military flight in England in 1908, banned further aircraft work due to the cost. However, on 25 July 1909 Louis Blériot flew a monoplane across the English Channel in 37 minutes, causing widespread consternation at the ease with which Britain could apparently be 'invaded' from the air. This was just one factor that nudged the War Office into setting up the Army Aircraft Factory in 1911 at Farnborough, Hampshire. Amid concerns about the growing air power of France and Germany, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was formed on 13 April 1912, and much pioneering work was done at Farnborough in the years leading up to the outbreak of war in August 1914.

The First World War saw Photographic Reconnaissance (PR), the acquisition of film, and Photographic Interpretation (PI), the analysis of that film, firmly established as a prime source of intelligence. For the first time in warfare, a controlled aircraft with a camera could travel 'over the hill' and return with an objective record from which information could be extracted. At first the aircraft were primitive, with a box camera containing glass plates fixed to the side and operated by the pilot leaning out of the cockpit. The quality of the imagery, though, taken from a relatively low altitude, could be remarkably good and enabled commanders to see their own and the enemy's trench patterns, barbed-wire entanglements, weapons pits and much else. Aircraft design, range and capability gradually improved as manufacturers strove to provide the RFC with machines that could fly high and fast enough to escape German aircraft, while also providing a stable platform from which photographs could be taken.

When the first RFC Photographic Section was set up in France in January 1915, Lieutenant Moore-Brabazon was appointed to command it, with Flight Sergeant Victor Laws, a young photographer who took every available opportunity to ascend in airship, balloon, kite or aircraft to take photographs, as a member of the new unit. These two men, with the active support of more senior officers, largely established the principles and practice of aerial reconnaissance and photographic interpretation. Alongside the progress made in aircraft, Laws worked with camera manufacturers to improve design and establish the introduction of film, which replaced glass plates over time.

In Palestine, Lieutenant Hugh Hamshaw Thomas pioneered the use of air photographs and stereoscopy to produce the first maps of desert areas. He also set down many of the procedures that formed the principles of photographic interpretation in two world wars. Both he and Laws returned to serve with distinction in the RAF during the Second World War and Victor Laws' daughter, Millicent, joined the WAAF in 1939 to serve in photographic intelligence.

By 1917 the massive casualty losses on the Western Front had resulted in acute shortages of manpower. The authorities, albeit reluctantly, decided to set up women's forces to replace men with female recruits – but only in carrying out clerical or domestic duties. The Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS) were formed in 1917 and the Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF) was established in 1918. All three services were disbanded shortly after the Armistice, by which time more than 100,000 women had served in uniform. Although none had worked in photographic intelligence, two women who served in different capacities during the Great War were to join up again in the Second World War and serve as photographic interpreters at RAF Medmenham.

One was Dorothy Garrod, who was born in 1892, the only daughter of a distinguished medical family. She entered Newnham College, Cambridge, in 1913 where she read history and graduated three years later, although without a degree as the University of Cambridge did not award degrees to women at that time. By 1916 two of her three brothers had died of wounds on the Western Front and the third was to die in the 1919 Spanish flu pandemic. From 1916–19 Dorothy was a worker in the Catholic Women's League huts in northern France and the Rhineland, nursing wounded troops and refugees. The death of all her brothers convinced her to pursue an academic career herself. In the years between the wars, she studied archaeology, led several pioneering expeditions to Iraq and then went to Palestine, where in the Mount Carmel cave deposits she found the first evidence of Neanderthal people outside Europe. In 1933 she took up the post of director of studies in archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge.


Excerpted from Women of Intelligence by Christine Halsall. Copyright © 2012 Christine Halsall. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Mr Geoffrey Stone 7

Preface 9

Glossary of Terms 11

1 The Road to Medmenham 13

2 The First Recruits 29

3 Learning the Art 45

4 Possible, Probable 61

5 Off Duty 79

6 Watching the Enemy 97

7 Millions of Photographs 115

8 A New Purpose for Photography 133

9 Most Secret 151

10 Further Afield 169

11 D-Day and Doodlebugs 187

12 And Then it was All Over 205

Endnotes 223

Bibliography 231

Acknowledgements 233

Index 237

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