Sid Cotton’s Air Force was an early “eye in the sky” for Britain’s Intelligence Service

Utilizing high-flying Spitfires and a Lockheed Electra, an outspoken Australian helped develop photoreconnaissance strategies early in World Battle II.

Generations of Blue Angels and Thunderbirds owe their capability to walk airshow ramps in sensible, attractive flight fits to a rich, irascible Australian World Battle I pilot named Sidney Cotton. For Sid Cotton invented the flight swimsuit in 1917. He named it the Sidcot, and it quickly grew to become commonplace for British Royal Flying Corps and Naval Air Service pilots. It’s stated that “Purple Baron” Manfred von Richthofen was carrying a Sidcot when he was shot down, although there’s no phrase on whether or not he purchased it or copped it from a Brit sufferer.

Cotton’s flight swimsuit was fairly totally different than the modern-day navy pilot’s tight jumpers, nevertheless it was a substantial advance over the usual aviator’s garb of the day, which was merely no matter overcoat or leather-based jacket was at hand, thrown over one’s uniform. Cotton designed a heat, single-piece coverall lined with fur below a layer of silk. It had pockets on the thighs for maps and papers, and finally tons extra pockets, tons extra zippers. In case you needed folks to know you have been a pilot, you wore a Sidcot.

RAF Airmen put on insulated Sidcot flight fits that Cotton invented in 1917. (IWM CH2374)

However Cotton’s actual contribution to navy aviation was that he additionally developed trendy aerial photoreconnaissance, though the Royal Air Pressure couldn’t do away with him quick sufficient. Cotton was outspoken, had little regard for rank, and was wealthy and sensible—all the things a navy officer loathed. 

In the course of the Twenties and ’30s, Cotton speculated in shares and actual property, made headlines by air-rescuing a crew of explorers stranded on the Greenland ice sheet and flew missions following migrating seals for Newfoundland fisheries. He additionally received concerned in aerial photomapping in Newfoundland and discovered of a brand new shade movie known as Dufaycolor, marketed to the motion-picture trade by a British firm. Cotton grew to become a Dufaycolor gross sales supervisor and flew all through Europe pitching the movie.

In 1938 Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service grew to become conscious that businessman Cotton was flying every day over German websites the RAF wished it might go to. So Cotton quietly joined the SIS and received the company to purchase a Lockheed 12A Electra Junior—sufficiently big to hold a number of cameras however atypical sufficient to not entice consideration. Beginning in February 1939, Cotton flew “enterprise journeys” over France’s Maginot Line and close by German positions.

French navy intelligence managed the flights and equipped the cameras. Flying with French cameras over the hither-and-yon patterns the French specified resulted in poor images. Cotton got here up with new flight paths and put in higher RAF cameras, one pointing down and two capturing obliquely, however the French nixed the thought. Cotton stop the challenge, saying, “If worthwhile outcomes have been to be obtained, I will need to have my very own plane and function in my very own manner.”

Sid went again to Germany together with his Electra, once more posing as a Dufaycolor salesman. Over the last weeks earlier than the struggle started, he shot 1000’s of images of all the things from the Siegfried Line to the German fleet at Wilhelmshaven. He minimize it shut: His Electra was the final civilian plane to go away Germany earlier than the Wehrmacht invaded Poland.

Cotton fabricated two easy improvements that benefitted aerial pictures. He ducted sizzling air from an engine exhaust muff to heat the digital camera lenses, conserving them freed from condensation. And he created cockpit facet home windows with huge blisters, so the pilot not needed to financial institution to establish what he wanted to {photograph} straight under. 

Cotton’s actual contribution, nevertheless, was a complete rethink of aerial pictures methodology. When he returned to England, the RAF was utilizing Bristol Blenheims and Westland Lysanders for photograph flights, the speculation being that one needed to get fairly near the world being photographed—10,000 ft was optimum—and to fly over it slowly sufficient that the movie might seize high-resolution pictures. The Lysanders have been a minimum of maneuverable sufficient to get away from Messerschmitts, however the outmoded Blenheims suffered dreadful losses.

In the guise of a film sales executive, Cotton flew his Lockheed 12A Electra Junior over German military positions in 1939, collecting photo intellengence for the Allies. (Lockheed Martin)
Within the guise of a movie gross sales government, Cotton flew his Lockheed 12A Electra Junior over German navy positions in 1939, gathering photograph intellengence for the Allies. (Lockheed Martin)

To the dismay of many entrenched RAF officers, Cotton shaped what got here to be often known as Sid Cotton’s Air Pressure. Sid flew photorecon utilizing the quickest plane obtainable on the time—gunless Supermarine Spitfires lightened to fly at 30,000 ft, the place they’d survive on pace. However the RAF stated the main points in his pictures have been too small to be of any assist to photograph interpreters. 

Cotton consulted a pal from his Newfoundland photomapping days, Harold Hemming, who had shaped the Plane Working Firm, a pioneer in photomapping for oil- and mineral-prospecting operations throughout the Nineteen Thirties. AOC had a stereoscopic photo-viewing system—a multi-ton Swiss machine known as a stereo plotter—that extracted significantly larger element from Cotton’s six-mile-high images. It grew to become the guts of the method known as photogrammetry, which allowed photograph interpreters to see particulars right down to the dimensions of barbed wire fortifications.

In Could 1940, a Spitfire from Cotton’s unit photographed from 30,000 ft 400 German tanks parked below bushes and different camouflage, getting ready to interrupt west by means of the Ardennes forest. The RAF ignored the warning indicators. The Germans invaded the Low Nations and France solely days later with these exact same tanks.

Cotton’s little squadron—4 Spitfires and the devoted Electra—was initially based mostly at a civilian airfield, Heston, and was thought of to be an experimental unit freed from the RAF’s formal construction. It was known as Heston Flight and Cotton was given the performing rank of wing commander. 

In the course of the first 4 months of the struggle, the RAF had photographed 2,500 sq. miles of Europe at the price of 40 airplanes, lots of them Blenheims. Heston Flight’s high-altitude Spitfires had surveyed 5,000 sq. miles and not using a single loss. Cotton’s air power briefly operated from France, however the pace of the German advance despatched Heston Flight fleeing again to England. When he landed again at Heston within the Electra, Cotton was knowledgeable that his unit was now a full-blown a part of the RAF and his providers have been not required.

In his glorious e book Spies within the Sky, Taylor Downing wrote that “Cotton laid the foundations for…photograph reconnaissance and photograph interpretation. This was an enormous achievement. However he was completely not the proper individual to steer a navy unit in struggle. The eccentricities that enabled him to rattle the cage of the RAF throughout the phony struggle have been the very traits that made him unsuitable to command….The Air Ministry had been completely proper to dump him after the Battle of France.”  


This function initially appeared within the March 2022 situation of Aviation Historical past. Don’t miss a problem, subscribe!


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