Monday, September 24, 2012

Review of Spies in the Sky by Taylor Downing (Little Brown, 2011)

Whilst intelligence gleamed from spies on the ground in the form of resistance, double and SOE agents, and spies in the ether in the form of signal intercepts and their decryption, has received quite a bit of attention in recent years, the role of aerial photography and its interpretation during the Second World War has been relatively understudied.  Downing’s book goes some way towards to filling the gap by providing an overview of British and American air photo reconnaissance and interpretation, focusing in particular on the RAF Medmenham at Danesfield House, sited to the west of London on the Thames.  The book provides an initial, sketchy overview of the early development of aerial photography and its uses during the First World War, before detailing a more in-depth history of aerial photography in the immediate run-up to the Second World War (very underdeveloped and promoted by private interests not the military) and during the war itself.  Within a year of the war starting aerial photography was being routinely used by the British, with over a million photos a month being processed and analysed in Medmenham.  Every port in Europe was being photographed at least once a week, and aerial photography and physical models developed from them were used to brief troops ahead of every major battle and campaign.  The photographic programme led to many important success stories, such as the neutralisation of the Italian navy in the Mediterranean and the starving of resources to Axis troops in North Africa, the sinking of key German battleships, the identification and destruction of German secret weapon development and launch sites, and the Normandy landings.  The techniques and processes developed in Medmenham were replicated in other locations, notably in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and South Asia.

Spies in the Sky provides a popular history overview, written in a breezy, accessible and engaging style.  The narrative does suffer from some over-generalisations and assertions, for example, that a new science was developed at Medmenham, that of photogrammatery and military photo interpretation, which is not the case (though some new technical developments were achieved), and sometimes the pace is a little too fast.  It would have been nice to have a bit more technical detail at times, also some more biographical details of some of the key players and the political machinations they were caught up in, and more information of aerial intelligence in other arenas.  That said, this book is aimed at wide, generalist audience, rather than the specialist.  And in fulfilling that brief, the book succeeds admirably.  It certainly makes a strong case that aerial intelligence played a very important, but unappreciated role, in the Allies strategising and execution of war plans.

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