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Duration: 1 hour

The heroic tales of World War II are legendary, but Operation Crossbow is a little known story that deserves to join the hall of fame: how the Allies used 3D photos to thwart the Nazis' weapons of mass destruction before they could obliterate Britain.

This film brings together the heroic Spitfire pilots who took the photographs and the brilliant minds of RAF Medmenham that made sense of the jigsaw of clues hidden in the photos. Hitler was pumping a fortune into his new-fangled V weapons in the hope they could win him the war. But Medmenham had a secret weapon of its own, a simple stereoscope which brought to life every contour of the enemy landscape in perfect 3D.

The devil was truly in the detail and, together with extraordinary personal testimonies, the film uses modern computer graphics on the original wartime photographs to show just how the photo interpreters were able to uncover Hitler's nastiest secrets.

Last on

Tue 22 Apr 2014 22:50 BBC Four

  • Former reconnaissance Spitfire pilot

    Former reconnaissance Spitfire pilot

    Former reconnaissance pilot Jimmy Taylor with a characteristic blue Mark XI Spitfire like the one he flew during WW2

  • The National Collection of Aerial Photography

    The National Collection of Aerial Photography

    Much of the aerial photography featured in Operation Crossbow was discovered through the research of Allan Williams, Curator of The National Collection of Aerial Photography, part of RCAHMS (Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland). Based in Edinburgh, the Collection is one of world’s largest and most significant archives of historical aerial photography. Holding more than ten million declassified reconnaissance images taken by the RAF and the US Air Force during the Second World War, it provides a unique perspective on key moments in world history. Thousands of aerial photographs uncovered during this research, including many featured in the documentary, are available to view on The National Collection of Aerial Photography website.

    One of the most common applications of the imagery today is for location of unexploded bombs in mainland Europe – in particular Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, and Italy - where they remain a danger to construction work. The Collection is increasingly used by people with an interest in tracing where their relatives were involved in and affected by military action.

    The Collection is a living memorial to the military personnel involved, in particular to the many reconnaissance pilots and aircrew who lost their lives.

    Pictured: Major Chris Halsall and Wing Commander Mike Mockford examine some of the aerial photographs held in the collection using stereoscopes, the same method used by the Interpreters at RAF Medmenham.

    Visit The National Collection of Aerial Photography website
  • Aerial photograph of a German bunker revealed in 3D

    Aerial photograph of a German bunker revealed in 3D

    This is an image of a German bunker at Wizernes in France, known at RAF Medmenham as one of the ‘heavy sites’. A result of some particularly heroic aerial photography by one of the Spitfire pilots, the original image would have been taken whilst flying directly into the quarry and pulling up almost at the last second to capture the site in amazing, close up detail.

  • Can you find the hidden V1 rocket launch ramp?

    Can you find the hidden V1 rocket launch ramp?

    This is an aerial photograph of a sugar factory in Holland, which has been enhanced using 3D graphics. The Germans started to find less conspicuous launch areas for their V weapons to avoid detection and allied bombing raids. Using artful camouflage amongst these factory buildings this site could have gone unnoticed, were it not for the eagle-eyed Medmenham Interpreters spotting the damage to the roof and ground under the rocket flight path. But can you find the ramp, cleverly hidden alongside the main building?
    We'll give you a clue - it’s almost exactly in line with the damage on the roof…

    Watch this clip to reveal the answer!
  • BBC News Magazine - How 3D glasses helped defeat Hitler

    Find out how Operation Crossbow used 3D to thwart Hitler's deadly V-1 and V-2 rockets
  • RAF Medmenham on the BBC History site

    RAF Medmenham on the BBC History site

    Find out more about the history of RAF Medmenham and the vital role it played in the Allied victory.

    BBC History - RAF Medmenham
  • Hitler's V-weapons on the BBC History site

    Hitler's V-weapons on the BBC History site

    Find out more about the deadly 'Vengeance Weapons' and how they could have altered the course of World War Two.

    BBC History - Hitler's V weapons
  • The women of RAF Medmenham

    The women of RAF Medmenham

    Christine Halsall is the Biographer of the Medmenham Collection; she is currently writing a book about the role of women at Medmenham entitled Women of Intelligence, to be published by The History Press in May 2012.

    “RAF Medmenham was the headquarters of wartime Photographic Intelligence, and one of the first truly joint service units where Army, Navy and Air Force personnel, both men and women, from Britain and the Allied countries worked together to provide Intelligence from air photography. By the end of the war, more than half of the total workforce at Medmenham were women serving with the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS), the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and the US Women’s Army Corps (WAC). Although men and women were interchangeable on a one-to-one basis, women only received two thirds of a man's pay - a practice universal throughout the women's services, just as it was in civilian employment at that time.

    The women Photographic Interpreters (PIs) came from diverse backgrounds - artists, geographers, archaeologists and historians - were among those recruited and they used their skills of analysis and deduction to produce secret intelligence reports on every aspect of enemy activity. These were used in the planning of all future Allied operations. Women PIs worked on an equal footing with their male counterparts at RAF Medmenham - some headed specialist sections with men and women from different services and countries responsible to them. Whoever was most capable to do a particular job, whether male or female, got the job. As one woman PI said, " I was never aware of a glass ceiling at Medmenham". Both the first ever woman professor to be appointed at either Cambridge or Oxford Universities and a daughter of the Prime Minister were PIs at RAF Medmenham.

    The photographic processing and plotting sections and the libraries were all largely staffed by women, in addition to the communications and clerical services.”

    Pictured: Myra Collyer

Credits

Narrator
Samantha Bond
Executive Producer
Eamon Hardy
Producer
Tim Dunn
Director
Tim Dunn

Broadcasts

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