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Monday 24th November 2003

WWII: What the Pilots Saw

As new aerial surveillance pictures of Nazi occupied Europe are released, Mike Thomson catches up with a man who provided invaluable information for allied forces.

Click on PICTURE GALLERY at the bottom of the right-hand column on this page to view enlarged photographs.

83 year-old Squadron leader Peter Fahy didn’t use a gun to shoot the enemy during World War 11, he used a camera.

He was one of scores of RAF pilots who flew regular missions over Nazi occupied Europe taking photographs for military intelligence. Most belong to PRU, the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, which became increasingly busy in the run up to D- Day.

Allied forces needed to know what opposition they were likely to meet on landing but they could not afford to let the Germans, or even their own pilots, guess where the chosen spot would be.

“The aim to mislead the Germans had to be held in mind and so we took photographs of the whole of the enemy coast from Holland right down to Bordeaux," he told me. "All that coast was regularly photographed so that the Germans couldn’t tell where it might be.”

PRU pilots, like the Squadron leader, also flew missions all over Germany and Italy to take photos of bombed cities, important bridges and industrial areas. It was done with massive cameras specially mounted in the cockpits of their Spitfires.

The film would then be rushed back to Britain to be analysed by military experts who could use the photos to assess the success of previous bombing missions. The aerial photos were shot using two cameras which created a 3-D effect. This helped RAF intelligence analysts to evaluate the conditions of bombing targets more easily.

Pictures taken by RAF reconnaissance pilots in operations like these can now be seen by anyone with access to the internet.

Five million of the pictures have been taken from the National Archives in Kew, West London and placed on a website developed by Keele University. The site displays a wide range of aerial pictures, including shots of the D-Day landings and the Auschwitz concentration camp just days after its prisoners were liberated. NOTE: the site is currently experiencing congestion, so if you can't view it initially, return later in the day when the site's capacity will be increased to meet the high level of demand.

The enormous importance of these little known photo missions was emphasised by the famous scientist, RV Jones. Shortly after the war he said: “We might possibly have won the war without enigma but we couldn’t have won it without the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit.”

Squadron Leader, Peter Fahy, remembers, however, that it wasn’t all hard work and no play.

“High altitude flight, especially the loneliness of it, had a kind of magic about it. You could see so much more of the universe. You could actually, if you went up high enough, see the real curvature of the earth. It was wonderful.”

Click on the PHOTO GALLERY link in the right-hand column to see enlarged pictures of Peter Fahy and his work, plus click here to visit the Evidence In Cinema website, set up by Keele University.NOTE: The Evidence In Cinema website will be upgraded later today with further capacity, to cope with the large numbers interested in viewing the recently released photographs. If you can't view the page initially, do try again later in the day or tomorrow.

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