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34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spies in the sky
Spies In The Sky: The Secret Battle for Aerial Intelligence during World War II

This is good stuff. Intelligence work at Bletchley Park and elsewhere has been written about extensively, but this is a comprehensive look at the neglected subject of air photographic intelligence in WW2. Few people realise that the majority of intelligence work lies in working out...
Published on 22 Oct. 2011 by Archie

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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Field mobile units
I found the book very informative and very well presented. The research was clearly extensive. I am surprised by one small, but important omission. The RAF had Mobile Field Photographic Squadrons processing aerial film. Post-war, during National Service, I worked on one such unit - No 4 Mobile Field Photographic Squadron in Germany processing film. It had been operative...
Published on 9 Mar. 2012 by Ted


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34 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spies in the sky, 22 Oct. 2011
Spies In The Sky: The Secret Battle for Aerial Intelligence during World War II

This is good stuff. Intelligence work at Bletchley Park and elsewhere has been written about extensively, but this is a comprehensive look at the neglected subject of air photographic intelligence in WW2. Few people realise that the majority of intelligence work lies in working out the meaning of pictures taken from the sky - however important and complementary are other aspects of intelligence such as the work of agents or code-breakers. The other book (now 50 years old)which gives insights into what was (like code-breaking) a secret subject, is by a WAAF Photographic Intepreter Constance Babbington Smith ("Evidence in camera"). Taylor's book draws fairly extensively on this, but it is more extensive and analytical. For example, I was delighted to find that due regard was paid to the work of Medmenham (and other) landscape modelmakers. I was a National Service modelmaker in the early 1950s and have never found much credit for such 3-dimensional interpretation work in war histories. As a good researcher, Taylor comments on both strengths and weaknesses of reconnaissance (PR) and interpretation (PI). He has worked in some of Babbington Smith's colourful vignettes of the often brave and quirky personalities of pilots and interpreters and in most cases added to them, making it a very good read as well as a tribute in this scholarly, balanced account.

Photographic Intelligence is now vastly important; not only to the armed services, but to us all, as we all come under the increasing surveillance of satellites and drones. This lively and entertaining account of its growth and development is well worth greater publicity.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Utterly superb, 15 Feb. 2012
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I have, for some time, fancied myself as a bit of an expert on things military in general and the 1939-45 air war in particular. Photo-reconnaissance is a favourite subject as I once knew a quiet and unassuming man who had flown the PR Spitfires operationally. Nothing new for me in this book then?

Au contraire! Brilliant read, well written, excellent research, good plates and masses of information that was new to me. Book finished in two days. An excellent page-turner which tells the story and tells it well. Amongst all this great stuff, a few things stand out.

Firstly, the extreme contrast between the British and German PR and PI organisation somewhat mirrors the similar situation between their respective spy organisations (human intelligence). After wobbly starts, the Brits took both disciplines and raised them to heights of professionalism and effectiveness that beggar belief. The Germans simply failed at both. The PR and PI organisation produced consistent results that would have been beyond the wildest dreams of both military and political leaders at the beginning of the war. The stories of the characters who made this happen reads more like a W. E. Johns book than an Ian Fleming.

Secondly, I was struck by the first stirrings of gender equality within the organisation. The author does focus on this aspect, so it's not just a sub-text, but it is nonetheless fascinating and I can't help thinking that the end of the war stifled what we now take for granted for about the next thirty years.

Thirdly, one can't help thinking that the end of the war came as almost a disappointment to the men and women involved in the PR & PI organisation. On one level, it could be argued that they had a comfortable and cushy war, virtually devoid of risk (except the pilots, of course) and the whole thing operated as a sort of exclusive private finishing school. That argument has some validity, but misses the point. The results that Medmenham produced, elevated the art to a science and what they did, they did brilliantly. I feel sure that I too, if I had been in their place, would have viewed the end of the war and the break up their closeted little world with similar misgivings.

I just can't recommend this book highly enough. If I have a criticism, it is niggling and (frankly) rather unfair on the author. I would have liked more information on the aeroplanes; but then I am an aeroplane anorak and this author isn't! I'll just have to wait for the definitive Osprey book on PR Spitfires and Mosquitos.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Spies in the Sky, 26 Feb. 2012
This is an excellent read, thoughtfully written and well researched. A 'can't put down' book if ever I've read one. I thoroughly enjoyed every page.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written and satisfying, 24 July 2013
By 
Heikki Hietala (Klaukkala, Finland) - See all my reviews
Photographic reconnaissance came of age during World War 2. First effectively used during the Great War (photographs of battlefields were used to discover enemy positions and plan for offensive manoeuvers) it was only in the 1930s that the technology provided military planners with the requisite tools for real, far-reaching results.

Spies In The Sky, entertainingly written by Taylor Downing, charts the development of the men and machines that served so well in WW2 and had a significant effect on the battle to defeat the Third Reich. The book is focused on the British effort. This is only fair since the Germans really did not develop photo reconnaissance at all and the Americans were largely happy to watch over the shoulder of the British in this regard.

The chronological record of photo reconnaissance and photo interpretation first sheds light on Sidney Cotton's maverick enterprises in the field of PR. His privately-funded photo equipment and aircraft, as well as his talent in developing the flight and photo techniques necessary, yielded very good results but his headstrong character, and unwillingness to let the military have a say on how PR should be done, led to his being separated from the Air Ministry. Still, he took some of the very last images from Germany just prior to the outbreak of the war and, without his work, PR would not have been as advanced as it was when the war finally erupted.

A large portion of the book is devoted to the unique PI centre of RAF Medmenham and with very good reason. A handful of very talented men and women were installed at the mock-Tudor mansion of Medmenham with a view on the Thames and ample space. That space soon ran out as the process of PI was refined as a three-stage interpretation sequence of images with each stage providing vital output for war planners. With the war in full swing millions of images arrived at Medmenham to be checked and acted upon within a couple of hours of being exposed over enemy territory. The same expansion into hastily-built huts that happened at the code-breaking centre of Bletchley Park occurred at Medmenham too and, at the end of the war, the mansion was surrounded by a rambling collection of buildings housing thousands of people hard at work.

On the technology side the use of the Wild A5 Stereo Plotter and other tools to identify military targets and new weapon development are very well recounted in SITS. It is revelatory to see how skilled operators were able to recognise tiny objects in the images, sometimes shot from 30,000 feet, and provide a coherent description of what the object might be. The hunt for, and identification of, the V1 and V2 launch sites is a case in point (albeit one told many times elsewhere). The dedication of the men and women who spent the war at Medmenham, staring at stereo photos for hours on end, is readily identifiable in the book, and the reader gains an admiration for them.

And, of course, the aircrew too. The men who flew unarmed but highly-tuned Spitfires and Mosquitos into enemy airspace to gain a strip of photos of some part of the landscape were skilled and brave beyond belief. There are heart-rending stories of how PR pilots decided to turn around to make another pass over an important target even as enemy fighters were closing in and how a Mosquito PR op almost went wrong when a Messerschmitt 262 appeared out of nowhere and robbed the Mossie of its only asset - superior speed. Teamwork between the pilot and the navigator saved themselves, the aircraft and the film but the tale of the fight brings you to the edge of your seat.

The book also discusses the organisational problems faced by the PR and PI communities. As is so often the case, no one wanted the PR and PI people when they were still forming the operational readiness they wanted to have but as soon as they delivered success after success everyone wanted a share of the glory. Medmenham was many times threatened with division into Bomber Command PI, Fighter Command PI and American PI sections but the leaders of the base stood firm and resisted all such idiotic turf war initiatives. This enabled Medmenham to keep on processing millions of images through the three-stage identification process and deliver identification results that affected the war throughout its course.

Personal accounts and stories of notable personalities are included in just the right proportion to the big picture which makes this a very enjoyable book to read. Familiar names such a Tony Hill, the low-level oblique image wizard pilot, and Constance Babington Smith (herself an author on PI) and many others are all given credit for their selfless dedication and courage. Anecdotes of funny incidents in the PI community liven up the narrative, which, naturally, is a little grim in the early days of the war.

I have no hesitation in recommending this book to any WW2 aficionado who wants a balanced background book on this often overlooked, but absolutely vital, part of the war effort.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Clear view, 10 May 2012
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Well paced and comprehensively researched, I was impressed by the manner in which Taylor Downing has interwoven so many different aspects of the photographic reconnaissance intelligence picture in such an engaging manner; it is a fascinating read. As with many military authors with a media background, Taylor Downing sometimes mis-comprehends nuances of service life or makes errors in technical detail but overall this book is an excellent contribution to the knowledge of this subject. Most importantly though, the author has brought vividly to life a whole series of people, whose courage and exploits, helped to win the war against the brutal Fascist dictators.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great story, well told, 10 Mar. 2013
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This review is from: Spies In The Sky: The Secret Battle for Aerial Intelligence during World War II (Paperback)
Downing is a fine writer and a diligent researcher who knows how to write popular history without condescending his audience or compromising his material. This no doubt springs from his background as a distinguished documentary maker whose films have included many that have dealt with conflict in the Twentieth Century. This, his latest book, is a fascinating account of photo-reconnaissance in the Second World War that tells the story of the young men who flew unarmed to take the photos, the men and women who interpreted them, the development of the science involved and the huge and largely unacknowledged contribution it made to the allied victory. A great story, very well told.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Read, 29 July 2012
A book for all those that have read about Bletchley park and the enigma code breaking. This details an unsung part of the intelligence gathering of WW2, the collection of aerial photography.

The book covers the use of cameras in planes in WW1 and follows through to the buildup to the war in 1939, and into the war. The pilots of these aircraft flew high, fast and unarmed and were some of the bravest pilots in the airforce.

The assessment side of the operation was streets ahead of the Americans as well, but by the end of the war they had 'borrowed' most of the techniques for their own use.

Well worth a read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars breezy, accessible and engaging, 26 Sept. 2012
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Here's looking (down) at ya kid!, 25 Jun. 2014
By 
John Malcolm (Swindon, Wilts, England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Spies In The Sky: The Secret Battle for Aerial Intelligence during World War II (Paperback)
I really enjoyed this book, and it has rejuvinated my interest in WWII technology and how it developed under the pressures of war. This is an excellent complimentary book to the Bletchly Park/Enigma/Colossus story, but is linked to that side of the war by one man - Dr R V Jones. It outlines the story of how we learned all about photographic reconnaissance (and the intelligence gained from it - as well as how to apply it) during WWI, then forgot almost the whole lot by the time WWII rolled around, and had to learn the lessons all over again - which we did, eventually, and with great aplomb.

A great tribute to all who worked in this field; their long hours, their dedication and intelligence.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating story, 11 July 2015
By 
JRF - See all my reviews
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I suppose most students of WWII would acknowledge that aerial reconnaissance played an important part in the conflict. Just how important can be learned from this very readable account of the origins and development of what was partly a science and partly an art. Focusing (so to speak!) on the contribution of the RAF, the story starts in WWI, progresses through the inter-war years (where many lessons were forgotten) and then gets into its stride for WWII.

Progress was not always smooth, especially in the early stages, but once the requirements has been established photo reconnaissance became a well-oiled machine. There was still plenty of room for eccentric characters, some of whose exploits seem astonishing. Sadly, many were lost sooner or later.

Geographically, the focus (that word again) is on Europe, but the Mediterranean and Middle East get reasonable mentions, with the Far East being covered very briefly.

One point of interest in today's more egalitarian world is the prominent role played by women from the early stages of photo reconaissance.

The only small drawback is that the story ends rather abruptly at the end of WWII, with only a quick comment on the post-war years. A look at what transpired as the Cold War got under way would have been interesting - but that is probably another book.
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