16 August 2023
A fascinating collection of aerial photographs taken during World War II is being opened up to the public for the first time by Historic England.
The pictures were taken by the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) Photographic Reconnaissance (PR) units stationed at bases around the country in 1943 and 1944. Over 3,600 black and white images showing England from the air are available to the public for the first time in an online, searchable map. The remarkable collection gives a bird’s-eye view of the impact of war on England, capturing a wide variety of locations and an astonishing level of detail.
The pictures include USAAF airfields, with American bombers and troops playing baseball at a military camp in Devizes, radar equipment installed in the middle of quiet fields in Suffolk and ancient monuments like Cissbury Ring Iron Age hillfort in West Sussex surrounded by anti-tank defences.
Whole towns and large sections of cities are captured in single frames, showing army hospital tents on Marlborough Common in Wiltshire and the impact of bombing on urban areas such as Old Trafford football ground in Salford, Greater Manchester.
When the Photographic Reconnaissance squadrons arrived in England, the crews had to learn British radio procedures and flying regulations. Pilots took photographs during flights over local areas near their bases while gaining the necessary experience to qualify for operations over enemy territory. Flights were also made to test new and repaired aircraft and camera equipment, as well as to carry out photographic assignments.
The USA joined World War II in December 1941, following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. To defeat Germany, the USAAF and the RAF adopted a strategy to destroy enemy infrastructure by bombing targets from the air. Britain’s proximity to occupied Europe made it an ideal base for operations. The first air crews of the USAAF’s VIII Bomber Command - later known as the Eighth Air Force - arrived in Britain in early 1942.
The USAAF established Photographic Reconnaissance (PR) units at airfields in England – like RAF Mount Farm in Oxfordshire and RAF Watton in Norfolk. Each Group consisted of several squadrons, supported by specialist crews that maintained aircraft and cameras, processed films, printed photographs and interpreted the results. Along with the RAF Photographic Reconnaissance units, they provided vital intelligence by photographing cities, factories, shipyards, military facilities, and infrastructure in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The PR units often used specially adapted aircraft with guns and weapons removed to accommodate fixed cameras and additional fuel tanks for long-range missions. Cameras had a range of lenses and focal lengths, so they could capture whole towns and cities in single frames, as well as target specific sites. They were operated by the pilot with a push-button control and had magazines with rolls of plastic film, with the capacity to take scores of frames.
Oblique photographs captured specific targets, while vertical photographs could be overlapped and viewed through stereoscopes to give a three-dimensional view of buildings and landscapes.
Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive, Historic England, said, “Our USAAF Collection records changes taking place in England as a result of the Second World War, as well as capturing fascinating incidental detail, like American troops playing baseball. We are making these images available to the public for the first time online, giving people access to this remarkable collection of historic photographs. They help to highlight the vital role aerial reconnaissance played in the Second World War.”
To explore the Historic England Archive’s USAAF Collection visit https://historicengland.org.uk/usaaf
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