Australian who was a pioneer of aerial reconnaissance flew daring
spy flights over Nazi Germany before World War II, but a buccaneering
attitude led to his fall from favour, writes Jeff Watson.
Cotton in 1941.
reconnaissance camera is installed in the fuselage of a
G-AFTL is the aircraft Sidney Cotton used for his reconnaissance
satellites, stealth aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles carry
out aerial espionage, but in 1939 British Intelligence entrusted
a grey-suited Australian businessman to take aerial photographs
of Nazi Germany.
His name was Sidney Cotton and he is today recognised as the father
of photographic reconnaissance. He flew a Lockheed 12A Junior
Electra with cameras concealed in the cabin floor.
aircraft, G-AFTL – now registered as N12 EJ – is still airworthy
and is displayed at the Pearson Museum in Washington.
In the late 1930s, Cotton ran a photographic business and lived
in London. He was a skilled pilot who had flown combat missions
with the Royal Naval Air Service in World War I.
Between the wars, Cotton ran an aerial seal-spotting operation
in Newfoundland and developed a colour film process.
It was in Newfoundland that he took his first aerial photographs
– using his knees to hold the control column and manhandling a
large plate camera over the aircraft’s side.
Cotton counted among his close friends Winston Churchill, James
Bond creator Ian Fleming and Kodak boss George Eastman. He was
on close terms with top-ranking Nazis.
As Cotton had legitimate reasons for going to Germany, the Air
Intelligence branch of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) asked
if he would be prepared to take pictures from the air.
MI6 bought him the Lockheed and had the aircraft modified to
hide cameras in the floor. They were F24 cameras; one faced down
and the other two were at a 45-degree angle.
The cabin was heated and warm air flowed over the camera lenses
so they did not freeze. At 20,000ft the cameras could cover an
area 16km wide.
The hole in the floor was covered with a sliding panel flush
with the aircraft’s skin. A car windscreen wiper motor operated
the panel and a button under the pilot’s seat activated the cameras.
The aircraft also carried in the wings small Leica Reporter cameras
with 250 exposures. Cotton had the Lockheed painted pale blue
so it was all but invisible at altitude.
His secretary, Patricia Martin – now 85 – always accompanied him
to reload the cameras and take pictures using hand-held equipment.
Cotton never flew in a straight line but a flight path that
meandered over important installations such as the Luftwaffe test
Cotton’s cameras took photographs of everything the Germans wished
to hide – munitions factories, airfields, troop concentrations
and anti-aircraft batteries.
On one trip to Berlin, Cotton photographed the naval base at Wilhelmshaven
and even took pictures of Hitler’s personal yacht.
He posed as a businessman, an archaeologist or a film producer
looking for locations for a movie. His most audacious act was
to take Luftwaffe officer Albert Kesselring – who became one
of Hitler’s outstanding commanders – on a flight while taking
Cotton offered to take Kesselring on a flight along the Rhine,
saying he had a maiden aunt who lived there.
After the Lockheed was airborne and Kesselring was at the controls,
Cotton reached under the seat and switched on the hidden cameras,
photographing fortifications and airfields. Kesselring was unaware
the photographs were being taken, nor that there was no maiden
A week before war started, Cotton flew to Berlin on his own initiative
to collect Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering and fly him to England
for talks with the British government.
However, Hitler refused to allow Goering to make the trip. Cotton
was told to return to England and not to divert from his flight
plan or he would be shot down. Cotton claimed the Lockheed was
the last civilian aircraft to leave Berlin before WWII.
Cotton’s work with MI6 led to him being given his own clandestine
photographic unit. He was appointed a squadron leader and empowered
to hire civilians or military members.
The unit quickly became known as Cotton’s Club or, more unkindly,
Cotton’s Crooks. Cotton even had a special badge struck bearing
the initials CC-11 that signified the 11th commandment – “Thou
shalt not be found out”.
The unit was initially equipped with modified Bristol Blenheims,
but they had a mediocre speed and ceiling and were unsuited to
Cotton wheedled two Supermarine Spitfires out of Fighter Command
and had them fitted with cameras instead of guns.
The Spitfires ranged over Germany flying fast and high. The
Photographic Development Unit he commanded later became the Photographic
Reconnaissance Unit, which by war’s end employed more than 5000
pilots, photographers and photographic interpreters.
“We were Sid Cotton’s air force. An elite secret unit,” Jack Eggleston,
a former RAF photographer, said.
“The thing I liked about Sid Cotton was that I didn’t have to
salute him.” According to Group Captain Frederick Winterbotham,
the spymaster who hired Cotton and helped him pioneer new techniques
in aerial photography, there were three things in Cotton’s life:
flying, money and women.
He was, said others, a maverick and a buccaneer who was unsuitable
for employment in a uniformed service.
Before France fell, Cotton was ordered to fly the Lockheed to
Paris to evacuate British agents and secret papers. When he arrived
he found many Frenchmen were trying to escape to England. Among
them was Marcel Boussac, the boss of the Christian Dior garment
and perfume empire.
Boussac was carrying a briefcase full of thousand franc notes,
so Cotton agreed to fly him to England – at a price. This was
too much for the Air Ministry and Cotton was relieved of his command.
He received a letter from the Air Ministry thanking him for the
“great gifts of imagination and inventive thought which he had
brought to bear on the development of aerial photography”. He
was also awarded the Order of the British Empire.
After WWII, Cotton dabbled in oil exploration, civil engineering
and ran guns into the Indian state of Hyderabad using second-hand
The latter venture was said to have made him a millionaire but
he died in England in 1969 penniless. The only monument to the
amazing Cotton is a small metal plaque on his grave at Tallegalla
cemetery near Brisbane.
Jeff Watson has produced an ABC TV documentary and a book – both
titled The Last Plane Out of Berlin – on Sidney Cotton. The book
is published by Hodder Headline and costs $20.