Photographs recently released by the British government show how a team of RAF analysts during World War II helped to disrupt German plans to bomb England. The analysts achieved this by using 3D glasses similar to those used in modern movie theaters. After the Battle of Britain, when Hitler shifted his offensive fighter resources toward the invasion of the Soviet Union, southern England was harassed by deadly V-1 and V-2 missiles that inflicted a great deal of random damage to life and property.
The impact of these unmanned weapons of mass destruction would have been even more devastating - costing thousands more lives, lengthening the war and threatening the D-Day landings - were it not for the fact that British intelligence worked in three dimensions. One of the RAF’s most significant successes came with Operation Crossbow. During the course of this operation, the RAF identified and destroyed many of the missile sites that could have prolonged the war. The RAF did this by photographing the landscape of occupied Europe in a way that allowed analysts assigned to the facility at RAF Medmenham in Buckinghamshire to study every detail. Their secret weapon used by the RAF was a simple stereoscope – an updated version the old fashioned Victorian invention which brought the enemy landscape to life in 3D.
It is estimated that the RAF pilots who served in the Photographic Reconnaissance unit, created in 1940, took tens of millions of photographs, generating 36 million prints. In order to render the images in 3D, the photographic images had to be captured in carefully-plotted sequences that which would overlap each other by 60% so details would stand up when viewed through the stereoscope. The project’s breakthrough moment came with Operation Crossbow in 1942; an RAF Spitfire flying over Peenemunde in north-eastern Germany spotted an airfield with three circular concrete structures.
Initially, the analysts studying the photos thought nothing of the images until separate intelligence gathered by the British uncovered information about an experimental rocket facility located in that area. British reconnaissance aircraft were ordered to search for evidence of the missile site referred to in the intelligence information. Using 3D technology, an RAF analyst managed to spot an upright tube in one of the circles at Peenemunde, Germany. Based on the calculations of the shadow, the analyst determined that it was a rocket some 14m high.
On 17 and 18 August 1943, 500 RAF bombers set off to destroy Peenemunde and other rocket sites identified in occupied France. The bombing disrupted the German V-2 program and killed several senior German scientists. The bombardment was effective but it was not enough to halt the missile program altogether. The Germans moved their launch sites to other areas in Poland and occupied Europe, presenting further challenges to the RAF to identify and destroy the sites.
The last V-1 landed in England on September 7, 1944. The next day, however, the first V-2 crashed in Chiswick, west London. Because it was silent, offering no warning, there was no defense against it.
Since the V-2 was mobile, bombers directed by RAF Medmenham attacked the supporting infrastructure such as roads and railways. In the end, the advancing allied armies over-ran the launch sites. By the time they were finally halted, the V-weapons had claimed some 9,000 lives - but it could have been many more. The Germans planned to launch up to 2,000 V-1s every day and, had they been successful, the path of the war could have been altered.
It was the RAF’s reliance on a simple tool - a Victorian era invention designed to entertain in the drawing rooms of the wealthy – that ultimately helped to disrupt the German war efforts. The photographic technology used by the British helped bring the landscape to life and the resulting elimination of the Nazi rocket sites prevented devastating attacks on England that might have delayed plans for the D-Day invasion in June 1944 and, perhaps, changed the entire course of the war.