IWM Duxford will shine a spotlight on the vital role of aerial reconnaissance during Second World War
This winter, IWM Duxford opens Spies in the Skies: Second World War Aerial Reconnaissance (27 December 2023 – 25 February 2024), a new spotlight exhibition highlighting the vital role aerial intelligence gathering played in securing the Allied victory in the Second World War.
Through historic aircraft, film and photography, Spies in the Skies will demonstrate how aerial reconnaissance developed and significantly improved over the course of the Second World War. The exhibition will highlight the daring role of the Photo Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) and those tasked with undertaking these highly dangerous but critical missions.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, the RAF initially set out to improve aerial intelligence gathering by modifying existing aircraft. The Supermarine Spitfire, best known for its iconic role in the Battle of Britain, was the first aircraft trialled for this purpose. Spitfires underwent continual modifications throughout the war to increase speed, height and equip them with the required cameras.
The exhibition brings together four historic airworthy Spitfires:
Mk XI PL983 and Mk XI PL965, both in the PRU blue camouflage paint scheme used to disguise the aircraft when flying at height;
a Mk XIV Spitfire, which served in the Royal Indian Air Force, demonstrating how fighter reconnaissance aircraft could be adapted to accommodate cameras; and
IWM’s own Mk I Spitfire N3200, showing the link between the early fighter Spitfires and the development to reconnaissance versions.
A replica Mk I Spitfire, painted in the exact pale pink colour scheme used to camouflage the aircraft at sunrise and sunset, will also be on display.
Visitors will learn how PRU pilots had to battle both the enemy and the elements as they flew deep into hostile territory, often unarmed, unaccompanied and in extreme conditions. The fuselage of Spitfire Mk IV AA810, shot down in 1942 on a mission to capture images of the German battleship Tirpitz, will be on display. The aircraft’s pilot, Flt Lt Alastair “Sandy” Gunn, survived the initial attack but was captured and imprisoned in Stalag Luft III Prisoner of War camp and later executed after participating in the Great Escape. The aircraft was recovered from a peat bog in Norway in 2018 and is currently undergoing a full restoration to make it airworthy again.
The Westland Lysander V9312, the only airworthy British-built example of its kind, which flew over 30 reconnaissance sorties in 1940-41, also features in the exhibition, alongside the Lockheed 12A Electra Junior, a civilian aircraft which was adapted for use by the Secret Intelligence Service in 1939. The Electra was the last British civilian aircraft to leave Berlin before the outbreak of the Second World War and recently returned to the UK skies in 2023 for the first time since 1940, having undergone extensive restoration.
Spies in the Skies: Second World War Aerial Reconnaissance will be open to general admission visitors to IWM Duxford from 27 December 2023, with associated tours and talks taking place throughout the exhibition’s run.