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RAF Reconnaissance

Ross Mahoney and Emmett Sullivan consider exactly how good the RAF were at photographing things from the air during the Cold War.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now one feature of the RAF’s activities for NATO and throughout the Cold War period is the importance of photo reconnaissance. This is something that the RAF to a certain degree perfected, so to speak, in the Second World War. But the aircraft behind us, a photo reconnaissance version of the Canberra bomber, stayed in service for many decades. It proved such a good platform for providing that sort of intelligence. So particularly in the 1950s, Ross, the RAF actually proved to be rather good at gaining photo reconnaissance of the Soviet Union and its European satellites.
ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah. The introduction of the Canberra behind us in the early 1950s improved the RAF’s photographic reconnaissance capability. And it conducts operations gaining intelligence against the Soviet Union and its allies. But of course, it’s not just limited to photographic intelligence. We also see the RAF develop other capabilities, especially in the realm of electronic and signals intelligence. And we see aircraft such as the Comet and eventually the Nimrod R1 taking on the gathering of these intelligence sources in order to work out what the Soviet Union is doing both in terms of overflights with regards to ICBM sites, but also operations in Eastern Europe. And you know, there’s also operations in the corridors to Berlin.
The RAF’s communications squadron in West Germany is conducting intelligence operations along the corridor to try and work out new deployments, new weapon systems, and gain intelligence in that way. But of course, it’s the Canberra that we recognise as the major intelligence gatherer, or being the iconic aircraft of the major intelligence-gathering operations.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Indeed. And through the Cold War period, and particularly the earlier Cold War period, we were quite happy to help our American cousins.
ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah. In the 1950s, the RAF on various occasions helped out the Americans in terms of their intelligence operations against the Soviet Union. In the early 1950s, there was a special duties flight formed of RB-45 Tornadoes, American reconnaissance aircraft, for overflights over the Soviet Union, especially, again, to gather intelligence on nuclear weapons. And then, of course, again later on in the 1950s and early 1960s, there are examples of RAF pilots manning U-2 spy planes. Much of this is curtailed in the 1960s primarily because of the increasing effectiveness of Soviet anti-aircraft defences. But yes, at various points when it’s politically difficult for the Americans to do it, the British often do it.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Now I understand that you mentioned in terms of Soviet air defences, clearly from the late ’50s, early 60s the position changes. But the Canberra remains in service for well into the 21st century. And you know, it’s repeatedly proved its worth in the field of photo reconnaissance.
ROSS MAHONEY: Yeah, the final version of the Canberra to leave service is a photo reconnaissance version, leave service in the mid-2000s. And yeah, it’s an aircraft that has a degree of longevity. One of the reasons the Americans are quite keen on it both in terms of the interdictor is its proven ability. In the 1950s, one of its great advantages was its height. It could fly– it had a very high ceiling rate. Of course, that does change as the Soviet anti-aircraft defences change. But the fact that we’re still operating these aircraft after 50 years shows the versatility of the design but also its effectiveness in that photographic reconnaissance role.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: OK. Thank you very much, Ross. And in the next section of this week, we’re going to deal with another type of reconnaissance, in this case maritime surveillance.

Photography from the air.

In this video we cover the following:

  1. The RAF proved rather good at photo reconnaissance over the USSR and its European satellites in the 1950s
  2. We were also happy to help out our American cousins
  3. While the picture starts to change in the late 1950s, the Canberra proved its worth repeatedly in the field of photo reconnaissance.

We would also like to hear your thoughts as well. Please comment below.

This section shall consider the RAF’s role in photo reconnaissance and the importance that such intelligence had during the Cold War, and in assessing the threat the RAF had to defend against.

What were the reconnaissance missions trying to achieve? Firstly, the Americans were trying to prevent another surprise attack like that of Pearl Harbour in 1941, and so regarded reconnaissance and intelligence extremely highly. Locations of ICBM sites and the movements of forces across Eastern Europe was information highly sought after. Obtaining reliable information however about the enemy or its military capabilities was difficult. Throughout the 1950s, the RAF aided the United States with their reconnaissance missions.


English Electric Canberra

  • Throughout the 1950s, the Canberra was the highest flying bomber and was relatively fast enough to theoretically avoid all close contact combat.
  • Although later aircraft, such as the Vickers Valiant, replaced its role as a strategic bomber, the Canberra remained a crucial aircraft in reconnaissance missions.

Nimrod R1

  • The Nimrod R1 had a highly sophisticated and sensitive suite of systems used for reconnaissance and gathering electronic intelligence.
  • Emphasis was placed on real-time intelligence sharing between allies.
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From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

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