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 1 N3200 Spitfire, 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.

This spotlight exhibition has been made possible thanks to a number of private owners who have loaned their aircraft to IWM for the duration of the exhibit.

Accompanying events and activities

In the Cockpit: Spitfire N3200 | New dates added for 2023

Tickets starting at £45 (additional entry ticket to IWM Duxford required)

Sit at the controls of an airworthy combat veteran Spitfire Mark 1. Join one of our expert IWM guides in a unique opportunity to sit inside the cockpit of our airworthy combat veteran Spitfire Mark 1, N3200. Experience how it felt climbing into the pilot’s seat before this very aircraft was flown over Dunkirk with 19 Squadron in 1940. Based at Duxford, the same airfield this aircraft took off from before it was shot down and crash landed on a beach, N3200 has been recovered and restored to become a treasured item in IWM’s collection.

Spies in the Skies Exhibition Tour | Selected dates in January and February

Tickets £12 and must be booked in advance (additional entry ticket to IWM Duxford required)

Join one of IWM’s expert guides for a tour exploring the Spies in the Skies: Second World War Aerial Reconnaissance spotlight exhibition. Go behind the ropes and learn more about aircraft chosen by the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) during the Second World War. Discover the unique story of the Lockheed Electra, modified and flown on clandestine aerial reconnaissance missions over Germany. Get closer to the secretive world of the Westland Lysander and identify Spitfires specifically designed for reconnaissance, including the rare recovered parts of Ft/Lt ‘Sandy’ Gunn’s PRU Supermarine Spitfire Mk.IV AA810.

I-Spy in the Sky – Family Activity | Selected dates in January 2024

Free activity with general admission

A new interactive drop-in activity for families relating to the Winter Exhibition at Duxford, launching early January 2024. Join us to learn all about the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) that goes into making a camera operate. Families take the role of photo investigators in-training, learning about light and the use of lenses as they train for their main mission, making their own pin-hole camera viewer worthy of the reconnaissance unit!