Spies in the Skies, IWM Duxford

Spies in the Skies, IWM Duxford

The Imperial War Museum Duxford’s winter spotlight exhibitions have been very popular in the ‘off-season’ over the last three years. “Spies in the Skies,” focussed on Second World War Photo Reconnaissance and tied in with IWM London’s ‘Spies, Lies and Deception’ exhibition. As well as archive film and photography, ‘Spies on the Skies’ brought together five airworthy examples of aircraft utilised in aerial reconnaissance.

Paul Johnson/Flightline reports. All photography by the author.

The past three years have seen IWM Duxford take advantage of the lack of flying in the winter months to present spotlight exhibitions featuring many privately owned warbirds in the conservation area of the Airspace Hangar. For Winter 2023/24 Duxford tied its exhibition in with Lambeth’s ‘Spies, Lies and Deception’ installation by focusing in on Photo Reconnaissance during the Second World War and its clandestine origins.

Those origins are represented in the exhibition by Fighter Aviation Engineering Ltd’s beautiful Lockheed 12A Electra Junior G-AFTL. This aircraft was operated in the lead up to the Second World War by the Secret Intelligence Service under the guise of the “Aeronautical Research and Sales Corporation” to gather photo intelligence on Germany’s growing military might. After war was declared this group formed the basis of the Royal Air Force’s Photo Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) and was initially called No 1 Photographic Development Unit.

Throughout the war a number of different types were used to gather intelligence on enemy positions and capabilities as well as assessing battle damage. The Aircraft Restoration Company’s beautiful Westland Lysander III was just one of these types. It also played another secretive role supporting the Special Operations Executive flying agents in and out of occupied Europe.

However, the most prolific type in the exhibition is the Supermarine Spitfire. IWM’s own Supermarine Spitfire Ia N3200 was once again present in the exhibition area for its role provide cockpit experiences for visitors and to highlight the starting point for Spitfire development. The first generation of photo reconnaissance Spitfires was showcased by one of IWM’s replica airframe painted in the distinctive pink colours of Spitfire PR.1GR7059. The pink colour was selected to make the unarmed Spitfire more difficult to see during sunrise and sunset. R7059 was the aircraft of Squadron Leader James Morgan who flew photo reconnaissance sorties throughout the was and became commander of 682 Squadron in Italy. Later in the exhibition run, the airframe of Spitfire PR.IV AA810 will be put on show at Duxford. This aircraft is currently under restoration for the Reconnaissance Heritage Flight, part of the National PRU Monument Campaign. It was shot down over Norway in 1942 having been intercepted by the Luftwaffe. Pilot Sandy Gunn bailed out and became a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft III. In 1944 Gunn took part in the Great Escape and was the 68th airman out of the tunnel.

Much more familiar were the pair of Supermarine Spitfire PR.XIs from the Aircraft Restoration Company and the Hangar 11 Collection, PL983 and PL965. Both aircraft are wartime veterans and also interesting post war histories. PL983 took part in a number of air races flown by former ATA pilot Lettice Curtiss. During the Lympne International Race she broke the national 100km closed circuit record averaging 313.07mph. PL965 passed to the Royal Netherlands Air Force after the war for use as an instructional airframe before being placed into a museum in 1960. Since 2004 PL965 has been operated by the Hanagr 11 Collection who have done much to further her originality. She now even sports the wing camera blisters she would have been fitted with for wartime operations.

But perhaps the standout aircraft of the exhibition was Supermarine Spirfire FR.XIVe MV293. MV293 has long been a stalwart of the airshow scene operated by the Fighter Collection and latterly Fighter Aviation Engineering Ltd. This year MV293 has been returned to her original RAF markings she wore when flown in India in 1945. “Spies in the Skies” was the first chance for the public to see the aircraft in its original colours. MV293 also now sports the camera windows and fittings that were fitted to the aircraft for fighter reconnaissance missions. Following service with the RAF MV293 passed to No.8 Squadron of the Royal Indian Air Force.

“Spies in the Skies” runs until 25th February 2024 and is included within normal admission at IWM Duxford.