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Sydney Cotton

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Sydney Cotton (1894-1969) was an Australian-born aviation pioneer and adventurer. He developed British Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, originally working for the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) after the Royal Air Force (RAF) initially decided there was no need to take photographs of Germany before the Second World War. He flew weapons into Pakistan and other crisis areas after the war.

Early aviation

Before the war, he was a barnstormer in Queensland, and a Royal Naval Air Service pilot. He developed the Sidcot Flying Suit, and worked in marketing an early color photographic process. [1]

World War II

He wrote a planning document in 1938, "Future Requirement of Photographic Aircraft". calling for what, in the ay, was an extremely high-performance aircraft: possibly with 2 engines with room for more that 2 cameras, a ceiling of at least 34,000 feet, with a top speed of 450 miles per hour and last but not least, a range of 1500 miles. "In principle, the machine should always be faster that the fastest fighters in use" wrote Cotton.[2]

He had formed his own firm, Aircraft Operating Company based at Heston Airfield. Under F.W. Winterbotham, with French support, SIS supported his clandestine photographic operations in 1939, beginning with overflights of Italian colonies in Africa and later over Germany. [3] Landing in Germany , he was introducd to Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe.[4]

Both in technology and operations, he was an innovator in photoreconnaissance. When the RAF's cameras would fail to operate, he solved a freezing problem by directing warm air onto them. By fine-tuning the streamlining of aircraft, including moving to smooth gloss paint, he added 20-30 mph to the speed of his reconnaissance platforms.[1]

Even though the RAF had resisted working with him, it took over the company in September 1939, giving it the cover name of No.2 Camouflage Unit. Cotton was given a commissioned rank of Squadron Leader with the effective rank of Wing Commander. Eventually, the RAF decided he was too independent, with his unit, which did engineering and photointerpretation as well as operations, being called. "Cotton's Circus". On 16 June 1940, he was dismissed as commander. The unit was assigned to Commander-in-Chief Coastal Commander under Wing Commander G W Tuttle.[3] Jones wrote "He had a raw deal, for his contribution was great; and I for one am glad to have known him."

Renamed a reconnaissance unit, it is part of the lineage of the current RAF Tactical Imagery Intelligence Wing (TIW).


  1. 1.0 1.1 Jones, R. V. (1978), The Wizard War: British Scientific Intelligence 1939-1945, Coward, McCann & Geohegan, p. 130
  2. RAF Reconnaissance Aircraft: Part 2, Airrecce: the story of photographic reconnaissance
  3. 3.0 3.1 RAF Reconnaissance Aircraft: Part 1, Airrecce: the story of photographic reconnaissance
  4. Michael Smith (12 June 2000), "MI6 agent's pre-war spy plane is for sale", Telegraph (UK)