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This week we have comments about three books covering the topic of photo reconnaissance, but books which are nonetheless totally unalike.
Price, Alfred. Targeting the Reich: Allied Photographic Reconnaissance over Europe, 1939-1945. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003
Although it will certainly find its niche, this book proved a disappointment to us, mostly because it wasn't what we expected and it didn't really measure up to Alfred Price's usual standards. After sixteen pages of "The Development of Photographic Reconnaissance, 1939-1945" (and that really means RAF photo recon, plus a couple of asides about the USAAF, but no coverage of other air forces such as the French or Soviet), the remainder of the book comprises nothing more than photos and captions.
Air attack photographs
While not without interest, the photos themselves must carry the entire load, because too many of the captions resemble these: "Above: The attack on the Astra-Romana Refinery." "Right: Post-strike photo of the Astra-Romana refinery, showing extensive damage to the plant." (The "above" photo, by the way, contains some wartime interpreter's markings which are left unmentioned and unexplained.) Now, those keen on the bombing mission against the Astra-Romana refinery will probably be quite pleased to see both photos, and they do make an attractive set along with photos of attacks on Ploesti, the Creditul-Minier refinery, the Steua-Romana refinery, the Colombia-Aquila refinery, etc. However, nothing is said about the actual photo recon missions: nothing about the aircraft, the altitude, the cameras, the mountings, etc. That approach holds true throughout the book, so that this work is not so much about photo reconnaissance as it is about the targets of photo reconnaissance.
Nesbit, Roy Conyers. Eyes of the RAF: A History of Photo-Reconnaissance. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing, 2003
While Dr. Price's book seems like little more than a coffee table treatment of photo reconnaissance, Roy Conyers Nesbit offers a much more traditional text-oriented (albeit liberally illustrated) history of the subject, at least as it applies to the RAF. Compared to Price's sixteen pages of text, Nesbit writes well over 300, of which more than 150 are devoted to the Second World War. That provides far more room to cover more topics in more depth. Here are just the WWII-related chapters:
Sidney Cotton's Air Force
While Nesbit covers much more territory, in the parts where he overlaps with Price their information is not always in full conformity.
Following strong representations from the Air Ministry, Dowding reluctantly agreed to release a couple of Spitfires for modification as reconnaissance aircraft. Two Mark I fighters off the production line were flown to Heston airfield north of London, for the highly secret reconnaissance unit known as the 'Heston Flight'.
And here's Nesbit on the same subject:
...Cotton believed that the commander-in-chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, was so impressed by this result that he agreed to allocate two Spitfire Is to the new unit. In fact these two aircraft, serials N3071 and N3069, did not come from Fighter Command but were delivered to Heston on 30 October from Maintenance Command, by arrangement with Air Vice-Marshal Peck.
This is what Price has to say about the first photo recon mission by a Spitfire over Germany:
On 18 November 'Shorty' Longbottom, now a Flight Lieutenant, flew the first Spitfire reconnaissance mission. His target was the German city of Aachen and the fortifications nearby. As he ran through the target area at 33,000 feet he found the navigation was more difficult than expected, for while taking photographs with the wings horizontal he had no view of the ground below the aircraft. When his films were developed, they showed a strip of ground on the Belgian side of the frontier south of Aachen.
Now compare that to Nesbit's description of the same mission:
Longbottom flew the first sortie in the Spitfire on 18 November, refuelling at Challerton near the Luxembourg border and then flying over the German frontier as far as Aachen. He brought back some excellent pictures from 33,000 feet, although Aachen itself was covered by cloud.
Unfortunately, neither author provides footnotes or a bibliography, so it's impossible to track down the root of these inconsistencies. No matter which author handles those minor issues most accurately, Nesbit scores far more points for his detailed examination of the development of photo reconnaissance and the men and machines involved. He also offers far more explanation of the technical aspects of cameras and using them effectively to take photos from rapidly moving aircraft.
Ivie, Tom. Patton's Eyes in the Sky: USAAF Combat Reconnaissance Missions, North West Europe 1944-45. Crowborough, UK: Classic Publications, 2003
Tom Ivie turns his book about air reconnaissance in an entirely different direction. Although the sub-title in particular makes this sound like a fairly broad survey of the topic, in truth it's strictly a unit history of the USAAF's 10th Photo Reconnaissance Group.
The 10th PRG covered the battlefield on 20 and 21 March and assisted in the Third Army's race to cut off the German escape routes across the Rhine and to close its Rhineland campaign. Patton's forces then stormed and captured the cities of Mainz, Lugwigshafen, and Worms before barricading the Rhine between Worms and Mannheim, ending its fantastic 11 day campaign with a magnificent victory.
Ivie also quotes extensively from letters and diaries written by the 10th PRG's airmen during their tour in Europe, and of course all this is liberally illustrated with photos of men and aircraft along with a few shots of targets (including the Normandy beaches).
Upon learning of the publication of these three titles within a relatively short span of time, it seemed a brilliant idea on our part to conduct a review comparing and contrasting the different views of photo reconnaissance. Little did we know the books would be so different as to mostly defy the original plan! As if photo reconnaissance were not already a specialized niche, these three authors take completely divergent approaches to their books. Dr. Price's book, being little more than photos and captions, indubitably displays some visual appeal, but offers little else. The author has definitely done better work. Tom Ivie's book shows far more signs of tender loving care, and it's easily competitive with the majority of air unit histories such as those from Schiffer. His book suffers simply from being the least illustrious of Classic's exceedingly strong line. Finally, Nesbit's book turns out to be the only one of the three that actually tackles the subject of photo reconnaissance comprehensively. If his book has shortcomings, they are the exclusion of all air forces save the RAF and the "dilution" of the WWII material with so many pre-war and post-war chapters.
Reviewed 31 August 2003
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