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Operation Crossbow Documentary

Photographs from the National Collection of Aerial Photography - NCAP - are now the subject of a BBC documentary about a top secret Second World War operation.


During Operation Crossbow, the Allies used 3D aerial photography to hunt for Hitler's V Weapons, in the hope their counter-measures would destroy the revolutionary weapons before they could be launched. The V Weapons were made a strategic priority by the German high-command, who believed their technology could help turn the tide of the war. Remarkably this same technology would later be used by NASA to propel the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon.


Ski building at Bois de Huit Rues, Pas de Calais, France.


The documentary, which goes by the same title, features the work of NCAP Curator Allan Williams and his team, whose ongoing research represents the legacy of a top secret WWII photographic interpretation unit that was based at RAF Medmenham in Buckinghamshire. The team continue to catalogue and archive millions of Second World War aerial photographs, part of an internationally significant collection comprising many millions of military intelligence images dating from 1939 to 1989.


Thousands of the photographs uncovered during this research can be viewed on this website. Highlights include:


V Weapon Experimental & Manufacturing Sites V1
Bois Carre Launch Sites
V1 Belhamelin Launch Sites
Heavy Site - Wizernes
Heavy Site - Watten
Heavy Site - Siracourt
Heavy Site - Sottevast
Other images featured in the documentary


A year in the making, Operation Crossbow brings together the Spitfire pilots who flew photographic reconnaissance missions and took the photographs of V-weapon sites, with surviving photographic interpreters, who had to make sense of the jigsaw of information hidden in the tens of millions of aerial photographs that flooded back to RAF Medmenham.


The reconnaissance photographs – which the wartime interpreters viewed in 3D through stereoscopes – are brought to life in the BBC programme by computer graphics, showing how the intelligence unit hunted the V Weapons by looking for clues among the fine details and contours of the enemy landscape.


Wizernes, Pas de Calais, France


Much of the aerial photography featured in the documentary can be searched for free on this website. To search for V Weapon sites camouflaged by the Germans, why not purchase a Website Subscription that provides access to all images on this website at higher resolution.


Speaking about the BBC documentary, NCAP Curator Allan Williams said, “Operation Crossbow is a compelling example of how critical the work of the reconnaissance squadrons and the photographic interpretation unit at RAF Medmenham was to the outcome of the war. The imagery we have found in the archive shows the extent of the search for test and launch sites – which involved taking over 1.2 million aerial photographs – the great efforts made by the Germans to camouflage the sites, and the dramatic response of the Allied air forces when targets were pinpointed.


“Without this photographic intelligence – which was created at remarkable speed – the Germans could have launched potentially devastating attacks on Britain before D-Day that could have easily changed the outcome of the war.”


While NCAP is made up of millions of individual images, only a small percentage have so far been catalogued and digitised. Discovering exactly what each roll of film contains is an ongoing task requiring painstaking detective work. The long term conservation plan for NCAP includes further research and progressive digitisation of the photography for display online, as well as storing, preserving and interpreting the original photography for public accessibility.


Operation Crossbow was first broadcast on Sunday 15 May 2011. It will be repeated on BBC Two at 8pm on Sunday 11 September 2011 and on BBC HD at 11.20pm on Tuesday 13 September 2011. 


11 May 2011