The Woman With the X-Ray Eyes

The Woman With the X-Ray Eyes

Posted on May 29 by Elinor Florence in Events
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When I was researching my novel Bird’s Eye View, about an aerial photographic interpreter in World War Two, the woman who made the most impact on me was the brilliant, beautiful Constance Babington Smith.

It was she who found, on an aerial photograph, the very first V-1 flying bomb. Her discovery set back the Nazi plans to annihilate Britain with the first jet-propelled weapon of mass destruction in history. Today, we call them cruise missiles.

On May 27, 2015, the U.S National Geospatial Agency inducted Constance into the Geospatial Intelligence Hall of Fame. She is the first Commonwealth partner to be given this high honour. The NGA credits her "..Expertise and methodology [which] significantly influenced American interpretative processes." 

She joins a group of trailblazers in the United States’ highly technical, complex and analytical world of geospatial intelligence.

Constance was born on October 15, 1912 into the British upper class, brought up in a stately mansion and educated by tutors (I’m picturing Downton Abbey here).

During the 1930s, she led a busy social life in London and the stage was set for a life of idle luxury. Instead she began writing for Aeroplane magazine and when war broke out in 1939, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

She was soon promoted to Section Officer, and asked to set up an aircraft interpretation section for the Royal Air Force's photographic reconnaissance unit. It was located in a mansion on the Thames River called RAF Medmenham, the setting for my novel, pictured on the back cover of Bird’s Eye View.

(Now a luxury hotel called Danesfield House, it was also the venue for George and Amal Clooney’s recent wedding reception.)

Aerial photos were taken in pairs, a split second apart. When the two photos were placed under a stereoscope – a device that looked like a pair of spectacles with legs -- the interpreter could see the image in three dimensions.

Constance was one of several hundred interpreters at RAF Medmenham, more than half of them women. Women proved to be particularly good at the exhaustive process of searching for tiny details. With only black and white photos to work with, they soon learned to distinguish fifty shades of gray!

In 1943, their attention was drawn to a place called Peenemünde on the northern coast of Germany. Spies had noted some unusual activity, and the interpreters were ordered to search for “anything queer.”

After combing through thousands of photos, Constance discovered a launching ramp holding a tiny cruciform shape like a stunted aircraft. It was a jet-propelled V-1 flying bomb – the first time anyone had seen this new mysterious weapon.

Allied bombers wiped out the station at Peenemunde, but Hitler didn’t give up that easily. He was convinced that his secret weapons (known in German as “Vergeltungswaffen” or “Revenge” weapons, V-weapons for short) would win the war.

The V-weapons were moved into a cavern in Austria, hidden from aerial cameras. In June 1944, the V-1s (also known as doodlebugs or buzz bombs) began to fall on London. Three months later, the first jet-propelled rockets known as V-2s also began to land on the unfortunate British civilians.

However, the V-weapon offensive never reached its full potential, thanks to Constance Babington Smith. As the Allies advanced, the Germans were forced back and the V-weapons were abandoned.

 

Constance was awarded an MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). She was transferred to the United States and performed photo interpretation during the final stages of the Pacific war. There she was awarded the U.S. Legion of Merit.

Constance remained in America for several years and worked for Life magazine, then returned to settle in Cambridge. She never married, but pursued a prolific writing career.

In 1956 she wrote her own account of her life at RAF Medmenham called Evidence in Camera, a book that was invaluable during my own research.

Constance Babington Smith died in 2000 at the age of 87. Like many women of her generation, she remained modest about her own part in the Allied victory – but to me, she will always be a heroine.

 

To learn more about this fascinating woman, read my blog Wartime Wednesdays here: www.elinorflorence.com/blog/babington-smith.

Or to find out more about the fascinating discoveries made by the photo interpreters at RAF Medmenham, read my fact-based novel Bird’s Eye View.

Elinor Florence

Posted by Kendra on December 6, 2014
Elinor Florence photo

Elinor Florence

Elinor Florence is an author and journalist. Before publishing her bestselling novel, Bird’s Eye View, she edited several daily newspapers and wrote for many publications, including Reader’s Digest Canada. Elinor lives in Invermere, British Columbia.