One of the myths about Intelligence analysis is that it is best done by lone geeks who labour away in darkened rooms. The truth, much more excitingly, is that huge leaps in analytical understanding often take places at a collision between two different sorts of expertise. Last week I came across an excellent example when I read of a meeting between two heroes of mine. Here’s the story of their joint analysis, an important piece of work and the stuff of legends.
Constance Babington Smith was a remarkable character. She wrote of her experience as a photographic intelligence analyst in “Evidence in Camera” published in 1958. She tells the story of the RAF Photographic Unit (PRU), its brave pilots who flew unarmed high-speed planes over targets in Nazi held Europe to provide the raw material for her and her colleagues to analyse and produce insights about the enemy’s activities.
Using rudimentary optical tools, the PRU analysts pored over the photos taken by the pilots in their Spitfires, interpreting objects and activities on the ground.
The picture below is not of an enemy unit but is strangely thrilling and demonstrates the skill of the pilots and their role. Taken by a Spitfire pilot at about 40ft probably travelling at 400mph, somewhere over France, you can see and sense the feeling of the French civilians just below as they wave in delight at the aircraft roaring over their heads.
Some of the German weapon systems they observed were innovative and their shapes were not intuitive to interpret. For example, a radar system looked like an upright bed stead, and a rocket plane appeared to have no tail and looked like a butterfly. Constance Babington Smith famously was able to interpret V-1 and V-2 weapon launch sites. But this story is about another weapon system and her interaction with another hero.
Frank Whittle was a remarkable and perhaps somewhat flawed man. He conceived and developed the first effective jet engines, albeit his ideas were copied and fielded as operational units by the Germans before his aircraft took the skies at the end of WW2. Like many geniuses, he was largely self-taught and a difficult man to work with, perhaps. I’ve just finished reading a biography of the man, by Duncan Campbell-Smith.
The book touches on one of the causes of Whittle’s difficulties, and it is surprising. It is clear that he was addicted to Benzedrine, an amphetamine. This can make one paranoid and seems (to me) to explain Whittle distrust of authorities and other organisations. We don’t think of the 1940s as a time when amphetamine addiction was common but the nature and culture of war and the RAF at the time seemed to make it acceptable. Certainly Whittle’s poor mental health (he was frequently hospitalized) wasn’t helped at all by his addiction which he seems not to have mentioned to his medical advisers.
Anyway, to the synergy between these two characters. Babington Smith, a fairly junior WAAF officer was certainly aware of Whittle, by then a Group Captain – she maintained a great interest in aviation pioneers and wrote books on the subject after the war. At one point Group Captain Whittle visited the PRU at RAF Medmenham, in 1944, and she was able to take him to one side and ask him his opinions about some strange things she had seen on photos of a Luftwaffe test airfield. She had seen twin dark lines weaving around parts of the grass airfield and was suspicious of them. Whittle at the time was developing a twin engine jet fighter, Britain’s first and immediately was able to advise on what caused it. Whittle’s genius had enabled his Meteor jet to have a quite different configuration to a normal plane, with the nose down and tail up when taxi-ing. But he immediately recognised the twin dark marks as scorch marks made by a twin engine aircraft on a traditionally wheeled aircraft with the tail down, the wings tilted necessarily, and so the exhaust from the twin engines was burning the grass. Whittle was able to advise, from the size of the burn marks the size and power of the engines on what was to become known as the Me-262 and make assessments even of its likely performance from these scorch marks alone. He even predicted a change in undercarriage configuration and eventually the Me-262 indeed entered service with the wings and engines parallel with the ground while taxi-ing.
So here we have an expert intelligence analyst, recognising something unusual and knowing enough to ask an expert in a different technology for their opinion. By such synergies wars are won.
There is a charming postscript to this story. It seems there was quite a personal rapport between the two (they met in the USA after the war too). But on his return from Medmenham, Whittle inquired, through official channels, no less, as to what the perfume that Constance Babington Smith wore. She replied. Through official channels that it was Guerlain’s “L’Huere Bleue” which she used “in quantity” to counter the masculine nature of her uniform. It seems it overpowered the Group Captain.
By such stories legends are born, and by such synergy between expertise and knowledge, by sharing and cross examining the best intelligence analysis can be achieved. The perfume perhaps helped.