Sue Young Histories

Constance Babington Smith 1912 - 2000

June 15, 2009

Constance Babington Smith 1912 - 2000 MBE FRSL was a British wartime photo ananalyst who first alerted the allies to the threat of German V1 doodlebugs.

Constance Babington Smith was the official biographer of Marjorie Grace Blackie, and she wrote Champion of Homeopathy: the Life of Margery Blackie.

Marjorie Grace Blackie was the Homeopathic physician to Queen Elizabeth II.

Constance Babington Smith gave the second Blackie Memorial Lecture, entitled Margery Blackie - The Woman at the Blackie Foundation on 23rd April 1985.

Today’s imagery analysts can trace their historical roots back to World War II and the contributions of British photo interpreter Flight Officer Constance Babington Smith MBE and others like her.

At the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) Washington, D.C., Navy Yard facility, NGA honored Babington Smith by naming the facility’s Analysis Fusion Cell after her.

Babington Smith was a woman celebrated for her visionary spirit and innovation in the field of aircraft and photographic interpretation and analysis.

During the ceremony, NGA Director retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr. said, “Her work has ensured that this tradecraft will always be an integral part of strategic military planning. Her historic discoveries during World War II helped strengthen partnerships between the Allies and helped open doors for women interested in careers in imagery analysis.

In late spring 1943, Frank Whittle, the inventor of the jet engine, was detailed to the Royal Air Force staff college. The most interesting time of his ensuing “war course”, he told his biographer John Golley, was a visit to the photographic reconnaissance unit (PRU) at Medmenham, Buckinghamshire.

There, in the enemy aircraft interpretation section, he met Constance Babington Smith, who has died aged 87.

In December 1940, Babington Smith, an assistant section officer in the Women’s Auxilary Air Force, had been posted to the PRU. Soon afterwards, she set up the interpretation section. By 1943, she was heading an 11-strong department analysing photographs taken by RAF high  altitude photo reconaissance Mosquitoes and Spitfires - and checking for developments in German secret technology.

Thus, for example, did the unit locate centres of aircraft production for attack by the RAF and the US Army Air Force.

But, on that day in 1943, Babington Smith took Frank Whittle aside to look at photographs taken of the testing station at Peenemünde, on Germany’s Baltic coast. The Germans had flown their first single engined jet aircraft four years earlier. The first British jet had flown in 1941. By March 1943, the first British jet fighter, the twin engined Gloster Meteor, had made its first flight.

The detail that struck Frank Whittle about the pictures that Babington Smith showed him was scorch marks on the Peenemünde runway grass. This demonstrated that the Germans, too, had advanced to a twin engined jet - the Me262 fighter bomber, which, in 1944, began launching limited, but devastating, attacks on USAAF bomber streams. Another picture showed “four little tail less aeroplanes” taking off. These were rocket powered Me163s.

Five months after her meeting with Frank Whittle, came an even more spectacular coup for Babington Smith. On November 28 1943, an RAF Mosquito flew over Peenemünde, and brought back a picture in which she was able to discern what looked like a stunted aircraft on a launching ramp. Thus did she identify a V1 flying bomb being prepared for a test flight. Partly as a result of that discovery, the RAF launched Operation Crossbow, attacking the plants where V1s were manufactured and their launching sites in France.

Inaccurate and unpredictable, the ram jet V1 “doodlebug” nevertheless had a one ton warhead and did psychological, as well as physical, damage. Some 35,000 were made, despite 36,000 tons of allied bombs being dropped on their launch sites during 1944 alone.

The Germans were forced to use mobile launchers, but managed to fire more than 2,500 V1s at London, from sites in the Pas de Calais. When the V1 attacks began in June 1944, they were attacked by RAF Tempests, Spitfires - and Meteor jets.

While this renewal of the blitz, so late in the war, had a devastating effect on morale, without the assault on Peenemünde - at the very limit of RAF bombing range - the factories and the launch sites, it would have been much worse.

Meanwhile, in June 1943, another interpreter in Babington Smith’s unit had made the first identification from aerial photographs of V2 guided ballistic rockets at Peenemünde. In August 1943, the RAF launched its Operation Hydra bombing raid, and set back development on the V2 programme for months.

By May 1944, Babington Smith’s section had identified a V2 preparing for launch. It was part of that process by which the section also itemised and located the new aircraft that the Nazis were struggling to bring into service.

Babington Smith was one of nine children of a senior civil servant, Sir Henry Babington Smith. She was raised at the family home at Chinthurst, near Guildford, and educated by tutors, and in France.

As a privileged young woman, she moved in high society, but she was also drawn in by the aviation craze of the 1930s, and showed her writing talent with articles in Aeroplane magazine between 1937 and

  1. When war broke out, she joined the WAAF.

With victory in Europe, Babington Smith was transferred to the United States, on similar duties for the final stage of the Pacific war. She was awarded the US Legion of Merit, having already been mentioned in dispatches and made an MBE in Britain.

She stayed in America until 1951, working as a researcher on Life magazine.

Back in Britain, her writing career began with Evidence In Camera (1957), on wartime photographic intelligence. A book on test flying was followed by five biographies, including works on the flyer Amy Johnson, her own cousin, the novelist Rose Macaulay, the homeopath Marjorie Grace Blackie and the poet, John Masefield.

She became a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Babington Smith never married, but, in her later years, she fell in love with Greece, joining the Greek Orthodox church at the age of 60. She also helped to establish the Mosquito Memorial Appeal, which acquired a prototype for permanent preservation at St Albans.

Frank Whittle had been impressed by more than Babington Smith’s analytical abilities. There was her perfume, Guerlain’s l’Heure Bleue. She wore it, she explained, to counteract the masculinity of her WAAF uniform. Its effect, he observed, was “air commodore’s ruin”.

Constance Babington Smith, photographic interpreter and author, born October 15 1912; died July 31 2000

The Constance Babington Smith Archive is held at the John Masefield Society.


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