70 Years On RAF Tornado Jets ‘Recce’ D-Day Beaches

70 years after their forbears swooped to take reconnaissance photos over the D-Day beaches in France, RAF Tornado jets from II (Army Cooperation) Squadron have used today’s technology to emulate their World War II counterparts.

Flying at 400 mph at 20,000 feet over Gold, Juno, Utah and Sword beaches, the two Tornados, from RAF Marham, Norfolk, replicated the images their D-Day counterparts took during the 2 hour sortie.

On D-Day itself, 6th June 1944, a II (AC) Squadron Mustang, piloted by Air Commodore Andrew Geddes, brought back the first pictures of the Normandy landings. Two other squadron aircraft, piloted by Flight Lieutenant R.H.G. Weighill and Flying Officer H.J. Shute, were also over the beaches when the first landing craft touched down. The Squadron flew 36 sorties on D-Day, mainly spotting for the naval bombardment.

Wing Commander Jez Holmes, Officer Commanding II (AC) Squadron, piloted one of the Tornados over France: “After imaging the D-Day beaches from 20,000 ft using the same type of reconnaissance pod that we were flying with in Afghanistan only a fortnight ago, we flew down the beaches at 1,000 ft replicating Air Commodore Geddes’ flight. Whilst the fortifications at Pont Du Hoc and the remains of the Mulberry Harbour are visual reminders of the events of 70 years ago, it is difficult to imagine the apocalyptic vision that he was faced with. Today, the technology that we use has changed, allowing us to fulfil the same missions further, faster and with stand-off and precision.”

In 1944, II (AC) Squadron took images using huge, bulky cameras that were loaded onto the bottom of the aircraft. Then, getting a wide, panoramic image of the beaches took over 30 sorties – in the Tornado today it takes just one. The aircraft is equipped with a modern precision-guided weapons suite and world-class reconnaissance sensors, such as the Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for Tornado – or RAPTOR for short, which takes aerial images and can read the time on the face of Big Ben in London from the Isle of Wight. Full motion video is captured by the Litening III Advanced Targeting Pod.

RAF Marham’s Tactical Imagery Intelligence Wing (TIW) provided pre-mission planning support, as well as downloading and processing the high-resolution digital images.

TIW’s Imagery Analysts are responsible for exploiting imagery collected by RAF aircraft; this imagery is then used to produce intelligence reports which have supported military operations worldwide. TIW personnel are currently deployed in Afghanistan and have supported UK tasks, including the recent flooding in the Thames Valley region.

Wing Commander Mark Smith, Officer Commanding TIW said: “It’s a real honour for our imagery analysts to be able to follow in their predecessors footsteps, who as part of Operation Crossbow were involved in the planning and execution of D-Day 70 years ago. Whilst the technology involved has changed, the basic principles and skills that our Imagery Analysts employ today on operations in Afghanistan would be instantly recognisable to the veterans of D-Day.”

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