German Air Reconnaissance

When Germany was preparing to invade Britain, their military preparations included the production of a series of military/geographical assessments, showing what might be found by those arriving. This material was to be used in a military evaluation of the regions of the British Isles and considered each from the viewpoint of invasion.

The image below is taken from the north side of Perth. The North Inch is on the right with Smeaton’s Bridge, Victoria Bridge, and the Railway Bridge down the river towards the harbour.

The photograph also shows a scheduled passenger aircraft, de Havilland DH.89A, Dragon Rapide G-AFEY owned by Scottish Airways Ltd., Renfrew. Scottish Airways was formed on 12 August 1937 with investment amongst others, from LMS Railway and David MacBrayne, the ferry company. In 1947, the British scheduled airlines were nationalised, and they became part of British European Airways (BEA). The route they operated via Perth (Scone Aerodrome) was Glasgow -Perth – Inverness (Longman) – Wick (Hillhead) – Kirkwall (Wideford) – Lerwick (Sumburgh) (daily except Sunday)

During the war, civil operations came under the control of the Air Ministry, National Air Communications (NAC) based at Whitchurch in Shropshire, England. Camouflage was applied to many NAC aircraft; many had their windows blacked out so passengers could not see things outside they shouldn’t. The carrying of cameras was forbidden.

On 18 March 1940, whilst approaching Kirkwall Airport, Dragon Rapide G-AFEY hit a hill in Wideford, about five miles northwest of the airfield. All six occupants were injured, and the aircraft was damaged beyond repair.

This was not the only surveillance trip the Germans made before World War Two started. The Cambridge Daily News of 4 August 1939 reported:

‘An airship which was sighted off the Kincardineshire and Aberdeen shire coasts yesterday afternoon was identified as the Graf Zeppelin by two aeroplanes of No. 612 Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force, stationed at Dyce, near Aberdeen. The Zeppelin was about 20 miles east of Aberdeenshire and was traveling in a north-easterly direction when it was identified by the two aeroplanes from Dyce. The airship was first seen off Stonehaven travelling slowly in a north-easterly direction.’

The Graf Zeppelin (Deutsche Luftschiff Zeppelin #130 D-LZ 130) was on an ‘espionage trip’ from the 2 to 4 August 1939. It was in the air for over 48 hours and travelled 2,612 miles, the longest trip LZ 130 had made.

The mission of the Graf Zeppelin was to secretly collect information on the British Chain Home radar system. On board was radio-listening and radio transmission location equipment. A radio-measuring spy basket was used to try and determine the wavelengths the British were using. The results turned out to be negative for two reasons, the British radar was switched off and the strong German transmissions disturbed their extremely sensitive receivers making it impossible to investigate the British wavelengths.

Over Aberdeen, they stopped their engines, pretending that they had engine failure, to investigate the strange British Antenna masts. As they drifted westwards over land, they thought they saw (and later reported back to Germany), two Spitfires which they ‘apparently’ photographed. The RAF reports say that Squadron Leader Finlay Crerar in a Miles Magister and his adjutant, Flying Officer A E Robinson in an Avro Anson intercepted the raider. A Flying Officer N S F Davie in a Tiger Moth also took off later to try and get a closer view.

When they returned to Germany, they were told that they could not land because the British had lodged a diplomatic protest over their actions. A British delegation was at the airfield and wanted to inspect the airship. The British were told that due to the weather the airship had landed at another part of the airfield. By the time the British got to LZ 130, the spy crew had been whisked away to a hotel and a search found nothing suspicious on board.

LZ130 flew three more times and was grounded on 1 September 1939 when war broke out. Hermann Göring, the head of the Luftwaffe ordered the last two remaining Zeppelins and an unfinished Zeppelin framework to be scrapped. The metal (Aluminium) was needed for building other aircraft. He also ordered the enormous airship hangars levelled by explosives on 6 May 1940, three years to the day after the airship Hindenburg LZ129 disaster in New Jersey, United States.

Research by Ken Bruce

Image from The David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries. It is a free resource available to all. Permitted for non-commercial use. Short Title View: 119. Perth. Publisher Generalstab des Heeres, (Military High Command). Publisher Location: Berlin Publication Author: Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) (Nazi German Supreme Command of the Armed Forces) Pub Date: 1940Pub Title: Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sea Lion – the Original Nazi German Plan for the Invasion of Great Britain).

LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin in flight (from a postcard) The copyright of this image has expired in the European Union because it was published more than 70 years ago without a public claim of authorship (anonymous or pseudonymous), and no subsequent claim of authorship was made in the 70 years following its first publication.

LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin II at Lowenthal 1938. This image was taken from Flickr’s The Commons. The organization have various reasons for determining that no known copyright restrictions exist, that the copyright is in the public domain because it has expired.