Constance Babington Smith made the first identification from a photograph of a German V1 flying bomb at Peenemünde in 1943; as a result, the RAF carried out raids which reduced the damage done to Britain by Germany’s new airborne weapons.
She was working as a photographic interpreter in the Allied Photographic Intelligence Unit, and in April 1943 had been briefed by the Air Ministry to be on the look-out for a long-range gun, remotely controlled rocket aircraft and “some sort of tube out of which a rocket could be squirted”.
Peenemünde was the site of a German research station on the Baltic. Allied photographic reconnaissance from the air had indicated unusual activities there, possibly the construction of earthworks for testing rockets. In June 1943, one of Constance Babington Smith’s fellow interpreters, André Kenny, made the first identification of two V2 long range rockets lying horizontally on road vehicles at Peenemünde.
At the same time, Constance Babington Smith was briefed to look out for “anything queer”. Examining a photograph taken on June 23 she spotted “four little tail-less aeroplanes taking the air” which “looked queer enough to satisfy anybody”. What she had seen, it turned out, were four Me 163 liquid rocket fighters. But V2 long range rockets were identified from photographs of Peenemünde for the first time that month.
On November 13 1943, she was asked to look out for aircraft at Peenemünde which might be pilotless. Her search was under way when on November 28 a de Havilland Mosquito, piloted by Squadron Leader John Merifield returned with a sensational photograph.
As Flight Officer Constance Babington Smith studied it through her stereoscope, she identified a ramp holding a tiny cruciform shape on rails. Her discovery, together with the subsequent examination of many thousands of photographs of other possible launch sites and storage depots, indicated that a flying bomb offensive was being prepared on the other side of the Channel.
The bombing of the launch sites was given urgent priority, under the codename “Crossbow”. Constance Babington Smith had the task of providing photographic material to assist targeting by Bomber Command and its Pathfinder Force, and at the end of 1943 Allied air forces flattened launch sites in France.