Photographic Reconnaissance Unit: National Memorial — [Philip Davies in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 9th November 2021.

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Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley 9:30 am, 9th November 2021

Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when not speaking in the debate, in line with guidance from the House of Commons Commission. I also remind Members that they are asked by the House to take a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming onto the Parliamentary estate, which can be done either at the testing centre or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering or leaving the room.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Conservative, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered a national memorial to the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I have a confession to make today: until seeking this debate, I knew little to nothing about the Royal Air Force’s Photographic Reconnaissance Unit. I knew little to nothing about the heroism, the bravery, and the contribution of the men who flew in the PRU and can quite legitimately claim to have turned the tide of that war against evil in Europe between 1939 and 1945.

I was—I admit this now that the debate has been granted and we are all gathered here today—doing a friend a favour. Luke Graham, the former MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, first sought a debate on this campaign for a national memorial to the PRU back in 2019. Sadly, in December of that year he ceased to be the MP for that constituency. When asked if I would carry the baton forward and continue this campaign in Parliament, I heartily agreed.

To be clear, I do fully believe in this campaign. I fully believe that the PRU deserves a national memorial. However, this campaign only became real to me yesterday when, by chance, following a phone call to my office from a Mr Menzies of Conon Bridge in the highlands Scotland, who had read an article on this debate in the Sunday Express, I was put in touch with Mr George Pritchard of Northampton—one of four living veterans of the PRU still with us .

Photo of Andrew Lewer Andrew Lewer Conservative, Northampton South

I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend’s peroration so early; I am sure it will be excellent. However, I did not want to allow the opportunity to go by without expressing my gratitude to my hon. Friend for his reference to George Pritchard, who is a resident of Duston in my constituency of Northampton South. At a magnificent 97 years old, he is a lively, active, living tribute to the outstanding work that he and his fellow PRU personnel undertook in defence of our freedom. This early intervention is my opportunity to say that my hon. Friend’s campaign has my full support.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Conservative, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I heartily agree. It was in speaking with George yesterday who, as my hon. Friend says, at 97 remains as sharp as a tack and very much on the ball, that this campaign was really brought home to me. George flew Mosquitoes over enemy lines to gather crucial intelligence for the allies, and he made clear to me just how important this campaign is. There will come a time, which is sadly fast approaching, when there will be no veterans of that great conflict left with us. Therefore it lies with us—we who are free to stand in this Parliament today, in this country, on this continent, because of the actions of men like George—to commemorate and remember them.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate today, and in this week of all weeks, when the nation will fall silent as we remember all those who fought and did not return; those who did give their tomorrow for our today, 378 of whom flew with the PRU and 143 of whom lie with no grave. They really were the few.

Early in the morning of 5 March 1942, 22-year-old Alastair “Sandy” Gunn of Auchterarder in Perthshire climbed into his Spitfire AA810 at RAF Wick, taking off into the cool, blue dawn with one instruction: to get eyes on the Tirpitz. The Tirpitz was the sister ship of the Bismarck. She had escaped unscathed from an RAF bombing raid on Wilhelmshaven where she lay in build and, since evading the Royal Navy, local intelligence and RAF aerial searches for months, the pride of the German fleet had been seen in Trondheim harbour.

It was a beautiful late winter morning—one of those seen only over the North sea—giving Sandy no cloud cover whatsoever. Not that that mattered very much, because the Luftwaffe, from their listening station in Kristiansund, had scrambled two Messerschmitts. As with all photographic reconnaissance aircraft, Sandy’s Spitfire was stripped of guns and plating, which were replaced with cameras and enough fuel for long-range missions. Hon. Members will agree that that takes incredible bravery—to fly those most dangerous of missions, over enemy lines, with no armaments whatsoever with which to defend oneself. Diving down, the Messerschmitt found Sandy’s oil system but, as it closed in, blinded by spray, could not hold course and broke away. The second Messerschmitt, pressing home the attack, sprayed its 20 mm cannon into Sandy’s wing, bursting a fuel tank. The Spitfire was on fire, falling fast.

Sandy ejected, and parachuted into the snow-covered mountains. Two Norwegians climbed to meet Sandy with skis—and with all the daring resolve of their underground resistance. His Spitfire, the AA810, remained on the mountainside. Badly burned, Sandy was in no state to attempt a cross-country escape across occupied Norway. Instead, he handed himself in to the Germans. Interrogated for 21 days, Sandy held his resolve, and held his silence, before he was sent off to the infamous Stalag Luft III. Punished for a first, failed escape, he then set himself at the slow and steady work of tunnel Harry and, alongside his fellow inmates, made his great escape on 24 March 1944. Looking to find neutral Sweden, riding on the axles of freight trains, he and Flight Lieutenant Casey were one day’s walk away from the Baltic coast. Sadly, they were caught and, given up to the Gestapo, interrogated. Sandy was brought outside and shot, on Hitler’s direct orders.

Sandy was one of over 1,000 who flew with the PRU and one of over 378 who fell, giving the PRU the second-highest attrition rate of any unit in the entire second world war. However, in delivering over 20 million images of enemy operations and installations—from Norwegian fjords to the Burmese jungle; for D-day, Amiens and the Dambusters raid; first spotting the V1 and V2—the PRU opened up the terrific German war machine cog and piece apart, and gave a sight of victory. If that sounds familiar to the Minister, it is because the first camera systems were fitted into the Spitfires and Mosquitoes at RAF Farnborough, in his constituency, and the men who did so taught at the RAF School of Photography nearby.

The Photographic Reconnaissance Unit was formed on 24 September 1939. Throughout the second world war it operated, as I said, in highly dangerous, clandestine photographic reconnaissance operations in all theatres of operation.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate and for his tenacity in bringing it back post 2019. He mentioned Sandy Gunn and his bravery. Sandy Gunn flew from Wick during that campaign, but he was briefly at Leuchars. Given that the hon. Member is describing the history of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, it would be remiss of me not to detail the fact that it was based at Leuchars airfield from late 1942 to early 1944. I hope that the hon. Member will join me in seeking to honour the memory of all those men and to ensure that all air bases are recognised in the memorial.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Conservative, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I completely agree: all the air bases from which the PRU flew should be commemorated, and all the men who flew, from whatever airfield, should be commemorated if we are able to succeed in getting a memorial erected in a prominent position in the country in the coming years.

In 2019, Mr Tony Hoskins recovered Spitfire AA810—Sandy Gunn’s Spitfire—from the Norwegian mountainside where Sandy had ejected all those years ago. Tony Hoskins established the Spitfire AA810 Project to restore the plane to flight, which it is hoped will be completed by 2023. The project also established the Sandy Gunn Aerospace Careers Programme, which was launched at Cranfield University on 27 September 2019—what would have been Sandy Gunn’s 100th birthday.

In 2019, the Spitfire AA810 Project began its campaign to establish a national memorial to the PRU and the brave men who flew for it from wherever they were based. This year, the project established an advisory board, with representatives from industry, academia and both Houses of Parliament, to drive forward the establishment of a national memorial to the PRU. The young pilots who flew for the PRU performed their duty in highly dangerous conditions, without armour and alone. The work of the PRU and the intelligence it gathered were crucial to allied planning and strategy throughout the war. They were critical to the success of countless operations, saving the lives of thousands of servicemen in the process.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

I apologise to you, Mr Davies, and to the Minister that I cannot be here for the whole debate because I am about to attend a remembrance service in the Guards’ Chapel. No disrespect is intended.

May I pay a family tribute? My late father, Reginald Francois, was on a minesweeper on D-day. There were many reasons why Operation Overlord succeeded, but one undoubtedly was the ceaseless courage of the unarmed PRU pilots who flew multiple missions to successfully reconnoitre the Normandy coast so that the allied invasion could be best planned. From the son of a D-Day veteran, I offer my hon. Friend unstinting support for his campaign, and thank him and his predecessor for having the courage to raise it in this place. We wish him Godspeed.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Conservative, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention, and that very personal family tribute. His father, like many, served in the second world war, and they were only able to do so and complete their missions because of the bravery of men like Sandy, George, and all the others who flew with the PRU, giving Allied Command the intelligence that they required to navigate their way through incredibly difficult situations. I thank my right hon. Friend very much for his tribute and his contribution, and for his support for the campaign to get a national memorial established.

The PRU’s pilots and the reconnaissance aircraft in which they flew are, sadly, largely unrecognised in history. Their story, their success, and their sacrifices are, as I have said, mostly untold. Furthermore, the highly dangerous conditions in which the pilots of the PRU served meant that it experienced a tragically high death rate. Although it was a relatively small unit, the PRU suffered horrendous losses from its inception in 1939 through to the end of hostilities in the far east in 1945, with records now showing that—as I have said—its survival rate was the second lowest of any allied aerial unit during the entire war.

Some 1,287 men have so far been identified as having flown operational photo reconnaissance sorties, but only 29% of them have been confirmed as having survived the war. Even more tragically, due to the solitary nature of their work, 12% of those who flew are still missing to this day, their final resting places unknown and unrecorded. A permanent national memorial to the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit would be a fitting tribute to those pilots, navigators and observers who undertook those dangerous missions in the service of our country, and would serve as a de facto headstone for those who served in the PRU but have, as yet, no known grave.

So, I come to the ask—except, exceptionally for Westminster and, I am sure, to the relief of the Minister, I make no financial ask of the Government. I simply request that the Minister meets with the campaign for the national memorial, and gives support to the efforts to establish a national memorial in an appropriate location in London: a memorial to the 1,287 men who flew for the PRU; to the 378 who did not return; to the 143 who lie with no grave; to Sandy and all those like him; and to George and the three others, the last of the few.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 9:43 am, 9th November 2021

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Davies. First, I thank Andrew Bowie for leading such an important debate, and for the way in which he expressed his request to the Minister. I am sure that the Minister’s response will be positive and helpful.

This important debate reiterates the necessity of remembrance, coming up to Remembrance Sunday. I, along with others in this Chamber and outside of it, look on Remembrance Sunday as one of the most special days of the year. There are other days in the year that are incredibly special, but I always enjoy—if that is the right way of putting it—Remembrance Sunday, because it cements for me the sacrifice of all those who have given so much for us.

Were it not for this debate, I would not have known all about what happened with the PRU; I would have been aware of it, but not with the intensity with which the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine has expressed himself today, with such knowledge and power.

This morning, along with others—some have done so yesterday; others will do so today—we will lay a wreath or a cross in the remembrance garden just outside this building. The sacrifices that the hon. Gentleman referred to took place during the second world war, but it is good to remember the ongoing sacrifices of others.

At this time of year, most of us partake in the wearing of poppies to celebrate and remember those who gave their lives for our future and, for many of us, the war effort is collectively remembered.

At times it is right and proper that we remember the essential cogs in the war machine that did tremendous work in fighting off the violence and intrusion that threatened to damage our nation. The PRU was one of those essential cogs. When the United Kingdom perhaps felt like it was standing alone against Germany, the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit was there. I am thankful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me a reason to delve into history and learn new facts to teach my grandchildren to let them know why we have a democracy. We have freedom and liberty today because of those people and what they did. I am also thankful to my hon. Friend Gavin Robinson, who passed on some detailed information from a constituent. That informed me—indeed, enthused me— about this debate today.

The PRU was formed in 1939 and its operations were considered highly dangerous. Its purpose is well known in this place. It was the first foray into clandestine photography. The unit was ordered to capture images of enemy operations and installations during the war. The success of the photographic units is well documented. It was because of the unit’s operations that lives were saved, as referred to by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and towns and cities were kept safe. The intelligence gathered was highly secret and was used by all Britain’s armed forces. The unit took over 20 million images. Information and images were not collected, as they could be today, by typing a code into a computer to task a satellite to move. Innovative secret cameras were carried and used by people who gave their lives to get the right shots. It was about getting the information in the right way and then getting it back home. Collecting so many images was nothing short of incredible.

I love, as I suspect others here do, the History Channel, where one can see stories of how the photographs were taken, and where the terrible danger that the unit was in is clearly illustrated. When one sees the grainy photographs, one wonders what they could prove or achieve, but the photographs were well taken and the detail was examined. We all know, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, some of the things that happened—for example, the flying rockets and the launching pads that were photographed and then ultimately destroyed.

From its creation in the early stages of the war, the unit suffered horrendous losses, which should be remembered and respected. The survival rate was proportionally the second lowest of any aerial unit in the entire war. Approximately 500 men became casualties, and 144 of them have no known grave. That highlights how this debate should be warmly welcomed across the House, as all forms of remembrance should be.

It is no secret that I love this history of this place—we probably all do—and the history of the surrounding streets here in London. The intelligence provided by the PRU that was used in the Cabinet war rooms—now the Churchill War Rooms located underneath the Treasury a short distance from where we are today—was instrumental in the planning of major operations such as D-day and the Dambusters raid, the monitoring of major shipping movements by such as the Bismarck and Tirpitz, which the hon. Gentleman referred to, and the locating of the VI and V2 rocket launching site at Peenemünde, among other major intelligence successes throughout the war. A monument is a proper thank you to the memory of those who flew the Spitfires and to the large numbers of pilots and personnel who never returned.

The hon. Gentleman described how the Spitfires had no armament and no protection. They had extra fuel and were—it is perhaps not fair to use this term—sitting ducks for the Messerschmitts that came to take them on. The conditions under which the men carried out their work were dangerous, with an extremely high death rate. Some 1,287 men have been identified as having flown operational photo reconnaissance sorties, but only 29% of them have been confirmed as having survived the war. We have heard today of at least two, to which the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine and Andrew Lewer referred. Furthermore, 12% are still missing to this day, with no known identities or closure for families. We all know how important it is to get closure. Having come through the tragedy of Northern Ireland and the terrorist campaign, I often think of the disappeared and those families who have perhaps never had somewhere to lay their loved ones to rest, which is important.

Two notable organisations have been set up in memorial to the PRU: the Spitfire AA810 Project and the Sandy Gunn Aerospace Careers Programme, to which the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine referred. They commit time to encouraging young people to partake in the engineering sector and to informing them of possible careers and employment opportunities. There are many ways of fighting a war, but they are all cogs in the big machine that make things happen. The service is entirely free to participants. I encourage young people to take advantage of that experience, and I urge the Secretary of State for Education to raise awareness of that type of practical training for young people. When the Minister responds, perhaps he can tell us whether there has been any engagement with Education Ministers about doing our best to ensure that those opportunities are taken up.

Spitfire AA810 Project emphasises that it makes no financial ask of the Government, which—let us be honest—is important in this day and age, so the Government can easily endorse the proposal. That is not to dismiss their contribution; it is important that the Minister responds and understands what we are trying to achieve. I have no doubt that he will recognise the importance of that work.

I urge all hon. Members to wholeheartedly support the cause and the effort to establish a national memorial in an appropriate location in London. The efforts of all the contributors deserve respect and remembrance. The risks associated with the duties undertaken by the men of the PRU must be acknowledged. I thank the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine again and the Backbench Business Committee for ensuring that the PRU is remembered and thanked. I fully support what he said, and I am convinced that the Minister will also endorse it.

I hope that the Minister will come back with a positive response. We recognise that the PRU played an integral and important part in the battle against tyranny and against the evil of Nazism and fascism. We sometimes stood alone, but the PRU was a cog in the wheel of the victory that we needed.

Photo of Stewart McDonald Stewart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence) 9:52 am, 9th November 2021

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. In responding for the Scottish National party, I offer my full support on the issue that my hon. Friend Andrew Bowie, who really is a friend, has brought to Westminster Hall. He achieved a rare thing: he has educated the House. Although I am sure that we all read our briefs before the debate, I certainly learned more from his speech, for which I thank him.

I acknowledge the work of the former Member for Ochil and South Perthshire in first raising the issue when he was a Member. It will not surprise my hon. Friend that I do not necessarily share his disappointment at the result in that seat, as I was one of the main speakers at the big fundraiser to achieve the result that we did, but I do acknowledge that Luke Graham is a good person and he was right to bring the issue forward. For those of us who are acquainted with the Scottish Conservative group, it is no surprise that the issue is still alive with them, as it should be.

It is an anomaly that there is no national memorial and I am sure that can be rectified. As my hon. Friend mentioned, the PRU managed to gather more than 20 million images that were used to secure the victory in the war that Jim Shannon ended his remarks on. It has been mentioned that those images, which were vital to our success, were gained with no protection whatsoever. Mr Davies, can you imagine being sent over enemy lines under those circumstances? But they did not blink. They got up and did the job that they were asked to do. As the hon. Member for Strangford rightly said, they were a vital cog in the machine of the war effort.

In return, the PRU had one of the lowest survival rates of any unit during the war, with over 500 casualties, more than 140 of whom—I believe 144—have no known grave or marking. I am sure we all agree that that is wrong and is something we can resolve, not least because this is possibly the only debate I have attended in Westminster Hall where there is no financial ask of the Minister from whom we hope to hear positive responses.

I want to commend the work of the Spitfire AA810 Project to secure that national memorial. I pay tribute to their tenacity, their resolve, their imagination and their determination to ensure that that national memorial is forthcoming. As has been mentioned, all of us are sitting here wearing red poppies, rightly so at this time of year. This is a useful time, not just to reflect on those who were part of that war effort, as we have done this morning, thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, but to recommit ourselves to the values that created that world we inherited, and that the men of the PRU and so many other parts of the war effort secured for us.

That is a useful thing to do, given geopolitics right now, particularly in Europe. We must always have robust political debate, discussion and disagreement. I suspect, Mr Davies, that you and I do not agree much on those affairs. What we do agree is that we must remember and be grateful for those who sacrificed their lives to ensure that we could have the kind of exchange that we enjoy. What better way to recognise the efforts of the PRU than to rectify the injustice of having no national memorial by securing one in a fitting place?

I offer full-hearted congratulations to my hon. Friend and the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate to take place. I hope that we can hear of positive developments from the Minister.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Defence) 9:57 am, 9th November 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I congratulate Andrew Bowie and his predecessor on securing this important debate. I am pleased to respond on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

British intelligence services are widely recognised for playing a major role in the allies’ world war two victory. Every element of our armed forces made an incredible contribution to our safety and security, and they have done so throughout our history. Although much of that is recognised, the incredible work of some parts of our armed forces is less well known. One of those is the aerial arm of our intelligence services, as has been highlighted this morning, not least by Jim Shannon.

During the second world war, our aerial reconnaissance technology advanced at a truly remarkable pace. Having previously lagged behind Germany on aerial photography, Britain developed a world-beating capability to capture and develop images to provide detailed intelligence. The PRU took a total of 20 million photographs throughout the war and the rapid advance in intelligence played a tremendous role in the allies’ success. From helping to identify day-to-day enemy movements to informing D-day tactics, the intel provided saved countless lives.

Through their lifesaving work, the young pilots who flew our planes put their own lives at great risk. Not only did they operate in temperatures reaching minus 50°, at altitudes rarely reached before the second world war, but their Spitfires were stripped of any armour or protection. In those dangerous conditions, if engaged by enemy aircraft, the pilots had only their skill and bravery to rely on. With survival rates exceptionally and tragically low, every member of the unit deserves to have their bravery commended and their place in history cemented, not least those who were never afforded the dignity of a headstone.

As we begin this year’s remembrance week, there has never been a more suitable time to ensure that the Spitfire AA810 Project has the full support of the Government and the House for a national memorial. People born in 1939 will reach the age of 82 this year. As more time passes since the second world war, we must ensure that we never allow our collective memory to fade. My grandfather, who served in the RAF during the second world war, would have been 100 years old this year. I am incredibly proud of him and his contribution, just as I am of everyone who put their life on the line and fought for our liberty. I know that many in Barnsley, like me, are committed to keeping alive the unique stories of our family members and our town, and the part they played in the war effort, whether that is paying tribute to those in the RAF who lost their life after their aircraft suffered tragic fire, taking pride in the contribution of our miners to the war effort, who completed a job so vital that they were exempt and sometimes forbidden from military service—well known as the Bevin boys—or remembering those evacuees who found refuge in our town, escaping the blitz in London and Sheffield.

We cannot keep this history and the tradition of remembrance alive without education, memorials and opportunities to truly understand what happened. When Experience Barnsley, our local museum, hosted an exhibition featuring a Spitfire like those used by the PRU, the town hall said it was the busiest it had ever been. That success shows that although it might be difficult for many of us to imagine what war must have been like, memorials can bring those experiences to life for future generations. That is why, on behalf of the Labour party, I am pleased to support the campaign for a national memorial to the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence) 10:01 am, 9th November 2021

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am delighted to be here, answering for Her Majesty’s Government. It has been a positive and interesting debate. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew Bowie on securing the debate and speaking so movingly about the remarkable and innovative role of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit. I thank my right hon. Friend Mr Francois, my hon. Friend Andrew Lewer and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) and for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) for their collegiate and constructive contributions. I am pleased that our former colleague Luke Graham, the former Member for Ochil and South Perthshire, was also referenced.

I was particularly moved by the way that my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine referenced first George Pritchard. I am grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South was able to chip in and report back that George Pritchard, a veteran of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, is now 97 years old and in good order, living in Northamptonshire. I note that he is one of four veterans alive today who flew Mosquitoes in the PRU.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine also referred to the remarkable and moving story of Sandy Gunn, who, while reconnoitring the area for the German battleship the Tirpitz, was shot down in 1942. His story of being shot down, rescued by Norwegians and then imprisoned in Stalag Luft III, thereafter to escape and be brutally murdered by the Gestapo, encapsulates and reminds us of the remarkable scale of bravery of the members of the PRU. It is also a fitting time, as we move this week into remembrance. So I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the remarkable story of Sandy Gunn.

My hon. Friend knows—he referred to the fact—that the Ministry of Defence cannot finance or commission new memorials. However, in answer to his question, it is, of course, a wholehearted yes. I would be delighted to meet him and others as soon as is practical—very soon, I hope—to discuss that further. I note the remarkable tenacity and energy behind the campaign, and I think I am safe to judge that it will undoubtedly meet with a positive response, especially among the wider public.

As we move into the formal week of remembrance, today is a good opportunity to dwell on the remarkable story, broadly, of the PRU. From humble beginnings as a single semi-civilian flight in 1939, it grew to encompass 10 squadrons, and as the second world war progressed, elements of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit were based in the UK and overseas and became a remarkably valuable strategic asset. Throughout the war the intelligence that they gathered was crucial; it spanned the continent, stretching from the tip of Norway to the south of Italy. As with modern-day aerial reconnaissance, the main role of the PRU was to identify enemy formations and facilities, and to conduct battle damage assessment. The PRU’s ability to assess critical sites, before and after artillery or aerial strikes, allowed commanders to adapt their strategies accordingly. It was unique and innovative; it was also a force multiplier.

Beyond providing a unique picture of what was happening on land across Europe, the intelligence that the PRU gathered was also crucial to maintaining the safety of Britain’s convoys at sea. They had a key role in locating German capital ships; we have mentioned the Tirpitz—sunk in 1944—but they also had a key role in locating the Bismarck, which was sunk in 1941. These were prize targets, the destruction of which had a huge and strategic impact on the ability of the German military machine to dominate the high seas; it was a singular advance in the ability of our forces to fight back.

Perhaps even more significantly, but not immediately obvious, was the PRU’s hugely important contribution to the combined Anglo-American strategic bombing campaign. Among many other achievements, they identified the many German oil refineries and synthetic fuel facilities right across Europe; the destruction of those effectively grounded the Luftwaffe and rendered German Panzer divisions immobile during the latter stages of the war—having a hugely important strategic impact on its course. The PRU’s reputation for identifying vital targets was built on successes such as the location of the German research facility in the Baltic. That allowed the Bomber Command attack that significantly delayed the development of the V1 flying rocket and the development and dispatch of the deadly V2 rocket. Similar to the strategic bombing campaigns, that saved countless lives.

While a huge amount of technological advancement has taken place since the second world war, what is key to the legacy of the PRU is the human capability at the heart of all of this. Since the second world war, intelligence gathering from the air has remained a critical asset of the Royal Air Force, and our armed forces as a whole. In 2002, the intelligence elements from a number of RAF Squadrons were combined to form the Tactical Imagery-Intelligence Wing; you could say that where the PRU had pioneered that capability, the TIW formalised it. In 2016, the Wing became the 1st Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing—the 1st ISR Wing. Its role today demonstrates the ever-increasing close collaboration we have with our allies; the output of this Wing is used right across a number of platforms for both the UK and our NATO allies.

As the 1st ISR Wing has continued to grow, we are reminded that it is a vital element of the Royal Air Force’s ISTAR capability; Members will know that means intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine will know about the build-up of our P-8A maritime patrol aircraft capability at the Royal Air Force station in Lossiemouth. That demonstrates our ongoing commitment militarily to Scotland, as well as our plans to boost our ISTAR capability, particularly with the introduction of the E-7 Wedgetail to that station. If my intelligence is correct, I think he may be visiting that station later this month. The P-8A is strategically hugely important; it is a powerful tool in our anti-submarine operations and a valuable enhancement to the UK’s search and rescue capability. The E-7 Wedgetail is a significant advance on its predecessor, the E-3D Sentry, and is capable of simultaneously tracking multiple airborne and maritime targets, heightening the already considerable abilities of our combat air platform and warships.

As we track the amazing technological advances that have taken place since the second world war, there is no doubt that a pivotal and pioneering role was played by the PRU. While technology has evolved, it is pertinent that many of the analysis methods refined during the war are still used today. Hugh Hamshaw Thomas, a leading paleobotanist at the time, employed his talents to examine the black-and-white photographs that the pilots sent back. I thought that was most interesting. Those methods are still used extensively on modern black-and-white electro-optical images, which remain widely used. We have come a very long way in technological terms. The Royal Air Force not only has colour imagery and moving imagery on the Typhoon and Reaper platforms, but those skills developed during the second world war are still entirely pertinent.

We have reflected on the remarkable human skill and courage of the PRU pilots. It was fitting that a number of colleagues mentioned the fact that these individuals were entirely unarmed when they were flying into enemy lines. They used a remarkable combination of speed and altitude, and they depended on their guile, agility and raw wits to stay alive. That was extremely high-risk, and they were extremely courageous. Today, despite technology having advanced, that same human spirit is alive in the Royal Air Force in 1 ISR Wing. They are highly trained, dedicated people, who are trained to analyse imagery in real time. We need look no further for the modern inheritors of the tradition of courage from the early days of the PRU than the young men and women in the Royal Air Force of today in 1 ISR Wing.

I thank all Members for having contributed so positively and interestingly. I reindorse my response to my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and I look forward to meeting him very soon. I am also grateful to him for calling the debate at a very fitting time. As we move this week into the formal element of remembrance, we remember the remarkable sacrifice of those who have gone before us. The debate has been a very fitting tribute to the sacrifice that we have discussed today in the form of the activities of the PRU.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Conservative, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine 10:12 am, 9th November 2021

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his response to the debate and for his acknowledgment of the campaign. I also thank him for agreeing to meet me and other members of the campaign as we seek to get a memorial established.

As I said in my speech, it is an opportune time to be holding this debate about a national memorial, because the few are getting fewer. We are very lucky to be the last generation to have known and been lucky enough to speak and listen to the men and women who fought in that great conflict of 1939 to 1945 to free our continent from the tyranny of the Nazis and fascism. It falls to us to carry the stories of their bravery and heroism. That greatest generation enabled us to continue to speak and debate freely, as we do every day in this place, in this country and to a large extent across the continent of Europe.

The campaign to get a permanent memorial to the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit—a unit that is so little understood and known about, but which deserves so much more recognition—is, I believe, one way that we can carry that torch forward and take these stories on to a new generation. We must never forget those that fell for our freedoms. We must never allow the stories of the great deeds done for our own sake by that greatest generation to fall into distant memory. I thank every one of my colleagues for their contribution. It is very much a cross-party campaign, and I thank everyone for coming along and contributing. I thank the campaign for bringing the cause to my attention and the nation’s attention, which they have done by getting the debate today. Thank you, Mr Davies, for chairing the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered a national memorial to the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit.

Sitting suspended.