Frederick Sidney Cotton OBE
(17 June 1894 – 13 February
1969) was an Australian
photographer and aviation and photography pioneer, responsible for
developing and promoting an early colour
process, and largely responsible for the development of
before and during the Second World War
. He numbered among his close
friends George Eastman
, Ian Fleming
and Winston Churchill
Sidney Cotton was born on 17 June 1894 on a cattle station at
Goorganga, near Bowen, Queensland.He was the third child of Alfred and Annie Cotton,
who were involved in pastoralism.
educated at The Southport
School in Queensland and later in 1910, he and his family
went to England where he attended Cheltenham College; however the family returned to Australia in
1912. Cotton worked as a "jackeroo," training to work with livestock at
stations in New South
Wales up until the outbreak of war.
First World War
Cotton went back to England to join the Royal Naval Air Service
1915. After only five hours solo flying, he qualified as a combat
pilot, and initially flew Channel patrols. Cotton went on to
participate in night bombing sorties over France and Germany with
Nos 3 and 5 Wings. His experience with high level and
low-temperature flying led Cotton in 1917 to develop the
revolutionary new "Sidcot" suit, a flying suit which solved the
problem pilots had in keeping warm in the cockpit. This flying suit
was widely used by the RAF
1950s. Cotton continued with No.
8 Squadron RNAS
in 1917 where he
was promoted to Flight Sub-Lieutenant in June 1917. Soon after, he
came into conflict with senior officers, and resigned his
commission in October 1917.
Between the wars
After leaving military service, Cotton married in London, a
17-year-old actress, Regmor Agnes Maclean in October 1917, with
whom he had a son. After the war he spent time in Tasmania, then
returned to England where he continued his passion for flying. In
1920, he embarked on an unsuccessful attempt to fly from England to
South Africa, and also made a lucky escape from a crash at the
English Aerial Derby. Cotton then spent three years working in
Newfoundland, Canada flying
Following the divorce from his first wife the previous year, in
1926, Cotton married 18-year-old Millicent Joan Henry whom he had
met in Canada. From this time up until the outbreak of the
Second World War, Cotton led a colourful and eventful life and was
engaged in various business activities including an airborne
seal-spotting service as well as aerial search and rescue
operations for lost explorers in Newfoundland and Greenland.
before the Second World War, Cotton was recruited by Fred Winterbotham (then of MI6) to take
clandestine aerial photographs of the German military
Using his status as a wealthy and prominent private
aviator currently promoting his film business (and using a series
of other subterfuges including taking on the guise of an
archaeologist or a film producer looking for locations), a series
of flights provided valuable information about German naval
activity and troop buildups. He equipped a Lockheed Electra Junior with three
F-24 cameras concealed by panels which
could be slid aside and operated by pressing a button under the
pilot's seat, and a Leica behind a
similar panel in the wings.
Cabin air was diverted to
prevent the cameras freezing. He took Patricia Martin, his
secretary along, and she too, took photographs in flight. Although
his flight plans were dictated by the German government, he
consistently managed to get away with flying off-track over
military installations. Cotton had a very persuasive manner, and
exploited any advantage he could.
In 1939, Cotton took aerial photos during a flight over parts of
the Middle East and North Africa. On the eve of war, he even
managed to engineer a "joy-ride" over German military airfields on
one occasion, accompanied by senior Luftwaffe
officer Albert Kesselring
. With Kesselring at the
controls, Cotton reached under his seat, operated the cameras, and
captured the airfield on film. Cotton later offered to fly Hermann Göring
to London for talks a
week before outbreak of hostilities, and claimed that his was the
last civilian aircraft to leave Berlin before the outbreak of
hostilities. One biography is titled Sidney Cotton: The Last
Plane Out of Berlin
commemorating this escapade.
Second World War
as a Squadron Leader and honorary Wing Commander on 22 September
1939, in the same period, Cotton was recruited to head up the
fledgling RAF 1 Photographic Development Unit (PDU) at Heston
unit provided important intelligence leading to successful air
raids on key enemy installations.With his experience and knowledge
gained over Germany and other overflights, Cotton greatly improved
the RAF's photo reconnaissance capabilities. The PDU was originally
equipped with Bristol Blenheims
but Cotton considered these quite unsuitable, being far too slow,
and he consequently "wheedled" a couple of Supermarine Spitfires
. These Spitfires,
later augmented by de Havilland
, were steadily adapted to fly higher and faster, with
a highly-polished surface, a special blue camouflage scheme
developed by Cotton himself, and a series of modifications to the
engines to produce more power at high altitudes. In 1940, Cotton also
personally made another important reconnaissance flight with his
Lockheed Electra Junior over
Azerbaijan via Iraq.
Under his leadership, the 1 PDU acquired the nicknames, "Cotton's
Club" or the less flattering "Cotton's Crooks" (mainly due to
Cotton's propensity to flout regulations). Cotton revelled in his
reputation as unorthodox, and even had a special badge struck
bearing the initials "CC-11" that signified the 11th
commandment – "Thou shalt not be found out."
Cotton's aerial photographs were so far in advance of the state of
the art and together with other members of the 1 PDU, he pioneered
the techniques of high-altitude, high-speed stereoscopic
photography that were instrumental
in revealing the locations of many crucial military and
intelligence targets. R.V.
recounts in his memoirs
how these photographs were used to establish the size and the
characteristic launching mechanisms for both the V-1 flying bomb
and the V-2 rocket
. Cotton also worked on ideas such as
an airborne searchlight
night-fighters, a prototype specialist reconnaissance aircraft and
further refinements of photographic equipment.
By mid-1940 however, Cotton had clashed with senior officials in
the Air Ministry over his participation in the evacuation of
British agents from France under the cover name of "Special Survey
Flights." After his return from France couriering the head of the
garment and perfume
empire for a fee, he was removed from his post and banned from any
involvement with air operations. Following several efforts to be
reinstated, even involving Churchill himself, Cotton resigned his
commission; he was nevertheless awarded an OBE.For the remainder of
the war, Cotton acted as an unofficial consultant to the
new designation, 1 Photographic Reconnaissance
Unit (PRU), based at RAF Hendon, 1 PRU went on to a distinguished wartime record,
eventually operating five squadrons out of a number of
Succeeding commanding officers would emulate the
spirit and innovative techniques pioneered by Cotton.
Sidney Cotton spent the time after the Second World War in the
service of the last Nizam
of Hyderabad State
. He was thought to be
responsible for carrying money and valuables to Pakistan and weapons and ammunition for the Nizam's
army. He was responsible for having blown up many
bridges using surplus Avro Lancaster
bombers to slow down the advance of the Indian Army during Operation Polo, the annexation or liberation
of Hyderabad State by India.
his activities in Hyderabad, he was accused of gun-running and
fined 200 pounds in a British Court.
In 1951, he married Thelma Brooke-Smith in what was his third
marriage. Thelma was his former secretary with whom he would have
another son and daughter.
Although Cotton was very rich at various times in his life, his
business dealings were dogged by bad luck and (in at least one
case) doubtful behaviour by a business partner. He was reluctant to
profit from his wartime innovations, even waiving his patent rights
on the Sidcot suit. As with many buccaneering wartime
"larger-than-life" characters, the postwar environment did not suit
him at all. He dabbled in oil exploration, civil engineering and
even gun-running, but died penniless in London in 1969.
Cotton's life story was recorded in the book he wrote with Ralph
Barker shortly before his death, Aviator extraordinary: the
Sidney Cotton story
. Cotton died on 13 February 1969.
known monument to Cotton is a plaque marking his grave at
Tallegalla cemetery near Brisbane.
- Cotton 1969, p. 17.
- Flying and Fearless Note: Sometimes known as
the "SidCot suit."
- Cotton 1969, p. 156.
- Watson, Jeff. Picture-Perfect Spy defence.gov.au.
Re3trieved: 5 November 2009.
- Cotton 1969, pp. 164–167.
- Sidney Cotton at the Australian War Museum
- Ciampaglia, Giuseppe: "Il Lockheed 12-A Electra Junior
capostipite degli aerei-spia americani" (in Italian). Rivista
Italiana Difesa gennaio, 2002.
- Cotton, Sidney as told to Ralph Barker. Aviator
Extraordinary: The Sidney Cotton Story. London: Chatto &
Windus, 1969. ISBN 0-7011-1334-0.
- The Last Plane Out of Berlin (telefilm documentary).
Sidney, Australia: Jeff Watson Productions, 2004.
- 1 PRU official site
- Watson, Jeff. Sidney Cotton: The Last Plane Out of
Berlin. Sidney, Australia: Hodder Headline Australia, 2004.