History of Photography
Cotton. Sidney Cotton.
“He caused a lot of trouble over here, you know.” A librarian at the Royal Aeronautical Society, when asked for references on Sydney Cotton.
It’s been a while since I did a history article. I love writing about the true “characters” of photography, and to be honest, I hadn’t stumbled across anyone that really interested me for a while. But while I was writing an article about the most decorated photoreconnaissance flight in history, I kept running across the name Sydney Cotton, who was considered the father of aerial reconnaissance.
A little research revealed he was a fascinating character full of amazing contradictions. He made and lost fortunes several times (and sometimes they were other people’s fortunes). He was a war hero and a black-market profiteer; made brilliant discoveries and stole the credit for others’ discoveries; was a secret agent and a con man. In addition to his work in aerial reconnaissance, he was one of the early pioneers of color film. So, I decided he was good material for an article.
It became a bit of an unusual article, for me, though. When researching other historical figures I always end up feeling something for them. I may feel sorry for them, admire them, laugh at them, or experience lots of other emotions. But with Mr. Cotton, I didn’t get that connection. His story is interesting, even fascinating. He did very important things.
But researching his life is like running through mud. Facts are hard to come by, and there seem to be two or three versions regarding every facet of his life. Cotton was known to embellish his accomplishments so his words and autobiography can’t always be taken at face value. A lot of information about him comes from people who worked with and disliked him, and from his numerous ex-wives and girlfriends. Those opinions aren’t impartial either.
It is clear that Cotton wasn’t a particularly likable character, unless he wanted you to like him. But like him or not, Sydney Cotton was a most interesting man. In addition to being one of the pioneers of color film and certainly the father of modern aerial reconnaissance photography, he was arguably one of the primary models for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character. His bravery and intelligence were unquestioned. There were no questions about his morals and behavior, either. They were unquestionably bad. He was an inventor and adventurer; a sometimes brilliant businessman who could never keep is money; an amazingly successful spy; a less successful con man; and something of a jerk.
World War I
Frederick Sydney Cotton was born in Queensland, Australia, in 1894. His family was prosperous, and in 1904 his father moved the family back to the United Kingdom because he felt the children would be better educated there. They returned to Australia in 1912, but in 1915, after reading about the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine, Sidney returned to England to join the Royal Navy Flying Corps.
His flying instructor somehow thought that Sydney had flying experience (largely because Sidney told him he did), so after showing him the controls of the plane, he sent him off for a solo checkout flight. Sidney actually did fine in the trainer plane, which had takeoff and landing speeds of about 40 miles-per-hour, and was sent immediately for more advanced training. He was flying in combat by 1916.
Sidney had a mechanical background and worked on his planes himself. One day, while working in his greasy coveralls, there was a sudden alert for incoming planes. Cotton dropped his tools and took off in his open-cockpit biplane. After the flight he realized he had been much warmer in his coveralls than he was when wearing his flight suit; the oil and grease had made his coveralls airtight. On his next leave he had an outfitter make him a flying suit with layers of waterproof silk and airproof cotton. He humbly called it the Sidcot suit (for Sidney Cotton). Within a short time, every pilot was wearing one (including German pilots who copied it from captured British flyers). Sidney could have made a fortune from it, but rather than patent it he donated the design, because, he said at the time, he never wanted to profit from war. (He certainly got over this feeling later in life.)
Sidney left the service before the end of WWI, resigning his commission after an argument with his superior officers. His problems with authority were to be a common theme for the rest of his life.
The 20s and 30s
After leaving the Service, Sydney had a month to kill in London before a ship left to take him back to Australia. He met a pretty actress, swept her off her feet, and married her a month later, just in time to head back to Australia. It was never a happy marriage. She thought, given the way he spent money during their courtship, that Sidney was wealthy. Actually, he was flat broke before they left England and had to wire home for enough money for the sea voyage. They were divorced a few years later.
Sidney was a busy, if not particularly successful, entrepreneur. He started a number of ventures in Newfoundland, Canada, including aerial seal spotting, an aerial postal service to the offshore islands, and aerial photographic mapping and surveying for mining and timber companies. All of his ventures failed eventually, largely because the open-cockpit biplanes of the day just couldn’t operate consistently in the severe weather of Newfoundland.
His greatest success was with aerial photography. Sidney became quite adept at using the crude tools he had at his disposal. His technique was to control the plane by holding the stick between his knees, and then hoist a large-plate camera over the side of the cockpit to take a picture. He’d have to pull the camera back in and change plates before taking the next image. It was a fairly risky technique; he dropped a couple of cameras over the side when the plane hit rough air. He also had several crash landings. By 1923 he’d had enough of his risky aerial businesses, cashed out his holdings, and left Newfoundland for Great Britain.
He did meet his second wife, Joan, while in Newfoundland, when she was 15 and he 28. The origin of this relationship is a great example of how difficult it is to determine the true facts of Cotton’s personal life. According to Sidney, he became friends with the family and altruistically bought passage to allow them to return to England. According to Joan, he made a deal with her parents and bought the rights to marry her when she turned 18 for $2,000. According to public records, though, Cotton bought 125 acres of land in Hawkes Bay, Newfoundland, from Joan’s father in 1925, and gave the land back to Joan after they were married in 1927. Whatever the actual arrangement, they remained married for 20 years and genuinely seemed to like each other, although they rarely spent more than a few weeks a year together.
Back in England, Sidney went into the rescue business. Paul DuPont and Harry Guggenheim first hired him to locate two French airmen, Nungesser and Coli, who were believed lost in Newfoundland after attempting to cross the Atlantic from East to West. Later, millionaire Samuel Courtauld hired him to find his cousin who was missing on the ice cap of Greenland. Sidney didn’t succeed with either rescue, but the terms of his contracts allowed him to keep the planes and other equipment bought to outfit the rescue efforts.
Sydney had long been interested in color photography, and in 1931 he and an optical engineer formed a company, Colortone, attempting to develop a color film process. In the 1930s, Sidney purchased the patents for a type of color film known as Dufaycolor. The film was quite ingenious: the film base (the transparent part) was dyed with small red, blue, and green dots; very similar to putting a Bayer filter over the film to generate a color image. The film was rather coarse, though, having only 600 colored lines per inch.
Sidney used both his photographic and business experience to make several improvements to the process. He joined forces with the Spicer and Ilford companies in England, and the Kassel and Agfa companies in Germany, improving the film base and the stainless steel rollers that applied the dyes. Within a short time, the resolution had improved to 350,000 dots per square inch and the process was viable. By late 1934 Dufaycolor was being marketed as joint ventures by Agfa in Germany, Spicer’s in England, and by Sidney’s own Dufaycolor Company in the U. S. The color photographs of the 1937 Coronation of King George VI were all made using Dufaycolor, as were National Geographic Magazine’s first color photographs. The original color films of the coronation, for the time being at least, are available here.
In the United States, though, Technicolor was already entrenched in the movie market and Kodachrome was released around the same time as Dufaycolor. In the early years of Dufaycolor, Sidney lived like a king, traveling back and forth from the U. S. to the U. K. on the Queen Mary, taking his Rolls Royce with him. Once back in England, he would fly in one of his planes to do business in France and Germany. Most of the funding for his lifestyle, though, appears to have come from funding from Spicer’s and the other joint-venture partners; Dufaycolor was never particularly profitable.
Dufaycolor had some major advantages compared to Kodachrome (which could only be developed in Kodak’s main laboratory, while Dufaycolor could be developed anywhere) but Kodak’s immense size let them out-market Dufaycolor. In 1937 Sydney met with George Eastman of Kodak and apparently reached an agreement to sell the U. S. rights to Kodak, but Eastman died two days after the meeting, before he could present the proposal to Kodak’s board. By 1938 Kodachrome dominated the U. S. color film market and Technicolor the movie market. Dufaycolor continued in limited use in Europe through the 1940s but wasn’t profitable, and Sydney was broke again.
The Spy in the Sky
No matter how many times he lost everything, Sydney always landed on his feet. Just after he hit bottom financially in 1938, a man name Fred Winterbotham walked into Sydney’s office. Winterbotham was Chief of Air Intelligence for MI6, the British overseas intelligence service. He knew Cotton’s true financial state and offered a plane and generous stipend in exchange for Sidney taking aerial intelligence photographs during his flights back-and-forth to Germany. Relations between Germany and England were already strained and travel restricted, but Cotton’s business interests in Germany gave him an excellent excuse for flying there.
At the time, aerial photography was still very crude; Cotton and Winterbotham were working in uncharted territory. There were better cameras than had existed in open-cockpit biplane days, of course, but techniques of aerial photography hadn’t changed greatly. The cameras were very large and fitted outside of the planes. Photographs couldn’t be taken above 8,000 feet because the lenses fogged at higher altitudes.
Cotton and Winterbotham knew they would never be allowed to fly that low over Germany, so they chose a Lockheed 12A, a twin engine plane with good range and a heated cabin. They weren’t quite sure how they would obtain photographs from that high altitudes, but thought they would figure things out.
At first their arrangements were rather crude. Standard RAF F-24 photoreconnaissance cameras, which shot high-definition images on rolls of 5-inch film, were mounted in the plane’s fuselage with cables running into the cockpit. Cotton would pull on a cable to trip the camera’s shutter and advance the film.
Cotton made a number of improvements to both the plane and to aerial photography techniques. He had the plane painted light blue so that it could hardly be seen from the ground on a clear day. He had Plexiglass teardrop windows made and fitted to the sides of the plane so that his assistants could actually look out behind the plane to be certain they weren’t being “escorted” or watched by German aircraft. This was apparently the first use of teardrop windows, which later were used on a number of warplanes.
Cotton had the plane further modified, enclosing the cameras in false fuel tanks with special panels in the fuselage that could be electronically opened from the cockpit to take photographs. After much trial and error, he (according to Sidney) figured out a way to divert heated air from the engines over the cameras, preventing the fogging that had previously affected high-altitude shots and letting him take clear photographs from as high as 20,000 feet. (Another version says that his assistant, Pat, discovered the effect by accident, trying to keep warm in the photographic bay.) However it happened, warming the cameras allowed Cotton to get clear photographs at much higher altitudes than had ever been possible before, and became standard practice on all reconnaissance planes.
On a later trip to Germany, some friends showed him the new small Leica cameras that shot on 35mm film. He bought several and had them mounted as additional cameras in the wings. So Sidney was using cameras only available in Germany to take forbidden photographs of German military installations.
He hired as his photographer Patricia Martin, who also happened to be his mistress at the time. Sidney was in his 40s now and Patricia, not surprisingly, 20 years younger. Patricia was not just a younger woman with a pretty face, however. According to a number of people, several of the modifications to Sidney’s plane, including the teardrop windows and the heated camera bay, were actually her idea. She also came up with a novel air pressure detector, wearing pink angora sweaters on their flights. When the sweater went from being fuzzy to being smooth she knew they were at an altitude that required using supplemental oxygen.
Over the next few years Cotton and Martin flew the Lockheed all over Europe. Sometimes he travelled as himself, doing business in France and Germany. Other times he posed as a wealthy amateur archeologist (for trips to Greece and the Middle East), or an executive of an airline company considering new routes. On one such trip he travelled from London to Malta and then spent 10 days posing as a wealthy man with a private plane who was fascinated by desert ruins. He photographed most of North Africa during that trip, and his photographs of Tobruk, Ben Ghazi, and Mussolini’s supply dumps throughout North Africa became the maps that guided the Allied North African campaign a few years later.
As relations between Great Britain and Germany deteriorated in 1939, Sidney had the cameras removed from his plane and made several business trips to Germany. It was a smart move on his part; the Luftwaffe did careful examinations of his plane on at least one of these trips and would certainly have found the cameras. He had them reinstalled soon after, once he saw the Luftwaffe was no longer interested in his plane. He continued to make aerial photographs throughout Europe, singlehandedly accounting for the majority of British aerial reconnaissance until the start of the war.
How smooth was my boy Sidney? He once took his wife and his mistress out to dinner together because he thought they would like each other, and they did. Just before World War II, while he was in Germany, none other than Field Marshall Smiling Albert Kesselring asked him for a ride in his plane which was loaded with cameras and film. Sidney not only agreed, but when Kesselring took over the controls and flew over some restricted German air bases, Sidney pushed the button that started the plane’s hidden cameras. This caused a green light to flash on the dashboard with each photograph, but Sidney just told Kesselring this signified a fuel pump balancing tanks and it would stop in a minute, which it did.
On another trip he took Rudolph Bottner, the Commandant of the Tempelhof airport, up for a flight. Once in the air, he asked Bottner to fly over an area of the Rhine near Mannheim, because his German Aunt had told him it was the most beautiful place in Germany. (Sidney didn’t even have an Aunt who had been to Germany.) Bottner complied, and Sidney was able to take pictures of yet another secret German airbase in the area. Once he’d started the cameras, he cooperatively covered his eyes with his hands, telling Bottner, “I’m sure I’m not supposed to see that. I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”
Just to make sure you realize how gutsy this behavior was, had the Germans ever discovered the cameras and film in Sidney’s plane, he and Pat would have been shot as spies. Taking any photographs of German military bases at that time was completely forbidden.
Sidney was so brazen that in 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, he visited Karinhalle, the country estate of Hermann Goering, whom he had met at German air shows. Sidney flattered Goering on the magnificence of his estate, talked about their mutual time as pilots in World War I, and while he was there he was allowed to take pictures of the buildings and artwork of the estate. He also managed to get pictures of gun emplacements and air raid shelters. A bit later, Cotton, with no authorization, proposed flying Goering secretly to England to meet with Neville Chamberlain. Goering actually accepted the idea and the trip was planned. Sidney was in Berlin, trying to get the meeting completed at the last second, a week before Germany invaded Poland.
When hostilities became inevitable, Sidney was recalled home. His was the last English plane to leave Germany. On the way home, of course, Sidney let himself be blown slightly off course and photographed the German Naval bases at Wilhelmshaven. At least that’s Sidney’s version. Winterbotham states clearly that he did not take those pictures, that another British photographer took them in a separate mission. Which version is true is still not known. WInterbotham and MI-6 were furious at Sidney’s unauthorized diplomacy, as was the British Foreign Office, and during and after the war there was a clear effort on their part to discredit Cotton.
Once Sidney arrived back in England, his life began unraveling yet again. The British Air Ministry had been rather embarrassed that Cotton’s photographs were far superior to what their professional military reconnaissance had obtained and wanted the entire unit transferred to the Military. MI-6 was so angry with Sidney’s actions in Germany that they wanted rid of him and immediately approved the move.
Right at this time, though, a Royal Navy Intelligence officer named Ian Fleming (later author of the James Bond novels) began meeting with Sidney regularly. Sidney and Fleming got along fabulously and at least some people think that Cotton contributed to the James Bond character. Fleming clearly admired Cotton’s womanizing and his ability to maintain his cool demeanor under the most stressful of circumstances. Cotton admired Fleming’s amazing capacity to drink.
Fleming offered Sidney a transfer to the Naval Intelligence Service. Sidney accepted the offer, agreeing to transfer his modified planes to the Navy. This presented some difficulty, since Sidney didn’t own the planes, they actually belonged to the British Intelligence Service.
It Ended Badly, Of Course
“There were three things in Cotton’s life. Flying, money, and women.” Frederick Winterbotham, discussing Sidney Cotton.
Cotton’s agreeing to join the Royal Navy Intelligence Service didn’t go over well with either MI-6 (who owned the planes) or the Royal Air Force (who thought Sidney was already in their service). The fight eventually ended up being decided by Winston Churchill, who logically ruled in favor of the Air Force. Churchill had been looking at Cotton’s pictures for several years and pointed out to the Air Force in his decision that Cotton’s work was far superior to their own, which angered the Air Force greatly. Cotton now had enemies in MI-6, the Royal Navy, the British Foreign Service, and most importantly, in the Royal Air Force where he was now a wing commander.
Cotton was successful again for some time, though. His photoreconnaissance group grew from 29 to 316 personnel. He obtained and modified planes and equipment, often outside of proper channels, which gained his group the unofficial name of Cotton’s Crooks. He made their official motto “The Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Be Found Out.” Sidney’s unit did superb work in France before and after the German invasion, but Cotton got in even more trouble. He still was running his businesses while acting as Wing Commander, and was often not where the military thought he should be (present with his units). He also felt an obligation to keep the morale of his pilots and ground crews high while in France, but the military found his methods, which included establishing a wing brothel and using reconnaissance planes to fly British Ale to his men in France, rather unacceptable. There were at least rumors that he was also representing American arms dealers, selling U. S. rifles and ammunition to the French and Dutch.
During the last days of the war in France, Sidney was sent to fly Richard Lewinsky, the Polish National who had provided Britain with details of the German Enigma coding machine, out of France and back to England. When he landed his Lockheed, escorted by two Spitfires, to pick up Lewinsky, he began negotiating with a rich Frenchman who would pay handsomely for two seats on the plane. Since the plane had two extra seats, Cotton thought it was just good business to discuss the matter, but British Military representatives forced him to leave and reported his “negotiations” to his commander. He was relieved of his command as soon as he landed back in England. He spent the remainder of the war being investigated under one Official Secrets act charge or another (most claiming he was passing British secrets to Americans), and was blacklisted from any service with the military.
At the end of the war he began buying surplus military equipment and reselling it in underdeveloped countries, sometimes making huge profits, but more often none at all. In 1947, when Britain granted sovereignty to India and Pakistan, the Indian State of Hyderabad declared itself independent and needed to buy arms to prevent India from taking over forcibly. Cotton bought up a fleet of surplus Lancaster bombers, hired out-of-work veteran pilots, and began running guns and arms into Hyderabad. Sidney made a lot of money in this venture. It is said the last plane he flew out of Hyderabad contained 20 coffins filled with bank notes worth 10 million pounds. He also became an embarrassment to the British and Australian governments supplying tons of arms to Hyderabad, an enemy of their supposed friends India and Pakistan. Despite the tons of armaments he supplied Hyberabad, when India actually invaded the fighting lasted only four days.
When he returned to London in 1949, he was charged and tried for illegally carrying arms and munitions, but was only fined and had his airplanes impounded. He bought a luxury yacht, married yet another 25-year-old woman (he was now 55) and said he was going to retire. He spent most of the 1950s living on his yacht, negotiating for Saudi oil concessions, and dabbling in patents, all unsuccessfully. His health and wealth gradually failed. In 1968 he became bankrupt for the final time, and died just a few months later.
The photoreconnaissance unit Sidney founded is still in service today, now called the Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre, and a small display there acknowledges Sidney as the father of aerial reconnaissance. Interestingly, the two Lockheed 12A aircraft he owned both outlasted Sidney. One of them was used regularly in films and television shows, and was last flown at the Oshkosh air show in 2001. The other remains in France.
Barker, Ralph and Cotton, Sydney. Aviator Extraordinaire: The Sydney Cotton Story as told to Ralph Barker. Chatto & Windus, 1969
Leaf, Edward. Above all Unseen. Haynes Publishing, UK, 1997.
Watson, Jeffrey. Sidney Cotton: The Last Plane Out of Berlin. Hachette, Australia, 2002.
Author: Roger Cicala
I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.