Seventy years ago, the greatest military operation in history was launched as the Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy to liberate Nazi-occupied Europe in what history recalls as D-Day. We’re used to seeing newsreel images of marines and infantrymen rushing from landing craft in the face of the German guns, but overhead there was another war raging as men in fragile aircraft risked their lives to capture vital images of the battle’s progress. As part of the 70th-anniversary commemoration, RAF Tornado jets from II (Army Co-operation) Squadron (II (AC) Sqn) recreated that historic D-Day recon mission over Normandy, giving us a glimpse of how far aerial reconnaissance has come in three generations.

On June 6, 1944, a II (AC) Squadron Mustang fighter plane with Air Commodore Andrew Geddes at the controls took the first photos of the Normandy landings using very large cameras installed in the belly of the specially-modified aircraft. He was followed by two other Mustangs flown by RHG Weighill and Flying Officer HJ Shute. Their mission, which took 36 sorties that day, was not only to take pictures, but also to act as spotters for the naval bombardment of the German defenses.

This was an extremely hazardous mission because, in addition to being shot at, the Mustangs had to fly straight and level for a dangerous length of time at very low altitude to get clear photos. Worse, to save weight and gain speed, reconnaissance aircraft tended to be unarmed. In all, 30 sorties were needed to gain the wide, panoramic images that Allied Command needed of the beaches. According to the RAF, a modern Tornado can do the job in one sortie.

For the 2014 recce mission, two Tornado GR4 reconnaissance fighter bombers from RAF Marham in Norfolk were dispatched on a two-hour sortie. Flying at 400 mph (644 km/h) at 20,000 ft (6,000 m), the supersonic aircraft flew over Gold, Juno, Utah, and Sword beaches, and used their state-of-the-art equipment to take high-resolution digital images.

"After imaging the D-Day beaches from 20,000 ft using the same type of reconnaissance pod that we were flying with in Afghanistan only a fortnight ago, we flew down the beaches at 1,000 ft replicating Air Commodore Geddes’ flight" says Wing Commander Jez Holmes, Officer Commanding II (AC) Squadron. "Whilst the fortifications at Pont Du Hoc and the remains of the Mulberry Harbour are visual reminders of the events of 70 years ago, it is difficult to imagine the apocalyptic vision that he was faced with. Today, the technology that we use has changed, allowing us to fulfill the same missions further, faster and with stand-off and precision."

Aside from not having to deal with anti-aircraft guns operated by very unsympathetic men while over Normandy, there are a number of other differences from the days when I (AC) Sqn flew prop-driven Mustangs. The Tornado GR4 is what’s called an MRCA (Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) and though the first Tornados flew in 1974, its still a formidable battlewagon. The GR4 of II (AC) Sqn are not only armed with precision weapons and are capable of low-level close-air support mission, they’re also equipped with the Litening III Advanced Targeting Pod that can capture full-motion video. In addition they have the Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for Tornado (RAPTOR), which is a standoff electro-optical and infrared (IR), long-range oblique-photographic reconnaissance camera pod that “can read the time on the face of Big Ben in London from the Isle of Wight.” That’s a distance of about 100 miles (160 km).

According to the RAF, Friday’s mission was supported by RAF Marham’s Tactical Imagery Intelligence Wing (TIW) for pre-mission planning and also processing the high-resolution digital images.

The pilots of the 2014 Normandy Beach recce (Photo: Ministry of Defence)

“It’s a real honor for our imagery analysts to be able to follow in their predecessors footsteps, who as part of Operation Crossbow were involved in the planning and execution of D-Day 70 years ago” says Wing Commander Mark Smith, Officer Commanding TIW. “Whilst the technology involved has changed, the basic principles and skills that our Imagery Analysts employ today on operations in Afghanistan would be instantly recognizable to the veterans of D-Day.”

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