Sidney Cotton

Sidney Cotton

Infobox Military Person
name= Sidney Cotton
lived= 17 June 1894Death date and age|1969|2|13|1894|6|17|df=yes
placeofbirth= Goorganga, Queensland, Australia
placeofdeath=London, England

caption= Frederick Sidney Cotton c. 1941
allegiance= flag|Australia
serviceyears= 1939–1940
rank= Squadron Leader
branch= air force|United Kingdom
commands= P.D.U. (Photographic Development Unit) Royal Air Force
unit=P.D.U. (Photographic Development Unit) Royal Air Force
battles= Second World War
awards= Order of the British Empire
Frederick Sidney Cotton (17 June 1894 - 13 February 1969) was an Australian inventor, photographer and aviation and photography pioneer, responsible for developing and promoting an early colour film process, and largely responsible for the development of photographic reconnaissance before and during the Second World War. He numbered among his close friends George Eastman, Ian Fleming and Winston Churchill.

Early years

Frederick Sidney Cotton was born on 17 June 1894 on a cattle station at Goorganga, near Bowen, Queensland. [ Cotton 1969, p. 17. ] He was the third child of Alfred and Annie Cotton, who were involved in pastoralism. Cotton was 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 in November 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. [ [ Flying and Fearless] Note: Sometimes known as the "SidCot suit."] This flying suit was widely used by the RAF until the 1950s. Cotton continued with No. 8 RAF Squadron in 1917 where he was promoted to Flight 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 various assignments.

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.

py missions

Shortly before the Second World War, Cotton was recruited by Fred Winterbotham (then of MI6) to take clandestine aerial photographs of the German military buildup. 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 the target 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.

econd World War

Appointed 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, England. This unit provided important intelligence leading to successful air raids on key enemy installations. [ Cotton 1969, p. 156.] 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 consequently "wheedled" a couple of Spitfires. These Spitfires, later augmented by de Havilland Mosquitos, 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." [ Picture-Perfect Spy] ]

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. Jones recounts in his memoirs how these photographs were used to establish the size and the characteristic launching mechanisms for both the V1 and the V2. Cotton also worked on ideas such as an airborne searchlight for 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 Christian Dior 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. [ Cotton 1969, p. 164-167.] For the remainder of the war, Cotton acted as an unofficial consultant to the Admiralty.

Under 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 bases. 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 bridgesFact|date=February 2008 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. For his activities in Hyderabad, he was accused of gun-running and fined 200 pounds in a British Court. [ Sidney Cotton at the Australian War Museum Site] ]

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.

His 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.

The only known monument is a plaque marking his grave at Tallegalla cemetery near Brisbane.




* 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. ISBN 0-73361-516-3.

External links

* [ Guide to Cotton's papers] at the Australian War Memorial
* [ Sidney Cotton: The Lockheed file]
* [ Peppers Hidden Vale - Getaway Fact sheets - Home of Sidney Cotton]
* [ Ipswich's "James Bond" remembered on birthday]
* [ Australian Biography Online]
* [ Picture-perfect spy - Royal Australian Air Force News]
* [ Enigmatic Man]
* [ Aviation History of Australia]
* [ Sidney Cotton The Last Plane out of Berlin]

NAME= Cotton, Sidney
SHORT DESCRIPTION=Australian inventor, photographer and aviation and photography pioneer
DATE OF BIRTH= 17 June 1894
PLACE OF BIRTH= Goorganga, Queensland, Australia
DATE OF DEATH= 13 February 1969
PLACE OF DEATH=London, England

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