Britain began the Second World War dangerously short of capable reconnaissance aircraft. The Supermarine Spitfire had solved part of the problem, providing an aircraft with the performance to take photographs over defended areas, but it did not have the range to make an ideal PR aircraft.
The de Havilland Mosquito, originally developed as a high speed unarmed bomber, would provide the answer. It had the speed and the range needed in a photo reconnaissance aircraft, and the space to carry a wide range of camera installations.
The Mosquito PR Mk I was the first version of the aircraft to enter active service. In July 1941 the prototype aircraft joined No. 1 PRU (Photographic Reconnaissance Unit), flying its first mission on 17 September 1942 over Brest and Bordeaux. Eventually the unit would receive ten PR Mk Is as well as a number of conversions of NF Mk IIs and B Mk IVs.
The arrival of the Mosquito gave the PRU an aircraft with which it could reach across Europe. Missions to Norway began in October 1941, to Danzig, East Prussia and Poland in January 1942.
From March 1942 the PRU began to perform PR work for Bomber Command, recording the results of bombing raids. The long range of the Mosquito would allow it to reach just about anywhere that the main bomber force could bomb. This duty saw the Mosquitoes of the PRU reach into southern Germany.
Naval reconnaissance remained an important duty, with the Mosquitoes flying constant missions to Norway searching for the main units of the German fleet.
The importance of photographic reconnaissance was recognised in October 1942 when No. 1 PRU was reorganised into five PR squadrons. No. 540 became a dedicated Mosquito squadron, while No. 544 Squadron would convert to the type in March 1943.
Each new variant of the Mosquito improved its capacity as a PR aircraft. Higher altitudes and longer ranges allowed the Mosquitoes to penetrate further and further across Hitler’s Europe. The PR Mosquitoes made many crucial discoveries, amongst them the secret German research centre at Pennemünde, photographed on 22 April 1943 by a PR Mosquito returning from a mission to Stettin. After a series of Mosquito PR missions over Pennemünde, the main bomber force attacked on 17/18 August 1943, inflicting serious damage on the German rocket program.
Long range can also be expressed as high endurance. This made the Mosquito the perfect aircraft to search for V1 launch sites, allowing for long missions while efforts were being made to find these scattered sites.
The PR Mosquitoes also saw service with the 2nd Tactical Air Force. Initially three squadrons (Nos. 35, 500 and 140) used the aircraft, although only No. 140 kept the Mosquito after May 1944. This unit accompanied the 2nd Tactical Air Force to France after D-Day.
A small number of PR Mosquitoes saw service in the Mediterranean. The first Mosquito reached Malta on 17 January 1942. From there it flew PR missions over Italy, until on 31 March 1942 it was badly damaged by a Bf 109. The crew were able to limp back to Malta, and both survived a crash that wrecked the aircraft. The next year No. 683 Squadron would operate a small number of Mosquitoes in May-June, but their standard aircraft was the PR Spitfire.
February 1943 saw No. 60 Squadron, SAAF, begin to receive the Mosquito. From bases in North Africa and later in Italy the squadron flew PR missions across most of southern Europe, even reaching into German.
The final PR unit to use the Mosquito in the Mediterranean was No. 680. This squadron received Mosquitoes in February 1944, and used them over Greece and the Balkans.
By the time the Mosquito was available in sufficient numbers to be deployed to the Far East, the period of rapid Japanese advances was over, and the front line had somewhat stabilised on the India-Burma border. Once again the photo reconnaissance units were faced with the problem of finding aircraft with the range to perform useful reconnaissance missions over Burma.
At the start of 1943 No.681 squadron had been formed from No. 3 PRU. It was equipped with Spitfires and Hurricanes for short distance work, and the B-25 Mitchell for longer distance work. Although the Mosquito had the range required, there were fears that the wood and glue construction would not be suitable for use in the heat and humidity of India and Burma. The Mosquito would indeed suffer from many problems as a bomber in this theatre. However, initial experience with a small number of Mosquitoes from August 1943 showed that the aircraft could safely operate in the area.
On 29 September 1943 No. 684 Squadron was formed around a nucleus from No. 681. PR Mosquitoes were soon ranging over Burma, Malaya and Thailand. The Mosquito had the speed and rate of climb to escape interception by Japanese fighters, and the endurance to make round trips of over 2,000 miles.
The Mosquito PR Mk 34 was developed specifically for the Far East. It had an internal fuel capacity of 1,192 gallons, partly contained within a bulged bomb bay, and could carry two 200 gallon drop tanks. Pilots from No. 684 Squadron were sent to Britain to collect the first examples of the type, setting a Britain to India speed record by making the return journey in 12 hours 25 minutes.
The PR Mk 34 arrived in the Far East in time to make a few sorties at the very end of the war. A detachment was sent to the Cocos Islands, from where they flew their first mission on 3 July 1945. These missions were aimed at Sumatra, in preparation for an invasion that never came. On 14 August Japan surrendered, and the war was finally over.
The PR Mosquitoes still had one more duty in the Far East. In the aftermath of the Japanese surrender, they were used to take pictures of Japanese POW camps to make sure that the Japanese were actually obeying the terms of the surrender.
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