Title: Papers of Frederick Sidney Cotton

Date range of collection: 1938-1969

Collection number: 3DRL/6423

Extent: 1 archive box (0.18m)+ 11 oversize items.

Location: Private Records collection, Research Centre, Australian War Memorial.

Abstract: Australian aviator Sidney Cotton pioneered improvements in aerial photographs prior to and during the Second World War. His collection includes correspondence, reports, sketch maps and aerial photographs relevant to his work with British Intelligence prior and during the Second World War.

Administrative information

Provenance: Cotton approached the Memorial through the agency of Australia House in London in 1966 with an offer of a donation of his papers and photographs. After his death in 1969, arrangements were made with his wife to finally send the collection to Australia from England. By early 1970, the Memorial in conjunction with the National Library of Australia had taken delivery of the collection, and it was included in the Memorial's Private Records collection.

Access: Open

Restrictions on use: Copyright of materials described in this guide is governed by copyright law in Australia. For further information contact the Curator of Private Records, Research Centre.

Preferred citation: Guide to the papers of Frederick Sidney Cotton


Additional information

Related collections:

  • Australian War Memorial: 'Sidcot' flying suits RELAWM14174 and REL/17831. 
  • National Archive of Australia, Canberra: Series A6119.

Subjects: Photographic reconnaissance units; Aerial photographs; Royal Air Force; 1939-1945


Biographical note

Early life

Frederick 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. In 1910, he and his family went to England where he attended Cheltenham College; however they returned to Australia in 1912. Cotton worked as a jackeroo in New South Wales up until the outbreak of war.

First World War

Cotton went to England and joined the Royal Naval Air Service in November 1915, where he flew Channel patrols after only five hours solo flying. He went on to participate in night bombing sorties over France and Germany with Nos 3 and 5 Wings. In 1917, Cotton invented a revolutionary new flying suit called the 'Sidcot' which solved the problem pilots had in keeping warm in the cockpit. This flying suit was widely used until the 1950s. Cotton continued with 8 Squadron in 1917 where he was promoted to Flight Lieutenant in June of that year. 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.

In 1926 Cotton married 18 year old Millicent Joan Henry whom he had met in Canada, following the divorce from his first wife the previous year. From this time up until the outbreak of the Second World War, Cotton was engaged in various business activities as well as aerial search and rescue operations for lost explorers in Newfoundland and Greenland.

Second World War

In 1939, Cotton took aerial photos during a flight over parts of the Middle East and North Africa. On the eve of war, Cotton's flying expertise and connections enabled him to carry out clandestine photographic reconnaissance over Germany, which provided valuable information about naval activity and troop build-ups. Appointed honorary Wing Commander on 22 September 1939, he greatly improved the RAF's photo reconnaissance capabilities through his experience and knowledge. In the same period he also headed the new Photographic Development Unit at Heston, England and operated a force of Blenheims and Spitfires. In 1940 He also made another important reconnaissance flight over Azerbaijan via Iraq .

Cotton was then asked to take charge of a special photographic development unit. This provided important intelligence leading to successful air raids on key enemy installations. He 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. He was removed from his post and banned from any involvement with air operations. Following several efforts to be re-instated, even involving Churchill himself, Cotton resigned his commission. He was however awarded an OBE for his work.

Post war

After the war, Cotton continued his airborne adventures, airlifting arms and supplies to Hyderabad in India during hostilities there in 1948. For this he was accused of gun-running and fined 200 pounds. In 1951, he married a third time, to Thelma Brooke-Smith, his former secretary with whom he would have another son and daughter. His previous marriage had ended in divorce in 1944. 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.


  • Ritchie, John (ed.) 2000, The Australian dictionary of biography, vol. 13, 1940-1980, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
  • Cotton, F S & Barker, R 1969, Aviator extraordinary: the Sidney Cotton story Chatto and Windus, London.

Scope and content note

The collection is comprised of correspondence and papers from 1938 - 1969 relating to Sidney Cotton's pre-war and wartime experiences with aerial photographic reconnaissance. Correspondents include Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Dowding, Ernest Bevin, Sir John Salmond, Sir Sholto Douglass, Clement Atlee, Sir Richard Peirse, Geoffrey Tuttle and others. The collection's strength lies in its numerous aerial reconnaissance photographs and map diagrams as well as correspondence with senior officials. The work with the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) is not well documented.

Series List:

Series number Title of Series and Date
1 Papers of Frederick Sidney Cotton
Series /Item Title, date and description Album
1/1 Various newspaper cuttings regarding Cotton, including an article by Readers Digest, 1969; articles relating to aircraft he flew and their histories; photographs of Hudson, Beechcraft Lockheed 12A aircraft, no date. 1
1/2 Correspondence between Cotton and Alan D Walton of Keele University regarding Cotton's autobiography, 1967; correspondence regarding the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) with Sir Geoffrey Tuttle and Sir Victor Goddard; correspondence with the Ministry of Defence. 1
1/3 Papers titled 'A note on a method of attacking the Axis powers, by Barnes Wallis'. Note written on front page dated 1967. 1
1/4 Wallet of typed notes, diagrams and specifications for a PDU-1 photographic high speed reconnaissance aeroplane, 1940. 1
1/5 Numerous letters between Cotton and government/Air Ministry officials ; letters and papers relating to development of an airborne searchlight to help intercept enemy bombers, 1940-41. 1
1/6 Miscellaneous correspondence and papers. Cipher messages from Cotton's PDU to the Air Ministry, 1940; top secret French papers concerning intelligence/reconnaissance, 1940; a typed summary of Cotton's difficulties in dealing with the Air Ministry, no date. 1
1/7 Papers titled 'Proposals re PRU, 1) Proposals for reorganisation of PRU, 2) Reorganisation of RAF, 3) African situation,' 1940. 1
1/8 Interpretation notes of reconnaissance over Belgian towns; typed notes regarding French interpretation of photos, 1940. 1
1/9 Numerous aerial photos and diagrams of Belgian airfields, with key to match photos with place names, 1940. Oversize
1/10 Papers titled, 'RAF narrative (first draft) - photographic reconnaissance, vol. 1, to April 1941, air historical branch - Air Ministry.' Oversize
1/11 Envelopes titled, 'Sorties requested by the Deuxieme Bureau (French), maps and diagrams; Siegfried line (pre war); folder titled, 'This document must not be taken past the French frontier' (contains map diagram of Italo-German border including the Brenner pass; other assorted maps, mostly of Germany, 1938-40. Oversize
1/12 Reconnaissance reports and diagrams of flights over Belgium; map of Holland, January-February, 1940. Oversize
1/13 Maps and diagrams of 'X & XF jobs,' reconnaissance over Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany, including towns of Liege, Magdeburg, Leipzig and Dresden, 1940. Oversize
1/14 Drawings showing operation of airborne searchlight was to work; map titled 'My air tour of Middle East, June 1939'; aerial photos and notes on Baku, Azerbaijan, 1940; photograph and drawing of Union Jack from Changi POW camp, Singapore, 1942. Oversize
1/15 3 photos, Lille 1939; Farmer, Aircraft & Four pilots; magazine The Aeroplane, Sept 10, 1943 reference page 302, article on photo reconnaissance in RAF; notes and photos regarding "Sidcot" engine and gun heater covers, 1940. Oversize
1/16 Large folder with typed title page, 'Selected enlargements of naval sorties, album I': contains aerial photos and maps, 1940. Oversize
1/17 Wallet labeled 'Emden' notes diagram and photos; Folder labeled 'District of Reehr' aerial photos; folder labeled 'Heligoland' notes, diagrams and photos; folder labeled 'Willhelmshaven' notes, diagrams & photos; folder labeled 'Langeoog, Norderney and Wangeroog; Large folder with typed title page 'Album no 1', Contents: 1) High altitude reconnaissance of Western Germany, Nov-Dec 1939 and Jan 1940 (maps and aerial photos), 2) Bad weather reconnaissance, mouth of the river Elbe showing Cuxhaven and Brunsbuttel, Feb 1940.' Oversize
1/18 Large aerial photos of Hamburg and a letter to Cotton from George Goulding, dated 4 April, 1968. Oversize
1/19 Wallet containing map diagrams and aerial photos of Sicily, Dodacanese Islands, Italian East Africa, Italian Somaliland and Cyrenaica, all 1939. Oversize
1/20 Aerial photograph dossiers of key German industrial installations such as railway depots, factories and electricity stations. Locations include Kaiserslautern; Central Dusseldorf; Ruhr-Cologne; Groningen; Brauweiler; Goldenberg; Hagen; Frimmersdorf; Gerthe-Hiltrop; Hattingen; Reisholz; Zukunft; Bielefeld, 1940. Oversize

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