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Celebrating Constance Babington Smith, a ‘photographic interpretation pioneer’

By NGA Office of Corporate Communications

Look around. Art and science converge in many aspects of this world — architecture, biochemistry and imagery analysis, to name a few.

At the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the art and science connection is evident in its tradecraft and products, and is celebrated by honoring the geospatial pioneering efforts of people like Constance Babington Smith.

Babington Smith was a member of the Royal Air Force’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as the only photographic interpreter in the aircraft section of its Central Interpretation Unit. She was inducted into the Geospatial Hall of Fame in 2015.

Her passion for writing led Babington Smith to a journalism career. Her talent for performing imagery intelligence analysis emerged at the outbreak of World War II.

Babington Smith was an accomplished writer with an interest in aeronautical matters. She began her professional life by working for Vogue magazine and then, soon after, writing for The Aeroplane magazine.

Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1939 prompting Babington Smith to join the RAF-WAAF as a photo interpreter at RAF Medmenham. Babington Smith was the only PI in the aircraft section of the RAF’s Central Interpretation Unit and she led the section until Germany surrendered in 1945. She achieved the rank of flight officer.

Babington Smith had many imagery intelligence successes, most notably her identification of a pilotless aircraft at Peenemunde, a major army rocket research center on the Baltic coast.

“I don’t believe it,” she said after discovering an image of a ramp that was banked by earth. “You think it’s for launching pilotless aircraft?” she asked her colleague. It was indeed a tiny aircraft positioned for launching.

Babington Smith’s discovery of an unidentified, pilotless aircraft at Peenemunde, and her team’s subsequent research, led to the air campaigns that disrupted German plans for the mass launch of the V1 and V2 weapons against the Allies.

For her exceptional meritorious service, Babington Smith was the first British woman to earn the U.S. Legion of Merit award, and also received the Order of the British Empire award, the British Star, the Defence Medal and the War Medal for excellence in her craft.

During a 2004 ceremony honoring Babington Smith, former NGA Director James Clapper spoke about her “visionary spirit and innovation.”

“Ms. Babington Smith was a pioneer in the craft of photo interpretation — her work has ensured that this tradecraft will always be an integral part of strategic military planning [and] her discoveries during World War II helped strengthen partnerships between the Allies,” said Clapper.

“She has helped open doors for women interested in careers in imagery analysis.”

Babington Smith returned to her journalism career after V.E. Day and her demobilization from the WAAF, but she never lost interest in imagery intelligence and continued to work in the field. She worked as a researcher for Life magazine and authored several books, including her own biography, the first comprehensive narrative of British photographic reconnaissance during World War II.

At the 2015 NGA Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Air Commodore Richard Powell, representing the British Embassy, expressed his gratitude for Babington Smith’s service.

“Her contributions have continued to be remembered,” said Powell. “We find ourselves today, almost 70 years on, to be inspired by her actions.”