Saturday, August 31, 2013

NOVA: “3-D Spies of World War II” (PBS, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

On Thursday night Charles and I watched an episode of NOVA called “3-D Spies of World War II,” dated January 18, 2012 on the page for the series. The title was a bit of a deceptive come-on since the “3-D” aspect of the story referred to a British photo-reconnaissance program which involved flying disarmed Spitfire planes over prospective targets for bombing raids inside Germany, and by having the pilots take many photos in sequence the analysts who looked at them were able to create a stereoscopic effect that helped them make sense of what they were seeing and create the information that would let the RAF know what were the most militarily significant areas for them to bomb. The real fascination of this piece lies in the heroism of the pilots involved, flying fighter planes well into German territory without any way of defending themselves either against German fighters or anti-aircraft guns (all guns had been removed from their planes to make more room for the cameras), and also in the success of the British in uncovering not only the Germans’ secret rocket installation at Peenemünde as early as 1942 but finding and destroying the launch sites for the V-1 “buzz bombs” (the narrator mentioned that the closest modern equivalent to the V-1, a pilotless guided jet aircraft set to crash-land into a target and blow itself and the target up, is a cruise missile; they’re sometimes called the ancestors of modern-day drones but they differed from drones in that they don’t have a remote pilot actually guiding them from afar) so, rather than the game-changers Hitler was hoping for, both the V-1’s and the V-2’s (the full-fledged rocket the Nazis’ scientists developed and which became the prototype for the spacecraft developed both by the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the ones that put the first artificial satellites in orbit over the earth and then put the first men in space and, ultimately, on the moon — naturally the program showed a photo of Wernher von Braun on one of the launching pads at Peenemünde and explained he was later instrumental in the U.S. space program as well — remember Tom Lehrer’s lines: “Some have harsh words for this man of renown/But some say our attitude should be one of gratitude/Like the widows and cripples of old London town/Who owe their large pensions to Wernher von Braun”) were mere nuisances.