Aircraft Recognition

Aircraft Recognition, subtitled The Inter-Services Journal was a British Second World War magazine dedicated to the subject of aircraft recognition. Published monthly by the Ministry of Aircraft Production between September 1942 and September 1945, the target audience of the magazine was members of all three British Armed Services (Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force) as well as members of the Royal Observer Corps.


At the start of the Second World War, the subject of aircraft recognition had a very low priority among the British armed forces with the exception of the Army Anti-Aircraft Command. It was also a topic that was outside the brief of the Observer Corps whose duties were limited to the reporting of aircraft as "Friendly Fighters", "Bombers", "Hostile" or "Unidentified. However many members of the Observer Corps did take an active interest in the subject of aircraft recognition. The only aids issued to assist with aircraft recognition were the Air Ministry Publications AP.1480, official silhouettes of aircraft, and AP.1764, Aircraft Recognition. The low priority afforded to the topic was well instanced as early as 6 September 1939 when the Battle of Barking Creek, a friendly fire incident, occurred resulting in the death of a British fighter pilot and the loss of two Hawker Hurricanes.

The Battle of Barking Creek, other friendly fire incidents and the paucity of material on the subject of aircraft recognition led to the formation of an Aircraft Recognition Wing within the Army Anti-Aircraft Command. On a very limited budget the first course started at RAF Biggin Hill in February 1940 training 36 officers and men in the subject of aircraft recognition. The topic also started to come to the attention of the Inter-Service Recognition Committee that had been formed in 1939 to deal mainly with air-to-ground and air-to-sea signalling to indicate friendly status and by the end of 1940 all three services realised that more work was needed to improve aircraft recognition.

Concurrently, there were a number of developments taking place outside the armed services. In December 1939 a group of Observer Corps volunteers in Guildford organised a meeting to discuss improving aircraft recognition, the meeting became known as the "Hearkers Club School of Instruction" and the first lecture was delivered by Peter Masefield, technical editor of The Aeroplane. Masefield was to play a leading role in the launch and direction taken by Aircraft Recognition. The first Hearkers Club was such a success that others followed and by Spring 1940 there were nine branches and a supporting publication-The Hearkers Club Bulletin. In the bulletin and in The Aeroplane Masefield explained his techniques in aircraft recognition:

Different people, new to the game, are adopting various methods to try to spot particular types of aeroplanes at a distance. Some look for distinctive features, such as motors, wings, tails, gun turrets and so on in a certain order and identify by a procees of elimination. This method is excellent for a start, but is far too slow, laborious and meticulous to be of much use at the distance and speed at which positive identification will be viatally necessary when the real offensive begins. A useful analogy is that of a meeting a stranger for the first time, such as bushy eyebrows or prominent teeth. The general impression is the thing that counts, one knows one's father from his general appearance, not his detailed peculiarities although the small details are well known and go to form a composite picture which affords the instant recognition from any angle. The position is just the same with aeroplanes. When a type is really familiar it can be recognised at once by its general "sit" in the air. Little details, an underslung motor, a rounded wingtip, the position of the tailplane, all merge to form one complete whole which is perfectly distinctive.

— Peter Masefield, The Aeroplane 22 December 1939

Throughout the rest of 1940 Masefield campaigned for a separate publication dedicated to aircraft recognition and on 2 January 1941, Temple Press, the publishers of The Aeroplane launched The Aeroplane Spotter edited by Masefield. It incorporated The Hearkers Club Bulletin and while remaining an independent publication received official backing when the Air Ministry and the War Office placed subscriptions for the magazine for all RAF stations and Anti-Aircraft Command units. Among the contributors Masefield used was artist and caricaturist E. A. "Chris" Wren whose series of drawings called "Oddentification" portray aircraft with exaggerated features to emphasise the salient recognition points. As well as the armed forces and the Observer Corps there were a large number of civilian "Spotters Clubs" formed who also contributed information towards the air defence of Great Britain despite not receiving any official recognition.

With these wide variety of involved organisations the Inter-Service Recognition Committee was instructed by the Air Council to "Conduct an investigation into the state of aircraft recognition training and the methods of production and distribution of aircraft recognition material". The committee did not report until early 1942 when it concluded that having one body controlling training on aircraft recognition was not possible; but that there ought to be co-ordination between the armed and civil defence services and that there should be rationalisation of training materials. It was this last point that led the Inter-Service Recognition Committee to decide, in June 1942, to establish its own publication (A lesser point was the saving of purchasing large numbers of copies of The Aeroplane Spotter).