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The Spy who lived here...

Updated: Sep 16, 2023

It’s quite a stretch to imagine that a spy ever lived in Stanwell Moor, but it’s something a fellow resident flagged to me a few years back, and never one to reject a challenge, I started to research this individual to see what more I could find out about him, and when & where he lived in Stanwell Moor.


Having now read the three published books about the man in question, he really was a very interesting character and certainly lead an exciting life, but for this article, I’ll focus on the period he lived in the village, and summarise the before and after so it all makes more sense. I'll also provide the book sources and some website links in case anyone wants to read further.

Sidney Cotton, circa 1930 © Jill Seaton


(Frederick) Sidney Cotton was born in Queensland, Australia in June 1894, where he grew up on his father's cattle station and attended local school. His father was originally from the Channel Islands, and in 1910 Sidney came to England with his parents where he attended Cheltenham College.


At that time aviators and their exploits were all over the news, and if aviation was your interest then the "place to be" in England was Brooklands at Weybridge, where Sidney managed to visit in between schooling. He reportedly helped the fliers and crew push their aircraft in and out of the hangars, and with the likes of Tommy Sopwith, A. V. Roe and Harry Hawker frequenting Brooklands Aerodrome in 1910, it would have been an amazing time for the teenage Sidney.


The thrill of attending an Air Day included the chance that someone might "bend their kite", and none other than Charles Rolls of Rolls Royce fame was killed in one such air crash at Bournemouth in 1910, so Sidney must have been well aware of the dangers, despite which his exposure to those pioneering days clearly inspired him.


The family returned to Australia in 1912 where Sidney continued his farming work, but when the First World War (WWI) broke out he returned to England where he joined the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) to train as a pilot. Sidney qualified for combat duties and was awarded his Flying Licence after just 5 hours of flying solo; a fact even more remarkable when you discover his first solo flight took place after just one flight with an Instructor!


It was January 1916, and it’s worth considering that the first powered flight by a man happened just over twelve years prior in December 1903, which gives you an idea of how raw aviation would have been in WWI. So imagine going into combat in a flying machine made from wood and canvas after just a few hours of experience? That gives you an idea of Sidney Cotton's metal (no pun intended!).


Sidney left England before the war ended so his route to Stanwell Moor was via Tasmania (where he ran one of his father's farms), back to the UK and Hendon (where he competed in the 1920 Aerial Derby), then to Newfoundland (where he sold snow tractors and carried out aerial surveillance), and America (where he sought and bought patents), then back to Newfoundland again (where he became involved in the search for two missing French airmen), then London (buying and selling stocks until the stock-market crash of 1929), and finally Greenland (searching for a member of the Courtauld family).

Flight International, 12 June 1931 © FlightGlobal Images


Sidney is quoted as owning several UK properties during his lifetime, and often more than one at the same time. He appears to have chosen his houses based on their convenience for his workplace, and did not truly "settle down" until his later years.


The first record of Sidney living nearby comes from a ship's Passenger Manifest from 1927 when he and his wife Joan returned to England from Newfoundland, and in which their address was given as "Riverside, Wraysbury". This was the period he worked in London and played the stock-market, and the Wraysbury address was probably that of Joan's mother, Emily (Fanny) Henry.


While still in London but after the stock-market bubble had burst, Sidney became involved in colour photography, and it was during that period of his life that he lived in our village.


His wife Joan appears first in the Electoral Register of 1933 and living in Stanwell Moor at Old Oak Cottage, and then both she and Sidney are listed at the same address for 1934 and 1935.


Joan and Sidney had a daughter Jill who was born in 1930, and although she would only have been very young at the time, she remembers her time at Old Oak Cottage with her nanny Edith, and Sidney's "gentleman's gentleman" Cyril Kelson. At that time there were two buildings on the site, and Jill lived with her Nanny in the rear property, and Sidney and Joan lived in the main cottage.


Old Oak Cottage, OS Map 1912 © Ordnance Survey


Cyril Kelson hailed from Fulham and was a valet, chauffeur and odd-job man for the family when they lived in the village. When her father was away - and that was often - Jill recalls Cyril driving her to school in Sidney's Rolls Royce.


When they were at Old Oak Cottage, Sidney was the Managing Director of a colour film company called 'Dufaycolor' and in which he had a significant shareholding. The 'Dufay' developing process was simpler than those of its competitors.


Sidney produced many films to demonstrate the quality of 'Dufaycolor' to prospective business partners and buyers. His daughter Jill Seaton still owns a home movie that her father took when they lived at Old Oak Cottage, and she has very kindly given me permission to share a copy of the film. Although it's under two minutes long, it not only gives us a great view of how the cottage and its gardens looked back then, but also a glimpse at just how rural Stanwell Moor was in the early 1930's.

Old Oak Cottage and Gardens, early 1930's © Jill Seaton


Sidney travelled back and forth to the USA, a key market to break into, and during his early talks with Kodak in 1932 it all seemed very promising. Sidney met 77 year-old George Eastman, the founder and Chairman of Eastman Kodak, but having reached an agreement with the old gentleman to work even more closely, he was set back within a matter of days when Eastman - who was living with chronic back pain - committed suicide. He famously left a note which read:

"To my friends, my work is done - Why wait? GE".


During his time at Old Oak Cottage Sidney would often travel to Europe on business using his private aircraft; the Bellanca Pacemaker that he'd bought to search for Courtauld, now registered G-ABNW.

Bellanca Pacemaker CH-300, G-ABNW © Unknown


It's probable he flew from Hanworth Air Park and Jill has also given me a short contemporary segment that her father shot at the aerodrome.

Hanworth Flying Club, early 1930's © Jill Seaton


Sidney knew that access to the American market was paramount to the long term success of 'Dufaycolor' and despite the setback from Eastman's death, he continued to travel to visit Kodak in the US, trying to forge the necessary business ties, but while he was talking with Kodak they were developing their own product, and in 1935 they released their new version of Kodachrome film: firstly in a 16mm movie format, then soon after in an 8mm movie and 35mm spool format. The new Kodachrome film stock was a further improvement on the 'Dufaycolor' process and the rest, as they say, is history.


So despite spending considerable time, energy and money in trying to work with some of the major film manufacturers of the 1930's, including Ilford in the UK, Agfa in Germany and Kodak in the USA, 'Dufaycolor' failed to gain a foothold. On hindsight it feels like his competitors were playing Sidney all along, using the dialogue to better understand what he was doing, delay him bringing it to the market, and all the while developing their own alternate processes, but who knows?


While the 'Dufay' name is probably not one you've ever heard of, had he succeeded in bringing the film to the masses it would be a household name, and Sidney would have become a very wealthy man.


In 1936 neither Joan nor Sidney appear at Old Oak Cottage and that's probably because in March of that year Joan broke the news to Sidney that she was leaving him. She reappears on the public record at an address in Kensington in 1938, with Sidney showing up in Piccadilly in 1939. Their formal divorce did not go through until 1944, likely slowed by the advent of World War II (WWII).


And this is where the spying kicks in, because Sidney's experience with aerial photography in Newfoundland, his now strong links to the film business including the German manufacturer Agfa, his considerable flying skills and his prior Royal Naval service all came together in the months preceding WWII, when Sidney was asked by British Intelligence, MI6 to help them secure pictures of the German military build up.


Most of the books about Sidney dwell on this period in considerable detail, and I'm not going to try and replicate that here, but since this part of his life is when Sidney really made his mark in history, and when the spying started, it's right to provide a brief summary and insight into his work.


On 30 September 1938 the so-called Munich Agreement was signed between the UK, France, Germany and Italy, and the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain famously made his "Peace for our Time" speech when he landed into Heston Aerodrome later that day. Despite this, British Military Intelligence had been closely monitoring the German war machine and were certain Hitler and Mussolini would ignore the agreed terms, so they remained vigilant and Britain increased their own preparations to enter an inevitable war.

While working up to the "agreement" Germany had implemented a drastic reorganisation of their security services, limiting future Military Intelligence at a time when the UK and France needed as much information as possible about fortifications, airfields and military establishments in both Germany and Italy.


At the same time and via a series of contacts, Sidney was asked to meet with Major Fred Winterbotham, an RAF Officer in the newly created Air Section of MI6. Winterbotham explained that with the tightening of security, they concluded that the only way to keep abreast of the Nazi and Fascist preparations was clandestine aerial photography using civilians. It needed to be an Anglo-French arrangement, and after several days of meetings, despite misgivings, Sidney agreed to try and make it work.


In January 1939 Sidney received a Lockheed Electra 12A, an aircraft that could fly at 20,000 feet and pass unobtrusively over all sorts of interesting places! It was subsequently equipped with cameras provided by the French, and after finding someone to share the flying, the aircraft was ready to enter service in late February. A company was formed and cover stories were created for each flight in case they had to land in enemy territory. The stories cast Sidney as a Businessman, and given his recent endeavours that included flying to and from Germany trying to sell film, he was perfect for the role, but after a short period of time it became clear to him that the set-up was unworkable. Sidney told Winterbotham that for him to continue he needed to be given full control, which was agreed. The original aircraft was released to the French and Sidney started again.


It was now late April 1939 and Hitler had already breached the Munich Agreement by invading Czechoslovakia, so time was against them.


Sidney obtained another Lockheed 12A and used the experience from the first aircraft to improve the installation.


The cameras were concealed in travel cases and could be unpacked and set-up prior to arrival over the target, then returned after a successful pass. When in-situ, the lenses were concealed behind small metal panels cut into the airframe, that were opened as part of the set-up, and the electro-mechanical camera shutter could be operated remotely from the cockpit. Sidney had observed that the condensation on the lenses would frost up at high altitudes and introduced a system directing hot air from the engines onto the lenses and mechanism during operation. This kept the condensation and ice at bay and ensured high quality pictures every time. He had also devised a pear-shaped perspex side window that protruded into the slipstream, allowing him to look straight down and significantly improving the navigation on target.


Sidney had the aircraft painted in a pale duck-egg green that blended in well with a blue sky, making the aircraft almost impossible to see when at height, and introduced additional fuel tanks to improve its range.


The finished aircraft was registered G-AFTL and Sidney's operation was based out of the civilian airfield Heston to maintain the cover story.

The first operation with the Lockheed was 14th June 1939 to Malta, and the intelligence community in Whitehall were delighted with the resulting photographs. However, the main prize was Germany and Sidney remained unsure how they would get there.


As a piece of advance work on a potential cover story and using his most recent business activity, Sidney had acquired the exclusive sales rights of 'Dufaycolor' cinefilm throughout Europe, and as luck would have it, soon after arriving back from Malta he was put in touch with a Mr Schoene who was interested in developing a market for the film in Germany. It transpired that Schoene was an ex-WWI pilot who had not only been a test pilot for Heinkel, and had flown in Richthofen's squadron - the Red Baron - but was a friend of Herman Goering, who at that time was virtually in charge of all industry in Germany and who would have to approve any tie-up with 'Dufaycolor'.


Sidney initially played hard to get, inviting Schoene to London twice before eventually accepting his invite to Berlin. He made some further modifications to the aircraft, permanently installing small Leica cameras into the wings (the original military equipment was too bulky to be fully concealed) and modifying the skin to introduce even more discreet sliding panels.


They flew to Berlin on 26th July 1939 and the meetings went well, cementing the cover story and giving Sidney an insight into how he could continue the subterfuge. Fortuitously, the Commandant of Berlin's airport invited Sidney to bring the aircraft - a very elegant and fast machine, admired by pilots at the time - back to Germany to an international air meeting that was being held at Frankfurt.


They returned to Heston on 27th July and after some additional tweaks to the cameras, installing an electric motor that could both open the panels and start the shutters, they headed for Frankfurt the next day.


Sidney's luck continued. The Lockheed was a star of the show and he was even asked if one of the German officers could go up for a flight; Sidney obviously agreed, and the flight plan and consequent access he was given to the local airspace allowed him to photograph and capture a number of significant military locations.


With the 'Dufaycolor' story fully intact, emphasising his Australian nationality, and having the trust of some senior Military personnel, Sidney continued his visits and flights over Germany, eventually - as war was imminent - becoming the last aircraft to leave Berlin on 24th August 1939.


For a few more days Sidney used his aircraft to provide the Royal Navy with intelligence on ship movements, but once Poland was invaded and Britain declared war with Germany on 3rd September 1939, his operations had to stop....or did they?


About a week after the outbreak of war, a member of the Naval Intelligence Division of MI6, Ian Fleming visited Sidney at his flat. There was a particular concern that neutral Southern Ireland may allow refuelling bases for U-boats, considerably extending their time at sea while minimising their time in the danger zone. Sidney's reconnaissance photographs satisfied the Admiralty that no such bases had been established and his professional credentials were sound.


Sidney was then summoned to meet the Royal Air Force (RAF) and after much dialogue and several additional flights producing excellent results - to the embarrassment of the then RAF photographic unit - he was asked to form a special unit within the Air Force, and commissioned as a Squadron Leader with the acting rank of Wing Commander. The unit would be stationed at Heston


Sidney subsequently obtained two Spitfires and after modification for the reconnaissance role, the unit was ready to go into operation by the end of October 1939.


While the French had continued to do it their way, and the RAF operational squadrons had continued to use conventional aircraft, by mid-January 1940 Sidney's still small operation was able to demonstrate the importance of a specialist wing. To put this in perspective, since war was declared the RAF had photographed 2,500 square miles of enemy territory in 3 months with the loss of 40 aircraft, the French had photographed 6,000 square miles of enemy territory in the same 3 months with the loss of 60 aircraft, and Sidney's detachment from Heston had photographed 5,000 square miles of enemy territory in just 3 flights, without losses.


This was largely due to the flying height of Sidney's pilots, at which they were generally unseen and unchallenged by enemy aircraft, nor spotted by ground defences; a good thing really since all armaments and protective armour for the pilot had been removed to increase range. As a result of their success, Sidney's expansion plans were approved and he started getting more Spitfires and pilots.


Sidney had also established a dedicated film processing unit in Wembley, ensuring that the photographic intelligence was available at the earliest opportunity after the aircraft landed from a mission.


The specialist team were spending a considerable amount of time operating from French bases right up until the fall of France in the last weeks of June, when they had to evacuate. Interestingly, Sidney routinely took Kelson with him - remember him? - and in his autobiography Sidney recounts a great story.


It was 18th May 1940 and an air-raid had just started at their aerodrome. To keep him safe, Sidney told Kelson to drive their car under the shelter of some trees, near a ditch....


"We stood beside the ditch for a while and I told Kelson that if any aircraft headed our way he was to jump into the ditch immediately. 'Will you be jumping in too, sir?' he asked. One has no secrets from a gentleman's gentleman, and I admitted that I would be. Kelson began to rummage in the car, and I asked him what he was doing. 'I'm going to place a rug in the ditch, sir' he said. I hadn't the heart to stop him."


On 18th June 1940, when Sidney finally landed back into Heston from France, he was handed a note from the Air Ministry officially relieving him of command of his photographic unit. His only consolation was that one of the key staff he had recruited and trained, Geoff Tuttle, was being made up to command the unit, and under whom Sidney knew the team and his legacy would be in safe hands. In due course Sidney was also relinquished of his RAF position and uniform.


In a small nod to his work in establishing the foundations of aerial photo reconnaissance for the British Military, Frederick Sidney Cotton was awarded the OBE in the New Year's Honour list, 1941.


Sidney continued to support the war effort but in a civilian capacity, and despite attempts to get back into a naval uniform, his unorthodox methods to drive action had not gone down well with "the establishment" so he had to stay in civvies. Regardless, it's not an exaggeration to say that without Sidney's contribution, the war would have been more prolonged and the casualties significantly higher.


When the war did end Sidney bought one of his beloved Lockheed 12A's, plus spares, for his future private use.

Sidney with his daughter Jill (left) and future wife Bunty (right) © Jill Seaton


The next phase of Sidney's life was no less dramatic or "front of stage" than what went before, and Sidney Cotton OBE had many more escapades ahead of him. He supported the Nizam of Hyderabad during the partition of India, that involved the purchase of second-hand Lancastrian airliners, setting up an airline in Pakistan, and shipping arms then medicines to the besieged state of Hyderabad. When that debacle ended, after hearing the news that Aramco had been formed between Saudi Arabia and the US to extract oil from the country, Sidney became involved, unsuccessfully, in trying to gain a concession for his own company. (It's worth noting that Aramco's declared profits for 2022 were £134 billion, so Sidney's nose for business was ahead of its time!)


During that same period, Sidney, an accomplished sailor, acquired the motor yacht Amazone.

M.Y. Amazone © Jill Seaton


In June 1952, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, probably better known under their original titles of Prince Edward and Mrs Wallis Simpson, were lent the yacht by Sidney, possibly to celebrate their 15th Wedding Anniversary (they married in June 1937).


Around this time one of Sidney's contemporaries from the war, Ian Fleming created a fictional spy based on his time in MI6 and said to be a composite of his close associates, and in 1953 the first James Bond novel was published. If you take a look at the link at the end of this piece, you'll see that Sidney is considered one of the many inspirations for the character.


There were other ventures in the next few years, in Beirut and Geneva amongst other places, but Sidney's health was deteriorating as were his finances, and he had to sell his yacht and aircraft.


In 1968, when a fellow antagonist of the RAF, Barnes Wallis was finally recognised with a Knighthood for his work during WWII, Sidney wrote to congratulate him. Wallis replied that Sidney should have been Knighted too; praise indeed.


Sidney's health continued to falter and in 1969 his illness eventually caught up with him, and he died at Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead on 13 February. His ashes were returned to his native Australia where they are interred at the family plot in Tallegala Cemetery, Queensland.


So there you have it: a man that lived in Stanwell Moor went on to influence the outcome of World War II, and also possibly the most well known spy in the world! Who knew?


March 2023

Acknowledgements:


I'd like to thank Sidney's daughter, Jill Seaton who has so kindly engaged with me and provided the pictures from Sidney's life from her personal album, as well as the rare 'Dufaycolor' footage of Old Oak Cottage and Hanworth Air Park.


I'd also like to thank Stephen Morris who first put me on to Sidney's story in 2018, and I'm certain the second-hand book sellers would like me to thank Stephen on their behalf!


Book sources:


Evidence in Camera: The Story of Photographic Intelligence in the Second World War, by Constance Babington Smith, Chatto & Windus, UK, 1957 (later edition: ISBN 0-7509-3648-7)


Aviator Extraordinary: The Sidney Cotton Story, by Sidney Cotton, as told to Ralph Barker. London: Chatto & Windus, 1969 ISBN 0-7011-1334-0


Spitfire by Jeffrey Quill, Arrow Books, UK 1983 ISBN 0-09-937020-4


Sidney Cotton: The Last Plane Out of Berlin by Jeffrey Watson, Hodder, Australia, 2002

ISBN 0-7336-1516-3.


Footnotes....


Sidney passed his flying licence in one of these: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205307780)


As you can see, aircraft of that period were rudimentary and open to the elements, so WWI pilots not only had to fly while being fired at by the enemy, but had to endure a very cold environment.


While there are several examples of Sidney's innovative skills throughout his life, for this specific he invented a flying suit for aviators. Named the "Sidcot", it soon became RAF standard issue and was still being used in the 1950's.

WWII Wellington Navigator wearing "Sidcot" Flying Suit, 1944 © Author


Sidney's beloved Lockheed...still flying!

Lockheed 12A, G-AFTL at Sywell, Northamptonshire 28-Oct-2022 © Phil Melia


External links




Coronation of King George VI, 1937 in Dufaycolor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4OG0wjTQ4U

Chamberlain arrives back to Heston: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SetNFqcayeA


US Photo Reconnaissance, short documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ie3SrjLlcUY






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