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Newark MP Robert Jenrick backs calls for memorial to Photographic Reconnaissance Units that included Southwell's Michael Suckling who discovered Bismarck

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An MP has joined the campaign to commemorate the brave pilots and navigators of the Photographic Reconnaissance Units (PRU), which included Southwell hero Michael Suckling who tragically died in service during the second world war.

The PRU was formed on September 24, 1939, and operated highly dangerous, clandestine photographic reconnaissance operations over all theatres of operation, and captured more than 26m images of enemy operations and installations during the war.

The purpose of the PRU was to provide up-to-date intelligence to strategically plan the Allied actions in the war.

Newark MP Robert Jenrick.
Newark MP Robert Jenrick.

Flying Spitfires and Mosquitos, the intelligence it gathered was used by all the armed forces, giving same day intelligence on enemy activity.

The intelligence provided by the PRU was used in the Cabinet War Rooms — now the Churchill War Rooms located underneath the Treasury — and was instrumental in the planning of major operations; D-Day and the Dambusters Raid, the monitoring of major shipping movements such as the Bismarck and Tirpitz, and the locating of the site of the V1 and V2 rocket launching site at Peenemünde.

Due to the clandestine nature of their operations — they flew solo, unarmed and unarmoured — the death rate was nearly 50%. Life expectancy in the PRU was around 2½ months, yet there is no national memorial.

The Spitfire AA810 Project has therefore led the campaign to establish such a memorial in central London.

One of those who served, and died, in the PRU was Pilot Officer Michael Frank ‘Babe’ Suckling, born in Southwell and educated at the Minster School.

Joining the RAF, he was posted to the relatively new PRU and had flown 19 missions over occupied territory before taking arguably one of the most famous photographs of the war.

On May 21, 1941, Suckling, 20, took off in his camera equipped Spitfire, his mission was to search the fjords around Bergen for the German battleship Bismarck.

Three hours later he landed back at Wick in Scotland, the camera film was quickly processed. Films would normally be sent to London by train but such was the urgent nature of the content, Suckling was tasked to fly the images to London.

Running low on fuel and in failing light, Suckling landed his Spitfire near the home of a friend who owned a garage not far from Southwell. Together, they completed the remainder of the journey in one of the garage’s cars, delivering the prints to headquarters at Northwood, in north-west London, in the early hours of the next morning. There, the prints were examined and it was confirmed that Suckling had indeed photographed the Bismarck while taking on supplies and fuel in preparation for a long sea voyage.

Suckling’s daring reconnaissance flight and prompt analysis of the prints allowed the orchestration of a naval pursuit across the Atlantic that culminated in the sinking of the Bismarck on 27 May 1941.

Suckling was decorated with the DFC, but exactly two months later he was shot down while on a reconnaissance flight to La Rochelle and has never been found. His name appears on the war memorial in Southwell Minster.

Newark MP Robert Jenrick. said: “I am delighted to support this fantastic campaign to commemorate those who served in the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit. This includes Michael Suckling, a native of Southwell, who served admirably under exceptionally difficult conditions, and who ultimately gave his life in service of our country. I look forward to working with the Spitfire AA810 Project to establish this memorial and look forward to being able to pay my respects once completed.”

If there is anyone related to Michael Suckling, or if anyone know someone who served in the PRU during the war, please go the Spitfire AA810 Project website www.spitfireaa810.co.uk or get in touch with Tony Hoskins, Tony@spitfireaa810.co.uk

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