raf wyton photographic factory
Last update: 10|01|14


RAF Wyton fulfilled a unique role during the Cold War as the home of Bomber Command's strategic photographic reconnaissance squadron. Specially adapted Valiants, Victors and Canberras routinely took off from the base, flew over the Iron Curtain (or the current hot-spot) and took hundreds of aerial pictures. The planes then returned to base where the film would be developed and analysed.

They knew from the outside that they would have a problem. A mission by a single Victor alone could produce over 10,000ft (3,048m) of film so a photographic processing facility was required on an industrial scale. Therefore a dedicated "Photographic Factory" was built in a separate compound to the south of the airfield in the 1950s. Film was taken to the factory from the aircraft, rapidly developed and then sent to RAF Brampton for analysis.

The factory processed photographs for over forty years. But parts had fallen into disuse, or were pushed into storage for the airfield, by the start of the 1980s. The death knell came at the end of the 1990s: overtaken by both technological advances (with digital and satellite images becoming standard) and the end of the Cold War, the buildings became surplus and were offered for sale. The new owners did little with them, and the photographic factory has stood derelict ever since.

As RAF Wyton’s role was unique, then its requirements were unique, so it’s believed that this small anonymous building was the only example of its type built during the cold war.


The single storey structure was built in a rough "T" shape with eastern, southern and western spurs. Its sole purpose was for the rapid development of photographic film and the eastern and western wings were devoted to this function. Several clusters of small, single-man darkrooms were scattered around the building. Each had an "in-use" indicator (a red light above the door), custom lighting and taps which supplied photographic development fluids and fixers. Each cluster was unique; both with the number and size of darkrooms, suggesting that slightly different photographic development techniques were being carried out in parallel around the building.

Ventilation was obviously a concern and a large ducting system snaked around the building, with individual extraction hoods in each of the darkrooms. The ducts led back to the large plant rooms in the western spur which housed boilers (for hot water and heating), the pumps for the air extraction system and air filter beds.

A large room in the north-western corner of the building was used as a chemical store. 500 gallon tanks were submerged in the floor, where pumps were mounted which supplied the pressure to pump the chemicals around the building to the darkrooms. The tanks and pumps were housed in a sunken area of the room around which was built an elevated walkway; it felt more like a standard RAF Operations Room than a chemical store.

Many of the other rooms in the western and eastern wings also had a dedicate function concerned with the photographic process (with either darkened windows and/or custom viewing spotlights) but in many cases their use couldn’t be discerned.

The southern wing was purely administrative with offices, meeting rooms and toilets. One of the rooms looked like some form of leisure room or break room given its remaining decoration and a stand for a television set. Again, much of this work was guesswork, as very little remained to determine their use.


The majority of these photographs were taken on the second, and final, visit to the facility in April 2005. Some select photographs were published at the time whilst the vast majority weren't published until October 2010.

Exteriors (21 pictures)
Western Spur (32 pictures)
Eastern Spur (22 pictures)
Southern Spur (21 pictures)
Plant Rooms (7 pictures)
Miscellaneous (11 pictures)


I visited the former Photographic Factory three times over a six year period. Unfortunately I only had an early primitive digital camera for the first trip in 2002 so those pictures are poor.

Photographing The Photography
Then And Now
And There It Was On Page 24


Plan Of The Photographic Factory


"Ref your visit to the 'tin mine' at RAF Wyton. I worked there in 1960 when I was a photographer and after seeing your photos of the place it brought back a lot of good memories. "We used to develop and print films from the V Bombers, the films were 1000 ft long and a foot wide. We were known for some time as the Penguins -- all flap and no fly as we always took longer to turn a V Bomber around and get back in the sky with new cameras on board. I seem to remember our time was eleven minutes and RAF Brampton did it in nine. If my memory serves me right we ended up as King Penguins by doing it in seven minutes. There was a great amount of good atmosphere there working with the Americans and sometimes getting a day's notice of being sent to Kenya or Canada."

"The moral was great there was no bull or anything as long as we pulled our weight when it was needed."

"A couple of things that come to mind:

  • There were two separate buildings. The other was for RAF police dog training. [This was demolished in 2001/2]
  • The photographic building had extra taps like hot and cold water in large bosh-like-sinks but these had developer and fix running through them. They were made up in a room that had large vats and was at the end of that corridor that you took photos of near the front door. So you just turned on the taps in every dark room for the chemicals that were required.
  • There were anything between 30 to 50 people working in the building.
"Anyway thanks for letting me see the photos they were great. - Terry

""The Tin Mine" was part of JARIC - Joint Air Reconnaissance and Intelligence Centre - at Brampton. As you can imagine, over the years the RAF took quite a lot of reconnaissance films and they are (or were) all stored in tins, on racks, in a dedicated air conditioned underground bunker, hence the term "Tin Mine." The Wyton building was always known as "The Factory" - Dave

""I ran the laboratory (which does not appear on your web-site info) for 9 months in 1958/9. My i/c was Chief Tech Eggleston, but as I was a qualified chemist, as a National Serviceman, I ran the show."

"The area with a raised balcony was in fact the room where 500 gallon tanks of rinse/developer/rinse/fixer/rinse were sited. My job was to take routine samples from each tank, anaylse them for active chemical depletion, and make up a replenishment mixture for each tank to ensure its capability."

"Incidentally, part of the development process involves the removal of silver salts, and the development tank was fitted with electrolysis anode/cathode terminals to separate out silver metal which was the periodically collected by a contracted firm of Hatton Garden jewellers."

"My major endeavour, being a national serviceman with absolutley no commitment to the future of the nation was to volunteer for the incineration of secret/confidential photo material on a Friday morning, which enabled me (under the protection of colleagues) to go AWOL on my motorcycle and be home in Cheshire by lunchtime on that day."

"I have since visited the 'factory' and at my last viewing.... Well say no more - just keep the memories." - SAC George Wood 5056449

"Re: Terry's notes: NO, NO, NO, RAF Brampton was about 5 miles from the Wyton Photo Factory and was never a processing unit. There was no way that Brampton serviced V-Bombers or anything else."

"The Officers mess at RAF Brampton was the original country home of Samuel Pepys (him of the diary). RAF Brampton was never operational and was in fact the HQ of photo intelligence, reading sense into all that the Wyton photo facility threw at it. The suggestion that V-Bomber turnround was a contest is absurd."

"Photo material was processed in the factory as it was delivered, there was no 'feedback' to the squadron as to when they could 'photo re-arm' and get more shoots. In fact the vast majority of the material came from 58 Squadron which flew PR 9's Canberras (PR standing for Photo Recconaisance)."

"These PR 9 Canberras had the cockpit 'windscreen' set at and angle looking over the side of the fuselage so that the pilot could see where his cameras were aimed." - SAC George Wood 5056449

"I was based at Wyton on 39Sqn line as an air camera fitter. It was my first posting after basic military and photo training. I arrived there in the June of 76."

"I did spend some time in the building, although my prime role was initially on the ‘line’ and then later within the RIC (Reconnaissance Interpretation Centre) serving 39 Sqn and later 13 Sqn when they arrived from Malta. I eventually de-mobbed as a photographer in 1999, and have worked in what was JARIC since (now DGIFC at Wyton). "Anyways, just a couple of points really based purely on the dates I served at Wyton, 76 – 82."

"In that time frame and I believe for several years prior - The large door with windows either side on the initial approach to the building was the main air camera process room, housing Type 11 and Type 12 processors. The type 11 was for 70mm, the type 12 for the larger 10in roll film. The type 11 processor, up to the demise of 41 Sqn at Coltishall (The last tacce recce Sqn) was the fastest processing machine in the world. We could process a full pod of cameras from say a harrier in about 4 mins. That’s about 1400 feet of 70mm black and white air film dry too dry."

"The large doors was the easiest way to get some of the kit in and out, however the doors to the left of those main windows, approached via a small ramp was the main door. On access the first small room on the right was indeed the stores room, immediately hitting that main crossroad in the corridors, the far right hand corner was the reception type main office. I guess I should refer to your floor plan but I am hoping you can follow this."

"The corridor that led straight across and then goes down a few steps is where the crew room was located, this was on the right and had a door opening to the outside. Many a game of cards or Uckers was played here during tea breaks. Coming back to the crossroad and turning left, right at the bottom was the ground photo department, almost immediately opposite there entrance was again doors to the outside. We used to get a lot of work from what was called JARIC models based at Wyton in some old WWII buildings near the airfield (gone now). The one time the section was locked down even to ‘factory’ staff as the models where classified secret and above. Approaching that end of the corridor and on the right was a large room with steps down into it (possibly the room that looks flooded) was the general engineering flight for the building. Electricians and the like."

"In regards to the processing of air film from recce sorties, the valiant and V bomber era was before my time but there is potential that some of it was done there as support to the station squadrons, however any processing done at Brampton would not normally have been routine missions."

"We did have a then secret system called a system pack that was fitted into the bomb bay of the PR9, the main films from this where always taken to JARIC, however a 70mm tracker camera, was processes and evaluated within the factory."

"There was a comment somewhere in reference to ‘tin-mines’ being underground. I can assure you there was no underground storage within JARIC other than a refrigerated room used for storage of light sensitive material and an old war time planning room, but both of these where no more than a few steps down." - Chris Player