Monday, May 16, 2011

Operation Crossbow – Photographic Interpretation in WW2

I take my hat off to the BBC for producing an interesting and informative documentary on one of those little know but crucial operations of WW2.  Being a photographic interpreter with 30 plus years experience in the business I did wonder how the BBC would maintain audience interest in what would have been a long and tedious analytical process.  The juxtaposition of the stereo photographs, 3D models and ground truth combined with the operational realities depicted through focused firsthand accounts from Spitfire reconnaissance pilots (one British and one American) and the photograph driven bombing of the missile launch sites placed the photographic interpreters analytical effort in context.

Operation Crossbow on BBC iPlayer

Operation Crossbow: How 3D glasses helped defeat Hitler.

The National Collection of Aerial Imagery: Operation Crossbow


If you watched this documentary and are new to the art of photographic interpretation you could be forgiven for assuming that photographic interpretation came of age during WW2.  This could not be further from the truth; aerial photography and photographic interpretation proved vital during WW1:

‘At the higher command levels the utility of aerial photography for operational planning was highlighted through the use of a mosaic in early 1915, and confirmed through Haig’s use of aerial photography in the planning for Neuve Chapelle.

Although invaluable for the higher command and infantry it was the artillery that had the greater dependence on aerial photography.  The First World War was fundamentally an artillery war.  Battery survey and knowledge of the enemy’s precise location became the cornerstone of good artillery operations.  Pivotal to identifying and then targeting an enemy’s precise location was the map.  The only viable source of data for map production was derived from aerial photography through photographic interpretation.  Put simply; no aerial photography, no map, reduced artillery effectiveness.

From the artillery STA perspective, the aerial photograph proved a useful corroborative tool that helped develop confidence in the use and success of the emerging artillery intelligence sources; flash spotting and sound ranging.  Additionally, when compared to the other STA intelligence sources, the aerial photograph had a unique advantage.  German battery detection, location and identification could be achieved without the German guns firing.

For much of the BEF aerial photography proved an invaluable tool, for the artillery it was indispensable.’


The quote above comes from a paper I wrote last year exploring the importance of aerial photography and photographic interpretation to the British Expeditionary Force in France during the First World War.  Over the next few weeks I intend to update and make the paper available to you on this blog.

Go to:  British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front during WW1

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