Friday, June 24, 2011

British Aviation in the First World War – Pt 9

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Reconnaissance & Photography

Visual reconnaissance was the reason for the RFC and during the mobile warfare of the first months of the war aircraft performed this role as expected by conducting long range patrols, 15-20 miles in front of the whole line.  The stalemate of the trenches gave a new character to aerial operations, making as was outlined above surveillance and artillery direction, as opposed to simple scouting, the chief tasks.  Surveillance required repeated flights, both over the immediate front and well to the rear, to detect changes in the enemy’s dispositions, and any movement and massing of forces.  This quickly ran up against the limitations of the human eye and memory, particularly in the intricately evolving trench system.  On long range flights aimed at tracking rail, road, and river movement the observer had time to note trains, trucks, and barges seen at what location and time, and the direction they were heading.  It was near impossible to identify new features of a trench or dug-out.

Cameras were required and during 1915 they became general equipment.  The first British use of aerial photography was at Neuve Chapelle, 1st wing commanded by Trenchard photographed the enemy front to a depth varying between 700 and 1,500 yards.  The plans for the attack were based on maps made up from these photographs.  Approximately 1,500 copies of the maps were issued to the attacking units.  From this point forward photographic reconnaissance, interpretation, map production, and intelligence extraction developed at speed.

Illustrated above is the art of photographic interpretation.  The intelligence material has been extracted in sketch form.  Additionally trench mapping was produced from the photography and annotated to suit the requirements, barrage maps, situation maps, and illustrated below an early form of battle damage assessment.

Oblique photography provided a more familiar perspective to the untrained eye.  During the preparations for Amiens1918 oblique photographs were being distributed down to all officers and NCO’s received vertical mosaics of their Divisional Front.

However, during the 100 days at times the sheer speed of the advance rendered photography inappropriate.  Low level visual reconnaissance once again became a valid method of observation.

Working with the Army – Part Two

·     Contact Patrols:  Started at the Somme 1916.

·     Low Level Ground Attacks:  Started Arras, 3 May 1917; general use 3rd Ypres 1917; Real success March Retreat and the 100 days 1918.  Was really armed reconnaissance against targets of opportunity.

·    Counter Attack Patrols:  Started Arras 1917; specifically task during 3rd Ypres and on…  Corps machines to call artillery support.  Army/Corps machines armed with bombs.

·     Tank Support:  Hamel 1918 onwards – tasked to attack the German anti-tank guns.

Essentially the linkages between air and ground units developed through trial and error.  During the 100 days the BEF came up with a system that allowed fleeting targets to be engaged.  The solution came in the form of Central Wireless Stations, soon renamed Central Information Bureaux (CIB), which had been established in 1916 as a means of coordinating artillery observation missions.  It was decided to refine the system to allow for the basic coordination of fighter-bomber attacks.  Army co-operation machines which encountered suitable ground targets during the course of their patrol would report them to the CIB, which then passed the information on to the nearest RAF advanced landing ground (ALG). These landing grounds had been established as a means of ensuring that aircraft did not have to return to their aerodromes to refuel and re-arm during the course of an offensive.  Pilots at the ALG would be directed towards the position of the aircraft which had found the target, and once in visual range, the army cooperation machine would attract the fighter-bombers by firing red flares.  Once the fighters had reached the position of the army cooperation machine, they would be directly above the intended target and could launch an attack.

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