Thursday, August 25, 2011

British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front - Pt 5

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Aerial Photography in the RFC

During the early summer of 1912 the War Office sought volunteers from across the British Army to join the Military Wing of the RFC as ground personnel.  One area that the RFC particularly wanted to improve was in the adaptation of current balloon photographic techniques and methods for use in aircraft.  In August 1912 Frederick Charles Victor Laws, aged twenty five, transferred to the RFC from the Coldstream Guards after seven years of military service.  He was accepted as an Air Mechanic (photography) 1st Class.  Laws was to become one of the key influences in the development of British aerial photography during the First World War.  Posted initially to No 1 Airship Squadron at Farnborough where within a few months he was promoted to Sergeant in charge of the photo-section, he soon found that aerial photography was not treated as a priority.  Dismayed not to be working with aircraft it was pointed out to him by his Commanding Officer that only airships were involved in photography at that time.  The majority of the early photographs were oblique but by mid 1913 the British experience had demonstrated the need for a camera that could be fitted to an airship or aircraft pointing vertically downwards, such a camera would need to be able to take successive vertical photographs that ensured continuity of cover or overlap.  During early 1913 Laws had been the camera operator involved in the seminal airship flight that captured an overlapping series of aerial photographs along the Basingstoke Canal.  This series of photographs proved a milestone in the application of aerial photography to mapping.  The camera used had been the first specially designed and fixed Watson Air Camera (Figure 3).

Figure 3.  The Watson Air Camera 1913.

During the spring of 1913 the Naval Wing of the RFC took control of all the British airships.  Laws who was more interested in aircraft than airships asked to remain in the Military Wing and was posted along with his whole photographic section to the Experimental Flight at Farnborough commanded by Major Herbert Musgrave.  The unit at Farnborough carried out experimental work with wireless, bombing, photography and artillery co-operation.  In the twelve months from the spring of 1913 to 1914 Laws and his photographic team had many flying opportunities and learnt a great deal about emulsions, filters, and the effect of shutter speeds.  The greatest challenge was the fitting of the Watson air camera into an aircraft, the first being fitted into a Henri Farman.  F. C. V. Laws, Looking Back - Paper read by the Author at the Photogrammetric Society's Meeting on 18th November, 1958, The Photogrammetric Record, Volume 3 Issue 13, (1959) pp. 25-29.
In parallel with the experimental photographic work being carried out by the Flight at Farnborough the aircrew of 3 Squadron RFC, realising the possible value of aerial photography to military reconnaissance work, purchased their own cameras and adapted them for use in the air.  The aircrew of the squadron experimented and successfully developed a system of developing the glass plate negatives in the air, so on landing they would be ready to print.  During the summer manoeuvres of 1913 the squadron tested their techniques and, early in 1914, produced examples of their work, a series of photographs showing some of the defences of the Isle of White and the Solent.  The hand held press-type cameras they adapted and used, with a 6-inch lens, became the camera type used most frequently by the RFC until 1915 (Raleigh, The War in the Air Volume 1. p. 250.).

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