Friday, September 9, 2011

British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front - Pt 6

Back to Part 5

Netheravon Concentration Camp - June 1914

With the threat of war looming, the RFC gathered in June 1914 at a ‘concentration camp’ at Netheravon, Wiltshire for a trail mobilisation and practice flying, that included aerial photography, over Salisbury Plain.  At the end of July, Laws was mobilised and transferred to 3 Squadron at Netheravon.  Flying as a passenger in a Henri Farman piloted by Lt. T. O. B. Hubbard he set off from Farnborough to join 3 Squadron with the Watson camera installed in the nose of the aircraft.  At 3,000 feet over Odiham the aircraft’s engine failed, forcing a crash landing that wrecked the aircraft and camera but fortunately left Laws and Hubbard unharmed.  The RFC had lost its sole aircraft adapted to carry a fixed air camera.

The Birth of British Photographic Interpretation

Three days later the art of photographic interpretation within the British military was arguably born.  Laws again a passenger in a Maurice Farman aircraft, took photographs using a press-type camera of a parade taking place at Netheravon.  When Laws developed the photographs he noticed that he had captured on the photograph a Sergeant Major chasing a stray dog off the parade ground.  The tracks of both the dog and the Sergeant Major were clearly visible in the grass, owing to the angle of the light on the crushed blades.  These marks were still visible in a photograph taken some days later (Laws, ‘Looking Back’, pp. 25-29.).  Samples of the photographs taken by the RFC during their practice flying were published in Flight Magazine during June and July 1914.  Figure 4 illustrates the high quality of one of these photographs, the circle on the photograph highlights four wagons the target of this particular reconnaissance mission.

Figure 4.  Reconnaissance target (4 wagons) 15 Jun 14, 2,000 feet.

On the 7 August 1914 Laws left Salisbury Plain for France.  He expected to be fully occupied taking photographs of enemy positions, the reality was somewhat different.  The RFC that deployed to France, equipped with only six cameras, had little appetite and arguably little need, at least initially for photography.

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