Thursday, September 15, 2011

British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front - Pt 7

Back to Part 6

The Beginnings August 1914 to January 1916.

The early weeks of the First World War were a war of movement, and during this stage the aircraft on all sides performed about as expected, as long range scouts keeping commanders appraised of the enemy’s strategic movements.  Following the First battle of the Marne (6-9 September 1914) the character of the war began to change, aerial reconnaissance began to shift from recording movement to surveillance and artillery direction.  On 15 September 1914 Lieutenant G. F. Pretyman, a pilot from 3 Squadron, took five photographs of German artillery positions on the Aisne with his own hand held camera (Eaton, APIS Soldiers with Stereo. p. 3.).  Although of dubious quality they demonstrated that aerial photography was possible in a combat environment.  During First Ypres with aerial photography still failing to impress, sketch maps of enemy trenches and gun pits located by aerial reconnaissance were issued by GHQ intelligence.  The stalemate of the trenches brought new challenges to aerial surveillance.  Surveillance required repeated flights, over both the immediate front and well to the rear, to detect changes to the German dispositions, and any movement or build-up of forces or logistics.  Whilst flights monitoring German rail, road and river movement could be captured by the human eye and noted down the German’s intricately evolving trench systems proved more problematic.  Only the camera could provide the definitive view corroborating or correcting the aircrew’s visual observations.

At this stage of the war the impetus for aerial photography innovation rested at the junior officer level.  Lieutenant Charles Curtis Darley, a Royal Artillery (RA) officer serving as an observer in the RFC, was the most enthusiastic photographer in 3 Squadron.  During the autumn of 1914 Darley had set up a dark room in the stables of a château where the squadron was billeted and purchased chemicals from Béthune for photographic processing.  Using his own Aeroplex camera, fitted with a 12-inch lens, he slowly collected photographic coverage of the German lines on the Fourth Corps front and following processing painstakingly assembled all the photography to build up a mosaic of the German defence system.  On this photographic map he carried out the interpretation and identified and annotated all the salient points of interest, showing the latest developments in the German defensive positions.  The mosaic, completed during January 1915, was intended for use by the squadron for planning and reporting purposes but the squadron commander, Major J. M. Salmond, was so impressed that he took it to Corps Headquarters (Eaton, APIS Soldiers with Stereo. p.3.).  The mosaic created quite a stir as it clearly illustrated:

‘. . . how the information on the photographs could be reproduced in a form intelligible to all officers.’.  H. A. Jones, The War in the Air Volume 2 (Oxford, Clarenden Press, 1928) p. 89.

Here was a picture showing the enemy dispositions that a General could relate to and understand.  The detail the photographs provided and their ability to bring the front immediately to the map table made converts of those who where to use it.  It would not be long before the interpretation of aerial photographs became an essential element of battle planning.

With the onset of trench warfare and the corresponding change in the tempo of operations, the British corps commanders Generals Haig and Smith-Dorrien began calling for RFC squadrons to be put at their disposal for observation and photography work.  When the BEF formally split into two armies on 26 December 1914 the RFC decentralised.  By January 1915 it had been split into an RFC HQ and two RFC Wings, comprising of a least two Squadrons and commanded by a full Colonel, each allocated to an Army.

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