Sunday, September 18, 2011

British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front - Pt 8

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RFC Experimental Photographic Section

Coincided with Darley’s initiative, Field Marshal Sir John French received a courtesy copy of some aerial photographs taken by the French air arm and a map on which the German defensive positions had been draw using information derived from the aerial photographs.  These photographs were passed via General David Henderson, the commander of the RFC in France, to his Chief of Staff Lieutenant Colonel F. H. Sykes.  Sykes had seen some of Darley’s notes on photographic mapping (The National Archives, AIR 1/2395/255/1, 3 Squadron notes on aerial photography. 1914 Dec. - 1915 Feb), and realised that the French were producing better photographs than the enthusiastic amateurs of the RFC.  As a result early in 1915 Major W. G. H. Salmond, then a staff officer at HQ RFC, was tasked to liaise with the French photographic organisation.  Salmond’s subsequent report outlined a highly centralised technically proficient photographic organisation being operated by the French.  As a result of the report, an RFC experimental photographic section was established, by the middle of January 1915, and sent to First Wing which at the time was commanded by Colonel Trenchard.  The section commanded by Lieutenant J. T. C. Moore-Brabazon had three other members; Lieutenant C. D. M. Campbell, former Sergeant now Sergeant-Major Laws and 2nd Air Mechanic W. D. Corse.  Their role was:

‘. . . to report, after experience in the wings, on the best form of organization and camera for air photography.’ Jones, The War in the Air Volume 2. p. 88.

The new section’s real challenge was to build an aerial photographic intelligence aware military culture.  As Moore-Brabazon pointed out:

‘It was exceedingly difficult to get anybody to appreciate what we were trying to do, or use the information we got.  In fact Colonel Trenchard carried about with him photographs of the enemy trenches which he pushed before members of the army staff who only viewed them with the mildest interest inspite of the fact that they were planning attacks on the very areas about which we could give them information.’. Medmenham Collection DFG 1471, J.T.C. Moore-Brabazon, Letter to Squadron Leader Mayle, School of Photography RAF, (25 November 1959).

It would take the battle of the Somme in 1916 to finally move aerial photography from a novelty collected by Staff Officers as souvenirs to a pre-requisite for any military operation.

Moore-Brabazon and Campbell set to work on the design of a camera that could be operated in a moving aircraft.  The result, the hand held ‘A’ type (Figure 5) manufactured by the Thornton-Pickard company, was first used over the German lines on 2 March 1915.

Figure 5.  An ‘A’ type camera being handed to an observer of a FB5.

Operating limitations, the need to lean out of an exposed aircraft cockpit and operate a camera that required eleven distinct operations for each exposure with thick gloves or numbed fingers, combined with the need for vertical photographs for mapping purposes, led to the fixing of the camera to the aircraft.  This was only possible when the key challenges of distortion due to aircraft movement and vibration caused by the aircraft motor necessitating fast shutter speeds, 1/125 of a second, were overcome.  By the summer of 1915 when the ‘C’ type camera became available fixed semi-automated aerial photography had been achieved.

Laws and Corse were left to operate the new Wing photographic laboratory that they improvised in a cellar under the châteaux that housed First Wing’s HQ.  A process was rapidly established whereby exposed photographic plates were brought in from the RFC squadrons by despatch riders to be developed and printed.  As Laws stated:

‘It was not long before a steady stream of prints were being sent to the army formations.’Laws, ‘Looking Back’, p. 30.

In addition to establishing the Wing photographic laboratory Laws was tasked to train the pilots and observers in First Wing in aerial camera use.

Next: Part 9 ‘RFC Photographic Sections Formalised

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