Monday, October 31, 2011

British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front - Pt 16

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Expansion of Photographic Interpretation Expertise

With the increase in demand for and wider distribution of aerial photography came a corresponding need for more specialist intelligence staff in subordinate units to carry out the photographic interpretation.  From late 1916 Intelligence Corps officers, trained to interpret aerial photographs, began to be attached to Divisional Intelligence sections (F M Cutlack, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume VIII – The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914–1918 (11th edition, 1941), pp. 206 - 207.).  These officers were supported by an office staff of an aeroplane photo man, three draughtsmen and two clerks (Hahn, The Intelligence Service within the Canadian Corps 1914-1918. pp.113 & 119.).  By the end of 1916 photographic interpretation skills had permeated down to divisional level.  Structured training was required to push the skill down further.

Photographic Interpretation Guides

The first photographic interpretation practitioners, who included Romer (First Army’s Maps and Printing Section early 1915), Lloyd (First Corps Intelligence Officer 1915) and Goldsmith (Third Army’s Compilation Section 1916), all learnt their skills on the job.  Photographic interpretation was so new that no training formal or informal was available.  Slowly a body of experience was built up and was translated into guides and training courses.  The first guides developed in an ad-hoc fashion and were genuine attempts by the early pioneers to share their new found knowledge.  As already mentioned, Lloyd probably produced the first British photographic interpretation manual that was published in November 1916.  Although early in July 1916 Moore-Brabazon, dissatisfied with the use being made of the RFC photography by the BEF’s intelligence elements, produced and circulated six copies of a photographic interpretation guide called Photographs taken by the Royal Flying Corps: (Moore-Brabazon, The Brabazon Story, (London, William Heinemann Ltd, 1956), p.96.  Medmenham Collection DFG 1471, J.T.C. Moore-Brabazon, Letter to Squadron Leader Mayle, School of Photography RAF, 25 November 1959.).  The covering note to the guide stated:

‘These photographs taken by the R.F.C. are put together in book form, in the hope that they may be of use in furthering the closer study of aerial photographs as an aid to reconnaissance.
I am indebted to the 3rd Brigade for most of the Photographs, and to Lieut St B Goldsmith of the 3rd Field Survey Company in including his observations of points of interest in them.  J.T.C. Moore-Brabazon, Major R.F.C., R.F.C. G.H.Q., 8/9/16’.  (Copy owned by Mr Barry Jobling)

In early 1917 Rory Macleod, who had been the liaison officer between Fourth Brigade RFC and Fourth Army’s Counter Battery Intelligence Staff in 1916, produced a book on the interpretation of aerial photographs for Fourth Army’s Artillery School.  (Chasseaud, Artillery’s Astrologers. p. 195.).  By March 1917 the Intelligence Staff at GHQ had taken ownership of the photographic interpretation manuals and had issued S.S. 550 Notes on the Interpretation of Aeroplane Photographs which was distributed down to Battalion, Machine Gun Company and Trench Mortar Battery level (Finnegan, Shooting the Front. p.150.).  This manual was updated in February 1918 S.S. 631 Notes on the Interpretation of Aeroplane Photographs (The National Archives, Notes on the Interpretation of Aeroplane Photographs, AIR 10/320.).

Photographic Interpretation Training

Photographic interpretation training developed in parallel with the interpretation guides.  From early 1915, the RE’s were being trained to use aerial photography to support cartography.  Also during 1915, Lloyd probably provided the first photographic intelligence related training classes, although they were arguably more capability awareness lectures rather than specialist practitioner training.  Not until late 1916 was photographic interpretation incorporated into the syllabus of the 10 week Intelligence Corps Officer training course run in London near Wellington Barracks (Anthony Clayton, Forearmed – A History of the Intelligence Corps, (London, Brassey’s, 1993). p. 54.).  By 1918 the photographic interpretation element of the Intelligence Corps Officer training course had matured significantly and focused on the uses of aeroplane photographs within intelligence sections at Division, Corps, and Army level.  Exercises on the course required students, using aerial photographs, to make maps to plot onto and record information on machine-gun emplacements, artillery batteries, trench-mortars, and airfields, in a way that replicated what the BIO’s were doing in the field (Photogrammetric Engineering & Remote Sensing Vol. 74, No. 1, January 2008, pp. 81-82).  For most of 1916 therefore photographic interpretation skills continued to be learnt on the job.  As Francis Law (IXth Corps artillery intelligence officer) stated:

‘At first I found interpretation of aeial photographs difficult but did better with practice.’Law, A Man at Arms. p. 74.

From late 1916 the newly appointed Intelligence Corps officers at both Division and the BIS’s had either been trained at the Intelligence Corps training school in London or in the case of reassigned officers, had attended the newly established eight day course on aerial photography run at Army level in France.  Whenever possible post training familiarisation visits were provided to intelligence officers prior to them taking up their posts:

‘Saturday 24 February 1917 - Captains Bruce G.S.O. 3 of the 36th Division and one Barker who is Intelligence Officer to No 46 Squadron have been sent to spend the day with me as the culminating treat after an 8 day course of aerial photography.’.  Hughes, ‘Diary’ of T McK Hughes.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front - Pt 15

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Corps Topographical Sections

Much to the chagrin of the RE’s, with the exception of the Intelligence Corps Officer, the manpower for the BIS’s came from the newly forming Corps Topographical Sections.  Raised as an integral part of the FSC’s they were subsequently detached to Corps Headquarters where they worked under the immediate direction of the GS Intelligence.  During the Somme the need for rapid dissemination of information about the constantly changing tactical situation had led to the devolution of certain aspects of map production from Army to ad-hoc topographical sections at corps level (Chasseaud, Artillery’sAstrologers. p. 224.).  Although not officially authorised until January 1917 the first Corps Topographical Sections appeared in Fourth Army in December 1916.  The RE’s had their own view on the role of the BIS’s:

‘Branch Intelligence Sections had been formed about the same epoch [as Corps Topographical Sections], and for some time there was considerable overlapping of work, and doubt as to their exact relative spheres.  The Branch Intelligence Section was instituted for the information of the Royal Flying Corps Pilots themselves, rather than for the reproduction and sketches for Corps and Divisional Troops.  The latter duty falls to the Topo Section.’.  Winterbotham, Survey on the Western Front. p. 50.

In direct contradiction to the RE’s perception the Canadian Corps viewed the utility of the BIS’s differently:

‘One of the most important functions [of the BIS] is the examination of aeroplane photographs, interpreting them with respect to topography in the enemy’s country, as well as annotating works and defences prior to their issue.’  Hahn, The Intelligence Service within the Canadian Corps 1914-1918. p. 260.

Synergy between BIS and Corps Topographical Section

In reality the functions of the BIS’s and Corps Topographical Sections complemented each other.  The BIO at the BIS was the conduit through which all the Corps aerial reconnaissance and photography tasking flowed.  His unique position gave him oversight of the Corps operation intelligence requirements thus enabling him to quickly prioritise intelligence gleaned from aircrew debriefs, reconnaissance reports and his section’s photographic interpretation.  Time critical intelligence was disseminated immediately by telephone and when necessary followed up with annotated photographs and/or photograph derived sketches.  A textual summary of activity derived from any photographic interpretation would subsequently be included in the Corps INTSUM, at the latest the day after the photograph was taken.  Corps Topographical Sections, although not empowered to produce formal background maps this role remained at Army level, were responsible for the production of ‘hasty’ maps and sketches at short notice to support ongoing Corps operations.  The nature of the work, which included producing trench map overlays showing the latest changes and Barrage and Counter Battery overlay maps, resulted in these sections taking a more considered view of the aerial photographs taken.  The results of their photographic interpretation were incorporated on the maps and sketches they produced.  In addition textual summaries of activity derived from any photographic interpretation that complemented the BIS reporting would be included in the Corps INTSUM up to two to three days after the photographs were taken.  Immediate ‘first phase’ reporting was being carried out by the BIS’s, whereas considered ‘second phase’ reporting was being conducted by the Corps Topographical Sections.  The birth of these two sections streamlined aerial photography’s TCPED process making it both coherent and efficient, thus enabling it to support both superior and subordinate units.  The positive impact of these two sections serves to support and reinforce the view presented by Andy Simpson that:

‘From being a post box in 1914, the corps was becoming a vital clearing house for information by late 1916.  Andy Simpson, Directing Operations (Brinscombe, Spellmount, 2006) p. 53.

Friday, October 21, 2011

British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front - Pt 14

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TCPED Incoherence and Duplication

From July to November 1916 the RFC took over 19,000 aerial photographs from which approximately 430,000 prints were made (Eaton, APIS Soldiers with Stereo, p. 6.  In general terms this equated to approximately 22 copies of each photograph being produced and distributed.).  The ever increasing volume of aerial photography exposed incoherence and duplication in the BEF’s aerial photography TCPED processes.

Intelligence Specialists at Squadron Level

Early in 1916 the RFC had realised that it was not making full use of the intelligence collected or assimilated by its aircrew.  From mid 1916 Recording Officers (RO’s), of Captain/Lieutenant rank, began to be appointed in RFC squadrons.  The RO’s acted as intelligence officers and the squadron Adjutant and were tasked with debriefing aircrew collating the information gathered and forwarding anything of value to headquarters.  In addition the RO’s in the Corps squadrons took on the artillery and infantry liaison role to reduce the burden on the Squadron Commanders (Hughes,  ‘Diary’ of T McK Hughes.).  The appointment of RO’s was recognition of the need for an intelligence function at squadron level.  Despite this initiative the sheer volume of information generated during 1916 coupled with a parochial view taken by many squadrons RO’s, largely caused by a lack of formal intelligence training, (The RFC had wanted to call its RO’s ‘Intelligence Officers’ but GHQ Intelligence had refused to sanction the name or the role.), meant that a wealth of intelligence information was just carefully filed.  A British study of the French intelligence system published in September 1916 highlighted the advantages of integrating an intelligence specialist at squadron level (The National Archives, WO 158/983, Notes on the French system of intelligence during the battle of the Somme (September 1916).).  With this study in mind in October 1916 Trenchard, now the Major General in command of the RFC in France, proposed that intelligence sections be established at squadrons and wings with reconnaissance and photographic responsibilities ‘where the Intelligence Officer could be in intimate touch with the flying and photographic personnel’ (H. A. Jones, TheWar in the Air Volume 3 (Oxford, Clarenden Press, 1931) p.315.).  From late October an experimental intelligence section commanded by Captain G. T. Tait, an attached Intelligence Corps officer, was established at 3 Squadron RFC, the squadron subordinated to First ANZAC Corps during the latter stages of the Somme (Australian War Memorial, Honors and Awards - Gerald Trevredyn Tait, (25 Dec 1917)).  The experiment was deemed a success, and during December 1916 instructions were issued to form Branch Intelligence Sections (BIS’s) at the headquarters of each corps squadron and each army wing.  The BIS’s, commanded by an Intelligence Corps Officer called a Branch Intelligence Officer (BIO), comprised; two draughtsmen, one clerk and an orderly.  The sections role was clearly defined:

‘To interrogate every observer and ensure that full advantage be taken of such information as he might possess.
To disseminate to all concerned with the least possible delay information obtained by the Royal Flying Corps which required immediate action.
To examine and, where necessary, to mark all photographs and to issue both photographs and sketch maps illustrating the photographs.’Jones, The War in the Air Volume 3. p.315.

The Official History states that:

‘Although the sections formed part of the Army or Corps Intelligence they were placed under the direct orders of the officer commanding the wing or squadron . . .’.  Jones, The War in theAir Volume 3. p.316.

The reality may have been different.  Lieutenant Thomas Hughes, the BIO attached to 53 Squadron in 1917, shows clear animosity towards his squadron commander in his diary.  His refusal to comply with his squadron commander’s order relating to situation maps and his deference to Corps Intelligence guidance would suggest that the BIS’s came under the purview of GS Intelligence (Hughes, ‘Diary’ of T McK Hughes.).  During 1917 there was a trend in some Corps to publish a daily situation map as part of their daily INTSUM.  The situation maps were an RFC driven initiative and in the participating corps were produced by the BIS.  Hughes an experienced photographic interpreter was sceptical about the value of these maps, his scepticism centred on accuracy and production time.  Produced at 1:20,000 scale and annotated with activity derived from aerial observation and photography they presented a quick visual update unsuitable for determining accurate positional data.  In Hughes’ opinion the intelligence content also suffered.  A review of the II ANZAC Corps INTSUMS during 1917 supports this view, INTSUMS issued with a situation map contained limited aerial photograph derived textual updates.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front - Pt 13

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Aerial photography over the Somme

Aerial photography over the Somme area had begun well before July.  By the end of May 1916 the German first, second and third line defensive system had been photographed to a depth of more than 20 miles, and during the preliminary bombardment the first and second German lines were photographed again to determine how effective the British bombardment was.  Throughout the Somme aerial photography was continuously asked for.  The GSO 2 Intelligence of the First ANZAC Corps stated in his diary that he:

‘. . . was kept very busy [along with his other intelligence officers] interrogating prisoners, studying air photo’s, map making, issuing daily Intelligence Reports and so on.’.  S. S. Butler, Private Papers of S S Butler, IWM Catalogue Number 9793 PP/MCR/107.

Photographic Intelligence Reporting

The increase in availability of aerial photography can be clearly discerned in the First ANZAC Corps intelligence summaries (INTSUMS) written during 1916.

Figure 7.  Numbers of aerial photographs available to First ANZAC Corps 1916.
Figure 7 provides a monthly summary of the number of aerial photographs listed as available to the Corps in the Corps daily INTSUMS.  The obvious peak in photograph numbers, August 1916, correlates to the battle of Pozières (23 Jul - 3 Sep 1916) in which First ANZAC Corps were heavily engaged whilst the second peak in November correlates with the First ANZAC Corps attacks at the close of the Somme battle in the area near Gueudecourt and Flers.  In addition to the quantitative increase in the availability of aerial photography during the Somme campaign, what could also be discerned from the INTSUMS was a qualitative increase in the extraction of the photographic intelligence.  During April and May 1916 the INTSUMS provided little more than ‘shopping lists’ of available photographs that could be ordered by subordinate units from First ANZAC Corps intelligence.  From June onwards every two or three days the INTUMS started to contain textual summaries outlining the activity observed on the photographs taken in the intervening period.  Between June and early November the fidelity of the reporting also changed, simple trench construction updates changed to include summaries of track usage, resupply choke points worthy of artillery attention, and the location of possible German headquarters elements.  From late November the textual summaries were provided alongside the list of photographs they related to, usually in the INTSUM the day after the photograph was taken.

By the close of the Somme intelligence updates based on aerial photography were provided down to Brigade level in First ANZAC Corps.  At the top of each INTSUM it stated ‘NOT TO BE TAKEN FURTHER FORWARD THAN BRIGADE HEADQUARTERS’.  Further downward dissemination relied on the developing intelligence structures at Brigade and Battalion level.  In comparison the daily INTSUMS issued by Second ANZAC Corps during the Somme period contained ‘shopping lists’ of available photographs and at the end of each month a textual summary of the German trench construction noted on aerial photography during the preceding month.  Second ANZAC had arrived in France during July 1916 and held a quiet section of the line near Armentières north of the Somme area by the Belgian border.  The lack of detail in their intelligence reporting is more likely a reflection of the operational tempo being experience by the Corps rather than an indictment on the skills of the Corps photographic interpretation specialist.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front - Pt 12

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Aerial Photography comes of age

Kitchener’s Volunteers – a new RFC Structure

The arrival late 1915 and early 1916 of Kitchener’s volunteers changed the BEF into a mass army forcing another change on the growing RFC.  A new command structure was required to cater for a planned 60 service and 20 reserve Squadrons.  This was outlined in two Army Council letters dated 25 August and 10 December 1915:

‘The RFC in the Field, currently divided into three wings, each attached to an army headquarters, was to be reconstituted as a brigade.  As fresh units became available, new brigades were to be formed until there was one for each of the BEF’s armies.  It was originally planned that each brigade would comprise three wings, but in the event there were only two until the middle of 1918.  One, designated the Corps Wing, was for general [Corps level] co-operation duties; the other, designated the Army Wing, was for army reconnaissance, bombing and air fighting duties.’.  Malcolm Cooper, The Birth of Independent Air Power (London: Allen & Unwin, 1986), p. 33.

The new Brigade formation came into effect on 30 January 1916 and by the start of the Somme there were four RFC brigades, one for each army, and a Headquarters Wing attached directly to GHQ.  Under the new organisation each Corps now had an attached RFC squadron under its control and the Corps staffs were responsible for photographic reconnaissance tasking along the Corps front up to a depth of 5,000 yards.  Beyond this aerial photography was the responsibility of the Army wing.

Decentralisation of Photograph Reproduction

By the spring of 1916 the demand for photographs was overstretching the capabilities of the Wing photographic sections causing unacceptable delays in print delivery to demanding units.  The solution enacted in April 1916 was to decentralise and establish a small photographic section, comprising a non-commissioned officer (NCO) and three men, at each of the Corps squadrons and in each Army reconnaissance squadron.  This establishment was soon boosted with the addition of a Photographic Officer and two more men all trained as Photographic Air Mechanics at Farnborough (Medmenham Collection DFG7891, Letter Campbell to General Brancker ‘Photography at Home’, 16 Mar 1916.).  The training at Farnborough included; the use and maintenance of aerial cameras, developing and printing plates, print titling and enlargement, the production of photograph mosaics, map reading and plotting.  The role of these new sections was therefore camera maintenance, photographic processing and print production.  As Laws describes:

[On landing] . . . the plates where rushed into a darkroom on the squadron, processed and printed.  . . . the first prints went to the local army headquarters, brigades, and sometimes down to company commanders.  Then the negative would go back to the wing.  They would make a distribution to the higher armed formations.’.  Frederick Laws, quoted in: Joshua Levine, On a Wing and a Prayer, (London, Collins, 2008), p. 136.

Uneven Development of Photographic Interpretation Skills

The interpretation of the photographs was being done elsewhere in intelligence sections by the recipients of the prints, many of whom had limited or no photographic interpretation experience.  The Army Topographical sections had expanded and were subsumed within newly created Field Survey Companies (FSC) in February 1916.  Each Army had its own Field Survey Company that was responsible for; fixing the position of British artillery batteries, Map drawing and distribution, Observation and flash spotting, sound ranging, and counter battery intelligence compilation.  Within the organisation of a FSC was a Compilation section that had the role of synthesising the artillery counter-battery intelligence at army level.  By this stage of the war each Army had a Staff Officer designated to study air photographs, within Third Army the officer was a Lieutenant Goldsmith.  Goldsmith described as ‘one of the pioneers in the scientific study of air photographs’ was a compiling officer in Third Army’s Compilation Section (H. H. Hemming, Private Papers of H H Hemming, IWM Catalogue Number 12230 PP/MCR/155.).  One of his stated duties was:

‘To study the interpretation of air photographs, and to that end the system and type of enemy works.’.  H. Winterbotham, Survey on the Western Front (Provisional Report), (Maps, GHQ, 20 Dec 1918) p. 42.

By comparison in August 1916 Francis Law, an Irish Guards infantry officer being given a rest from the front, reported to Headquarters IXth Corps.  His role for two months was as the Corps artillery intelligence officer where one of his jobs was the interpretation of aerial photographs.  He was one of many officers with no photographic interpretation or intelligence experience assigned temporarily by Charteris to intelligence duties during 1916 (Francis Law, A Man at Arms (Collins, London, 1983) pp. 73-75.).  Both the BEF and its intelligence requirements had expanded exponentially leaving Charteris with little choice.

Friday, October 14, 2011

British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front - Pt 11

Back to Part 10

Uneven Development of Photographic Interpretation Skills

Despite this cartographically driven shift, the ever increasing number of aerial photograph recipients in the army’s subordinate formations continued an ad-hoc and uneven development of their photographic interpretation skills.  During the summer of 1915 Alan Lloyd was appointed as an intelligence officer on the staff of First Corps where he was made responsible for the Corps aerial photographs ‘. . . which at the time, were merely regarded as very accurate maps.’ (Medmenham Collection DFG3412, Letter Lloyd to Babingdon-Smith, 3 Dec 1957.).  In November 1915 Lloyd gave a lecture on aerial photographs to his Corps Commander which proved such a success that he was ‘sent round troops at rest to teach them how to read their photographs.’ (Letter Lloyd to Babingdon-Smith, 3 Dec 1957.).  Lloyd went on to produce a series of notes to support his photographic interpretation lessons that were ultimately sent to GHQ, via Corps and Army, and were reproduced as the first British photographic interpretation guide ‘S.S. 445 Some Notes on the Interpretation of Aeroplane Photographs’ in November 1916 (The National Archives, AIR 34/735, Some Notes on the Interpretation of Aeroplane Photographs (December 1916).  Referenced in ‘S.S. 550 Notes on the Interpretation of Aeroplane Photographs’, March 1917.). In contrast the Canadians appeared to have a far greater awareness of the utility of aerial photographs during 1915:

‘A German aeroplane has been hovering over our positions looking for my gun, so we have stopped firing and all movement. I know just how the chicken feels when the hawk hovers over it. Few people realize how much aeroplanes figure in this war, for war would be much different without them. They do the work of Cavalry only in the sky. Whenever they come over, the sentries blow three blasts on their whistles and everybody runs for cover or freezes; guns stop firing and are covered up with branches made on frames. If men are caught in the open they stand perfectly still and do not look up, for on the aeroplane photographs faces at certain heights show light; dugouts are covered over with trees, straw or grass. We use aeroplane photographs a great deal; they show trenches distinctly and look very like the canals on Mars.’  Louis Keene, “Crumps” The Plain Story of a Canadian Who Went, (Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1917) pp. 83-84.

When the Canadian Corps formed in September 1915 they established a new GSO, Second Grade, to command the intelligence service within the Corps.  This officer had under his command:

‘. . . a small force of draughtsmen and assistants working on aeroplane photographs, which were then beginning to be used extensively . . .’  J.E. Hahn, The Intelligence Service within the Canadian Corps 1914-1918,(Toronto, Macmillan, 1930) p. xviii.

By the end of 1915 aerial photography had polarised into three separate but operationally interrelated areas.  The RFC had shifted its focus onto the engineering element; camera development and operation, photograph processing, printing, dissemination and archiving.  Laws now a Second Lieutenant had returned to Britain in September 1915 to establish the RFC’s School of Photography at Farnborough.  The RE’s under the guise of Topographical Sections were combining survey and photographic interpretation to support cartography.  Intelligence sections at all levels, whilst largely dependant on the RE’s maps for context, had continued to develop their own indigenous photographic interpretation skills.

Next: Part 12 'Aerial Photography comes of age'

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fires Bulletin Magazine, Field Artillery School, Fort Sill, Oklahoma

If you are interested in the evolution of artillery during WW1 then you should have a look at the archive section of the Fort Sill website.  Fort Sill is the home to the US Army’s Field Artillery Training School and as part of their knowledge gathering and sharing process they publish a journal called the ‘Fires Bulletin’ every two months.  The archives for this magazine, dating back to January 1911, are available for free online and contain a wealth of information on the employment of artillery by the British, French, and Germans during WW1.  Many of the articles covering the British use of artillery are direct reprints from the Journal of the Royal Artillery, written during and immediately post WW1.

The following article titles will illustrate to you some of the material available:

(May-Jun, 1920)
Colonel W. H. F. Weber, C.M.G., D.S.O., R.F.A.
* Reprint from the Journal of the Royal Artillery, November, 1919.

(Sep-Oct, 1922)
Lieutenant-Colonel C. N. F. Broad, D.S.O., R.F.A.
* Reprint from the Journal of the Royal Artillery, May, 1922.

(Jan-Feb, 1923)
Colonel W. H. F. Weber, C.M.G., D.S.O., R.F.A.
* Reprint from the Journal of the Royal Artillery, October, 1922.

All of the archive copies of the Fires Magazine (previously called ‘The Field Artillery Journal’) are available in a searchable .pdf format from here:

Friday, October 7, 2011

British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front - Pt 10

Back to Part 9

Artillery Driven Synergy of Ground Survey, Cartography and Aerial Photography

Although a resounding success the Neuve Chapelle battle map was not the trigger that moved aerial photography from the status of novelty to indispensability.  From late 1914 through all of 1915, the British Army experienced a critical shortage of artillery ammunition.  This shortage drove the introduction of artillery survey; battery positions and targets needed to be fixed to a survey grid so that rounds used for target ranging and registration could be kept to a minimum.  From early 1915 an artillery driven synergy of ground survey, cartography and aerial photography which resulted in the production of maps on which German positions and activity could be accurately plotted and subsequently targeted was begun.

The first use of a squared map prepared by Lieutenant D. S. Lewis of the RFC was noted in September 1914 during the initial attempts to control artillery fire from the air using wireless (Jones, TheWar in the Air Volume 2, p. 85.).  By the end of 1914 the squared map system had been accepted and adapted and covered the whole of the British front.  The co-ordinate system used allowed positional locating accuracy down to approximately five yards, assuming that the base mapping was accurate.  It was soon recognised however that the Army Intelligence Sections lacked the necessary skills to produce mapping to the required levels of detail or accuracy so between July and September 1915 Topographical Sections were created at Army level.  These sections were responsible for all survey work, map supply and reproduction in their Army area.  This included the production of trench mapping from aerial photographs.

The transfer of ‘maps and printing’ from Army Intelligence to the Topographical sections was not seamless.  According to Capt Carrol Romer, the officer in charge of First Army’s Maps and Printing Section in early 1915, who has been credited as the first British photographic interpreter whilst serving under Charteris (Charteris, At G. H. Q.. p. 82.):

‘Masses of information of all sorts is collected at great labour and expense and it all goes onto a file and there it is comfortably and peacefully disposed of.’  Romer diary, quoted in: (Chasseaud, Artillery’s Astrologers,p. 86.)

Romer was referring to perceived shortfalls in the effective compilation and dissemination of counter-battery intelligence during the transfer.  Whilst the Army Intelligence Sections remained the authority on the strength and dispositions of the enemy the topographical evidence supporting that intelligence, much of it derived from the ever increasing numbers of aerial photographs, had to be plotted accurately onto the map.  As a result the bulk of the photographic interpretation work shifted to these new Army Topographical Sections with any ambiguities being referred to ‘Army Intelligence’ for clarification.  By the end of 1915 Third Army’s Topographical Section, at the request of the Army Staff, had begun to include the German trench system, including barbed wire, and known German artillery battery positions as overlays on the newly created 1:10,000 map sheets.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Battle for the Hartmannswillerkopf - February - April 1915.

Courtesy of Gwyneth Roberts

The Hartmannswillerkopf’s dominant position (illustrate above) may help to understand why the battle for its summit was sointense during March and April 1915.

On the 27 Feb 1915, after an artillery barrage the French 7th, 13th and 53rd BCA attacked the German positions but were pushed back by the Rheinische Inf. Rgt. 161, and elements of the Landsturmbataillon Mannheim and of 2. Schwadron Ulanen 11.
French attack 27 Feb 1915
Diables rouges Diables bleus à Hartmannswillerkopf Pierre Marteaux (1937)

On the 5 Mar, after careful preparation a further extensive artillery barrage was focused on the German ‘Jägertanne’ [1] sector held by the 3rd company of Inf. Rgt. 161, the 13th BCA assaulted and overran the German position but were stopped by new German defensive lines close to the summit.  German counter attacks carried out by other companies from the Inf. Rgt. 161 as well as Inf. Rgt. 25 were repulsed.  German loses numbered over 200 killed, wounded, and missing.  The Germans made a second attempt to recapture their lost positions on the 7 Mar but were again pushed back.  Over the following days the French 13th BCA, exhausted, was relieved by the 152nd ‘Régiment d’Infanterie’ (RI).

On the 23 Mar, after a four hour French artillery bombardment with 57 artillery pieces the 152nd (RI) captured the ‘col’ between the Molkenrain and the Hartmannswillerkopf and got within 150 metres of the Hartmannswillerkopf summit.  German counter attacks conducted by the Inf. Rgt. 25 and Res. Inf. Rgt. 75 on the 23 Mar and over the following days all failed to retake the lost ground.  After a three day break, during which the French artillery was moved and re-targeted, the French made another attempt to gain the summit.

French attack 23 Mar 1915
Diables rouges Diables bleus à Hartmannswillerkopf Pierre Marteaux (1937)

On 26 Mar after a three and a half hour artillery bombardment the 152nd (RI), reinforced by elements of the 7th, 13th, 15th, 27th, 28th, and 53rd BCA attacked and captured the Hartmannswillerkopf summit, all but destroying the remainder of the German Inf. Rgt. 25.  From there the French moved on to take the ‘Panorama’ rock (or Aussichtsfelsen or “Hellé rock) [2] and progressed north as far as the Bischofshut [3] and the last turn of the German re-supply road (Serpentinenstrasse) [4].  The German fortified positions of the Rehfelsen (upper and middle) [5], below the Aussichtsfelsen, were also captured.  The remainder of the German defenders, elements of Landw. Inf. Rgt. 15, Res. Inf. Rgt. 75, Inf. Rgt. 25, Ulanen 11 and Ulanen 15, having rallied and halted the French advance, were left clinging to the eastern slopes of the mountain but had managed to hold the lower Rehfelsen (Unterer Rehfelsen) [5].
French attack 26 Mar 1915 and gains on 6 Apr 1915
Diables rouges Diables bleus à Hartmannswillerkopf Pierre Marteaux (1937)
Overview of French gains 26 Mar, 6 Apr 1915
Base illustration from: Hartmannswillerkopf La montagne de la mort

The capture of the Hartmannswillerkopf summit provided the French the key artillery observation post they required to interdict the essential German transportation infrastructure on the Alsace plain around Cernay, namely the Mulhouse-Colmar railway line and the roads which led to the front lines.  For the Germans the recapture of the Hartmannswillerkopf summit was vital but paramount was the need to prevent the French from occupying the whole mountain.  The German position was precarious and they were in no position to retake their lost ground, they had to make sure that they were not swept of the mountain altogether as the lower slopes would be an important staging ground for any future attacks.  To achieve this the Germans had to reorganise their exhausted units.  On the 27 Mar two fresh German battalions were moved to the front on the Hartmannswillerkopf and amalgamated with the remnants of the Inf. Rgt. 25, whilst the II. Ldw. Inf. Rgt. 40 and the II. Ldw. Inf. Rgt. 126, both substantially below their effective strengths, were withdrawn.  Due to the speed of the French advance on the 26th Mar and the need for the French to bring forward their artillery, made difficult by the winter conditions, the Germans were given time entrench and prepare their new positions on the icy slopes of the mountain.

On the 6 Apr the French tried to take the German fortified position of the ‘lower’ Rehfelsen (Unterer Rehfelsen) but were beaten back.  Although the following days saw costly, in terms of loss of life, localised actions burst out regularly across the Hartmannswillerkopf, the French advance had been stopped.  The Germans had begun to prepare to retake the summit.  German reinforcements had arrived from Flanders and Champagne: the Guard Jäger Battalion and the Guard Schützen Battalion, and on the 16 Apr the Ldw. Inf. Rgt. 87 joined them on the Hartmannswillerkopf ready for the imminent German offensive.

On the 19 Apr the Res. Inf. Rgt. 75, following a one and a half hour German artillery barrage attempted to storm the hill.  The attack had been badly planned and being tentatively executed, was easily contained by the French defenders.  The Germans had learnt their lesson and ensured that their next attempt was better prepared.  Due to fog an attack planned by the Germans for the 23 Apr was cancelled.  Additionally on the 24 Apr the Res. Inf. Rgt. 75, located at Guebwiller, was put on alert for an attack but once again unfavourable weather prevented a German attack.

At 18.00hrs on the 25 Apr the Res. Inf. Rgt. 75 along with reinforcements from other units, the Res.Jäger Battalion 8, elements of Guard Jäger and Ldw.Inf.Rgt. 56, attacked the French positions after a 2 hour bombardment.  The assault units bolstered by specialist engineers recaptured the upper Rehfelsen the Aussichtsfelsen and pushed on over the top of the summit.  Almost 1,000 French soldiers from the 152nd (RI) and the 57th ‘Régiment d´Infanterie Territoriale (R.I.T.) were surrounded close to the summit and taken prisoner.
German attack 25 Apr 1915
Hartmannswillerkopf Capitain G. Goes

Later, on the 26 Apr, the German units pulled back to the eastern side of the hill following a French counter-attack by three companies of the 7th B.C.A.. Although notionally in French hands the the summit had now become virtually untenable. The lack of cover and the ability of either side to call down an artillery barrage at a moments notice had turned the summit of the Hartmannswillerkopf into ‘no mans land’, a status that would remain until the end of December.
French counter-attack 26 Apr 1915
Diables rouges Diables bleus à Hartmannswillerkopf Pierre Marteaux (1937)
By this stage the fir tree forest covering the Hartmannswillerkopf had all but disappeared.  The incessant artillery fire since the turn of the year had transformed the mountain into a desert of rocks, mud and cut down trees.

Le Vieil Armand/Hartmannswillerkopf

During the late spring and summer the soldiers on both sides consolidated their respective positions and tried using sudden artillery attacks and infantry raids to make the life of their opposite numbers as uncomfortable as possible.  The main action in the Vosges had moved north and was now focused around Munster and the Fecht valley. To be continued.....

Diables rouges Diables bleus à Hartmannswillerkopf Pierre Marteaux (1937)
Hartmannswillerkopf Capitain G. Goes
Hartmannswillerkopf La montagne de la mort