Sunday, October 16, 2011

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

Back to Part 11

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.

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