Saturday, November 5, 2011

British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front - Pt 17

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Evolution of Photographic Interpretation Awareness Training

Following the formal establishment of the photographic interpretation practitioner training in late 1916, 1917 witnessed the formalisation of awareness training.  By June 1917 the following courses, all of which contained aerial photography in their syllabus, were advertised in S.S. 152 Instructions for the training of the British Armies in France (Provisional)  (S.S. 152, Instructions for the training of the British Armies in France (Provisional), (HMSO June 1917).):

  • The Army Infantry School, training Company Commanders, Company Sergeant Majors and Sergeants.
  • The Army Scouting, Observation and Sniping School training officers intended to become Brigade or Battalion Intelligence Officers.
  • The Army Artillery School training Artillery Officers.
  • Corps Infantry School training Platoon Commanders and Platoon Sergeants.

The success of the awareness training is evident in an anecdote provided by a British company commander.  In 1917 C. J. Lambert with his Company of Royal Scots were occupying a sector of trenches near the Sencee River.  Their lives were being made miserable by a German Mortar which defied all attempts to pinpoint its location using the routine aerial photographs available as it was too well hidden.  In a further attempt to locate the mortar Lambert requested a dawn photograph in the hope that any tracks made by the mortar crew in the grass moistened by the early morning dew would reveal the mortars precise location.  In his own words Lambert describes the result:

‘In due course I was handed a composite photograph which told me everything I wanted to know.  It was a poor day for the trench mortar crew, . . . for the mortar ceased to trouble us following a call to our supporting artillery.’.  Medmenham Collection DFG 3410, Letter Lambert to Babingdon-Smith, 23 Dec 1957.

A key success that justified the organisational changes and the efforts being put into photographic interpretation training came during Third Ypres.  Haig in his diary entry for the 28 August 1917 recorded:

‘Trenchard reported on the work of the Flying Corps.  Our photographs now show distinctly the ‘shell holes’ which the Enemy has formed turned into a position.  The paths made by men walking in rear of those occupied, first caught our attention.  After a most careful examination of the photo, it would seem that system of defence was exactly on the lines directed in General Sixt von Armin’s pamphlet on ‘The Construction of Defensive Positions’ . . .’.  Gary Sheffield and John Bourne eds, Douglas Haig War Diaries and Letters1914-1918, (London, Phoenix, 2006) p. 320.

The II ANZAC Corps INTSUMS had begun to highlight the use of shell holes in late July:

‘. . . tracks lead to the river bank just north of the village, C 11 a 55.50 opposite the farms on the western bank; these run to shell holes or places where machine guns could be fired from (42B 1693).’  Australian War Memorial, II ANZAC INTELLIGENCE SUMMARY to 6 p.m. 23rd July 1917, AWM4/1/33/15 Part 2.

Following this discovery of what was the German defence-in-depth system the weight of British artillery barrages was switched onto the shell holes.  This change increased German casualties and dislocated their defensive system.

By the end of 1917 personnel with a remit to carry out photographic interpretation were located on the Intelligence Staff at Infantry Brigade and Battalion level.  The Brigade and Battalion Intelligence officers would have attended the ‘The Army Scouting, Observation and Sniping School’ whilst the support staff were trained at Division or Corps level by an aerial photograph expert.  During early 1918 Hughes (BIO 53 Squadron) conducted a number of these training sessions:

‘Thursday 17 January 1918 - I went to Corps to give my famous lantern lecture to a new group of would be Intelligence Officers from the trenches.  Hughes, ‘Diary’ of T McK Hughes.

The BEF of 1918 had succeeded in placing photographic interpretation personnel, trained to the appropriate standard, in intelligence sections at all levels.

Next: Part 18 ‘The Uses for Aerial Photography

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