Friday, November 18, 2011

British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front - Pt 20

Back to Part 19

The Distribution of Photographic Prints

The distribution of photographic prints came in three forms, raw, annotated or as part of a specialist product for example a mosaic or stereo pair of photographs.  During 1915, with the RFC Wing photographic sections managing the distribution of prints, the majority went out raw with the recipients expected to carry out their own interpretation and build their own specialist products.  In 1916, following the establishment of squadron photographic sections, an initial proof distribution to the demanding unit/s was handled by the squadron.  A full distribution would be made by the RFC Wing following the transfer of the negatives.  Again, the majority of the prints went out raw.  With aerial photographs now being seen as a direct source of intelligence by the artillery and the infantry, the demand for prints and specialist products soured.  While the print distribution process struggled to cope with the new demand the print production process failed; resulting in frequent delays in the delivery of prints to the subordinate units.  The BEF’s response was two fold, to fill the gap with text reporting and find an organisation that could carry out the necessary bulk printing.  The qualitative improvement in the text reporting noted previously in the First ANZAC Corps INTSUMS during 1916 illustrates the success of the text reporting approach.  The text reporting was structured around the map grid referencing system to facilitate hand written updating of the available mapping:

‘(A). A well defined track evidently considerably used, leading from the communication trench at R.35.a.6.2 ½ . and proceeding in a N.E. direction to R.35.b.4 ¼ .8. where it meets the new trench dug to protect COURCELETTE from the South.’.  Australian War Memorial, FIRST ANZAC CORPS INTELLIGENCE SUMMARY to 6 p.m. on 31st July to 6 p.m. on 1st August ‘17, AWM4/1/30/7 Part 1.

Text reporting also had an unforeseen corollary; not only did it widen the availability of photograph derived intelligence but it also increased the demand for it.  From October 1916 the Army Printing and Stationary Service (AP&SS) had set up a section in Amiens that could produce 5,000 prints a day.  By the end of the Somme each army had its own AP&SS section bulk reproducing prints and specialist products (Chasseaud, Artillery’s Astrologers. p. 227.).  With the printing problem solved by the end of 1916, a corresponding reduction in the text report could have been expected.  This was not the case, text reporting via the updated map was able to reach a wider audience than the distributed print.

The establishment of the BIS’s in 1917 changed the print distribution dynamics and made the RFC squadron the coordinating unit (Figure 10).  With a photographic interpretation function now co-located at the RFC squadron, the form of the distribution changed.  When a photograph reconnaissance aircraft landed, proof copies were printed as soon as the photographic plates were developed.  These copies would be annotated, by the BIO or his staff, showing any changes in the German defences disclosed by comparison with previous HOC photographs and then distributed as a priority, within 30 minutes, to the GS Intelligence officers at Army HQ, Corps HQ and Heavy Artillery, and Division HQ and Artillery.

Figure 10.  Corps Squadron – Aerial Photograph Tasking and Distribution from 1917.
A second issue that expanded the distribution down to Company level when required followed approximately six hours later. (Hahn, TheIntelligence Service within the Canadian Corps 1914-1918. pp. 118-119.).  Figure 11 illustrates a BIS annotated proof vertical photograph.

Figure 11.  Vertical annotated proof print.
Extract from WFA Ypres Map/Photograph DVD

All down the distribution chain, the photographs would on arrival be re-examined and used from the perspective of the receiving unit.  From 1917 on, a soldier at platoon level could expect to carry out trench raid mission rehearsals behind the British line in an exact replica, derived from aerial photography, of the German trench system he was going to raid.  Although preparations did not always go smoothly:

‘Thursday 15 February 1917 - Considerable panic over photographs.  Everyone who is going to have a raid naturally wants photographs of the trenches they propose to enter, but as a rule they let us know about a day before the raid when it is probably quite cloudy.  Hughes, ‘Diary’of T McK Hughes.

The photographs would also have been used by the officer commanding the raid to generate a sketch map that could be used by the other members of the raiding party.  Figure 12 illustrates an aerial photograph derived sketch map used in the Roclincourt area by members of the 2/14th Battalion London Regiment who conducted a trench raid on 19 September 1916.

Figure 12.  Aerial photograph derived sketch map.
"The Body Snatchers": Trench Raid at Roclincourt
Battle rehearsal also benefited; prior to their assault on Vimy Ridge in 1917 the Canadians built a scale model of their assault area based on aerial photographs (Figure 13).  Whole divisions were taken to view the model as part of their battle training and preparation.

Figure 13.  Vimy Ridge trench model 1917.

Amiens in 1918 saw a proliferation in aerial photographs being made available at company level for study before the attack.  In addition the following products and photographs were issued to the attacking troops:

(a)       A Mosaic of each Divisional front, squared and contoured and freely annotated, for distribution down to N.C.O’s.

(b).      Oblique Photographs of each Divisional front, for distribution to all officers.  Australian Corps Battle Instructions for 8th August 1918, quoted in: Chasseaud, Artillery’s Astrologers. p. 447.

Ultimately situational awareness was facilitated at every level through the availability and local exploitation of aerial photography.

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