Tuesday, November 22, 2011

British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front - Pt 21

Back to Part 20

Actionable Intelligence

The trench map and the processes used to maintain the map’s intelligence currency provided a framework onto which could be fused intelligence from other sources.  This section will explore the evolution of counter-battery artillery intelligence fusion, a classic example of the operational/intelligence interface where aerial photography fulfilled a crucial role in providing and/or corroborating intelligence that could then be acted upon.

The Artillery Counter Battery Role

Not until the end of 1915 was the counter-battery role recognised as a separate tactical operation of the artillery requiring special organisation and co-ordinated intelligence support.  At this stage the compilation of the first large scale 1:10,000 maps had made it possible to accurately plot many of the German artillery battery positions visible on the ever increasing numbers of aerial photographs.  This process highlighted the discrepancies in and between the various counter-battery lists of the period that were being derived from RFC visual reconnaissance reports, RA observation reports, Corps INTSUMS and the fledgling reporting from the flash spotting sections.  A report written in September 1915 had already highlighted the key failing in the contemporary counter-battery intelligence gathering processes:

‘. . . the important and rather difficult point then arises of the proper collation of all results, . . .  Winterbotham, Survey on the Western Front. p. 42.

The First Compilation Section

In an attempt to address the collation issue Third Army set up a Compilation section under the control of its Topographical section in December 1915.  This Compilation section was headed by the previously mentioned Lieutenant Goldsmith.  As well as the study of air photographs, Goldsmith’s stated role was to synthesise and record the counter-battery intelligence from all sources and to disseminate, in INTSUM form, lists of German artillery positions derived from Third Army’s observation and flash spotting sections that he had correlated with the other intelligence sources.  Goldsmith had identified the utility of using aerial photography coupled with the map to corroborate the other available artillery intelligence sources.  With the establishment of FSC’s in February 1916 each army had its own Compilation section.

From early 1916 counter-battery intelligence was rationalised and coordinated at army level.  In each army a weekly list of ‘Active Hostile Batteries’ that consolidated the information from the RFC and the FSC’s was issued every Sunday, coincident with a weekly counter-battery conference where the following were present or represented: General Officer Commanding (GOC) Heavy Artillery, GOC RFC Brigade, GSO Intelligence of the army and the OC of the FSC (Winterbotham, Survey on the Western Front. p. 43.).  These conferences that continued until September 1916 would ascribe a confidence level to the batteries listed, those identified on or confirmed by aerial photography would be categorised as ‘position determined’.  From May 1916 with the weekly lists growing longer and taking more time to plot the details were also transposed onto a counter-battery target map and represented graphically.

Lessons from the Somme

The increase in operational tempo during the Somme and changes to the German artillery tactics exposed the weaknesses in centralising counter-battery intelligence at army level:

‘During this battle [the Somme] German Artillery tactics changed considerably.  Protection gave way to concealment, and positions changed with a rapidity which made an Army compilation out of date almost as soon as lists or maps could be produced.’.  Winterbotham, Survey on the Western Front. p. 45.

GHQ in early 1916 had already recognised the importance of counter-battery intelligence and had imposed an Intelligence Corps officer on the RA at corps level.  Francis Law the Irish Guards infantry officer mentioned previously was one of those officers.  Law had no artillery or intelligence experience:

‘Despite my ignorance of artillery I was given . . . a completely free hand.  Every morning reports reached me from a variety of sources. . . . infantry battalions, brigades and divisions . . . artillery units . . . sound ranging sections [formally established in April 1916] . . . the [RFC] and . . . kite balloon sections.  All gave bearings from their own positions to points behind enemy lines from which gun flashes had been spotted . . .  I set up three large-scale maps, and plotted and recorded relevant information daily.  When several sources had reported enemy activity at a common point I alerted all sources.  I could and did ask the [RFC] to carry out reconnaissances and to photograph suspect areas. . . . I only called for [aircraft] sorties when verification of a target was thought to be vital.  Law, A Man at Arms. pp. 73-74.

Law had found like many of his contemporaries that aerial photography was both a unique intelligence source and a corroborative tool that could be used to validate his other intelligence sources.  With a Sergeant and a small clerical staff he conducted the artillery intelligence fusion role, what is now know as Surveillance and Target Acquisition (STA).  Having determined the targets, what was needed was an evolutionary shift in command and control that would formally link the STA element to the contemporary counter-battery effort.

Next: Part 22 ‘Establishment of the Counter Battery Office at Corps Level

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