Thursday, February 16, 2012

British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front (1914-1918)

TIMELINE - British Aerial Photography and Photographic Interpretation on the Western Front (1914-1918)


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.
Sept 1914
On 15 September 1914 Lieutenant G. F. Pretyman, a pilot from 3 Squadron, took five photographs of German artillery positions on the Aisne with his own hand held camera.
By the end of 1914 the squared map system had been accepted and adapted and covered the whole of the British front.
End 1914


From early 1915, the Royal Engineers were being trained to use aerial photography to support cartography.
Jan 1915
The first aerial photographic mosaic was completed during January 1915 by Lt Darley.
A RFC experimental photographic section was established and sent to First Wing, by the middle of January 1915.
Within the month (Jan 1915) the experimental photographic section at First Wing was declared a success and following the section’s report recommendation a photographic section was established at the HQ of each of the now three RFC Wings.
By the end of February 1915 the RFC’s First Wing photographed the entire German trench system in front of First Army to a depth that ranged from 700 to 1,500 yards.  The result was a fairly complete picture of the German tactical dispositions.  This tactical picture, which was regularly updated, was used by Haig to plan the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.  Additionally 1,500 copies of a 1:5,000 scale map overlaid with an outline of the German defensive system were specially printed and issued to each of the attacking Corps.
Feb 1915
Lieutenant Colonel J. Charteris used photography in planning for Neuve Chapelle - (diary entry dated February 24 1915)
Between July and September 1915 Topographical Sections were created at Army level.
Summer 1915
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.
This issue of map currency was appreciated as early as the battle of Loos in 1915 when copies of aerial photographs were circulated so that staff and regimental officers could make hand written amendments to their maps.  During Loos, Romer (First Army Maps and Printing Section 1915) had his section working through the night producing and printing special map sheets showing the new detail derived from that day’s aerial photographs; these sheets were sent by dispatch rider to the affected units.
Sept 1915
The Canadian Corps when formed in September 1915 established a new GSO, Second Grade, to command the intelligence service within the Corps ‘. . . a small force of draughtsmen and assistants working on aeroplane photographs, which were then beginning to be used extensively . . .
Second Lieutenant Laws returned to Britain in September 1915 to establish the RFC’s School of Photography at Farnborough.

Nov 1915
In November 1915 Alan Lloyd gave a lecture on aerial photographs to his Corps Commander.

Dec 1915
Third Army set up a Compilation section under the control of its Topographical section in December 1915.  This Compilation section was headed by 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.
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.
End 1915

By the end of 1915 a newly created series of 1:10,000 base map sheets overprinted with the tactical detail of the German defensive positions had been produced.

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.


From early 1916 counter-battery intelligence was rationalised and coordinated at army level.
Early 1916

Jan 1916
The new RFC 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.
The Army Topographical sections had expanded and were subsumed within newly created Field Survey Companies (FSC) in February 1916.  Within the organisation of a FSC was a Compilation section that had the role of synthesising the artillery counter-battery intelligence at army level.  Goldsmith described as ‘one of the pioneers in the scientific study of air photographs’ was a compiling officer in Third Army’s Compilation Section.
Feb 1916

Apr 1916
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.

During April and May 1916 the 1st ANZAC INTSUMS provided little more than ‘shopping lists’ of available photographs that could be ordered by subordinate units from First ANZAC Corps intelligence.
From May 1916 with the weekly (Active Hostile Batteries) lists growing longer and taking more time to plot the details were also transposed onto a counter-battery target map and represented graphically.
May 1916

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.
Jun 1916
From June 1916 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.

Jul 1916
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.

Aug 1916
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.
A British study of the French intelligence system published in September 1916 highlighted the advantages of integrating an intelligence specialist at squadron level.
Sep 1916

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.
Oct 1916
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’.
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.
Nov 1916
Lloyd’s guide reproduced as the first British photographic interpretation guide ‘S.S. 445 Some Notes on the Interpretation of Aeroplane Photographs’ in November 1916.

From late November 1916 the textual summaries in the 1st ANZAC INTSUMS began to be provided alongside the list of photographs they related to.
Although not officially authorised until January 1917 the first Corps Topographical Sections appeared in Fourth Army in December 1916.
Dec 1916

During December 1916 instructions were issued to form Branch Intelligence Sections (BIS’s) at the headquarters of each corps squadron and each army wing.

Late 1916
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.

From late 1916 Intelligence Corps officers, trained to interpret aerial photographs, began to be attached to Divisional Intelligence sections.

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.


As a result of the lessons from the Somme a Counter Battery Office (CBO) commanded by a Counter Battery Staff Officer (CBSO), a Lieutenant Colonel, was formally established by GHQ at each Corps.  The Intelligence officer in the CBO was one of the new War Office sanctioned Royal Artillery Reconnaissance Officers (RARO) also newly established, at Army, Corps, and Corps Heavy Artillery Headquarters, during the winter of 1916/1917.  The intelligence officer’s declared role was ‘. . . to carry out special artillery reconnaissance, to study and collate the information derived from aeroplane photographs and maps so far as it affects the artillery, and to keep in close touch with the Royal Flying Corps.’
Early 1917
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.
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.
The success of the CBO initiative was clearly evident at Vimy Ridge in 1917.
Mar 1917
Vimy Ridge March 1917 the Canadians built a scale model of their assault area based on aerial photographs.
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.

Jun 1917
By June 1917 S.S. 152 Instructions for the training of the British Armies in France (Provisional) advertised numerous training courses that contained aerial photography in their syllabus.

At Messines in June 1917, aerial photographs of the German defences were taken every day during the preliminary bombardment, and the known artillery positions every two days.

Aug 1917
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’ . . .

End 1917
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.


Feb 1918
The GHQ issued photographic interpretation manual was updated in February 1918 S.S. 631 Notes on the Interpretation of Aeroplane Photographs.

May 1918
In a lecture given in 1920 H. R. Brooke-Popham stated: ‘As regards photographs, our best day’s work was May 3rd, 1918, when 4,090 new photographs were taken.’

Aug 1918
Amiens in August 1918 saw a proliferation in aerial photographs being made available at company level for study before the attack.

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