Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Sources of Frontline Intelligence: Aerial Observation from Airplanes


A Sopwith 1A2 aerial reconnaissance sortie is about to take off. The U.S. Aero Squadron's photography officer hands over the 26cm aerial camera to the aircrew. When the sortie returns, the motorcycle will deliver the exposed photo plates to the photo lab.

By Terrence J. Finnegan

"Aerial observation" describes the many roles of aviation in the Great War. The value of aerial reconnaissance was clearly demonstrated during the first months of the mobile campaigns on both Eastern and Western Fronts.

Aerial cameras, a new phenomenon of warfare proved to be decisive in shaping the battlefield throughout the war. Furthermore, subordinate observational roles such as infantry contact missions (German writings referred to this as tactical reconnaissance) also provided the battlefield commander with timely location updates of both enemy and friendly forces in contact.

One of the lasting legacies of the Great War is the role of the airplane. Amazingly enough, the aerial reconnaissance inventory on both sides of the front has been ignored or forgotten-a remarkable oversight especially when the first priority for the battlefield commander in considering the role of aviation was to what extent the airplane could acquire information to successfully support the battle. Airplanes such as the Maurice Farman (MF) 11, Farman Experimental (FE) 2b, Albatros C-I, Reconnaissance Experimental (RE) 8, Breguet 14 A2, Halberstadt C-V, and Salmson 2A2, to name a few, were incredibly important to battlefield commanders because they delivered the information necessary to make critical decisions. It is also noteworthy to mention that many airplanes of this era were specifically designed to house a camera internally within the fuselage. French and German airplanes were structured to accommodate the requirement. For most of the war the British had to rely on smaller cameras attached to the outside of their airframes. 

Aerial photography interpretation was a team effort. The intelligence officer usually inspected one set of photographs, while a draftsman compared a duplicate set of the photographs with earlier photographs of the same area to detect any new works or defenses created in the meantime. The comparison process was accomplished by attaching a piece of tracing paper to the photograph and highlighting objects that required further attention.

This British Photo Shows Important Elements
Identifiable from the Air

The sketches were promptly completed and delivered  along with the prints, so new work by the enemy discovered by the interpreter was quickly introduced to the participants. The draftsman accelerated the interpretation by duplicating the features of new positions and points of interest. This was accomplished sketches were promptly completed and delivered in coordination with the aerial observer who flew the mission. These "short notes" attached to the maps also included impressions of the enemy's organization gained from the study of photographs and of the ground.

From 1915 to 1918, aerial photography was the cornerstone of military intelligence at the front. In cases of conflicting data, the photograph was acknowledged by the French as the one source that settled the discrepancy. As one American instructor summed up all things intelligence, "Under the conditions of modern warfare, no army can long exist without using every possible means of gathering information; and of all these means aerial photographs present probably the best medium." It provided the viewer with a concise portrayal of the threat that existed at a particular moment and the interpreted information could be effectively and accurately applied to the most important medium of the Great War, the targeting map. Photographs provided all combatants with the ability to wage positional war in the most effective and devastating manner

Source: Over the Top, February 2009

1 comment:

  1. 'Oversight'by Bullard (Lt. Gen. USAF, Ret.) is a marvelous book on the development of military aerial photography in the U.S. and a entertaining story of infighting by professional Army officers who put career advancement ahead of 'the good of the service'. A 'must read,'IMHO'!