This C-type camera is fitted to the rear cockpit of a BE 2c reconnaissance aircraft. The observer operated the shutter of the camera by pulling a cord attached to its trigger. The C-type utilized the body of the earlier A-type camera with the addition of a plate-changing top and a second magazine. The first magazine held 18 photographic plates, stacked face down over the camera’s focal plane. Once exposed, each plate slid over to a frame in the second magazine, into which it fell.

Before the Battle of Neuve Chapelle began on March 10, 1915, reconnaissance aircraft from 2 and 3 Squadrons of the RFC photographed the entire German defensive position successfully at the point where an enemy salient jutted out into the British front lines (above left). The German trenches detected on the photographs were then traced carefully onto a skeleton map (above right), on which details of the British plan of attack were eventually superimposed. Copies of this map were distributed to the attacking infantry and supporting artillery as part of the preparations for the British assault.

This aerial view of Gaza and the surrounding countryside was shot by an Australian pilot in early 1918. The RFC had started photographing the whole of the area in which the British were confronting the Turks the previous year. Air reconnaissance played an important part in paving the way for the British and Commonwealth breakthrough.

Aerial photographs were taken vertically downward or at an oblique angle, which allowed cameras to “see” farther behind the enemy lines. They had varied and equally important uses. First and foremost, both sides used them as the basis for constructing detailed maps of enemy lines. Photographs could also pinpoint artillery positions, while pilots and observers could detect and record reinforcements of men and materials being brought up to the front.

The British were the first to make use of coordinated aerial photography. In advance of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, which began on March 10, 1915, two RFC reconnaissance squadrons successfully photographed the entire German defensive system at the point where a salient jutted out into the BEF’s positions close to their junction with the French Army. The enemy trenches shown on the photographs were traced onto a skeleton map on which details of the British plan of attack were superimposed. It was the start of a process that was to lead to the development of a whole new science of photographic interpretation, which was to play a major part in the future military direction of the war.


Aerial success at Neuve Chapelle triggered a decision to speed up the expansion of the RFC and its photographic capabilities. In August 1915, Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Trenchard was appointed its new commander. A dominant personality with a foghorn of a voice, which earned him the nickname “Boom,” Trenchard was air power’s most fervent apostle. Immediately, he started to plan for a massive expansion in the size of the RFC, pushing for the introduction of faster airplanes with more powerful engines and equipped with better weapons. He also advocated the development of bombers.

Effective aerial reconnaissance was an integral part of Trenchard’s master plan. He immediately put the 32-year-old John Moore-Brabazon, who in 1909 had become the first Englishman to fly in an airplane in Britain, in charge of RFC aerial photography. Sergeant Major Victor Laws, the RFC’s only experienced photographic specialist, was assigned to work alongside him. In September, Laws returned to Britain to set up the new RFC School of Photography at Farnborough. Two months later, he became its head.

At Farnborough, candidates were trained in all aspects of aerial photography. They learned how to develop and print glass plates, make enlargements, maintain aerial cameras, and use photographs to make maps. They were also taught how to use shadows to measure the scale of objects on the ground, spot enemy machine gun and artillery positions, locate unit headquarters, and to analyze troop movements. Having completed their training, they were posted back to France to staff the photographic units that were soon being attached to each frontline squadron.

Results became more and more impressive. Before the Battle of the Somme began in July 1916, all the German positions had been photographed by the RFC and detailed maps of them plotted. The French, with their “Plans Directeur,” excelled even the RFC in the amount of detailed information their maps contained. Gleaned over time and intended primarily to assist the French artillery, they clearly identified the most vital points in the enemy defenses.

Each sector of the French-held front had its own “Chef de Cartographie,” selected for his specialist knowledge of the particular area. According to one American observer, this involved “going out not only into the foremost observation posts but even into ‘No-Man’s Land,’ as well as analyzing all the aerial photographs and other intelligence available to him.” In addition, in the person of Captain Eugene Marie Edmond Pepin, the French possessed one of the greatest pioneers of aerial photographic interpretation to emerge on either side during the course of the entire war.


By December 1917, a vast photographic map of the whole of the Western Front had been painstakingly built up; the map was amended constantly as new photographs were obtained. The ever-increasing number of photographs being taken enabled the Allied commanders finally to check the great German offensive of March 1918 and then to launch their war-winning counteroffensives that summer. The Germans could not match the massive Allied photographic effort, although, by mid-1917, their Imperial Air Service was taking around 4,000 aerial photographs a day, covering the entire Western Front roughly twice a month.

Between January 1918 and the Armistice that November, Allied airplanes took more than 10 million aerial photographs over France and Belgium, by which time the Americans had arrived to complement British and French efforts. Following its entry into the war, the USA was quick to learn from previous precepts. Aerial observers were taught the skills of aerial photography at Langley Field, Virginia; Cornell University in Ithaca, New York; Fort Sill, Oklahoma; Madison Barracks in New York City; and the Eastman-Kodak plant in Rochester, New York. An aerial photographic center was also established in Tours, France, where newly arrived US air observers could draw directly on British and French experience.

American realization of the importance of thorough photographic interpretation was swift. An official US Army handbook published in 1918 stated clearly how aerial photography had become “one of the most important sources of information” at a commander’s disposal. The handbook continued: “In fact, it alone makes possible the exact location of the enemy’s defensive works and their detailed study. The enemy, realizing its importance, tries to render this study difficult. Skillful camouflage, a large number of defenses, and imitation works are some of the means employed. As a result, the study of aerial photographs must be entrusted to specialists, who should be provided with all possible means of verification.” American photographic interpreters accordingly were tasked with studying the details of German fortifications, unit structure, and the way in which the Germans went about organizing attack and defense.

Photographic reconnaissance played its part in war zones far from the Western Front as well. Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) airplanes scouted for the British and Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) when they landed in Gallipoli in 1915, while RFC and RNAS machines supported British, South African, and Belgian forces from the Congo in the campaign in German East Africa (now Tanzania). One of their successes came when an RNAS seaplane spotted and photographed the German cruiser Königsberg as she lay skulking in the delta of the Rufiji River in April that year. The Königsberg was damaged by British river monitors on July 5; she was finally sunk a week later with accurate gunnery spotting by an RNAS airplane providing the key to the ship’s destruction.

Palestine and the Sinai Desert were among other areas that witnessed substantial air reconnaissance activity. It started in early 1915 when Turkish forces advancing across the Sinai on the Suez Canal were spotted by British and French airplanes. Subsequently, the Turks were repulsed. Two years later, the boot was on the other foot when a largely British and Australian army, commanded by General Edmund Allenby, advanced across the Sinai in its turn to defeat the Turks in the battle of Gaza. Allenby then pressed northward, capturing Jerusalem, occupying Palestine, and, by the time the war came to an end, securing Allied control of much of Syria.

Much of the territory over which Allenby’s troops were to advance had never been surveyed or mapped thoroughly. RFC photographic reconnaissance was to change all that. In late 1916, photographic officer Hugh Hamshaw-Thomas was put in command of aerial reconnaissance. A one-time Cambridge paleontologist now based in Egypt, Hamshaw-Thomas approached his photographic tasks in the same studious way in which he had previously unearthed Jurassic fossils. His unit constructed huge photo mosaics—sets of photographs that were literally stuck together—to create an aerial view of a large area. Hamshaw-Thomas used these to produce detailed maps of more than 500 sq. miles (1,295km2) of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. His painstaking labors demonstrated yet again how important aerial photography was as an adjunct to military intelligence.


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