RAF Photo Recon PART 1/2 rare archival footage

An intelligence source is anyone or anything from which information can be obtained. An intelligence agency is any organization or individual dealing in the collection of information for intelligence use. Before the second half of the nineteenth century intelligence organizations, if they existed at all, were rudimentary and often relied on one person’s drive and ingenuity, very often that of the commander himself. Time and again Marlborough used ruses and speed to conceal his intentions and to divine those of the enemy through superior intelligence activities masterminded by Cadogan. Not only was Cadogan in charge of Marlborough’s administrative arrangements, he was also Marlborough’s chief of staff and chief of intelligence. An officer whose attention to detail transformed Marlborough’s broad concepts into practicable orders, Cadogan provided security for the army’s train and carried out myriad ancillary duties and special missions. He ran ‘correspondents’ in Mons and Lille and, disguised as a peasant, personally investigated the Lines of La Bassée before the Battle of Malplaquet. It was Cadogan to whom Marlborough turned whenever there was need for a reconnaissance or to lead an advance guard.

Almost all intelligence was derived from spies, prisoners, locals and other people (what is today referred to as human intelligence or HUMINT) or else by reconnaissance on foot or horseback, with the possible assistance of high ground or a telescope. Frederick the Great wrote that ‘if you know the enemy’s plans beforehand you will always be more than a match for him, even with inferior numbers,’ and he himself devoted much effort and imagination to gathering intelligence, especially the long-term strategic kind. A Jew, I. Sabatky, acted as Frederick’s liaison with corruptible Russian officers (many of whom were in fact German) and he had at least one spy in the camp of the Austrians. Personable and resourceful young men acted as ‘sleepers’ in Vienna, where they melted into society and got themselves on intimate terms with the serving girls of the great ladies.

The discoveries made by these young Adonises were quite incredible. Some of these gentlemen maintained liaisons with the Viennese chamber maids for a couple of years on end, and they wrote reports which contained far greater and more important disclosures than all the despatches of the envoys.

However, day-to-day operational intelligence was usually lacking altogether. In this respect, Frederick’s spies were of little use to him for he paid most of them poorly and then refused to believe them when they brought him bad news. (From a strictly military point of view, spies have seldom proved effective sources of information.) Frederick’s staff was very small, and the myopic king himself became the eyes of the army when he rode out on reconnaissance with the advance guard or a little escort. He looked out not only for the positions of the enemy troops but also for signs such as smoke from camp fires and bakeries or for any indication that the Austrians were on the move. This was dangerous work, for it brought him within the zone of the enemy outposts.

Cavalry has played a major role in reconnaissance from at least the time of Hannibal and his excellent Numidians. One of the hallmarks of Napoleon’s art of war was his use of light cavalry – hussars, lancers and chasseurs. They scurried ahead of the hurrying columns forming a dense mobile screen, scientifically probing every village and emptying every postbox in their search for information about the enemy, perhaps capturing a prisoner or two or finding a handful of deserters, and listening to local gossip. From this mass of information Napoleon and his staff would at least be able to establish where the enemy was not situated, and thus build up an idea of where he might still be. Similarly, the Confederate general Robert E. Lee relied on the cavalry of J. E. B. Stuart for information on the whereabouts of the Army of the Potomac: the absence of Stuart for a week before and at the beginning of the Battle of Gettysburg famously deprived Lee of critical information and is often cited as a reason for the failure of that ill-fated incursion into Pennsylvania. But Lee made careful use of other sources too, including Northern newspapers, scouts, spies and friendly civilians who came through the lines. He had a highly developed intelligence procedure in which he not only tried to put himself in the other man’s position, but actually to become that man.

In modern mechanized warfare ground reconnaissance continues to play a vital role in gathering information. In British parlance close reconnaissance applies to activities conducted within a few kilometres of the front line and is carried out from a unit’s own resources, using foot patrols and observation posts. Medium reconnaissance is a specialist task still carried out by cavalry regiments (albeit mounted in armoured vehicles) at a distance of anything up to fifty kilometres ahead of the front line of one’s own troops. Long-range reconnaissance is also a specialist task, often carried out by special forces. The British Army has traditionally relied on stealth as the means of obtaining such information and has equipped its recce units accordingly. The Russians on the other hand, and to a lesser extent the Germans, have always been happy to fight for information, using small all-arms groups to force an opponent to reveal his hand. Other specialist means of reconnaissance include sound and flash location of artillery positions, artillery location and ground surveillance radars which, with the wide variety of night viewing devices and many other specialist sensors that are available nowadays, make the task of reconnaissance and surveillance an increasingly complex one.

Two significant sources throughout history have been captured enemy documents and prisoners of war, although the reliability of both is very questionable: documents can easily be planted and prisoners are not always trustworthy. When campaigning in Spain in 195 BC, Marcus Cato sent 300 men to attack an enemy post with the express aim of capturing a prisoner, who ‘under torture, revealed all the secrets of his side’. Frederick the Great, a true scion of the Enlightenment, eschewed torture and interrogated enemy prisoners and deserters in person, but he seldom derived anything of value from them. The peoples of most of his theatres of war – Bohemians, Moravians and Wendish Saxons – were recalcitrant and unreliable. Some prisoners are naturally loquacious, however. A Union staff officer of the American Civil War wrote years later that: ‘The Confederate deserter was an institution which has received too little consideration . . . He was ubiquitous, willing and altogether inscrutable. Whether he told the truth or a lie, he was always equally sure to deceive. He was sometimes a real deserter and sometimes a mock deserter. In either case he was sure to be loaded.’ On the other hand, Japanese prisoners captured during the Second World War, although fairly few in number, proved quite valuable sources of accurate information. Because their creed refused to accept the concept of surrender, they were never taught how to behave if they were captured.

Signals intercept began the first time a messenger was waylaid, but it did not become a systematic part of the intelligence effort until technological change provided greater opportunities. When the largely forgotten hero of the Royal Navy, Thomas Cochrane, was involved in raiding the French coast between Perpignan and Marseille in 1808, one of his targets was a semaphore station. The French Garde Nationale, terrified by the approach of the man Napoleon christened le loup des mers (‘the wolf of the seas’), retreated before the British raiding party and watched while it burnt everything. When they returned to assess the damage, they were relieved to find the half-burnt remains of their signal code books and believed the brutish British had failed to realize their value. In reality, the charred books had been planted to reassure them of precisely this, for Cochrane had in fact noted the secret wigwag code and passed it on to his superior, Admiral Lord Cuthbert Collingwood. From then on any British ships within visual range could read French signal station messages.

The invention of the telegraph opened a new dimension in communications. The first attempt at line signalling was made in 1839, but there is no record of anyone interfering with British communications during the Crimean War fifteen years later. By 1850 there were over fifty commercial telegraph companies in the United States, and during the American Civil War President Abraham Lincoln received the majority of his situation reports by this means. The first cavalry raider of that war to cut a telegraph line could be said to be the father of electronic warfare, although perhaps the laurels for inventing this new means of warfare should really go to the Confederate cavalry general John Hunt Morgan, who employed a telegraphist to intercept messages from the Union authorities and to send false ones.

On 4 July 1862 Morgan set out from Knoxville, Kentucky, on a sweep through Union-controlled Tennessee, during which he captured seventeen towns, captured and paroled 1,200 Union regulars and 1,500 home guarders, and even recruited 300 additional volunteers. Soon afterwards he broke up the Union command sent in pursuit of him and captured its commander and staff. During this time the telegraphist would sometimes chat waggishly to enemy operators, and even went so far as to complain indignantly to Washington in Morgan’s name about the poor quality of the mules that were being captured.15 Not that it was always necessary to tap the wire. J. O. Kerbey, a Union spy, would lean against the wall of a building in Richmond near the window of a Confederate signaller whose messages he could overhear being transmitted uncoded. Kerbey listened to the tap of the hammer on the transmitter and sent what he heard by a secret courier service to Washington.

Guglielmo Marconi’s invention of radio in the form of wireless telegraphy was soon given a military application. The first signals were transmitted across the Atlantic in 1901 and by the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 most ships in the fleets of Russia and Japan were fitted with it. The war began with a Japanese surprise attack on Port Arthur, but during the frequent repeat attacks Russian radio operators started to notice a great increase in Japanese signals in their headphones long before any sighting was made of the enemy. Thus the Russians were given warning of impending attacks and were able to put their own ships and coastal batteries on alert. When several Russian ships were dispatched from Vladivostok to launch a surprise attack on the Japanese naval base of Gensan, they intercepted radio communications indicating that Japanese ships were also heading for Gensan, and promptly abandoned their plans, which might otherwise have ended in disaster. On 8 March 1904 the Japanese attempted to carry out an attack on the inner roads of Port Arthur, planning to direct the fire of two cruisers from over the horizon by radio from a small destroyer near the coast. When a Russian wireless operator heard the exchange of signals, although he did not really understand what was going on, he instinctively pressed his transmission key in the hope of somehow interfering with them. The Japanese ships, unable to fire accurately as a result of this first example of jamming, were forced to withdraw.

The failure of the Russian admiral Zinoviy Petrovich Rozhestvenskiy to appreciate the full significance of radio communications led to disastrous and humiliating defeat at the Battle of Tsushima, but this was a sign that electronic warfare had come of age. On land, radio intercept was first used effectively on 19 August 1914, when a British Army radio van at Le Cateau intercepted German messages which it passed on to GHQ. On the Eastern Front soon afterwards the German generals Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg were able to learn of Russian troop movements by intercepting their primitive radio transmissions and consequently to destroy the Russian Second Army at the Battle of Tannenberg. Max Hoffmann later recorded that ‘we had an ally, we knew all the enemy’s plans’.

The basic principles of intercept, direction finding and analysis were soon established, but the continuing primitive nature of the technology meant that radio was seldom employed below brigade level, where the field telephone was the main means of communication. It was not until 1915 that the British general staff, concerned at the apparent ease with which the Germans anticipated their tactical moves, realized that this too could be tapped. The Germans had developed a sensitive detector and amplifier using vacuum tubes which picked up the feeble earth currents. This led to the development of a noise jammer and in due course the British also developed their own highly sensitive amplifier, capable of detecting telephone signals up to five kilometres away. Eventually, other devices raised the level of security. The Fullerphone, for example, was practically undetectable unless the interceptor physically tapped the wire. Further advances were also made in radio direction finding, which in the 1930s was refined and developed in Britain by Sir Robert Watson-Watt to produce the first operational radar, which played a crucial role during the Battle of Britain. By 1939 the Germans had also produced an operational radar system and at this point there was a divergence between air and naval electronic warfare on the one hand, increasingly concerned with the protection or destruction of platforms (ships and aircraft), and land warfare on the other.

The plethora of electronic warfare terms and acronyms can be misleading. Electronic warfare (EW) is divided into three branches: electronic counter-measures (ECM), electronic support measures (ESM) and electronic protection measures (EPM, formerly known by the unwieldy term of ‘electronic counter counter-measure’ or ECCM). EPM are defensive and include radio silence, code and technical measures, all designed to provide security, protect one’s communications and deny the enemy information from ESM. This is electronic reconnaissance (listening), from which intelligence is derived. Once analysed and collated, this becomes signals intelligence (SIGINT, a phrase usually applied to non-battlefield transmissions such as diplomatic and other government signals), which is in turn divided between intelligence from communications systems (COMINT, or communications intelligence) and non-communications electronic systems such as radar, telemetry and guidance systems (ELINT, or electronic intelligence). ESM or electronic reconnaissance begins with searching the frequency spectrum for enemy transmissions. Once found, they can be intercepted and listened to, although they are likely to be encoded and it may not be possible to read them. Nevertheless, traffic analysis can reveal considerable information, and if they can be read they may prove invaluable. The final stage of the process is direction finding (DF). On most nets the control station will probably be the most frequent transmitter and this, combined with other information, may indicate a headquarters. ECM are designed to disrupt and attack enemy transmissions through jamming, neutralization and the feeding of false information through electronic deception (ED).

The importance of radio in modern war means that the deceiver seeks to dominate the enemy’s use of the electromagnetic spectrum, so that false information can be conveyed and genuine information denied. It is also imperative to control use of the electromagnetic spectrum by friendly forces. British commanders in the Middle East during the Second World War became paranoid about spies in and around GHQ in Cairo, who it was believed were leaking tactical plans to the Germans. It was the Germans’ use of radio intercept that enabled them to divine British moves, a task made considerably easier by the laughable naivety of British operators who used ‘veiled’ speech rather than proper voice procedure. They believed, for example, that references to cricket and hunting (for example, ‘returning to the pavilion for tea’ as a euphemism for replenishment of fuel and ammunition) were sufficient to confuse the listening Germans. Only when 9th Australian Division overran the German intercept unit at Tel el Eisa in July 1942 did the extent of intelligence that the Germans derived from this source become apparent. However, the consequences for deception of this rather distasteful discovery were considerable. The increasing reliance of the Germans on ESM as a means of intelligence gathering, especially as Allied control of the air drove the Luftwaffe’s recce aircraft from the skies, was itself open to exploitation later in the war.

One of the principles of good intelligence is that information needs corroboration. Radio DF is fairly crude (at a range of forty kilometres a target might be divined within a box measuring eight kilometres by five) but it can be used to direct other means such as aerial reconnaissance. Aircraft and photography were other developments that radically altered the business of reconnaissance and became of enormous importance to deceivers. Everything on the earth’s surface forms a pattern to the eye of the air camera or airborne observer, and man-made changes are often very conspicuous unless they continue the pattern or conform to it. The first use of an observation balloon in anger was at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794, only eleven years after the first manned flight in a Montgolfier hot-air balloon by Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’Arlandes. The first photograph was taken in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niepce, but it was not until 1858 that the first aerial photograph was taken, by Gaspard Felix Tournachon, better known in fashionable Parisian society as Nadar.

Balloons were used on operations on numerous occasions in the late nineteenth century as armies were often deployed over fronts of many miles and thus required wider observation to be accurately located. The Army of the Potomac’s Aeronautic Department was directed by Thaddeus Lowe, a civilian balloonist on a colonel’s salary. The balloon was filled by portable coal-gas generators and Lowe dutifully reported all he saw to McClellan’s headquarters using a telegraph carried in the basket (and greatly assisting ‘Prince John’ Magruder in his peninsular deception). But the potential of the aeroplane when it arrived failed to convince everyone. The eminent French general Ferdinand Foch declared in 1910 that for army use ‘l’avion c’est zéro!’ During the following year’s manœuvres, however, his colleague Joseph-Simon Galliéni captured a colonel of the Supreme War Council and his entire staff thanks to a reconnaissance aeroplane. The same year the Italians made the first use of powered aircraft in war against the Turks in Libya. Capitano Carlo Piazza borrowed a camera from the photo section of the Engineer Corps on 23 February 1912, and the results were so impressive that his colleague Ricardo Moizo immediately followed suit. While they produced few prints, they did highlight inaccuracies on maps and the possibilities for the future were demonstrated.

The British Expeditionary Force that went to France in August 1914 was accompanied by four squadrons from the Royal Flying Corps, whose sole purpose at the time was reconnaissance. Tactically, this meant artillery observation and the location of enemy batteries, reporting trench locations and in due course hampering the enemy’s attempts to do the same. Strategic reconnaissance in 1914 meant anything beyond five miles of the front, and the limitations of simple observation soon became apparent. The ability of the camera to record information accurately and reliably was soon put to use therefore, initially by No. 3 Sqn, which had pioneered photographic techniques before the war. Lieutenant G. F. Petyman took the first five exposures over the German lines on 15 September. By the following year the lavish equipment and centralized facilities available to the French compared most unfavourably with the ad hoc arrangements made by the British. Major W. G. H. Salmond, officer commanding No. 3 Sqn, recommended that a similar organization be adopted by the British and an experimental section was formed. In due course a magazine was developed that enabled exposures to be made in rapid succession and stereoscopy greatly enhanced the value of the resulting photos. (If approximately sixty per cent of overlap is achieved on two prints, a stereoscope will permit three-dimensional viewing, from which far more information can be derived.) However, it was a long time before the techniques of photo reading and interpretation were fully explored and appreciated; in the meantime the RFC had to cope with anti-aircraft fire and the scourge of the Fokker fighter. Nevertheless, by 1918 every major application of photographic reconnaissance to be used for the next fifty years had been tried and tested.

During the Second World War Britain’s Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) divided interpretation into three phases. First phase meant immediate reporting of new items such as ship and aircraft movement, rail and canal traffic and bomb damage assessment. Second phase reports were produced within twenty-four hours and covered general activity, and were collated with the day’s accumulated coverage. Third phase was the very detailed statements prepared for specialist requirements, usually on fixed installations such as airfields, factories and important experimental facilities. As the war progressed, third phase was dealt with by the Central Interpretation Unit (CIU) at Medmenham, near Henley, which became expert in divining the strategic implications of what it saw, enabling the discovery and subsequent bombing of targets such as the V-weapon test site at Peenemünde. Photography also allowed the state of construction of U-boats at Kiel and Bremen to be measured. David Brachi, one of the RAF’s photo specialists, remarked at the time that ‘the Germans are so methodical about their camouflage that once you get to know their methods you can tell quite a lot from the camouflage itself’.

By comparison, while in 1939 the Germans possessed far more photo interpreters (PIs) than the British, they have often been criticized for not using stereoscopes in their day-to-day work and for relying largely on non-specialist NCOs, a reflection of their view that photo interpretation was a mechanical process. But there was a significant difference in approach. While the RAF concentrated on strategic targets, with the tasking coming from a high level such as Coastal or Bomber Command, the Luftwaffe was geared until as late as 1943 towards the tactical demands of Blitzkrieg and towards supporting the army in the fluid and fast-changing environment of a battlefield. The RAF’s PIs thus became experts in strategic subjects such as shipping and airfields, while the Luftwaffe concentrated on battlefield terrain and fortifications. (The RAF also provided tactical reconnaissance, or ‘Tac R’, in support of the army, mainly from specifically tasked army co-operation squadrons.) This lack of a strategic dimension to Luftwaffe operations proved a serious drawback as the war progressed, and contributed greatly to Germany’s ultimate defeat.


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