Walter J. Boyne (Former Director of the National Air & Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution)
SHOOTING THE FRONT:
Allied Aerial Reconnaissance and Photographic Interpretation on the Western
Front—World War I
One of the most amazing
things about this remarkable book is its relevance to today, when the term
C4 ISR is used in every modern planning document. There were of course
no satellites or computes during World War I, but the French, and subsequently,
their American allies, were remarkably well versed in intelligence gathering
and interpretation. Skilled craftsmen used visual and aural intelligence
gathering techniques, combined with radio and telephone intercepts, information
gleaned from prisoners, and the interpretation of an immense volume of
aerial photographs to determine German intentions.
Not surprisingly, although
their efforts were widely used, the implication of their efforts was not fully
realized by the French and American High commands, Had they been fully understood
they might not only have been made more use of through 1918, but might have
been much more adequately funded and developed during the post World War 1
Author Terrence J. Finnegan
has done a tremendous service to the people involved in the intelligence
gathering effort with the publication of his book, and an even greater one
to the small but dedicated community of World War I historians.
It is probably not unreasonable
to suggest that at least ninety percent of all that has been written on
World War I aviation has centered on the world of the pursuit plane and the men
who flew them. This has happened even though it has been generally recognized
for decades that it was the observation plane which was the main instrument of
aerial warfare. The observation plane was absolutely crucial to the employment
of artillery and to taking the photographs which revealed, on an almost
daily basis, what the enemy was doing behind his line of trenches. It may be
aerial observation was even more important to Germany than the Allies, for the
German Army relied upon its magnificent artillery to make up for its inferiority
in man power on the Western Front.
Finnegan divides his book
into four major parts. In the first of these, he makes a chronological
overview of aerial intelligence, covering from the wars beginning to the armistices
in five chapters. In these chapters, the author covers the manner in which
the French fine-tuned their techniques and how they imparted their methods
to their new American allies.
The next ten chapters are devoted to Allied aerial intelligence methods,
and these will be a real eye-opener to most readers. In them he reveals
the remarkable sophistication that was achieved under wartime conditions,
and the depth of information that could be gleaned by bracketing photo
interpretation with other intelligence sources. When, in the fall of 1918,
the static trench-warfare was at last broken and the Allies began to advance
toward Germany, aerial photography and its interpretation kept pace with
Part III of Finnegan’s massive work is devoted to aerial intelligence on the battlefield, and covers everything from battle damage assessment to analyzing camouflage and attempts at deception. Technical buffs will enjoy his description of the equipment of the time, including in depth coverage of a surprising array of aerial cameras.
The last section is devoted to
the human side of interpreting aerial intelligence, and shows that the
breakthrough events came about not as a result of the mystic abilities
of the photo interpreters, but through hard, demanding work not unlike
that in a modern forensic science laboratory.
The subject of Finnegan’s work might have leant itself to a dry academic instruction, but the author’s writing ability, and his deft sketches of the incredible personalities of the time—Moore-Brabazon, Steichen and others—make for fascinating reading. He backs up his narrative with a marvelous collection of photographs, most never published before, as well as dozens of maps.
This is a benchmark in World War I aviation history, and no one with a serious interest in the subject should be without it.