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The WWII Aerial Photography Library at Keele

In April 1945, an unarmed allied aircraft criss-crossed the sky high above Berlin, its cameras recording the city below. Inspecting the film afterwards, interpreters saw that the defenders had dug a nine mile long trench and filled it with explosives in a desperate attempt to prevent Russian tanks from engulfing the doomed city. In the chaos of war the trench was inaccurately mapped and as a result the explosives were never found.

Nearly 40 years later in 1983 the peace of a residential Sunday afternoon was unexpectedly shattered by the detonation of some of these old explosives. The explosion left a nine meter deep crater in the middle of a house-lined street. Fortunately no one was hurt. Subsequently two city building specialists flew to Keele university near Stoke-on-Trent where more than five million allied reconnaissance photographs taken during world war II are stored. Using these wartime aerial photographs bomb disposal experts were able to locate the trench and make it safe.

Photography from the air became one of the most important sources of intelligence during world war one. However, it was neglected to such an extent between the wars that, in 1938 British and French intelligence asked an Australian businessman, Sidney Cotton, to undertake clandestine photographic flights over Germany. Cotton solved most of the problems that had been plaguing the RAF by advocating the use of high speed, high altitude, unarmed fighters. He also developed the techniques of interpreting aerial photographs, converting the raw images into usable intelligence.

For most of the war Spitfire and Mosquito fighter aircraft were fitted with cameras. Spitfires were lightened by removing their guns, their skins were polished for extra speed and larger fuel tanks gave them a range of more than 1,500 miles at 35,000 feet at a top speed of nearly 400 mph. The cameras were fixed behind the pilot fitted with up to 36" (910mm) lenses. The cameras were slightly angled so that they photographed a strip about three miles across on a nine inch wide film. By overlapping the photographs, stereo pairs were produced which, when viewed with a stereoscope, gave a three dimensional impression.

Aerial photography was not only useful for assessing troop movements and measuring the effectiveness of bomb damage, it was also vital in the discovery of secret weapons such as the V1 flying bomb and V2 rockets. Enemy intentions and capabilities cold be discovered by aerial photography. For example routine cover of U-boat shipyards enabled interpreters to predict submarine production for up to six months ahead.

Over 60,000 sorties were flown during the war and the photographs they produced constitute one of the most detailed and precise aerial views available of Europe during World War II. In 1962 all the surviving 5.5 million prints were moved from the interpretation centre at RAF Medmenham to a specially designed building at Keele university and now form part of the Public Record Office.

Despite being produced under the pressure of wartime, the quality of these photographs is clear and sharp. Sadly, the original nitrate films have been destroyed as they were dangerously unstable. However, the contact prints survive and retain almost al the quality of the originals.

Over the last 20 years the Air Photo Library has been carefully indexed so that any of the 5.5 million photographs can be quickly located. The library covers all former occupied Europe, as well as the Northern shore of the Mediterranean. They date from November 1939 up until the end of hostilities in May 1945. No country that was neutral during World War Two is included.

The library contains almost exclusively vertical reconnaissance photographs (as opposed to photographs taken during combat), and is a unique record of Western Europe in 1945. “We get three to four hundred requests for photographs every year from people as diverse as archaeologists, historians, archivists, lawyers and municipal authorities” says Mrs Sheila Walton, archivist of the Air Photo Library.

One of the most important uses of the photographs is the detection of unexploded bombs dropped in wartime. Bombs were surprisingly unreliable and as many as one on every ten bombs dropped failed to go off. On an aerial photograph an unexploded bomb can often be seen as a tiny pin-prick among a string of craters. “By measuring the position of the pin-prick with a computer it is possible to locate the bomb on a modern map” says Morbert Funke of the Berlin Photogrammetry department. Funke uses as specially designed computer program to search for unexploded bombs on more than 8,000 allied aerial photographs of Berlin.

Several hundred bombs have been discovered using this technique, including five tons of explosives hidden under school in the Kreuzburg district of Berlin. S vital have the photographs become in the search for unexploded bombs the German authorities have paid £300,000 to have every print in Keele University copied on to microfilm for security. It can cost more than £10,000 to excavate a single bomb and even more if it is buried under a large building.

John Henry is Chief Geomorphologist of Ove Arup partners consulting engineers and routinely uses the Keele photographs. “We mainly study the photographs for bomb damage that might affect construction work. Unexploded bombs cause a great hazard as can poorly filled bomb craters which have to be excavated or compacted.” But sometimes the photographs can reveal more than bomb damage. “When we were advising on the Channel Tunnel rail link near Lille in France we studied the wartime reconnaissance photographs. An interesting aspect of the photographs was that they revealed the location of a 17th century fortress that is not visible today.”

It is not only bomb disposal experts that use the photographs. The pictures have been used to settle boundary disputes, indicate uneroded coastline and show the extent of forests before their erosion by acid rain. The library is also used by industrialists seeking photographs of their wartime factories or private citizens wishing to have a souvenir. If you can define the location of the required photograph (preferably the exact Latitude and Longitude) a few pounds will secure you a copy that is almost indistinguishable from the original.

Unfortunately not all the allied reconnaissance photographs are in the collection. Some of the most famous wartime photographs are missing including the photograph of the “Dambusters” raid that breached the Moehne and Eder dams in May 1943. But the library is always looking for new or unusual material - “If anyone has any photographs which they are tired of moving around I would be glad to find a home for them” says Mrs Walton.

Requests for prints can be addressed to: The Archivist, Air Photo Library, Department of Geography, University of Keele, ST5 5BG.

First published in Photography, 1994

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