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World War II

World War II brought about tremendous growth and recognition to the field of aerial photography that continues to this day. In 1938, the chief of the German General Staff, General Werner von Fritsch, stated, “The nation with the best photoreconnaissance will win the war.” By 1940, Germany led the world in photoreconnaissance. However, after von Fritsch’s death the quality of German photointelligence declined. When the United States entered the War in 1941, it basically had no experience in military photointerpretation. By the end of the War, it had the best photointerpretation capacity of any nation in the world. In 1945, Admiral J. F. Turner, Commander of American Amphibious Forces in the Pacific, stated that, “Photographic reconnaissance has been our main source of intelligence in the Pacific. Its importance cannot be overemphasized.”

A review of the numerous applications of aerial photoreconnaissance and interpretation during World War II cannot be adequately covered in this instructional module. Thus, just one example will be provided. Peenemunde, the German experimental station for rocket and jet plane development, was located on the Baltic Coast and in 1937 Wernher von Braun and his rocket team were moved to Peenemunde. It was here that after six years of hard work von Braun and hsi team developed the A-4. On October 3, 1942 the A-4 was successfully launched reaching an altitude of sixty miles. It was the world’s first launch of a ballistic missile and the first rocket ever to go into the fringes of space. In 1943 the A-4 was ordered into production and renamed the V-2. Shortly thereafter, V-2 rockets were launched against England.

In late 1942 the British Secret Intelligence Service was informed about a new rocket being developed at Peenemunde. An aerial photoreconnaissance plane was sent on June 23, 1943 and obtained the first photo of the V-2 rocket (Figure 18). This aerial photo shows Test Stand VII at the German Testing Center with a V2 rocket on its trailer inside of the test firing area. It also shows possible anti-aircraft gun positions on top of an adjacent building. On August 17 and 18, 1943 the British sent its bombers to Peenemunde and rather than bombing the facility in general, precise targets were selected based on the excellent aerial photography previously obtained. After the bombing a second aerial photoreconnaissance plane was sent to gain photography for assessing the amount of damage (Figure 19).

Photo (right) taken after bombing raid.
FIGURES 19: Photo (right) taken after bombing raid.

Photo (left) taken June 23, 1943 of the V-2 test lunch site at Peenemunde
FIGURES 18: Photo (left) taken June 23, 1943 of the V-2 test lunch site at Peenemunde


During the 1950’s, aerial photography continued to evolve from work started during World War II and the Korean War. Color-infrared became important in identifying different vegetation types and detecting diseased and damaged vegetation. Multispectral imagery, that is images taken at the same time but in different portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, was being tested for different applications. Radar technology moved along two paralleling paths, side-looking air-borne radar (SLAR) and synthetic aperature radar (SAR). Westinghouse and Texas Instruments did most of this work for the United States Air Force.

Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union grew during the 1950’s with the Cold War. The United States needed to know how many missiles, planes, and other military hardware the Soviet Union had and where it was located. Conventional military planes could not fly over the Soviet Union without being shot down and satellite technology had not yet been developed. In the mid-1950’s Clarence L. “Kelly” Johnson at Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” in Burbank, CA built the U-2 (Figure 20) for the CIA, under the code-name AQUATONE. President Eisenhower authorized Operation OVERFLIGHT — covert reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union — after the Soviets flatly rejected his Open Skies plan, which would have allowed aircraft from both countries to openly overfly each other’s territory. For five years the U-2’s cameras took photos of ICBM testing sites and air bases within the Soviet Union, flying at over 70,000 feet, which put the plane out of reach. The aerial photography from the plane proved that no bomber or missile gap existed between the United States and the Soviet Union as was previously suspected. Finally, on May 1, 1960, a U-2 was shot down and the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was arrested and sent to prison in the Soviet Union. Although the U-2 continues to be used throughout the world for a wide variety of purposes, this event symbolizes the beginning of the use of satellites to look at conditions on the Earth’s surface and the establishment of the term, “Remote Sensing.”

A U-2 landing.
FIGURE 20: A U-2 landing.

The End…..

Source: Professor Paul R. Baumann
Department of Geography
State University of New York

See you next on “Life from the air”….


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