Terrain Models – WWII Style

In a previous post I discussed the issue of terrain models and how the requirement to build them was often the bane of my professional existence. Since we received no training on the construction of terrain models most of the time we were just winging it, making sure that the general terrain was well represented and laying in key topographic and geographic features like important towns, cities, roads, rivers, etc. These models got the job done, but they certainly weren’t elegant. I knew we could do better, but frankly I wasn’t about to waste any more personnel resources than necessary. My Terrain Analysis units were always over tasked and under resourced, and every hour my Soldiers spent putting together a terrain model was an hour stolen from a more important requirement. The fact is, I wanted the finished product to be somewhat crude in the hopes that we’d never get asked to do it again.

Nevertheless, terrain models are an important tools for military planners and unit leaders and the demand for accurate terrain models has always existed. The demand reached a zenith during WWII when planning for major operations like the invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch), Italy (Operation Husky) and France (Operation Overlord) reached a fever pitch. Commanders at all levels demanded accurate terrain models for use as briefing, planning and rehearsal tools.

To provide some level of standard guidance, in June of 1944 the Army Map Service published a bulletin covering the construction of both terrain models and physical relief maps. What this bulletin describes are not simple sand tables, but complex, accurate and detailed models prepared by skilled model makers in a controlled production environment. Frankly I think this bulletin may have done more harm than good; I can envision senior WWII field commanders waving it in the face of their Topographic Engineer officers and yelling, “See, the Engineer branch has even published an official how-to manual. Now get out there and make me a terrain model!” In a sense I’m glad I never ran across this or any similar publication while I was on active duty. Copies of this bulletin are somewhat rare and I have to wonder if most of the copies weren’t burned over the years by Topographic Engineer officers desperate to hide the evidence.

Still, it’s an interesting publication and one worth studying to realize just how complex and difficult making accurate terrain models really is (just click on the image to open the document).

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