Terrain Analysis, Soviet Style

Yesterday the folks over at Wired posted a really neat article on the Soviet Union’s military mapping program during the Cold War titled Inside the Secret World of Russia’s Cold War Mapmakers.

Russian Map makers

The author seems to imply that the Russians were better at this sort of thing than the US was. Oh pish-posh. I spent most of my 23 year career in the US Army doing this very same thing – compiling what we called terrain intelligence (now called geospatial intelligence) and placing it onto annotated maps or, more commonly, map overlays. This was GIS long before there was GIS.

But while the former Soviets have done a wholesale dump of their formerly classified terrain intelligence data onto the commercial market to make a few bucks, the US and NATO studies are likely still classified and remain under lock and key.

The Soviets and the US (and our NATO partners like the British and Germans) approached the task in the same way – use every available source, from readily available tourist maps to ‘technical intelligence’ (aka, spy satellites) and on-the-ground observers (aka, spies) to compile extremely detailed map-based studies. In my field we tended to concentrate on factors that would directly impact Army ground operations, things like soil conditions, vegetation types, ground slope, road and bridge capacities, building densities in cities and towns, airport and landing zone data, river and stream conditions and much more.

What made the Soviet’s job so much easier is that the West’s open societies gave them virtually unrestricted access to accurate, detailed mapping data compiled for civilian use. A Soviet military attache assigned to their embassy in Washington DC could simply walk out of his embassy compound and stroll a few blocks to one of several well stocked map stores in the US capital. This included, I’m sure, the excellent map holdings over at the National Geographic Society. The US Geological Survey’s map store was just a short drive away in Reston, VA and I’m sure the Soviet Embassy was one of its best customers.

This military attache’s counterpart in the US Embassy in Moscow couldn’t do the same thing. The Soviets simply didn’t sell or give away maps of their territory. Most mapping data, even the most innocuous, was considered classified. That meant we had to get the data some other way. Of course I’m sure we did our share of bribing, cajoling, blackmailing and stealing to get copies of their maps (remember now, this was a cold war; we weren’t playing patty-cake), but we also very quickly developed out ‘technical intelligence’ capabilities – again, spy satellites – that allowed us to accurately map vast areas of the Soviet Union and her client states from space. It is said that the Defense Mapping Agency was the single biggest consumer of spy satellite imagery during the Cold War.

So dear reader, rest assured that while the Soviets were spying on us to develop highly accurate map and geographic intelligence data we were doing the exact same thing to them. We just haven’t seen the need to sell our intelligence on the open market to make a fast buck.

– Brian

Fort Meigs

I spent my teenage years growing up in Maumee, Ohio, on the banks of the Maumee River just south of Toledo. Maumee is a lovely little town that has changed little since my family moved there in the early 1970s. The northwest Ohio region and the Maumee River played an important role in the early history of the United States. The river’s direct connection to the west end of Lake Erie made it a key transportation and trade route into what at the time was referred to as the Northwest Territories.  The British had long considered the territory as Indian land and only maintained military and small trading outposts in the region. White settlement was strongly discouraged. However, at the close of the American Revolution the British ceded control of the region to the Americans (although they took their sweet time getting out of town) and European settlers lost no time spilling over the Appalachians and on into the new territories.

In 1787 Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that formally opened the region to settlement (and not coincidentally established the concept of public land sales as a way for the cash starved federal government to generate some revenue). Very quickly Lake Erie and it’s major tributaries became critical territory and conflicts frequently flared up as American, British and Indian interests intersected and collided in what was effectively the new American frontier. For thousands of years the Native Americans had used the Maumee River as a major trade route. The European powers and the new American republic recognized the river as the western gateway to the rich lands of the Ohio Country interior (today’s western Ohio, Indiana and lower Michigan). All sides considered control of the waterway a strategic necessity.

The Maumee River basin drains regions of three states

After the close of the American Revolution the British never really vacated the region. They maintained a number of outposts in places such as Detroit (yes, that Detroit) and Fort Miami near the city of Maumee, conducted a regular business of illegal trade with the local Indians and did a lucrative side business in fomenting anti-American sentiment among the tribes of the Western Confederacy.

Sadly, today all that’s left of Fort Miami are some low triangular mounds that trace the outline of the stockade

This all erupted into the Northwest Indian War, culminating in 1794 with the Battle of Fallen Timbers just a few miles away from Fort Miami. The American general, ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne decisively defeated the tribes of the Western Confederacy on a piece of terrain marked by a tangle of trees that had been blown down during a violent storm. The Indians retreated towards what they thought would be refuge with the British garrison at Fort Miami, but the British commander refused to open the stockade. The surviving Indians scattered and the war was over. Not long after the British abandoned the fort and marched north into Canada.

Nineteen years later the British are back. It’s 1813 and the War of 1812 is raging. The Lake Erie basin is a critical theater of operations. The Americans have decided to invade lower Canada and move to establish a fort and supply depot on the Maumee River to support the invasion. The commander, General William Henry Harrison, selects a spot on a bluff on the south side of the river that overlooks the first set of rapids. These rapids serve as a natural choke point for any boats, barges, canoes or naval vessels trying to move upstream from Lake Erie. It is an ideally situated fort, and whoever controls it also controls all movement on the river. The British want it, and want it bad.

The fort was named Fort Meigs after Ohio governor Return J. Meigs. The fort was originally garrisoned with a few Regular Army troops and Ohio militia. Construction started in February 1813 and just two months later the fort was placed under siege by British forces that had marched down out of Canada and re-occupied the old Fort Miami stockade. Forts Meigs and Miami were located a mere two miles from each other, on opposite sides of the river.

Fort Meigs has been rebuilt and is now an active historical museum site

The siege was broken when 1,200 Kentucky militia moved up from Cincinnati and followed the Maumee River to the fort. In May of 1813 a series of short, sharp ground skirmishes resulted in the defeat of the British and their Indian allies, and the British abandoned Fort Miami. It’s this first siege, and the Kentucky militia’s involvement, that bring us to the real point of this post. (Took me a while to get here, didn’t it?)

Part of the record of the siege is a vividly detailed battle map drawn up by an officer of the Kentucky Militia, Captain William Sebree. Seabree was the commander of a company of infantry that drew most members from around Campbell County, Kentucky. The company was designated the 8th Company of the 10th Regiment, Kentucky Light Infantry that was commanded by Lt. Col. William Boswell. Indications are that Sebree compiled his map after returning to Kentucky at the end of the war. However, the amount of detail in the map – both the cartographic representation of natural and man made features and the written depictions of the flow of the skirmishes and battles – makes it clear that Captain Sebree was working from a rich collection of original material. Certainly he kept a detailed journal while in command and also had copies of his company’s daily logs and reports. He likely also had access to the regimental papers and solicited input from other unit commanders and common soldiers. What emerged was less an authoritative battle map and more a piece of patriotic folk art that still manages to convey in some detail the ebb and flow of battle.

FT Meigs

 Captain William Sebree’s ‘Plan of Fort Meigs’ and It’s Environs’ (click to enlarge)

The map shows that Sebree had an eye for hard military detail, such as the detailed depiction of the Fort Meigs stockade area:

FT Meigs Stockade

 (Click to enlarge)

Or the details of the British artillery positions just across the river from the fort:

FT Meigs - British Artillery Positions

 (Click to enlarge)

But he couldn’t resist a bit of patriotic sentimentality:

FT Meigs - Burying Place

 (Click to enlarge)

And a good bit of artistic embellishment – mounted Indians, boats on the river, trees bending in the breeze, and dogs (dogs?):

FT Meigs - Artistic Elements

 (Click to enlarge)

It’s clear Captain Sebree was not a trained topographer. Many topographic details are badly out of proportion and he makes use of different scales:

FT Meigs - Scales

There is no north arrow or compass rose (on this map, north is to the right). But there is perhaps the more important (to Sebree) ‘all seeing eye’ with the phrase annuit coeptis (Providence favors this endeavor). This symbol is taken from the Great Seal of the United States, adopted around 1782, and was in common use in the early 19th century. However, it may also indicate that Captain Sebree was a Mason, and the first authorized Masonic Lodge in northwestern Ohio was organized by the American officers stationed at Fort Meigs in 1813. It is highly likely that Captain Sebree was a Mason (as were many officers of his time) and a member of this lodge. This is all speculation on my part, but I think the threads are there.

FT Meigs All Seeing Eye

The map appears to be a commercial product. It’s a mix of set type and what looks to be woodcut printing. My guess is that Captain Sebree had these printed for commercial sale to a public eager for a memento of America’s glorious victory over the British and their Indian allies, or he sold copies by subscription. However, I know of only one existing copy that is in the Library of Congress map collection.

It seems Captain Sebree was an adventurous fellow. He was born in Virginia in 1776, migrated to Kentucky and settled in Boone County, studied law after the war and eventually moved to Pensacola, Florida where he was appointed the federal marshall for the territory of West Florida. He died in 1827 of yellow fever and is buried in Saint Michael’s Cemetery in Pensacola.

Dan Wilkins runs a great blog about the War of 1812 and has a section devoted to Fort Meigs and the events that took place there. I lived in Maumee for almost 10 years and have a deep interest in the history of the fort and the battles that took place around it. But until I read Dan’s blog I had no idea that remnants of the original British canon pits dug during the first siege were still visible in the old Fort Meigs Cemetery just east of the fort. If you have any interest in the War of 1812, and in particular the events that took place in the Northwest Territory, I recommend you spend some time taking a look at Dan’s writings.

– Brian

Stonewall Jackson’s Topographer

A few days ago my old friend Jim, unreconstructed Southerner (from South Jersey) and full-time VMI (Virginia Military Institute) alumni, let me know that there’s a new book out on VMI’s most well known professor, Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson.  It’s titled ‘Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson’ by S. C. Gwynne.  Jim read an on-line review of the book and commented on how the article mentions Jackson’s keen ability to ‘read the battlefield’.

In previous blog posts I’ve discussed how great military tacticians and strategists have what seems like a God-given ability to read the ground. The ability to look at a particular battle space and know intuitively how forces will array either in the attack or the defense is the mark of a great battlefield commander.  Patton had that ability.  So did Napoleon, Robert E. Lee and Erwin Rommel. Stonewall Jackson was a master of the art, and perhaps one of the best operational-level commanders ever to take to the battlefield.  Jackson was like a mighty sword in Robert E. Lee’s right hand, and the best thing to happen to the Union Army was Jackson’s death on May 10th, 1863.  Had Jackson still been alive and in command of his Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia in July of 1863 Gettysburg would likely have turned out very differently.

As an operational commander Jackson realized he couldn’t take it all in from the saddle of his horse.  He understood that he needed good terrain intelligence in the form of accurate and detailed maps. Jackson was fortunate to gain the services of a talented topographer named Jedediah ‘Jed’ Hotchkiss.  Hotchkiss was a transplanted New Yorker who was running a school in the Shenadoah Valley when the Civil War broke out. He was also a self-taught topographer, geologist and engineer.  Hotchkiss offered his services to the Confederate Army and soon found himself serving on Jackson’s staff as his chief topographer and reaching the rank of Major.


 A post-Civil War photo of Jedediah Hotchkiss

Hotchkiss had a deep knowledge the Shenandoah Valley and used that knowledge to produce extremely detailed and comprehensive maps to support Jackson’s movements. But Hotckiss didn’t just make maps. Jackson so trusted his topographer’s knowledge of the ground and tactical abilities that he often had Hotchkiss lead columns to their objectives. Hotchkiss’ mapping and leadership skills quickly came to the attention of Robert E. Lee and copies of his maps were used extensively by Lee’s headquarters staff. In fact, it was Hotchkiss who reported the news of General Jackson’s wounding at Chancellorsville to Lee.  While Hotchkiss remained with the Second Corps staff until the end of the war he was often called upon by Lee to conduct specialized mapping and reconnaissance missions in support of larger Army of Northern Virginia operations.

At the war’s end Hotchkiss reputation was so well known that General Grant allowed him to keep possession of his maps. After the war Hotckiss’ maps were used extensively by the Federal Government when preparing the Official Record of the Civil War.

The Library of Congress acquired most of Hotchkiss’ map collection in 1948 and it is now one of the centerpieces of the Library’s Civil War map collection. In 1948 the Library published an excellent short biography of Hotckiss’ wartime mapping activities. His maps are true works of art and represent some of the finest battlefield cartography to emerge from the Civil War.


 Enlarged section of a small scale (≈ 1:250,000) map showing the terrain between Harper’s Ferry and Martinsburg

Hotchkiss2Part of a series of maps Hotchkiss prepared detailing the disposition of forces during the Battle of the Wilderness

Hotchkiss Notebook

Detail from Hotchkiss’ notebook while working on maps showing positions of Second Corps engagements, 1864 – 65. This sketch was most likely done while on horseback and shows the incredible detail Hotchkiss put into his initial field sketches. Also note the place names with varying orientations, some appearing upside down. This is because the sketchbook would be rotated so the direction of travel is always ‘up’. Hotchkiss penciled in the place names so they appeared in the proper orientation based on his direction of travel while on horseback. When this field information was transferred to a larger compilation map the cartographers would place all place name data in the proper orientation

After the war Hotchkiss returned to his beloved Shenandoah Valley and continued his teaching and engineering professions. He became a successful businessman and an honored member of the Staunton, Virginia community. He died in Staunton in 1899. On his death his Civil War map collection was donated to the Handley Regional Library in Winchester, Virginia and in 1948 was moved to the Library of Congress.

The Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress has made most of the Hotchkiss collection available for viewing on-line (just click this link). Spending some time on the site will give you an appreciation for the talent and contributions of this important wartime topographer.

– Brian

An Unusual Ainsworth Compass

A few months back I picked up an unusual William Ainsworth & Sons surveying compass that closely resembles an Ainsworth-produced Brunton Pocket Transit.  The resemblance is so close, in fact, that the lid of the compass is even marked ‘D. W. Brunton’s’.  There’s no doubt that this is an original Ainsworth instrument (as opposed to a copy or knock-off), but it certainly isn’t a pocket transit.


 From the outside it looks like a common pre-WWII pocket transit

So what do we have here? Well, it appears to be a survey compass built using a pocket transit case.  I’ve never seen or read about an instrument of this type, so I assume it’s fairly rare.


However, inside we see something quite unusual. It’s not a pocket transit but a surveyors compass!

Two key questions are, when was it made, and for whom?  Based on the case design and markings this is instrument was made after 1914, and we can be sure of that based on the ‘figure 8’ peep sight design which was patented by D. W. Brunton in 1914. But going a bit further, I’ll also wager that this instrument was built post-1927 when Ainsworth acquired the manufacturing rights to the Brunton pocket transit from D. W. Brunton’s estate.  This would account for the use of the pocket transit case and a lid that carries all the Brunton patent data on a device that is clearly not a pocket transit.  I doubt Mr.Brunton would have allowed his name and patent information to be used on something that was not of his design.

William Ainsworth & Sons was a well known instrument maker and produced high end instruments for the mining, geological exploration and surveying industries. The idea that they would consider using a pocket transit case to produce a small survey compass is not at all far-fetched. In fact, it makes perfect sense. The cases were already in production, the pocket transit was a well known and highly regarded design and it would have been easy to simplify the housing design to contain just a compass needle. In theory it would also have been cheaper to build since the bubble levels, clinometer arm, scales and external clinometer lever are all left out of the design.


This compass leaves out the standard pocket transit bubble levels, clinometer arm and scales. It also uses a type of bar compass needle commonly found on surveyors compasses but never seen before on an Ainsworth pocket transit from this era

But was this an attempt to bring a simpler and cheaper pocket instrument to market or was this made to answer a product requirement submitted by a customer? We may never know, and there aren’t enough clues we can glean from the instrument itself to make a good guess. This particular instrument is painted in a dark green, very similar to Army olive drab. The paint job is well executed and was probably done at the factory. It’s also stamped with the serial number ‘1042’, but the serial number placement, text size and style are not what we’re used to seeing on other Ainsworth instruments. This indicated it may be part of a special production run for a large customer – perhaps the US military or another federal agency such as the USGS or the US Forest Service.

Another interesting design feature relates to how the compass is mounted to a tripod. Pocket transits are secured to tripods using a ‘U’ shaped bracket the slides into grooves machined into the side of the transit case. This compass design takes a more common approach, and one used by most surveyor compass manufacturers. That is, the mounting thimble or bracket screws into the base of the instrument. Pocket transits can’t use this arrangement because of the clinometer lever that extends through the bottom of the case. But since this compass doesn’t have a clinometer Ainsworth was free to use the more conventional mounting method.


 The compass mounting thimble screws directly into the base of the compass. A common arrangement with surveyors compasses, but not seen with pocket transits


This view shows the mounting socket at the base of the compass

So there we have it. An interesting instrument that represents the adaptation of the popular pocket transit design for another purpose.

If any of my readers have any additional information on this instrument I’d love to hear from you. Please just leave your comments on the blog for all to see. Thanks!

– Brian

To The Corps!

I spent most of my military career serving either as a Topographic Officer (21C) or a Terrain Analysis Warrant Officer (215D) in the Army Corps of Engineers. It was clear throughout most of my career that the Engineer branch really didn’t know what to do with us. Longstanding US Army doctrine said that the Corps of Engineers ‘owned’ the topographic and terrain analysis (military geography) discipline, but owning and effectively managing are two different things. The field was so small and specialized that the Engineers tried to manage it by exception, as though we all carried a pox that would infect ‘real’ Engineers if we came too close.

However, this was not always the case. For several decades in the first half of the 19th century two military engineer organizations ran parallel to each other in the US Army. One organization was filled with officers with mostly limited engineering backgrounds. This group was detailed to handle general engineering support to field units, tackling simple engineering tasks like improvements to local fortifications, managing the construction of tracks and trails in support of military movement and doing local reconnaissance and field sketching in support of military operations. These were the regular Engineer forces assigned to the field Army. The other group was filled with the cream of the graduating classes from West Point and some of the top graduates of the few engineering schools operating in the US the time. This group handled most of the civil works improvement projects along the coastlines and interior waterways and mapped the new western territories and opened them for exploration and settlement. This last group truly was the civil engineering force for the new nation and was known as the Corps of Topographical Engineers.

Topographic Engineer Shield

Uniform button design for officers assigned to the Corps of Topographical Engineers.

From roughly 1812 to 1863 the Corps of Topographical Engineers operated as an independent organization, sometimes as a separate branch within the War Department, sometimes as a wholly autonomous section within the Army Engineers.  The ‘Corps’ was little more than a roster of officers detailed to the Topographical Engineer branch.  There were no enlisted personnel assigned and Topographical Engineers were usually dependent on local Army commanders to provide the needed manpower for projects.

What the Corps of Topographical Engineers did have was some of the best civil engineering minds in the nation.  At a time when trained engineering expertise was hard to come by – civil engineering as a defined discipline wouldn’t emerge until well after the Civil War – the Army and Congress often turned to the Corps of Topographical Engineers to handle most of the early public works planning and management. Topographical Engineers explored and mapped the Great Lakes region, managed canal construction and waterways improvements and even surveyed and planned lighthouse locations. In the 1850s, when the federal government needed to have the lands acquired from Mexico and the newly incorporated State of Texas explored and mapped, they sent in the Topographical Engineers. When Congress needed to know if there were suitable routes through the Rocky Mountains for the planned transcontinental railroad they sent the Topographical Engineers to have a look. Once the Oregon Territory dispute was settled with England the Topographical Engineers moved in to map the rugged interiors of what is today Oregon, Washington and Northern California.

Topographical Engineers Orders

Regulation on how officers assigned to the Corps of Topographical Engineers are to be detailed, or appointed, to duties. Excerpted from the ‘Army and Navy Chronicle’, January 2, 1840

In 1863 the Army folded the Corps of Topographical Engineers into the regular Corps of Engineers and a proud organization that provided immeasurable service to the nation disappeared. I guess it was inevitable since there was a desperate need for trained Engineer officers to support the Federal armies during the Civil War, and there was growing overlap in the roles of the two organizations.

The Corps of Engineers’ love affair with it’s mapping and surveying mission waxed and waned over the next 150 years. Engineer officers still found themselves assigned to important topographic missions as America settled it’s western territories, rushed to map its newly acquired territories after the Spanish-American War, threw armies across the seas in World Wars One and Two and stared down the Soviets during the Cold War. I believe the peak of the Corps of Engineers interest in and dedication to its topographic mission came with the establishment of the Army Map Service in WWII. The Engineers realized they had to get damned serious damned fast about this mapping thing and developed the doctrine, equipment, techniques and technology necessary to produce maps and related products to support a world-wide war effort.  This effort continued well into the Cold War, and it was the Army Map Service (and later the Army Topographic Command) that gave us groundbreaking developments such as the Universal Transverse Mercator grid system, the Military Grid Reference System and early research work on an earth-centered geoid that ultimately became WGS 84.

As the Cold War wound down the Corps of Engineers interest in its mapping mission wound down too. As more and more map production was pushed to the national level (to the Defense Mapping Agency, which became the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which became the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency) and mapping systems moved from paper to digital and became embedded in battlefield command and control systems, the Engineers seemed on a headlong march to shed their traditional topographic role. Inevitable?  Perhaps.  Wise?  I don’t think so.  Topographic knowledge is the foundation of military expertise. Great generals like Napoleon, Lee and Grant, and Patton all talked about the necessity of being able to visualize the battlefield, the ability to identify ‘good ground’. Someone will always have to paint the battlefield picture for the generals, and that’s the job of the Topographic Engineer.

Although the Corps of Topographical Engineers has faded into history they are not forgotten. There is a small but active group that keeps the history of the early Topographical Engineers alive through research and reenactments. They are the U.S Corps of Topographical Engineers. Their website is a great resource for anyone interested American history and the story of how America grew in the early 19th century.


 U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers historical website

So here’s to the Corps! To a group of dedicated Topographical Engineers that explored, mapped and helped build this great land. Ladies and gentlemen raise your glasses.

To the Corps!

– Brian

A Wonderful Way To Waste A Day

Yesterday on Facebook an old friend, Kurt Schwoppe, provided a link to a new US Geological Survey – ESRI joint project, the USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer. At first I thought, “Meh, I think I’ve seen this before” and was about to move on, but something told me to click the link.

When I came up for air about a half hour later I was entranced. The USGS and ESRI have done a marvelous job of integrating historical map coverage with modern web map technology. The USGS has digitized and georeferenced their entire collection of historical toographic maps covering the entire country (about 178,000 individual maps). The coverage in many areas goes back to the late 1800’s, and users can easily select maps by date and scale, overlay them, adjust visibility to ‘blend’ the views and even download the historical maps directly from the interface.

USGS Historical Map Viewer

By default the website opens focused on New Orleans, as good a place as any to begin exploring the historical maps of a city. Clicking the map links in the timeline in the bottom window will add them to the ‘stack’ on the left side of the web page. From there you can adjust the visibility of each map using a convenient slider to blend the map image in and out, allowing fast and easy comparison with any of the other maps in the stack.

A few initial observations –

First, while there was a steady increase in both the density of content and the variety of information contained in maps as the USGS progressed through the 20th century, there was, sadly, a steady erosion in the practice of cartography as an artistic medium. I understand the USGS’s job isn’t to make art, but visual appeal is something that draws the user to the map. The hand drawn cartography applied to the USGS maps of the late 19th and early 20th century is a wonder to behold. By comparison the current US Topo series maps have all the visual appeal of a rusted out Yugo.

Next, there’s a clear improvement in the spatial accuracy and information content between maps prepared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and maps prepared in the 1930’s and later. This is due to the adoption of aerial photography and stereo compilation production methods starting in the 1930s. By using stereo aerial photography as a map compilation base the USGS dramatically speeded up map production while simultaneously improving map accuracy and content.

To sum it all up I’ll just say that the USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer website is the best use of my tax dollars that I’ve seen in a long, long time!

– Brian


It’s Throwback Thursday!

Everybody does ‘throwback Thursday’ these days, so why not me.

I came across these quirky but interesting (for a topo geek and an airplane geek) video clips on YouTube and thought I’d share them.

First, a nod to our Air Force friends. From WWII right on through the 1980s the Army Topographic services relied on the US Air Force for wide-area mapping photography support. The Army did pick up some missions using its fixed-wing intel platforms like the venerable Grumman OV-1 Mohawk, but for the most part it was the Air Force (or the Air Force Reserves or Air National Guard) who handled the military requirements for mapping photography. You can read more about the USAF’s photomapping activities at the 1370th Photomapping Squadron’s history site. In fact, as late as 1994 in Panama we were tasking the Air Force to fly Furbish Breeze photo reconnaissance missions over key areas of Ecuador and Peru for cartographic map updates and terrain study development. Furbish Breeze wasn’t a mapping camera system, but it was the best we had available at the time and the Air Force was happy to fly for us.

Let’s start with 1961 and British Guiana. This looks like a home movie shot without sound and it depicts the mundane routine of supporting photomapping missions in British Guiana (today’s Belize). I’m guessing this mission was being run in support of the IAGS. This is the 1370th Squadron in action:

Next, let’s move to Vietnam. Here’s a video showing 1370th operations out of Tuy Hoa Airbase in South Vietnam in 1968. The Army Topographic services had a huge mapping mission in Vietnam – most of the original mapping of the country had been done by the French pre-WWII and was badly outdated by the time US forces got heavily involved in the conflict. Army Topographic units had to re-map the entire country at all scales, and had to do it fast. We relied very heavily on mapping photography provided by the 1370th:

Honestly I have little or no idea what these guys are doing inside the aircraft during flight. I get the general idea that they are checking in with HIRAN ground stations and monitoring camera operations, but that’s about it. If there are any USAF photomapping veterans out there who’d like to provide some insight into what’s going on in the videos please chime in!

Next, it’s something for the Squids (sorry, I couldn’t resist). These videos don’t depict mapping or charting activities, but they are interesting snapshots of photo intelligence activities.

The first video is a short clip showing what I assume is a photo interpretation team aboard an aircraft carrier reviewing stereo photos during WWII:

Next is a formally produced video made during WWII showing the importance of aerial photo reconnaissance in the Pacific Theater. Beyond the ‘mom & pop homefront’ scenes at the beginning and end of the video it’s actually pretty good. And hang in to the end to see Navy Commander R.S. Quackenbush discussing the importance of photo reconnaissance and take note of the stereoscopes and aerial photography neatly arrayed on his desk for dramatic emphasis:

Thanks for watching!

– Brian


It is rare that a movie or series ends up being as good as the book it was based on; the examples are few and far between. Frankly most films just can’t capture the essence of the story the book’s author worked so hard to get across.  Maybe Gone With The Wind, but that’s about all I can think of right now.

But this weekend I was happily reacquainted with a video series that does a great job of capturing the essence of the book it was based on.  The video series is called Longitude and it’s based on the classic book Longitude written by Dava Sobel.  I consider Ms. Sobel’s book to be a staple of any geographer or topographer’s library and highly recommend it.

Ms. Sobel wrote about the half-century long efforts of a country carpenter and clock maker named John Harrison to claim the prize established by British Parliament that promised to award £20,000 to anyone who develops a practical way of determining longitude at sea. For the British this was a critical issue. The Royal Navy was losing ships and crews at an alarming rate because its sea captains and sailing masters had no way of determining longitude. The British government considered ‘finding the longitude’ to be the most critical scientific problem of its day. Without accurate navigation at sea the British empire may well have died on the vine. After all, if you can’t reliably communicate with your far-flung colonies and safely move people and cargo between the colonies and the British Isles you run the real risk of losing control of your territorial gains.

John Harrison along with his son William built and tested a series of clocks over the span of 40 years, each of which improved on the previous until he reached his final design known as the H4 (for Harrison Number 4), a small, practical chronometer that was accurate enough to permit navigation to within a half degree of longitude, well within the standards set out by Parliament. It is this particular chronometer that became the design model for nearly every mechanical marine chronometer built between 1776 and the development of GPS in the 1980s

What makes the series so good is that it has all the elements required to tell a great story – a good tale, good screenwriters who understand the subject, an excellent cast and good production values. The video series was produced in 2000, five years after Sobel’s book was first published, and the film brings the story to life.  The series was originally broadcast in the US on the A&E Channel, but is now available on DVD. The story is carried by the strong performances of Michael Gambon as John Harrison and Jeremy Irons as Rupert Gould, the shell shocked Royal Navy officer who began restoring Harrison’s chronometers during WWI. The rest of the cast is also first rate and they all seem to have really gotten their teeth into the story and the historical characters they portray.

I do have a few minor quibbles, mainly how 18th Century Royal Navy officers and ship’s masters are portrayed, but overall the video series is excellent.

Here’s a small snippet from YouTube:

Do yourself a favor and either buy or rent this great series. And remember – without the chronometer England might not have had an empire. It was that critical to British history.

– Brian

More Money Than Sense?

Last night on eBay someone plunked down $1,200.00 (plus $25 shipping) to purchase a used Brunton pocket transit. Silly impulse purchase? A case of SUI (Surfing Under the Influence)? Or does the buyer know something I don’t?


This auction opened and closed on the same day. The opening bid price (set by the seller) was $700, with a buy-it-now price set at $1,200. I thought $700 was somewhat high, but clearly someone else thought $1,200 was just right

You see, this particular Brunton appears to sport the serial number 232 (although it’s hard to make out in the lousy photos the seller provided). If the serial number is valid this puts it somewhere in the first or second year of production – around 1895. This is by far the earliest production Brunton I’ve ever seen for sale.


Given what information could be gleaned from the poor photos the seller provided, this transit looks right for an early model – hand engraving on the lid (with no sine tables), small view hole in the lid, no lid mounted peep sight, no tripod bracket slots and a single tube level on the clinometer

I sincerely hope the buyer is happy with his/her purchase. Who knows, perhaps it’s destined for a museum collection (which might explain why it sold so fast at the buy-it-now price). If the buyer happens to read this blog I’d love to hear more about your decision to purchase this pocket transit and perhaps provide a few detailed photos of this remarkable example to share with the readership.

I’ve added this Brunton to the Pocket Transit Serial Number Project spreadsheet so we have a record of its existence and sale. To date it is the second oldest Brunton on the list. I’d love to know more about its history – who owned it, where it was purchased, where it was used. These fine old instruments usually have a great story to tell.

– Brian


We Missed The Hedgerows

It is Memorial Day and I’m thinking about those that made the ultimate sacrifice, and what might have been done differently that could have ensured many of those we lost instead made it home safe and sound.

One of the key Engineer topographic intelligence failures of WWII took place during the planning phases of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of France. This was the failure to properly assess the impact the hedgerows in Normandy would have on our ground movement and tactical operations. This failure to identify and assess the impact of the hedgerows, and then develop tactics and training procedures to deal with them, resulted in the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of Allied Soldiers.

The hedgerows in Normandy were used to create small pastures and farm fields, many of them just a few acres in size. In a land without rocks or trees these hedgerows were the fences that kept cattle from wandering off and allowed farmers to clearly identify what land they owned.

Normandy Hedgerow Profile

The Normandy hedgerows were made up of linear mounds or walls of earth topped by a thick tangle of trees and brush. Most of the hedgerows dated back hundreds of years, some back to the time of William the Conqueror. Centuries of soil compaction and vegetation growth meant the hedgerows were dense, sturdy obstacles that were virtually impossible to penetrate. On a flat and otherwise featureless coastal plain the hedgerows created heavily dissected terrain with limited line of sight and restricted virtually all off-road movement.

 The hedgerows of Normandy, just in from Omaha Beach, created a tactical nightmare for the US forces that landed there on June 6th, 1944


Bocage_country_at_Cotentin_PeninsulaHedgerows in Normandy as seen in an oblique aerial reconnaissance photo taken by the US Army Air Force before the invasion. In this photo the hedgerows present obvious obstacles to movement so why didn’t they get more serious analysis?



The German Army was the master of the defensive operation. We had already seen that in Italy, where German Field Marshall Albert Kesselring established a defensive line in the mountains north of Rome (known as the Gustav Line) that turned Churchill’s ‘soft underbelly’ operation into a meatgrinder that chewed up entire Allied divisions. In Normandy the local German commanders had months to study the problem and turned the hedgerow complexes into deathtraps. Every hedgerow corner, every road and trail, every chokepoint was covered by machinegun, mortar, anti-tank and artillery fire. Normandy was a defender’s paradise, and the Germans made the most of what they had. Normandy became a textbook case of a tactical defense in-depth, and the German efforts are still studied today.


American Soldiers cautiously working along the hedgerows in Normandy to flush out German defenders


440615 hedgerows 2

 American Soldiers standing in a narrow lane between two hedgerows somewhere in Normandy. This type of terrain became an alleyway of death for Allied Soldiers who only had two options – advance directly into the enemy fire or retreat back from it. There was no going around



The Allied armies never really defeated the hedgerow problem. The advance through Normandy became a slow slog with infantrymen fighting for every foot of terrain. The US Army eventually developed a set of combined arms tactics using dismounted infantry and tanks that allowed effective movement, but in the end it was commanders like General Patton who simply decided to punch through the hedgerow country and break out into the more open terrain south of Paris. In the end the Allies simply bypassed the German defenders in the hedgerows and left them to wither on the vine. Most surrendered within a few weeks, out of food, out of ammunition and out of the will to continue the fight.

But the question remains – how did we miss the impact the hedgerows would have on our tactical operations? We didn’t lack for topographic intelligence analysis during the planning phases for Overlord. The beaches and inland areas of Normandy received some of the most intensive Engineer terrain and intelligence analysis ever applied to a piece of ground. We collected tens of thousands of aerial photos (many of them in stereo), built hundreds of terrain models and printed thousands of special maps and geographic (terrain) studies of the Normandy region. Small unit commanders had the best picture of their objectives, and the terrain leading up to their objectives, than had ever been developed for any military operation up to that time – and yet we missed the hedgerows!

There’s no definitive answer in the historical record as to why the Normandy hedgerows were not identified as significant obstacles, but I can make a few good educated guesses as to what happened.

First, there is this intriguing passage from Chapter 13, Looking Ahead To The Continent from the volume ‘The Corps of Engineers: The War Against Germany’, part of the US Army’s official history of WWII (the excellent ‘Green Book’ series):

Hedgerow Statement

The large scale topographic map is the standard military planning document. Planners at all levels – from Infantry platoon all the way up to Theater Army G-3 – rely on the topographic map to provide an accurate representation of the ground they are going to fight over. The general assumption is that if it’s not on the map it is either not there on the ground, or it’s not important enough to worry about from a military operations perspective. Yes, the map is just a base to build on, but Soldiers are trained from day one to trust what they see on the map to be an accurate representation of what they will find on the ground. If hedgerows are missing from the map, even though they may be visible in aerial photography, the assumption is that someone further up the chain with more smarts and access to better data took a hard look at the hedgerow problem and decided it wasn’t anything to worry about. This seems to have generated a false sense of security regarding the hedgerow issue that permeated all levels of Allied command.

Additionally, in the same chapter Major General Cecil Moore, the Chief Engineer of the European Theater of Operations, admitted that his Engineer staff was inadequate to the task of providing all the topographic intelligence needed to support the invasion planning. Topographic intelligence was new ground to many Engineer officers and they lacked the education, training and experience necessary to provide the support needed. This is a remarkable admission considering all the other excellent Engineer analysis that took place prior to the invasion. My guess is that Moore’s staff focused tightly on analysis of the invasion beaches, exits from the beaches and the avenues of approach to the initial objectives, and German obstacle emplacements that were visible in aerial photos. There were river crossing operations, road repairs and improvements, airfield construction, port repairs and a whole host of other critical Engineer tasks to focus on. Hedgerows, if anyone on Moore’s staff thought about them at all, were probably considered a minor issue in the overall scheme of things.

There are three other issues that I’m sure probably came into play – wishful thinking, complacency and ‘go fever’.

Wishful thinking. Having served on Army planning staffs from brigade all the way up to theater army level I can assure you that there’s a lot of wishful thinking that goes on during the staff planning process. While we train our planners to not allow wishful thinking to creep into the planning process, many times tough problems that are just ‘wished away’ on the assumption that someone else will solve it or it will resolve itself before the operation gets underway. I’ve seen this dozens of times, like when I told a tank battalion commander that his 12 foot wide Abrams tanks won’t fit down that 10 foot wide trail in North Korea that he was planning to use. He waved his hand dismissively and told me that if and when the time comes he’d find a way around the problem.

Complacency. American Soldiers had been training in England for months before the invasion, and hedgerows are a common feature of the English countryside. But the hedgerows of England are were far smaller and easier to move through or over. Most could be simply hopped over. I’m sure many unit commanders looked at the aerial photos of Normandy and based on their experiences in England didn’t think the Normandy hedgerows would be much different. After all, a hedgerow is a hedgerow, right?

‘Go fever’ is the feeling that nothing is going to be allowed to stop the show. I’m sure ‘go fever’ saturated the Allied planning staff as June 6th approached. Nobody was going to try to halt the invasion for any reason; it was going to go as scheduled regardless of any last minute issues that might pop up. When an entire Army has ‘go fever’ nothing seemingly as minor as hedgerows will stop the largest invasion in history.

It took decades for the Army Corps of Engineers to recognize that topographic intelligence analysis was a critical skill that needed formalized processes and uniquely trained Soldiers. It was actually the Army Intelligence community’s efforts in the late 1970’s to formalize the Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) process that spurred the Engineers to action. IPB as an analysis process is heavily dependent on weather and topographic (terrain) analysis. The Intelligence community was set to establish their own organic terrain analysis assets when the Director of the Army’s Engineer Topographic Laboratory warned the Chief of Engineers that if he didn’t get serious about Engineers doing topographic analysis a key and historic Engineer responsibility would be ceded to the Intelligence field. Soon after the Corps of Engineers established the Terrain Analysis field and seeded Terrain Analysis units across the Army division, corps and theater army force structure.

Today Terrain Analysis is known as Geospatial Analysis and it’s the last vestige of the old Army topographic field left in the Army’s force structure. Since 1980 the Army’s Terrain/Geospatial Analysts have been doing the type of detailed analysis that might just have identified the hedgerows in Normandy as a serious obstacle. Our analyst are trained specifically to look at the small stuff – the trails, the fencelines, the stands of trees, even the hedgerows that might pose a problem for even the smallest of military units.

On this Memorial Day I’m praying we never have another ‘hedgerow problem’ on any battlefield American Soldiers are deployed to.

– Brian