Portrait of the Enemy

Photographs taken from the world’s first warplanes changed the course of battle.

The book that robbed the enemy of his secrets. A key to shapes shows a circle can be a haystack or a gun emplacement. (Eric Long)
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The padded envelope arrived on my doorstep with an ominous thump. The return address, Knox Burger Literary Agency, confirmed my apprehensions: It was the manuscript I’d mailed to my irascible literary agent only a week before. Apparently, he hadn’t liked it.

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Knox Burger had learned his trade during the Second World War, writing from Tinian in the Mariana Islands for Yank magazine. He flew on the B-29 raid that burned the heart of Tokyo to ash. He was one of the first journalists to walk that city’s streets after the war, and sent back a haunting interview with a Japanese fireman who’d tried to put out a firestorm with a bucket.

Knox was and remains almost impossible to please. Even worse, he’s usually right. So I wasn’t eager to tear open that package and see what he’d done to my manuscript.

But I was wrong. Inside I found a large book of photographic plates: Notes on the Interpretation of Aeroplane Photographs, bound in heavy cardboard, peeling tape, and twine. It looked, even smelled, old. And in Knox’s spare, demanding style, a note: “I found this in my father’s things. Make sure it finds its way into the right hands.”

I’d researched modern intelligence gathering for a book about submarines, Hostile Waters, that I’d co-authored. But “aeroplane?” How old was this book? I opened it, taking care with the fragile binding. A handwritten label said the book had been issued in 1918 to Knox’s father, Captain Carl Burger of the 344th Infantry, United States Army.

I’ve seen stills taken from the Predator, a General Atomics unmanned aerial vehicle that flies reconnaissance missions over Iraq; the old plates in Captain Burger’s book were far sharper. Taken during the Great War, the photographs were astonishingly clear and detailed, showing shell-pocked moonscapes around the Somme River in France, trenches, and the tracks left by soldiers rushing to battle, as well as a chaos of trails made by men fleeing for their lives. In one, I could even make out a biplane rising up from an enemy aerodrome.

The accompanying text began: “In the British Army, the whole trench system of the enemy is photographed from a standard height of 6,600 feet at least once every ten days.”

Could “whole trench system” mean the entire Western Front, from the North Sea all the way to the Swiss border and beyond? That was 500 miles—a lot of flying, a lot of photographs.

The military’s view on aviation had clearly undergone a major shift. Only a few years before Notes was issued, General Ferdinand Foch of France had said, “Flying is merely a sport and from the military point of view has no value whatsoever.” When Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s 1914 assassination in Sarajevo sent the world to war, reconnaissance was conducted by cavalry—that’s right, men on horses.

As for aerial reconnaissance, early observers went aloft over France in tethered balloons armed with nothing more than sketchpads. Now, according to Notes, overlapping photographs covering half a continent were routinely shot from more than a mile high, with camera lenses that were good enough to show whether a trench was full of soldiers or mud.

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