On a normal day at LCMSDS I encounter beach obstacles, tank tracks, hundreds of different craters and cities rendered unrecognizable by bombing runs, all from 20,000 feet or higher. I am referring to the current project I head to digitize the 300,000 aerial reconnaissance photographs taken by the RCAF during the Second World War, which the Center has in its possession. Although there are some photos from 1942 and 1943, the vast majority are from the latter part of the war in Northwest Europe. The majority were taken in 1944 prior to the D-Day landings, and follow the Canadian army into The Netherlands and across the Rhine into Germany.
The aim of the project is to digitize all of the photos so that they can be available for the public to purchase and use for research purposes. Simply digitizing the photos is a daunting task in its own right. The process involved in scanning each photo takes around three minutes. Metadata also needs to be properly attached to each photograph’s digital record to preserve as much known information as possible and make them easily referenced. Some people might find this a monotonous task, but as a photographer, I have found it incredibly interesting.
To this point the aerial photographs have been used to compliment the various battlefield guides that LCMSDS has published, and to accompany CMH articles, including Mike Bechthold’s recent article on the destruction of Worthington Force during Operation Totalize. This is only the start of what these photographs could offer. One of the most ambitious ideas stemming from the digitization process is to one day overlay the flight-paths of each reconnaissance mission on Google Earth. With the sheer quantity of photographs in the collection, large areas of each country covered by aerial reconnaissance during the war could be visible through the program, transporting users back in time. Anyone interested in military cartography should find this as a useful addition to current research materials.
As I make my way through the collection – at this point searching for important battlefields and towns linked to well-known operations – I get to experience the Second World War in a completely unique way.
I have flown over the beaches of Normandy two days prior to the invasion of Europe and on D+1, I surveyed the success of the assault on Pegasus Bridge. I’ve seen the devastation of Carpiquet airfield only hours after the assault on it and encountered burning vehicles on the outskirts of Caen. Having been to Arromanches in person, I have seen the remains of the Mulberry harbours, but it was not quite the same seeing ships laden with supplies, hurriedly offloading them in August 1944.
As I’m sure you can imagine, not every photo contains exciting new information, or the key to unlocking 65 year-old historical problems, but even the seemingly unimportant photos have their own unique significance. They assist in completing an historical narrative of aerial reconnaissance during the Second World War. Moreover, they exemplify how immense the task of analysing photos from each flight would have been at the time.
I hope that what I am doing will further our understanding of the battles to liberate Europe by offering a new way to access them and understand their complexities. The sheer magnitude of the collection is often overwhelming, particularly when trying to compile a coherent picture from the puzzle pieces it offers. They are spread out over days, boxes, and hundreds of photos, but with time and patience, they come together.
The challenge is finding photographs that do not have a home; that is to say some boxes have no plotting, which makes it very difficult to discover the exact location of the image. The best example I have is of these gliders, taken on January 1st, 1945.
The box claims the photos are from The Netherlands, so they must be remnants of Operation Market Garden. From what little information there is, the photos appear to be of a location somewhere in the Nijmegen area, the American 82nd Airborne Division’s sector. Unfortunately, without more accurate plotting the exact landing zone remains unverified, for now.
To be put to best use, aerial photograph collections require a great deal of time and patience. I am currently in my third year of undergraduate studies, but I have an abundance of both to contribute towards the advancement of this project during my remaining time at Laurier. My passion for photography also drives me to continue with this project. I feel the importance of these photographs has been underrated for long enough, and it is time to do more with them than just store them in stuffy boxes.
With that said, it is time to show the fruits of our labour to the public. By clicking on the archive section of our website and heading to Air photos, visitors can now begin to peruse photos from our vast collection. Every Friday LCMSDS will be uploading a new flight of interesting photos for public viewing and purchase.
Again the photos are great research material, as well as a compliment to an academic article. However if there is a certain area or location you are interested in that does not immediately appear on the website, feel free to contact me at [email protected]and let me know what you are looking for. Chances are we have something in our collection.
Nick Lachance, November 2010