By Lori S. TaggSeptember 15, 2017
In the latter half of the 19th century, military organizations around the world began experimenting with aerial technologies and by the early part of the 20th century, advances in airplanes and cameras inevitably linked these two technologies for military intelligence purposes.
By the time the United States entered World War I, aerial visual and photographic reconnaissance had become principle sources of intelligence used by the British and French for planning and executing battles. Following the lead of the Allies, the fledgling U.S. Air Service deployed 18 Aero Squadrons (Observation) to France in 1917 and 1918. Of these, 14 served with 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Corps. The first corps-level observation group was established in 1st Corps.
In April 1918, the 1st Corps Observation Group was assigned to the Toul Sector in support of the 26th Division. The Group consisted of the 1st Aero Squadron, responsible for long-range visual observation and aerial photographic missions and adjustment of divisional heavy artillery fire; and the 12th Aero Squadron, which conducted short-range visual and photographic missions, light artillery spotting missions and infantry contact patrols. During its eight months of operations, the Group also temporarily included the 50th and 88th Aero Squadrons.
Each squadron consisted of 18 pilots and 18 observers, all officers. The Group also had a Photographic Officer, responsible for installing cameras on the aircraft and overseeing development of photographs after the missions, and a Branch Intelligence Officer (BIO). The BIO, assigned by the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) G-2, studied and interpreted the photographs and distributed all relevant information to higher commands.
The Group also included a motorcycle courier, who sped the photo plates from the aircraft to the lab where 30 enlisted technicians and specialists printed and enlarged the photos and got them in the hands of the BIO within six hours.
In the early days of aerial operations, weather and mechanical problems cancelled more missions than were actually flown and many of the initial photographs had little intelligence value. Squadron personnel used their time in the relatively quiet sector to complete their training in preparation for more active operations. In addition to providing valuable training, the constant overwatch in the sector made it difficult for the enemy to make preparations for large-scale attacks without the Allies' knowledge.
These quiet days in Toul came to an end in early July 1918 when the United States began large-scale military operations against the German lines. The 1st Corps Observation Group had active participation in the Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives. Commanders who had initially expressed skepticism about the value of aerial reconnaissance were now relying heavily on the discipline when planning operations.
Weather permitting, aero squadrons flew daily dawn and twilight patrol missions and other missions as the tactical situation dictated. The BIO compared photographs from successive missions to identify changes in enemy battery positions, movement on roads and railways, and evidence of new works and troop concentrations. As the squadrons gained experience in actual combat conditions, they became more responsive to the needs of Corps and Division G-2s, air-delivering timely "First Needs" packets of photographs directly to command posts.
As the war moved out of the trenches and became more mobile, photographic reconnaissance became less important than artillery adjustment and infantry contact patrols. Because most of the observers were field artillery officers, they were attuned to and focused on meeting the requirements for artillery targeting.
During contact patrols, air crews kept the command informed of the location of its front line by flying low enough to mitigate issues of unfavorable weather, while braving the dangers of both friendly and enemy ground fire. Communication issues between air crews and infantry units were partially overcome by more intensive collective training, although the rapidly changing battlefield challenged even the best efforts at liaison.
In reviewing its efforts, the U.S. Air Service identified issues related to weather, air-to-ground communication, photographic processing and inadequate training that would need to be addressed in post-war developments. Still, the success of the Aero Squadrons cannot be overlooked. The Air Service understated the value of aerial visual and photographic reconnaissance as "satisfactory," while historians noted that it had become the primary information source influencing decision-making by the end of the war.
Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the AEF, concurred, stating, "No army ever went out with the information as to what was in front of it as the American army did at St. Mihiel and the Argonne."
Clearly, aerial reconnaissance would continue to be a critical component of Army Intelligence operations.