Where We Go
Photography changes how wars are fought
Von Hardesty, Smithsonian curator of aeronautical history, views reconnaissance images of Normandy Beach to describe the impact aerial photography on World War II military planning.
These dramatic photographs were taken on the eve of the Allied landings at Normandy on June 6, 1944. The eventual Allied assault on the beaches at Normandy would involve a vast armada of ships, airplanes, and soldiers—and the epic victory that followed set the stage for the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe in World War II. Aerial reconnaissance of the German defenses at Normandy became a critical factor in Allied planning for the invasion. These reconnaissance photographs—selected from a sequence of images shot at low level—were taken on a sunny day in late May 1944, just days before the Allied landings.
What caught my attention was the fact that these photos offer a mirror on history. They were part of the rehearsal for an epic encounter between the Allies and Nazi Germany. In the narrow tactical sense, the photos expose the relentless effort of Allies to monitor enemy fortifications at Normandy at the eleventh hour. Military intelligence gathering had become a vital dimension for any major offensive operation. Knowing in real-time (or close to it) how the German defenders were deployed became an essential factor in assuring for the success of the planned Allied landings.
From the notations on the prints, the photos were taken from a Lockheed P–38F-5 fighter, a fast twin–engine, single seat reconnaissance aircraft used for taking both vertical and oblique angle photographs—often at extreme low altitudes. Typically, such an aircraft used two 6-inch K-17 or K-22 oblique angle cameras, which were mounted in the nose section.
Generally, when we think about air reconnaissance, we think of images that look down from great heights. But this sequence of photographs suggests the use of aircraft to obtain images from low level, in this case from about 150 to 200 feet above the ground. Such missions were high risk. But they were deemed necessary to gain vital data on enemy fortifications on the Normandy beaches.
The pictures focus on the beach and nearby cliffs, the locale for enemy fortifications. All German defenders are seemingly concealed from view. However, the photos capture one break in the cliffs, showing the areas stretching inland from the beaches. Allied photo interpreters were keen on learning where the enemy had placed mines and obstructions. The pylons—the things that look like tripods that you see sticking up on the beach—were topped with mines, set in place to be invisible to the invaders at high tide. You sense in the images the cat and mouse machinations underway in advance of the long-anticipated invasion.
Knowledge of the enemy’s positions and movements has long been a major element in war. The first aerial photographs were taken from balloons in the American Civil War. With the advent of air power in World War I, aerial reconnaissance took on a new dimension, becoming an essential tool of warfare and allowed for the deep penetration of enemy-held territory. The camera—once mounted in an airplane—offered the means to monitor the movement of opposing armies in a systematic fashion. By World War II, you had better cameras, better aircraft, and much more disciplined photography missions. It was always dangerous work. Reconnaissance aircraft were always targets for interception by enemy fighters and air defenses. If such roaming aircraft appeared too many times, this could offer a telltale sign an approaching offensive or military operation. Consequently, there was a great deal of stress on stealth, speed, and concealment.
Aerial reconnaissance photography may be considered both a technology and an art form, and it has evolved in sophistication in modern times. The P-38s used at Normandy would be replaced in later decades by U-2 and SR-71 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. By the end of the 1950s, with the advent of the space age, satellite–based reconnaissance became commonplace. One of the first experiments in this latter-day technology came in the late 1950s and early 1960s with Project Corona, when canisters containing exposed film negatives shot in the upper atmosphere were literally dropped back to earth by parachutes and retrieved by airplanes. Today, there is no part of the globe that isn't routinely photographed; satellite reconnaissance enables you to see a digital view of the street you live on, taken from a 25–foot elevation. In peacetime, aerial photographs are used for map making, real estate development, and weather forecasting; they’re also useful to document and assess the impact of storms and disasters.
What struck me about these Normandy images is the special context or moment in history evident to the onlooker—we see the beaches on the cusp of a titanic struggle. Indeed these surviving images are frozen, but the context is dynamic and filled with portent. The outward serenity betrays the fact that this same terrain would soon be caught up in the fog of battle—an altered reality just hours away. Only a few high-ranking Allied commanders knew the exact beaches targeted for the landings. The German defenders feared the impending battle, but did not know the exact time or locale. Given this peculiar context, we understand why the Normandy photographs possess an intrinsic appeal and excitement. When you look at them, you sense how photography can serve as a mirror, in this case a hint of the future. What the camera captures, then and now, is an extraordinary moment—rare and never to be repeated. In fact, history hovers over these beaches as a coiled spring, ready to transform a serene stretch of beach into a crucible of battle.
- Reconnaissance photograph, 1944
- Unidentified photographer