Saturday 14 July 2012

History Corner: End of an Era in British Intelligence

Yesterday marked the passing of an era for a little-commented cog of a very effective British intelligence machine: the disbandment of JARIC, the Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre at RAF Brampton near Huntington.
JARIC handled the analysis and interpretation of aerial photography, primarily for military purposes but also for such tasks as trying to identify graves on Saddleworth Moor, tracking the progress of Dutch Elm disease and finding all the bits and pieces at Lockerbie.  With the advent of satellite photography there has been no part of the world that cannot be investigated from above on a clear day; and with infra-red and radar sensors, even cloud cover is no protection.

Large-scale use of aerial photography began in WW1, despite Haig's declaration that "none of you gentlemen is so foolish as to think that aeroplanes will be able to be usefully employed for reconnaissance purposes in war.  There is only one way for a commander to get information by reconnaissance and that is by use of cavalry".  He was very wrong.  However as in so many spheres, the tremendous developments made in WW1 were allowed to lapse in the inter-war years.

JARIC's origins were in a private initiative (of course!) in 1938 by a company called Aerofilms Ltd, which set up the Aeronautical Research and Sales Corporation to conduct clandestine aerial photography over Germany on behalf of the UK and French governments.  The Air Ministry formed a small photographic interpretation branch in the same year, and when war was declared the whole operation moved onto a more formal footing, albeit - as with so much early British effort in WW2 - still on a very modest scale.  

In 1940 Aerofilms was awarded a contract to set up a Photographic Development Unit (Intelligence) at its premises in Wembley, and through various evolutions in 1941 a powerful tri-service Central Interpretation Unit was established at Danesfield, a fine old house near Medmenham on the Thames.  Bletchley Park rightly gets much attention for its code-breaking work, but Danesfield House is far less well remembered, even though its work ranks in the same league, particularly its efforts of 1943-4 when it discovered the V1 and V2 launch sites (Operations Bodyline and Crossbow), and contributed half a million man-hours (and woman-hours) to preparations for Overlord.

In 1947 the CIU became the Joint Air Photographic Intelligence Centre (JAPIC), and JARIC in 1955, moving to Brampton the following year.  Technical requirements for the work by then required specialised buildings, and the fine house at Brampton Park served only as the Officers' Mess.  The 56 years at Brampton saw extraordinary technological advances and massive intelligence efforts in support of the Cold War and several hot wars, frequently in close collaboration with the US.  Many of the stories are yet to be told: suffice to say that Google Earth isn't an entirely original concept.

And the future ?  The functions carried out by JARIC are being transferred to a new unit - and apparently rather fine facilities - just a few miles away at RAF Wyton.  (Google Earth allows us all to conduct a close inspection from above! - what a delightful irony.)  The new unit combines aerial imagery analysis with military surveying, map-making and other related functions, and glories in a truly 21st Century name: the Defence Geospatial Intelligence Fusion Centre.  Good luck to all who sail in her.



Demetrius said...

Our Apis office was across the corridor from the General's and next to the G1's. Just the place to hide away when it was time for an inconvenient parade. Fascinating. It was there I learned that what you could not see was sometimes more significant than what you could.

Bill Quango MP said...

Great uncle Quango bought model kits for master and miss Quango back in the 70's.
I was horrified when Miss Quango painted her spitfire alight pink instead of the more usual camouflage green and brown.

Her model came with the pink paint.
Only decades later did i discover that that was the low level camo paint scheme.
High flying PR spitfires were light blue.

And you're dead right about the inter war years

Because of the lack of photographic reconnaissance in 1938 and the RAFs reluctance to have any, (MI6) commissioned Australian Sidney Cotton to fly clandestine photographic surveillance missions using his own aircraft flying out from Heston airfield.

By contrast the Germans had mapped most of our coastal defences and harbours and airfields by 1940.
Not that it did them much good.
Their PR interpretation skills were never as sharp as the RAFs.

Electro-Kevin said...

I knew a chap who was a Squadron Leader there. Awarded an OBE for his role in Desert Storm.

It didn't stop me kicking the shit out of him at karate.

Elby the Beserk said...

Interesting, Nick. I found out recently (I'm scanning the hundreds of letters my father sent my mother whilst he was in India in WWII) that one of his uncles was in the RFC in WWI. Have yet to find out any more about him, but this early period of what was of course to become the RAF is fascinating. Brave young men, that's for sure.

Third attempt at wv...

rwendland said...

"With the advent of satellite photography there has been no part of the world that cannot be investigated from above on a clear day" ... only if you have an observation satellite though.

UK is the only nuclear weapon state that does not have an observation satellite. I guess if we ever need to use our Tridents "independently", we just ask the nice yanks if they would mind letting us have a few photos so we can have a shifty look at what we think fired at us, and/or what we want to hit back at!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this news as I was born there.

DJK said...

Remember Zircon (1988)?

I worked at Filton at the time, and a new building was being constructed in its honour. The building site was restricted access, and this in the middle of a site where there was already restricted access. This building was also notable for the Faraday cage that surrounded it, with the metal screen not only continuous in the building's walls, but across the windows too. We only learned the building's purpose after Duncan Campbell had revealed all.

Anonymous said...

@ "yet to be told"- why do I think u are not telling all u know? Tell!

Nick Drew said...

Demetrius - yes, many lessons from PI

where there's one, there's two

no many ever put one brick on top of another except for a reason

BQ - agreed on all counts. When I first served in Oman I was a bit surprised to encounter pink land rovers etc: until I went out into the desert and discovered it is pink ...

EK, Elby - most decorated man I ever met was a Sqn Ldr in the RAF Volunteer Reserve in about 1972, his back-story was amazing

he declared himself a conscientious objector at the start of the war but was an ace pilot: they asked him if he would object to flying unarmed recce, and he was up for it

so he flew unarmed Spits through the entire war, every theatre in Europe & N.Africa, got several flying medals and every campaign medal going !

Mr R - Trident-type targets tend to be rather static

and not all imagery comes from satellites ...

anon1 - Wembley ? Medmenham ? Brampton ? Wyton ? Spamville ?

DJK - ah yes, Zircon: fun and games (for those unfamiliar, consult Dr Google)

anon2 - couldn't possibly comment

Nick Drew said...

that should have been no man
ever put one brick on top of another ...

James Higham said...

Oh well, as long as it's geospatial, that makes up for the demise.

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