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.