Academic journal article Cartography and Geographic Information Science

Allied Military Model Making during World War II

Academic journal article Cartography and Geographic Information Science

Allied Military Model Making during World War II

Article excerpt


Use of terrain models to support military operations has a long history and is by no means purely an artifact of the twentieth century. According to Isabell Warmoes (1999), the production of scale models of fortified towns is a European tradition dating from the early sixteenth century. The Musee des plans-reliefs in Paris holds a collection of one hundred models of fortified towns situated along former French frontiers or subject to French rule that represent "portraits in relief" of towns and their surrounding countryside within range of artillery fire and enemy approach works, such as trenches, in case of siege. The levels of craftsmanship and attention to detail have seldom been exceeded.

During the twentieth century the three-dimensional terrain model played a significant role in many theatres of both world wars. According to Archibald Clough (1952), the static nature of World War I (1914-1918) demanded relief models of enemy defense positions for planning offensive assault operations. Campaign maps at a scale of 1:20,000 were made of the Western Front by a new model-making subdivision of the Ordnance Survey for General Headquarters in France. Layers of cardboard were cut to the shape of the contour, then pasted together and covered by a map sheet of the area printed on special paper, with the latest positions of the trenches marked. According to Peter Chasseaud (1999), models were sent to France between December 1916 and April 1917 at a rate of 36 per week. Indeed, by the end of the war, the Ordnance Survey had produced approximately one thousand of these models (War Office 1920).

A model of Zeebrugge, Belgium, at a scale of 1: 2,500, made in 1918 by the Royal Navy, marked both a change in the nature of warfare and, as a consequence, a change in the requirements for terrain models. The famous Zeebrugge Raid of April 23, 1918, a daring attempt to destroy a U-boat base (Keegan 1998), required careful planning and briefing. Use of the terrain model during the preparation and planning stages of the Zeebrugge raid pointed to the future role of models during World War II for combined operations.

Between the wars, however, the utility of models to aid in terrain visualization was not entirely forgotten and was alive immediately prior to World War II. In the second edition of A Key to Maps (1939), Harold Winterbotham added an entire chapter on model making to his earlier edition of 1937. Winterbotham, a brigadier and ex-Director General of the Ordnance Survey, had extensive combat experience in the Boer War and World War I, and had made models himself. Similarly, Frank Debenham's Exercises in Cartography, published in 1937, devotes a chapter to the subject.

Development of Anglo-American Model Making

Establishing the Model-making Section

Though the British Army was not prepared for the demand for model-making at the onset of World War II, a model-making section was formed as early as mid- 1940 (Abrams 1991), after representatives of the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force (RAF), and the Army met to discuss intelligence gathering for the Commandos. Commando operations relied on military personnel acting with a high degree of initiative. This new notion meant officers at all levels had to know exactly what they were doing and be able to pass this information on to their men accurately. Clearly, the success of Commando operations was going to rely heavily on thorough briefings with first-rate intelligence materials presented, so that all personnel would have a clear image of the target and its topographic context.

In this new type of assault, military training and courage alone would not do. Use of military intelligence had changed dramatically, as it was no longer solely the generals who were making tactical decisions in the field. Many assaults were combined operations of land, sea, and air forces. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.