The Secret Mission to Seize German Map Data in World War II

Greg Miller’s crackerjack story in the November 2019 issue of Smithsonian magazine is about the quest to capture German geodetic data—and German geographers—during the dying days of the Second World War. Said data was a strategically critical treasure trove, of immense interest to the U.S. War Department, and the team led by Floyd W. Hough was in a race to find it before it was destroyed, carried away by the enemy, or fell into Soviet hands.

Little is publicly known about the true scope of the information that Hough and his team captured, or the ingenuity they displayed in securing it, because their mission was conducted in secret, and the technical material they seized circulated only among military intelligence experts and academics. But it was a vast scientific treasure—likely the largest cache of geographic data the United States ever obtained from an enemy power in wartime.

The data seized by Hough’s team went on to form the basis of the ED50 geodetic datum, which in turn led to the Universal Tranverse Mercator system.

New Exhibition of Wartime Mapping Activities at Hughenden

Opening today at Hughenden Manor: a permanent exhibition on the secret wartime mapping activities that took place at the Buckinghamshire mansion during the Second World War.

In rooms never before opened to the public, the installation features original photographs, records and memories of personnel involved at the time.

In newly accessible spaces used by the mapmakers themselves, the interactive exhibits shed light on how Hillside played such a significant role in shaping the outcome of the war. […]

Codenamed ‘Hillside’, Hughenden played such a critical role supporting the pilots of nearby Bomber Command that it was on Hitler’s list of top targets.

Around 100 personnel were based here, drawing up the maps used for bombing missions during the war, including the ‘Dambusters’ raid and for targeting Hitler’s mountain retreat Eagle’s Nest. Skilled cartographers produced leading-edge maps from aerial photographs delivered by the RAF’s reconnaissance missions.

The BBC News story provides more detail: some 3,500 hand-drawn target maps were produced at Hughenden Manor during the War.

D-Day

Map from The Neptune Monograph
Map from the Neptune Monograph

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, the Bodleian Map Room Blog (no relation) has a post showing some of the Bodleian’s map holdings that deal with Operation Overlord. (The Bodleian has posted about D-Day before: see this post from June 2014 marking the 70th anniversary, and this post from September 2015.)

Maps Mania marks the occasion with links to the Library of Congress’s collection of World War II military situation maps and the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection’s D-Day map holdings.

Meanwhile, a copy of the Neptune Monograph, a top-secret intelligence report distributed to Allied commanders before the D-Day landings that contains maps of the landing zones, can be yours for a mere $45,000. Alternatively, thanks to a Kickstarter last year, you can get a reproduction for one-tenth of one percent of that price. [Military History Now]

Update: I forgot to mention this Library of Congress blog post about a fascinating model of Utah Beach used during the invasion.

Office of Strategic Services Maps at Stanford

U.S. Office of Strategic Services, “Southwest Japan (Kyūshū, Shikoku, and southwest Honshū) industrial concentration, 1943.” Map, 30×48 cm. Washington, 1944. Stanford Libraries.

Stanford University Libraries’ collection of Office of Strategic Services Maps: The OSS Map Division, directed by Arthur H. Robinson, produced nearly 6,000 maps before the OSS was disbanded in 1945. Stanford has digitized and posted around 700. These maps focus on wartime theatres of operation and deal with subjects like industrial capacity, ports, railroads and other strategic interests. [Open Geography]

Previously: FDR’s Globe.

Mapping Canada’s War Dead

Over the past few years, Global News’s Patrick Cain has been producing interactive maps pinpointing the home addresses of Canada’s war dead. Most date from 2013. Toronto’s map covers both World Wars and Korea; Winnipeg’s and Vancouver’s cover World War I alone. This map covers D-Day casualties across the country. This map shows the next-of-kin addresses for Korean War casualties. [Canadian Geographers]

Three Books on WWII Maps

  1. Great Escapes: The Story of MI9’s Second World War Escape and Evasion Maps by Barbara Bond (Times Books, October 2015): history of the escape maps produced for prisoners of war.
  2. Mapping the Second World War by Peter Chasseaud (Collins, October 2015): a collection of historical maps; follow-up to Chasseaud’s 2013 book Mapping the First World War.
  3. Mapping the Second World War: The Key Battles of the European Theatre from Above by Michael Swift and Michael Sharpe (Conway Maritime Press, November 2014).

Previously: Two Books on WWI Maps.