War Maps

Maps have always been indispensable tools of war. A clear knowledge of one’s own and one’s enemy’s territory allows leaders and rulers to strategise, plan and arrange resources around the land they strive to conquer or defend. On cartographical representations, obstacles can suddenly become obvious, as too can weak-points. In today’s world of live-mapping, frequent updates on everything from traffic to changes in the travel network have also been utilised by the military. For this reason both Apple and Google recently disabled live-mapping updates in Ukraine, so that the feature would not aid the Russian invasion.

War in Ukraine is sadly not a recent phenomenon. The region has been highly contested for many centuries, as documented by its cartographical history. The first ‘descriptive’ map of Ukraine (Item 1) was published in 1652 by the aptly named Guillaume de Beauplan, who served as a captain in the Polish army from 1630 to 1648. From the mid-fourteenth century onwards, Ukrainian territory had been under the rule of three external powers: the Golden Horde of the Mongol Empire, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the Kingdom of Poland. In time, the latter became the most powerful, and throughout the Early Modern period Polish politics and culture dominated the majority of the territory. Discontentment spread rapidly among the Ukrainians, and revolutions and wars often broke out. The borders shown in such great detail on Beauplan’s map were subject to much change and dispute over the ensuing years.

One group that was particularly active in the region’s conflicts was the Cossacks. Their name is taken from the Turkick kazak meaning “adventurer” or “free man”, referring to the men of the fifteenth century who entered the steppe seasonally for hunting. These men came to form a group for mutual protection and found their ranks augmented by peasants fleeing serfdom, until by the mid-sixteenth century they had become a military organization with a general assembly, elected officers, and a commander-in-chief, known as the hetman.

A partition agreement in 1667 granted the Cossacks an autonomous state, the Hetmanate, which was confined to Left Bank Ukraine in the east. Thus Johannes Baptist Homann’s map of 1720, entitled “Ukrania quae et Terra Cossacorum” (Item 2) shows a large part of the region as Cossack territory, and includes a vignette of a Cossack camp with its leaders in discussion. Throughout the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century, however, the Hetmanate’s prerogatives were limited by Russian involvement, and from 1722 to 1727 and then from 1734 to 1750, the Russian imperial regime directly oversaw the country’s governance.

Russian presence in Ukraine at this time is shown on a map of the region (Item 3) published much later, but presenting the “Theatre de la Guerre” that occurred as a result of the Russian attempt to procure themselves access to the Black Sea via Ukraine, much to the anger of the still-powerful Ottoman authorities. The map displays the campaigns of Burkhard Christoph von Münnich, a German who effected great reforms to the Russian army, and Pyotr Petrovich Lacy, who is considered one of the most notable Russian Imperial commanders despite being born Peter Lacy in Ireland, both of whom led successful campaigns on behalf of their adopted country.

After two equally-turbulent centuries, Ukraine again found itself under attack by a great foreign power during Germany’s Barbarossa Campaign of the Second World War. In the spring of 1941, Hitler drew his attention to the invasion of the Soviet Union. Ripping up the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression accord between Berlin and Moscow, he planned in a rapid campaign aiming to repeat the Blitzkrieg in France, but on a much larger scale. The Nazis wanted to annex the plains of western Russian and Ukraine, populating the land with Germans, and also taking hold of Ukraine’s vast crops of wheat, plus the great oil supplies of the Caucuses, to sustain its overall war effort.

Operation Barbarossa was launched in June 1941, making steady progress eastwards from Poland, and by September 19, the Nazis had taken Kyiv. At this point it appeared that the operation was a brilliant masterstroke. However, there were already signs that the campaign would become one of the greatest disasters in military history. Far to the north of Ukraine, the Wehrmacht was unable to take Leningrad, and spectacularly failed to conquer the Soviet capital at the Battle of Moscow, the indefatigable nature of the Red Amy and the sheer size of Russia revealing the limitations of Blitzkrieg.

In one of the greatest historical blunders of military strategy, German forces then mounted a south-eastward thrust towards taking the Caspian oil fields as part of Case Blue, but had their weak supply lines cut by the Red Army, and their forces surrounded and trapped within Stalingrad. This resulted in a five-month-long battle that was the most destructive and deadly in world history, resulting in over 1.2 million casualties. The house-to-house fighting in the ruined city, often conducted in sub-zero temperatures, was horrendous, even by the standards of the most seasoned soldiers. The besieged German force was finally defeated, surrendering at the beginning of February 1943.

Illustrating the early part of Operation Barbarossa is an mimeographed map (Item 4) privately printed as a memento by Wehrmacht soldiers as combination of time chart and an itinerary map, including a first-hand account of the attack upon Kyiv. Its coverage extends eastwards from Eastern Poland to a point just beyond Kyiv, and carefully follows the progress of the Wehrmacht units from June to November 1941, thus taking the form of a visual narrative augmented by annotations, personal anecdotes and vignettes.

In the lower left-hand corner, German troops are shown leaving the train station in the French town of Saint-Erme-Outre-et-Ramecourt, for the four-day journey to Zamość, Poland. From Zamość to Kyiv the mapmaker marks the daily distances travelled, accompanied by notes as to whether the march was conducted at night, where they paused and for how long. Some places feature notes on events, such as the taking of prisoners, separations of troops, and even lice inspections.

The images in the lower part of the map commemorate broader events: the first signs of the war on the Polish-Russian border; the taking of Soviet prisoners by the Wehrmacht; an air-attack; and broken-down Soviet tanks lining the dusty roads. The former western border of the Soviet Union is shown giving way to the “Stalin Line”, which is strewn with graves. The skyline of Kyiv is depicted, surrounded by trenches and soldiers engaged in combat; after the city’s fall, the German forces had ravaged the region to the southwest. The final entry shows the troops’ progress to the town of Browary, to the east of Kyiv, on November 5, 1941. Thus the map presents Operation Barbarossa at its high point, when it appeared that the German effort might still be a success.

Maps also played a central role in the planning of many other operations during the Second World War. A set of highly detailed ‘Top Secret’ maps of Vierville-Sur-Mer (Items 5 and 6), better known as Omaha beach, were prepared for the organisation of the D-Day Landings. They show the area’s terrain, roads, landmarks and, most importantly, the German defences, both verified and unconfirmed. Printed in May 1944, only one month prior to the Allied invasion, these maps detail the final planning stages of Operation Overlord, which began on June 6th and proved the most successful and celebrated Allied operation of WWII.

An immense amount of planning went into the landings, and not least into the mapping of the potential invasion sites. Director of Survey, Colonel Archie Clough instigated a huge surveying program that included the production of relatively large-scale 1:12,500 maps for the invasion area. They were compiled using a number of sources, including pre-war editions of the ‘Guide Michelin’, but particularly from a new aerial survey, code-named Project Benson, after the airfield from which the reconnaissance Spitfires and Mosquitoes flew.

The maps are dramatically overprinted in red along the top edge with clear instructions as to their great secrecy and use: “This map will NOT be carried in operational aircraft”; “TOP SECRET until issued for briefing ground troops, thereafter secret”; “TOP SECRET BIGOT”. ‘Bigot’ was used to designate the highest level of military secrecy, and consequently, those personnel cleared to know details of Operation Overlord, known as the “Bigot list”, and the people on it, as “Bigots”.

Although it is advised that the maps had “not been checked on the ground and its reliability is uncertain”, they nevertheless contained a well-spring of seemingly minor detail, such as “trees felled” or “hedges cleared”. Moreover, crucial updates are evidenced by information later printed to the versos, demonstrating that these were key tools throughout the process of planning and executing the operation.

Some maps focus on specific areas or obstacles, such as the ‘American Neptune Area’ (Item 6) referring to the two main beaches of ‘Utah’ and ‘Omaha’ where the American troops were to land, and their approach from the English Channel, where ‘Swept Areas’, which had already been cleared of mines, are shown in red. The complexity of the construction of each battery position is identified, and is noted as anything from “under construction”, to “prepared position”, to “open battery with turrets”. The predicted and actual firing range of each position is plotted on the plan, and the corresponding response from the Allied Naval and Air Forces, outlined in a “Legend” upper right. The timing and duration of bombardment, that each position could be expected to endure, is measured in minutes, before, during and after “H-Hour”, “Y-Day” and “D-1 Day”. Many of the German positions that have now become iconic names in D-Day history are shown on the map: “Pointe du Hoc”, “Sainte-Mere-Église”, and “Maisy Battery”.

A rare composite photographic map (Item 7) was also prepared for the D-Day landing at Utah Beach, again bearing the very rare and ultra-secret “BIGOT” classification. It demonstrates how photographic information gleaned from reconnaissance missions was combined with more traditional cartography to create a formidable tool for the invading forces. An important target for such reconnaissance missions was the Pointe du Hoc (misspelled in many Allied documents as Pointe du Hoe), a vertical cliff situated between Omaha Beach and Utah Beach which provided the German forces with broad artillery cover, and was thus considered the greatest threat to the success of the planned invasion.

The level of detail with which the German defences are shown on the ‘Layout of a Typical Battery’ (Item 8) indicates just how thorough these espionage projects were, revealing precise information about the battery’s trenches, communication lines, wires and shelters. Likewise, the depiction of specific German gun emplacements allowed the Allies to calculate the exact angles and timings at which they could best approach the enemy base. This sort of information enabled them to plan a full bombardment of the battery, in an attempt to destroy it before they launched an attack on the beaches. These cartographical documents provide unparalleled insight into the largest amphibious operation in history, showing how maps were an indispensable tool to the armies of the Second World War.

Furthermore, the British War Office began to produce Escape and Evasion maps for its soldiers and personnel during the Second World War, printed on Rayon acetate, which was chosen for its durability and portability. The War Office, and later the Department of Defence, continued to produce these throughout the twentieth century, covering many regions across the world. The idea was that a serviceman captured or shot down behind enemy lines should have a map to help him find his way to safety if he escaped or, better still, evade capture in the first place. A map like this could be concealed in a small place (a cigarette packet or the hollow heel of a flying boot), did not rustle suspiciously if the captive was searched and, in the case of maps on cloth or mulberry leaf paper, could survive wear and tear and even immersion in water.

One example (Item 9), published by the War Office in 1957, shows large swathes of what are now the United Arab Emirates, on a scale of 1:1,000,000. To the recto is a map entitled ‘Hofuf’, which shows the Persian Gulf, Qatar Peninsula, Bahrain Island, part of the north-eastern coast of Saudi Arabia and a small part of Oman. To the verso, is a map entitled ‘Bandar Abbas’, showing the Persian Gulf, the Straights of Hormuz, the Gulf of Oman and bordering countries.

The maps take the standard form of British Escape and Evasion maps, with relief represented by hachures, altitude tints and spot heights, which height given in metres. Among the significant features shown are borders, highways, important roads, railway tracks, airports, rivers, bodies of water, and telegraph lines. These are identified in keys alongside both maps, where relevant information, such as “fresh water”, is emphasised. Alongside these keys, there are other helpful resources for military personnel in the area, whether by design or due to an emergency landing. These include a glossary of Romanised Arabic terms and diagrams placing the region shown in its wider geographical context.

Similarly, Operational Navigation Charts (ONCs) were also used by British military forces throughout the latter twentieth century, issued to Special Forces and Aircrew. Based on topographic maps produced by the American Defence Mapping Agency at a scale of 1:1,000,000 metres, they spanned a wide region and were designed to help pilots to identify the area below them. Outlining different types of terrain, significant landmarks and notable topographic features, the charts allowed pilots flying between 2,000 and 25,000 feet at high speeds to efficiently and accurately recognise their location. In the event of an unintended landing, ONCs doubled as Escape And Evasion Charts, their durable material making them suitable for harsh conditions and also easy to hide.

ONCs were two-sided, with a different map printed on either side. One example (Item 10) has a map of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Egypt to the recto, while the verso focuses on the central Saudi region of Riyadh. Toponyms are minimal, with only most important cities and sites labelled by name, such as Damascus, Riyadh, Baghdad and Medina, but relief, rivers, bodies of water, routes and settlements are all depicted in detail. Relief is shown by contours, shading, tints and spot heights, with warnings in several regions that “relief data incomplete”.

There is also a simple glossary giving the English meaning of Romanised Arabic terminology; as well as legends explaining “maximum elevation data”, “spot elevations” and “aeronautical information”, while symbols and diagrams explain further details. The maps were produced during a turbulent period of Middle Eastern history, in which Britain found itself increasingly side-lined. Restrictions on western presence and authority in the region is demonstrated by legends on the map warning that “flying over JORDAN without prior approval is PROHIBITED” and “all aircraft overflying IRAQ must remain within the boundaries of airways, advisory routes or permitted flying routes unless otherwise authorised by ATC”.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a detailed map of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (Item 11) was issued to US military personnel during the Second Gulf War. Although the United States did not launch its invasion of Iraq until 2003, maps of the region were being pre-emptively prepared by the military during the preceding years. One such map, or “evasion chart”, outlines a wealth of crucial information required for survival in this region, including a list of “environmental hazards”, diagrams of celestial and solar navigational aids, and photographs of the flora and fauna that might be encountered. The central portion is dominated by a large map, set on a grid showing longitude and latitude. Significant topographical and geological features are identified, as are national borders, and roads of variable qualities are represented by different lines. A notice in the border states that “this chart is intended for survival situations. Refer to current editions of appropriate aeronautical charts for flight planning or operations. Not to be used for targeting”.

Appropriately, the map is set against a camouflage background. It is printed of tyvek, a durable and waterproof material that could be used for shelter or water collection in an emergency. From its formation in 1996, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency was responsible for generating accurate maps and geospatial data with the aim of resolving international border disputes. After the 9/11 attacks, the Agency took on the additional responsibility of producing cartographic material on Iraq and Afghanistan to further America’s campaigns in those countries. In 2003, it was renamed the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and continued to work in support of the United States’ military endeavours in the Middle East.

In addition to planning attacks and arranging defences, maps have long been used to record, celebrate or commiserate conflicts, whether for the public, private individuals or the military. Matteo Pampini’s map of Casale Monferrato (Item 12), for example, depicts the siege conducted by the forces of his Catholic Majesty, the king of Spain, in 1628. The strategically important town of Casale Monferrato in Piedmont, with its central citadel, or castello, was one of the strongest and most impressive sites in the region. Although unsuccessful, the siege played a key role in the War of the Mantuan Succession, in which Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire sought to install their own candidate as Duke of Mantua. Pampini’s map thus immortalises an important event in Europe’s military history.

Likewise a broadsheet originally published in 1650 and then reissued around 1790 (Item 13) is an account of the siege of Colchester during the Second English Civil War, accompanied by a map showing the siege works built by General Fairfax and the position of the Parliamentary troops around the town. These maps and plans demonstrate how cartography has played a key role in keeping the public updated with information about wars and battles. Towards the end of the nineteenth century a new genre of such maps began to emerge.

The caricature map was a means of commenting on contemporary international issues in a way that held far more appeal to the average person. Paul Hadol’s ‘Comic Map of Europe’ (Item 14) shows the countries of Europe as absurd personifications, alluding to the tensions that were the cause of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870. In the centre, an over-weight and clumsy Prussia meddles with its suspicious neighbours. England is depicted as an old woman, who seems annoyed by the noise coming from the continent, but still keeps her dog, Ireland on a short leash. Spain and Turkey are portrayed as disinterested women on the fringes relaxing with a cigarette and a hookah respectively. Corsica and Sardinia are together an impish figure mooning the viewer. France crouches ready to draw his sword against any Prussia move. Russia is portrayed as a poor beggar, eagerly waiting to pick up any scraps that might come his way. The only country not personified is Switzerland depicted upon the map as a chalet. It is unclear why she appears this way, however, a lack of personality might be the reason.

A rifle with a bayonet near the bottom edge is sardonically labelled “Degrees of Longitude.” The various tensions and rivalries between the nations are described in the caption: “England enraged forgets Ireland but still keeps it in her power. Spain & Portugal smoke away lazily. France tries to overthrow Prussia who advances one hand on Holland & knee over Austria. Italy advises Bismark to keep off. Corsica and Sardinia laugh on at all. Denmark hopes to recover Holstein. Turkey is drowsily awaking from smoke. Sweden crouching like a panther. Russia as a beggar trying for anything to fill his basket.”

Similarly, in 1877 the caricaturist, Fred W Rose, published his so-called “Octopus” Map of Europe (Item 15). It depicts the political situation in Europe in 1877, with Russia portrayed as a vicious-looking Octopus, its eight lengthy tentacles extending into Northern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia, encircling in tightening strangle-holds the territories of Finland, Poland, Bulgaria, the Crimea and Persia and even reaching as far as the Holy Land, Armenia and Khiva in Central Asia. The Turkish Empire, in the form of a prostrate turbaned figure lying across the Dardanelles and Bosphorus with pistol at the ready, protects his prize gold watch, Constantinople, which hangs around his waist. Greece, an irritating crab, pinches his right elbow. Hungary is held back from attacking Russia by his sister Austria.

Germany, in the form of its uniformed Emperor, surrounds itself with arms and weaponry, ready for any emergency. France in the form of Marshal MacMahon, points a dangerous mitrailleuse at its German neighbour, eager to avenge its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. Italy is a young girl enjoying her newly found liberty, the Papal crown located in Rome. Spain is the reclining figure of Alfonso, sleeping after his recent exertions. The King of Belgium surrounds himself with his treasure. Denmark waves her small flag proudly. The British Isles, England a kneeling gentleman umbrella at the ready, Scotland a kilted highlander with claymore raised, and Ireland a hooded monk with Home Rule on his mind, stand on the side-lines determined at least to save the Turk’s watch. Sweden stands aloof in the North as a fur-clad woodcutter. Caricature maps in this vein, while they may be accused of simplifying or even trivialising significant conflicts, nonetheless provide important evidence of the contemporary attitudes towards these issues.

The aftermath of conflict has also been a common feature in cartography, whether presenting new land divisions or displaying the destruction that so often follows war. An interesting German map from 1851 (Item 16) was appended to a publication by the Society for the Protection of German Emigrants in Texas (Verein zum Schütze Deutscher Einwanderer in Texas) entitled Instructions. The society had been established following the flood of immigrants into the recently annexed state, fleeing from the socially and politically torn German states of Europe. These refugees could apply for grants from the Verein to help them to purchase land, and the map delineates eighty counties, with numerous towns and settlements and the connecting roads, in which they might find a new home.

Similarly, Johann Carl Müller’s 1776 work on contemporary international affairs (Item 17), which focused on the history and current state of North America, included important cartographical sources of this kind. While the first part contained a map of the beginning of the Siege of Boston, drawn with unparalleled accuracy, the second part contained a map of Long Island updated to show the results of the American Revolutionary Wars. The 13 independent colonies on the east coast are separated from the remaining British possessions in the north by a faint red line; Spain’s remaining territories, including Mexico, are outlined in yellow.

Thus through maps the story of war can be told from start to finish. Used to plan, execute, review and record attacks, cartography is a tool that grows ever more powerful as the advances of the information age provide unprecedented knowledge of the lay of the land and the actions of one’s adversaries.