Second World War military intelligence: aerial photography in the Mediterranean Theatre

Earlier this year as part of the event Second World War military intelligence: aerial photography in the Mediterranean Theatre, we were delighted to welcome Allan Williams, director of the UK’s National Collection of Aerial Photography (based in Edinburgh). The NCAP is dedicated to the conservation and dissemination of aerial photography, and the majority of their holdings focus on Germany and Austria, though a significant proportion covers Italy and the Mediterranean, holding further research potential.

Allan was joined by Elizabeth Jane Shepherd, of the Aerofototeca Nazionale, ICCD, who spoke alongside BSR Archivist Alessandra Giovenco about the BSR RAF Collections. You can read more about the event in Italian in this article in Geomedia.


Aerial photograph of the BSR and the Valle Giulia in 1944

We were also honoured to be joined by Francesco Scoppola, Director of Direzione Generale Educazione e Ricerca at MiBACT.


Francesco Scoppola (Director of Direzione Generale Educazione e Ricerca at MiBACT) with BSR Director Stephen Milner and BSR Archivist Alessandra Giovenco

A small exhibition was organized with some archival items from the Aerofototeca Nazionale as well as the BSR Administrative Archive. Original documents and the box in which the photographs were initially stored were on display, alongside reproductions in large scale of aerial views. Also on display was a video telling the story of the huge endeavour that involved thousands of officers, both women and men, in the photo interpretation units in their attempt to defeat the Axis powers.

The story of these collections started with John Bryan Ward-Perkins in the last days of World War Two.


The two Johns


John Bryan Ward-Perkins (Photo: BSR Archives, courtesy of the Ward-Perkins family)

John Bryan Ward-Perkins – the BSR’s director from 1945 to 1974 – is well-known for his role as one of the World War Two Monuments Men in his capacity as Deputy Director of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFA&A) Allied Sub-Commission in Italy from 1944 to early 1946. Originally recruited to the 42nd Mobile LA regiment by Mortimer Wheeler, Ward-Perkins spent much of the war in North Africa, particularly Lepcis Magna in Libya. During the war he was enrolled to participate in a massive survey of war damage to Italian heritage as Deputy Director and then Director of the MFA&A Allied Sub-Commission.


Aerial view of Rome, courtesy Aerofototeca Nazionale, ICCD.

It was in his capacity as a Monuments Man that Ward-Perkins was initially approached by John Bradford (pictured below on the left), a pioneer in landscape archaeology and aerial photography for research and scientific purposes. John Bradford was an English historian from Christ Church College, Oxford, who was recruited as photo interpreter in 1943 by the Mediterranean Allied Photographic Reconnaissance Wing (MAPRW) based in San Severo, a small village in Southern Italy (Puglia).


John Bradford with his wife Patience and brother-in-law Derek. The photo was taken by the siblings’ father in 1950 (photo taken from John Bradford e la ricerca archeological dal cielo 1945/1957 by Francesca Franchin Radcliffe)

Referring to the photographs taken by the RAF for military and intelligence operations, Bradford reports that: ‘It was originally intended, by the operational units concerned, that as the battle-line moved forward, so the air photos thus rendered non operational would be discarded and sent as ballast back to England for pulping … In the spring of 1945 it was decided to scrap everything up to a line PISA-PESARO, and eventually of course the same treatment was to be applied to all photos of France, the Balkans, Germany, etc, as soon as the war ended’. Having induced the RAF authorities to suspend the destruction of such material, deemed so important for historians, geographers, archaeologists and researchers, he persuaded Ward-Perkins of their unique value, and Ward-Perkins went on to make significant use of aerial photography when undertaking the South Etruria survey in the 1950s.

What happened to the aerial photographs?


Courtesy BSR Administrative Archive

In this letter Ward-Perkins (writing to the BSR’s Honorary General Secretary Evelyn Shaw in London) attests to the ‘archaeological value’ of the RAF aerial photographs, that had been just moved from San Severo to the Allied Forces Headquarters in Rome. He suggests that the collection be distributed amongst Rome’s foreign institutes, after the completion of the selection conducted by Bradford with the assistance of RAF personnel over the Summer and the Autumn 1945. In a letter addressed by Bradford to Ward-Perkins in December 1945, he says:

‘A total of 2,058,000 prints were taken over from HQ. MAAF of which about 1/3 were selected as essential. These are now crated and stored in several repositories, ie. the British and French Schools, the American Academy and the Swedish Institute.’ Ward-Perkins secures for the BSR the RAF aerial photographs concerned with central and southern Italy, that were arranged in nearly 2,000 boxes for a total of approximately 233,000 prints. In 1974 an agreement between the BSR and the Italian Ministry of Education, allowed the transfer of this remarkable collection to the Aerofototeca Nazionale, ICCD on permanent loan, acknowledging this institution as its natural place for conservation and access. Those deposited with the American Academy were also taken over by the Aerofototeca Nazionale in 1966. In 1980 the set of the French School (Ecole Française de Rome) reached the Centre Camiille Jullian at Aix-en-Provence and the aerial views of Greece were handed over to the British School at Athens soon after the war ended. At the same time, Bradford managed to select and secure a set for the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, where he was appointed Assistant Curator in 1947.


The original boxes in which the aerial photographs were stored. Photo courtesy Aerofototeca Nazionale, ICCD.

We are eager to continue our collaboration with the Aerofototeca Nazionale, ICCD, and other international partners for future projects to highlight the importance of these collections.

You can listen to the event Here:

Alessandra Giovenco (BSR Archivist) and Natalie Arrowsmith (Communications Manager)