The Rockcliffe Years – The Photo Mapping
By Squadron Leader Morris Konick, (Ret‘d), CD
As a former Photo Officer with 408 (Photo) Squadron, and you will note I purposely emphasized Photo Squadron, because I wanted to differentiate if form its original inception as a Bomber Squadron, and its subsequent endeavors to which it gravitated in its long and illustrious history. This being said, I wish to make the point by stating what a pleasure it was for me to be engaged with the squadron in this position, when it assumed its new Peace Time role of flying survey photography. This was at a time when Topographic Air Navigation maps of Canadas northern regions of any stripe was a distant dream, and where the only existing maps were blank sheets of paper devoid of any topographical features.
The absence of air navigation maps first became a serious problem during the Second World War, when the Japanese threat presented itself. The Americans, in defending Alaska, immediately started to reinforce their bases there and prepared for the eventuality of an invasion of that part of the world. The major impending factor in performing this function effectively was the lack of Air Navigation Charts. To fill this void, the US Army Air Corps set out to photograph the areas they would use to transit to Alaska. This was done with what was then a new innovation of acquiring photography of large tracts of land that could be used to provide emergency navigation charts. They employed three cameras equipped with 6 inch Metrogon lenses positioned in an aircraft in such a way that they were able to take a swath of territory form horizon to horizon, and known as Trimet coverage.
It is appropriate here to mention that because of the urgency for such maps, the Army Air Corps flew photography in all kinds of weather including low cloud conditions. The resultant accuracy of their maps therefore, was not to the same standards as that produced ultimately by 408. This is of course, understandable because of the equipment and techniques available and used in our operation.
The Government of Canada was equally concerned with this deficiency for sovereignty reasons, and took action to acquire four B-25 Mitchell Aircraft in 1944. Three of them were equipped with cameras, modified by our National Research Council to survey standards that would permit the photographic coverage obtained to be translated into accurate Topographic Air Navigation Charts. This was the prelude to the reactivation of the map-making project, which the Air Board and the RCAF started in the early 1920s, and continued until 1939 when it ceased temporarily because of the war.
Enter now the activation of 408 Squadron with its newly modified Lancasters to accommodate both the Trimet and Vertical survey camera installations, as well as Airborne SHORAN equipment. At this stage, under 22 Photo Wing, 408 with companion Squadrons 413 and 414, the monumental task of acquiring photographic coverage of the entire reaches of Canada for mapping purposes began in earnest.
Much has been said here about the activities of 408 Squadron in setting up and completing a SHORAN system across the length and breadth of Canada. This was an essential component of the overall mapping function, and was performed in concert with the photography taken by 408 to produce the required maps. Both were massive complementary tasks, because one without the other would have been a useless exercise. The fact is that unless one is able to accurately position the photographic coverage to its actual geographic position on the ground, all this effort would have been for naught. As you have heard it said here today, a photograph provides one with a pictorial display of the terrain covered, while SHORAN shows where it is located geographically.
During the mid to late 50s, with the cold war upon us it became 408s responsibility to maintain a constant surveillance vigil of our northern reaches because of the possible infringement of our sovereignty by the USSR. This required camera installations totally different from those used in our mapping role. This additional responsibility placed a difficult challenge to the squadron, because while we were heavily involved in performing the survey role from early spring to late fall, we were required suddenly to change our emphasis to that of a Reconnaissance organization in the winter. Therefore, in addition to a different range of camera equipment in our Lancasters, we had to design and prepare a film processing capability that could be deployed to remote northern bases in the event such became necessary.
We were very successful in acquiring coverage of Russian activities on the northern ice islands that were so detailed we had a delegation from US Intelligence visit us to determine how we were able to obtain such excellent coverage. And finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention and praise those magnificent men who were our Camera Operators during the many years acquiring valuable imagery whether it was for Mapping, SHORAN or Reconnaissance purposes. The important part they played deserves special praise and appreciation. They were a group of dedicated, hard working personnel who performed their job in a most commendable and professional fashion. I wish to recognize this publicly, and emphasize how proud I am to have worked with such devoted people.