|Luftbilddatenbank / TARA|
In 1938, German General Werner von Fritsch made a prediction. "The military with the best photo reconnaissance," he said, "will win the next war." Barely six years later, he was proven correct. Between 1940 and 1944, 2.7 million tons of bombs were dropped on Germany and occupied Europe by British and American bombers. Each bombing raid was guided by extensive analysis of aerial photography that was cutting-edge for its time. The effect of each raid was measured by yet more aerial photos.
More than 70 years after the first bombs fell, those photos are being used with increasing frequency to heal the wartime damage that still lingers, hidden under the city streets and open fields of modern Germany. Using images from vast wartime archives in Britain and the United States, German authorities and private companies locate buried, unexploded bombs and avert the risk that construction workers set them off accidentally during building projects.
One of the leading private bomb sleuths is Hans-Georg Carls, a pipe-smoking geographer who has been collecting and organizing images from World War II for more than 20 years. When construction companies in Germany are looking to dig a pipeline, lay down a new highway or excavate an underground parking garage, they call Carls' company, Luftbilddatenbank, German for "Aerial Photo Databank," to see if there's a chance they might strike a buried WWII bomb.
The photos usually show a "before" and "after" view of a raid, with images taken just days or weeks apart. Where wartime analysts used machines called stereoscopes to look at the images in 3-D, Luftbilddatenbank technicians use digital software. They can then spot craters -- an indication that a bomb exploded -- and dark pinpoint holes, which suggest a dud that might still be buried under the surface.
Williams says 95 percent of the archives' work involves bomb disposal, mostly in Germany, Austria and Holland. But in the age of Google Earth, more and more researchers are tapping the Edinburgh archive's aerial photography collections, for everything from history documentaries to landscape archaeology. "Aerial photography is a means of looking at history in a completely different way than people are used to," Williams says. "People are always amazed at how much aerial photography survives."
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