When war planners during the Second World War settled on aerial bombing raids as an effective strategy, the need for an unprecedented level of geographic intelligence intensified. In order to ensure maximum destruction both sides looked beyond traditional military targets—weapons storage facilities, airfields and bases—to the infrastructure embedded deep within the urban fabric of towns and cities that was vital in sustaining the war effort. Under this doctrine it was as useful to target a remote Army training facility as it was an inner city steelworks.
Nazi Germany employed a range of tools for gathering geospatial intelligence, from planting German spies on British soil to deploying Luftwaffe planes equipped with cameras on flyovers to create detailed topographical impressions of major targets. Perhaps the most useful data on British cities was inadvertently provided by the Allies themselves in the form of the ubiquitous Ordnance Survey maps of entire country. While most military sites of critical importance were excluded from these maps, they still furnished the German planners with a detailed—but largely generalised—knowledge of the geographical specifics of any city they needed.
Ordnance Survey maps certainly provided Nazi Germany with the most detailed cartography of Newcastle and Gateshead they could hope for. In a series of maps—entitled Militärgeographische Einzelangaben über England: Militärgeographische Objektkarten und Objektbildern or roughly The Military Geography of England: Object Maps and Object Images—Ordnance Survey maps were overlaid with purple outlines indicating a ‘military object’.
RC Wheeler points out that although this project was grand in ambition, the ‘scheme was flawed by shoddy execution and by the inadequate base of topographic intelligence used to support it’. Wheeler’s analysis of the data used by Axis planners to map out Lincoln shows several mistakes, most glaringly the fact that ‘all but one of the engineering works are annotated “product unknown”—this in a city which had been one of the centres of production of tanks and aircraft in World War I’.
The ‘object maps may have been ineffective as a war planning tool, but they’re an important historical document nonetheless. The Library of Congress has made available a full set of these pertaining to the route along the River Tyne and Wear on both sides, which you can browse online for free.
Library of Congress Militärgeographische Einzelangaben über England collection, originally published by Generalstab des Heeres, Abteilung für Kriegskarten und Vermessungswesen (IV. Mi.-Geo.) in Berlin 1941-42.
RC Wheeler, ‘German maps of England of World War II and associated publications’, Sheetlines 68 (Dec 2003): pp26-31.