german geopolitics cover

Maps: Would History Even Exist Without Them?

Across millennia, military planners have depended on maps.

german geopolitics cover

Perhaps it could be argued that there is nothing more fundamental to military operations than maps other than weaponry.

Imagine history without them. In times of conflict, Prime Ministers, Presidents, Brigadiers, Corporals and even Kings and Queens all find themselves, at one point or another, looking at a map. Where are our troops, where is the enemy, where should we attack?

Section commanders use them to brief fireteams; generals use them to command entire divisions. They find a place in the realms of intelligence gatherers; they form part of a soldier’s individual kit. Without maps, there would be no civilisation.  

JRR Tolkien started his work on Lord of the Rings by drawing a map. These things are essential. 

That was as true during the Second World War as when Caesar first dared to push his Roman soldiers eastward over the Rhine and into what is now Germany, some two thousand years ago. And while the reliability and accuracy of maps might have changed in the interim millenniums, the core essence of what they provide a soldier – knowledge, visualisation, security – has not. 

Now, a new book has identified 100 maps critical to World War Two. We sat down with its author - and those maps - to learn more about their role on both sides of the conflict. 

Frederick Donald Blake's 'The Battle of the Atlantic', 1944. Picture: British Library.

Maps: A Very Brief History

The earliest known maps date as far back as 8 century BC. Back then, and for some time, Earth was believed to be flat, a theory known as the flat Earth paradigm. In the three centuries leading to 1 AD, maps began to appear assuming a spherical Earth, which in 2 AD led to the introduction of Ptolemy’s world map. Incredibly, this remained authoritative for at least the next 10 centuries.

Below is a mid-15th century Florentine map of the world based on rediscovered Greek manuscripts of Ptolemy’s 2nd-century geography.  The map reveals that Ptolemy – the early geographer – was astonishingly accurate in his 2nd-century calculations. Note the shape of the Arabian Peninsula and the rigorous form of the Mediterranean region. It is no surprise that his calculations stood the test of time, holding authority until the mid-Middle Ages. 

Ptolemy's world map, produced in the 15th century using his original 2nd century manuscript. Picture: Public Domain.

Two hundred years after the above map was drafted (from 2nd-century scripture), in 1570, the Ortelius map provided what experts consider to be the first sincere modern atlas.

It was prepared by geographer Abraham Ortelius and printed in Antwerp. At first glance, it appears to bear a remarkable closeness to a modern-day atlas. Yet, note how significant Antarctica looks at the bottom and how that landmass consumes what would have been Australia – undiscovered at the time. The bottom of South America does not feature either. 

Ortelius World Map 1570. Picture: Public Domain.

Mapping Britain 

In 1784, William Roy was commissioned by the Royal Society to accurately measure Earth’s geometric shape (a science known as a Geodesy). To do this, Roy set out to geodetically calculate the difference between the Royal Observatories of Greenwich and Paris. This involved establishing a long, five-mile straight line on Hounslow Heath (nowadays part of Heathrow Airport), which allowed him to conduct his London-Paris triangulation. He succeeded and was awarded high honours for doing so.

The calculation solved a decades-long debate as to the relative positions of the two capital cities. 

But more than that, the five-mile baseline in Hounslow later formed the basis of the principal triangulation of Great Britain, and in June 1791, the Ordnance Survey was established. 

By the early 20th century, Ordnance Survey maps were the best in the world. In 1935, the evolution of OS mapping progressed with the initiation of the retriangulation of Great Britain. This process involved building thousands of Trig Pillars across the land on inhospitable peaks to serve as solid triangulation points. 

Trig Pillars are still marked on OS maps today and found on hilltops and mountains all over Britain. In total, 6,500 were constructed. Many are rooted as deep as 15 feet under the surface. The new system led to the introduction of the 1:25 000 scale map series.

'The Threatener is Threatened' - Edwin L. Sundberg's 'Quadruple Threat to Japan', 3 September 1944. Picture: British Library.

The Maps Of World War Two

Celebrated historian Jeremy Black collated and presented 100 maps that told the story of World War Two in his 2020 book, A History of the Second World War in 100 maps. Exploring this period via the means of maps and areal photography, he unlocked and dissected some of the most fascinating mid-century examples of cartography from all sides of the conflict. 

Jeremy, speaking about the aesthetics of the maps produced in this period, pointing out that they were required for use on two fronts: civilian and militarily, said:

“You have got maps being produced by a whole range of countries and with each of them having very different cultures, and, as I have tried to show in the book, maps designed for very different audiences.

"So, a map designed for a military audience has essentially utilitarian or explicitly functional motivation which is very different from maps designed for the public. And with maps designed for the public, it is very much the medium and the possibilities of that medium. So, a map that’s going to appear in a two-colour newspaper is very different to a map that’s going to appear in a full colour magazine.”

Arnold Hillen Ziegfeld's map of German diaspora, 1938. Picture: British Library.

Some of the maps Jeremy selected for the book are stark in colour and can even be looked at from the perspective of art. Jeremy agreed, remarking that “some maps are impressive.” He added:

"I personally find the most impressive being the aerial views produced preponderantly in the United States taking aerial projections in order to try and show how countries that might seem far distant were in fact closely linked. So, in terms of the actual quality of the mapping, I would say those are the ones that impressed me the most."

Germany's geopolitical influence at the start of World War One, as presented by Ernst Adler in 1939/40. Picture: British Library

Many maps Jeremy covered in his book, published by The British Library, served a propaganda purpose, particularly those made by the Nazis. In those instances, messages necessary for the regime to impart to the public were accessible to understand. 

The map below, titled 'STAND: ANFANG NOV. 1941' ('Status: Beginning November 1941'), is a typical example of that propaganda-first emphasis in the design and presentation of information on some Nazi maps. In this example, the progression of the German military (seen in an unmistakable red ink) looked far advanced into the Soviet Union, the section of the map seen in yellow. However, in the accompanying text, Jeremy noted that only part of the vast Soviet Union is shown. The already breached Stalin Line (seen in green) suggested a lone Russian defensive position. In reality, new lines of Soviet defences had been built. 

'In practice, the Soviets were able to move much of their industry east to and beyond the Urals (not shown in this map), which was out of the range of any likely German advance and air attacks.' – Jeremy Black, A History of the Second World War in 100 Maps.

'STAND: Anfang Nov. 1941 from Der Krieg 1939/41 in Katen, 1942. Picture: British Library.

But was Germany's insincere approach to propaganda mapping exclusively inherent to the Nazis? Did the US or British put resources into cartography trickery to make facts appear differently on a map, softening a reality blow to civilian audiences? What were the differences between maps made in Germany during the war compared to those made in America?

Jeremy said that Germany upheld an ethos of "fighting for destiny," as seen in their maps. He said:

"I certainly think that the Nazi theme, which was a sort of Manichean-theme, it's either good or bad, is one that could be very crude indeed. But German cartography and its background was actually of quite high standards. If you look at German military mapping, they could have quite high production standards. Both production in the sense of input by the military and production in the sense of the printing. 

"I would say the principal difference with that of the United States is that the United States is a 'fitness for purpose' mapping, in that they are producing very large numbers of maps, and doing so with some considerable success incidentally, and therefore the individual map is, as it were, subordinate to a map culture of scale, quantity and speed."

Britain - Spearhead of Attack by Frederick Donald Blake, 1943. Picture: British Library.

Another revelation is the precision and, it could be said, care, the Nazi planners undertook to keep bombers away from buildings within cities where German interests might have lain. 

One such example is this map of London (below) which has been marked up to show where 'Neutrale Botschaffen' (neutral embassies) sit within the geography of the West End. The map was a British-made Ordnance Survey map, with German overlays marking out targets, in this case, the War Office and Admiralty.

Luftwaffe Target Map for London, September 1940. Picture: British Library

Are maps like this, with bombing targets identified in red ink, somewhat eerie to ponder 80 years on from their design and the death of thousands of Londoners by the coincidence of their production? 

Jeremy was hesitant to use the label "eerie". He said:

"All war involves the killing and maiming of large numbers of people. It's brutal, and World War Two is particularly brutal because of its scale. What they were trying to do was bomb targets that were most going to affect the British war effort. Subsequently, the British reciprocated, of course. 

"In some respects, the bombing maps are a very different system to an alternative form of mapping, which was firing V1s and V2s on London which went on right to the end of the war, where there's no real effective map at all. In the case of the V1, it's when the engine cuts off. And it's interesting that there are lots of questions you can ask about the possible effectiveness of the bombing. The Germans found that free-fall bombs dropped from a considerable height on London were not as effective as they had anticipated, but still did a hell of a lot of damage."

SJ Turner's Colour Relief Map of Abyssinia and War Zone, 1938. Picture: British Library.

The notion of a commander pulling a map out of his side-pocket and laying it on the decks of an armoured vehicle could be viewed as a romantic idea of a time when soldiers depended on low-technology techniques to get their sections of men into positions to take on an enemy, whom, it was assumed, had undertaken a similar process.

Yet today, maps are less likely to be physically folded sheets of paper, stuffed in a pocket or burned before capture, when accounting for modernity. These days, everybody from school kids to mountain hikers has access to readily available and cheap technology that can solve the problem of navigation quickly and without much effort. When the President is seen pouring over decisions in the Situation Room, he is not hunched over a paper-based map. Instead, he has the means of a digital image and even live satellite photography. 

So, is the idea of maps like those seen in Jeremy's book a thing of the past? Has cartography's evolution into the mid-21st century resulted in a lost world of mapping? Jeremy believes that it may well be that the physical formulation of maps has changed, "but of course, they are still maps." 

He said:

"Even if they are simply on a screen, a spatial representation of reality exists. That spatial representation of reality can exist in paper format, digital format or whatever. 

"If anything, I would say mapping has become more common because it is now easier."

He added:

"As far as the military is concerned, any organisation that wants to know spatial representation is going to need mapping. The military is one aspect of that, but if for example, if one is thinking of the trying to work out what is underground that might limit or affect the movement or the drilling of a new shaft for a tube line, those very much are forms of maps.

"And indeed, if you want to think of another form of spatial representation, if you go into a hospital and they are doing an MRI scan on you or investigating you for something like Bowl Cancer, those are maps that the doctor is seeing on the screen. I think that's quite important, and people don't seem to understand that we are in a sense, more suffused with visual imagery partly because as a society I think that written sources are possibly less significant for people that are more interested in visual representation."  


A History of the Second World War in 100 Maps, by Jeremy Black, is available now in all good bookshops.  Cover: a cropped version of Ernst Adler's 1939/40 map of Germany's geopolitical interests at the onset of World War One. British Library.