Mapping Their World
Cartography, Intelligence, and the Red Atlas
Whilst researching my forthcoming book, about the hunt for a U-boat in World War Two—never fear, I shan’t forget to remind you when it’s on sale—I was interested to discover that when Reinhard Hardegen, captaining U-123, first appeared off New York City in January 1942 as part of Operation Paukenschlag (Drumbeat), all he had to guide him was an old tourist map someone had hurriedly rustled up back at headquarters.
In short, the Germans had very little information available about their new enemy. Now, some of this ignorance can be attributed to Hitler’s unexpected declaration of war a few days after Pearl Harbor on December 7, which left his commanders scrambling, but another factor was the historical difficulty of acquiring geographical knowledge of the enemy.
In an era when I can easily take a gander at your house on Google Maps (not that I do) or search for optimal routes to some attraction 400 miles away, the critical importance of cartographical intelligence can often be overlooked.
Maps and Chaps
Until the Renaissance, maps weren’t very useful, one reason being that the vast majority of people never traveled far from their homes, so they already knew where everything important was.
More broadly, though, there was virtually no understanding of scale and dimensions, standardized measurements of length, height, and depth were few and far between, and the science of geodesy—accurate knowledge of the Earth’s size and aspect, position in space, and gravity—did not exist.
Consequently, during his conquests, Julius Caesar, like other Roman generals, made do with the most basic of maps, if the one surviving copy of a Roman map we have is anything to go by. All it shows are rudimentary routes between settlements, and even those are wildly distorted. If you needed directions in those days they probably just consisted of, “Stay on this road, citizen, it leads to Rome.”
The Venetians, always in the vanguard whenever curiosity could be mixed with profitability, created the giant Mappa Mundi in the 1450s depicting the Adriatic, the Aegean, the Mediterranean, and the Levant, plus much of Asia, Africa and India, based on intelligence reports and vetted hearsay from travelers, merchants, and its colonies. With more than 3,000 descriptions of places and cities, and hundreds of illustrations, the Mappa Mundi served as the CIA World Factbook of its age, an encyclopaedic guide for Venetian strategists plotting to expand their commercial empire.
By the late sixteenth century, Elizabeth I’s intelligence chiefs were devoting lavish resources to acquiring foreign maps in order to plan strategy and manage military campaigns. Two of their most effective agents in this respect were William Herle and Thomas Bodley (later, he of Oxford’s Bodleian Library), both stationed in the Low Countries, where one could hire draughtsmen to create maps precisely laying out not only topographical features like rivers and hills, but artillery positions, fortifications, prominent buildings, and town roads.
By the eighteenth century, a specialist body of officers trained in cartography had evolved. Their job was to scout ahead of the main army and draw up maps of the enemy’s positions and the local geography. A few months before the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, for instance, the British General Gage sent Lieutenant John Brown and Ensign Henry de Berniere to reconnoiter the area outside Boston.
Theirs was a secret mission that lapsed into comedy, however, when the duo, as they reported, departed the city cunningly “disguised like countrymen, in brown cloaths and reddish handkerchiefs round our necks.” During their travels they stayed at the houses of known Loyalists, a habit which, when combined with their yokelish outfits and incongruously martial bearing and posh accents, served only to mark them indelibly as British officers.
Nevertheless, they brought back a few satisfactory sketches—not that it did anyone any good considering the disaster that was Bunker Hill. (On this subject, see the relevant chapter in my Men of War: The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima.) Adding insult to injury, when the British evacuated Boston the following year, a staff officer left behind their maps, which were gleefully published by the Americans to much embarrassment.
The post-Napoleonic 19th century saw mapmaking fall into decrepitude. The Depot of Military Knowledge, whose task was to collect foreign maps and acquire topographical information, was abolished, the sad consequences of which would be witnessed during the Crimean War, when British forces had virtually no intelligence on the war zone. It was only thanks to Major Thomas Jervis, who enterprisingly purchased Russian and Austrian maps of the Crimea in a Belgian shop, that London gleaned any idea of what was awaiting British troops.
Things got much better after that, partly owing to the need to know stuff about the bits of the world that were being conquered in the name of empire. By the Great War, as a consequence of the late-Victorian information revolution—that vast accumulation, archiving, and classifying of data—so strong was the connection between cartography and military intelligence that the otherwise sedate Royal Geographical Society was dragooned into the British war effort.
Its first task was to produce the tactical maps of Belgium and France that were distributed to all officers of the British Expeditionary Force, followed by a 1:500,000-scale map of Britain with boundaries, towns, roads, and railways marked prominently, just in case the Germans invaded. For the General Staff’s strategic planning, a 1:1,000,000 map of Europe was later produced, which would be used by diplomats to delineate the new and revised borders negotiated after the 1918 Armistice.
A Maps Lapse
Given how important maps had become, some countries went to extremes to keep their topographies and geographies secret. The leaders in this regard were the Soviets, who were a closed book—even, or perhaps especially, to their own people.
As late as the Second World War, as a result, there was no complete map of the USSR. During the purges of the 1930s, terrified cartographers blamed “class saboteurs” for the failure, but theirs really had been an impossible job.
In order to maintain security and to frustrate the knavish tricks of the “enemies of the people,” the NKVD’s cartographical service had ordered maps to be drawn to different scales, depending on what was being depicted. The less detailed the map, the more the authorities wanted to hide. So, European Russia and territory controlled by the Main Administration of Prisoners’ Camps—the GULAG—were, very deliberately, the least informative, with whole towns, roads, railways, hills, and landmarks mysteriously absent.
Another technique to control information was to remove it physically. In public libraries, for instance, it became difficult to find maps of Moscow. Meanwhile, specialist thematic maps, such as those charting industrial locations like factories, were subtly altered to confound and confuse users. Thus, whereas the size and ideogram of the symbol for, say, a tractor factory had once reflected its productivity, output, and importance, now it became a generic function of the town’s population size. All you could ever find out was that there was a factory somewhere in XYZ town that might or might not have made tractors.
Nevertheless, Stalin scapegoated the mapmakers to help explain the shocking wounds inflicted on his armies by the German invasion in mid-1941. There were allegations that detailed maps had been handed to the Germans by traitors within the Red Army, and newspapers printed rumors that Nazi agents had sneakily purchased whatever maps were publicly available just before the invasion. Armed thus with intimate knowledge of Soviet factories, railways, airfields, and collectives, no wonder the Wehrmacht had been so successful.
There was a drop or two of truth to all this. The Germans were amazingly familiar with the Soviet landscape, but that was primarily because they had captured Minsk early on. It was there that one of the USSR’s leading cartographic archives was based and the Germans gratifyingly scooped up hundreds of thousands of maps plus the original plates, which were reprinted with German titles.
Luckily, the stockpile was mostly recovered by the conquering Soviets in 1945, but government secrecy remained in place. Any soldier or official who mislaid or lost a map was sentenced to an eight-year prison stretch. And while the Soviet Union was finally mapped by air and land by 1954 in a 1:100,000 scale, all field surveyors were accompanied by NKVD/KGB watchers.
To ensure as few people could see the resulting maps of their own country, the 1:100,000 scale was designated as “secret.” The only national maps ordinary Russians could consult were restricted to 1:2,500,000, and even then they were cleverly manipulated by introducing random distortions into coordinates, distances, and directions.
The authorities did relax a bit by allowing cities and towns to be zoomed in to 1:600,000, just enough to show general outlines and landmarks for lost tourists, though of course anything regarded as military in nature was omitted. Thus, Red Square and the Kremlin were present, and so too were a few museums and that shoppers’ Mecca, the GUM state department store, but that was about it. Even subway stations were few and far between.
The Soviets’ neurotic obsession with cartographical ambiguity left CIA officers in something of a pickle. In the 1950s, the agency did not own an accurate street map of Moscow. Neither did the State Department or the Embassy. Reconnaissance overflights were, obviously, verboten, and satellite imagery lay in the future.
The forerunner to CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence was assigned to construct one. A cartographic team was formed to find any material in U.S. archives, and they were joined by Russian-language experts to parse academic journals and newspapers for additional clues to identify new buildings or transport hubs.
It turned out that the biggest aid to mapping the Soviets were the Soviets’ own maps—the very ones that had been captured in Minsk in 1941. As mentioned, the Germans had made their own excellent reproductions and it was a colossal stockpile of these and other maps that fell into the Americans’ hands in 1944-45.
The Map Windfall
Major Floyd Hough had been in charge of a 19-person intelligence team trailing the Allied armies across Germany, his orders being to acquire every map in any technical university, library, government institute, and archive they happened across. Among his comrades were a University of Chicago map curator, a five-languaged linguist, two geographers from the Women’s Army Corps, several Jewish refugees who’d help with interrogations, and a couple of menacingly quiet guys from the Office of Strategic Studies, forerunner to CIA. Hough himself had been an oil surveyor in a previous life.
The trove they brought back was incalculably valuable. They included some of the most detailed and precise maps in existence. Some of their biggest finds included the national survey agency’s (Reichsamt für Landesaufnahme) complete set of records on Germany, hidden in a couple of small towns in rural Thuringia.
But all that was civilian in nature; the real treasure came after they found a warehouse in Saalfeld stashed, stacked, and shelved with the entire map repository of the Wehrmacht—the military stuff covering eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and North Africa that had been transported from Berlin to save it from Allied bombing.
Hough knew he was under the gun. Saalfeld was in the designated Soviet occupation zone and Ivan was rapidly advancing. Over the next several weeks, his team moved 250 tons of material, including maps, data, and 371 crates of advanced survey equipment out of Saalfeld south to American-held Bamberg. The last of the stuff departed Saalfeld on July 1, 1945; the Soviets arrived the next day.
In Bamberg, Hough was given an acre of storage space to assess the haul. After a cull, he was left with 90 tons’ worth of maps, aerial-reconnaissance photos, and printed data, plus Zeiss-made optical equipment that allowed topographical maps to be made from overlapping aerial photos.
Building the Map
Back in Washington, the CIA researchers dug through the 1,200 boxes Hough had sent to the Army Map Service for any data relating to Moscow’s layout. It took until 1953 to produce the first useful map of central Moscow, complete with street names, their alignments, and locations.
There were numerous revisions over the coming years and decades. Embassy officials, some of whom were working undercover, would casually gather intelligence on the government buildings they drove past each day, or they would correct street names and update house numbers, or note down the placement of a hitherto unnoticed subway station.
In the 1970s, satellite surveillance became available, allowing ever more detailed knowledge. The trick was to integrate this illicit new knowledge into the map, a version of which by then was being circulated among its Moscow personnel by the State Department to obscure CIA involvement, while at the same time ensuring that it remained simple enough to pass KGB inspection as merely a tourist guide with gas stations, hotels, restaurants, and theatres clearly marked.
The rule of thumb was to integrate only information that Embassy officials could legitimately have gathered whilst out on a walk in permitted areas or had been obviously picked up from the Soviet press while omitting anything acquired covertly that might have alerted the KGB that the Americans knew more than they should have. In this way, the map discreetly improved its accuracy and could tweak details via satellite intelligence while remaining ostensibly open-source-derived.
Indeed, even the KGB found it much more useful than their own Bowdlerized maps. That was why in 1989, as the USSR teetered on the edge of dissolution, when the government finally published a Moscow map it was based on the CIA’s.
The Red Atlas
Remarkably, the Soviets themselves were dab hands at mapmaking—just of other people’s countries and cities. Over several decades, their agents and officials purchased every map they could find in pretty much every country in the world.
Open societies, in Europe and America, were the easiest pickings. There, maps were two-a-penny. Britain’s venerable Ordnance Survey series, for instance, was an incredible asset to Soviet strategists plotting geodesic coordinates for nuclear-missile strikes. Meanwhile, the comprehensive road atlases one could find in any truck stop on the Pennsylvania turnpike were coveted for their usefulness in planning a Soviet invasion.
But the Soviet cartographic mission went further than that. Only recently has the grand scale of their project to map the world begun to be recognized: Go have a look at SovietMaps.com if you’re seeking to be impressed.
Caches of maps discovered since the end of the Cold War have revealed that agents of the Military Topographic Directorate of the Army General Staff painstakingly measured the precise load-bearing weight of bridges, the width of highways, the space between trees in forests, the length of airport runways, the height of buildings, the types of factories, even the kind of paving on key streets.
Some of these maps were so good that in an ironic reversal of the CIA situation in Moscow they included details on secret military installations omitted from publicly available maps in the West. One expert found a scientific research center in Cambridge, England, that was on the Soviet map but suspiciously absent from the Ordnance Survey’s until many years later.
There were some mistakes here and there—a non-existent town named Alexandria was placed outside Baltimore; there was a ghostly Tube line connecting the Angel and Barbican in London—but they pale beside the stupendousness of the Soviet achievement.
In some 1.1-million different maps, the military charted all of Europe, the majority of Asia, most of North America, and parts of Africa in highly detailed 1:100,000 and 1:50,000 scales (the latter being the gold standard for tactical ground combat); hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cities were mapped at 1:25,000 scale (individual buildings are depicted, as opposed to block-level shading); and in some select cases, a really zoomed-in 1:10,000.
The Scranton Question
Ultimately, though, what was the point of this colossal investment of time and resources?
Many thousands of specialist workers labored for decades compiling these maps, and the collection as a whole seems overkill for its ostensible task: Guiding Soviet field officers along their invasion routes and aiding the KGB to police a new territory. Surely the Red Army really wouldn’t have needed that extraordinary 1:10,000-scale map of Scranton, Pennsylvania, home of Dunder Mifflin, to help storm its nearby coal mine?
More to the point, was there ever a serious plan for invading the United States (Red Dawn aside)? If not, and I don’t there was—the idea was to annihiliate it with nuclear weapons in case of emergency, not to conquer it—then why compile a map of Scranton in the first place? Was it all just a make-work scheme?
If so, that could explain why many of the maps include a hoarder’s accumulation of factually pedantic information masquerading as intelligence. The one of San Diego, for instance, includes a sidebar eye-glazingly droning on about the minutest details concerning power substations, cold-storage facilities, the gas-supply network, and the like.
There might be more to it than that. All of this was counted as important by someone. The reason might lie in the Red Atlas’s serving as a vast proto-computer database used to store information about the outside world. As such, it’d be the successor to the Venetians’ Mappa Mundi, which possessed a similar global ambition, only theirs was to extend the glory and the power of Commerce and that of the Soviets, Communism. One day, perhaps, the workers’ committees of San Diego might try to seize control of the city’s means of production and its energy grid. In which case, that map would come in helpful.
If nothing else, the great Soviet map project made clear the connection between the science of cartography and the acquisition of intelligence. Nevertheless, like many other great Soviet projects its Ozymandian grandeur remains suffused with Sphinxian mystery.
Further Reading: R. Adams, “Sixteenth-Century Intelligencers and Their Maps,” Imago Mundi, 63 (2011), No. 2, pp. 201-16; J.A. Baclawski, “The Best Map of Moscow,” Studies in Intelligence, 40 (1997), No. 5, pp. 111-14; J. Davies and A.J. Kent, The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 2017); M. Heffernan, “Geography, Cartography, and Military Intelligence: The Royal Geographic Society and the First World War,” Transactions of the Insitute of British Geographers, 21 (1996), No. 3, pp. 504-33; G. Miller, “Inside the Secret World of Russia’s Cold War Mapmakers,” Wired, July 2015; G. Miller, “The Untold Story of the Secret Mission to Seize Nazi Map Data,” Smithsonian Magazine, November 2019; A. Postnikov, “Maps for Ordinary Consumers Versus Maps for the Military: Double Standards of Map Accuracy in Soviet Cartography, 1917-1991,” Cartography and Geographic Information Science, 29 (2022), No. 3, pp. 243-60.
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This story was in the original draft of the book, but I had to cut it for reasons of space. Anyway, you can find out more by reading De Berniere’s “Narrative,” printed in J.C. Hosmer (ed.), The Narrative of General Gage’s Spies, March 1775, with Notes (Boston, Mass.: Bostonian Society, 1912).
Fantastic article. Fascinating and meticulously researched as always. Great work 👍🏼👏🏼