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Nations at war
Naval Intelligence: Geographical Handbooks
It's difficult to conduct war in a land about which nothing is known. It's also difficult to understand books about war without some grasp of the land where the campaign was fought. For specialized purposes, such as designing wargames, it's even more critical to comprehend the entire battlefield environment. Although some of this information can be gleaned from atlases and encyclopedias and almanacs, there's much to be said for comprehensive handbooks containing all the local facts required by a general, an amateur historian, or a game designer.
Among the best of this genre is the Geographical Handbook series compiled by the Naval Intelligence Division of the British Admiralty. J. H. Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence, wrote a Preface which appears at the beginning of each volume:
In 1915 a Geographical Section was formed in the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty to write Geographical Handbooks on various parts of the world. The purpose of these handbooks was to supply, by scientific research and skilled arrangement, material for the discussion of naval, military, and political problems, as distinct from the examination of the problems themselves. Many distinguished collaborators assisted in their production, and by the end of 1918 upwards of fifty volumes had been produced in Handbook and Manual form, as well as numerous short-term geographical reports. The demand for these books increased rapidly with each new issue, and they acquired a high reputation for accuracy and impartiality. They are now to be found in Service Establishments and Embassies throughout the world, and in the early years after the last war were much used by the League of Nations.
The old Handbooks have been extensively used in the present war, and experience has disclosed both their value and their limitations. On the one hand they have proved, beyond all question, how greatly the work of the fighting services and of Government Departments is facilitated if countries of strategic or political importance are covered by handbooks which deal, in a convenient and easily digested form, with their geography, ethnology, administration, and resources. On the other hand, it has become apparent that something more is needed to meet present-day requirements. The old series does not cover many of the countries closely affected by the present war (e.g. Germany, France, Poland, Spain, Portugal, to name only a few); its books are somewhat uneven in quality, and they are inadequately equipped with maps, diagrams, and photographic illustrations.
The present series of Handbooks, while owing its inspiration largely to the former series, is in no sense an attempt to revise or reedit that series. It is an entirely new set of books, produced in the Naval Intelligence Division by trained geographers drawn largely from the Universities, and working at sub-centres established at Oxford and Cambridge, and is printed by the Oxford and Cambridge University Presses. The books follow, in general, a uniform scheme, though minor modifications will be found in particular cases; and they are illustrated by numerous maps and photographs.
The purpose of the books is primarily naval. They are designed first to provide, for the use of Commanding Officers, information in a comprehensive and convenient form about countries which they may be called upon to visit, not only in war but in peace-time; secondly, to maintain the high standard of education in the Navy and, by supplying officers with material for lectures to naval personnel ashore and afloat, to ensure for all ranks that visits to a new country shall be both interesting and profitable.
Their contents are, however, by no means confined to matters of purely naval interest. For many purposes (e.g. history, administration, resources, communications, etc.) countries must necessarily be treated as a whole, and no attempt is made to limit their treatment exclusively to coastal zones. It is hoped therefore that the Army, the Royal Air Force, and other Government Departments (many of whom have given great assistance in the production of the series) will find these Handbooks even more valuable than their predecessors proved to be both during and after the last war.
Most of these volumes run from 400 to 700 pages and contain a wealth of information divided into chapters such as these:
Geology and Physical Features
Medical Services and Health Conditions
Government, Administration, and Law
Growth and Distribution of Population
Agriculture and Forestry
Here's a brief excerpt from the 14-page chapter on railroads from the Indo-China volume.
The state railways of Indo-China include all the lines constructed in the country with the exception of the line from Haiphong to Yunnan-fou. All lines of the state railway system are of metre gauge with rails 20-30 kg. per metre in weight, and 8-12 m. in length. Sleepers are sometimes metal and sometimes wood. The metal sleepers, almost invariably of French or German manufacture, usually weigh about 40 kg.; wooden sleepers (impregnated against white ants) are most frequently used where the line runs along the sea coast, for a saline atmosphere is believed to injure those made of metal. Few curves have a radius less than 400 m., the minimum radius on the Na Cham-My Tho line being 300 m. The steepest gradient is 1: 100. The lines are single track throughout, but all stations have double track or sidings designed to hold 7, 10, 12, 15 or more wagons varying in size and number according to the importance of the station. Most of the stations can accommodate trains 280-300 m. in length.
In December 1937, rolling stock in operation on this system comprised the following units: 53 tank locomotives, 195 tender locomotives, 6 self-propelled cars, 2,059 goods wagons (including 191 tank wagons) and 438 passenger coaches. The new locomotives (15) which have arrived in Indo-China for the Hanoi-Saigon route are of the Pacific (4-6-2) type and can draw a passenger train of 250 tons at the maximum speed allowed on the line (90 km. per hr.). During 1938 orders were placed for 22 sleeping and dining cars all of which were to be air-conditioned. The locomotives burn locally mined coal, but in the south some wood is used. Railway workshops have been set up at Truong Thi, Hanoi, Vinh, Tourane, Nha Trang and Saigon.
The journey from Hanoi to Saigon takes 42 hr. and express trains run daily between these two centres. These express trains cover the distance at an average speed of 43 km. per hr.; over the newly opened and difficult section from Quang Ngai to Nha Trang the trains average less than 30 km. per hr. The capacity of the line is only 6 trains in each direction every 24 hr. Micheline Diesel rail cars, holding 36 passengers, are widely used for local services; they run between Saigon and My Tho, Saigon and Bien Hoa, Hanoi and Phu Lang Thuong, Hanoi and Nam Dinh.
Pages are also packed with maps, photos, charts, tables, diagrams, sketches, etc. Each volume offers a bibliography for further reading, multiple appendices, an index, and most contain a large folding map in a pocket in the back.
For anyone with more than a passing interest in the scene of a specific campaign, these books provide an extraordinarily detailed snapshot of conditions there during the war years. What's especially amazing is how, some sixty years on, much of the data still remains fresh, accurate, and useful in the new century. They certainly deserve a place beside the League of Nations Armaments Year-Book volumes and the annual editions of The Statesman's Year-Book.
Not counting the original WWI-era books, the series seems to comprise thirty-one books under fifty-eight covers (since many of the books were published in multiple parts). Note also that a few of these had more than one edition during World War II. Here's a list of all the titles we've been able to track down:
Algeria, 1943-44 (2 volume set)
The Belgian Congo, 1944
China Proper, 1944-45 (3 volume set)
France, 1942 (4 volume set)
French Equatorial Africa & Cameroons, 1942
French West Africa, 1943-1944 (2 volume set)
Germany, 1944 (4 volume set)
Greece, 1944-1945 (3 volume set)
Iraq and the Persian Gulf, 1944
Italy, 1944-45 (4 volume set)
Jugoslavia, 1944-1945 (3 volume set)
Morocco, 1941-1942 (2 volume set)
Netherlands East Indies, 1944 (2 volume set)
Norway, 1942-43 (2 volume set)
Pacific Islands, 1943-45 (4 volume set)
Palestine and Transjordan, 1943
Spain & Portugal, 1941-1945 (4 volume set, including Atlantic islands)
Turkey, 1942-43 (2 volume set)
Western Arabia and the Red Sea, 1946
Long out of print, these titles turn up intermittently with various secondhand booksellers, especially in the UK. Copies vary considerably in price and condition.
Copyright © 2001 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone