Maps and views blog

3 posts categorized "Africa"

17 February 2017

Soviet Military Mapping of the Cold War Era

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In this exclusive guest post, map historian John Davies introduces one of the most enigmatic of 20th century map genres.

 'The story of Soviet military mapping is the story of a massive secret project, spanning the fifty years of the Cold War period – from the 1940s to the 1990s – and involving thousands of people. It’s the story of the world’s largest mapping endeavour and, arguably, the world’s most intriguing maps.

 The story of this amazing enterprise has never been told in full in print and the maps themselves have rarely been publicly displayed. One of them, however, the city plan of Brighton on England’s south coast is on show in Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line.

 Topographic Maps

The full extent of the project will probably never be known, but it is safe to say that almost the entire land surface of the globe was captured on topographic maps at scales of 1:1 million and 1:500,000. Huge areas of the Americas, Europe and Asia were mapped at 1:200,000 and 1:100,000, whilst maps at scale of 1:50,000 (the same as the familiar Ordnance Survey Landrangers) cover much of Britain and continental Europe. On top of that, the vast territory of USSR itself was mapped at 1:25,000 (the scale of Ordnance Survey Explorer maps) and much even at 1:10,000.

 The topographic maps have sheet boundaries corresponding to lines of latitude and longitude. This means they are non-rectangular, the two sides narrowing towards the top in the northern hemisphere. The sheets are non-overlapping and are identified by a reference number that uniquely identifies the global location and scale of every sheet.

 It works like this: each 1:1 million map is a quadrangle which covers an area of the globe four degrees of latitude deep and six degrees of longitude wide. The latitudinal bands are alphabetic, starting with A at the equator and increasing as you head north; the longitudinal zones are numbered 1 to 60. The Greenwich meridian (longitude 0) defines the boundary between zone 30 and 31; London, at latitude 51, lies in band M (the 13th band, spanning latitudes 48 to 52). London west of Greenwich, therefore lies in quadrangle M-30 and east of Greenwich in M-31.


International Map of the World nomenclature adopted by Soviet Union, with lettered bands of 4° latitude and numbered zones of 6° longitude

 This convention, known as IMW – the International Map of the World – nomenclature was devised originally by Albrecht Penck at the end of the 19th century and was adopted in 1913 for a proposed international cooperative mapping project.  Although that project fizzled out, the USSR made use of the same convention and did succeed in mapping the whole world by the mid-20th century.

 As you zoom in on a 1:1 million sheet, you get 4 sheets at the larger scale of 1:500,000 (numbered 1-4); 36 sheets at scale 1:200,000 in a 6 by 6 grid (numbered 01-36), and 144 sheets at 1:100,000, in a 12 by 12 grid, (001-144). Zooming further in, for each of these you get 4 sheets at 1:50,000 (numbered 1-4).



Part of sheet M-31, scale 1:1 million, compiled 1969, printed 1975, showing the non-rectangular edges, aligned to lines of latitude and longitude.


Part of sheet M-31-1, scale 1:500,000, compiled 1978, printed 1985.


Part of sheet M-31-01, scale 1:200,000, compiled 1982, printed 1986. Road distances in km are overprinted in purple.



The reverse side of the 1:200,000 series sheets has a comprehensive essay describing the physical, social, economic and industrial importance of the locality, together with a geological sketch map.



Part of sheet M-31-013, scale 1:100,000, compiled 1976, printed 1982. Note the M25 under construction.


Part of sheet M-31-013-3, scale 1:50,000, compiled 1974, printed 1981. This is the SW quarter of M-31-013. Note the A2 road is also labelled E107 (upper left), a European road number that did not appear on British maps.

 The projection used is the Gauss-Krüger (G-K) projection, based on a regular system of Universal Transverse Mercator projections that each cover a zone 6 degrees wide, with central meridians (axial lines of longitude) at 3 degree intervals. The advantage of this is that it simplifies the depiction of the globe as a flat surface for relatively small areas and allows the use of a rectangular grid within each zone. The grid provides accurate geographic co-ordinates to facilitate precise artillery targeting.

 The security classification depended on the map scale; small-scale maps (1:1 million and 1:500,000) were unclassified; 1:200,000 maps were classified as ‘For Official Use’, as were 1:100,000 and 1:50,000 maps of non-USSR territory. Maps of USSR territory larger than 1:200,000 were classified ‘Secret’.

 City Plans

Even more remarkable than the topographic maps are the city plans. These are known to exist for about two thousand cities worldwide, and there may have been many more. City plans are to a large scale, either 1:25,000 (two-and-a-half inches to the mile) or 1:10,000 (about six inches to the mile), and show an altogether much greater level of detail, including street names and listings of factories and their products, public buildings and transport facilities – even relatively unimportant (certainly non-military) objects such as bus stations and post offices. They are classified ‘Secret’.

 City plans are rectangular, being based on G-K projection with a central meridian near to the city. The sheets themselves vary in size, but are typically about 1,000 mm by 800 mm, and may be oriented as portrait or landscape layout to suit the terrain to be covered. Many cities require several sheets (in Britain, typically two or four; in USA, Los Angeles requires 12 sheets and New York 8). Unlike the topographic maps, in which the coverage is continuous and non-overlapping, city plans are individual, specific sheets, centred on a particular city; in some cases, such as the conurbation of West Yorkshire, the plans of several cities overlap. 

 About 100 British and Irish cities are known to have been mapped in this way, several of them more than once. Halifax, Luton, Cambridge and Cardiff are just some of the places for which maps of the 1970s and again of the 1980s exist. The later editions are entirely new productions, rather than revisions of the originals.

 The coverage of British cities includes not only the major industrial and commercial centres and important seaports and naval bases, but relatively rural and less strategically significant places such as Gainsborough and Dunfermline (although Rosyth Royal Naval dockyard is not far from Dunfermline, it is not included in the map coverage).

 The information depicted on city plans is derived from a wide variety of sources and includes detail not normally seen on local street atlases. For example, the 1990 Brighton 1:10,000 plan seen in Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line shows signals alongside the railway line, annotates the shoreline as having a mean tidal range of 4 metres, differentiates the vegetation types in parks and open spaces and identifies the ownership of facilities such as motor repair depots.

 City plans have a street index, a descriptive essay and a list of ‘important objects’. numbered and colour-coded on the map – purple for administrative buildings. black for industrial and green for items of military importance.


Part of 1:25,000 plan of London (sheet 1 of 4, compiled 1980, printed 1985) showing colour-code and numbered ‘important objects’. These are listed in the index as:

  1. State Archives [actually Public Records Office]
  2. Treasury
  3. Foreign Office
  4. Ministry of Defence
  5. Government offices
  6. Courts of Justice
  7. Police – Scotland Yard
  8. General Post Office
  9. Radio station BBC
  10. Residence of the Queen and Prime Minister [actually Her Majesty’s Theatre]
  11. Greater London Council
  12. University of London
  13. HQ of the US Navy in Europe [actually American Embassy]
  14. HQ General Staff

 Note also the depiction of tube stations (symbol M), arrows showing direction of flow of the Thames and direction of tides, Kingsway tunnel and symbols indicating lawns in Hyde Park. The river name is in upper case lettering, denoting that the river is navigable. None of this information appears on contemporary Ordnance Survey maps]


Part of 1:10,000 plan of Thurrock (compiled 1974, printed 1977) showing Tilbury docks and the Dartford tunnel

 All the maps described above, the topographic maps and the city plans, were produced by VTU, the Military Topographic Directorate of the General Staff of the Soviet Army and are headed ‘General Staff’.  They carry in the bottom right-hand corner a print code, defining the map type, when it was printed and at which of the twelve print factories spread across the USSR.  

 How and Why

Two obvious questions spring to mind when looking at these maps. How did they do it? And why did they do it?

Neither has a simple answer.

Copying from Ordnance Survey maps, for example, is an obvious possibility. However, the wealth of information shown far exceeds what could be derived from these.  Analysis of the information shown on Soviet maps and plans proves that the compilers and cartographers had access to a huge range of published maps and guides. They include commercial street atlases, geological maps, transport maps and timetables, trade directories, tourist guides Admiralty charts and many other sources. Although these would have been freely available in Western cities, it is surprising to see just how wide the net was cast and intriguing to consider the process by which material was gathered and transmitted to USSR.

Even more surprisingly, the sources include items which had been published many years previously, resulting, for example, in the maps depicting ferries alongside the bridges that superseded them and long-disused railway lines being shown as operational.

After the launch of Zenit satellites in 1962, aerial imagery became a significant component in the data sources and can be seen in many cases where new roads and housing estates, for example, which had not yet appeared on Ordnance Survey maps, are shown on Soviet maps. Often these have the street names omitted, indicating that the cartographer had only the aerial image to hand and not the latest street directory.

As to why so much time, effort and money was expended on this gigantic project for over fifty years, we can only speculate. The concentration on depicting civil rather than military information suggests that these were intended not as invasion maps, but as necessary tools to manage and control the economic and industrial activity of Western cities after their eventual peaceful conversion to communism. But who can say?

Wasn’t the West doing the same thing during the Cold War?

Of course, mapping the territory of a potential enemy was nothing new and not restricted to the Soviet Union. But during the Cold War, the West, generally, was far more selective about where they mapped and what they showed. Whereas the Soviet Union produced huge numbers of city plans, each of which shows minute detail of all aspects of a city (regardless of military significance), the West tended to focus on places of particular interest – and included on their maps only what was relevant to the purpose.     




Two views of Maribor, Former Yugoslavia (now Slovenia).

Top, A typical Soviet military city plan, showing as much information as possible (1:10,000, 1975). Below, A greatly simplified plan, produced by USA military, concentrating on the major features. (1:20,000, 1993).]

John Davies is editor of Sheetlines, the journal of Charles Close Society for the Study of Ordnance Survey Maps ( and is co-author with Dr Alex Kent of The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World, to be published by University of Chicago Press in September 2017 (

03 August 2016

Magnificent Manuscripts Online: Pelagios

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Portolano (Egerton MS 2855, f.8r).jpeg

Above: Portolan chart of the North-West coast of Europe, including all of France, the British Isles and Ireland, Grazioso Benincasa [1473, Egerton MS 2855, f.8r]. File at Wiki Commons.

Over the past few years the British Library has been working with the Pelagios project, making innovative use of historic manuscript maps. Meaning ‘of the sea’ the name Pelagios is used as the seas were the highways of the ancient world, much like the Web provides a highway for communication today. A web-based project that facilitates the online linking of data about ancients sites mentioned, for example, in texts, local histories or where archaeological remains have been found. The current phase of Pelagios (in which the Library was involved) will soon be drawing to a close as the next phase, 'Pelagios Commons', begins and runs to December 2017. The Library has contributed digitised materials to phase 3 of this project, predominantly in the form of mappae mundi, itineraries and portolan charts, and these have been digitally annotated to open up the enclosed geographical information to the Pelagios database.

Insularium Illustratum (Additional MS 15760, f.53v).jpeg

Above: A map of England, Northern France, Scotland and Wales from Insularium Illustratum, Henricus Martellus Germanus [1495, Additional MS 15760, f.53v]. File at Wiki Commons.

As you can see, the material provided to Pelagios is something of a treasure trove of manuscript views of the world and the project as a whole is composed of various wonderful resources detailed at Pelagios Commons. Now that our involvement with phase 3 of the Pelagios project is drawing to a close the Library is making the material it contributed to the project available on Wikimedia Commons and (soon) via The main root for material held on Commons can be found on the British Library Map Collections category page on Wikimedia Commons, which provides links to the various groups of British Library manuscript materials used in the Pelagios project (although I should note this is a general collections page - so you will not find Ordnance Survey Drawings in Pelagios!). 

File:General chart of the coasts of Europe, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the western coast of Africa south to Cape Negro.- Cornaro Atlas (Egerton MS 73, f.36r).jpeg

Above: General chart of the coasts of Europe, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the western coast of Africa, Cornaro Atlas [1492, Egerton MS 73, f.36r]. File at Wiki Commons.

One health warning about these manuscripts, due to UK copyright law they are technically in copyright until 2039. However, given the age of the manuscripts and their place of production the Library believes it highly unlikely a public domain release will offend anyone; more information can be found here. Copyright notices aside, this is a fantastic resource which we hope you enjoy. If you do dive make sure you clear your diary and sit down with some food to see you through, it's a fascinating collection of material. If you want to know more about Pelagios generally - and perhaps join in - head over to their Commons site. Here you can access online resources that are being developed (using open data methods) to link and explore historical place, as well as participate in various community forums. You can also find more at the Digital Classicist Wiki.  


19 February 2015

Intelligence mapping of British East Africa - digitisation begins

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With generous funding from the Indigo Trust, the British Library has started to catalogue and digitise a unique archive of military intelligence maps of British East Africa - a region encompassing modern-day Kenya, Uganda and neighbouring parts of South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. The maps are held in the War Office Archive and were created by British intelligence officers, surveyors and cartographers between the years 1890 and 1940.

During this period the requirement to administer newly-created British protectorates in Africa brought with it the need for mapping of a new order in terms of volume, scale and subject matter. As a result, the archive represents both a milestone in the history of the cartography of Africa and a goldmine of historical information for the modern-day researcher.

The example below is finely executed in watercolours and coloured inks, and shows a region to the north and east of the Nile River in north-western Uganda. It was drawn in 1901, at a time when the area was under British administration within the Uganda Protectorate, and represents the first systematic survey of the area.


Sketch to Illustrate Report on the Lango-Mutineer Expedition, 1901 (WOMAT/AFR/BEA/55)

The map provides a wealth of local historical information, showing the flow of water through the region, approximate altitudes of high points and limits of vegetation, the names and locations of tribal regions and settlements, and the names of local tribal chiefs.

Cropped2WOMAT_AFR_BEA_55 (2)

Detail of (WOMAT/AFR/BEA/55)

The sheet also documents the Lango Expedition, bringing new detail to reports written at the time. This punitive military expedition was sent against a force of around 100 Sudanese mutineers, who had retreated to the area after encounters with the British military to the south. Once settled, they had entered into blood-brotherhood with members of the resident Lango tribe, and were now said to be promoting unrest by provoking raids on neighbouring tribes. On the map the rebels’ stronghold is labelled ‘Mutineer’s Village’, identifiable today as a settlement called Oromo.

Cropped3WOMAT_AFR_BEA_55 (2)

Detail of (WOMAT/AFR/BEA/55)

Contemporary accounts relate how the British quickly overran the stronghold at the start of the campaign, but the mutineers dispersed through the surrounding country, a region of swampland inundated by early rains and choked with elephant grass up to nine feet high. In terrible conditions constant patrols were maintained throughout the area for a period of four months until all but seven of the mutineers had been captured or killed. The movements of the British columns during this period are meticulously recorded on the sheet in pale red ink.

Subsequently the Lango tribesmen wished to renounce their blood-brotherhood with the mutineers, for which the British devised a de-oathing ceremony. The following extract is taken from the official despatches

‘Dr. Bagshawe, with due formalities, injected a dose of apomorphia into the cicatrix of the incision made in the ‘blood-brotherhood’ rites. This made the patient violently sick in about five minutes. A few nauseous draughts afterwards completed the operation, and the subject’s satisfaction in the breaking of the spell.’

Nicholas Dykes


Further reading:

Sir H. Johnston, 'Major Delmé Radcliffe's Map of the Nile Province of the Uganda Protectorate', The Geographical Journal, 21-2 (1903), pp. 162-4.

The London Gazette, September 12, 1902, pp. 5875-8

Harry H. Johnston, The Uganda Protectorate (1902), vol. i, p. 244.