Do you remember the Edwin Starr song “War” from 1969? The chorus repeats:
War, huh yeah
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing, oh hoh, oh
Well, war is good for at least one thing…maps!
Mapping data before computers was difficult and seems to have been a primary concern during war. In fact, wars have advanced the state of the art in mapping data for situational awareness throughout history. The speed at which we can determine events and plot them on a map shows amazing technical advancement.
The basic idea is to visualize the placement of the enemy and friendly forces on a paper map with pins, which we still do today. But instead of physical pins, we use images of pins on an electronic map.
Churchill’s War Rooms
I want to take you to where Winston Churchill poured over maps during World War II. His war rooms were contained in an underground bunker beneath five feet of concrete in London. According to the Imperial War Museums, there was a concern that Londoners would feel abandoned and evacuation would be slow. So the government built a bunker right in London for use during the next war.
These rooms were left exactly the way they were found on August 16, 1945, at the end of the war. You can still see the pin holes in the maps for past troop movements and ships as they crossed the ocean.
There are also walls full of graphs and charts. It’s the 1948 version of today’s management dashboard. These charts outlined the number of troops and were kept up to date by an army of people moving pins and updating charts.
It is obvious how these maps and charts were used to enhance decision-making. They provided accurate knowledge and understanding of location, type and counts of equipment, and health of the troops for both the axis and the allies.
There is even a map of Germany with an acetate covering to allow them to write on it. The last thing they wrote were the outlines of which countries would administer the division of Germany.
Men of Maps
Churchill enjoyed studying maps so much that he had his sleeping/office quarters in the bunker papered with maps from floor to ceiling. His love for maps was well known.
In fact, his peer and collaborator in America, Franklin Roosevelt, was also a big fan of maps and had a steady stream of updated maps provided to him by the National Geographic Society. In the FDR White House, there was a cloakroom converted into a map room modeled after Churchill’s map room. The FDR Library says, “Maps posted in the room were used to track the locations of land, sea and air forces.”
There was another more secretive part of the Churchill War Rooms. Down a back hallway there was a restroom, or as it is called in England, the WC.
It was reserved for Winston Churchill’s use alone. Very few people really knew what was on the other side of the door.
The space was actually a secret telephone room with a direct line to FDR in the White House. The two leaders would coordinate the war operations over the encrypted line. It was encrypted with a system called SIGSALY that sat under the Selfridges department store on one end and the Pentagon on the other.
Innovations Continue Today
The use of great human effort, paper maps, and telecommunications aided in the war effort and led to innovations in managing logistics and monitoring world events geospatially. We have come along way, but we still put pins in a map – they just happen to be electronic. The militaries of the world continue to upgrade their map rooms into walls of video screens and server rooms of computers to make visualization updates in near real-time. Onward!