Reconnaissance flights by the Bavarian air squadron number were made between September 1917 and September 1918 as part of the operations of the German-Turkish Alliance towards the end of WWI.
The aerial and ground photographs that resulted from these flights are an important tool for the study of the urban landscape of Palestine at the end of the Ottoman period, and as a baseline for a comparative topography for today.
In 1917 the Bavarian Air Squadron number 304 set up bases in Palestine. The Bavarian AF304b started journey from the German town of Schleissheim north of Munich in July 1917, and continued for three weeks, passing through Vienna, Budapest, and Belgrade to Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire at the time. During their stay in Istanbul, five squadrons were destroyed in a sabotage attack. From that city, which was suffering much damage and destruction at the time, AF304b continued its journey towards Palestine through the Ottoman provinces. The rail journey went through Eskisehir, Konya, Karapinar (Taurus), Aleppo, and Rayak, eventually reaching Jaffa.
The operation by Germany was attempting through its alliance with the Ottoman Empire to extend the theatre of war from Palestine to Egypt via the Suez Canal. Through this extension the Germans were aiming to severely hamper communications between England and India, thereby preventing British troops and materiel from passing through the Suez Canal in order to reduce pressure on the German western front, and also disrupting the supply of goods from Asia, mainly from India, which would seriously weaken British industry.
Squadron AF304b arrived in Palestine on a mission to eliminate ground targets. It consisted of fourteen Rumpler C.1 flying machines and a workforce of ten pilots and six observers. This ratio of fourteen machines to ten pilots reflects the quantity of reserve equipment and materiel allocated for this mission. German pilots retained air sovereignty over Palestine and Sinai until the fall of 1917. During the second half of 1917, German air power in the region consisted of three Prussian air squadrons AF301, AF302 and AF303, and the Bavarian air squadron AF304b, and was considered a substantial German triumph. The air force unit consisted of twenty-four officers, including new pilots and seven observers, in addition to 215 meteorologists, engine-mechanics experts, electricians, welders, carpenters, upholsterers, aerial photographers, weapons experts and other specialists.
The Germans made several attempts to cross the Suez Canal between 1915 and 1917, but were foiled by the British, who maintained control over the Canal. In November 1917 British forces conquered Gaza under the leadership of General Allenby. By the time the German squadrons reached Palestine, in late September 1917, General Allenby’s forces were already firmly entrenched in Palestine, and it was difficult for the squadrons to cross Sinai into Egypt, so they stationed themselves in Palestine with headquarters in Nazareth.
German-Turkish forces provided an overview of the topography of the region and of British military movements and infrastructure. The Bavarian air squadron AF304b formed a part of the Ottoman-German force trying to check the northward advancement of the British under General Allenby. The squad leading the mission of AF304b settled in Iraq al-Manshiyeh, thirty-two kilometers northwest of Gaza, and was able during the period between October 1917 and August 1918 to take 2,872 photographs, covering Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Cairo and the Pyramids of Giza.
Although the main goal of the air squadrons was to follow the movements of the British army in the area and monitor military operations on the ground, the pilots were asked by Theodor Wiegand of the German Archaeological Institute to take photographs of the ancient historical sites in the area. During its four missions AF304b covered the coastal plains, the mountains extending from Lebanon to Hebron, the Jordan Valley and the eastern part of the Jordan River. These missions resulted in an outstanding archive documenting the landscape of the area during the years 1917 and 1918.
The 2,872 photographs, comprising both aerial and ground photographs that are now available on the website of the Central State Archive of the Bavarian State Office for Surveying, constitute an important resource for the study of many aspects of the landscape of Palestine and other territories at the end of Ottoman rule in the region. These photographs offer an overview of the region’s topography as it was almost one hundred years ago, and as such are of great significance to geographers, historians, and researchers working on urban cultural history.