Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

A model operation

By Chris Rogers, Sep 21 2021 12:55PM

From Renaissance engineers to industrial age generals, military planners have used models to set out their strategy. Taking the form of three dimensional topographical maps, they were vital for designing town-sized forts and planning the advance of armies. It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century, however, that mechanised warfare, powered flight and radio communications made the targeting of small areas or even individual buildings possible; as a result of this tactical change, accurate, proportionately-reduced (‘scale’) reproductions of specific structures were now needed. Allowing participants to recognise their objective from a range of angles and heights, study its relationship with other features in the landscape and more easily orientate themselves during the mission itself, the creation and use of such models has been key to the success of five notable operations.


++ 1911: Trying murder suspects, London, UK ++

A precursor of sorts occurred before the Great War, during a court case at the Old Bailey. The previous year three police officers had been shot after discovering a burglary at a City of London jewellers’; the suspects, Latvian revolutionaries, fled and were finally caught weeks later after what became known as the Siege of Sidney Street, where involvement of the military was required to match the criminals’ firepower. The focus of the criminal trial was the location of the murders, however, a cul-de-sac called Exchange Buildings. The complexity of the Georgian terraces there and in the parallel Houndsditch as well as the yard between the two were, the police felt, best clarified for the jury by a model. Made of wood by a police carpenter, it showed every floor of 119 Houndsditch and 9, 10 and 11 Exchange Buildings and could be opened up to show the interior layout. This was achieved by hinged panels like those of a dolls’ house, but the upper storeys could also be lifted to show the ground floor in plan. Doors within the model were openable.


Only one of the accused was convicted, but use of the model was a prescient move and had a remarkable echo one hundred years later.


++ 1942: Capturing radar secrets, Bruneval, France ++

Operation Biting was an audacious Allied airborne raid on a coastal villa in whose grounds was sited a radar installation believed to be part of the German nightfighter control system. Codenamed Würzburg according to decrypted messages, other examples were known but that near the village of Bruneval offered a chance to obtain pieces of the apparatus and, perhaps, an operator so that countermeasures could be designed to protect Allied bombers. One company of paratroopers would be dropped at night to take the radar station and house and defend both against attack from the German barracks close by. Another was to guard the nearby beach, from which all personnel and equipment would be taken off by the Royal Navy at the conclusion of the mission. To help plan this complex, combined operations assault two models were constructed by the RAF’s Central Interpretation Unit at Medmenham, Buckinghamshire. The first was of the overall area, including the line of cliffs that overlooked the Channel and a ravine that led to the vital beach. The second showed the villa and radar set in detail, the paths that led to them and the defences around both. A wide range of sources informed the builds – maps, reports from agents and aerial photography, especially a famous image by pilot Tony Hill of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit which had revealed the equipment’s presence. Hardboard was cut to make the contours, then smoothed with power chisels and filled with a mixture of plaster of Paris, glue size and wood pulp. Hedgerows were formed from green paste using an air nozzle; buildings were made of linoleum. Training included rehearsals for the beach phase on the south coast of England.

RAF transport aircraft flew the assault force in on the night of 27 February 1942. Most of the 120 paratroopers landed exactly on target, moving toward the villa and taking control of it and the Würzburg in minutes. Under their protection, an RAF technician supervised examination and disassembly of the radar by engineers. Although the part of the force that was to occupy the beach dropped much further from it than planned, a rapid change of tactics and some sharp fighting saw German defences subdued, all but six of the men (plus a prisoner) safely evacuated from the beach and only two fatalities on the British side.


++ 1944: Destroying identity records, The Hague, The Netherlands ++

Establishment by the Gestapo of a Centrale Bevolkingsregister or population registry in The Hague frustrated attempts by the Dutch resistance to forge identity cards for civilians, agents and escaped airmen and so in late 1943 a request was made for the RAF to bomb the Villa Kleykamp, a large Neoclassical house, where it was located. Six Mosquito bombers from 613 Squadron were assigned to the attack, and planning it also involved the construction of two models. An overview was made at 1:6,250 scale of every house and building in the wider area along with roads, forests, water features and fields, realistically coloured as the raid would take place in daylight. Its purpose was to assist the crews with in-flight navigation and their approach. The villa (indicated with an arrow) and its immediate context were then modelled at an enlarged scale so that the building itself could be identified and nearby hazards such as the Vredespaleis (Peace Palace) across the road, built to house the Cour permanente d'arbitrage or Permanent Court of Arbitration, noted. “We had paid especial attention to a number of chimneys,” Wing Commander Robert Bateson later observed, and indeed Medmenham staff were using commercial electro-opto-mechanical photogrammetric plotters to create highly accurate, correctly-scaled plans from stereographic aerial imagery. These could also be used to estimate heights.

The attack took place on 11 April 1944 in two waves. Flying their final run at an altitude of 60 feet – lower than the roof of the villa, Bateson said – the Mosquitos used delayed-action high explosives to open up the building and then incendiaries to burn the paper files inside it. The raid destroyed the premises and many of the crucial records and damage to surrounding buildings was minimal – the Peace Palace suffered a broken window. There were casualties on the ground but none of the aircraft was even hit. The value of the models is clear from Bateson’s comments.


++ 1944: Seizing vital bridges, Caen, France ++

Less than two months later Operation Deadstick was a key action to support D-Day, with the aim of securing a road bridge over the Caen canal and another nearby that crossed the Orne river. Both were needed to enable the British invasion force to move inland from Sword beach, five miles to the west. To address this distance, ensure troops arrived together and achieve surprise it was decided to land the assault team in six gliders; a much larger group of paratroopers were to descend within the hour to reinforce the position and resist any German counterattack. Models of the area were again made, so that the glider pilots could familiarise themselves with their destination and plot the best course to it when flying at night. Terrain models could be easily illuminated to reflect the scene as it would appear during the raid, and water courses were a useful navigation aid but also a known source of confusion (models for other operations were even photographed under the relevant lighting conditions and the prints distributed to those taking part). Man-made and natural features were incorporated by reference to maps and aerial reconnaissance photographs, enlarged or reduced as needed. The planning for this mission integrated viewings of the models with training around a similar pair of actual bridges over the Exeter Ship Canal in Devon, where the glider pilots flew wearing dark goggles to simulate night.


The actual assault took place on 5/6 June 1944, with each of six gliders carrying a mixed force of infantry and engineers. The first landed exactly on target at a quarter past midnight, with four more arriving close by thereafter. Within ten minutes both bridges had been seized with minimal casualties, after which the assaulters dug in to await the paratroopers. Hours later the D-Day landings commenced, making Operation Deadstick the first combat of the Allied invasion of Europe.


++ 1980: Breaking a siege, London, UK ++

Peace does not always mean the military is at rest. When Iranian Arabs took over the Iranian Embassy in London insisting on independence for their province, a siege ensued during which members of the public, staff and a policeman were held and threatened. Negotiations commenced but plans were also made by the police and the recently-formed Counter Revolutionary Warfare (CRW) wing of the British Army’s Special Air Service Regiment to forcibly enter the embassy if necessary. The roof was explored and prepared, microphones were embedded in walls and intelligence was gained as to its security features. Plans were also acquired, which enabled the construction of an elaborate seven-part model showing the layout of each floor from basement to roof. Able to be stacked or taken apart as needed, the sections were made from wood and cardboard and included rooms, stairs, terraces and window bays. Annotations added useful detail. Testimony from released hostages, cross-referenced with users of the embassy and surveillance information, meant the likely location of those within the building could be plotted and routes through it determined in preparation for a raid. When a hostage was murdered on the evening of the sixth day of the siege, approval was given for the SAS to storm the embassy at their discretion.


At the given moment a simultaneous assault was made through the first floor windows at the front of the building – explosive actions famously broadcast live on television – and the upper windows at the rear. The SAS troopers then moved through building, engaging the terrorists and locating the hostages until all were accounted for. Operation Nimrod lasted seventeen minutes, and ended with five of the six terrorists dead and all but one of the hostages rescued alive.


++ 2011: Finding bin Laden; Abbottabad, Pakistan ++

The American government spent ten years trying to find Osama bin Laden, founder and leader of Al Qaida and so ultimately responsible for the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Led by the Central Intelligence Agency, the effort ultimately focussed on couriers linked to bin Laden and culminated in discovery of a one-acre residential compound in the suburbs of Abbottabad. Its unidentified occupants were otherwise isolated socially, electronically and visually, this last due to high walls around not just the complex but a terrace on the third floor of the main house. Satellite photography, drone footage and imagery from ground observations was analysed by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency with post-war techniques such as digital data capture and digital elevation models. These were used to produce a computer-generated visualisation of the buildings, perimeter walls and other structures that could be explored virtually but the data was also used to generate components for a physical model via rapid prototyping (‘3D printing’). These were painted, assembled on a base board and detailed with the barbed wire, foliage and vehicles associated with the actual location. One inch of the model represented a distance of seven feet in real life, a scale perhaps chosen to reflect the 6’ 4” height of bin Laden given its importance to the intelligence assessment of who was living there. The model was used by military officers and politicians to explore options; once the decision was made to use a special forces unit to assault the compound, a full-size replica was deemed necessary and two were erected in the United States in the months before the raid.


Operation Neptune Spear was initiated on 2 May 2011 when a contingent of the US Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU, popularly known as SEAL Team Six) arrived over the Abbottabad compound in two stealthed helicopters. Despite the loss of one on landing, the team killed a number of those inside the buildings including a man later confirmed by DNA sampling to be Osama bin Laden. None of the operators was injured and all returned safely.


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