This is a guest post by Thulai van Maanen. You can click the images to enlarge in a new window. Some of the symbols may be difficult to read within the article.
Throughout the years I have done much WWII research and I was honored to work with other researchers and historians. Research can be done in many ways, viewed from different perspectives and with many sources: personal stories, action reports, journals, narratives etc.
One thing I notice over and over again is the lack of knowledge about how to read tactical maps. I personally think that is a huge missed opportunity when someone is doing research. Tactical maps are like a book, they will give you insight in what was happening at the time your soldier or unit was in action. Things you can find on a tactical map are: weapons, units, unit sizes, dispositions, targets, obstacles, movements, delays, attacks, battle positions, routes, assembly areas, directions, boundaries and so much more!
Tactical maps consists of a GSGS (Geographical Section, General Staff) map with an overlay. There are many types of overlays, such as a fire support overlay, weather forecast overlay, situational overlay etc. Overlays are crucial for a commander; it gives him insight in planned actions and the actual actions of the units under his command, so he can make the right tactical, operational or strategic decisions.
During WWII, American, British and German forces used different map symbols. We will be focussing on the American map symbols, which were divided into ‘military units’ and ‘military activities’. Unit symbols were used to indicate the sort and size of units. The most common used symbols to indicate the sort of unit are:
If you look closely at last symbol, you can see the armored and infantry symbols are combined into an armored infantry symbol. Other combinations can for example be armored engineers or airborne medical units.
To indicate the unit size, the following symbols were added on top of the unit symbols:
To show which unit is mentioned, the unit name was written left of the symbol and their higher command was written on the right side of the symbol. Now let’s follow all the steps as discussed above:
Often there is a staff attached to the unit symbol so it looks like a flag. In that case the lower end terminates a military post or station.
Now you know how to read the unit symbols, you can analyse in what kind of actions these units were involved. There are hundreds of possible action symbols, from a discovered strong point to a planned encirclement, from a regular patrol to a roadblock. The most common action symbols you will find on a tactical WWII map are:
So how do we recognise own forces and enemy forces on these maps? If possible, they worked with colors: military symbols representing own forces were drawn in blue, while enemy forces were drawn in red. But there is another small detail that can give us a lot of information: planned operations and planned units were drawn with dotted lines, while current operations were drawn with normal lines.
An overlay contains two reference grids, to position the overlay. More information about the scale, mapsheet and dates are found in the corner of the overlay. Make sure you use the right map with the overlay!
Can you analyse the map below? Give it try, be patient and have fun!
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