Soviet Military Mapping of Ireland during the Cold War
By Col. Desmond Travers, Irish Army, Ret'd., PHP 16/1/07
Jan 17, 2007 - 8:43:00 AM

It was an open secret among analysts during the Cold War that the two major powers used satellite and high altitude surveys to assess each others aims, intentions and resources. Indeed it was US satellite surveillance which first noted the disparities between the USSR's claimed crop yields and the reality, as Khrushchev once bitterly observed to his US adversary!

While the US has indicated that it had produced maps of other countries and their territories and makes them available under certain circumstances, little was known of Soviet cartographic activity until recently.

Soviet information on this subject has come to hand and reveals the extent to which their geo-strategic and perhaps military interests had an almost global reach. Map indexes of various series indicate that the Soviets were well advanced in the large scale mapping of the entire Northern Hemisphere and had proceeded to map certain regions of the Southern Hemisphere also.

The maps in question were of scale 1:200,000 and 1: 100,000. These are standard scales for use in military operations. Substantial portions of the Northern Hemisphere, Europe especially were also covered in the larger scale of 1: 50,000. In addition there were detailed street maps of some two thousand cities throughout the world with special emphasis on European cities. For example, twenty – three cities of the United Kingdom were covered in great detail. These maps were variously of 1:25,000 or 1:10,000 scale. Dublin was covered in four sheets of scale 1:10,000.

The British Isles and Ireland were covered in the two smaller scales and portions of the South of England were covered in the 1:50,000 series. Ireland, the island, was covered by 89 sheets. (See Figure 1 and Figure 2: Index to the 1:100,000 Soviet series of Ireland). It was considered interesting to examine the most militarily useful scale for Ireland to determine the quality of the maps from a user viewpoint The map selected was the 1:100,000 and the areas chosen were areas which could be proven by inspection The specific maps examined were: Sheet N-29-107 (“Naas”) and Sheet N-29-119 (“Carlow”). The selection of these sheets permitted the writer to prove the map by visiting features identified on it especially features not so identified on maps of recent and equivalent Irish Ordnance Survey origin.

First it is necessary to consider the origin of such maps and then to examine the sheets in question. They were produced by the “Military Topographical Directorate of the General Staff” (VTU) at various dates and the first referenced dates on these maps are 1960. In the case of the Sheets in question these were produced in 1979.

The Soviet topographic system for the regional maps of scale 1:1,000,000 follows the International Map of the World (IMW) alpha-numerical system. Sheets are designated alphabetically and followed by a number. In the Northern hemisphere numbering starts at the Equator and the meridian 180 deg. which starts at ‘A- 1' and progresses northwards and eastwards from there.

The 1:100,000 Series The 1:100,000 sheets that were examined are recognisable to any military user. This is because the graphical arrangement of information seems standard. It lays emphasis on assisting the military user in terrain appreciation and also in the ability to overlay military information onto it without overly obscuring map data. Military maps are designed to help the reader appreciate what is called ‘going'. ‘Going' relates to those terrain features that assist or impede manoeuvre. Lines of communication such as roads, railways and canals are shown and where possible classified according to capacity, gradient etc. Hills are shown by contour lines. Vegetation such as forests and parkland is shown and separately identified. Indeed in the case of this series, individual trees, copses or small groups of trees are identified.

So therefore the map can be read easily and without much recourse to the Soviet nomenclature or index of conventional signs for this series and for those features depicted [1] .

The treatment of relief nevertheless is worthy of mention from two perspectives. Firstly, the maps show all closed contours in a manner that distinguishes elevations from depressions. This is important as a closed contour without a trig point or spot height enclosed within it, could be interpreted to be either an elevation or a depression. Here, elevations are distinguished from depressions by having two short lines or hachures extend outwards from the closed contour line and these two lines are usually located apposite each other. They are most often to be shown on a North East – South West axis.

In the case of a depression, two lines are projected inwards from the contour line again usually on the same axis. [

This requirement to distinguish elevation from depression may seem unnecessary when reading a map in a calm environment. However in the heat of battle and in poor light it seems to be a wise precaution to have such an aide to the map user available. This initiative seems also to have been introduced since publication of an index of conventional signs for this series in 1958. One wonders what tactical faux pas occurred to some hapless commander to warrant the introduction of such a measure! Spot heights were compared with those in the Irish Ordnance Survey, (O.S.) half inch map, (1: 126,720). Among a sample of such heights a difference of minus (-) 0.94% was detected with the Soviet measurements. This calculation follows from the conversion of spot heights from the imperial to the metric system (feet to metres) and indeed the variation may have been occasioned in part by the two different systems of measurement. This variation was not uniformly so and in one sample a difference of minus (-) 0.45% was found.

Communications: Road Systems The maps marginal information makes reference to two road systems. One, it states, is in accordance with a “European Network” and the other refers to roads of local importance which are usually surfaced. An alphanumeric system or a numeric system is used to identify and grade these roads. This is not understood as Ireland did not have a European compliance standard at that time [2] . It may however have approximated to a European standard in order to accommodate vehicles and road traffic which would be of European standard. However the numeric value given the major roads is the same as that for Irish roads classed as ‘National Primary Roads' and ‘National Secondary Roads' of that period. Thus we have the road Dublin to Naas, named the “T5” or “N7” shown as “5” and then being re-graded the “E 125” from Naas westward. This may have been occasioned by the existence of a new dual-carriageway which came into being at that time.

It is also possible that the Soviets applied a grade system of their own based solely on the military logistical and operational relevance of the roads so graded. This is evidenced by various identified grades of roads written onto them at intervals. Examples of these are: “12(18)”, “8(12)” and “6(8)”. Such grades are understood to apply also to firebreaks. [3] It is presumed that these are dimensions of the surfaced area and shoulders of these roads. Also graded were Irish roads classed as Trunk Roads and Link Roads. Roads below that grade were not classified.

Resource Identification The map shews also a number of features not identified in the equivalent Irish series. These lay emphasis on resource features such as places of manufacture, of food processing or for the generation of energy. In the Irish context these are usually mills or flour mills whose energy was derived from water-power and also hydro-electric stations. The hydro-electric stations excepted, these mills could only have been identified from a study of Irish Ordnance Survey maps, as it is in such sources that identification and the purpose of such structures are revealed. These items were only ever identified on the O.S. map of scale 1 inch to the mile, (1:63,360) and not on the half inch series [See Map 2.] What is of interest here is that these water mills were by now disused, all in ruins and in one circumstance at least, no longer in existence! A possible reason for such an error on the part of the Soviet cartographers is that the Irish map series that helped to identify such items was itself out of date having been surveyed last in 1900. Significant land reclamation and drainage had been undertaken by the Irish authorities in the interim which would have left many mills literally high and dry. Further, no amended series of this map was to be published and so the Soviets were relying on the only source available to them. That said, it does affirm that the Soviets used this map for identification of objects. They seem therefore indifferent to the laws of copyright perhaps because they classed their series as for ‘staff use' or ‘official use only' and did not expect that they would be publicly available.

It is understood that Soviet satellite technology may have been of poorer standard at that time than that of the West. The question therefore arises; did the Soviets simply copy Irish Ordnance Survey maps and applied their own system of map making? (as indeed was done by both the Allies and Axis Powers during WW II). To answer that question it is helpful to turn to a prominent feature that existed but which was not on any OS maps of the period then or now. Such a feature is of course the ‘Magazine' of the Ammunition Depot located on the South-Western edge of the Irish Defence Force garrisons at the Curragh Camp. This feature, for security reasons, was not present on those maps. However, the Soviet map in question does indeed show the Ammunition Depot.

An approximation of the Depot could be made by physical inspection from the approachways into the Curragh, and this possibility must be considered. It is unlikely however as the Soviet map is inaccurate with regard to the depiction of specific structures within the Ammunition Depot. Such an inaccuracy is unlikely to have occurred if the source arose from close observation using the naked eye!

The Soviet series does refer to one Irish map for its data if not by name at least by scale, in its marginal information. This is the Ordnance Survey half inch series, (1:126,720). Reliance on this map may have been because it was the most frequently updated. In the one referred to, the date of publication was 1976.

There was certainly another reason for referring to the half inch map series: it gave them place names which the Soviet cartographers would have had to show on their maps phonetically and of course in Cyrillic lettering. The Irish series however gave place names of the larger towns in two official languages: English and Irish. The Soviet cartographers duly did the same and it is to their credit that they made a good effort at getting Irish place names reasonably phonetically accurate!

It is likely too that the Soviet cartographers had in their possession the large scale Six Inch to One Mile series from which to interpret data as this scale would have informed the other Irish Ordnance Series [4] . As possession of all series of such maps would run to some two thousand sheets it is likely that the Soviets acquired them on microfilm or microfiche. It is unlikely that such a purchase was made from the Ordnance Survey Office but the ultimate answer to this question must wait for another time.

Some Conclusions The Soviet maps under discussion were unquestionably superior to any foreign military maps of previous periods. This includes British War Office and German General Staff maps of WW II vintage. This may be due to improved air photo technologies and to the very considerable cartographic resources the Soviet authorities could avail at that time.

They were also superior to maps available to Irish military or security personnel then. It must be said however that equivalent Irish O.S. maps of that period were not military maps per se. They were maps that had to meet commercial needs first and were available to the military for their own purposes as best they might. For example the equivalent map, the half inch scale, is also called a “Road Map”. It uses tints to emphasise relief and is therefore a very easy map to read and served its commercial and general purposes admirably.

That said the Soviet map series was of such standard that the cost of producing an Irish equivalent would have been prohibitive. Indeed one is prompted to wonder whether the Soviet cartographic system, “… this vast organisation …” [5] had lost the run of itself in going to so much effort in producing them. After all, Western analyses of Soviet intentions at that time did not consider that Ireland was under threat or was even part of a Soviet geo-contingency. Indeed Ireland's application to join NATO was declined by both the US and British governments, affirmation if such were needed that Ireland was not considered to feature in Soviet geo-strategic thinking [6] . This latter point however, remains to be proven.


It is often fascinating to look at maps from different or external sources to determine how their authors ‘see' one's own country and then to make comparisons with them and with indigenous products. A study of the Soviet maps with their nearest equivalent Irish ones of the period reveals many differences in the two cultures. The Soviets saw assets - oftentimes assets that no longer existed. Irish maps looked rearward or so it seemed. While Irish maps had downgraded resource amenities such as mills, as they had fallen into disuse, they continued to map places of historical or heritage significance even when little or no trace of them remained, [See Map 3].

They also seemed intent on marking ecclesiastical sites especially those in ruins. One is prompted to speculate whether the presence of a church on a military map was there as it was a useful reference object or aiming point?

The Roman lettering which identifies such manifestations of the past abounds throughout the Irish series. The past, for understandable reasons was of no consequence to the Soviets.

Looking back at both the Irish maps and their Soviet counterparts, one is prompted to suggest that they also reflect the past in other ways. Both societies were to experience transition in their various ways.

Map 3: Archaeological, Ecclesiastical or Historical Sites: Clockwise from top: “Church”, “Church”, “Castle”, “Rath” (Prehistoric habitation?) and “Church”, which are absent from the Soviet map, (Top). Today the old ‘resource' sites have been bull-dozed away in large part and the heritage sites have been seen in some instances as impediments to progress. The Irish landscape is changing and all the maps referred to here including the Soviet ones are now records of our recent past.


Acknowledgements I am indebted to the Staff of the Ordnance Survey for the comments, explanations and assistance given me during my visit with them. I am especially grateful to Mr Iain Greenway, Director of Operations, Mr. Pat Sheridan, Operations Manager and Mr. Pat Fagan, Senior Technical Officer, Product Development and Publications Division and to Mr Leonard Hynes, Senior Technical Officer, Remote Sensing and Data Enhancement Division. I am also grateful to Mr Sheridan for following up my enquiries with additional maps and assistance after our meeting.



[1] . Headquarters Department of the Army, Washington: “Soviet Topographical Map Symbols”, June, 1958. Chapter 2: Pp. 11 – 45.

[2] . Source: Discussion with Staff or Ordnance Survey Office, Ireland.

[3] . “Soviet Topographical Map Symbols”, June, 1958. Chapter 2.

[4] . This suggestion has been put forward by the staff at the Irish Ordnance Survey Office as being the most likely source of cartographic information for the Soviets.

[5] . “ Soviet Topographical Map Symbols”. P. 1.

[6] . For an interesting new disclosure on Irelands application to join the Western Alliance, see: Dr. Garret Fitzgerald: “Ireland in the World: Further Reflections” . Liberties Press, Dublin, 2005. Pp.198/199

Source: Ocnus.net 2007