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KGB trumped OS on UK mapping

Thames Valley was top of target list

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Detailed maps of the UK created by the KGB between 1950 and 1990 have gone on sale in digital format for the first time.

The maps show 16,000 square kilometres and 103 UK town and cities in more detail than Ordnance Survey maps. The Russians used satellite images and spies on the ground to create the maps, which include army camps and warehouses that don't appear on other maps.

The maps include other information likely to be useful for an invading army, such as the height of bridges and depths and contours of river beds. Strategically important buildings like telephone exchanges, government buildings, and power stations were all colour-coded and identified with a numbered key.

It wasn't just the UK that was treated to such detailed attention - most of the rest of the world was put under similar scrutiny, albeit not to such an indepth scale. For many countries in Africa and Asia the maps remain the most reliable and accessible source of geographic information.

Little is known of the how the USSR acheived such a mammoth task. The military cartography department was created in 1919 and the first map of the UK dates from 1938. The project accelerated from the mid-50s as the Cold War intensified. All place names on the maps are transcribed into Cyrillic script phonetically.

Some 80 British urban areas were mapped between 1950 and 1990 down to a scale of 1:10,000. The maps include a street index, a text description of the area, and a numbered list of important buildings. For some reason Reading and Slough are among the places missing, or excluded, from the remaining maps. In the case of the latter, perhaps the Soviet target planners took John Betjeman at his word.

Many of the maps were recovered when they were left in trains leaving Estonia and Latvia as the Russian military departed following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The maps were bought by Landmark Information Group and are available through envirocheck.co.uk - they're offering free samples until March. There's more info here and an interesting article on how the maps were created (pdf.) here. ®

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