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The Naval Intelligence Geographical Handbook Series (Great-Britain, 1941-46): a description and a call for comments

La collection des ´Geographical Handbooks´ de la Royal Navy (Grande-Bretagne 1941-46) : une description et un appel à commentaires
Cyril Gosme


La série de livres des Geographical Handbooks présentée dans cet article fut préparée et mise en circulation en Grande-Bretagne pendant la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, sous les auspices des renseignements de la Royal Navy (par la "Naval Intelligence Division 5"), et c’est pourquoi, on y fait parfois référence comme aux "Admiralty Handbooks". Ils offrent des présentations régionales par pays, suivant un plan systématique (à tiroirs), et bien qu’ils ne traitent qu’une trentaine de pays (Etats-Nations, territoires coloniaux, ou îles), ils semblent constituer le plus grand massif de description géographique jamais publié.

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Notes de l’auteur

This research was undertaken for the Maîtrise, in 1996-1997, at the Université Paris IV - Sorbonne, under the supervision of Professor Paul Claval. I had the privilege to spend that academic year at University College London, thanks to the European exchange programme «Erasmus», and I am greatly indebted to Professor Hugh Clout for this research : he first drew my attention to the series, when I told him my desire to study an ambitious geographical description, and then offered precious advice and support throughout the research.

Texte intégral

I am very grateful to Laure Charleux, who gave assistance with the illustrations, to Nicolas Renet, who gave computer assistance, and to Anna Duschinsky and Mickael Kelly who accepted very kindly to correct the oddities of my first manuscript.

1The series was initially confidential, and its ‘publication’ proceeded simply by the general sale, some time after the war, of the copies left over. This explains why it is difficult to find a complete set (maybe only the Royal Geographical Society holds one), and since a list of the countries treated never appears in the books, the first market catered for in this article could be that of librarians and book collectors.

2The research from which this work is derived1 has so far concentrated on the production of the series rather than on its usage (the archival sources account to a large degree for this imbalance) - but it is a basic fact that, once issued, books take on a life of their own ! This article wants to make good this imbalance, and it is therefore proposed as a call for anecdotes, personal views and discussion. It is preliminary to a more substantial article about the Geographical Handbooks, that will give the results of my Maîtrise and try to discuss (of course, taking into account the comments I will have received !) the interesting questions this British World War II project raises about geographical knowledge, its production and communication.

3All anecdotes about the Geographical Handbooks would interest me, however far they may seem to be from the original purpose of the series (and if you feel like being a witness to the fact that the series was not used at all, please send me your comments as well). This article aims to be as objective as possible a description and is proposed as a basis for eventual discussion.

To start with, I would suggest the following questions

  • What is (or was) your activity or speciality ?

  • How did you encounter the series ? What was its place (even physically) for you ?

  • Are your interests catered for in the outline ?

  • Are you satisfied with the scale of treatment of the phenomena described ?

  • Do you rely on the illustrations as much as on the text ? How do you use them ?

  • How do you understand the designation «handbook» ? What connotations would have been that of «manual» instead ?

  • Do you consider these Geographical Handbooks to be geography ? Why ?

"One Handbook, one country"

4The Geographical Handbooks constitute a series of 31 published Handbooks that bear country titles. Each one deals with a political area (whether a Nation-state or a colonial territory), though one finds exceptions with islands (or peninsulas), the account of which usually gives priority to location over political affiliation : there is a handbook Spain-Portugal, a handbook Pacific Islands and a handbook Corsica (separate from one dealing with France). Considering the regularity of these exceptions, one may consider that the only real infraction to the basic principle ‘one Handbook, one country’ appears with the handbook Palestine - Transjordan, an exception that may be due to reluctance to issue too thin volumes for these two territories. A table (Appendix 1) gives a list of the volumes of the 31 Handbooks.

The books

5The books are bound in-octavo volumes (measuring 21,5 x 14 centimetres), lined with plain coloured cloth, the colour of which varies from one handbook to another. According to a post-war report (by H.C. Darby, who is mentioned below as "General-Editor" of one of the two centres of preparation of the books), a colour scheme had been decided, analogous to that of the Admiralty Pilots. Although I have tried to map out the colours of bindings (see accompanying map (Appendix 2), I have not been able to understand the scheme and I do not know that of the Pilots (but Darby states in his report that the colours were altered in few cases).

Number of volumes per Handbook

6The 31 Handbooks amount to 58 volumes, because some handbooks are composed of more than one volume (6 are two-volume, 3 three-volume, and 5 four-volume handbooks). The division of matter between several volumes, is obviously explained by a basic physical limitation for a bound volume, but coherence has obviously been considered in deciding how to divide the handbooks. A topical grouping (of the sections of the systematic outline to be described below), is common to several multi-volume handbooks :

  1. Physical geography

  2. History, (peoples) and administration

  3. Economic geography

  4. Ports and communications

  5. (the last two being regrouped in the case of three-volume handbooks).

7A specific way of constituting volumes is encountered with Spain-Portugal, Greece, and Pacific Islands : it is a regional grouping, proceeding by a general presentation (Spain - Portugal I, Greece I & II, Pacific Islands I) followed by a regional one : Spain - Portugal II, III, IV (Portugal ; Spain ; The Atlantic Islands) ; Greece III (Regional geography) ; Pacific Islands II, III, IV (Eastern Pacific ; Western Pacific - Tonga to Solomon Islands ; Western Pacific - New Guinea and islands northward).

Weight of the series

8Dodecanese (one volume) and Italy (four volumes), with respectively 170 pages and 2681 pages, are the smallest and the biggest Handbooks. The average Handbook has 514 pages, and the fifty-eight-volume-series totals 29 811 pages. Even if this figure is exaggerated (it is based on the pagination of the books and therefore counts even the indexes), it gives a significant order of magnitude for the series : I know nothing bigger than this for a published mass of geographical description.

9Series that purport to describe the whole world in a limited number of volumes (Universal Geographies) are quite opposite, by their organisation, to this one which deals individually with countries and does not even give a list of the countries treated (only the volumes of a multi-volume handbook are listed in each volume of that particular handbook). However, because of both their object and the bulk of the resultant sets, they are the most obvious reference for comparison.

10Of the recent French Géographies Universelles, that of Elisée Reclus (Hachette, Paris, 19 volumes, 1876-1894), with its 17 182 in-quarto pages, is the biggest one. Translating its number of pages into a number of typographical signs (which is more accurate for comparison), one gets an approximate ‘weight’ of 79 million signs for the Geographical Handbooks, as opposed to 49 million for the Nouvelle Géographie Universelle of Reclus (these figures are obtained by evaluating the number of typographical spaces on a page - an ideal page with no changes of paragraph nor illustrations - and then multiplying the resultant number by the number of pages as given by the pagination - which is also a source of exaggeration, because the text does not actually run from the first to the last page). The results of this comparison suggest that the Geographical Handbooks constitute the biggest mass of geographical description ever published - I would, of course, be eager to hear about other series that might render this proposition invalid.

A series in uniform

11If it is necessary to leaf through a few volumes to realise the series’ concern for consistency in exposition, first contact reveals a physical appearance common to all volumes. Lined with the plain coloured cloth already mentioned, the front covers bear inscriptions in gold letters : ‘GEOGRAPHICAL HANDBOOK SERIES’, ‘NAVAL INTELLIGENCE DIVISION’, and the name of the country dealt with serving as the title of the book in between. The top of the spine reads ‘B.R.’ (for ‘Book of Reference’), followed by a number between 493 and 549, with a letter (A, B, C) if there is more than one volume - this number is an identification code for each handbook and not all numbers are allotted in this numerical bracket. On the title-page, ‘FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY’ (or ‘RESTRICTED’)  appears after the name of the series, as well as a date that mentions the month below the name of the eponymous country. The dates of the 58 volumes range from December 1941 to June 1946, and thus display, with a slight time-lag, a chronological coincidence with the Second World War. I understand that these dates give the time when the vetting of the typed manuscript was completed for each volume (the archives do not allow any certainty on this point).

12Turning the title-page over, the following warning is all one sees, on the left page :

‘ This book is for the use of persons in H.M. Service only and must not be shown, or made available, to the Press or to any member of the public.’,

13whereas a one-and-a-half page long preface starts on the right one. This text signed J.H. Godfrey, ‘Director of Naval Intelligence’, presents the origins, nature and intentions of the series. It is therefore an essential (and probably, for many users, the only) source of information about the Geographical Handbooks. Though the initials ‘D.N.I.’ are followed by a different name after 1942, this text is found unchanged to the last volume : E.G.N. Rushbrooke, who replaced J.H. Godfrey in this function, simply added a short paragraph praising the preface of the series, and thus explaining his decision to retain it (this text is reproduced at the end of this article (Appendix 3).

14The uniform of the series is common to all volumes, and even typographic specifications are homogeneous. Darby’s report states that the type used was Imprint, a type initially designed for the magazine Imprint and applicable to foreign language thanks to its wide range of accented and special characters, as explained in The making of books (by S. Jennet, Faber & Faber, London, 1951, page 253). These specifications are detailed in Darby’s report as follows :

Table 1

Territories and preparation centres

15Only one paragraph, at the end of the preface, changes from book to book : it states where each book was prepared and lists alphabetically the people involved (one can underline that this way of citing people does not permit to know who did what exactly). Two different ‘sub-centres’ of preparation are mentioned : Oxford, where Professor Kenneth Mason was ‘General-Editor’ and Cambridge, where James. M. Wordie was ‘Director’ and Henry Clifford Darby ‘General-Editor’ (only the latter remains after the end of 1943). The Oxford centre prepared 17 Handbooks (amounting to 28 volumes) and the Cambridge centre 14 (amounting to 30 volumes). An accompanying diagram (Appendix 4) shows the rhythm of production of volumes by each centre (the date used is that attached to volumes’ titles). Though the preface says that ‘at the present time, books covering over thirty-five countries are in course of preparation, and (that) this list will be substantially extended by the end of 1942’, the existing series, as stated at the beginning of this description, counts only 31 handbooks dealing with 31 territories (this gap between what was intended and what was completed will be discussed in my forthcoming article) ; in appendix, a map that uses the same colours than the curves of production of volumes by Oxford and Cambridge shows the territories treated respectively by both centres (Appendix 5)

16These territories can be grouped by major regions :

Table 2

17There are few handbooks that do not fit in these ensembles. Norway is at an unusual latitude for the Oxford centre, which dealt otherwise with hot regions (from the Mediterranean to tropical lands), whereas Iceland is remote from the other countries of Western Europe treated by Cambridge. But these two cases are explained by the origins of both centres, as I will explain in my forthcoming article. The Balkan area was shared by Oxford (Albania) and Cambridge (Jugoslavia, Greece), and Corsica, a Mediterranean island, was undertaken by Cambridge, while it might have seemed located within Oxford’s remit. But France was done by Cambridge, and here again, the tension appears, visible from the start, of political affiliation vs. location.

18Little familiarity with the series is needed to confirm the one descriptive sentence in the preface : ‘the books follow a uniform scheme and they are furnished with numerous maps and illustrations’.

Folded maps in pockets

19Except Dodecanese and Luxembourg, all handbooks are equipped with a folded map, accommodated in a pocket inside the back cover. This folded map is generally a small scale topographical map showing relief by layer colouring (shades of blue for the sea, and green, ochre and brown for the lands) as well as cities and communications ; it is a map that represents the entire territory that the handbook deals with on a relatively small scale (the irregular shape of territories makes it necessary to represent parts of adjoining territories) : scales range from 1 : 500,000 (Netherlands) to 1 :30,000,000 (Pacific Islands I) ; these maps originate either from the Geographical Section, General Staff (who supplied maps of its own or simply reproduced maps from the foreign cartographic organisation who had already prepared them for the territory under review) or from the Edinburgh Geographical Institute (the Bartholomew map company). Less often, the folded map is simply a ‘communication map’ that indicates roads on a white sheet. Even less often, it is a an other kind of thematic map, ethnographic (‘Tribes’, 1 : 1,5 M, Morocco II) or geological (1 : 2 M, Germany III ; 1 : 800,000, Netherlands). Since some handbooks have more than one map, there are not 31, but 47 folded maps in the 58 volumes.

Inside illustration

20Leafing through the series, one realises how numerous are the black-and-white illustrations within the pages. Apart from very rare cases of ochre shading (to indicate surfaces above a given altitude) on relief maps in few volumes, colour is totally absent. A sixteen-page atlas using layer colouring at the end of Norway II is an exception, to be understood as an equivalent of the usual folded map in the pocket (present in Norway I). The lists, at the beginning of volumes, of this illustration distinguishes between two categories, defined by the technique of reproduction used : ‘maps and diagrams’, and ‘photographs’. From the standpoint of their technical age as books (defined notably by this distinction in the illustration), the Geographical Handbooks are typical of their time, very close, for instance, to the contemporary French Géographie Universelle Vidal-Gallois (23 volumes, 1927-1948, Armand Colin, Paris).

Maps and diagrams

21The series contains 5,146 ‘Maps and diagrams’, that is to say an average of 110 per volume. They are reproduced by engraved blocks that can be integrated into the rest of the typographical composition at the printing stage, and they actually stick closer to the text than the photographic illustrations. Many maps are location maps, and describe what is dealt with in the accompanying text, whether physical regions, climate, population densities, economic sectors, communications, or ... other maps contained further in the book. The beginning of the first chapter of general physical description often gives a map of the regional divisions used in that description (a map simply delineating, with curved lines, the coastline and the limits of these divisions) and other chapters - especially those about population, economic geography and transport geography - often start with a small scale index-map that delineates, with boxes, the larger scale maps displayed further in the chapter  ; these larger scale maps then ‘zoom’ successively in each of these predefined zones, the text commenting the order of phenomena described as observed in each of these zones.

22Some maps are simply distribution maps (choropleth maps, that translate statistics visually on administrative subdivisions or, very rarely, isopleth maps, that indicate with isolines the varying intensity of a phenomenon, e.g. for climatology) that aim at giving a visual impression of spatial variations, without real concern for location (they are at too small a scale for this). ‘Diagrams’ are even more typical of that effort to translate visually information given otherwise in the text. With the exception of block-diagrams that give three-dimensional images of relief-forms in the introductory general physical description, they are often close to graphic paraphrase. For instance, the historical chapter sometimes shows chronological curves that tell the varying extent of competing powers’ possessions on the territory described, and many diagrams are simply translation of statistics in curves, cheeses, or bar charts. The reference of a publication where the map or diagram had been initially published (or from which it has been adapted) is sometimes attached to the document.


23The series contains 6,397 photographs, that is an average of 89 per volume. Having said that it does not differ from comparable books of that time in terms of illustration, one must emphasise that photographs, unlike maps and diagrams, do not credit sources, so that one never knows where the pictures come from. They are reproduced by the half-tone technique (that renders shades of grey by small black dots) on sheets of glazed paper, which are added between pages. This constraint of using a special paper, different from that used for the rest of the books, makes the series of photographs rather autonomous from the text itself (photographs are inserted inside the chapters, but plates bear several photographs on each side and are printed on both, so that they appear as ‘clusters’ of photographic illustration at intervals), but for each picture, a legend indicates what is to be seen and thus bridges the gap between photographs and text. Even when volumes are abundantly illustrated with photographs, a notable fraction of the engravings listed with the ‘maps and diagrams’ are views drawn from photographs (Dodecanese is the only volume where these engravings have entirely replaced photographs and which therefore does not have photographs) : this seems to have been a way to put more views without using extra sheets of glazed paper, because these views do not exploit possibilities of further integration to the text. Apart from Dodecanese, France II and Germany II are the only volumes that do not bear photographs. These two exceptions reveal the principle of photographic illustration in the series : these volumes are dedicated to the ‘History and Administration’ of the countries, and it is a fact that photographs in the series show people only accidentally (except for few pictures of traditional costumes), being dedicated to landscapes (natural, rural, urban - using oblique aerial photographs or panoramas taken from the ground) and particular installations (e.g. factories, ports, bridges, railways).


24Commenting the external presentation of the handbooks, it has been said that they are ‘in uniform’ ; as for organisation of matter, it is possible to extend this martial image : the books march at an imposed pace. The preface says that ‘the books follow, in general, a uniform scheme, though minor modifications will be found in particular cases’. ‘Uniform scheme’ means a systematic outline and the ‘modifications’ pertain to the order of their succession and their exact titles, but many chapters are present at the same place throughout the series, with very much the same title.

25A study of the 31 handbooks’ contents makes it possible to propose the following generalisation for the outline :

Table 3

Variations in the outline

26The proportion of the books dedicated to these different topics varies : a same chapter, in different handbooks, can be brief or long ; series of topics can be grouped into one chapter, in one handbook (one chapter on ‘communications’) while split into separate chapters (one on ‘roads’, one on ‘railways’, ...), in an other one. Such a grouping does not disrupt the relative order of topics, and the merger of ‘Distribution of population’ and ‘The people’ (usually separated by those on ‘history’ and ‘administration’) in French West Africa in a single chapter, ‘The people’, is a unique example in the series. More radical (and rarer) than grouping of chapters that would have been too short, are omissions of topics not relevant for the country dealt with : an example is given by the absence of the chapter on "coasts" in Luxembourg. Rare too, are interpolations, the addition, at the chapter-level, of developments not catered for in the general outline. But one realises easily that these ‘interpolations’ are actually outgrowths of preceding chapters, that is to say, other cases of splitting. Here are a few of the dozen or so examples of interpolation encountered in the whole series :

Table 4

27More significant than this grouping/splitting of topics are modifications of position in the outline. If the general sequence [physical background]-[people-administration]-[geography of population – economic geography]-[communications] is always respected, variations of the relative order of topics occur (with one exception, it is inside the constructing blocks that they are met). The criteria for modification of the order of topics seems to be ‘importance’ : an intrinsic quality justifying by itself the presentation of a topic prior to other ones, but also as a need, for the sake of exposition, to refer to something explained before that sheds some light on what is being related - ‘causal relation’ would be a cruder way to put it.

28The chapter on health conditions is found either after that on climate and vegetation or after that on administration. This major change - it entails a move between the blocks [physical background] and [people-administration] - seems to be put down to causal reasoning : health conditions must primarily be understood either from the climate or from the state :

Table 5

29This hypothesis about causal relation and position may account as well for the changes of position between ‘The people’ and ‘History’. But generalisation is difficult here, because if we put aside French West Africa (where both chapters are merged into one), we see that out of the 30 remaining handbooks, 15 present "The people" before "History" and 15 "History" before "The people" :

Table 6

30Modifications of relative position in the part on economic geography are less common and therefore more easily legible : the chapters ‘Mines’, ‘Industry’ and ‘Power supplies’ of Norway precede that on ‘Agriculture and forestry’ ; the chapter ‘Mineral economics’ of French West Africa precedes that on ‘Agriculture’. Economic primacy of a sector does seem to have justified a modification of the systematic outline : the criterion seems to be that of ‘importance’ rather than that of ‘causal relation’. Such a justification simply in terms of importance applies as well to the chapters on communications of France IV and Germany IV : they are the only volumes where the succession [roads - railways - waterways], common to all the other handbooks, has become [railways - roads - waterways], probably because railways were even more efficient than roads in these countries, whereas transport service of other territories described in the series had to rely mainly on roads.

Regional tendencies

31The outline already described is systematic in its principle : for a given territory, it presents a succession of topics, trying, in their relative order, to shed some light on those coming next or simply to put the most basic first (again, denouncing an assumption of absolute causal relation in the string would be simplistic). But behind the fundamentally systematic orientation of their organisation, one must see how the Geographical Handbooks are sometimes tinted by a logic of regional presentation.

32Islands tend to disrupt the logic of the systematic outline, as stated from the start in respect of multi-volume handbooks (Spain-Portugal II, III, IV, Greece III, Pacific Islands II, III, IV). But it does not have to be as visible as a volume’s title to be true : except French West Africa (2 volumes : ‘The Federation’, ‘The Colonies’), other cases of amendment of the outline toward regional presentation occur in the case of insular territories, a presentation by island appearing either at the beginning (Netherlands East Indies) or at the end of the outline (Dodecanese, Italy). Though it may be noted that two interpolated regional chapters, in France III and Germany III, are not linked with islands (respectively ‘Paris’ and the ‘Main industrial regions’ of Germany), it can be argued that, for both cases, it is a relatively insular configuration that justifies the interpolation. And this last remark suggests that, more than its naval origin, the series’ consideration for islands may firstly be due to their indisputable character as ‘regions’.

33Having said that the organisation of the Geographical Handbooks is systematic, even if this is somewhat deformed by islands, one must point out that one chapter of the outline is not in direct alignment with the others. Happily, the numerous variations of its exact title - ‘general physical and geological description’, ‘relief, drainage and geology’, ‘geology and physical features’, ‘general physical description’, ... - rarely coincide with the misleading phrase ‘physical geography’. Because this chapter is actually a general presentation of the country, one that does not strictly limit its horizon to the relief of the country, but associates questions of physical features and human life of a given territory : in short, it is a chapter of regional geography.

Detailed surveys and inflation

34As said before, there are no fixed proportions between the different chapters of the outline. But more than that, it should be stressed that some tend to span over hundreds of pages (and this is largely why the series weighs so much) : those about coasts, economic sectors or communications. This inflation seems intrinsic to the procedure of description : once the phenomenon is briefly characterised for the whole territory, a detailed description is ritually carried out for each of its pre-defined subdivisions. These parts sometimes extend dramatically (see volume IV of four-volume handbooks) and one has the impression that the Geographical Handbooks are then sinking into topographical description : the principle of the systematic outline is stretched to the limits of its elasticity.


35Both the introductory chapter of regional geography and the lengthy parts of detailed description - and their striking contrast of synthetic account vs. analytical survey - are characteristic of the series. This is true as well of that part of the volumes’ contents inserted after the end of the general outline : the ‘appendices’. It has been said before that what may look at first glance as ‘interpolations’ are actually mere outgrowths of regular chapters, so that, strictly speaking, there are no real interpolations in the series. But the ‘appendices’ short-circuit this question : though some are found in nearly every volume (the conversion tables), they give, in general, the impression that they accommodate what did not fit in the outline, what was ‘left over’. They exist in nearly all volumes, and if ‘conversion tables’ are not always counted among them, the ‘appendices’ numbered with figures or letters reach an average of 5 per volume and contribute significantly to the bulk of the whole series (with 14, Norway I has the longest list of appendices, but they consist mainly of statistics).

36These appendices are ‘tables’ (tables of statistics, conversion tables of units of measure) and informative notes about a variety of questions : the physical environment (topographical evolution, ice conditions, tides, magnetic disturbances at high latitudes) ; vernacular matters (language, place names, time, calendar, coinage, weight and measures, transhumance, religions) ; recent events (‘events since 1939’) ; and more rarely a very particular question : an island that was too little to be allowed to twist the general scheme (‘The Kuria Muria Islands’ in Western Arabia, or ‘Bornholm’ in Denmark), or the historical background of a precise question (‘The Lisbon earthquake of 1 November 1755’ in Spain – Portugal II, " "Alsace-Lorraine" in France II, or ‘The Scheldt question’ in Netherlands). They are even drier in style than the rest of the handbooks and they tend to appear as crude facts.

Differences between Oxford and Cambridge volumes

37To help apprehend the series’ organisation, general remarks have been made about basic characteristics (maps and illustrations, systematic outline) as well as intellectual biases in the practice of the outline (what might have justified changes of order). I have not picked up significant changes that would have constituted improvements in presentation between the first handbooks and those produced later. On the contrary, there are particularities of books that seem to be attributable to mere spatial ‘contingency’ : the hypothesis being that division of work between two centres would have introduced differences by itself. Certainly only those who prepared the books could explain the way a great deal of details were settled, but this geographical contingency seems to account for a whole range of variations in the series.

Multi-volume handbooks

38Cambridge gives titles to their volumes, whereas Oxford does not (except for those organised on a regional basis : Spain - Portugal and French West Africa). Cambridge reinitialises the numbering of chapters at the beginning of each volume, whereas Oxford does not.


39The first plate in Oxford handbooks is offered as a frontispiece, whereas it appears only in-text in those of Cambridge. Oxford books sometimes display in-text maps on a folded sheet and in French West Africa II, the 11 in-text maps are printed only on the part that can be unfolded, so that one can consult them while reading any page of the book (but it is an exception : Italy I has folded maps, but printed on the entire sheet).

40If there is an Oxford volume where illustrations are listed without numbers (Dodecanese), more often, lists of illustrations are slightly improved in Oxford volumes as compared to those of Cambridge : at the beginning of Persia, Western Arabia, Iraq, and Palestine-Transjordan, there are sub-headings that help navigate in the series of illustration (which, by that fact, are made even more autonomous from the text) ; in Syria, Turkey and Tunisia, maps are singled out in the list of "maps and diagrams" by an asterisk.


41Cambridge handbooks open immediately on the chapter of general physical description (regional geography), whereas Oxford’s first chapter is always constituted by an ‘introduction’ (Corsica and Pacific Islands are the only Cambridge exceptions). This introduction gives an elementary vade-mecum, starting with remarks on the limits, position and extent of the territory dealt with, continuing with a summary of the systematic outline, and ending with remarks about transliteration of the language into English and spelling of place names.

42Many handbooks describe the main cities of the country with a short systematic questionnaire (they do this for ports as well, but following the coastline, whereas cities are presented in alphabetical order) : this part appears as an appendix titled ‘chief towns’ in Cambridge books, whereas it is associated with the chapter ‘Distribution of the population’ or ‘Ports’ in Oxford books.

43Differences can be summarised in a identikit picture of the outlines of both centres ; an effort has been made to synthesise the most characteristic phrases used in the titles for each case  :

Table 7

Concluding remarks on the series’ nature

44Admiral Godfrey’s preface reflects the circumstances that brought about the preparation of the series and the objective it embodied : ‘to facilitate the work of fighting services and Government Departments’. This, of course, is to be commented later, but though I do not want to discuss here whether the books have actually been useful (this is the subject on which I am calling for comments !), a few supplementary remarks can be made examining the books by themselves. These should help in completing the description, and make it, I hope, an incentive for testimonies and discussion...

Is the knowledge delivered by the handbooks scholarly or practical ?

45There are passages that have not been described so far : they are found in the chapter ‘Diseases, pests and hygiene’ of the Oxford volumes and as appendices of some of Cambridge ones (China Proper III, Indo-China, Netherland East Indies I, Pacific Islands I), where they stand out from the rest of the contents : they are titled ‘Note on diet and nutrition’, ‘Camping in rain forest’ or ‘Hints on preservation of health’. As these titles reveal, they give practical advice for travel into unfamiliar environments, which assumes that the reader may travel in these countries. At first glance, they really appear as cysts, in these books that never talk explicitly from the viewpoint of what the reader’s situation could be. But looking more carefully, a practical interest can be detected in other passages : how to understand, otherwise than in terms of practical interest, the technical details given about ports (tides, cranes, basins, oil storage) or railway facilities (gauge, maximum permissible axle load, gradients along the track, marshalling yards ) ? But these books are far from being guidebooks and the overall impression is dominated by the outline and its enumeration of topics, an invitation (perhaps rarely accepted...) for a rather abstract journey.

46Do the handbooks aim at being whole-in-themselves or are they open towards ‘outside’ inquiries ? The series seems to be driven in by a fundamental desire for completeness. This shines out from its abundant illustration (conveying something that text alone could not) and the scope of the systematic outline, and becomes rather amusing with the Swiss-army-knife style of the ‘folded maps in pockets’ and ‘conversion tables’. The Geographical Handbooks pretend to be a library in themselves, books to replace books. But they do contain references, and this presupposes the possibility of ‘outside’ inquiries : the presence of bibliographies could be taken for a scholarly habit of citing sources, but the notes on existing series of maps are undoubtedly offered in the anticipation of an eventual need for further information. This does not contradict the idea that the books are anxious to be ‘complete’ : this desire is actually so strong that they anticipate their insufficiencies ; they are both an encapsulation of knowledge and an opening towards knowledge.

Geographical Handbooks in libraries

47The series’ history has been quite peculiar : stamped ‘restricted’ at its birth, it was ‘published’ in the real meaning of the word only ten years or so later, according to Freeman , when the books were released for general sale. This may have lowered the prestige of the books, and the fact that they were ‘de-restricted’ could have suggested that they were already obsolete. This must also have limited the extent of diffusion of the series : obviously, there was no extra printing after the initial phase of the war years, and the purpose of the release was to get rid of the volumes left over rather than to diffuse the knowledge collected.

48The fact that commercialisation took place on the surplus-goods mode certainly accounts for the difficulty of finding a complete set, but Darby’s report gives an indication (about Cambridge books - but probably true for those of Oxford as well) from which it follows that not all copies could be encountered in complete sets, anyway  : the number of copies was different from handbook to handbook, ranging from 1,750 (Corsica) to 4,125 (France), and being generally around 3,000. The Royal Geographical Society, in London, holds a complete set, but the assertion by Freeman that ‘complete sets are available in most (British) university libraries’ sounds a bit optimistic.

49And it is certainly even more difficult to find complete sets outside Great-Britain. A notable fraction of the series is found on the shelves of the Geography and Map Reading Room of the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C. ; in Paris, the Bibliothèque Nationale holds only two handbooks, and the Institut de Géographie of the Rue Saint-Jacques, only three.

50But sets can be complete or not, it is a fact that the series is incomplete from the start, by the simple fact it does not cover the whole world : a series treating all countries and territories of the world with consistency would probably have had more impact.

Presentations of the series in the published literature

51Presentations of the Geographical Handbook Series in published literature are rather scarce. (Appendice 6) lists the interventions I have found about the Geographical Handbooks, from mere allusions to more substantial presentations. If contributions in the Geographers Biobibliographical Studies (Mansell Publishing) often allude to the Geographical Handbooks as to something familiar that needs little or no comments, it is only in geography and history of geography literature that the series was substantially presented, its best accounts being found in :

  • the series’ preface (literally the first presentation of the books), 1941

  • the article, in the Geographical Review, on wartime geography in England by the American geographer Leonard S. Wilson, 1946

  • T.W. Freeman’s History of modern British geography, 1980

52Scarcity of presentation is even greater in non-geographical publications. A book about Naval Intelligence in World War II , published 10-15 years after the series’ release, has a chapter 13 on ‘Handbooks for invasion’, but does not even mention the Geographical Handbooks of N.I.D. 5 : he simply presents the sister organisation, N.I.D. 6, the Inter-Service-Topographical Department, which was based in Oxford and produced ‘topographical reports’ (a production close to the Geographical Handbooks but more ephemeral). And the same is true of the monumental history of British intelligence in the Second World War edited by Francis H. Hinsley and published from 1979 onward : no ‘Geographical Handbooks’ nor ‘Naval Intelligence Division 5’ appear in the end-of-volume-indexes, although they are otherwise very detailed (but, here again, ‘N.I.D.6’-‘I.S.T.D.’, though very lightly, does appear). The only publication dealing with WWII British intelligence where the existence of the series is acknowledged is a biography of John H. Godfrey (the Director of Naval Intelligence who signed the preface of the series) written by a veteran of the NID .

53Of the presentations given in the geographic annals, a tendency to be ‘inspired’ by preceding presentations is a striking characteristic, the extreme case being a presentation made up simply of excerpts from the original preface (with or without quotation marks).

54In his article about British geography in Twentieth Century , Crone repeats the last words alluding to the series in Darby’s inaugural lecture at Liverpool :

Table 8

55And in his late article about academic geography in Britain from 1918 to 1946 , Darby simply takes up a proposition put forward by Freeman three years before :

Table 9

56A fundamental fact that accounts for the scarcity of presentation of the series in publications is that it was initially ‘restricted’, so that commentaries or discussion were not possible in the British arena. The geographer’s craft is one work that evokes the series only en-passant, actually discussing something else, but it is most of all the first explicit reference made to it in Britain, previous ones not even stating its name : if Darby’s inaugural lecture at Liverpool alludes to them - or actually talks about them without acknowledging that he does - in a one-page-long passage, other immediate post-war interventions completely avoid the question.

57In her address, to the 1947 meeting of the Section E of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, E.G.R. Taylor puts it clearly :

"(...) nor can I speak in detail of the groups who compiled a library of geographical volumes to the specifications of the Admiralty (...)".

58And other immediate post-war interventions remain obstinately silent, however carefully one interprets them. An allusion to the Geographical Handbooks - or a covered discussion about them - could have been expected in L.D. Stamp’s inaugural lecture at the London School of Economics, in May, 1946 : though his intervention deals with ‘applied geography’, he does not make the slightest allusion to the war-time series, a silence made even more striking by the metaphor of ‘combined operations’ he uses in theconclusion, in a plea for team-work. And two other post-war interventions dealing with regional geography (a question affected by the series) yield no more results, whether it be K.C. Edwards’ inaugural lecture on ‘Land, area and region’, at the University of Nottingham, in February, 1950 , or the ‘Reflections on regional geography in teaching and research’ given as a presidential address to the Institute of British Geographers, in Cambridge, in 1951.

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British geographers in no way referring to the series, in the immediate post-war years :

S.W. Wooldridge, ‘Reflections on Regional Geography in Teaching and Research’ (Presidential Address to the Institute of British Geographers, Cambridge, 1950), Transactions and Papers (1950), Institute of British Geographers, 16, 1951, 1-11

K.C. Edwards, Land, Area and Region : Inaugural Lecture delivered at the University of Nottingham, 24th February 1950, The University of Nottingham, 1950

S.W. Wooldridge, ‘Geographical Science in Education’ (Address to the Royal Geographical Society and the Geographical Association, 1947), reproduced in The Geographer as Scientist. Essays on the Scope and Nature of Geography, Thomas Nelson & Sons, London, 1956, 26-37

L.D. Stamp, ‘Applied Geography’ (Inaugural Address at the London School of Economics, May 9, 1946), in L.D. Stamp & S.W. Wooldridge (eds.), London Essays in Geography. Rodwell Jones Memorial Volume, Longmans, London, 1951, 1-18

S.W. Wooldridge, ‘The Geographer as Scientist’ (Inaugural Lecture delivered at Birkbeck College, 1945), reproduced in The Geographer as Scientist. Essays on the Scope and Nature of Geography, Thomas Nelson & Sons, London, 1956, 7-25

Studies of World War II British intelligence that do not refer to the series

F.H. Hinsley (ed.), British Intelligence in the Second World War. Its Influence on Strategy and Operations, volumes I-II-IIIa-IIIb, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, 1979, 1981, 1984, 1988

D. McLachlan, Room 39. A Study in Naval Intelligence, Atheneum, New York, 1968

Geographers’ biographies alluding to the series as a matter of common sectoral knowledge :

W.A. Koelsch, ‘John Linton Myres 1869-1954’, Geographers Biobibliographical Studies, volume 16, Mansell, 1995, 53-62 (page 55)

S.H. Beaver, ‘Geography in the Joint School (London School of Economics and King’s College)’, in R.W. Steel (ed.), British Geography 1918-1945, Cambridge University Press, 1987, 76-89 (pages 80, 88)

D. Turnock, ‘Andrew Charles O’Dell 1909-1966’, Geographers Biobibliographical Studies, volume 11, 1987, 111-122 (pages 111, 112, 117, 120)

W.G.V. Balchin, ‘Sidney William Wooldridge 1900-1963’, Geographers Biobibliographical Studies, volume 8, Mansell, 1984, 141-149 (page 143)

R.J. Harrison Church, ‘Hilda Ormsby 1877-1973’, Geographers Biobibliographical Studies, volume 5, Mansell, 1981, 95-97 (page 96)

T.W. Freeman, ‘Percy Maude Roxby 1880-1947’, Geographers Biobibliographical Studies, volume 5, Mansell, 1981 (pages 113-114, 115)

References where the series is briefly discussed or presented (implicitly, before 1967 in Britain) :

A.S. Goudie, ‘Kenneth J. Mason 1887-1976’, Geographers Biobibliographical Studies, volume 18, 1998, Mansell, 67-72

M. Williams, ‘Henry Clifford Darby, 1909-1992’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 87, 1995, 289-306

T. Unwin, The Place of Geography, Longman, 1992

W.G.V. Balchin, ‘United Kingdom Geographers in the Second World War’, The Geographical Journal, 153-2, 1987, 159-180

H.C. Darby, ‘Academic Geography in Britain : 1918-1946’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, n.s. 8, 1983, 14-26

B.H. Farmer, ‘British Geographers Overseas 1933-1983’, , Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, n.s. 8, 1983, 70-79

P. Beesly, Very Special Admiral. The Life of Admiral J.H. Godfrey, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1980

T.W. Freeman, A History of Modern British Geography, Longman, London, 1980

C.B.M. Lock, Geography and Cartography. A Reference Handbook, Bingley, London, 1976

J.G. Brewer, The Literature of Geography. A Guide to its Organisation and Use, Bingley, London, 1973

R. Minshull, Regional Geography. Theory and Practice, Hutchinson, London, 1967

T.W. Freeman, The Geographer’s Craft, Manchester University Press, 1967

G.R. Crone, ‘British Geography in Twentieth Century’, The Geographical Journal, 130, 1964, 197-220

R.V. Harrison Church, ‘Les travaux des géographes britanniques depuis 1938’, Etudes Rhodaniennes, 25, 1950, 346-353

E.G.R. Taylor, ‘Geography in War and Peace’ (reproduced from The Advancement of Science, 4, 1947), The Geographical Journal, 38, 1948, 132-141

H.C. Darby, The Theory and Practice of Geography : An Inaugural Lecture Delivered at Liverpool on 7 February 1946, The University Press of Liverpool, 1946

L.S. Wilson, ‘Some Observations on Wartime Geography in England’, The Geographical Review, 36, 1946, 597-612

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Appendix 1 : a list of the volumes of the Geographical Handbook Series

Appendix 1 : a list of the volumes of the Geographical Handbook Series

Appendix 2 : Map with colour of volume bindings indicated

Appendix 3:

Preface printed at the beginning of each volume in the series

‘In 1915 a Geographical Section was formed in the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty to write Geographical Handbooks on various parts of the world. The purpose of these handbooks was to supply, by scientific research and skilled arrangement, material for the discussion of naval, military, and political problems, as distinct from the examination of the problems themselves. Many distinguished collaborators assisted in their production, and by the end of 1918 upwards of fifty volumes had been produced in Handbook and Manual form, as well as numerous short-term geographical reports. The demand for these books increased rapidly with each new issue, and they acquired a high reputation for accuracy and impartiality. They are now to be found in Service Establishments and Embassies throughout the world, and in the early years after the last war were much used by the League of Nations.

The old Handbooks have been extensively used in the present war, and experience has disclosed both their value and their limitations. On the one hand they have proved, beyond all question, how greatly the work of fighting services and of Government Departments is facilitated if countries of strategic or political importance are covered by handbooks which deal, in a convenient and easily digested form, with their geography, ethnology, administration, and resources. On the other hand, it has become apparent that something more is needed to meet present-day requirements. The old series does not cover many of the countries closely affected by the present war (e.g. Germany, France, Poland, Spain, Portugal, to name only a few) ; its books are somewhat uneven in quality, and they are inadequately equipped with maps, diagrams, and photographic illustrations.

The present series of Handbooks, while owing its inspiration largely to the former series, is in no sense an attempt to revise or reedit that series. It is an entirely new set of books, produced in the Naval Intelligence Division by trained geographers drawn largely from the Universities, and working at sub-centres established at Oxford and Cambridge, and is printed by the Oxford and Cambridge University Presses. The books follow, in general, a uniform scheme, though minor modifications will be found in particular cases ; and they are furnished with numerous maps and illustrations. At the present time books covering over thirty-five countries are in course of preparation, and this list will be substantially extended by the end of 1942.

The purpose of the books is primarily naval. They are designed first to provide, for the use of Commanding Officers, information in a comprehensive and convenient form about countries which they may be called upon to visit, not only in war but in peace-time  ; secondly, to maintain the high standard of education in the Navy and, by supplying officers with material for lectures to naval personnel ashore and afloat, to ensure for all ranks that visits to a new country shall be both interesting and profitable.

Their contents are, however, by no means confined to matters of purely naval interest. For many purposes (e.g. history, administration, resources, communications, etc.) countries must necessarily be treated as a whole, and no attempt is made to limit their treatment exclusively to coastal zones. It is hoped therefore that the Army, the Royal Air Force, and other Government Departments (many of whom have given great assistance in the production of the series) will find these Handbooks even more valuable than their predecessors proved to be both during and after the war of 1914-18.’

J.H. GODFREY Director of Naval Intelligence

Appendix 4 Comparative urves of volume issued by each centre

Appendix 4 Comparative urves of volume issued by each centre

Appendix 5 Map of states and territories treated by each centre

Appendix 5 Map of states and territories treated by each centre

Appendix 6


Professor Hugh Clout
Department of Geography
University College London

I have read Cyril Gosme's article on the Naval Intelligence Handbooks with enormous interest and I made copies for the handful of colleagues I know would be interested. As indicated before, I suspect that there are very few UK geographers who are familiar with the series. I would imagine that anyone under the age of 55 would have no knowledge of the books whatsoever. This is in part because 'regional geography' /'area studies' is no longer in fashion and is not taught widely in UK universities. By contrast, I suspect that some anthropologists and archaeologists, who need to know about the specific geographical circumstances of particular areas prior to undertaking fieldwork or excavations, may be familiar with them. For example, the complete ( ?) set which I can remember at University College London in the mid 1960s seems to have disappeared from our Library, with only a few isolated volumes on parts of the Middle East being accessible in the Archaeology Library. (Perhaps the complete set is in some distant store off-site, or was it transferred to the University of London Library which does have an almost complete set - minus Albania ?)

I am interested in the series for what it tells us about the history of the discipline of Geography in the UK in the 1940s. I am fascinated by the teams of researchers, what their interactions were, what their links to Oxford and Cambridge (ie. to Mason and to Darby) may have been, and how working for the Naval Intelligence Handbooks units may have advanced (or hampered ?) their careers. Once can trace contributions to the secret Naval Intelligence Handbooks in the further development of geographers through their later publications, either in the form of textbooks or research articles/ specialisms. The maps in the Cambridge series, I would judge to be rather more professional than those from Oxford. Dr. Darby set up a specialist cartographic unit at Cambridge Scott Polar Research Institute and ran a team of geographical researchers in the way that he would run the Departments of Geography at Liverpool (in the late 1940s) and at University College London (1949-65). The Naval Intelligence Handbooks research unit at Cambridge was an experiment for Darby in personnel management which was very successfully repeated in the two departments he headed...before returning to Cambridge in 1965. All this interests me greatly because Darby was my 'first professor' (and, in fact, the inspiration for me to become an historical geographer) and I have spent all my career at UCL. I am charged to investigate the department's history prior to events in 2003 to celebrate 100 years of continuous teaching of Geography at UCL. (There was a professor of geography at UCL for a few years in the 1830s, but then there was a gap of almost 70 years, although some geography was still taught by non-geographers).I believe that only a very few scholars who contributed to the Handbooks are alive : Professor Sir Raymond Firth (the most distinguished social anthropologist of the Pacific islands) and Professor Norman Pounds, the historical geographer. I have had conversations with both of them in recent months. Frankly, I suspect that all the other contributors have died...some time ago.

I fear that not many UK geographers will have the knowledge or experience to deal with the questions raised by Cyril Gosme. Nonetheless, his work is fascinating and important since it touches on a forgotten (secret ?) phase of professional geographical work in wartime which was of great significance in shaping the careers of a whole generation of UK geographers. This was because of personal expressions of trust, reliability and professionalism, rather than just because of the knowledge of particular parts of the world that individual geographers possessed. It is a matter of looking at the networks of personal contact and the personal influences, rather than focusing just on the words, the maps and the volumes themselves.

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Table des illustrations

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Titre Appendix 1 : a list of the volumes of the Geographical Handbook Series
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Titre Appendix 4 Comparative urves of volume issued by each centre
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Titre Appendix 5 Map of states and territories treated by each centre
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Référence électronique

Cyril Gosme, « The Naval Intelligence Geographical Handbook Series (Great-Britain, 1941-46): a description and a call for comments », Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Epistémologie, Histoire de la Géographie, Didactique, document 137, mis en ligne le 26 juin 2000, consulté le 01 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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