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Extensive secret Cold War mapping programme revealed

Published: 
28 August 2009

An extensive secret programme of Cold War mapping can be viewed by people in the UK, thanks to the work of cartographers at the University of Southampton.

The existence of the maps reveals that, during the Cold War, thousands of Soviet cartographers were involved in compiling sensitive data about dozens of towns and cities around the world.

Major transport hubs, naval bases and sites of other strategic importance were included on the maps, which would have given a major logistics advantage to any potential Soviet military ground offensive at the time.

Now people around the UK will be able to access high resolution copies of these extraordinary maps.

Originally discovered in an abandoned map depot in Latvia, the maps had been obtained by a local map dealer after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the retreat of the Soviet forces.

They were acquired a few years ago by Dr Alex Kent, Head of the University of Southampton’s Cartographic Unit, during his PhD research.


“There was a fundamental effort by the Soviet Union to map these cities,” says Dr Kent.

“The amount of detail is unique and would have required a massive operation. Although there was already awareness of the Soviets producing smaller scale maps, these new finds, which showed cities at 1:25,000 and 1:10,000, are astonishingly detailed.

“The project must have involved thousands of cartographers to compile the maps from satellite data and native maps; and the cartographers would have to have been working in conjunction with agents on the ground, to determine the use of buildings, construction materials and projected transport routes.

“Strategically important buildings have been identified and classified according to whether they were government and communications, military or military-industrial.

“The maps also include a concise description of the surrounding terrain, pattern of urban settlements, industrial and transport objects, public utilities, communication and healthcare facilities,” he says.

Among the UK cities recorded are London, Southampton, Birmingham, Dover, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Swansea.

Amsterdam, Hamburg, Le Havre, Montreal and Warsaw are some of the other places mapped around the world.

“This operation was a lot bigger than people could ever have realised,” continues Dr Kent. “It was a comprehensive mapping programme that started in the early 1950s and carried on until at least the 1990s.

“I must admit there is something quite chilling in seeing maps of familiar UK cities with buildings shown as potential targets and labelled using Cyrillic letters,” he adds.



The University of Southampton is one of just a few places around the world where people can buy copies of these maps.

To find out more about the maps or to purchase copies go to www.southampton.ac.uk/cartography/sovietmaps.

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