Collections > Archives > Germany, the Jews and Israel > World War I > Through the Camera Lens, From the Bird’s-Eye View: Fritz Groll and the Pasha Squadron In Eretz Israel

Through the Camera Lens, From the Bird’s-Eye View: Fritz Groll and the Pasha Squadron In Eretz Israel

Gil Weissblei


One of the professional aerial photographs. Depicted: Yavneh 
In the summer of 1925, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem received an unusual gift from the Jewish community of Munich: a collection of more than 1,300 silver gelatin prints made from aerial photographs of Eretz Israel and the surrounding region. The precious photographs were affixed onto thick plates and placed in special wooden drawers specially ordered for this purpose from a master carpenter. Attorney Eliyahu Strauss, one of the leaders of the Jewish community in Munich, convinced his colleagues to finance printing the photographs and sending them to Jerusalem. The initiative to print the photographs from the original glass negatives was introduced by geographer and explorer Abraham Jacob Brauer, who came across them in the Bavarian War Archive in Munich and in the Archive of the Prussian Army in Potsdam.


The original index file of this beautiful photographic collection is still preserved in the reading room of the archives department, and thanks to the rigorous and exacting work of Brauer, who toiled to prepare it “over an entire winter,” as he reported, generations of geographers, scholars and historians have used it extensively and enriched our knowledge of Eretz Israel. Who, in fact, took these aerial photographs, and why?

Dome of the Rock in JerusalemEncounter with Bedouins, life in the camp

In June 1916, the cooperation between the Turkish and German armies in the area of the East reached one of its peaks. The pressure that General Kress von Kressenstein, German commander of the Eretz Israeli front, placed on various officials in his army, finally bore fruit, and the first German squadron arrived in Eretz Israel. The disintegrating Turkish army that was gradually collapsing before the British army, was desparate for German assistance. The use of airplanes, a relatively new mode of transportation in this war, was truly revolutionary and aroused hope in the heart of von Kressenstein that the situation would change. The commanders of the German Army were wise to develop their use of this tool, which was still unsafe and problematic on many counts, and to turn it into a functional instrument of war. Commanding the fresh squadron, which arrived to Eretz Israel directly from Germany, was Hellmuth Felmy, who continued his military career until WWII, and ultimately was indicted as a war criminal in the Nuremberg Trials. Serving beneath him as squadron commander was an officer older than him, who was in charge of a new unit in the German Army: the Aerial Photography Unit. Fritz Groll, an experienced army man approximately forty years old, was the person into whose hands the mission was entrusted: for the first time in history, to document Eretz Israel from the air for military purposes.



Supreme Turkish Commander Jemal Pasha, and General Kress von Kressenstein next to the German airplanes in Beersheva; mosque in Beersheva

Groll, like the fellow members of his squadron, related to the entire journey to the east in a somewhat adventurous manner. The white colonial uniform, which he and the other pilots purchased privately in Germany, prior to setting out, lent the journey a tone that was more touristic than military. This sense increases when one peruses Groll’s private photographic album, which looks more like the souvenir album of a pilgrim or tourist who arrived by air transport to Eretz Israel than of a military officer who stayed here during one of the largest-scale wars ever known to the area. The photographer-fighter-pilot lingered with his camera mainly at well known and holy sites from the Bible and the New Testament, and filled the album’s pages with emotion-filled descriptions scrawled around the photographs of the Temple Mount, the Mount of Olives, and other sites in Jerusalem and its environs.


Groll’s private album is therefore a rare testimony to the spirit of one of the pioneers of aerial photography, and characterizes, to a great extent, the spirit of the European fighters who came to the Holy Land during that war. This rare album was donated to the National Library in 1992 by Ms. Ruth Schell of London, by way of Prof. Benjamin Zeev Kedar, who researched Groll’s photographs. The abundance of rare photographs in this album, from the air and the ground, provides us with a rare glimpse into scenes from Eretz Israel during the last days of the Ottoman Empire’s rule, a moment before the dawning of a new period.

Aerial photograph of Jaffa and photograph of a locality near the Sea of GalileeThe Sea of Galilee and Tiberias