A very long time ago, I wrote a post about the claim that this (here, in cropped form) truly iconic image of the Blitz was a German propaganda fake. The claim was made by Gazza, a Millwall FC fan who maintains a website about the history of the club; and the basis for his claim was that the former Millwall home ground, the Old Den, is apparently missing the roof built over its northern terrace in 1938. Since the photograph was purportedly taken by the Luftwaffe in 1940, it must therefore be a fake. After looking at it and thinking about it far too much, I went back and forth on the issue several times while writing the post, and several more times during the ensuing discussion in the comments; ultimately, I tentatively agreed with Gazza that it was indeed a fake. But since there's only so much that can be told from the image itself, the only way I could see to resolve the question would be for somebody to go into the archives and look at its context and provenance.
And now somebody has (no thanks to me, I should add) and more. Chris Going is the managing director of GeoInformation Historic, which has assembled a database of RAF, USAAF and Luftwaffe aerial photographs taken over Britain from the late 1930s to 1952. There are all sorts of potential commercial and government uses for such a database, but for present purposes what it means is that he's clearly very well placed to investigate this problem. Here's the key comment from Chris which lays out what he has found (I've updated the image number per his followup comment):
The real breakthrough was being able to look at the back of a wartime German copy of the Heinkel photo (not the NARA image or the IWM copy image) and get the print number, film identification, and date off it. This and a fortuituous camera fault (the shutter jam on the right hand side of the image) tied it into a sequence of about twelve other images in a private collection which I had long suspected, but could not prove, came from the same sequence. Needless to say the all important frame  -our Heinkel- was lacking.
So the context as preserved in the IWM and NARA (where the IWM got its copy from) was lacking, as the one with the Heinkel in it was the only one of the sequence snapped by the German aircraft to be accessioned. But Chris has found a wartime German copy; its annotations (and a camera fault) tie it to a sequence of other images which were known to have been taken on 7 September 1940. So the context is restored.
For me that pretty much settles it. It's probably still possible to believe that's its dodgy: a conspiracy theorist might ask why the sequence just happens to be missing this particular photo. But really, who would go to such lengths, and why? A composite for propaganda purposes I can believe, but that's not some deep dark secret that Goebbels et al would care about covering up.
There are still some questions to be answered. Why doesn't the Old Den terrace cover show up? A trick of the light or the angle, maybe? More interesting (to me), perhaps, is when and how did the photograph become so iconic? When did it start being used? After the war, during? Was it the random choice of some Allied officer at the end of the war, or was there some other reason why it make its way into NARA and the IWM, and from there into so many books and websites?
I await Chris's promised article with interest, to see how he dots the is and crosses the ts, but I think we're done here!
Image source: The Atlantic.
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