Note: the photograph turned out to be real after all. See here.
In a comment to an earlier post, Alan pointed out that it has been claimed that the photo I used was a propaganda fake. As I have previously discussed the subject of fake combat photos, I was appropriately mortified at the thought of having been taken in myself! So let's have a closer look at it ...
Here it is again:
It's an extremely well-known image. In fact, it seems that it requires a certain strength of will for editors to not use it: both histories of the Battle of Britain I have to hand feature it, as does one about the Blitz.1 If I flipped through all my other books, I'm sure I could find a few more.
It's easy to see why it's so popular. It's a very striking composition, with the black shape of the bomber menacing the defenceless streets below. Maybe the fact that it is so striking is a reason to be suspicious? After all, a propaganda image is chosen (or manufactured) for the impact it will have on the viewer. And the ground is very clear, isn't it -- so shouldn't the Heinkel be more out of focus? Maybe, but that would depend on its height as well as that of the aircraft taking the picture, as well as the details of the camera used. The shadows might be another clue. The photo was supposedly taken in the evening (1848 hours, German time, to be precise), so the shadows should be long and away from the Sun in the west (up is north, here). They are for the Heinkel (taking into account the upward sweep of its wings), but it's hard to make out any shadows on the ground. Maybe the structures are very flat -- London was not a very high-rise city -- but I do find that a bit suspicious. This blown-up version from the site making the charge doesn't seem to show any either. (Click for the full-size version.)
What does that site actually claim? It's about the history of Millwall Football Club, of all things. But the evidence presented by Gazza is potentially persuasive. The connection to Millwall FC is that their former home ground, the Den, is visible in the photo, and that there is no cover over the north terrace. As this cover was built in 1938, the conclusion is that such a picture could not possibly have been taken on 7 September 1940, as claimed. (Incidentally, 66 years ago yesterday.) This sounds like a good use of local knowledge ... but is it true?
The red circle marks the location of the old Den. I've blown this area up by 700% -- it's highly pixellated, but bear with me.
And here's another aerial shot of the Den, this time taken in 1962. (Taken from here and rotated and cropped -- hence the white areas in the corners -- so as to roughly match the previous image.)
Now, pixellated as the first image is, you can clearly see the roofs over the south, east and west terraces, but not one over the north terrace. Comparing this with the 1962 image, the north terrace one ought to be visible too. So, it
is looking like the photo is a fake. Gazza may be right!
However, a couple of questions remain. Why would the Germans go to the effort of faking this picture? After all, they had plenty of bombers flying over London, with bombardiers peering downwards and occasionally even journalists with cameras. Such photographs would have been taken after raids to determine the extent of the damage inflicted -- whether they were taken during raids, I'm not sure. There's nothing inherently implausible in the idea of such a picture being taken, though (unlike the First World War dogfight ones). Was it to avoid giving away details of the capabilities of the German photoreconnaissance cameras? I seem to recall a Biggles story revolving around the capture of a fancy new German camera, but I don't know if anyone cared about this in the Second World War.
The other question concerns provenance. I don't know where this picture first appeared. It's normally taken from the Imperial War Museum's collections (C 5422), but presumably they got it from a German source (unless it's a British fake!) The IWM clearly doesn't think it's a fake, judging from their description:
A Heinkel He III [sic] bomber flying over Wapping and the Isle of Dogs in the East End of London at at the start of the Luftwaffe's evening raids of 7 September.
But it doesn't actually say where the IWM got it from, so I still don't know if it was actually used as for propaganda purposes.
The only clue I have as to a German source comes from Winston G. Ramsey, The Blitz Then and Now, Volume 2 (London: Battle of Britain Prints International, 1988). This is an extremely thorough, day by day chronicle of the Blitz. The Heinkel photograph is on page 56, and the caption clearly states that this version comes from Bundesarchiv in Germany, not the IWM, though it doesn't specify the precise source. It's a bit unclear, but the caption also seems to suggest that a set of photographs on page 50 -- this time sourced from the US National Archives -- were taken by the same He 111 that is in this photo. There's even one taken at about the same time! And here it is:
It obviously covers a much wider area than the other photograph. The huge plumes of smoke rising from the Royal Docks dominate the view; dramatic evidence of the beginning of the Blitz. But speaking of smoke ... I've cropped and expanded this new picture to roughly match the original one.
The feature circled looks like a plume of smoke. And there's something very similar in the first picture, in about the same place; here's a zoom of it:
So -- if the smoke appears in both images, does that mean its genuine after all? I think so, though there is a chance that there was a factory or something there which was always pumping out smoke. The colour or shading of the smoke seems to change, but smoke can do that. The clincher for me is the two white dots on the Thames (inside the ellipse). I think these are the boats that can be seen in nearly the same place in the original photo.
I've changed my mind about 5 times in the course of writing this post. My tentative conclusion at the moment is that the photo in question is genuine, but I admit the missing north terrace roof at the Den is troubling.
What a long, strange trip it's been. Well, a long one, anyway.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://airminded.org/copyright/.
I certainly lack that strength -- I originally put the post up without a picture, then quickly decided it needed one after all, and as I was in a hurry I immediately thought of 'that one with the Heinkel flying over London'! ↩