Do these photos, taken early in the Battle of Britain, show a British mystery weapon? (I could just say "no", but that wouldn't be very interesting, would it.)
The above photo appeared on the front page of an American newspaper, the St Petersburg Evening Independent, on 14 August 1940. The caption reads:
This picture taken Aug. 11 shows, according to British censor-approved caption, a German raider plane "caught amidst an anti-aircraft barrage of bursting shells" -- somewhere over the British coast. The balloon-shaped object in lower left-hand corner was not identified, but London caption emphasized it was not a balloon. Whether it was a "mystery weapon" of any nature could not be ascertained. Picture was sent from London by cable as swarms of German raiders continued to batter the British coast.
The same photo, rotated 180 degrees and cropped somewhat differently, appeared on the front page of the Spokane Daily Chronicle the previous day:
Whether this unretouched picture, taken Sunday and sent from London by cable today, depicts a British "mystery weapon" could not be ascertained. A German raider plane is shown, according to the British censor-approved caption, "caught amidst an anti-aircraft barrage of bursting shells," somewhere over the British coast. The balloon-shaped object in the lower left-hand corner was not identified, but the London caption emphasized that it was not a balloon. (AP)
Because both captions refer to the lower-left corner, but the photos are rotated, it's not clear whether the mystery object is supposed to be the vaguely blimp-shaped cloudlike object in the top photo, or the black cigar-shape seen in both. I'm not sure what either object actually is -- the blimp-shaped thing doesn't actually look like British barrage balloons of the period, which had three fins; and it would have to be in the process of deflating too. But it could be cloudlike because it is a cloud, or maybe a burst of AA (although it looks very different to the other shellburst). The cigar shape could conceivably be a fighter edge-on, but who knows.
I had a look for the same photograph in British national dailies, and found it in just one, the Daily Mirror of 12 August 1940 (again on the front page). It's cropped differently again, and is at right angles to both the other versions.
It doesn't give any more detail than the other two versions (although it does show a much larger area). And the caption only confuses matters, because it doesn't mention any mystery weapon at all:
Caught in the middle of our anti-aircraft barrage -- which German airmen have said "is Hell" -- the German plane in the above picture was trying vainly to escape when the camera caught it. You can see the shells bursting around it.
Because the scale is much larger, and because the contrast is very low, I've circled the Me 109 (blue) and the blimp-like thing (red) -- the cigar-shape doesn't really show up at all here:
The actual identity of the objects aside, what was going on here? Why did the American papers speculate about a possible British mystery weapon, and the British one didn't? The proximate cause presumably lies with the captions attached to the photos. The American papers got their copy of the photo from the Associated Press (AP); presumably the Daily Mirror got it from a British bureau or from the Ministry of Information or Air Ministry. The captions are said to be approved by the British censor (presumably meaning the MoI) but that seems to imply that AP actually wrote the captions. Maybe whoever that was had been given some information suggesting that there was a secret air defence weapon in this photo, or maybe they wanted to boost Britain's chances to the folks back home (the American correspondents in London in 1940, generally speaking, wanted Britain to win and wanted the United States to help it). But either way, no British papers picked up on the secret weapon angle, or were perhaps not permitted to by the censor.
Thanks to Drew Williamson for finding the American items.
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