Millwall’s end

He 111 over London

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 [075] -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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9 thoughts on “Millwall’s end

  1. Chris Going

    A pretty good precis of where we are at present, Brett. Just a few observations before I get on with the final draft for submission to History Today or Prologue.

    It may be possible to identify the man who took the image by name. Years after the war a contact was at a NATO gathering and the topic of this image came up and one of the people involved, a Bundeswehr type, mournfully observed that if he'd had a pound each time that image had been published, he'd have become a rich man. My informant thought that our erstwhile photographer had in later life become a teacher and emigrated to the USA. Amazingly the photograph records a name for the aircraft's observer/bomb aimer. It is not common. Will it jog my contacts memory?

    I have looked at several frames from sortie F923, taken at almost exactly the same time. One shows Millwall well. The focal length of this camera is a bit longer, and consequently the footprint of the image, while smaller, shows more detail. The N roof is there. When I get a good copy of the original print (that is Lfl. 2/F922/40/075), I suspect we shall see the roof is just visible there, too.

    One or two more things. You speculate about when this image first saw the light of day. I suspect early, and in something like Berlkiner Illustrierter, Signal, or Der Adler. The last was fortnightly. I've gone through the issue of September 17th 1940 but our Heinkel doesn't feature there. But the next Life Magazine after September 7th, carries a reconnaissance image from ObdL sortie GB1066 -taken just after the small scale image you reproduce, which is from the same sortie. This shows 8-9 Heinkels as tiny specks crossing London. One of them is certainly the KG 1 Heinkel in our famous photo. And another one of them is the aircraft which took that picture.

    I've not finished with September 7th yet. Not by a long chalk. There are a few more surprises to come.

    Best wishes for now

  2. Post author


    Sounds like you are getting close to answering all my questions! A first use in one of the German propaganda magazines seems quite likely, and it could easily have turned up in the US too in something like Life. Good luck with the article, it sounds like you've got enough material for a whole series!

    Alan and Erik:


  3. Ken Strayhorn

    I must say this is one of the reasons I love the internet - and I should compliment all involved for their gentlemanly conduct in this matter. I look forward to Mr Going's final report and "surprises."

  4. Chris Going

    Observations to be going on with. The Life Magazine which carried the GB 1066 photo dates to October 1940. I've tracked an issue down. The Heinkel does not seem to appear in any 1940 publication as yet. It does, however, crop up in a 1943 German book.

    Interestingly one of the wartime Heinkel prints I have seen has a frisket on the back, on which is typed a caption indicating it may have been slated for publication in March/April 1941. The caption is inaccurate in almost every particular. So beware secondary captions -but then we all know that, dont we?

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