Pic: IWM CH10593
[Note: There’s nothing in this post about the Dams Raid or 617 Squadron.]
This picture has long been in the Imperial War Museum’s collection. It shows, according to its official caption and listing on the IWM website, a “Low-level ‘beat-up’: A Halifax II, JB911/KN-X of No 77 Squadron roars low over an audience of appreciative ‘erks’ during air tests at Elvington, Yorkshire, July 1943.” The listing goes on to record the name of the photographer, Plt Off N S Clark, and the fact that the Museum has the image on glass (presumably the original negative glass plate).
However, the recent publication of a slightly cropped version of the shot on a post on the Bomber Command History Forum’s Facebook page led some to question its authenticity. The page itself, and the Forum which spawned it, are administered by people who certainly know their stuff (my friends Dom Howard and Ian Collis among them) but unfortunately that can’t always be said of some of the readers who added comments.
So, within a few minutes of the photograph appearing, one person (who from now on I will call Mr A) wrote:
I hope no one thinks thats an actual photograph and not a montage. The writer of the caption obviosly does. If a Halifax pilot did fly that close to the ground and a parked aircraft, he would have been hauled before a courts marshal quicker than you can say bombs away, also, notice that a Halifax has almost taken their heads off, yet not a single one of those men is looking up at it or ducking. Hmm.
[All quoted posts have the spelling and punctuation as in original.]
Several people jumped in to point out his error, including one who sent a link to the image as it appears on the IWM’s own website. But this didn’t completely satisfy Mr A, who then posted:
Ok, the way the original is presented and cropped, and the men, raised suspicions. Looking at the other photos, and the not so tightly cropped/clearer IWM version, a picture emerges, the photo appears to be carefully stagemanaged. The men are not looking up but looking directly infront at a camera set up to the left, and posing to the camera as the Halifax zooms overhead. Under ‘normal’ circumstances that pilot would not be able to do that, and those men would be looking up and ducking.
Then in popped another sceptic, who I will call Mr B:
… the main aspect which points to it being a fake , for me anyway is that both aircraft are sharp images . One of them would be blurred depending on the technique used by the photographer.Still a nice image though .
Shortly afterwards, Mr B went on:
And I will say its highly unlikely that its a real undoctored photograph , based on my knowledge of photography .
A few more comments ensued, one of which noted that there were other pictures in the IWM collection taken on the same day by the same photographer (you can see one here)
and then Mr A arrived back on the scene:
Maybe you should do some homework before insinuating that others have not. If you bothered looking you would notice above that I say they appear to be looking towards another camera to the left of the photo, not much different from you say is another aircraft. As you have the advantage of knowledge of other photos in this series, why not show them to us instead of making further unflattering comments.
It was pointed out to him that other researchers had indeed done their homework and that the images in question were available to anyone in a simple Google search, but this was not enough. Mr A then appeared to complain that the pilots and crews involved must have been acting without authority, in which case:
Yes, under ‘normal’ circumstances unauthorised low flying pilots were hauled before courts marshal and i have courts marshal papers proving this. Even you should know this. Kings Regulations and Air Council Regulations paragraph 717, clause 7. This discussion is finished as far as I’m concerned.
With that Mr A appeared to have picked up his bat and left. However, Mr B was still around:
dont tell me that every caption on a wartime photograph is right . I am simply using my opinion to point out there are flaws or inconsistencies in what is displayed . Theres no doubt in my mind that they are Merlin engines and the equal sharpness of both aircraft point out to me that there is a high likelihood of a fake. You still didnt explain the technique you referred to Iain .I would like to hear it it just may change my mind .
Despite being informed again about the provenance of the photographs, Mr B then put up another post:
… There are lots of official war photographs that arent as they are described. There are things on the photograph that my 46yrs in the field of RAF historian , collector of Aviation memorabilia and honorary member of the Air Gunners association tell me are quite glaringly wrong . None detract from the photograph which certainly is an eye catcher. Neither you or anyone else for that matter will change my mind on how I view this photograph , that is my right to my opinion like every other person in the world . If youre still bothered ask a professional photographer and dont forget to mention that the flying aircraft will be doing somewhere in the region of 200MPH . And again if you are that bothered get hold of a model of both types of engined aircraft and view them from the flying angle as on the photograph On the radial engined aircraft there is some sort of a cooler which hangs down quite noticeably below the engine nacelle and I believe the large long porcupine exhaust would also be visible on the port outer engine . I am also a photographer of over 50 yrs experience which makes me say without any doubt that the photograph is a fake . As I say its only my opinion which means nothing to anyone else , well almost anyone else . Lets just agree to disagree. Cheers
Having decided earlier that the discussion was over, Mr A then turned up again. To be fair to him, he appeared to have changed his mind, but he now wanted everyone to go home:
I expressed an opinion initially on what appears to be an ‘unorthodox’ image, and amended that opinion when a wider angle and clearer shot was provided. Since then this discussion seems to have been affected by too much cross-wind, and drifted into a heavy flak zone. Words like, daft, sad, drivel, have crept in between members, and maybe its time to bring this discussion in to land.
But Mr B would not be dissuaded. Even though he still thought that the aircraft would have been flying too fast to be in focus, he concluded by saying he wanted the subject dropped. However he had just spotted something said by another commenter:
So youre telling me that there is a ” whole ” sequence of this particular fly past in the IWM . Can any member of the public view them .
To which the reply was:
For a historian/researcher of 46 years, you’re not that clued up are you? Its the IWM collection. Of course you can.
Mr B then made a final concession:
This photograph is more believable than the previous one , to me anyway . The flying aircraft is further away theres a shadow on the ground . Although I still find it hard to believe that the cameras of the day were capable of shutter speeds that can freeze an object travelling at , I assume 160 mph past a stationary object and capture both without any apparent blurring in either of them. That was my only concern regarding the previous photograph , well that and where all the guys were looking. The other thing was correctly identifying the aircraft as a merlin engined Mk 11 and being shot down by Jim. Of course If what I am being told by, it appears all and sundry for stating my opinion then I suppose I will have to change my stance in future when taking part in these forums .
I’ve quoted extensively from this sequence (as of today, 59 posts and counting) because I think it says something about using reliable sources in our discussions, whether online or not. The Imperial War Museum has an enviable collection of photographs, artifacts, manuscripts and other resources, some of which are available for all to browse through free of charge. There may be a few inaccuracies in the descriptions and captions but they have been compiled by professional curators, archivists and historians and so can be regarded as “reliable sources”.
In an era when the most powerful man in the world throws out accusations of fake news like confetti and commercial news sources often seem infected with clickbait pop ups (The price for xxxx may astound you! Remember yyyy? You won’t believe what she looks like now!) it’s important to support public institutions like our museums. By all means, let’s call out fake photography when it does occur, but let’s also salute the skills of Plt Off Clark and his colleagues who have left us with a wonderful legacy.