In photography, timing is all – and there is no better example of the dictum than this gem of a snapshot capturing a surprising moment from ordinary London life during the Second World War.
The image shows two airmen in Luftwaffe uniform walking through the Underground. One is a corporal, the other an Oberleutnant (the highest-ranking type of lieutenant), and together they stroll with studied nonchalance, relaxed, with hands in pockets.
The men are young, broad-shouldered, good-looking, and well-groomed – and, for all they seem to care, they could be off to the pictures for a night out. Is it possible that the second of the two is even forming his lips into a carefree whistle?
They are escorted not in handcuffs, nor with any evident high security, but by a file-toting military-secretarial type whose demeanour hardly seems tense or intimidated.
Of course, what makes the photograph extraordinary, and almost comical, is the astonished reaction of the onlookers in the background.
An older gentleman in a three-piece suit and hat appears to have just turned around, and, registering what he sees, stares in open-mouthed astonishment, as if to say, ‘What’s this? Germans? On the Tube?’ A second onlooker can just be glimpsed, his eloquent, widened eye peering over the shoulder of the first man.
Pilots and aircrew may have been the first German prisoners on British soil during WWII, shot down or bailed out during bombing raids. But it is unclear how common a practice it was to transport PoWs through London’s public transport system. It certainly seems astonishing to modern sensibilities.
There appears to have been a strong bond of chivalry between RAF and Luftwaffe pilots. Perhaps by treating these highly skilled warriors as gentlemen, their captors expressed the hope that they would be treated in a similar manner should they themselves be caught.
By Maria Earle
This article was published in issue 71 of Military History Monthly.