Does a Photo Show British Soldiers in Drag Fighting Nazis?

The photograph and others like it were initially censored by the British government.

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Person, Human, Clothing
Image via Oliver Harris Twitter screenshot

Claim

A historical photograph shows British troops in drag pointing a naval gun at incoming Nazi planes.

Origin

In mid-June 2021, social media users shared a picture of men operating a large naval gun, along with the cheeky caption, “‘we interrupted our drag show to shoot at Nazis'”:

The picture above is real, and it does show British troops during World War II dressed in drag manning a naval gun during a German air raid. The only aspect of the photograph that isn’t authentic is the color, which was added after the fact.

The picture was taken by photographer John Topham in 1940. The original version is in black and white. The caption on the original, which is owned by the company that Topham founded (TopFoto), reads, “Home defence troops are left in drag as their Christmas charity performance was interrupted by a coastal alert near Gravesend 1940.”

The British newspaper The Telegraph reported in 2018 that the picture and others like it were censored by the British Ministry of Information, out of fear they could be used as propaganda against the Allies by Nazi Germany. They were unearthed in 2018, almost 80 years after they were originally taken, finally available for the public to view.

The Telegraph reported that the pictures depicted British soldiers who were caught during a rehearsal for one of the shows they staged to keep themselves entertained during wartime. The troops depicted served in the Royal Artillery Coastal Defence Battery; the base was Shornemead Fort, which was in Kent, England.

Here’s how the picture came about, per The Telegraph:

But during his [Topham’s] visit [to the base] the troops were scrambled to deal with the approach of Luftwaffe bombers flying across the Channel to mount raids over southern England.

‘With no time to change back into their uniforms the men went to their battle stations still dressed head to toe in women’s clothing, followed by Topham.

Topham also shot one of the more famous photographs from World War II, namely a picture of British children sheltering in a ditch while watching an aerial dogfight between British and German war planes.