Flash, bang, wallop – high point for war pictures
The pictures, taken during secret reconnaissance flights by pilots in unarmed planes, show details such as prisoners in the yard at Colditz, vehicles leaving landing craft on D-Day and craters left in the ground from bombing raids on a German weapons testing site.
During the Second World War, highly skilled photographic interpreters studied the pictures using 3D equipment to provide crucial intelligence.
Until now, the images, which were declassified by the Ministry of Defence and include photos taken by Allied aircraft and the Luftwaffe, have been kept under wraps.
The Aerial Reconnaissance Archives (Tara) contain more than 10 million declassified photographs, including pictures taken by the RAF up to the 1990s, many of which were originally analysed by MI4 intelligence teams based at the Allied Central Interpretation Unit at RAF Medmenham in Buckinghamshire during the Second World War.
They were stored for more than 50 years at Keele University before Tara was moved to Edinburgh last year to join the National Collection of Aerial Photography (NCAP) – part of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.
About 4,000 images from the archive will go online initially, with more to be added.
Taken both before, during and after battles and bombing raids, the photos feature key places and moments of significance including Dunkirk as well as cityscapes of Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris and Rome.
As well as key strategic sites, such as the Nazi V-weapon design and testing base at Peenemunde, depicted in a September 1944 photo, the images convey some of the human suffering experienced amid the fighting.
A photo of a slave labour camp near Mainz in Germany taken on 2 June, 1945 is one of only a handful of images that remain of the factory site because it was dismantled quickly after the war.
Prisoners can be seen in the courtyard in a photo of Colditz taken by an RAF reconnaissance mission on 10 April, 1945, just days before US forces took over.
Allan Williams, manager of the collection, said: "The archive literally shows the world at war."
The archive can be viewed at aerial.rcahms.gov.uk
• Colditz Castle in Saxony. Prisoners can be seen in the yard
• Bridges over the River Mae Klong (later renamed Kwa Yai in 1960) and Tamarkan POW camp – the basis for the classic book and later film The Bridge on the River Kwai
• Operation Market Garden – the largest airborne operation ever