London (AFP) - Britain's royal family suffered a high-profile embarrassment Saturday after a newspaper published images showing Queen Elizabeth II giving a Nazi salute as a young child in the 1930s.
Buckingham Palace voiced disappointment after the front page of The Sun carried a black-and-white image of the queen, then aged around six, raising her right hand in the air as her mother, the late Queen Mother, does the same.
The headline on the story read: "Their Royal Heilnesses" -- a reference to the "Heil Hitler" greeting used in Nazi Germany.
An investigation into how The Sun got the footage has been launched and the palace could take legal action against the newspaper depending on its findings, a royal source speaking on condition of anonymity told AFP.
"It is disappointing that film shot eight decades ago and apparently from HM's (her majesty's) personal family archive has been obtained and exploited in this manner," a Buckingham Palace spokesman said in a statement.
While the queen would not have known the significance of the gesture at such a young age, the story will have made uncomfortable reading for the monarch, who is now 89.
Ten years ago, The Sun, a tabloid and Britain's top-selling paper, published a photograph of Prince Harry wearing a swastika armband to a friend's fancy dress party. The fifth in line to the throne later apologised.
- Home movie images -
The images showing the Nazi salute come from a 20-second home movie which The Sun reported was shot at the royal family's rural Balmoral estate in Scotland in 1933 or 1934 and has never been made public before.
The video shows the young future queen briefly raising her right hand in the air three times, as well as dancing around excitedly and playing with a corgi.
The group, which also included the queen's sister Princess Margaret, were apparently being encouraged by the queen's uncle, the future king Edward VIII.
The precise nature of Edward's links to the Nazis are still debated in Britain but some historians accuse him of being sympathetic to Adolf Hitler's regime.
He met Hitler in Germany in 1937 after having abdicated as king the previous year over his desire to marry US divorcee Wallis Simpson.
Many documents relating to the turbulent life of Edward, who died in 1972, are still locked away in secret royal archives.
The Sun's managing editor Stig Abell defended the decision to release the images, saying they were obtained "in a legitimate fashion" and that publication was "not a criticism of the queen or the queen mum".
"It is a historical document that really sheds some insight in to the behaviour of Edward VIII," he told BBC radio.
"I understand that they (the palace) don't like this coming out but I also feel, on a relatively purist basis, that the role of journalists and the media is to bring to light things that happened."
It is not clear how the newspaper obtained the images but Buckingham Palace is scrambling to find out.
"We're trying to ascertain where the footage came from," the royal source told AFP. "There are questions about copyright and there may be possible questions about criminality."
- 'Scale of evil unforeseeable' -
Historian Tim Stanley said that, while Hitler's anti-Semitism would have been clear when the footage was shot, it would have been impossible to foresee World War II and the Holocaust.
"No-one could have predicted the sheer scale of the evil," he told Sky News television.
Hitler became Germany's leader in 1933. By the end of World War II 12 years later, millions of people had been killed in concentration camps, many of them Jews.
The queen paid a state visit to Germany last month during which she visited Bergen-Belsen, her first visit to a former Nazi camp, where some 52,000 people died, including teenage Jewish diarist Anne Frank.
As an 18-year-old, the monarch trained as a reserve mechanic and military truck driver during World War II.
The affection in which many Britons still hold the Queen Mother, who died in 2002, is based on her and husband George VI's decision to stay in London during the war and visit bomb sites caused by German aerial attacks known as The Blitz.