Queen Elizabeth
Queen ElizabethReuters

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 Suncarried 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.

"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 spokesman for Buckingham Palace said in a statement.

While a royal source insisted that 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, it was also The Sun, a tabloid and Britain's top-selling newspaper, which 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 apologized.

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 tabloid's decision to release the images, saying the footage was obtained by the newspaper "in a legitimate fashion" and that its 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"It is a historical document that really sheds some insight in to the behaviour of Edward VIII," he told BBC radio.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.

'Too young to understand'

A royal source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the queen would have been "entirely innocent of attaching any meaning to these gestures" at such a young age.

"The queen and her family's service and dedication to the welfare of this nation during the war (World War II) and the 63 years the queen has spent building relations between nations and peoples speaks for itself."

The source also claimed that "no one at that time had any sense how it (the situation in Germany) would evolve".

Historian Tim Stanley said that, while Hitler's anti-Semitism would have been clear in 1933, 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 Newstelevision.

Hitler became German 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 queen 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 King George VI's decision to stay in London during the war and visit bomb sites caused by German aerial attacks known as The Blitz.

AFP contributed to this report.