06 June 2014

Capa and D-Day

"You are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you...I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle."—General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Seventy years ago today, on June 6, 1944, nearly 160,000 American, British, and Canadian troops landed in Normandy, France in what remains the largest seaborne invasion in history. The Allies suffered almost 10,000 casualties that day but the event was a crucial turning point in the war and helped lead the Allies to victory. Only four photographers were chosen to cover the start of the invasion: George Rodger, Bert Brandt, Bob Landry, and Robert Capa.

"US troops assault Omaha Beach during the D-Day landings" Robert Capa (June 6, 1944)Capa, the daring war photographer who had made a name for himself during the Spanish Civil War, had already seen action in North Africa and Italy. Assigned to the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry, he chose to land with Company E of the 2nd Battalion as part of the second assault wave on the “Easy Red” section of Omaha Beach. Armed with two Contax II cameras and a handful of film, Capa would find himself in the thick of things.
In his World War II memoir, Slightly Out of Focus, Capa described the scene as he approached the beach: “The bullets tore holes in the water around me, and I made for the nearest steel obstacle. A soldier got there at the same time, and for a few minutes we shared its cover. He took the waterproofing off his rifle and began to shoot without much aiming at the smoke-hidden beach. The sound of his rifle gave him enough courage to move forward, and he left the obstacle to me. It was a foot larger now, and I felt safe enough to take pictures of the other guys hiding just like I was."

Capa continued to advance and shoot, later recalling that he kept repeating a phrase he had learned in Spain, “Es una cosa muy seria” (“This is a very serious business”). In 90 minutes, he managed to take 106 images before turning back and jumping on a landing craft, which took him to one of the ships where he helped unload the injured before collapsing below deck.

Arriving in Portsmouth, he handed his film off to a courier for delivery to the Life Magazine offices in London where picture editor John Morris eagerly awaited its arrival. Enclosed with the film was a note that said, "John, all the action is in the four rolls of 35 mm."

In order to make the next issue, the film had to be developed that night and sent to New York the next morning; the whole office was on edge. “I felt…that the whole world was waiting on these pictures," remembers Morris. "‘Rush, rush, rush,’ I told the darkroom.”

Unfortunately, rush they did. Later that evening, a hysterical lab technician ran into Morris’ office shouting, “Capa’s films are ruined; they’re all ruined.” In a hurry, he had placed the film in the drying closet, turned up the heat, and closed the door; the result was the emulsion on the film melted. Just 11 images remained, slightly blurred, lending them an almost ghost-like appearance.

"Robert Capa in Portsmouth, England" David Scherman/Time & Life Pictures (June 6, 1944)

Morris got the surviving images to New York in time and Life Magazine printed eight of them in their June 19, 1944 issue in an article entitled “BEACHHEADS OF NORMANDY: The Fateful Battle for Europe is Joined by Sea and Air.” In the article it was unfairly noted that "Immense excitement of moment made Photographer Capa move his camera and blur the picture." Yet the editors were thrilled and sent a cable that read, “TODAY WAS ONE OF THE GREAT PICTURE DAYS IN LIFE’S OFFICE, WHEN BOB CAPA’S BEACH LANDING AND OTHER SHOTS ARRIVED.” 

Dubbed the "Magnificent 11," these were the first photos that the American public saw of the D-Day Invasion, and they become some of the most iconic war images of the 20th century. Capa would go on to cover the rest of the war including jumping into Germany with the 17th Airborne Division and witnessing the liberation of Paris but nothing would compare to that day on the beach on Normandy.

To see more of Robert Capa's images of the Normandy invasion, visit here.

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