Robert Capa's Famous D Day pictures are some of the most powerful battlefield images ever captures. David Clark tells the story behind them

Image: France Normandy Omaha Beach, the first wave of American troops land at dawn. June 6th 1944 © Magnum Photos

In the early hours of 6 June 1944, Robert Capa boarded a landing craft with members of the US Infantry. It was the first day of Operation Overlord, also known as D-Day, and more than 160,000 Allied troops were about to invade occupied France. This was to be the largest amphibious invasion in military history.

Capa, a charismatic 30-year-old Hungarian, was an experienced and respected photojournalist. He had previously been on assignment during both the Spanish Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War, and had photographed the war in Italy in 1943. Now he faced one of the most dangerous assignments of his career: photographing on the front line as the Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy.

Capa was covering the war for Life magazine and had chosen to land with the first wave of troops. After leaving England on a troop ship, he transferred to a landing craft ten miles from the French coast. He was carrying two Contax II 35mm cameras, both fitted with 50mm lenses, and several rolls of film.

As the craft neared the beach codenamed Omaha, the front of the boat was lowered and Capa got his first view of the shore. He had happy memories of the times he had previously spent socialising in France, but this day was very different.

‘My beautiful France looked sordid and uninviting, and a German machine gun, spitting bullets around the barge, fully spoiled my return,’ Capa vividly wrote in his 1947 memoir Slightly out of Focus. ‘The men from my barge waded in the water. Waist-deep, with rifles ready to shoot, with the invasion obstacles and the smoking beach in the background – this was good enough for the photographer.

‘I paused a moment on the gangplank to take my first real picture of the invasion. The boatswain, who was in an understandable hurry to get the hell out of there, mistook my picture-taking attitude for explicable hesitation, and helped me make up my mind with a well-aimed kick in the rear. The water was cold, and the beach still more than 100 yards away. The bullets tore holes in the water around me, and I made for the nearest steel obstacle.’

Of all the assignments Capa had carried out, this was the most terrifying. He had landed on a particularly heavily defended part of the coast and as he stood in the water, feeling that he could die at any moment, he felt ‘a new kind of fear shaking my body from toe to hair, and twisting my face.’

Hundreds of American soldiers were killed in the attack and many of the dead lay in the shallow water around him. Despite the danger, Capa continued photographing for more than an hour and a half and managed to shoot 106 frames.

After completing his task of photographing the landings, Capa’s survival instincts took over. Seeing another craft approaching the beach, he fled towards it. After he was hoisted aboard, the vessel took a direct hit from a German shell and several men on board were killed. Capa survived and transferred to a troop ship for the return journey to England.

On arriving in Weymouth, Dorset, Capa put the four rolls of 35mm film in a courier’s pouch together with several 120mm rolls that he had shot before the invasion. He also included a note to John Morris, Life’s London office picture editor, that stated, ‘John – all the action’s in the 35mm.’ With his films safely on their way, Capa boarded the first boat returning to France.

When the courier arrived at the Life office, Morris urged his staff to develop the films quickly in order to meet the ublication deadline. They were given to 15-year-old darkroom assistant Dennis Banks to develop.

The incident that followed has become as famous as Capa’s images. A few minutes later, Banks returned to Morris’s office in tears, saying, ‘They’re ruined! Capa’s films are all ruined!’ In the rush to process and dry the films, Banks had placed them in a wooden drying cabinet and closed the doors. The heat had been so intense that the emulsion had melted and all that was left, as Morris discovered as he examined the films, was ‘a brown sludge in frame after frame’.

On the last film, however, 11 partially damaged frames had survived and Morris asked for prints of all of them. They were approved by the censor’s office and dispatched just in time for the deadline. Although shot in extreme circumstances and in poor light, the images clearly revealed the American soldiers wading through the waters and taking cover as they advanced towards the German defences. The most famous image singled out one soldier up to his neck in seawater as he made his way towards the beach.

The soldier has been identified, at different times, as Edward K Regan and Alphonse Joseph Arsenault, who were both involved in the invasion. The most likely candidate, however, is Huston Riley, who lived through the battle and today still lives on Mercer Island, near Seattle.

A selection of the surviving images appeared over seven pages of the 19 June 1944 issue of Life. The text explained that these pictures showed ‘how violent the battle was and how strong the German defences’ and blamed the fact that the images were ‘slightly out of focus’ on Capa’s hands shaking as he took them.

On 8 June, Capa returned to Omaha beach to photograph the aftermath of the invasion after the Allies had secured the area. These more considered pictures tell their own grim story of death and burial. However, the surviving D-Day pictures are the ones that most effectively capture the reality of combat from the troops’ perspective and are recognised, in John Morris’s words, as ‘among the most dramatic battlefield photos ever taken’.

Books and websites

Books: The best available collection of Capa’s photographs is Robert Capa: The Definitive Collection, published by Phaidon. For biographical material see Blood and Champagne: The Life and Times of Robert Capa by Alex Kershaw and Capa’s posthumous Second World War memoir, Slightly out of Focus.

Websites: A good selection of Capa’s images can be seen at www.magnumphotos.com. The full story of Capa’s D-Day photographs, with contributions by John Morris, can be read on www.skylighters.org/photos/robertcapa.html.