From the Archive
June 5, 2014
by Magnum Photographers
Seventy years ago the Western Allies launched the long anticipated invasion of mainland Europe. After some delay due to weather conditions, June 6th was chosen as "D-Day", the start date of the operation. The German defenders had anticipated an attack on Calais, the part of France closest to the Allied staging areas in England, though the actual target was Normandy. The operation involved an inland attack by paratroopers and glider-borne infantry combined with a beach assault by British, Canadian and US troops.
Having already documented the war in the Mediterranean, Robert Capa was assigned to photograph the invasion and arranged to go ashore with the first waves of US soldiers tasked with assaulting "Omaha Beach", the code name for the stretch of shoreline situated between Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes and Vierville-sur-Mer. The Omaha Beach attack was so brutal that it's been referred to as "Bloody Omaha" ever since. Capa recalled the experience of that morning in his book "Slightly Out of Focus":
"My beautiful France looked sordid and uninviting, and a German machine gun, spitting bullets around the barge, fully spoiled my return. 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 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 a hundred yards away. 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 shot three rolls of 35mm film before being lucky enough to safely hop aboard a landing craft that was about to speed back to the safety of the invasion fleet. As soon as he returned to England he hurried back to London, where he'd have the film processed. In one of the cruelest twists of fate in photographic history, a lab technician overheated the film during the drying process resulting in the loss of all but 10 frames out of a total of 106. Those surviving images have since become the iconic document of the bloody chaos that occurred on Omaha Beach.
Capa immediately returned to France to document the remainder of the Normandy battles. He'd continue to photograph the Allied liberation of France and the invasion of the German homeland, jumping across the Rhine with US paratroopers in March, 1945.
Ten years after surviving Bloody Omaha Beach, Capa was killed by a land-mine while photographing the Indochina War.