The Royal Air Force in Color • Robert Capa • Magnum Photos

Magnum Pro

Editorial Cultural Creative Search Image Archive

Would you like to:

Explore Magnum's stories

CONTINUE TO MAGNUMPHOTOS.COM

Commission a photographer

MAGNUM CREATIVE

Licence an image

MAGNUM PRO
Conflict

The Allied Air War in Color

Robert Capa’s rare color photographs depict life on an airbase in England

Robert Capa

Robert Capa An American B-17 bomber prepares to take off from a Royal Air Force base for a daylight bombing raid over occupied France. Great Britain. 1942. © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography | Magnum Photos

Early in World War I, military pilots flew their planes into action armed with little more than pistols and hand-held bombs for combat. Taking shots at the enemy while navigating a light-weight plane built mostly of wood and doped fabric was a risky ordeal but, ultimately, proved a valuable tactical development during the war.  Over the course of that conflict aircraft modernized remarkably quickly, with synchronized machine guns soon being installed in aircraft, marking the birth of the first true warplanes. In realizing the potential benefits of a specialist department to manage the emerging aerial battlefield, the British government launched an independent Royal Air Force (RAF) on April 1, 1918. The interwar years saw rapid developments in military aviaition with all-metal monoplanes developed, higher and highter altitude and speed records being set, and nations building up fully modernised air forces. By the outbreak of World War II it was clear that aviation would be key to the conflict’s outcome.

Robert Capa An American B-17 gunner awaits take off from a Royal Air Force base for a daylight bombing raid over occupied France. This B-17 was one of the first 300 to be brought overseas by the US Army Air Co (...)
Robert Capa An American ground crewman stands with bombs to be loaded onto a B-17 bomber as it is prepared to take off from a Royal Air Force base for a daylight bombing raid over occupied France. This B-17 wa (...)

In 1942, Magnum co-founder Robert Capa photographed an RAF base in England, the exact location of which was classified. Capa, whose stark monochrome images of the Spanish Civil War earned him praise as ‘the greatest war photographer in the world’ by Picture Post, shot the story in black and white and color film. At the time, conflict photography was primarily shot in black and white, due to it being less expensive and quicker to process, but a few magazines, such as The Saturday Evening Post had started to publish in color in a bid to get ahead of the competition.

Eager to experiment and hone his technical skill, Capa would often carry at least two 35mm cameras, seamlessly switching between the two options. Unfortunately, neither Illustrated nor Colliers’ published any of the color images of this story, in part, probably, because of the expense and time required. But here we see in vivid technicolor American and British aircraft and crews preparing for attacks on occupied France.

Robert Capa © International Center of Photography A Royal Air Force mechanic atop the engine of a Wellignton bomber at an RAF base. He is preparing the plane for an Allied daylight bombing raid over Occupied France. GB. 1942. © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography | Magnum Photos
Robert Capa © International Center of Photography After extinguishing flames with chemicals, Royal Air Force crewmen surround a Blenheim bomber that was forced to land on its belly on its return from a bombing raid over Occupied France. The plane (...)
Robert Capa © International Center of Photography An RAF mechanic signals to a pilot before take off for an Allied daylight bombing raid over Occupied France. GB 1942. © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography | Magnum Photos

At the time, press regulations forbade photographers from flying with missions. Instead, Capa, who possessed a talent for capturing the hardships and emotional toil of war, honed in on the camaraderie between men. In the December 5, 1942 Illustrated article, Capa describes how he stood alongside an older intelligence officer, who turning to the photographer, said, “The way those kids get on with the job, without any gestures or fuss, makes us, the adventurers and heroes of the last war, very envious, and very proud.”

Robert Capa American crewmen stand in front of a B-17 bomber that is being prepared to take off from a Royal Air Force base for a daylight bombing raid over occupied France. This B-17 was one of the first 300 (...)
Robert Capa An American B-17 bomber prepares to take off from a Royal Air Force base for a daylight bombing raid over occupied France. This B-17 was one of the first 300 to be brought overseas by the US Army A (...)
Robert Capa Cows graze in front of an American bomber named "Turd Burd", that is being prepared at a Royal Air Force base for a daylight bombing raid over occupied France. This B-17 was one of the first 300 to (...)

Capa also recalls the broad smile belonging to the pilot of the ‘Bad Penny’, who, upon climbing out of the cockpit with youthful optimism, stated, “After this is over, the longest trip I’ll ever take will be from my house to the nearest river on my bicycle with my fishing gear on my back.” When Capa arrived in Sicily in July 1943, he would abandon color film for the rest of the war. While the RAF color slides remained virtually unseen until 2002, today, these images take on new critical importance, offering a rare opportunity to see WWII in color and to witness servicemen in candid moments away from the frontline.

Robert Capa © International Center of Photography An RAF flight crew waits for their Blenheim bomber to be prepared to take off for a daylight bombing raid over Occupied France. GB. 1942. © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography | Magnum Photos