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

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Conflict

The Royal Air Force in Color

As the RAF celebrates its centenary, we revisit Robert Capa’s rare color series shot during World War II

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

In the First World War, fighter pilots flew their planes with little more than a pistol as a weapon. Taking shots at the enemy while navigating a light-weight scouter plane was a risky ordeal but, ultimately, proved a valuable tactic during the war. In realizing the potential benefits of a specialist department, the British government launched an independent Royal Air Force on April 1, 1918. This month marks the centenary of its founding. 

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 a UK Royal Air Force base, whose exact location was classified. Capa, whose stark monochrome images of the Spanish Civil War earned him praise as ‘the greatest war photographer in the world’ by the 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 voluntary forces alongside RAF British bombers, preparing aircraft for a daylight bombing attack on occupied France.

Robert Capa RAF Blenheim bombers take off for an Allied daylight bombing raid over Occupied France. Great Britain. 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 (...)

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 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 (...)