The anniversary of D-Day marks what is perhaps the most significant day of World War II. The culmination of a year’s planning, it was the beginning of the end of Adolf Hitler’s plan for the domination of Europe and the ‘thousand year reign’ by Nazi forces.
From our comfortable positions at the beginning of the third millennium—which, had all gone to plan, was to be Hitler’s ‘Third Reich’ or third Empire—it is easy to forget the sacrifice made by the military personnel from the United Kingdom, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and the Free French forces who rushed onto the beaches all those years ago.
For many born in the 1950s, our images of the assaults were coloured by John Wayne in ‘The Longest Day’; for those born a couple of decades later it was Tom Hanks in ‘Saving Private Ryan’. But for many, the most poignant images of the day are a few grainy photographs images shot by Robert Capa.
The photograph above is one of only eleven surviving images made on the beaches of Normandy by Robert Capa on D-Day, June 6th, 1944. Capa was the not only photographer to go ashore that day, but he was the only one on Omaha beach with one of the first waves of US troops. Casualties were high, but in military terms, the assault was a success. Capa shot four rolls of 35mm film with a Contax camera, 106 images in all. (Some sources say 108, and while the number may be important to historians, it is of little real consequence.) When the films were processed, all but eleven were ruined by a laboratory technician trying to dry them too quickly. Those that survived have become iconic images of the American landings and the dreadful conditions faced by all of the Allied troops on that day.
One can only imagine the terror of the soldiers, being fired upon with heavy artillery and machine guns, the screams from the injured, the explosions, the returning fire from small arms close by and the guns from the battleships screaming overhead, the smell of fear and cordite and blood. But the images are silent, one-sixtieth of a second, trapped, frozen.
Accounts written at the time and compiled from interviews with the soldiers reveal what must have been a harrowing experience.
‘The landing craft came in under the comforting thunder of the tremendous fire support from naval guns, as well as the tank and artillery pieces firing from LCT’s. [LCT: Landing Craft, Tank] Up to within a few hundred yards of the water’s edge, there was every reason to hope that the enemy shore defences might have been neutralized. Then, many of the leading craft began to come under fire from automatic weapons and artillery, which increased in volume as they approached touchdown. It was evident at H Hour that the enemy fortifications had not been knocked out.’ (War Department Historical Division 1945 p 41)
‘Small-arms fire, mortars, and artillery concentrated on the landing area, but the worst hazard was produced by converging fires from automatic weapons. Survivors from some craft report hearing the fire beat on the ramps before they were lowered, and then seeing the hail of bullets whip the surf just in front of the lowered ramps. Some men dove under water or went over the sides to escape the beaten one of the machine guns. Stiff, weakened from seasickness, and often heavily loaded, the debarking troops had little chance of moving fast in water that was knee deep or higher, and their progress was made more difficult by uneven footing in the runnels crossing the tidal flat.’ (War Department Historical Division 1945 p 44)
‘One of the six LCA’s [LCA: Landing Craft, Assault] carrying Company A foundered about a thousand yards off shore, and passing Rangers saw men jumping overboard and being dragged down by their loads. At H+6 minutes [Invasion hour + 6 minutes] the remaining craft grounded in water 4 to 6 feet deep, about 30 yards short of the outward band of obstacles. Starting off the craft in three files, center file first and the flank files peeling right and left, the men were enveloped in accurate and intense fire from automatic weapons. Order was quickly lost as the troops attempted to dive under water or dropped over the sides into surf over their heads. Mortar fire scored four direct hits on one LCA, which “disintegrated.” Casualties were suffered all the way to the sand, but when the survivors got there, some found they could not hold and came back into the water for cover, while others took refuge behind the nearest obstacles. Remnants of one boat team on the right flank organized a small firing line on the first yards of sand, in full exposure to the enemy. In short order every officer of the company, including Capt. Taylor N. Fellers, was a casualty, and most of the sergeants were killed or wounded. The leaderless men gave up any attempt to move forward and confined their efforts to saving the wounded, many of whom drowned in the rising tide.’ (War Department Historical Division 1945 pp 45-47)
Capa said, ‘If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.’ (Magnum Photos n.d. n.p.) And he was close enough. But in the images, all remains silent. Bursts of machine gun fire, heavy artillery shells from both sides exploding all around, machinery, curses, orders, bullets whistling through the air, radios crackling, screams of pain. All are gone. All that remains of the landings are the memories of those veterans, still alive and who lived through it, and these photographs.
There were many hundreds of other photographs taken that day by dozens of other photographers, and while Capa’s have come to stand for all of them, all are silent. There is no hint of the world going past, of shells exploding and the stink of death. All that we see is a layer of silver, just a few microns thick.
That this is enough to carry our emotion says much about the power of the photographic image.
Text © Stuart Peel 2012
For more information see ‘The Magnificent Eleven’, http://www.skylighters.org/photos/robertcapa.html
Magnum Photos, http://www.magnumphotos.com
War Department Historical Division 1945, ‘Omaha Beach’, available at the US Army Center of Military History, http://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/100-11/100-11.HTM