The Magnificent Eleven: The D-Day Photographs of Robert Capa
When soldiers of the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division landed at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, photographer Robert Capa, in the employ of LIFE magazine, was among them.
Perhaps the best known of all World War II combat photographers, the Hungarian-born Capa had made a name for himself well before climbing into a landing craft with men of Company E in the early morning hours of D-Day. He risked his life on more than one occasion during the Spanish Civil War and had taken what is considered the most eerily fascinating of all war photographs. The famous image reportedly depicts the death of Spanish Loyalist militiaman Frederico Borrell Garcia as he is struck in the chest by a Nationalist bullet on a barren Iberian hillside.
Capa was known to say, "If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough." On D-Day, he came close once again. With Capa standing in the very stern, his landing craft mistakenly came ashore at the section of Omaha Beach dubbed "Easy Red." Then the ramp went down.
"The flat bottom of our barge hit the earth of France," Capa remembered in his book Slightly Out of Focus. "The boatswain lowered the steel-covered barge front, and there, between the grotesque designs of steel obstacles sticking out of the water, was a thin line of land covered with smoke — our Europe, the 'Easy Red' beach.
"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 was squeezing off photographs as he headed for a disabled American tank. He remembered feeling "a new kind of fear shaking my body from toe to hair, and twisting my face." With great difficulty his trembling hands reloaded his camera. All the while he repeated a sentence that he had picked up during the Spanish Civil War: "Es una cosa muy seria" ("This is a very serious business").
After what seemed an eternity, Capa turned away from the beach killing zone and spotted an incoming LCI (landing craft, infantry). He headed for it. "I did not think and I didn't decide it," he later wrote. "I just stood up and ran toward the boat. I knew that I was running away. I tried to turn but couldn't face the beach and told myself, 'I am just going to dry my hands on that boat.'"
With his cameras held high to keep them from getting waterlogged, Capa was pulled aboard the LCI and was soon out of harm's way. He had used three rolls of film and exposed 106 frames. After reaching England, he sped by train to London and delivered his precious film for developing.
A darkroom technician was almost as anxious to see the invasion images as Capa himself. In his haste, the technician dried the film too quickly. The excess heat melted the emulsion on all but 10 of the frames. Those that remained were blurred, surreal shots, which succinctly conveyed the chaos and confusion of the day.
Capa's D-Day photos have become classics. One of them, depicting a GI struggling through the churning surf of Omaha Beach, has survived as the definitive image of the Normandy invasion. He went on to photograph the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. He also photographed his friends Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso, as well as film star Ingrid Bergman, with whom he reportedly had a love affair.
After that, having cheated death so many times, Capa vowed never to risk his life in wartime photography again. In 1954, however, he agreed to supply LIFE with some photos of the escalating conflict between the French and the Viet Minh in Indochina. That spring, while attempting to get as close to the fighting as possible, he stepped on a land mine and was killed at the age of 40.
Robert Capa is one of many wartime photographers who have risked their lives and made the ultimate sacrifice to capture the essence of desperate combat on film. Frozen in time and etched in our collective memory, the D-Day photos speak volumes about courage and sacrifice.
John G. Morris, 1998
"I had rehearsed my part in every detail, from the moment the raw film arrived in London to the transfer of prints and negatives to the courier who would take them to the States — with a stop at the censor's office in between."
– John G. Morris
"Dennis came bounding up the stairs and into my office, sobbing. 'They're ruined! Ruined! Capa's films are all ruined!'"
– John G. Morris
The Editor: John Morris
Something woke me early on the morning of Tuesday, June 6, 1944. I drew the blackout curtain and saw that it was just another dull, gray day, colder than an English spring had any right to be. The streets were empty, and I was alone in the flat I shared with Frank Scherschel on Upper Wimpole Street in London's West End. He had departed — vanished, actually, without saying a word — several days earlier for his battle station, a camouflaged airfield from which he would fly reconnaissance over the English Channel to photograph the largest armada ever assembled. My job was to stay behind, to edit those and other photos for LIFE as picture editor of the London bureau.
I dressed as usual in olive drab, turned on the radio, made tea and read the papers, which of course had nothing to report. Then, at 8:32 London time, the bulletin came over the BBC:
"Under command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong Allied air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France."
"This is it," I whispered to myself, uttering the very words that Joe Liebling of The New Yorker later called "the great cliché of the Second World War." I hurried to the TIME-LIFE office in Soho, even though there wouldn't be much for me to do — for many hours, as it turned out.
I had been waiting eight months for this day. There had been a false alarm on Saturday, when a young telegrapher in the Associated Press London bureau, practicing to get up her speed, had put out an erroneous bulletin:
URGENT PRESS ASSOCIATED NYK FLASH EISENHOWER'S HQ ANNOUNCED ALLIED LANDINGS IN FRANCE
It had been corrected within a minute — "Bust that flash" — but it had sent a wave of panic through both Allied and German headquarters. Now it was for real. Tuesday was a good D-Day for LIFE. Our job was to furnish action pictures for the next issue, dated June 19, which would close on Saturday in New York, and appear the following week. Wirephotos, of poor quality and limited selection, would not do; besides, they would be available to newspapers through the pool. Our only hope to meet the deadline was to send original prints and negatives, as many as possible, in a pouch that would leave Grosvenor Square by motorcycle courier at precisely 9:00 a.m. London time on Thursday. The courier would take it to a twin-engine plane standing by at an airdrome near London. At Prestwick, Scotland, the base for transatlantic flights, the pouch would be transferred to a larger plane. After one or two fuel stops, it would arrive in Washington, D.C., and our pictures would be hand-carried to New York on Saturday.
I had rehearsed my part in every detail, from the moment the raw film arrived in London to the transfer of prints and negatives to the courier who would take them to the States — with a stop at the censor's office in between. Clearing the censors at the Ministry of Information was by now a familiar routine. Their office was on the ground floor of the University of London's tall central building, which backed onto Bedford Square. Available twenty-four hours a day, the censors were cooperative, as censors go, permitting us to sit alongside them as they worked. Our photographers knew to avoid the faces of Allied dead, shoulder patches that revealed unit designations, and "secret" weapons (although by now most were known to the enemy) — so the work was for the most part pro forma. But it was tedious in the extreme, since every single print had to be stamped, after which the censor bundled all the acceptable material into an envelope and sealed it, using a special tape imprinted with the words PASSED FOR PUBLICATION. Without the tape, it could not leave the country.
Getting the packet by car to the courier at Grosvenor Square, about a mile from the ministry, looked simple on the map, but the most direct way, down Oxford Street, was often jammed with double-decker buses, so I devised a parallel route on a series of side streets: Hollen to Noel to Great Marlborough to Hanover to Brook (I can remember every turn five decades later). This put me onto the wrong side of Grosvenor Square, but the final fifty yards could be covered on foot — while running at top speed. I left the little two-door Austin sedan Time Inc. had given me to its own fate. It was not uncommon for joyriders to take it out for a spin when I worked late, but that was no problem. A call to Scotland Yard was all that was necessary. The car would invariably be found as soon as the thief ran out of what little petrol was in the tank.
For the Normandy invasion, there were twelve photographers accredited for the wire services and six for LIFE. (In the photo at left, taken one week before disembarkation in Normandy, are (top) from left to right: Bob Landry, George Rodger, Frank Scherschel, and Bob Capa. Bottom, John Morris (Editor) stands between Ralph Morse and David Scherman.) Only four press photographers were supposed to land with the first wave of American infantry on D-Day itself, and we managed to get two of the spots, for Bob Landry and Robert Capa. Both were veterans — Capa would be on the fifth front of his third major war. Although often unlucky at cards and horses, Capa nevertheless used a gambling metaphor to describe his situation on D-Day in his 1947 memoir-novel, Slightly Out of Focus: "The war correspondent has his stake — his life — in his own hands, and he can put it on this horse or that horse, or he can put it back in his pocket at the very last minute ... I am a gambler. I decided to go in with Company E in the first wave."
Bob Landry also felt obliged to accept this dubious privilege. The other LIFE assignments sorted themselves out. Frank Scherschel stuck with his buddies in the Air Force. David Scherman chose the Navy. George Rodger accompanied the British forces, under General Bernard Montgomery. Ralph Morse's assignment was General George Patton's Third Army, but since it would not hit the beachhead until later, he boarded a landing ship whose job it was to pick up casualties — of which there would be plenty.
Who would get the first picture? Bad weather prevented good general views from either air (Scherschel) or sea (Scherman). Rodger, landing with the British on an undefended beach, "walked ashore in a blaze of anti-climax," as he put it in typically modest understatement. All day Tuesday we waited, and no pictures. It was rumored that one Signal Corps photographer had been killed in the first hours, but it turned out that he had "only" lost a leg. Late on Tuesday night Bert Brandt of Acme Newspictures, having scarcely gotten his feet wet, returned to London with a first picture!, but not a terribly exciting one, of a momentarily unopposed landing on the French coast, shot from the bow of his landing craft. Landry's film — and his shoes — somehow got lost. A disaster. I had been told that AP would have the fourth first-wave spot, but not one of their six photographers landed that day. So it was entirely up to Capa to capture the action, and where was he? Hour after hour went by. We were now waiting in the gloom of Wednesday, June 7, keeping busy by packaging the "background pictures," all of relatively little interest, that now flooded in from official sources. The darkroom staff — all five of them — had been standing by idly since Tuesday morning, their anxiety about the pressure they would be under growing steadily by the hour. This nervousness would soon result in an epic blunder.
At about 6:30 Wednesday evening, the call came in from a Channel port: Capa's film was on the way. "You should get it in an hour or two," a voice crackled over the line before fading into static. I shared this information with pool editor E. K. Butler of AP, a feisty little martinet whose nickname was "Colonel." He snapped back, "All I want is pictures, not promises!" Around nine, a panting messenger arrived with Capa's little package: four rolls of 35-millimeter film plus half a dozen rolls of 120 film (2 1/4 by 2 1/4 inches) that he had taken in England and on the Channel crossing. A scrawled note said that the action was all in the 35-millimeter, that things had been very rough, that he had come back to England unintentionally with wounded being evacuated, and that he was on his way back to Normandy.
Braddy, our lab chief, gave the film to young Dennis Banks to develop. Photographer Hans Wild looked at it wet and called up to me to say that the 35-millimeter, though grainy, looked "fabulous!" I replied, "We need contacts - rush, rush, rush!" Again I phoned Butler through the AP switchboard, but he could only bellow, "When do I get pictures?" Brandt's wirephoto of troops landing apparently unopposed had scarcely satisfied the West's desperate need to believe in the actuality of invasion. A few minutes later Dennis came bounding up the stairs and into my office, sobbing. "They're ruined! Ruined! Capa's films are all ruined!" Incredulous, I rushed down to the darkroom with him, where he explained that he had hung the films, as usual, in the wooden locker that served as a drying cabinet, heated by a coil on the floor. Because of my order to rush, he had closed the doors. Without ventilation the emulsion had melted.
I held up the four rolls, one at a time. Three were hopeless; nothing to see. But on the fourth roll there were eleven frames with distinct images. They were probably representative of the entire 35-millimeter take, but their grainy imperfection — perhaps enhanced by the lab accident — contributed to making them among the most dramatic battlefield photos ever taken. The sequence began as Capa waded through the surf with the infantry, past antitank obstacles that soon became tombstones as men fell left and right. This was it, all right. D-Day would forever be known by these pictures.
One more ordeal lay ahead. We now had only a few hours to get our picture packet through the censors, and in addition to Capa's we had hundreds of other photos, the best from Dave Scherman of matters just before the landing. The British and Canadians had covered invasion preparations for days, as had the U.S. Army Signal Corps and the Navy and Air Force photographers. Nobody really cared now about such pictures, but we dutifully sent them on.
At 3:30 on Thursday morning, pictures in hand — including Capa's precious eleven — I drove my Austin through deserted streets to the Ministry of Information, where I had to wait my turn. Ours was the largest picture shipment of the week, and I almost wished I could throw all but the Capa shots overboard in the interest of time. Finally, about 8:30, the censor finished putting his stamp on all the pictures. I stuffed the big envelope, and then it happened. The censor's specially imprinted tape stuck fast to its roll. It simply would not peel off. We tried another roll. Same result. This went on for minutes that seemed hours, and I had to deliver the packet to the courier, a mile away, by nine o'clock — our only chance to make the deadline after eight months!
I left the ministry at about 8:45 and drove like a maniac through the scattered morning traffic, down the little side streets, reaching the edge of Grosvenor Square at 8:59. I ran the last fifty yards and found the courier, in the basement of the Service of Supply headquarters, about to padlock his sack. "Hold it!" I shouted, and he did.
Just after LIFE's Saturday-night close, the editors cabled,
TODAY WAS ONE OF THE GREAT PICTURE DAYS IN LIFE'S OFFICE, WHEN CAPA'S BEACHLANDING AND OTHER SHOTS ARRIVED.
I could only think of the pictures lost. How was I going to face Capa?
The D-Day landing print will be featured in the forthcoming exhibition: "History's Big Picture" at Monroe Gallery of Photograpjhy July 1 - September 26, 2011.
Related: The Photographic Collection of John G. Morris
The National World War II Museum