Robert Capa’s seminal work on the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944 and the Allied troops advance through Normandy to liberate France. As the only photographer in the first wave of the Normandy beach landings by Allied troops, Capa’s pictures are the only documents that capture the horror and heroism of the Allies as they disembarked from landing craft into a hail of bullets and sharpnel.
“I was in a flat bottom barge that hit the earth of France. When the barge front was lowered 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.”
The orders came to Life war photographer Robert Capa in London from the United States Army in the last days of May of 1944: You are not to leave your flat for more than an hour at a time. Your equipment must be packed.
Capa was one of four photographers chosen to cover the first days of the United States Army’s massive assault on Hitler’s Europe; he had just enough time to hurry from his apartment on Belgrave Square to buy a new Burberry coat and a Dunhill silver flask. The need for bella figura had been at his core since his childhood in Budapest, where appearances and charm were means to survive.
Who didn’t trade stories about the mysterious Hungarian Jewish refugee with the mass of dark gleaming hair and velvet eyes? Child-like and beguiling, he was short and moved quickly, as if in flight, a cigarette invariably dangling from his mouth. His disguise was nonchalance. State-less, he glided through battle zones with a confection of papers. He was 30 years old and had already taken some of the most remarkable images of the century: the haggard faces of the Spanish Civil War, the plump air wardens serving tea in the London Underground during the Blitz, Italian children lost in the rubble of Naples.
As a child Capa wanted to be a writer; his best work has the intimacy of a storyteller’s gaze and passion. He would never cover any war in which he did not love one side and hate the other, noted his biographer Richard Whelan, but his compassion was not partisan. Capa’s special genius was to make himself invisible in the field while becoming conspicuously larger than life off of it. The helmet he carried through the 1943 Italian Campaign was inscribed “Property of Robert Capa, great war correspondent and lover.” No one ever disputed either claim. Leaving for D-day, Capa was determined to keep up the standard. “I was the most elegant invader of them all,” he would later write in his 1947 novel-memoir, Slightly out of Focus.
Rushing from his apartment early on May 29, Capa could not leave a note. Instead, he signed a blank check, on which he placed a large bottle of Arpège. The check was for his landlord, the perfume for his wartime love, Elaine Justin, a fragile strawberry blonde he nicknamed Pinky. She was recovering from a burst appendix outside London; Capa was not concerned about the lack of a proper good-bye. He chafed at the idea of permanence.
Besides his Burberry, he carried two Contax cameras. They provided some safety in the middle of a battle because he did not have to stop and look through the lens. He also carried his Rollei and Speed Graphic cameras, along with a telephoto lens, all packed in oilskin bags. At Weymouth, the sight of the harbor stunned him: thousands of battleships, troopships, freighters, and invasion barges mingled together—5,000 in all—the largest armada ever assembled. Capa was handed an envelope of invasion francs, a package of condoms, and a French phrase book that suggested he speak to the local girls by asking them, “Bonjour, mademoiselle, voulez-vous faire une promenade avec moi?”
He later made a joke about the book, but never about June 6, 1944. Capa’s 11 frames of blur and grit from D-day would become the collective vision of how it felt to be part of the “longest day,” the turning point of World War II.
“D” was army code for invasion day. In 24 hours, an elite assault unit of the United States Army, the amphibious 16th Infantry Regiment, First Infantry Division, would storm the beaches below the cliffs of Normandy. The outcome of D-day, the largest naval invasion in history, launched 70 years ago this June, would determine who won the war. The presence of Robert Capa with an infantry division was considered a talisman of luck.
On June 5, 1944, Capa roamed the transfer ship U.S.S. Henrico with his Contax, aware that the London bureau of Life was already frantically waiting for his film. Hundreds of assault troops were waiting, too. For Capa, here were “the planners, the gamblers, and the writers of last letters.” Capa captured soldiers playing craps in an aerial shot, grouped as if in a Cézanne. On the top deck, Capa found Sam Fuller, a young corporal from Brooklyn attached to the Big Red One, the nickname given to the First Infantry Division, commanded by Colonel George Taylor. Fuller, a screenwriter and pulp novelist, was collapsed on an ammunition box, trying to rest, the dread of dawn furrowing his face. Censors would block out the coastline in the background of Capa’s photograph of Fuller in bright-red ink. (One of Fuller’s future movies, The Big Red One, released in 1980, would celebrate the First Infantry Division.)
For the invasion Capa transferred to the U.S.S. Samuel Chase. At two A.M. on Tuesday, June 6, the loudspeaker on the boat broke up Capa’s poker game. Capa placed his invasion francs in his waterproof belt, grabbed his gas mask and inflatable lifeboat, and was served a pre-invasion breakfast of hotcakes, scrambled eggs, and sausages by the messboys of the Chase, dressed impeccably in their spotless whites. Later, many of the men of the Big Red One would say that Capa was insane to go in with the first wave of the invasion when he did not have to.
In London, on the morning of June 6, Life picture editor John Morris awakened early. He opened the blackout curtains of his Upper Wimpole Street apartment and turned on 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,” Morris whispered to himself, using the phrase The New Yorker’s A. J. Liebling called “the great cliché of the Second World War,” as Morris would note in his memoir, Get the Picture. Rushing to the Life office on Dean Street in Soho, Morris was concerned for Capa and harried about the magazine’s deadlines. For the world and for Life, D-day was the most important day of the entire war. Morris’s only hope to meet Life’s Saturday closing deadline and scoop the world was to get original prints and negatives into a pouch that would leave Grosvenor Square at nine A.M. on Thursday, June 8, by motorcycle courier en route to a transatlantic flight.
“I just kind of put my camera above my head . . . and clicked a picture . . . and when I came back, I was a very famous photographer.”
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