D-Day by Robert Capa, 1944 | Contact Sheets

It was not the biggest seaborne invasion in history. Nor was it the biggest maritime invasion of World War II (That honor goes to the invasion of Sicily a year prior, achieved with the help of Jean Leslie and the Man who never was). However, the Landings in Normandy was the beginning of the end for the Nazi Reich and the Last Hurrah of the conventional warfare. Time Magazine called it, The Last Great Crusade. Going forward, with the invention of the atomic weapons, no single invasion fleet or military force would be so concentrated.

The most famous images of that momentous day were made by Robert Capa. Capa was the only press photographer who managed to go in with the first wave of infantry on the morning of June 6, 1944. When a LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) from the U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarked troops of Company E, the 2nd Battalion, the 16th Regiment, the 1st Infantry Division on the “Easy Red” section of the beach code-named Omaha, near Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer in Normandy, he was there with them. LIFE magazine wrote this about their man on Omaha Beach:

The picture above and those on the next six pages were taken by LIFE Photographer Robert Capa who went in with the first wave of troops. Although the first reports of landings indicated little opposition, his pictures show how violent the battle was and how strong the German defenses. His best pictures were made when he photographed the floundering American doughboys advancing through the deadly hail of enemy fire to goals on the beaches of Normandy.

After Photographer Capa made the acutely real landing pictures which appear on the preceding five pages, he left the hazardous beach in a Coast Guard LCT which was evacuating the wounded and dead to a hospital ship standing offshore. As he waded out to get aboard, his cameras were thoroughly soaked. By some miracle, one of them was not too badly damaged and he was able to keep making pictures. The excitement was not over by a long shot. As Capa’s LCT pulled away from the beach, it was hit three times by shells from German shore batteries. Several of the Coast Guard crew were killed and others seriously wounded. The boat began to list badly, but it managed to get back to the hospital ship. There most of the wounded were taken off, despite the list and heavy seas. One man, however, was too seriously hurt to be moved, and it was necessary for a medical officer to give him a plasma transfusion on the spot.

As he prepared to do this, Capa snapped the picture shown above. Picture on opposite page, showing a few of the first men to fall in the invasion of Europe, was made by Capa after he had boarded the hospital ship. Although the extent of the U.S. ca ualties in the Normandy landings has not yet been announced, they were generally lighter than expected.

Capa used two Contax II cameras mounted with 50 mm lenses and recalled that he took four rolls of photos in total. Within hours, he returned to England with a shipload of wounded to drop off his films only to immediately return to Normandy.

LIFE’s editors waited. On Wednesday evening, about 6 in the evening, they got the message saying Capa’s films were on the way to London from “a channel port” by courier. When they arrived there was only a handwritten note from Capa read, “John, all the action is in the four rolls of 35 mm.” As Capa did not provide LIFE with notes or a verbal description of what they showed, the captions in the magazine were written by magazine staffers, and later shown to be erroneous.

It was said that all but eleven of his photos were destroyed in a processing accident by an overly eager darkroom worker in the London office of Time Inc. who turned up the heat in the drying cabinet too high in his rush to meet the deadline for the next issue of LIFE. Accounts differed in blaming a fifteen-year-old lab assistant named Dennis Banks, or Larry Burrows, the future famed photojournalist who worked in the lab at this time.

The surviving photos have since been called the Magnificent Eleven. However, recent research has suggested that only eleven photos in total were taken, and that no photos were “missing” or destroyed as (among other things) the temperatures used by drying cabinents would not have been hot enough to melt or set fire to film. Capa’s former editor, John Morris, later conceded that “It’s quite possible that Bob just bundled all his 35 together and just shipped it off back to London, knowing that on one of those rolls there would be the pictures he actually shot that morning.”

When LIFE published the photographs, a caption explained that the “immense excitement of moment made photographer Capa move his camera and blur picture”. In Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg went to great lengths to reproduce the look of Capa blur in his D-Day landing sequence, even stripping the coating from his camera lenses to echo Capa’s shots.

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