Dunkirk Evacuation by Hugo Jaeger, 1940

From 1936 until the end of the Second World War, Hugo Jaeger worked as a personal photographer for Adolf Hitler. He made around 2,000 colour photographs of the German dictator and various events connected with the Nazis, from the rallies in Nuremberg to the invasion of Poland. We have covered his previous work with Hitler here:

Hugo Jaeger was official photographer to the OKW (German High Command) and despite discouragement from his superiors, he became one of the pioneers of colour photography. He used Agfacolor, which was invented in 1936, the same year he began photographing Hitler.

His black-and-white photos were flown daily to Berlin, but he kept colour films to himself. In 1940, Hugo Jaeger headed to Dunkirk as soon as he heard that the beaches had fallen. He destroyed the more gruesome pictures, but those that remain form a remarkable record of the aftermath of the epic nine days in which 338,226 men were evacuated from under the enemy’s nose.

At the end of the war, he was in Munich, and was fearful that American soldiers would confiscate or destroy his pictures of Nazis and Hitler. Packing them in a bag, he hid them in a cellar coal pile along with his last bottle of brandy. The Americans came, poked in the pile, found the bag and the bottle and opened both. The first thing they came upon in the bag was a little ivory gambling top—a put-and-take top. The soldiers paused, spun the top. then settled down happily to the brandy and a game of put-and-take, ignoring the pictures.

Afterwards, Jaeger packed his slides into dozens of preserving jars, carried them to the edge of town and systematically buried them over the area of a square mile or so. As he went, he made a map: “From the railroad switch, 263 ties west, then 15 meters north….” Several times in the next few years he dug up the jars, dried them out, repacked and reburied them. They were all in fine condition when he dug them up for good in 1955 and stored them in a bank vault. He sold them to LIFE magazine in 1965.

Captured troops

The U.S. entry into World War II was still eighteen months away and many American reporters still remained in Berlin. They managed to report on the German advance under the guidance of the Wehrmacht command. In early June 1940, American and other foreign journalists were transported to frontline in a convoy of Mercedes Benzes. They arrived in Dunkirk on June 4, just hours after the remaining troops surrendered, and saw the wreckage of Dunkirk, where more the 90% of the buildings had been destroyed. LIFE reporter John Fisher’s account of his trip to Dunkirk was published in the magazine later in the month.

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