Adolf Hitler, battle, combat, Combat Photography, D-Day, Dwight Eisenhower, English Channel, film, France, Invasion, Life Magazine, Normandy, Omaha Beach, Photography, Propaganda, Robert Capa, Slightly Out of Focus, Soldiers, Spanish Civil War, Steven Spielberg, War, War Correspondent, World War Two
“I would have to make up my mind and choose a barge to ride in… On the one hand, the objectives of Company B looked interesting, and to go along with them seemed a pretty safe bet. Then again, I used to know Company E very well and the story I had got with them in Sicily was one of my best in the war…
If at this point my son should interrupt me, and ask, ‘What is the difference between the war correspondent and any other man in uniform?’ I would say that the war correspondent gets more drinks, more girls, better pay and greater freedom than the soldier… 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 with Company E in the first wave.
Once I decided to go in with the first assault troops I began to convince myself that the invasion would be a pushover and that all this talk about an ‘impregnable west wall’ was just German propaganda. I went up on deck and took a good look at the disappearing English coast. The pale green glow of the vanishing island hit my soft spot and I joined the legion of the last-letter-writers. My brother could have my ski boots and my mother could invite someone from England to stay with her. The idea was disgusting, and I never mailed the letter. I folded it up, and stuck it in my breast pocket…
They fixed a gas mask, and inflatable lifebelt, a shovel, and some other gadgets around me, and I placed my very expensive Burberry raincoat over my arm. I was the most elegant invader of them all… The coast of Normandy was still miles away when the first unmistakable popping reached our listening ears. We ducked down in the puky water at the bottom of the barge and ceased to watch the approaching coastline… It was now light enough to start taking pictures and I brought my first Contax camera out of its waterproof oilskin. The flat bottom of our barge hit the earth of France. 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 — this was good enough for the photographer. I paused for a moment on the 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 off the waterproofing of his rifle and began to shoot without much aiming at the smoke-hidden beach. The sound of his rifle gave him enough courage to 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 as I was. It was still very early and very gray for good pictures, but the gray water and the gray sky made the little men, dodging under the surrealistic designs of Hitler’s anti-invasion brain trust, very effective.
I finished my pictures, and the sea was cold in my trousers. Reluctantly, I tried to move away from my steel pole, but the bullets chased me back every time. Fifty yards ahead of me, one of our half-burnt amphibious tanks stuck out of the water and offered me my next cover. I sized up the moment. There was little future for the elegant raincoat heavy on my arm. I dropped it and made for the tank. Between floating bodies I reached it, paused for a few more pictures, and gathered my guts for the last jump to the beach.
Now the Germans played on all their instruments, and I could not find any hole between the shells and bullets that blocked the last twenty-five yards to the beach, I just stayed behind my tank, repeating a little sentence from my Spanish Civil War days, ‘Es una cosa muy seria. Es una cosa muy seria.’ This is a very serious business.
The tide was coming in and now the water reached the farewell letter to my family in my breast pocket. Behind the human cover of the last two guys, I reached the beach. I threw myself flat and my lips touched the earth of France. I had no desire to kiss it.”
A section from Robert Capa’s memoir of World War Two, Slightly Out of Focus.
70 years ago today, Capa trudged up the French coast to capture the first and only photographs of the opening assault on Omaha Beach. He used a pair of Contax II cameras mounted with 50mm lenses to snap a total of 106 pictures in the first two hours of the invasion. But only eleven frames would survive. No, they did not get lost in the skirmish, shot through by a German gunner, or sink to the bottom of the English Channel. They melted at the Life Magazine offices in London, after a fifteen-year-old lab assistant set the dryer too high, bleaching the emulsion in the negatives of three and a half of Capa’s four film rolls.
The surviving photos, which would soon come to be known as “The Magnificent Eleven,” are the sole visual record of the invasion and some of the most striking combat photography ever captured. They were printed in the July 19th Life Magazine article “The Beachheads of Normandy,” with a fitting caption, “slightly out of focus,” which Capa later came to think of as a metaphor for his memory of wartime — so it became the title of his book.