On 6 June 1944, photographer Robert Capa landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy. On assignment for LIFE Magazine, he was there to document D-Day, the largest amphibious assault in history.

What do the photos show?

The ten photographs taken by LIFE photographer Robert Capa on the Easy Red sector of Omaha Beach record the moments immediately after assault troops from the US 16th Infantry Regiment have disembarked from their LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle Personnel) into thigh-high water.

The first five photographs, which were likely taken from the ramp of the landing craft, track the progress of the heavily-laden soldiers as they wade through the surf and past steel ‘hedgehog’ obstacles towards the beach. Beyond the advancing troops are both amphibious duplex-drive Sherman tanks and ‘wade-up’ Sherman tanks, which some troops are taking cover behind. Further in the distance is the shingle bank and seawall, where many troops are taking cover before advancing towards the smoke-obscured ridge beyond.

The next set of photographs shows a different perspective, and were likely taken once Capa had exited the LCVP and found cover behind one of the tanks seen in the earlier photographs. Two of these look east along the beach, showing men crawling through the surf underneath and alongside the angled wooden logs designed to upend landing craft, some of which can be seen in the distance approaching the beach. The other two look behind and out to the Channel, where combat engineers – identified by the insignia on their helmet – wire the steel ‘hedgehog’ obstacles for demolition. 

The final photograph differs from all of the others, showing the face of a lone infantryman clutching his life belt as he struggles through the surf.

When were they taken?

Capa wrote in his wartime memoir, Slightly Out of Focus (1947), that he chose to land on Omaha Beach in the first wave with Easy Company, 16th Infantry Regiment (US Army). Since then, it has been widely assumed that this was correct. However, further examination of the photographs and documentary evidence suggests that he almost certainly landed at a later time and with a different unit.

While Slightly Out of Focus is excellent for providing context to Capa’s wartime photography, it cannot be regarded as an accurate historical source. Capa makes this clear from the start of the book, in which he writes ‘all events and persons in this book are accidental and have something to do with the truth’. So if Capa may have slightly dramatised his experiences, how can we figure out when he really landed and took these iconic photographs?

Thanks to his own words and the photographs he took on board, Capa is known to have sailed to Normandy on the USS Samuel Chase (APA 26), a US Coast Guard ship that also carried the 1st Battalion of the 16th Infantry Regiment. Easy Company however belonged to the 2nd Battalion, which sailed to Normandy in a different ship, the USS Henrico (APA 45). While the 2nd Battalion assault troops from the Henrico began to land in the first infantry wave at ‘H-Hour’ (06:30), those from the Samuel Chase did not begin landing until H+70 (07:40). This means that while Capa landed relatively early in the assault, he almost certainly did not land in the first wave, rather over an hour after it.

Careful examination of the photographs also gives clues to when Capa landed. D-Day planners chose 06:30 as 'H-Hour' because this was when the tide was at its lowest. At low tide, most of the deadly obstacles the Germans had placed on the beach would be exposed, allowing landing craft to avoid them while also making it easier for demolition teams to clear them. In Capa’s photographs, it is clear that the tide is not at its lowest, as the water can be seen to be reaching near the beach’s shingle bank and many of the obstacles are half or nearly fully submerged.

So when did Capa really land? At the earliest, he could have landed with the first group of landing craft from the Samuel Chase, which as mentioned began at 07:40, a time which is much more consistent with where the tide is in the photographs. Troops from the ship continued to land until 08:20. From eyewitness accounts and photographs he took on board, Capa is known to have left the beach at around 08:30 aboard LCI(L)-94, giving him a maximum of 50 minutes on the beach.

The importance of Capa's photos, and other D-Day photographers

Capa’s D-Day photography has recently been the subject of some discussion, with many questioning Capa’s narrative and even his bravery. Much has been made of his claim that nearly 100 photographs were lost in a processing accident the day after D-Day, leaving only the 10 we have today, while others have criticised his decision to leave the beach early. While these discussions are important in figuring out what actually happened and setting the record straight, they tend lose sight of how significant the photographs are as a record of the American experience on D-Day.

One of the most important aspects of Capa’s Omaha Beach photographs lies in their uniqueness. While there were certainly other photographers covering the Omaha Beach landings, no existing photographs are known to have been taken by anyone who had set foot on the beach as early as Capa did. For example, the photograph above, taken by American photographer Walter Rosenblum from the 163rd Signal Photographic Company, was actually taken the following day. 

Given the title 'Into the Jaws of Death,' one of the most famous photographs of Omaha Beach was taken by US Coast Guard Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F Sargent at the rear of his landing craft, at a similar time and in a similar location to where Capa’s were taken. The difference between Sargent’s photograph and Capa’s however is that Capa left the landing craft and captured the perspective of someone who was on the beach, in and amongst the chaos. Capa’s photographs also differ in that they depict a sequence, starting from the ramp of the landing craft to behind the cover of one of the tanks. They are likely to be the closest images we have to an American soldier’s perspective of the assault in its early hours.

Ultimately, Capa was undoubtedly there on the beach with the assault troops, exposed to many of the same risks as they were. There is no doubt that machine gun bullets and mortar and artillery shells would have been raining down around him. He would have seen men get hit and dead bodies floating in the water. He would have experienced the noises, the smells and the paralyzing fear that so many D-Day veterans can vividly remember. His photographs are unquestionably powerful images of the assault, and while it is so difficult for us, 75 years on, to imagine what it was like on that beach on D-Day, Capa’s photography gives us a small glimpse of that moment in time that very few others can.

Robert Capa: D-Day in 35mm, an exhibition featuring Capa's photographs alongside the stories of those who witnessed D-Day, was shown at IWM London in summer 2019. 

See more of Robart Capa's D-Day photos at Magnum Photos

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