[Editor's note: Following up on my analysis, in an earlier post, of the timing of Robert Capa's arrival at and departure from Omaha Beach on the morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944, photojournalist and author J. Ross Baughman brings his experience as a combat photographer to bear on a frame-by-frame analysis of the 10 remaining images Capa made there. Part 2 appears below; click here for Part 1. — A. D. Coleman]
Battlefield Conditions on D-Day
during Robert Capa’s Coverage 6 June 1944 (continued)
What details about the Easy Red sector of the beach can be confirmed directly from Robert Capa’s photographs? The notes below take them in sequence, referring to them by their order on the contact sheet (CS) and the negative number visible on the film. An annotated version of the contact sheet appears at the end of these frame analyses.
CS frame 7/neg. 35:
Capa has relocated to the safety of Vehicle No. 10, and now pivots his camera back toward the sea, pointing north-northeast. Four troops share a very desperate position while lying prone on the wet sand, their single hedgehog affording almost no protective advantage against well-aimed enemy fire. Three small abandoned backpacks appear at the right, and in the foreground, two flotation belts lay discarded. In the background, a formation of three landing craft approaches the beach to deliver more troops in the Second Wave at 07:45 a.m. The photo is sharply focused on the soldiers.
Analysis: Despite orders to get off the beach as soon as possible, these men seem unable or unwilling to move forward. The Allied high command worried that continuous arrival of more landing craft would create a deadly bottleneck of troops that would have no chance for finding protective cover.
CS frame 8/neg. 36:
Capa shoots essentially the same section of beach as in Frame 7, but from a slightly greater distance. The soldier at the far left has not moved, and seems to be in fine condition. The other soldiers have hugged closer to the sand, and could possibly be wounded. In the background we see the progress of the same approaching landing craft.
CS frame 9/neg. 37 [which would have been marked on the film as 37, although this original negative is missing]:
Capa describes joining the troops huddled behind “a half-destroyed amphibious tank” [Vehicle 10, seen in Frames 3-5, negs. 31-33], and it is clearly from this vantage point that he looks back towards the sea and spots Huston Riley. The facts of the water’s depth and the last row of hedgehog obstacles appearing in the background pinpoints Capa’s position. Riley describes Capa heading immediately back into the sea to board a large hospital ship that had just pulled up onto the beach, at about 07:50. Capa’s total time on the ground could be as short as 20 minutes, and no more than 30.
CS frame 10/neg. 38:
Capa heads back to the water’s edge, seeing the same part of the beach defenses that he shot in Frame 6. Four soldiers can be seen hiding behind various wooden obstacles.
Final Analysis: For the American, Canadian, British and Free French forces, the invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944 was the longest and most important day up to that point in the war. A picture editor in London for LIFE magazine could only hope first and foremost that the six photographers he sent off to cover D-Day wouldn’t die trying. None of them did.
Beyond that, a picture editor could only try to arrange a front-row seat for each camera. Whatever fate fell upon those scattered military units, at least each photographer would have shared in that experience seamlessly.
Did the quality of photographs Capa turned in from D-Day earn him a promotion, raising him up from contract photographer into a full staffer at LIFE? Only if his late, thin package of prints benefited from a most extraordinary salesmanship. Based on that all-important assignment, I would have been hard-pressed to give him another chance. I might have turned instead to some enthusiastic 18-year-old fellow trapped back in the darkroom, like Larry Burrows. I wonder if he was ready, and how he might have handled a trial by fire.
Omaha Beachhead on D-Day: A Summary
Omaha was divided into ten beaches, codenamed (from west to east): Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog Green, Dog White, Dog Red, Easy Green, Easy Red, Fox Green and Fox Red. Capa attached himself to the hundred men of Easy Company, assigned to the 2nd Battalion, which also had two other rifle companies, and together they joined the assault on the Easy Red section of Omaha Beach.
The first wave landings were scheduled to start at 06:30, “H-Hour,” on a flooding tide, preceded by a 40-minute naval and 30-minute aerial bombardment of the beach defenses, with the DD tanks arriving five minutes before H-Hour, although very few of the special floating armored vehicles made it to shore.
Those troops arriving at 06:30 were combat engineers assigned to clear the obstacles on the beach, and these were followed 30 minutes later by the rifle companies. Only five of the 16 engineer teams arrived at their assigned locations, but some of their most effective work took care of a wide swath on the eastern half of Easy Red.
Very little else went according to plan. Ten landing craft were swamped by the rough seas before they reached the beach, and several others stayed afloat only because their passengers baled water out with their helmets. Seasickness was prevalent among the troops waiting offshore.
The infantry were organized into specially equipped assault sections, 32 men strong, one section to a landing craft. The continuous arrival of reinforcements every 15 minutes meant that clearing the tank traps, land mines and other obstacles was the first priority. The crucial order repeated again and again to all of the infantrymen was “Get off the beach. If you stay there, you’ll be in the killing zone.”
Capa’s unit arrived on one of the 81 Higgins boats officially designated as LCVPs, although with the alphabet-soup of military abbreviations, these were commonly misnamed as LCI, which actually described a larger craft. Once the front ramp came down, all the troops trained to debark their landing craft in 19 seconds, according to studies from the War Department. The entire armada servicing Omaha Beach consisted of 2 transport ships; 6 Landing Ships, Tank (LSTs); 53 LCTs; 5 Landing Craft Infantry (Large) (LCI/(L)s); 81 LCVPs; 18 LCAs; 13 other landing craft; and about 64 DUKWs.
Where the naval bombardment had set grass fires burning, as it had at Dog Red opposite the Les Moulins strongpoint, the smoke obscured the landing troops and prevented effective fire from being laid down by the Germans. Another decisive factor was the natural layout of the beach. At those exits off the beach known as the draws, Germans had concentrated their toughest defenses. Allied troops landing near them quickly wound up in no shape to carry a further assault.
Only in the areas between the draws, at the bluffs where Capa’s unit landed, were troops able to land in greater strength. The eastern end of Easy Red, was an area between strongpoints. Most of the 63 casualties for the day came before they had reached the inland edge of the beach.
Those scattered sections landing at Easy Red encountered a deep runnel after being landed on a sandbank, and were forced to discard most of their weapons to make the swim ashore.
“Are you going to lay there and get killed, or get up and do something about it?” came the challenge from one unidentified lieutenant on the Easy Red section of Omaha Beach.
Scattered elements of three companies were reduced to half strength by the time they gained the relative safety of a sand berm known as “The Shingle,” because its steep angle resembled the side of a roof. Many of these combat engineers had crawled the 300 yards of beach just ahead of the incoming tide.
Survivors at the shingle, many facing combat for the first time, found themselves relatively well-protected from small arms fire, but still exposed to artillery and mortars. In front of them lay heavily mined flats exposed to active fire from the bluffs above. Morale naturally became a problem. Many groups were leaderless and witnesses to the fate of neighboring troops and landings coming in around them.
The second and larger wave of assault landings brought in reinforcements, support weapons and headquarter elements at 07:00 only to face nearly the same difficulties as had the first. The only advantage enjoyed by second wave was that it was larger, and so the defenders’ fire was less concentrated.
The survivors of the first wave were unable to provide effective covering fire, and in places the fresh landing troops suffered casualty rates as high as those of the first wave. Failure to clear enough paths through the beach obstacles also added to the difficulties of the second wave. In addition, the incoming tide was beginning to hide the remaining obstacles, causing high attrition among the landing craft before they had reached the shore.
Between 07:30 and 08:30 elements of Easy Company came together and climbed the bluffs at Easy Red, between German bunkers designated WN-64 (defending the E-1 draw) and WN-62 (the E-3 draw).
Led by Second Lieutenant John M. Spalding and Captain Robert L. Sheppard V, Easy Company turned westward along the top of the bluffs, engaging in a two-hour battle for a German bunker designated WN-64. His small group of just four men had effectively neutralized this point by mid-morning, taking 21 prisoners — just in time to prevent them from attacking freshly landing troops. On the beach below, the 16th RCT commander, Colonel George Taylor, had landed at 08:15, with the words “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die — now let’s get the hell out of here!”
At 09:05, German observers reported that the key bunker WN-61 was lost.
[This account of the landing was assembled from multiple articles on Wikipedia and elsewhere, but primarily from Wikipedia's "Omaha Beach." — J. R. B.]
(Click here for Part 2. For an index of links to all posts in this series, click here.)
(To see all of Capa’s D-Day images at the Magnum website, click here.)
In 1978, at the age of 23, photojournalist J. Ross Baughman became the youngest professional ever awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and was cited for his coverage of the guerrilla war in southern Africa. While continuing to work that same year as the first contract photojournalist ever hired by the Associated Press, he competed against himself with two other nominations: For infiltrating the American Nazi movement over nine months to uncover their assassination and bombing plans and once more for being the first journalist to ever accompany Palestinian commandos operating behind Israeli lines.
Baughman soon went on to become an international lecturer on journalism ethics, a university professor and founder of the photo agency Visions, which specialized in long-term, high-risk, difficult-access investigative photo essays around the world. Besides covering wars in 11 countries, his work has appeared everywhere from LIFE to Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Time, Stern, The New York Times Magazine and Vogue.