Operation Overlord was initiated on 6 June 1944 more than 76 years ago. Commonly known as D-Day — a military term for the first day of a combat mission — it was the largest seaborne invasion in history and it set off the Normandy Offensive, which effectively opened a second Western front in Nazi-occupied Europe.
At the same time, American, British and Canadian forces landed on five beachheads in northern France, supported by more than 13,000 aircraft and 5,000 ships.
Conscious that a key phase in the war would be the Normandy campaign, the Allies prepared to record it thoroughly through film and still photography.
“Everything for the year before was a buildup to that, in terms of resources, manpower and planning, so the Allies knew it was going to be a huge deal … or a deal breaker,” Anthony Richards, head of documents and sound at the Imperial War Museum (IWM), said in a phone interview.
“With that in mind, it was really important for them to document it photographically and on film, as a historical event but also for propaganda reasons.”
The latest book by Richards, “D-Day and Normandy: A Visual History,” contains unpublished and rarely seen beach landing photographs, many of which were taken by professional photographers integrated in specific units.
“They were very much on the front line with the troops going in. They were capturing the action as it was happening. They would have been under fire, so they were obviously very brave individuals who weren’t holding back,” Richards said.
D-Day: Around 6:30 a.m. the 160,000 troops who had crossed the English Channel overnight began to come ashore on 6 June. Heavily secured beaches and full of obstacles. Some of the images, like the one above, show the exact moment each unit landed.
“You can just about see that the soldier right in front is carrying bagpipes. That’s because he’s the piper for that particular unit and he was about to start playing as they went through the water to keep morale up. In a way, that’s the perfect image. It shows the dangers and everything they were facing,” said Richards.
D-Day: On top of that, the cameras with which photographers worked were very voluminous. There was a real risk of them dropping their equipment, especially when they were in the water, which would likely have ruined the film.
“We know for a fact that a lot of the films were damaged from seawater, whereas today you could drop cameras at the bottom of the ocean and they’d probably be alright,” said Richards.
The film was taken back to England after the battle along with a dope sheet — a form that describes each image in the roll and the unit from which it originated.
Even though most of the campaign’s photos are black and white, a few thousand pictures were taken at the end of the war using newly created color film, showing information that would otherwise have been lost.
The Allies had suffered more than 226,000 casualties by the end of August (with nearly 73,000 deaths) and more than 240,000 of the Germans. Around 13,000 to 20,000 people were also killed. But northern France was liberated, and from the west the Allies advanced into Germany, while the east entered the Soviet Army.
These images offer a rare understanding into this decisive victory. “This visual record brings it all to life and it really does put it into perspective,” said Richards.
“That’s the ultimate value of images like these: They help us engage with history and put ourselves in the place of those soldiers.”
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