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Robert Capa's D-Day pictures: 'The bullets chased me back every time'

Capa's iconic image shows American troops landing on Ohama Beach on 6 June. Credit: Robert Capa/Magnum Photos

If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough.

This, the ethos often attributed to perhaps the most famous war photographer of all time, was put to its sternest test on what he called the "father and mother of all D-Days".

Working for Life magazine, photojournalist Robert Capa joined thousands of armed men in putting his life on the line on 6 June 1944.

His assignment was to picture American troops as they landed on a section of Normandy coastline at Colleville sur Mer - codenamed Omaha Beach.

Capa joined the men as they travelled from Weymouth to Normandy. Credit: Robert Capa/Magnum Photos

It was a particularly chaotic assault that saw more than 34,000 men battling the odds as they crawled toward shore under heavy German bullet fire.

And while Capa had already taken huge risks capturing the bloody Spanish Civil War, nothing had quite prepared the 30-year-old for what he would experience at the heart of the largest seaborne invasion in history.

Soldiers take cover as they advance to shore. Credit: Robert Capa/Magnum Photos

Capa landed with the first wave of troops in the early hours of the morning.

A Hungarian who had lived for some time in France earlier in his career, he wrote of the dramatic arrival in his memoir, Slightly Out of Focus.

My beautiful France looked sordid and uninviting, and a German machine gun, spitting bullets around the barge, fully spoiled my return. 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.

– Robert Capa - Slightly Out of Focus
Capa was with the first wave of American troops, landing at dawn. Credit: Robert Capa/Magnum Photos

What we now know was that Capa was experiencing one of D-Day's most dangerous landings. Early estimates of 2,000 US casualties are now thought to have underestimated the cost experienced on this first day alone.

"The tide was coming in and now the water reached the farewell letter to my family in my breast pocket," he wrote, as he described mortar shell explosions whereby "every piece of shrapnel found a man's body".

Anti-tank defence obstacles provided a nightmarish landscape. Credit: Robert Capa/Magnum Photos

Under normal circumstances, the grey conditions would have been far from favourable for a photographer. However, amid the chaotic landscape of the beach, littered with anti-tank obstacles and shrapnel, the lack of definition merely added to an aura of other-wordliness.

Many publications that used the photos also added a caption to explain the haziness: "Capa's hands were badly shaking."

One in particular, a heavily-blurred image of a GI wading through water, came to be the defining image of the landings.

This image of a GI struggling to shore fronted Capa's memoir, Slightly Out Of Focus Credit: Robert Capa/Magnum Photos

As he tried to reach the shore, Capa told how he was forced to hide behind a "half-burnt" tank, wading between floating bodies for a few more pictures before his final "jump" to shore.

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.

– Robert Capa - Slightly Out of Focus
The scale of operations at Colleville sur Mer - codenamed Omaha Beach. Credit: Robert Capa/Magnum Photos

After an hour-and-a-half of pictures, he eventually boarded a ship where he aided medics as they treated those suffering severe injuries.

From there he made it to Weymouth, where an Army courier sent the film to London to be developed.

However, in the rush to get the stills to print, a dark room accident saw a young lab assistant melt the negatives, destroying all but eleven of the 106 images Capa had captured.

Robert Capa/Magnum Photos Credit: Robert Capa/Magnum Photos

Those that did survive were circulated around the world - celebrated as the first images from the midst of such a great battle.

Capa was well versed in the dangers of war. He had already risked his life in the Spanish Civil War, during which he also lost his lover, fellow war photographer Gerda Taro.

A Catholic mass pictured by Capa after the landings. Credit: Robert Capa/Magnum Photos

He went on to photograph the Allied push through France that led to victory, and later joined a French regiment covering the Indochina War, some years after saying he was finished with photographing conflict.

Capa stepped on a landmine during that ill-fated assignment, dying on 25 May, 1954 in north Vietnam.

German soldiers captured by American forces bury some of the men killed during the assaults. Credit: Robert Capa/Magnum Photos

While his work extended far beyond that strip of Normandy beach, the photographs from D-Day remain perhaps his most celebrated.

They were among the first images to document the true nature of war - making real the raw brutality and confusion of the landings that ultimately led to the liberation of Europe from Nazi terror.

Capa, right, and his sometime partner Gerda Taro both lost their lives covering conflict. Credit: Fred Stein/DPA

This article contains excerpts from Robert Capa's Slightly Out Of Focus (published by Modern Library).

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