Photographic images of war document the darkest moments of human history. More than this, they demand reflection on what it means to be human. If peace is the pinnacle of humanity, war is its nadir. And yet nations have warred since the advent of civilization thousands of years ago.
In fact, contemporary western society, in many respects, emerged from the unprecedented carnage of two world wars. With a final death toll of approximately 60 million people – equivalent to about 3% of the world’s population in 1940 – World War II was the most destructive military conflict in global history.
In Europe, the turning point in World War II came with the Allied invasion of northern France on June 6, 1944. The first day of battle, known as “D-Day” (which is also the general military term for any day of significant attack), pitted 156,000 Allied troops against Nazi forces on the beaches of Normandy.
The following full color images depict heavy combat during the Allied invasion. Where black and white images of war can convey powerful tones and textures, they can also have a somewhat dehumanizing effect, distancing the viewer from their content. By contrast, color images of war have the temporal and emotive power to connect audiences with the scenes, stories and people within them.
The invasion of Normandy was codenamed “Overlord” and its strategic objective was to secure an Allied foothold on the European continent, then occupied by Nazi Germany. Plans for the invasion were drawn up under pressure from the Soviet Union, which was facing its own invasion from German forces. In fact, by opening up a new Western Front, the Allies intended to divide and deplete Hitler’s military resources.
Stealth and secrecy were key to the plan, and in order to deceive the enemy about its details the Allies launched a misinformation campaign called “Operation Fortitude.” In fact, the Germans knew that the Allies were planning to invade, but they incorrectly thought that Pas de Calais, the nearest point to Britain across the English Channel, would be the site of the invasion.
The initial invasion ground force was comprised of troops from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Free France. The Allies selected five Normandy beaches as landing points. Codenamed Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold and Sword, the beaches were to be invaded by amphibious landing craft dispatched from bases on the coast of southern England.
As such, the invasion was initially scheduled for May 1, 1944. However, the Allies were forced to postpone due to an insufficient quantity of landing craft. So they rescheduled for June 4. Then poor weather rolled in, delaying the operation further. Finally, on June 6, the Allies launched their historic invasion of mainland Europe.
The invasion was led by overnight naval and aerial bombardments, parachute drops and glider landings. Then, at around 6:30 a.m., Allied ground forces landed on the beaches. The Germans fought back ferociously. Using defensive positions and the advantages of terrain to aid their maneuvers, they wreaked terrible casualties on the Allies.
Nonetheless, the Allies prevailed. And by June 9, they had transformed the 50-mile beachhead into two artificial harbors using components towed from England. Over the course of ten days, the harbors at Arromanches and Omaha received more than 600,000 men, 90,000 vehicles and 218,000 tons of supplies. Omaha harbor was subsequently destroyed in a storm and Arromanches harbor became obsolete after the capture of the port of Cherbourg.
The images in this collection were shot on film, apparently in the days and weeks following D-Day. At that time, the Allies’ immediate objectives were to capture the settlements of Saint-Lô, Caen, and Bayeux, and to establish a front some six to ten miles inland from where they’d landed. They anticipated success within a day. In reality, they were slow to advance from the beachhead, and success was far from guaranteed.
For example, combined British and Canadian forces were confronted by seven Panzer divisions in their bid to capture the city of Caen, an operation which lasted six weeks. Americans troops fared slightly better and only encountered two Panzer divisions. Pictured here is an apparent skirmish between Allied and Axis tanks.
Images of Normandy and other World War II battles generally derive from newsreel footage shot by the United Newsreel Corporation – a non-profit, government-funded organization formed by Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, 20th Century-Fox, Universal Studios and the Hearst Corporation. The organization was overseen by the Overseas Motion Picture Division of the Office of War Information (OWI).
“In times of war, the manipulation of thought and emotion is considered essential to generate a high level of morale, commitment, unity, and focus within soldiers, their families, and the ‘home front’ in general,” wrote Phillip W. Stewart in an article for Prologue magazine in 2015. “…To make this happen, [President] Roosevelt established the Office of War Information (OWI)… the official arm of government propaganda…”
In addition to English, the newsreel propaganda was apparently translated into 15 other languages, including German, meaning it was consumed globally as much as domestically. Distributed to allies, enemies and neutral countries, its purpose was to thwart enemy propaganda while promoting Allied narratives. In the case of Axis nations, United Newsreel footage was parachuted over enemy lines.
The footage itself was edited and censored by the U.S. government. Each of the five newsreel companies was allowed to dispatch two civilian camera crews to the major fronts. They worked with military combat cameramen to compile film reels for evaluation by the War Department. Off-message footage was then cut before the reels were made publicly available.
Given that newsreels were produced under strict government scrutiny, they cannot be considered unbiased historical sources. That fact notwithstanding, they contain a great volume of powerful visual records, including intimate moments that humanize an otherwise monstrous situation. Indeed, they invite empathy with the young men who sacrificed themselves for future generations.
At the conclusion of Operation Overlord on August 30, 1944 – the day when the Germans fled across the River Seine – the Allies had liberated all of northern France. Between them, the combatants had suffered approximately 425,000 casualties. Some 209,000 of these were from the Allies’ side, including 125,847 U.S. ground troops and 83,045 British, Canadian and Polish troops belonging to the 21st Army Group.
The success of Normandy spelled the beginning of the end of the war. Nazi domination of France was waning and, as intended, the operation also relieved Soviet forces on the Eastern Front. By the spring of 1945, subdued by Allied forces from the west and the Red Army from the east, Germany was entirely defeated.
Living with death and the fear of death, the men filmed at Normandy experienced horrors hard to imagine for those generations born afterwards. Ultimately, these images remind us of humanity’s enormous capacity for destruction, the futility of violence and, within the chaos of war, the fragility of life and fraternity, struggling to triumph.