“The Greatest Picture of the War”

This remarkable photograph was taken at 8.32am on 6th June 1944 on “Queen Red” beach, a sector in the centre-left of  Sword Area, during the early stages of the D-Day invasion. The precise location is near La Brèche, Hermanville-sur-Mer, Normandy. The shutter clicked just as the beach came under heavy artillery and mortar fire from powerful German divisions inland.

I came across a discussion of this image in today’s Observer and decided to post it here, simply because it’s such a great  composition. As the article describes, it consists of “a series of tableaux that look like quotations from religious art”.  The piece goes on

In the foreground and on the right are sappers of 84 Field Company Royal Engineers. Behind them, heavily laden medical orderlies of 8 Field Ambulance Royal Army Medical Corps (some of whom are treating wounded men) prepare to move off the beach. In the background, men of the 1st Battalion, the Suffolk Regiment and No 4 Army Commando swarm ashore from landing craft.

The sapper in the bottom left, looking directly into the camera, looks terrified, and his expression makes it seem like he’s trying to escape from the photograph; through his eyes we get a glimpse of the shocking reality of armed conflict, which is far from the romantic way it’s portrayed in the movies. His colleague, turning away from the lens, seems to be calling to the men behind, but the image of his head and upper body links with the more distant figures forming a dramatic arc that pulls you into the centre of the picture before veering off to the right. Each element of this  image tells its own story, but apart from one person in the foreground, all the faces are all hidden from view. I’m sure these anonymous figures were all just as frightened as the man in the foreground, but their individual identities are lost as they blend into graphic depiction of the monumental scale of the invasion. It’s a truly wonderful work of art, and a brilliant piece of storytelling, at the same level as an Old Master, but this is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the photographer was risking his life to take this picture.

This photograph, which was taken by Sergeant Jim Mapham of the Army Film and Photography Unit, was described by the US Press as “the greatest picture of the war”.

Jim Mapham was one of seven cameramen of the AFPU who went in on D-Day: Sgt Ian Grant, Sgt Christie, Sgt Norman Clague (killed), Sgt Desmond O’Neill (wounded), Sgt Billie Greenhalgh (wounded) and Sgt George Laws. Their work forms an extraordinary record of the invasion and is still widely used by the media – but rarely credited.

Robert Capa, the famous Hungarian photographer, was also on the beaches that morning, pinned down in the waves by enemy fire. But while he clambered on to a landing craft to get his pictures back to London, Sgt Mapham moved inland with the invasion force…

Jim Mapham survived the D-Day campaign and entered Germany with the army to document the fall of the Third Reich and the horrors of the Belsen concentration camp. He died in 1968. Until today I’d never heard of him. His name should be much more widely celebrated. I understand that the complete set of photographs he took on D-Day can be found in the Imperial War Museum‘s photographic archive.

As a final comment let me add that, contrary to popular myth, the landings at the Sword beaches were by no means a pushover. It’s true that the American forces, especially at Omaha beach, suffered heavier casualties on the actual landings – primarily because they failed to get their tanks and heavy artillery pieces ashore. However, the British troops at Sword were the only ones at any of the five landing areas to encounter strong German Panzer divisions on D-Day. The main assault force at Sword beach was the British 3rd Infantry Division and its primary objective on the day of the invasion was to capture the city of Caen. As it turned out, the fighting was so heavy that they didn’t manage to take Caen until almost a month after D-Day.

36 Responses to ““The Greatest Picture of the War””

  1. u r a simpleton who gloifies war. there is nothing 2 it. cant fool us.

    • telescoper Says:


      That comment is unfair. I do not glorify war. I was strongly opposed to the invasion of Iraq as I am to the pointless suffering caused by our ongoing involvement in Afghanistan. In fact, if you want to know what I really think about the horror and futility of war, you could read this post


      But there’s no getting away from the fact that reason why we are able to live in freedom today is the self-sacrifice of my grandfathers generation. Had they not fought the Nazis 70 years ago we would now be living under Fascism. If anything deserves glorification it is the sacrifices made by that generation who faced such hardship and surmounted challenges far tougher than anything we have to face today. If you’re accusing me of glorifying them, then I plead guilty.


      PS. I’m not a simpleton either. At least I can spell.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:


    Perhaps you can see more clearly in The Observer’s larger version, but he doesn’t look terrified to me, just grim – as it surely was.

    I was on those beaches for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. The French had put out myriads of “Welcome to our liberators” signs: as so often, a people are more gracious than their leaders. I and the friend I was with talked to many veterans, and as soon as they realised that our interest was genuine they were glad to share their stories. We talked, among others, to Bill Millan, who gained fame by marching up and down his beach playing his bagpipes in open view. On the ferry back I saw a crewman with a newspaper headline saying that Brian Lara had scored 501* for Warwickshire, a new record and epitomising what the men had fought for.

    The first allied fighting men to touch French soil on D-Day were volunteer parachutists whose job was to guide the 6th British Airborne Division to its landfall near Caen. The 10 men dropped from the leading aircraft were:

    A Berkshire hod-carrier and a toolmaker from Kent, a bricklayer from Edinburgh, a Worcestershire kennelman and a lorry driver from Dumfries, two ‘regulars,’ a deserter from the ‘army’ of the Irish Free State and a refugee from Austria, led by a young lieutenant who, when war began, had been in the chorus of a West End musical comedy. Three of them had been at Dunkirk, one had fought in Africa, but the rest were going into battle for the first time.

    This moving description of the men comes verbatim from the outstanding book “The Struggle for Europe” by Chester Wilmot, an Australian war correspondent who dropped with those men (and who died in a plane crash in the 1950s). It is about how the options taken by the Allies in the later fighting itself, and the conferences in the later stage of the war – not subsequent events – led to the shape of postwar Europe and to a threat from Stalin as great as that from Hitler. Churchill and British generals come well out of it, US politicians and some generals don’t, although Wilmot generally praises Ike and certainly the GI. A book which can be had from Amazon for pence.


  3. telescoper Says:


    You’re probably right. I would have been terrified, but this chap was almost certainly braver than me. While I’m at it, let me give him a name check too. He was Jimmy Leask, who survived the war as did the other figure in the foreground looking away, Cyril Hawkins. Hats off to both of them, although I’m not sure either is still with us.

    Also playing an important role in the Sword landings were French commandos who stormed the town of Ouistreham, an action recreated in memorable style for the film The Longest Day, a sequence which contains what must be one of the longest uninterrupted tracking shots in cinematic history. Before the days of CGI effects, the choreography and execution of this are absolutely amazing. Heaven knows how long it would have taken to set up again if they needed a second take!


  4. Remarkable photograph Peter. Thanks for sharing this. The war was something I don’t think we should ever forget, while the costs our grandfathers paid was something I’m not sure we can ever really comprehend (or would ever want to).

  5. telescoper Says:


    Out of interest I’ll add that I’ve never been to the place featured here, but did many years ago spend a few days in Arromanches which is a few miles west. The beach there was codenamed Gold and was the middle one of the 5 landing sites. It was also where one of the two amazing Mulberry floating harbours was placed and where its remains can still be seen.

    I tend to avoid anniversaries and the like because the crowds and press coverage make it difficult to be alone with your thoughts. But I did make my way to the Allied Cemetery to pay my respects, as I have also done at Arnhem and, most recently, near Salerno in Italy, where members of my family who gave their lives in WW2 are buried.


  6. I think the bloke at the front looks very british…

  7. Rhodr Evans Says:

    Very moving. Makes our petty worries seem trivial and self indulgent.

  8. Anton Garrett Says:


    I largely agree with you about anniversaries. One reason I went to D-Day+50 was to talk to (and thank) veterans. To a man they were glad to speak of their experiences, once they knew I was serious. Probably those who preferred not to talk didn’t attend.

    For cemeteries, World War I is far more shocking. There are more names on English village war memorials from WW1 than WW2, and most of them fell in France. The Thiepval memorial by the Somme is deeply sobering, and the French counterpart, not less dreadful, was Verdun. When I visited Thiepval on a fine summer’s day I thought of the last sentence of Wuthering Heights:

    “I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heather and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”


  9. “Had they not fought the Nazis 70 years ago we would now be living under Fascism. ”

    Not necessarily. Fascism survived in Spain into the 1970s (with some support from the “free world”), but Spain today is no longer Fascist. While “what would have happened if” is too difficult a game to play, I don’t think that a German conquest of the UK during WWII would inevitably lead to the continued existence of Nazism until today.

    While WWII itself was about as justifiable as a war can be, this does not mean that everything the Allies did was beyond reproach.

  10. Hate to be a little controversial, but quite clearly blighty lost the second world war. We came out of it, like much of the world (but not the US), shattered, empire falling apart, broke and despirited. The goal, of freeing Europe from the Nazis, resulted in 1/2 of Europe under Stalin, and in the 60+ years Germany and Japan have been reborn economically and socially, Russia and China are immense world powers, and blighty’s influence has waned. We lost.

    This struck me when reading Fred Hoyle’s biography when he spoke about how in post war Holland he could buy a thick ham sandwich when in blighty everyone was still on ration coupons. Holland had been bombed and beaten even more than the UK, but we were broke, and it set us down the path to blighty today.

  11. telescoper Says:


    Much of what you say is true, but I can’t agree that Britain emerged from WW2 dispirited. The country was in ruins, bankrupt and was about to lose the Empire but the immediate aftermath of the war saw a determination to make things better. Amongst other things, we got the National Health Service. That optimism didn’t last in the extended post-war austerity – rationing wasn’t lifted until the 50s – and much of the bomb damage wasn’t repaired for decades. The reason was there was no Marshall plan for us.

    Compare our living standards and general level of comfort with the generation of the 1940s, however, and you have to admit that we didn’t come out of it too badly in the long run. Apart from everything else all this satisfied our craving for comething to complain about.

    I agree that having 1/2 of Europe under Stalin wasn’t a victory – especially Poland which was ostensibly the reason we entered the war – but it was a better outcome than having all of Europe under Hitler.

    You might argue that other countries did better than we did. That’s probably true, but ensuring their prosperity was necessary to prevent further conflict. The loss of Empire wasn’t so bad anyway. Ask people from India what they think. It does seem to have a bad psychological effect, however, on some people who think such things are important. Being a “world power” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; we should be adult enough to enjoy our lives without feeling the need to boss everyone else around.

    The problem, I think, is that too many people find it too difficult to accept the realities of the modern world and keep harking back to a time when Britain ruled the waves and half the map was coloured pink. That sense of superiority has caused us to blunder into countless disasters overseas and has tainted our image of ourselves and to those overseas. Our post-Imperial sleepwalk has gone on too long. The inheritance our grandfathers gave us has all but run out.

    But who “wins” a war anyway? Whoever gets to write the history books? In that sense maybe we did win, although my own view is that we didn’t really win, we just didn’t lose as much as we might have done.


  12. telescoper Says:

    I admit to still being a bit stung by the first comment on this thread.

    One of the things I should have said about why I find this image so powerful is that while I do read quite a lot about history, it makes me uncomfortable when it is discussed in terms of power struggles between nations and empires. To me it’s the people that matter and the stories of people caught up in such events is often truly inspirational. In the photograph you can see the awesome scale and terrifying violence of the invasion, which is history on one level, but more powerful than that is the face of Jimmy Leask. Just as the shells started to fall, one brave man took a picture. At that instant, another looked into the camera. His eyes meet yours and connect you with his experience all those years ago.

    I still don’t know whether he looks terrified or not, but the very least his face isn’t glorifying war. I rather think it’s saying “I’m just an ordinary bloke who’s not here for glory, but because there’s a job to be done”.

  13. Note that the German president Horst Köhler recently resigned—surprising everyone—after similar criticism. Interestingly, the press picked up on it a couple of weeks after his “controversial” statement, which was made aboard a plane on the way back from Afghanistan. In contrast to Peter’s, his statement was actually unclear. How much this was due to his being tired on the plane and not good at spontaneous speeches and how much was “too honest” is hard to say, as well as the question whether there were actually other reasons (it’s not hard to think of a few) for his resignation and this was the one he chose to hang it on and/or the straw that broke the camel’s back.

  14. telescoper Says:


    I don’t know which statements you are referring to, either by me or by Horst Köhler…


  15. Your statement is your post to which this is a comment. Horst Köhler was also criticised for “supporting war”, as you were in the first comment on this post. Both criticisms are rather far-fetched. My point is that even heads of states are sometimes criticised unjustly (to your credit, Köhler’s statement was at best unclear) so you’re in good company.

    Even if the criticism is not justifed, it should be seen as progress that supporting war is something one should be criticised for. (Of course, the critics should target those who really do support war.)

  16. telescoper Says:

    By the way, you’ll note that I’ve now introduced comment threading so you can now reply to individual comments.

  17. Simon Mooney Says:

    I discovered this thread while searching for more information on the photographer Sgt Mapham. I had reason to research this particular photograph early this week following a conversation with our office cleaner. Here’s what I posted about that on another WW2 forum:

    “The Famous Sword Beach Photo and our Office Cleaner

    Had an interesting conversation with Wendy our cleaner this morning. She noticed the usual pile of WW2 books on my desk and told me her uncle had been one of the first on the beaches “at Dunkirk” and that a famous picture I suspected she meant the D-Day landings and the well known Sgt Mapham picture from Sword Beach came to mind. I flicked through a couple of books and showed her the photograph. One caption, although French, identified three sappers – Jimmy Leask, Cyril Hawkins and Fred Sadler. “That’s him!” she said “Fred Sadler!”.

    It’s a small world.

    Here’s the full caption and picture (from the Imperial War Museum archive in London).

    In the foreground are Sappers Jimmy Leask (left, glancing up at the photographer) and Cyril Hawkins of No. 1 Platoon, 84 Field Company RE, whilst on the right, walking towards the camera past the medical orderlies of No. 8 Field Ambulance, is Sapper Fred Sadler of the same Platoon. All three members of 84 Fd Coy RE survived the war.”

  18. Donfeatures Says:

    Mr father was Desmond O’Neill and I’m always interested to read things like this.

  19. Cyril Hawkins is my father’s uncle. It is correct that he survived the war. He married and had one daugther. He died in Exeter in 1993. I’ve grown up knowing it is Cyril in the picture and I am glad that this is now widely recognised as when I was at school and pointed out his photo in history books, and said he was my Uncle Cyril, everyone thought I was making it up!

  20. Wendy Leask Says:

    Sapper Jimmy Leask was my grandfather. He emigrated to Canada from Scotland and passed away in 1967 before I was born. My family only recently discovered this photo within the past 5 years when I sought to learn more about our military heritage by acquiring his service records, etc. I believe this photo came out in 1953-54? I doubt he even knew it existed.

  21. Drumaneen Says:

    This is truly an excellent photo of D-day – some interesting further discussion of it here http://ww2talk.com/forums/topic/16324-84-field-company-royal-engineers-d-day-3-new-film-footage/?hl=drumaneen#entry285211

  22. You do not mention Ian James Grant.Cameraman on the beach.
    Can you tell me why as he received the Military Medal for his work on the beaches and throughout the war?

  23. Imperial Says:

    All wars are fought for economic reasons. Authorities always find a
    moral reason to justify it. Great Britain was fighting to protect the shipping routes that connect it to its empire nothing else.

    • telescoper Says:

      That’s a truly idiotic comment.

    • Certainly not all wars. Yes, some wars are fought purely for economic reasons, and they are a contributing factor in many others.

      By chance, I came across this quote today:

      “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

      —Dwight D. Eisenhower

      • Opinionated Moron Says:

        Completely disagree. Political conflict on the surface
        may seem like result of religion, culture or national identity
        but they are simply expression of more fundamental
        economical dynamics.

  24. Imperial Says:

    People who fought for their country should have fought against
    the authorities in their country. Against the oppression.
    Movement of the working class is always undermined by
    the nationalists who divert the attention from internal economic
    problems, which is inherent in any capitalistic system – by
    pointing to some external enemy. The root cause of
    second world war was the crash of the share market.
    Even today, multinationals make a huge profit by selling
    war equipment to third world countries. The regional
    conflicts are kept alive and often fomented just to
    test and sell sophisticated weapons.

    • Opinionated Moron Says:

      Yes, history is shaped by economics and nothing else.
      Economics is to social sciences what physics is to
      natural sciences. Organic chemistry and inorganic
      chemistry may seem different to biologists
      but for a physicist they are dictated by same
      electro-dynamics. The superstructures of culture,
      religions are based on underlying rules of economics.
      A hungry man doesn’t have any religion, culture
      or a country. Those feed him use religion, culture
      and nationality to enforce his obedience.

      • telescoper Says:

        May I ask what is the economic reason for you using a variety of pseudonyms to disguise your identify while you post silly comments on this blog?

      • Imperial Says:

        Hungry man is an angry man. His anger is channelised
        using religion, nationalism and culture so they don’t revolt
        against the state.

      • Imperial Says:

        With all due respect,
        fascism is also about suppressing other’s opinion.
        The fact that some still can’t express their views
        without a pseudonym is a prove that battle against
        fascism is far from over. Let people decide what is
        silly or idiotic.

        History of Europe is an
        integral part of human history. A truth half told
        is not a truth at all. Millions of ordinary people died
        during the second war in the empire –
        I will look forward to read about them someday in your blog.

        Sorry, if I offended, that was not the intention.
        Like many others I too have very close relatives
        who have lost their lives fighting a war that was not their own.

        I hope you will do a blog about Gurkhas who too
        fought for the same cause still don’t have the same
        pension as others.

      • telescoper Says:

        Nothing is stopping you writing a blog about whatever you want. That’s freedom of speech. You do not have the right to dictate to me what I should write on mine.

        I do not however feel obliged to let people rant anonymously on this blog, particularly if you accuse me of being a fascist (which you clearly do in your comment above). Comments are allowed as a courtesy. I do have a comments policy on the front page of this blog. I think it’s time I invoked it. Please find another place to troll.

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