D-Day 75 Years On

Today is the 75th anniversary D-Day, the start of the Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy. I thought I’d mark the occasion by posting a slightly edited version of a piece I wrote about 9 years ago about this very famous picture:

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.

Some time ago I came across a discussion of this image in the Observer. 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, is Jimmy Leisk who was born in Shetland. His strained expression gives the impression that he’s trying to escape from the photograph; through his eyes we get a glimpse of the grim reality of armed conflict. 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 over a month after D-Day.

In fact it is worth remembering that the Allies failed to achieve any of their goals for D-Day itself: as well as Caen, Carentan, St. Lô, and Bayeux all remained in German hands. Only two of the beaches (Juno and Gold) were linked on the first day, and it wasn’t until 12 June that all five beachheads were connected. The battle to secure and expand the foothold took far longer than anticipated and the success of the operation was by no means the foregone conclusion that some would have you believe.

7 Responses to “D-Day 75 Years On”

  1. Dark Energy Says:

    I think in phrases such as “entered Germany”, “German Panzer divisions” etc. “Germany” should be replaced with “Nazi Germany”.
    In general, IMHO best way to pay respect is to declare these dates as Anti-War days.

  2. It would have been much harder had not the elite Nazi troops be engaged on the Eastern front, failing to contain the Soviet advances…

    • telescoper Says:

      It would also have been harder had an entire division not stayed put in the Pas de Calais area thinking the Normandy landings were a feint!

    • Dark Energy Says:

      Agree. Used to hearing stories of (mostly European) men who fought their glorious battle on behalf of their king and
      country. The impact it had elsewhere remains untold. Just
      as how women cope with such man-made disasters often remains unknown too. History should be taught as His&HerStory.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Yes; Brits tend to grumble about Hollywood films set in the Pacific theatre which ignore the British effort against the Japanese, yet forget too easily that more than 2/3 of the Wehrmacht went down on the eastern front. There is a terrifying paragraph on the eastern front in World War 2 at Wikipedia’s entry


      The battles on the Eastern Front of the Second World War constituted the largest military confrontation in history. They were characterized by unprecedented ferocity, wholesale destruction, mass deportations, and immense loss of life due to combat, starvation, exposure, disease, and massacres. The Eastern Front, as the site of nearly all extermination camps, death marches, ghettos, and the majority of pogroms, was central to the Holocaust. Of the estimated 70–85 million deaths attributed to World War II, over 30 million, the majority of them civilian, occurred on the Eastern Front. The Eastern Front was decisive in determining the outcome in the European theatre of operations in World War II, eventually serving as the main reason for the defeat of Nazi Germany and the Axis nations.

      By the end of 1941 Hitler was clearly mad, having declared war on the USA and the USSR as well as the rest.

      Of course, all honour to the men who fought on D-Day and after on their front. You can only beat what’s in front of you – and they did.

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