Most Combat Footage from D-Day Was Dumped Into the English Channel By One Man

US Troops wading through water after reaching Normandy and landing Omaha beach on D Day, 1944. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
US Troops wading through water after reaching Normandy and landing Omaha beach on D Day, 1944. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Have you ever noticed a distinct lack of footage from the D-Day landings? Maybe you assumed that it was simply too dangerous to film, or that documentation was not a priority. This is far from the truth though, as the Allies made an attempt to thoroughly capture the entire event from the first few waves. So where is all of this footage now? Well, a lot of it sits on the bottom of the English Channel.

Documenting D-Day

Storming D-Day
Photograph of American troops approaching Omaha Beach, Normandy, on D-Day. Dated 20th Century. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

D-Day has become known as one of the most important military events of WWII, and even throughout all of history. Even those at the time recognized its significance, and they wanted to ensure it was properly documented.

Filmmakers assembled teams that would go with the troops onto the beaches of Normandy, recording all they could around them despite the danger. In addition, photographers were also sent in with the soldiers.

Cameras were also placed on hundreds of ships supporting the landings as well as a number of the landing craft taking men right to the beaches.

One of these men was John Ford, an American film director. Ford served as the head of the photographic unit for the Office of Strategic Services and made numerous high-profile movies of the war. He recorded the Battle of Midway as it took place, being wounded in the arm while doing so. Much of the work done by Ford and other directors like him was to support the war effort and was essentially propaganda, but on D-Day Ford was there to film as the ferocious battle unfolded.

He was to document the most deadly location of the landings; Omaha beach.

Ford was given a crew of Coast Guard cameramen to manage. They arrived off the coast of Omaha beach and saw the first wave go in. Sometime later, Ford and his men then landed on the beach themselves and began filming.

Ford and his men witnessed and recorded the horrors experienced by the first few waves landing on Omaha beach. For his efforts, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

Unfortunately, almost none of the footage they recorded would never be seen.

Lost footage

Omaha Beach Landing
Omaha Beach landings, D-Day, the Normandy Invasion, June 6, 1944. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Tragically, much of the footage Ford and his men risked their lives to get was lost to the sea. A large amount of film was placed into a duffel bag to be sent back to England, however, the junior officer carrying it, Major W. A. Ullman accidentally dropped it into the English Channel.

Some of the most detailed and extensive footage of the D-Day landings were lost forever.

Meanwhile, a film that was not placed in the cursed duffel bag was simply destroyed in the midst of the chaos. Water seeped into the equipment and many cameras mounted on ships and landing craft did not survive.

Because of this, there is now very little film that exists today which shows the first few hours of the landings on Omaha beach.

However a surprisingly large amount of footage did survive and was developed, but it is believed governments at the time withheld the footage because of the horrors it contained. Ford himself said in 1964 that the US government was “afraid to show so many American casualties on the screen.”

Some of this footage was discovered in the 1990s, but exactly what it shows is unknown.

Robert Capa

Robert Capa
View of the photographer Robert Capa (1913 – 1954) attending a meeting of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), New York, 1948. (Photo by Rae Russel/Getty Images)

A similar situation happened to Robert Capa, who was a civilian war photographer hired to photograph the actions on D-Day. He is considered to be one of the greatest war photographers in history.

Capa arrived on Omaha beach alongside the 1st Infantry Divison (the Big Red One) just an hour and a half after the invasion began, and managed to take photos of the action around him. Capa claimed to have taken 106 photos, but just 11 of these were usable, becoming known as the “The Magnificent Eleven.” The photos were the only ones that showed Omaha beach at this stage. The rest of these extremely historically valuable photos were said to have been destroyed in a processing incident once they had been sent back to London.

This claim has come under fire in recent years, with some suggesting that only 11 were ever taken.

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Regardless, the photos have become the defining images of the battle at Omaha beach, and even for D-Day as a whole. They were used as inspiration by Steven Spielberg for the filming of Saving Private Ryan.

With the significance of just 11 photos of the actions at Omaha, one can only imagine the value of the entire reels of film.

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE