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D-Day narrative started early, and still evolves

Jun. 4, 2014 - 04:22PM   |  

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U.S. reinforcements wade through the surf from a landing craft in the days following D-Day and the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France at Normandy in June 1944 during World War II. From the first sketchy German radio broadcast to the distribution of images filmed in color, it has taken decades for the full story of the D-Day invasion to come out. (Bert Brandt / AP)
This June 1944 file map photo shows a blackened area, on the Normandy beachhead indicating the approximate area captured by the allies at the end of four days of battle after D-Day, as continued Allied aerial bombings struck at objectives in the shaded belt. (AP)
This June 6, 1944, file photo shows American soldiers of the Allied Expeditionary Force securing a beachhead during initial landing operations at Normandy, France, June 6, 1944. (Weston Haynes / AP)

PARIS — From the first sketchy German radio broadcast to the distribution of images filmed in color, it has taken decades for the full story of the D-Day invasion to come out.

As world leaders and veterans prepare to mark the 70th anniversary of the invasion this week, multiple Twitter hashtags are following the ceremonies minute by minute. At the time, the reporting, filming and taking of photos was neither easy nor straightforward.

Here’s a look at how news of the D-Day landing got out and how we’ve been learning about the pivotal World War II invasion ever since.

Radio confusion

“This is D-Day. We shall now bring music for the Allied invasion forces...”

So said an English-language broadcast from German-controlled Calais Radio in northern France early on June 6, 1944, according to CBS radio in the United States, one of the first reports about an invasion. CBS said the first German reports of the landing reached the U.S. at “12:37 a.m. Eastern War Time” — known as Daylight Savings Time today. But Allied leaders hadn’t confirmed the landing yet, and U.S. journalists were wary about Nazi propaganda tricks.

A CBS announcer relayed the information, but cautioned: “The Germans are quite capable of faking this entire series of reports.”

Finally, nearly three hours later, a reporter cut in on CBS’ broadcast and then deferred to a U.S. military officer who read an announcement titled “Communique No. 1” coming in over a crackly line from Allied headquarters in London: “Under the Command of Gen. Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.”

Ike, as the troops called their commanding Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower, later issued a statement himself, confirming the landing was under way and that it was part of a plan for the liberation of Europe “made in conjunction with our great Russian allies” who were fighting bloody battles westward toward Berlin.

News agencies tell the tale

Across the world, newspaper readers woke up to banner headlines about the invasion. News agencies, including The Associated Press, contributed much of the reporting.

From Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force, AP staff writer Wes Gallagher — who later became president of the news cooperative — wrote of “4,000 regular ships and additional thousands of smaller craft” in the powerful assault. The report said initial landings from the English Channel began at 6 a.m. along the Normandy coast between Cherbourg and Le Havre, while gliders and parachutes dropped forces behind German lines. It said the invasion began a day later than originally hoped because of bad weather.

“All reports from the beachhead, meager though they were in specific detail, agreed that the Allies had made good the great gamble of amphibious landing against possibly the strongest fortified section of coast in the world,” Gallagher wrote.

Another AP reporter, Pugh Moore, described the airborne attack: “Wielding sheath knives and tommy-guns, thousands of American and British paratroops and glider troops swept down on sleeping Cherbourg Peninsula out of the pre-dawn blackness and immediately set about the task of disrupting Nazi rear lines by destroying key bridges, rail yards and enemy strong points.”

Also in AP reporting that day: President Franklin D. Roosevelt spent the morning of the invasion writing a prayer for victory while receiving reports on how the invasion was going.

Lost photos

When the first ships hit the coast, one photojournalist was already in the know — and bound to secrecy.

Robert Capa was embedded with U.S. troops on Omaha Beach, and his images were the first that Americans saw of the landings — more than a week later.

Even then, they didn’t see all of his work. Capa sent four rolls of negatives via couriers to his London editors at Life magazine. Photo editor John Morris had stayed up all night waiting for them. In a recent AP interview, Morris — now 97 — recalled that he sent an assistant to quickly develop the negatives. Haste made waste.

“The darkroom lad … came rushing into my office saying: ‘John, the films are all ruined. You were in such a hurry that I put them in the drying cabinet and turned on the heat.’ There was too much heat and the emulsion ran,” Morris said.

Strewn on the darkroom floor were the first three rolls. “There was nothing — just pea soup.

“But on the fourth there were 11 frames which had discernible images, so I ordered prints of all of those.”

Those frames — images shot from the surface of the English Channel of soldiers, boats and the beach — have been dubbed “The Magnificent 11.”

D-Day in color

Decades after the historic day, filmmaker George Stevens came across rare, color movie footage from D-Day and the Allies’ advance that his father had filmed but that had sat untouched in canisters.

His father, also named George, shelved his Hollywood career and enlisted in 1942 after seeing Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda films. Eisenhower assigned him to head the combat motion picture coverage of the war for newsreels and military archives.

But Stevens also took a 16-millimeter camera and boxes of Kodachrome film, for a personal diary that began on D-Day aboard HMS Belfast, a warship that fired the first British volley on that day.

The younger Stevens, in a recent AP interview, spoke of the experience of seeing the footage.

“This film came on and it was sort of gray blue skies … and it was on a ship,” he recalled. “It was suddenly, I realized, the morning of the sixth of June — the beginning of the greatest seaborne invasion in history. And I had this feeling that my eyes were the first eyes that hadn’t been there that were seeing this day in color.”

He made a documentary about his father released in 1994 for the 50-year anniversary of D-Day. It features color images of U.S. Gen. George Patton and British Gen. Bernard “Monty” Montgomery; French Gen. Charles de Gaulle arriving in a liberated Paris; flowers thrown by the French onto advancing Allied soldiers; even a red-lipstick kiss smooched on one GI’s face — as well as stomach-wrenching color images of corpses stacked high at the liberated Dachau concentration camp.

Associated Press Writers Angela Charlton and Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed to this report.

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