Capa’s account on the Battle of the Bulge

photographic and tex memories of a photojournalist

Hungarion version
Click for galleryPhoto by Robert Capa/Magnum

Click for gallery
Photo by Robert Capa/Magnum

The Battle of the Bulge was seventy years ago in this period of the year. CNN now remembers the anniversary with the pictures of the world famous Hungarian war photographer Robert Capa.

The Battle of the Bulge (that was the source of the movie with the same title) is considered to be one of the most important battles of the second world war. Churchill told it was the most important battle of the US troops during the entire war. The battle lasted from 1944. December 16. to 1945. January 25. and it took about 100 thousand German and 67 thousand casualties in the Belgian forests.

On the seventieth anniversary CNN published a gallery from the pictures of Robert Capa to commemorate the historic events. They write of course the best photojournalist was there to cover the events at the end of December in 1944. They quote ICP curator Cynthia Young who tells he took these pictures during only a short period and they greatly differ from those action shots that made him famous.

Young tells Capa was a decided anti-fascist and he wasn’t an impartial observer of the war but wilfully served Allied propaganda:

“He photographed for the American and English press to inform readers of the war in the hope that his photographs would help garner Allied support” Young says Capa only photographed German solders when they were prisoners. She forgets to mention this wasn’t mere decision, it also came from Capa’s possibilities. The photographer foreign in origin with a bad accent often had confrontations even with the Allied soldiers despite his official accreditation and permissions. The jewish photographer would have no chance of taking pictures behind the German lines.
The CNN article however mentions his appearance was anything but military. They quote Kenneth Koyen’s words from History of photography about one of Capa’s many confrontations with military. His words seem to confirm some of the stories Capa mentions in his autobiographic based semi-fictional novel Slightly out of focus – about which mostly no one knows how much of it was in fact true and how much of it was only Capa’s bright imagination.

It’s worth to buy Slightly Out of Focus on Amazon and read it all, but here is a related quote from the book:

“The formidable General Patton was on the offensive again and had crossed the river Saar into Germany. Gaston said that this was a thing of great importance, and added that very real newspaperman was already off to the front.
Over at the Paris Life office, I found a stack of cables for me. They were from my boss in New York. He shared Gaston’s feelings, and urged me to join Patton’s army. So I packed my bag and returned to the Big War. Now hat we were fighting in Germany proper, I hoped my pictures would be exciting again, and maybe a little different from those of the past campaigns.

[…]

On the other side of the Saar I located battalion headquarters in the cellar of a small building. For the next few days it became my home. The artificial fog made it impossible to take pictures anyway, and I was convinced that the Army had invented the stuff not only against the enemy but against photographers too. I found a copy of War and Peace, and for five days and five nights I lay on my bedroll reading Tolstoy by the light of my torch.
It was a bad place for any man, and a hopeless one for a photographer, but my bedroll was warm and the book made great reading. As for the sound effects, they seemed made to order.

[…]

Every few miles we were stopped by special MP’s. They carefully examined our orders and identification cards, and asked for the ever changing password. Then, when we gave the password, they insisted on asking me a lot of very foolish and very embarrassing questions. “What is capital of Nebraska?” they wanted to know; and “Who won the last World Series?” They explained that German spies and saboteurs were being dropped by parachute behind our communication lines and were now promenading around in American uniforms and speaking perfect English. I spoke far from perfect English, and my accent seemed a bit unfashionable. What was worse, I did not know the capital of Nebraska. I was arrested a number of times, each time being delayed for many hours.

Finally we reached the headquarters of the 4th Armored Division, only about twenty miles from Bastogne. Their tanks were pushing ahead to relieve the airborne troops, who were a pretty battered bunch by now, and very short of ammunition.
I checked in as usual over at the Intelligence. But no sooner did I tell the colonel that I was a photographer than I was placed under arrest. I was put in a corner and ordered to turn my face to the wall – so that I could not see the situation maps. They finally got Colonel Redding on the phone, and I was allowed to turn around. The intelligence officer did not bother to say he was sorry; this was no time to be an enemy alien.

It was two days before Christmas. The fields were covered with snow and the temperature was well below zero. With frozen hands and feet, with weeping eyes, we pushed day and night to relieve Bastogne and bring the Christmas turkey to the boy of the 101st. Of the many correspondents on the drive, I was the only photographer. I wore all my clothes and over them I wore a long parka with a fur hood – something I had borrowed the year before form the mountain commandos on the Italian front.
My icy cameras hung around my neck, and I could not keep my gloved hand on the frozen shutter for longer than a split second. Five miles form Bastogne, I stopped my jeep on the road. A battalion of infantry was advancing on the snow-covered field just off the road. The smoke of the exploding shells hung above the black figures who were alternately lying down and standing up on the white carpet. It was my first unusual picture of war in a long time. I climbed up on the embarkment, took my Contax with the longest lens, and began to shoot. Suddenly a GI from the infantry battalion, about 150 yards away, yelled something to me and raised his tommy gun at the same time. I yelled back, “Take it easy!” but as he heard my accent he began to shoot. For a fraction of a moment I didn’t know what to do. If I threw myself flat on the snow he still could hit me. If I ran down the embankment, he would run after me. I threw my hands high in the air, yelled “Kamerad!” and surrendered. Three of them came at me with raised rifles. When they were close enough to make out the three German cameras around my neck, they became very happy GI’s. Two Contax cameras and one Roleliflex – I was the jackpot! I still kept my hands as high as I could, but when they were a rifle’s length away from me, I asked one of them to search my breast pocket. He took out my identification and the special phtoographer pass signed by Eisenhower himself. “I should have shot the bastard before!” he groaned. The famous Sad Sack was a gay blade compared to my three captors. I let my hands drop, took their picture, and promised it would appera in Life magazine.
I rejouned the tanks. I felt safer riding with a driver who spoke with a Texas drawl.”

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