‘If ever a photograph needed a soundtrack, this one does,” began an elegant appreciation of this remarkable image, published in the New Review last month to mark the anniversary of D-Day. “The photographer stills life into a series of tableaux that look like quotations from religious art.”
True indeed, but that single reference to “the photographer” drew an angry response from a reader who knew something of what the cameraman had experienced. Desmond Davis served in the Army Film and Photographic Unit and chastised the Observer for failing to give credit to a colleague who risked his life to take what the US press had called “the greatest picture of the war”.
He was Jim Mapham, who, by 1944, had already recorded the Eighth Army’s triumph at El Alamein and been made Field Marshal Montgomery’s official photographer. This picture is just one of a portfolio of images captured by Sgt Mapham throughout that extraordinary day which now lies in the Imperial War Museum’s huge photographic archive.
The shutter clicked at 8.32am as “Queen Red” beach near La Brèche, Hermanville-sur-Mer, came under shell and mortar fire. 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 IWM has identified the sappers in the foreground as Jimmy Leask (left, glancing up at Sgt Mapham’s camera) and Cyril Hawkins, while on the right, walking towards the camera, is Fred Sadler of the same platoon. All three men survived the war; they appear in another archive photograph taken when they reached the Rhine.
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 and linked up with the Resistance before entering Germany to record the collapse of the Third Reich.
The horrors of the Belsen concentration camp came under Mapham’s unflinching eye before he went with Monty to Lüneburg Heath for the signing of the peace treaty. Hostilities over, Mapham continued to accompany Montgomery. When they travelled by rail, Monty rode in Hitler’s personal coach and Mapham rode in Goering’s.
After witnessing so many tragedies and triumphs, Jim Mapham returned to the relative tranquillity of the Leicester Mercury, where he was chief photographer until he died in 1968, aged only 59, a man forever remembered for one click of the shutter.
This column was originally published in The Observer on July 11, 2010.