BEHIND THE IMAGE: Churchill visits Caen, July 1944

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Image: Daily Herald Archive / National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
Image: Daily Herald Archive / National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

First published in the Daily Herald in 1944, this recently rediscovered photograph shows a scene of extreme contrasts. The panoramic background is almost filmic in its depiction of utter devastation, featuring splintered buildings, rubble, and the skeletons of burnt-out structures.

But standing in the foreground is a group of smiling soldiers. Looking exhausted, they are clustered around a Jeep containing the unmistakable figure of Winston Churchill. We see the great man only from behind, but his distinctive silhouette leaves us in no doubt as to his identity.

Shot in black and white, everything in the image – buildings, rubble, uniformed soldiers, and even Lieutenant-General Sir Miles Dempsey, commander of the Second Army – reflects the same shade of grey, except for the figure of Churchill himself, who appears as a recognisable hunk of black, wearing a dark coat and naval cap. As other pictures in the series show, there is almost certainly a cigar clamped between his fingers or lips.

Churchill travelled incessantly during the war. In this picture, taken in Caen around six weeks after the D-Day landings, we find visiting troops in France for the second time since the beginning of Operation Overlord.

Although the initial Allied objective had been to take Caen on 6 June, directly after landing, the Germans threw their reserves into a series of fierce counterattacks in an effort to hold onto the capital of Lower Normandy, a key communications hub. The fighting to take the city therefore lasted well into July, during which time its architecture, including important medieval buildings, was reduced, by air attacks and ground fighting, to little more than battered fragments. As well as damage to the city’s fabric, which took decades to repair, 2,000 French civilians were killed during the battle for Caen.

The war was still far from won, but this moment, captured on camera, makes the future look more hopeful than the recent past.

This article was published in the May 2016 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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