The First D-Day Documentary

This post was written by Steve Greene. Steve is the Special Media Holdings Coordinator for the Presidential Libraries System. Previously, he was the audiovisual archivist for the Nixon Presidential Materials.

Despite being cataloged, described, and housed at the National Archives for decades, the films created by the U.S. Military during World War II still hold unexpected surprises.

In a recent search for combat moving image footage to complement the Eisenhower Library’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the D-day landings, I identified four reels of a documentary on the landings prepared by the “SHAEF [Supreme Headquarter Allied Expeditionary Forces] Public Relations Division.”

These reels were assigned separate, nonsequential identifying numbers in the Army Signal Corps Film catalog (Local Identifiers: 111-ADC-1319, 111-ADC-1318, 111-ADC-2093, and 111-ADC-1336) suggesting that the Army did not recognize them to be parts of single production. Rather than offering the perspective of a single combat photographer, the reels shifted perspective from the sea, to the air, to the beaches, suggesting careful editing to provide an overview. The 33 minutes of film were described on a shot card as “a compilation of some of the action that took place from D Day to Day Plus 3, 6-9 June 1944.” The production, with no ambient sound, music or effects, includes a single monotone narrator and gives the impression of a military briefing set to film.

This film is probably the first film documentary of the events of the first four days of the D-day assault, created within days of the invasion.

Excerpt from War Diary of Film and Photo Section, Public Relations Division, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces. (To view complete document in a new window, click on excerpt.)

The story started several weeks earlier, when I was approached by a professional researcher, Bonnie Rowan, who had heard that legendary Hollywood director John Ford told a story about filming D-day. His “Field Photographic Unit” of the Office of Strategic Services (the wartime precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency), he said, had prepared a film report for the civilian and military leadership in the wake of the invasion.

Rowan had found a description for a similar film in the holdings of the Imperial War Museum in London but had been unable to obtain a screening reel.(We have since identified a substantially identical film to ours in the IWM’s on-line catalog.) Since she had had no luck finding such reels in the holdings at the National Archives at College Park, she wanted to know whether such a film existed in the Roosevelt or Eisenhower Presidential Libraries. She also wanted to know if there was any record of such a film being screened for President Roosevelt. While I found no such film at the libraries, and no record of a screening, my interest was piqued.

When I came across the four reels prepared by SHAEF Public Relations, the lack of sound other than narration suggested the film was a rushed effort, completed perhaps days after the assault. My suspicions were aroused.

While we have not been able to identify a production file for the film, a fascinating inside account of the preparations for filming D-day exists in Record Group 331 in the files of the Public Relations Division, in a folder titled “334—Joint Anglo-American Film Planning Commission.” The folder describes an extraordinary commitment of resources to obtaining combat camera footage of the invasion of Europe. Both Ford’s “Field Photographic Branch” and Maj. George Stevens’ (another legendary Hollywood Director) “Special Coverage Unit” were assigned to London in the early spring of 1944 and tasked with documenting the upcoming assault. SHAEF’s Public Relations Division was assigned the responsibility for coordinating all combat photography of the assault.

Click to read orders for Major George Stevens and Commander John Ford to report for duty at European Theater of Operations in Spring of 1944:

Remarkably, given this focus on documenting the invasion, little footage of the first wave of the assault on the American beaches, Omaha and Utah, survives. Combat camera photographers usually carried 35mm motion picture film cameras. Bulky and heavy, the cameras and film limited the weaponry, food, and supplies these men could carry and made them stand out as targets on the beaches. Many fixed cameras mounted to landing craft were destroyed by fierce enemy fire, and an entire duffel bag filled with film shot in the first day of landings was reported lost overboard by an officer transporting the film for processing.

Letter of authorization for a Maj. W. A. Ullman to report to Omaha Beach at 1030 hours on D-day to transport footage to London.

So what is the significance of this film? Who created it? Who was the audience? Period documents offer some clues.

A letter in the OSS personnel folder for Capt. John Ford recommends him for the Distinguished Service Medal on the strength of his activities documenting the D-day invasion, specifically mentioning: “The returning film was assembled under his directions, and an overall D-Day report, complete with sound, was competed on D plus 5, and was shown to Mr. Winston Churchill. Copies were also flown to President Roosevelt and Mr. Stalin.”

An additional document circulated in SHAEF headquarters in London on June 12 (D-day plus 7), cited “an uncensored film of the assault on the French Coast” to be shown, lasting “approximately 38 minutes.” Yet another document found in the OSS files asks why a credit line to the OSS was omitted from the “Secret SHAEF film.”

Memo announcing screening of “Secret SHAEF Film” in SHAEF headquarters, London.

Unless another secret D-day documentary of around the same length was circulating around the same time, a strong circumstantial case can be made that this film and these newly identified reels may be one and the same. We know from contemporary accounts that both Ford and Stevens remained ”on the far shore” through most of June. A claim that both or either of the famed directors were involved in any “hands-on” fashion in the production of these reels is probably specious. Certainly both men were responsible for recruiting, training, equipping and providing broad direction to the entire effort, from the cameramen on the landing craft and beaches, to the technicians and editors assembling the reels just days after the invasion.

How was this important production forgotten? How did even the military lose track? Again, we can only guess. As the tide of battle turned rapidly, the focus drifted from D-day in a matter of weeks: filmmakers and cameramen moved on to new assignments. With the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, the disestablishment of SHAEF in June, and the rapid demobilization begun after V-J Day, staff involved with this production left the service. Production materials from London were folded into the main Army Signal Corps footage library. Apparently, none of the Army catalogers describing the film weeks or months later knew that these four separate reels were ever part of a single production.

Sadly, the story of this film, lost in plain sight, underscores the critical importance of production files in understanding complex film productions. The scattered documents I found help us reconstruct at least some of the lost context offered by those production files, but in the end archivists and film historians are left with more questions than answers.

Visit NARA’s online exhibit to learn about D-Day and see more historical records of the invasion. To learn more about the Eisenhower Presidential Library’s social media campaign for the D-day anniversary, connect with @ikelibrary and follow #DDAY70 on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can also find out more on their website at

5 thoughts on “The First D-Day Documentary

  1. This video continues strengthening my admiration for The Greatest Generation of which my father was one.

  2. Steve Greene’s article significantly helps to clarify John Ford’s and George Stevens’ roles during the D-Day landings. Although this footage has been searched and copied numerous times for documentary producers, Greene’s research represents the first time since WWII that the historical relationship of the reels has been made clear. I would like to add only two points for context.
    The four reels ended up in the Army Signal Corps “stock film library” in a large series known as the “ADC” series, Army Depository Copies, consisting of more than ten thousand 35mm primarily unedited film reels, which had been stored in the Army’s Motion Picture Depository long before their transfer to the National Archives. Even so, edited multi-reel subjects turn up in the series, and, as in this case, not necessarily numbered sequentially. In fact, the overall numbering seems rather arbitrary and ill-logical, compounded when the Army changed the original order from “LC” (Library Copy) reel numbers to “ADC” numbers during the process of copying nitrocellulose film to safety film. Presumably for lab processing cost-effectiveness and storage efficiency, non-related short reels were compiled on larger reels, unhappily, obliterating all reel-to-reel relationships.
    Secondly, since the D-Day documentary was produced outside the Army Signal Corps chain of command, it never received an assigned number identifying it as a documentary production, which also explains the absence of a production case file. After all, the Signal Corps was the Army’s motion picture production service.
    Thanks to Steve’s excellent research, those of us interested such things can take comfort in knowing that the Signal Corps did not discard the reels. Now if only someone could find the original five-reel version of John Huston’s San Pietro (aka Battle of San Pietro) which the Signal Corps edited to three reels; a story for another time.

  3. Riveting, heartbreaking time travel when so many felt with one heart – This IS it, now or never. Emotionally charged for those inspired then. Those faces, ones who fell, still saying believe good prevails, no matter how many fall.

  4. Thank you very much for posting this film online. I watched it with great interest, on June 6, 2016.

    My late father was the gunnery officer on the LST 280. His ship landed troops of the British Army’s 50th Division on Gold Beach in Normandy, although there was so much traffic that they didn’t get to go in until the morning of June 7, 1944. After that, his ship shuttled back and forth across the Channel, bringing supplies and reinforcements to the beachhead.

    On the afternoon of June 14, 1944, on Gold Beach, his ship loaded wounded British Army troops, and British Army doctors and nurses caring for them, to take them back to the UK. At roughly 01:15 on June 15, 1944, the LST 280 was torpedoed in the English Channel.. The Captain sent my father forward to conduct a damage survey. While doing that, he found what was left of people he knew. The blast, amidships, had damaged the ship’s keel, the bow remained attached to the ship more by hull plates and bulkheads than by the keel, and the bow was oscillating slowly back and forth. One bulkhead had to be shored up, and the ship was taking on water faster than the pumps could handle it, but the engines were still running, the ship was making slow headway and the rudder was still working, so the Captain headed for Portsmouth Harbor, with the ship gradually settling as it slowly got closer. They barely made it inside the breakwater of Portsmouth Harbor, and the ship could go no further. They had a number of dead and wounded on board, but they had saved a number of lives by getting the ship back. When my father disembarked, all he took with him was the clothes on his back, a photo of my mother, and a chipped crystal sherry glass. He was 23 years old at the time. The US Navy wrote the ship off and turned her over to the Royal Navy for salvage.

    My father’s war wasn’t over — he was sent back to the States to help oversee the completion of the LST1041, and then sent to the Pacific, where he saw further duty through 1945 and into 1946 — but that is a story for another time.

    My father never returned there after the War, and he died in 2012. In 2015, however, I had the chance to visit the Normandy beaches, including Gold Beach, Omaha Beach, Pointe du Hoc, Utah Beach, and the US Cemetery behind Omaha Beach. It was an emotional experience. Some of the older people there, who were children during the War, still remember the invasion and the American, British and Canadian troops. While watching the film on your website today and looking at related material, I occasionally glimpsed some of the places I had visited.

    With the slow but inexorable passage of time, fewer and fewer of those who fought there and survived remain with us. The availability of this film on your website helps to keep our memories of them alive. Thank you for that — worth more than you know.

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