the first to arrive: Ranville Churchyard
At sixteen minutes past midnight on 6 June 1944, Allied soldiers set foot on French soil near the village of Ranville.
British airborne troops were among the first Allied forces to arrive in France. At 00.16 on D-Day gliders landed beside two vital crossings over the Orne River and the Caen Canal, the latter known as ‘Pegasus Bridge’. Soldiers of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry overcame the German guards and sent out the radio signal “Ham and Jam”, a code phrase confirming that the bridges had been taken.
© Airborne Assault Archives Duxford
This remarkable feat of courage and skill did not come without cost. Along the back wall of Ranville Churchyard are the graves of glider pilots and paratroopers who died on 6 and 7 June 1944, buried alongside the ancestors of local people they had fought to liberate.
Lieutenant Den Brotheridge
Lieutenant Den Brotheridge was born and raised in Smethwick, Staffordshire. Den was commissioned into the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry in July 1942 and quickly became a popular member of his unit. His glider landed less than 50 feet from the bridge over the Caen Canal but, as he led his men across, he was hit by machine gun fire. He was taken to the Casualty Collection Post but died moments later. He is believed to have been the first Allied serviceman to die on French soil during the Normandy Campaign. Den was 29 years old. His wife Maggie gave birth to a little girl two weeks later.
Inscribed on his headstone are words chosen by Maggie: ‘Out of the bitterness of war, He found the perfect peace’.
the airborne assault: RANVILLE WAR CEMETERY
The soldiers at the bridges near Ranville were just the first of thousands of troops of the 6th Airborne Division who arrived by parachute and glider in the early hours of D-Day. Exceptionally trained, equipped, motivated and led, they were an elite formation tasked with securing the eastern flank of the Allied invasion. They faced many dangers when they arrived behind enemy lines, and casualties were high. Nearly 20% were killed or wounded during the first few hours of battle.
In early June, airborne units began to use the open field adjoining Ranville Churchyard as a burial place, and it became known as the ‘Airborne Extension Cemetery’. After the fighting was over, remains were brought here from across the battlefields. Today, most of the dead of the 6th Airborne Division from D-Day and the weeks that followed can be found here.
© Airborne Assault Archives Duxford
Located near the famous Pegasus Bridge, this is the final resting place of 2,400 servicemen, making it the third largest CWGC cemetery in Normandy. In 1947, a party of relatives made a pilgrimage here, and were met by locals who had lined their path with candles and were told by the mayor that: ‘they were not leaving their men folk like strangers buried in a foreign land, but like angels of deliverance sleeping among friends they had come to deliver’.
Private Emile Corteil
Private Emile Corteil was one of many paratroopers laid to rest here in 1945, when his grave was moved from a temporary cemetery in Gonneville-sur-Merville. He was the son of Servais and Jessie Corteil of Watford in Hertfordshire and served with the 9th (Essex) Parachute Battalion. On D-Day the 9th Essex had the task of destroying Merville Battery, a heavily-defended German gun position near Sword Beach. Emile was a dog handler and jumped with his para-dog, Glen. They both landed successfully but were killed in action together later that day. Emile and Glen are believed to be buried together. Emile was 19 years old.
Emile’s mother chose the words for his headstone: ‘Had you known our boy you would have loved him too. “Glen” his paratroop dog was killed with him’
sword beach: Hermanville War Cemetery
At 7.25am on 6 June, the British 3rd Infantry Division landed on Sword Beach, the most easterly of the landing areas. First ashore were soldiers of the 1st South Lancashire and 2nd East Yorkshire battalions. Allied planners expected them to suffer 70% casualties.
Despite German resistance, casualties were far lighter than expected. The 3rd Division suffered 630 killed, wounded and missing on 6 June, and by the end of the day almost 29,000 troops had come ashore on Sword.
The village of Hermanville was taken on D-Day by the 1st South Lancs, who were still covered in sand. Just one kilometre inland, this was originally known as ‘Sword Beach Cemetery’. Many of those who died during the landings at Sword and the drive inland over the following few days are now buried here, although most of the graves were relocated from a temporary site called ‘Hermanville Beach Cemetery’ in the summer of 1944.
Today, Hermanville War Cemetery is the final resting place of 1,000 servicemen; 100 remain unidentified. There is a large red triangle on the ground just outside the entrance: the symbol of the British 3rd Division. As you walk into the cemetery, the path is surrounded by informal planting and gives the impression of moving from the grassy dunes into a garden. Many of the trees have been recently replanted, but in time the cemetery will regain the feeling of a woodland glade. The chapel-like shelter building was designed by Philip Hepworth. Look out for the ornate weathervane.
Major Robert Barber
One of the first to land on Sword Beach was Major Robert Barber. He was a career soldier and had joined the Army in January 1936, serving with the Nottinghamshire Regiment in India until the outbreak of the Second World War. On D-Day he was in command of ‘D’ company of the 2nd East Yorks. He came ashore with the leading waves but was killed on the beach by a mortar bomb which exploded beside him. He was 28 years old. Buried in Plot I. Row G. Grave 16, he is one of 60 from the battalion buried here. His older brother, Captain Colin Barber of the Royal Horse Artillery, died in 1942 and is buried in CWGC Benghazi War Cemetery, Libya.
juno beach: Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery
At 7.45am, around 15 minutes after the landings on Sword Beach, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division launched its assault on Juno. The German defences were formidable on this stretch of coast and soldiers of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, the Regina Rifles, the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada and the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment, suffered terrible casualties as they attempted to cross the sand and push inland. Testament to their determination, the Canadians overcame the German defences and by the end of the day they had advanced further than any other Allied formation.
The Canadians suffered more than 1,000 killed and wounded on D-Day. Almost all their dead from 6 June can be found in Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery. Begun in late 1944, graves were brought here from across the battlefields and several temporary cemeteries. Now the final resting place of more than 2,000 servicemen, the cemetery is planted with maple trees.
You approach the graves through a wide grass avenue of trees, before reaching the Stone of Remembrance which is inscribed in both English and French. You can climb up the Norman-style towers which flank the stone and look out towards Juno Beach in the distance. Walking through the cemetery, you will see the maple leaf symbol of Canada on almost every headstone, along with the names of the historic regiments of the country and inscriptions chosen by families, sometimes in French.
Chaplain Walter Brown
Born in Ontario in 1910, Walter was an Anglican Minister and volunteered for military service with the Canadian Chaplain Service in 1941. He was attached to the Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment and was one of the very first chaplains to land in Normandy. Walter followed his unit as they pushed inland and was helping to carry wounded men to an aid station when he was captured by soldiers of the 12th SS Panzer Division, HitlerJugend. His body was discovered a month later at the side of a road near the village of Deny-sur-Mer, and he is believed to have been murdered by his captors.
Walter is buried in Plot XIII. Row C. Grave 1. Upon his grave are inscribed the words, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John XV.13’
gold beach: Ryes War Cemetery
The most westerly of the three Commonwealth beaches, Gold was assaulted by the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division. The first assault troops of the Hampshire, Dorset, East Yorkshire and Yorkshire regiments landed at 7.25 am, along with amphibious tanks of the 8th Armoured Brigade. Fighting together, the tanks and infantry broke through the German beach defences and pushed inland.
In the days that followed, the 50th Division advanced, liberating several French villages. A medical aid station was established near the village of Bazenville, and a small cemetery was close by, then known as ‘Gold Beach Cemetery’. It was later expanded with graves brought from elsewhere and is now the final resting place of more than 870 servicemen, including over 270 Germans.
Ryes War Cemetery is set in open countryside and retains a remarkable feeling of bucolic peacefulness. Two stone pergola flank the Cross of Sacrifice, dividing the cemetery in two. In summer they are covered with bright flowers in bloom. At the rear of the cemetery Philip Hepworth designed a small and intimate shelter building of cream stone.
Lieutenant Guy Westley
Lieutenant Guy Westley was born in Surrey in 1919. Before the war he worked as a dairy farmer in Argentina but returned to the UK in 1940. Commissioned as an officer in the York and Lancaster Regiment, Guy served in North Africa, the Middle East and Sicily, before being posted to the 1st Hampshires in June 1943. On D-Day, he was the battalion’s assistant landing officer on Gold Beach. One of the first ashore, he was tasked with clearing the beach, spending hours in the open under fire. He was killed that day and originally buried in Asnelles. In May 1945, his remains were moved to Ryes War Cemetery, Plot IV. Row D. Grave 2.
Guy was 25 years old. His father submitted the words for his grave: ‘In loving memory of our darling son, who left the Argentine, June 1940’
Creating the Cemeteries
On the morning of D-Day, 500 men of 48 (Royal Marine) Commando came ashore on Juno Beach. They suffered heavy casualties as they dragged themselves out of the water under fire from above, but they fought on. Over half of their number became casualties, with 40 dead.
Over the next few days the survivors of 48 Commando returned to the sands of Juno Beach and collected the bodies of their comrades. They created a little cemetery in a garden near the beach and buried 80 men there: Commandos and Canadians, sailors and soldiers. They crafted crosses from wood scavenged from the bombed-out houses nearby and placed the much-respected green beret on the graves of the commandos.
Throughout the Battle of Normandy this difficult task was carried out countless times. In the aftermath of fighting, crosses or upturned rifles would appear. In contrast to the First World War, the British Army of the Second World War was well prepared and organised to deal with the dead. Each unit had its own ‘burial officer’ who was charged with arranging for graves to be dug and burials recorded. It was a macabre task that was deeply upsetting to perform, but it was ultimately vital for the morale of those left behind.
Bayeux War Cemetery
British medical facilities were established in Normandy soon after D-Day, and on 24 June hospitals were established in tents on the outskirts of Bayeux. Over the following months thousands of men were treated. A remarkable survival rate of 93% was achieved by the skilled and dedicated doctors, surgeons and nurses but not all of those brought for treatment could be saved.
On 1 July 1944, No.32 GRU taped out the outline of a cemetery in a field on the outskirts of Bayeux, intended to be used by the nearby hospitals. The first burials were made in early July and soon hundreds of graves had been dug by labour units and French civilians. Originally, space was marked out for more than 5,600 graves, but ultimately only five plots in what would become known Bayeux War Cemetery were filled with those who had succumbed to wounds or illness. Most of the burials would be brought here by Graves Concentration Units (GCUs).
Several GCUs worked across Normandy throughout late 1944 and 1945. Their task was to continue the work of the Graves Registration Units by disinterring the remains buried in isolated graves or small cemeteries and rebuying them in permanent cemeteries: a process known as ‘concentration’.
Working closely together, GRUs and GCUs selected locations for the construction of permanent cemeteries and began the long and often horrific task of creating the cemeteries we see today. In October 1944, the first representatives of the Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) arrived in Normandy, to advise the Army Graves units on the formation of the nascent cemeteries.
In December 1944, GCU officers and men arrived at the little 48 Commando cemetery made just after D-Day near Juno beach. The remains were taken to Bayeux War Cemetery and today almost all the 48 Commando dead of D-Day are buried together in Plot XIV. Rows A and B.
The Commission appointed Philip Hepworth as the principal architect for the cemeteries of north-west Europe, and Hepworth travelled across the former battlefields in late 1944, ensuring that burials continued in line with his plans for the cemeteries. At Bayeux, space was allocated for the construction of shelter buildings and the iconic Stone of Remembrance and Cross of Sacrifice. On 17 November 1947 Bayeux War Cemetery was passed into the perpetual care of the IWGC.