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D-Day : THE BATTLE OF NORMANDY Legacy of Liberation

On 6 June 1944, the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy, and the battle to liberate France from German occupation began. 75 years later, the cemeteries of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission stand as permanent reminders of Operation Overlord. Constructed across the former battlefields, today they are places of peace and reflection, telling the stories of those who fought and died.

Our cemeteries preserve the story of the Battle of Normandy. In this article you can follow the first critical hours of the Battle of Normandy and learn more about how our cemeteries were constructed. Finally, discover the incredible history of our largest Second World War Cemetery in France, Bayeux War Cemetery, where the major national commemorative event to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle will be held.

“NOS A GULIELMO VICTI VICTORIS PATRIAM LIBERAVIMUS”

“We, once conquered by William, have liberated the Conqueror's native land"

Inscription on the CWGC Bayeux Memorial

6 JUNE 1944 – D-DAY

Map of Allied Invasion © CWGC

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.

Ranville Churchyard © CWGC

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 troops 6 June 1944 © IWM & Pegasus Bridge 6 June 1944 © IWM

© 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.

Ranville Churchyard © CWGC

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

Ranville War Cemetery © CWGC

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.

Glider landing ground “N”, between Ranville and Amfreville, 6 June 1944 © IMW & Paratroopers blacken their faces ready for the drop, 5 June 1944 © IWM

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’.

Ranville War Cemetery © CWGC

When you approach the elegant entrance building, pause to see the way the cemetery’s architect, Philip Hepworth, designed the arch to frame the Cross of Sacrifice. Many of the original burials are at the front of the cemetery, while the men buried here later can generally be found towards the rear, near the shelter building with its high colonnade.

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, JUNO, GOLD

A vast Allied invasion fleet of nearly 7,000 ships arrived off the Normandy coast in the early hours of 6 June. The landings would take place across five beaches codenamed Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword, and the German positions defending them were blasted by naval gunfire and bombed by aircraft as the assault boats approached. While American forces landed on Utah and Omaha to the west, British and Canadian troops assaulted Gold, Juno and Sword, between Arromanches and Ouistreham.

sword beach: Hermanville War Cemetery

Hermanville War Cemetery © CWGC

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 assault of Sword Beach, 6 June 1944 © IWM & Headstone badge of the South Lancashire Regiment © CWGC & 8.45am Sword Beach, 6 June 1944 © IWM

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.

Hermanville War Cemetery © CWGC

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

Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery © CWGC

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.

North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment soldiers, Juno Beach, © IWM & Canadian troops pour ashore, Juno Beach, 6 June 1944 © IWM

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.

Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery © CWGC

Many brothers joined the Canadian forces together. While they were often assigned to separate units to fight, the process of burial and concentration brought many back together in death. There are nine pairs of brothers buried here, along with one group of three brothers: George, Thomas and Albert Westlake, from Toronto.

The Westlake Brothers

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

Ryes War Cemetery © CWGC

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.

50th Division assault on Gold Beach, 6 June 1944 © IMW & 47 Commando come ashore on Gold Beach, 6 June 1944 © IMW

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.

Ryes War Cemetery © CWGC

The 50th Division suffered 400 casualties on D-Day but only a handful of those who died on Gold Beach are buried in Ryes. Most were eventually laid to rest in Bayeux War Cemetery, including almost 60 men of the 1st Hampshires. Landing on the western end of Gold Beach, the battalion immediately came under intense machine gun and mortar fire as they crossed the dunes. Nevertheless, they secured their objectives over the course of the day, including the coastal commune of Arromanches at 9pm.

1st Hampshire Battalion, 6 June 1944 by Leslie Arthur Wilcox © The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment

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

Juno Beach, 6 June 1944 © IWM

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.

48 Commando Cemetery, St Aubin-sur-Mer © IWM

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.

An isolated grave in Normandy © IWM & An Army Padre leads burial service near Hermanville, 7 June 1944 © IWM

Information about burials was then passed to Army Graves Registration Units (GRUs). No.32 GRU was responsible for much of the area around Bayeux. The unit arrived in Normandy on 11 June 1944 with 30 men and set up an office in Bayeux, and immediately began to work through reports from unit burial officers in the field, visiting the graves, and creating a formal register. In early August, a shipment of unpainted, pressed and galvanized metal crosses arrived, and these were used extensively to replace the rough wooden crosses and upturned rifles across the battlefields.

Replacing wood with metal, Normandy 1944 © CWGC

Bayeux War Cemetery

Bayeux War Cemetery © CWGC

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.

A soldier is carried out of the operating theatre at Bayeux, 20 June 1944 © IWM & General Montgomery visiting the hospitals at Bayeux, 29 June 1944 © IWM

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).

Men of No.32 GRU tape out the outline of Bayeux War Cemetery, 1 July 1944 © CWGC & Burials in Bayeux War Cemetery, July/August 1944 © CWGC

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’.

Clockwise: GCU staff mark out the locations of temporary cemeteries in Normandy © CWGC & GCU staff at work in Normandy © CWGC & GCU staff and French civilians search for isolated remains in Normandy © CWGC & Bayeux War Cemetery ready to receive remains from across Normandy © CWGC

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.

48 Commando graves, Bayeux War Cemetery, Plot XIV © CWGC

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.

IWGC staff during the handover of a Normandy cemetery, November 1947 © CWGC & Bayeux War Cemetery near completion, late 1940s © CWGC

Thanks to the work of burials officers, Graves Registrations Units and Graves Concentration Units, there were relatively few ‘missing’ of the battle of Normandy, especially when compared to the great battles of the First World War. Nevertheless, a memorial was required to commemorate those who died during Overlord but had no known grave – including those who could not be identified, or whose bodies could not be recovered. Among them were nearly 200 men lost when the MV Derrycunihy which sank off Sword Beach on the morning of 24 June 1944 after striking a German mine dropped by the Luftwaffe during the night. Most were members of the 43rd (Wessex) Division’s armoured reconnaissance regiment.

Bayeux War Cemetery is now the final resting place of more than 4,100 Commonwealth servicemen, of whom nearly 340 remain unidentified. Also buried here are some 500 servicemen of other nations, including more than 460 Germans. More than 750 of those buried or commemorated at Bayeux died on D-Day, and some 600 over the following five days. More than 1,000 died in the first two weeks of August.

Archive footage of Bayeux War Cemetery © CWGC

Today, Bayeux is a place of pilgrimage for thousands of people each year. Since the late 1940s, War Graves Commission staff have worked tirelessly to ensure that the Commonwealth cemeteries across Normandy remain beautiful and peaceful final resting places, safeguarding the memory of those who fought and died here. A Latin inscription on the Bayeux Memorial reads: “We, once conquered by William, have now liberated the Conqueror’s native land.”

Bayeux War Cemetery, 65th anniversary of D-Day © CWGC

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With thanks to the Imperial War Museum, The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, Veterans Affairs Canada and Fallen Heroes of Normandy

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