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the NORMANDY campaign Legacy of Liberation

On 6 June 1944, the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy, beginning the liberation of France from German occupation. Today, Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries stand as permanent reminders of Operation Overlord. Constructed across the former battlefields, they are places of peace and reflection, honouring those who fought and died 75 years ago.

This article explores some of the CWGC cemeteries which tell the story of what happened after the D-Day landings. As they pushed inland from the beaches, the Allies began a brutal struggle against fierce German resistance which became one of the bloodiest battles Commonwealth forces had ever faced.

D-Day: Victory on the Beaches

By 7 June 1944, some 130,000 Allied troops had come ashore on five landing beaches. Over the next few days Commonwealth forces began to advance inland, attempting to drive back the Germans and take control of the heavily-defended city of Caen.

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Jerusalem War Cemetery

Jerusalem War Cemetery © CWGC

As they advanced inland from Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, Commonwealth troops faced fierce German counter-attacks and suffered heavy casualties: 16,000 were wounded, killed or missing during the first two weeks of the campaign. Those who died were often buried by their comrades near to where they fell.

On 10 June, several British soldiers were laid to rest in a field near the village of Chouain, and more joined them over the following weeks. Today, Jerusalem War Cemetery preserves those graves made during the fighting. It is the smallest in Normandy: there are just 48 burials here. After entering through bright blue gate you follow a path of paving stones laid into the grass. In this intimate space, the headstones are arranged in three rows facing a small Cross of Sacrifice. Many visitors can't help but read every name.

Jerusalem War Cemetery © CWGC

Reverend Nesbitt and Reverend Hawksworth

Reverend Gerald Nesbitt, chaplain of the 8th Durham Light Infantry, was killed by German artillery fire on 5 July 1944. Two days later, he was laid to rest alongside several other graves in the field which is now Jerusalem War Cemetery. His fellow chaplain Reverend Cecil Hawksworth had come to offer prayers, but while the service was taking place the area came under German shelling and Hawksworth was killed. Today, the two chaplains lie side-by-side.

Reverend Nesbitt

Tilly-sur-Seulles War Cemetery

Tilly-sur-Seulles War Cemetery © CWGC

The village of Tilly-sur-Seulles saw incredibly fierce fighting in the days after D-Day, changing hands many times before it was eventually secured by British troops. They first buried their dead in a nearby field in July, and after the war hundreds of Commonwealth and German soldiers who had died in the surrounding area were brought here and reburied. Today, this is the final resting place of more than 950 Commonwealth servicemen and almost 200 Germans, many of whom lost their lives fighting for control of the village.

Tilly-sur-Seulles War Cemetery © CWGC

Captain Keith Douglas

Keith Douglas was born in 1920 in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. He studied at Merton College, Oxford and was tutored by Edmund Blunden, the First World War poet and Literary Advisor to the War Graves Commission. After the outbreak of war, Keith volunteered for service and fought in North Africa and then in Normandy. He was killed on 9 June while on reconnaissance just north of Tilly-sur-Seulles. He was 24.

Today, Douglas is recognised as one of the finest British poets of the Second World War. His headstone bears the inscription submitted by his mother: ‘Poet, Artist, Phil. IV.8. These things he loved, He died in their defence’ . The reference is to a passage in the Bible from Philippians: 'Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.'

St. Manvieu War Cemetery

St. Manvieu War Cemetery © CWGC

Beginning in late June 1944, Operation 'Epsom' was the first Commonwealth attack on the city of Caen itself. There was fierce fighting around St. Manvieu, and in late 1944 a cemetery was begun just outside the village. Later, graves in many smaller cemeteries nearby were moved here. From the road, the scale of the cemetery is hidden: you approach along a grass path lined with trees, and only when you get closer are the 2,000 headstones revealed. You might find tributes in the shelter left by local people, still paying their respects to those who fought for their freedom 75 years ago.

St. Manvieu War Cemetery © CWGC

Major Robert Bickersteth

Buried in St. Manvieu are hundreds of men who fought and died with Scottish units. Soldiers of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Black Watch, the Cameronians, the Gordon Highlanders, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and the Seaforth Highlanders can all be found here. Major Robert Bickersteth served with the 7th Seaforth Highlanders. He was killed in action on 26 June 1944. His battalion had only arrived in France on 16 June and this was their first battle of the Second World War. He was 36 years old.

Cambes-en-Plaine War Cemetery

Cambes-en-Plaine War Cemetery © CWGC

The village of Cambes-en-Plaine was taken just three days after D-Day, but the first graves were made here later, during the fighting around Caen. More than 160 men of the South Staffordshire, North Staffordshire, Royal Norfolk and Lancashire Fusiliers Regiments were laid to rest near here on 8 July 1944. The following year, their graves were moved a short distance into the park of a local chateau, creating Cambes-en-Plaine War Cemetery. This is one of the smaller CWGC cemeteries in Normandy, with 224 graves in a single plot. You enter through a curved entrance building with three ornate gates, crossing a lawn into a glade in the woods. Surrounded by mature trees, this is a cemetery which feels intimate. Many headstones here bear the same date and unit badges, creating a feeling of comradeship even in death.

Cambes-en-Plaine War Cemetery © CWGC

Corporal Edward Clare

Edward Clare came from Hednesford in Staffordshire. He fought with the 7th Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment. Edward’s battalion suffered 40 dead and many more wounded during the battle for Caen. Virtually all the 7th South Staffs who died on 8 July are buried in Cambes-en-Plaine War Cemetery, including Edward. He was 23 years old. Edward’s wife, Jessie, was serving with the Navy, Army and Air Forces Institute (NAAFI) when he died, and she chose the words for his headstone: ‘Whosoever reads your name salutes a mighty company. Always remembered by your darling wife Jessie’.

Banneville-la-Campagne War Cemetery

Banneville-la-Campagne War Cemetery © CWGC

Caen was finally taken in July 1944, after overwhelming aerial and artillery bombing and fierce fighting in the ruined streets. Afterwards, Commonwealth forces continued to push on through the surrounding countryside. This cemetery was created after the fighting was over but is now one of the larger CWGC cemeteries in Normandy. Many of the 2,000 servicemen buried here died in the fighting around Caen. Architect Philip Hepworth designed a striking shelter in the Norman style, and from here you can look out across the fields where the fighting took place. In summer, the wooden pergolas are covered by bright flowers in bloom.

Banneville-la-Campagne War Cemetery © CWGC

Lieutenant Rex Whistler

Beginning on 18 July, Operation 'Goodwood' saw unprecedented numbers of Commonwealth tanks engaged against German forces near Caen. Lieutenant Rex Whistler of the Welsh Guards was in command of a ‘Cromwell’ tank.

Born in London in 1905, he was one of the most accomplished artists of his generation. His most famous work is the mural on the walls of the Rex Whistler Restaurant in the Tate Britain in London, At the outbreak of the Second World War he was 35 years old but nevertheless volunteered to serve. After training in England, he was deployed with his regiment to France during the Normandy Campaign. He volunteered to be the regimental burial officer and carried a stack of wooden crosses on the back of his tank. On 18 July, he was killed in action. In August 1945, he was laid to rest in Banneville-la-Campagne War Cemetery. His mother, Helen, wrote to the Commission in 1946 and requested the inscription for his headstone: ‘They shall be mine, saith the Lord of Hosts, in that day, when I make up my jewels’.

Victory in Normandy

Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery

Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery © CWGC

Although Commonwealth forces could not overcome German resistance during Operation 'Goodwood', their efforts allowed American troops to make a major breakthrough to the west. Canadian units suffered huge casualties in the crucial battles around Caen, which ultimately helped the Allies to drive German forces out of Normandy. Bretteville-sur-Laize was captured by the Canadians towards the end of the campaign, and in 1945 Canadians killed in the fighting south of Caen in July and August were buried here. Today it is the final resting place of more than 2,870 servicemen. Almost every headstone bears a Canadian maple leaf.

Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery © CWGC

Warrant Officer Class II Harold Burr

Warrant Officer Class II Harold Burr served with the 10th Armoured Regiment (Fort Garry Horse). Born in December 1913 in Owen Sound, Ontario, he worked as a salesman before enlisting in June 1940. After training in Canada and England, Harold arrived in Normandy on 12 July 1944, and his unit was involved in some of the most ferocious fighting around Caen. He was killed in action on 8 August, and his widow chose the words inscribed on his headstone: ‘Beloved husband of Mary Edna Burr’.

Aftermath

French and American troops were met by cheering crowds when they liberated Paris. The French capital had been spared the devastation experienced by the citizens of Normandy. An estimated 35,000 Normans were killed by Allied bombing before D-Day or during the fighting. More than 120,000 buildings were destroyed and a further 250,000 were considered uninhabitable, leaving hundreds of thousands of French civilians homeless.

Over the 86 days of the Normandy Campaign, the Allies suffered over 200,000 casualties killed, wounded or captured, including 124,000 serving with American forces and 80,000 with Commonwealth units. The German Army lost 300,000 soldiers killed, wounded and captured. It was one of the most intense, destructive and bloody battles experienced by the Western Allies during the First or Second World War.

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LEGACY OF LIBERATION PODCAST

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

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