It began early in the night of the 5th and 6th June when paratroops landed. In the small hours, following intense bombing, landings began, co-ordinated to the flow of the incoming tide. Westward, the first two sectors were allocated to the 1st American Army Utah (Sainte-Marie-du-Mont) and Omaha (Pointe du Hoc, Colleville). In the East: 2nd British Army landed on the beaches between Bayeux and Caen. Between the two British sectors Gold (Arromanches) and Sword (Lion-sur-Mer, Ouistreham) the Canadians landed on Juno (Courseulles, Langrune).
By the evening of 6th June, five bridgeheads had been established somewhat strained and still fragile after bloody skirmishes. Each side had lost nearly 10,000 men (killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner). In the days that followed, burying the Dead was a primary factor. The first of these were assembled and buried behind the lines as the troops moved inland. The first cemeteries were provisional and sited near the landing beaches, such as Saint-mere-Eglise (near Utah), Vierville (Omaha), Beny-sur-Mer (Juno) or Hermanville (Sword). The Fallen of both sides were assembled and interred not far apart.
The British Cemeteries indicate some of the first engagements
In the British sector the Front advanced slowly between Bayeux, freed on 7th June and Caen, not until 18th July. The British and Canadians were held up outside Caen by strong German resistance. Every hamlet, field, hedge even, meant several days of fighting. The wounded were evacuated promptly. The dead were interred provisionally and removed later when a lull in action made it possible. It was the task of the Royal Army Chaplains Dept to minister to the Dying, and to bury the Dead whether friend or foe. Numbers of provisional cemeteries sprang up in the wake of the advancing troops, often near Field Hospitals or near villages in the hands of British or Canadian Forces. Very many of the Commonwealth war Graves to the norh and west of Caen that are dotted across the countryside today, trace the route and hardship of the British 2nd Army in its advance towards Caen.
In the Foreground, the first casualties. In the background, an LST about to come in-shore.
The American provisional cemeteries.
In the American sector after the murderous onslaughts of Omaha and Utah, the days that followed proved no less difficult. The celebrated "Hedge-war" began. The American advance slowed down but casualties were just as high. Up to the end of July there was fierce fighting in the Cotentin where armour and infantry intermingled in a serried web of thicket and woodland where danger stalked behind each hedge and rise. From the start the U.S. Army had units detailed specially to take charge of the Fallen as the troops advanced. Friend and foe were then interred in provisional grave-yards. Sites were chosen that corresponded to certain criteria: primarily of easy access, (as roads were often teeming with army transport) on well-drained high ground where the bodies would not quickly decompose (since they might have to be moved later) and finally light soil that could be trenched easily, five feet deep where the Dead, buried in sacks, were aligned. A wooden cross or just a stake with a helmet marked each grave. Many German soldiers were buried without marked graves and exhumed very much later.
The German "Armour Ace" Michael Wittman was only found in 1983 at Cintheaux under the verge at the roadside, forty centimetres down. Every year bodies are found in fields and apple orchards.
An early casualty lays dead on the beach awaiting burial.
The Battle nears its end.
With Cherbourg freed, American troops on 31st July pressed on to Brittany through the Avranches Gap. The speed of their advance allowed them also to attack eastwards to Mortain, where they repulsed a German counterattack, and to advance in Mayenne and the Sarthe where Enemy forces were fewer. Two more cemeteries were added: Saint James, following the break-through at Avranches and Chêne-Guérin near Percy, following the fighting around Vire and Mortain. In the latter, graves were dug for both friend and foe. British Forces got through to Vire in the first week of August and laid out a cemetery at Saint-Charles-de-Percy. On 12th August, General Leclerc liberated Alencon with the French Forces under his command, closing the Falaise Pocket where two German armies divisions were hemmed in. Americans to the south, British on the west, Canadian and Polish troops to the north and east, routed, then finally annihilated the last German resistance in Normandy. At Chambois on 21st August the Battle of Normandy ended. German Units that had escaped fell back towards the Seine. The last British engagements were along the Touques as far as Lisieux and Orbec and the Americans around Evreux. Two new cemeteries were set up at Saint-Désir-de-Lisieux (British and German); and another in the Eure at Charmpigny-Saint-André (American and German). Paris was liberated a few days later. Thus began a new phase that led the Allies to the gates of Germany itself.
The provisional American Cemetery at St Laurent in 1944.
The toll was heavy.
When the Battle of Normandy ended if most of the Fallen were in provisional cemeteries, laid out by the Allied Armies, many other graves, alone or in groups still dotted the countryside. Churchyards too had received the bodies of the warriors. Today there are still over two hundred lone graves or squares of tombs of French and British soldiers, buried either after a skirmish or in the days and months that preceded the Battle (Airmen, Commandos, Para’s). Many disappeared in the heat of the battle: aircrew and seamen who fell into the sea, infantrymen buried during action, mutilated corpses hastily covered over.
Over 100,000 soldiers of thirteen nationalities repose forever in the soil of Normandy: 13,800 Americans (2,055 missing), 17,000 British (1,808 missing in the Army alone), 5,110 Canadians, 729 Poles, 246 French, 27 Australians, 19 New Zealanders, 7 South Africans, 7 Russians, 3 Czechs, 2 Italians, 2 Belgians ... and over 70,000 Germans.
Identifying the dead before burial.