18 December 2020
Buried in a Foreign Land: German War Graves in the UK
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorates Commonwealth casualties at sites across the globe, men and women who died in the world wars and never returned home. There are many German war graves across the UK under CWGC care.
Here, CWGC's Official Historian, George Hay, explores the history of German soldiers and airmen who are buried across Great Britain.
War Cemeteries and Graves in the UK
Stumbling across a war grave in the UK can be a common occurrence – especially once you have your eye in. Whether you encounter a lonely grave in a small parish churchyard when out exploring the countryside or happen across one of the larger CWGC plots that dot our towns and cities, you are rarely that far from a casualty of one of the two world wars.
Those who know something of the CWGC’s history might find this surprising, especially if they have visited the former battlefields in France and Belgium where the organisation built its largest war memorials and cemeteries in the aftermath of both conflicts.
One of the founding principles of the CWGC was that fallen Commonwealth servicemen and women would be commemorated where they fell – so why were some laid to rest at home? Well, some died in accidents, some on active service (primarily the RAF, for obvious reasons), but in most cases, it is because these men and women returned home sick or injured during or after the war and their deaths were attributable to their service.
Are There Any German War Graves in the UK?
Look a bit harder, however, and you will find more than Commonwealth graves. In fact, a search using the CWGC’s war dead database will demonstrate a wide variety of foreign war graves in the United Kingdom, including more than 2,500 Germans from the First World War and more than 3,700 from the Second World War. How they came to be here is just as interesting.
Starting with the more obvious, more than half of German commemorations on British soil for the Second World War are for men of the German air force. Even with the United Kingdom safely separated from the German army by the English Channel, the Luftwaffe was still able to bring the war to the people of Britain – first in a battle for air superiority ahead of a potential invasion (the Battle of Britain), followed by the strategic bombing campaign of British cities.
A German Heinkel He 111P bomber of Stab/KG 55 which crash-landed at Hipley in Hampshire on 12 July 1940. © IWM (HU 90819)
Prolonged aerial campaigns then answer for the majority of the 1,868 German airmen who lost their lives flying over the UK and who were subsequently buried here. But these airmen are not alone, as there are also just shy of 3,500 soldiers of the German army from both wars similarly buried on British soil. In a slightly different set of circumstances, most of these men would have died as prisoners of war, most likely from wounds suffered before capture or from illness – particularly influenza before repatriation in 1919.
Where are the German War Graves in England and the UK?
Where you find these graves depends on several factors, but the vast majority now lie in Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery. On 16 October 1959, an agreement was concluded between the governments of the United Kingdom and the Federal Republic of Germany concerning the future care of the graves of German nationals who lost their lives in the United Kingdom during the two World Wars.
The agreement between the UK and German government provided for the construction of a new central cemetery to house German graves not situated in plots of Commonwealth war graves maintained by the CWGC.
Following the agreement, the German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge or VDK) arranged for the transfer of these scattered graves of German servicemen and civilian internees of both wars to the new German cemetery being constructed at Cannock Chase. The inauguration and dedication of this cemetery, which contains almost 5,000 German and Austrian graves, took place on 10 June 1967.
Those that still lie outside Cannock Chase are found within established war graves plots maintained by the CWGC, but unique among them for a number of interesting reasons are those buried at Fort George Military Cemetery on Guernsey. Although often forgotten, the Channel Islands were the one part of the British Isles occupied by German forces during the Second World War.
Soldiers who lost their lives on service on the islands were naturally buried there at numerous sites, with the Germans establishing a dedicated cemetery at St Brelade's Church on Jersey for more than 300 men. In the aftermath of the war and following the 1959 agreement, however, these men and all those buried across the Channel Islands were exhumed by the VDK for reburial at Mont-de-Huisnes in France.
The one exception was the 111 men buried at Fort George, St. Peter Port on Guernsey, where they lie among the graves of Commonwealth servicemen. Like those at Cannock Chase, and those Commonwealth service personnel buried all over the UK, all these men remain in the care of the CWGC.
You may also be interested in: How to find war graves in France
Where are the German War Dead Buried?
The VDK commemorates around 2.8 million casualties in 832 war cemeteries in 46 countries around the world. Many of these cemeteries fall within Europe, but there are German burials across the world, including Tatura German Military Cemetery in Australia, and Kitchener German War Cemetery in Canada.
German War Graves in Scotland
There are nearly 70 German War Graves in Scotland, predominantly from the Second World War. They are buried at:
- Campsie Cemetery
- Dunfermline (Douglas Bank) Cemetery
- Dyce Old Churchyard
- Glasgow (Cardonald) Cemetery
- Glasgow Western Necropolis
- Hay Cemetery
- Kirkwall (St. Olaf’s) Cemetery
- Leeds (Harehills) Cemetery
- Lossiemouth Burial Ground
- Lyness Royal Naval Cemetery
- Troqueer Cemetery
WW1 German War Graves
There are more than 350 CWGC sites around the world that contain a German War Grave, the majority of which contain fewer than 10 German casualties. Our cemeteries that contain the largest numbers of WW1 German casualties are mostly on the Western Front. Some of the largest are:
- Cannock Chase German Cemetery: 4787 German casualties
- Etaples Military Cemetery: 650 German casualties
- Cite Bonjean Military Cemetery, Armentieres: 468 German casualties
- Roisel Communal Cemetery Extension: 324 German casualties
- Les Baraques Military Cemetery: 237 German casualties
WW2 German War Graves
There are 118 CWGC cemeteries that contain at least one German war grave of the Second World War. Many of the cemeteries can be found in the UK, where German aircrew of the Luftwaffe died during raids and were subsequently buried. Given the nature of air raids, these casualties are scattered across the country, the the majority of these cemeteries containing fewer than 10 casualties each.
The CWGC cemeteries with the largest concentration of WW2 German war graves are:
- Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery: 2650 German casualties
- St. Manvieu War Cemetery: 468 German casualties
- Bayeux War Cemetery: 414 German casualties
- Ryes War Cemetery: 275 German casualties
- Ranville War Cemetery: 269 German casualties
How Many German Soldiers Died in WW1?
Unsurprisingly, there is no definitive number for the number of German war dead from WW1. Many estimates place the total number of military casualties in the region of 1.7 million to 2 million.
How Many Germans Died in WW2?
Calculating the total number of German war casualties from World War 2 has proven difficult. In the aftermath of the war, 3.6 million German military casualties were reported. In 1992, German historian Rüdiger Overmans began a statistical study of German military records, including records that were unavailable before the reunification of Germany. His study, published in 2000, states that the total number of German missing and dead is 5,318,000.
Find more war graves across Great Britain and beyond.
Across Britain there are war graves and memorials at over 12,000 locations. From towering and dramatic memorials which bear the names of tens of thousands of missing personnel to small and intimate local churchyards where perhaps only one service person is commemorated, there is so much to discover.Explore Great Britain