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Story of a War Cemetery: Bayeux War Cemetery

Get to know about Bayeux War Cemetery, its history, and who it commemorates, with Commonwealth War Graves.

What is Bayeux War Cemetery?

A drone shot showing the whole of Bayeux War Cemetery

Image: Bayeux War Cemetery from the air

Bayeux War Cemetery is the largest Second World War Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in France.

It lies in the Calvados department of Normandy.

Normandy was one of the key battlegrounds of the Second World War and the liberation of Europe

On June 6, 1944, over 150,000 Allied soldiers, supported by 7,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft, hit the beaches of Normandy in Operation Overlord: history’s largest amphibious invasion.

Over the next two months, they would fight a costly battle that would end with the total defeat of German forces in Normandy.

Bayeux War Cemetery is one of around 20 CWGC-constructed sites commemorating the fallen of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy.

A stone’s throw away from the war cemetery sits the Bayeux Memorial, commemorating the missing of the Normandy Campaign.

Who is commemorated at Bayeux War Cemetery?

A view of headstones at Bayeux War Cemetery as seen through a circular gap in a pair of fir trees

Image: Serried rows of headstones at Bayeux, where Commonwealth burials nestle alongside other nationalities 

Bayeux War Cemetery holds 4,144 Commonwealth graves of the Second World War. 338 of these casualties are unidentified. 

Most burials at Bayeux are British servicemen, followed by Canadians.

The British and Canadians spearheaded the Commonwealth efforts at D-Day and Normandy. The two nations were assigned three landing beaches, on D-Day, and were in the forefront of some of the major operations of the Normandy campaign.

There is a handful of burials from other Commonwealth nations, including South African, Australian, and New Zealand casualties. 

In addition to the Commonwealth, a mixture of other nationalities are buried at Bayeux. The majority are German, Italian, Czechoslovakian, Polish, and Russian casualties can be found amongst the burials. Look out for their distinct headstones!

A further 1,800 names are commemorated on the Bayeux Memorial. These are officers and soldiers killed in the fighting for Normandy but with no known war grave.

Who designed Bayeux War Cemetery?

Bayeux War Cemetery was designed by Philip Hepworth.

Hepworth was appointed Commission Principal Architect for North-West Europe in 1944. 

Alongside Sir Edward Maufe and Sir Hubert Worthington, Hepworth created a wide range of cemeteries and memorials commemorating the dead of the Second World War.

As well as Bayeux War Cemetery, Hepworth designed several sites in Normandy:

Hepworth went on to design many CWGC sites in Northern Europe, including The Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany, making his work an integral part of remembrance and commemoration in this region of the world.

When was Bayeux War Cemetery established?

Men of No.32 GRU tape out the outline of Bayeux War Cemetery, 1 July 1944

Image: Men of No.32 GRU tape out the outline of Bayeux War Cemetery, 1 July 1944

Bayeux War Cemetery was established in July 1944.

Less than two weeks after D-Day, British medical units set up the No. 79 General Hospital on the outskirts of Bayeux, treating Allied and Axis wounded alike.

Further field hospitals and medical hubs would be established in and around Bayeux.

Men of No.32 Grave Registration Unit began taping the cemetery outline in a field outside Bayeux on 1 July 1944. 

The first burials were made in July. The first graves were dug by Army Labour Units and local French civilians.

In December 1944, the first Imperial War Graves Commission personnel arrived to advise on the design and construction of new cemeteries in Normandy. 

The cemetery was formally handed over to the Commission’s perpetual care on 17 November 1947.

Initially, space was created for 5,600 casualties at Bayeux, but the current size proved sufficient. 

What’s interesting is that the hospitals around Bayeux had a 93% survival rate, a testament to the incredible skill and dedication of Allied medical staff during the World Wars.

Sadly, as Bayeux attests, not everyone could be saved.

Grave Registration Units

CWGC & GRC units at work in Normandy

Image: Imperial War Graves Commission and Grave Registration at work in Normandy, 1944

Army Grave Registration Units (GRUs) were responsible for recording and caring for the graves of their fallen comrades before their care was handed over to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Unlike in the First World War, the British and Commonwealth armies were well placed to deal with the dead.

Each unit was assigned a “burial officer” who was charged with arranging the digging of any graves and burials to be recorded. 

This information was passed on to the Grave Registration Units. 

No. 32 GRU arrived in Normandy on June 11, 1944, and was based out of Bayeux. It was responsible for collating and analysing burial officers’ reports to keep on top of burials in Normandy.

30 men of No.32 GRU went out into Normandy to visit the makeshift graves and cemeteries created by the advancing Commonwealth armies. From there, they created a register of names of the fallen, noting the location of each dead soldier’s grave.

In August 1944, a shipment of durable metal crosses was sent to France. The GRUs used these to replace the improvised grave markers, such as upturned rifles and crude wooden crosses, laid down by Allied soldiers to note their comrades’ temporary resting places. 

Concentrating graves in Bayeux

British Army Grave Concentration Unit stacking headstone crosses at the side of a drive in Bayeux War Cemetery

Image: Grave Concentration Units move temporary metal cross grave markers to Bayeux

While the Allied advance in Europe turned to other theatres, the Grave Registration Units in Normandy were joined in their work by Grave Concentration Units (GCUs).

Grave concentration is the process of bringing scattered burials and those from smaller cemeteries into permanent cemeteries

Most of the 4,1000 Commonwealth burials in Bayeux War Cemetery were brought there by GCUs.

Several GCUs worked alongside GRUs to bring the dead from Normandy to Bayeux.

Bayeux War Cemetery today

A CWGC gardener tending to the borders of a row of headstones at Bayeux War Cemetery

Image: One of our amazing CWGC gardeners tending to the borders at Bayeux

Today, Bayeux War Cemetery acts as the focal point for remembrance and commemoration of the fallen of Normandy. 

The anniversaries of D-Day and Normandy have been marked and celebrated at Bayeux War Cemetery for decades. 

Today, Bayeux War Cemetery and Memorial are cared for by Commonwealth War Graves' highly skilled and dedicated horticultural and maintenance teams.

Visit Caring for Our Sites to find out more.

Stories from Bayeux War Cemetery

Corporal Sidney Bates VC

Corporal Sidney Bates VCImage: Sidney Bates VC

Londoner Sidney Bates joined the army on the outbreak of the Second World War, joining the 1st Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment.

Come D-Day, Sidney and his battalion were part of the 185th Infantry Brigade tasked with assaulting Sword Beach.

Sidney, known as “Basher” to his friends, survived Sword and was with his unit for the bulk of the Normandy Campaign.

Sadly, Sidney was killed in action on August 6, 1944, but was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions that day.

Sidney’s medal citation gives the following details:

“In North-West Europe on 6th August, 1944, the position held by a battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment near Sourdeval was attacked in strength by 10th S.S. Panzer Division. The attack started with a heavy and accurate artillery and mortar programme on the position which the enemy had, by this time, pinpointed. 

"Half an hour later the main attack developed, and heavy machine-gun and mortar fire was concentrated on the point of junction of the two forward companies.

"Corporal Bates was commanding the right forward section of the left forward company which suffered some casualties, so he decided to move the remnants of his section to an alternative position whence he appreciated he could better counter the enemy thrust. However, the enemy wedge grew still deeper, until there were about 50 to 60 Germans, supported by machine guns and mortars, in the area occupied by the section.

“Seeing that the situation was becoming desperate, Corporal Bates then seized a light machine-gun and charged the enemy, moving forward through a hail of bullets and splinters and firing the gun from his hip. He was almost immediately wounded by machine-gun fire and fell to the ground, but recovered himself quickly, got up and continued advancing towards the enemy, spraying bullets from his gun as he went. His action by now was having an effect on the enemy riflemen and machine gunners but mortar bombs continued to fall all around him.

“He was then hit for the second time and much more seriously and painfully wounded. However, undaunted, he staggered once more to his feet and continued towards the enemy who were now seemingly nonplussed by their inability to check him. His constant firing continued until the enemy started to withdraw before him.

"At this moment, he was hit for the third time by mortar bomb splinters, a wound that was to prove mortal. He again fell to the ground but continued to fire his weapon until his strength failed him. This was not, however, until the enemy had withdrawn and the situation in this locality had been restored.

"Corporal Bates died shortly afterwards of the wounds he had received, but, by his supreme gallantry and self-sacrifice he had personally restored what had been a critical situation.”

Sergeant Bill Digby

Sergeant Bill DigbyImage: Sergeant William Digby

Sergeant William “Bill” Digby, born in Farndon, Nottinghamshire, enlisted in the British Army at just 17, joining the Sherwood Rangers at the outset of the Second World War.

The Sherwood Rangers were initially a cavalry unit, and they performed this function during the war’s early years. By late 1941, the Sherwood Rangers had been transformed into a tank unit, dispensing horses for Sherman tanks.

The Sherwood’s first tank battle took place in North Africa in August 1942. As its experience grew, the unit began to find itself more and more in the Allied vanguard, culminating with being one of the leading armoured units at the British victory at El Alamein in November 1942.

Following its performance in North Africa, the Sherman Rangers were one of four British tank regiments selected for Operation Overlord.

By D-Day, Bill had been promoted to Sergeant and was now second-in-command of the Rangers’ B Squadron.

Coming in two minutes ahead of H-Hour on D-Day, Bill and the Foresters hit Gold Beach.

The landing wasn’t easy. Choppy weather, beach obstacles and enemy fire made coming ashore difficult. 

For the Sherwood’s heavy tanks, there was also the threat of sinking. Bill had to make a dangerous attempt to save his tank from sinking when he noticed some steel struts on his craft were about to break.

Luckily he was able to clamber across to the front and fix the struts in place, saving his crew the fate of so many other crews that sadly sunk to their deaths with their tanks that day.

Sergeant Digby’s tank eventually made it onto the Jig Green sector of Gold Beach and as other tanks all around him were hit by enemy fire, he pressed forward. 

However, from the direction of Le Hamel there was a casement holding a 77mm anti-tank gun which now fired in their direction. Unfortunately, Bill Digby was standing in the turret of his tank and both his legs were severed while three of his crew members also sustained injuries.

In an attempt to withdraw, the tank was reversed back onto the beach, only to be immobilised. 

The crew managed to escape to a nearby dune where they hid under the cover of another immobilised tank. Stranded, wounded, and subjected to relentless enemy fire, Digby and his crew endured the entirety of the fighting around them on that day.

Rescue finally was possible in the evening, and they were subsequently transported to a Casualty Clearing Station.

Regrettably, Bill's severe injuries precluded evacuation and tragically he succumbed to his wounds the following evening. 

His commanding officer, Major Michael Gold, spoke of him as possessing "an exceptional spirit of friendship and loyalty," portraying him as a true leader and an exemplary figure for all the Sherwood Rangers.

Thank you to Alexander Marchi for sharing Bill’s story.

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