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The German war cemetery of reconciliation

The cemetery with the burial mound surrounded by the graves (Photo: Author’s own)

Today, La Cambe is a small, peaceful village of around 550 inhabitants in Normandy, France. It lies along the N13 road between Carentan and Bayeux, and a couple of miles south-west from Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc. During the D-Day landings, it was in the midst of the battle. As the number of casualties grew on both sides in the area, the U.S. Army’s Grave Registration Service had to set up a temporary cemetery around La Cambe on 10-11 June, 1944. The site was divided into two neighboring fields. On the American side 4534 soldiers were buried (mostly casualties of the 29th Infantry Division), while on the German side 8574 soldiers were buried. The American dead were later exhumed and, depending on the decision of their families, either returned to the U.S. or interred at the Normandy American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.

La Cambe on the map (Photo: Google)

La Cambe was then cared for first by the British, then the French and eventually was taken over by the voluntary German War Graves Commission (“Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge”). The Volksbund is responsible for taking care of 832 German war cemeteries in 46 countries since its inception after World War I in 1919. Its motto reads: „Versöhnung über den Gräbern – Arbeit für den Frieden“ (“Reconciliation above graves– work for peace”). Following the war, the Volksbund established six cemeteries in Normandy. Beyond La Cambe, the other five cemeteries were created in Champigny-Saint-André, Marigny, Mont-de-Huisnes, Orglandes and Saint-Désir-de-Lisieux. The treaty between France and Germany signed in 1954 allowed the remains of further 12,000 German soldiers to be moved in from 1,400 locations. Most of the German soldiers buried at La Cambe died over the three months of the Battle of Normandy. They were scattered over a wide area in ad hoc cemeteries or individual graves. Many of them still had to be identified. The average age of the soldiers buried here is between 17 and 22 years. The youngest soldier was 15 years old.

An aerial photo of the temporary joint cemetery in 1946 (Photo: NARA)

In 1958, under the leadership of Robert Tischler, the chief architect of the Volksbund, the organization started to work on the layout of the site with the involvement of German and other young volunteers from other countries. As part of the educational activities of the Volksbund, this has become a tradition and young volunteers often visit and participate in the maintenance of German war cemeteries. La Cambe was officially opened as a war cemetery on September 21, 1961. Tischler’s plan was to reflect the German mythology's union between mankind and nature. The site represented grief and defeat, but, at the same time, eternal peace, too. Visitors can enter the cemetery through a narrow stone corridor which opens up in the wide lawn of the cemetery with a burial mound in the center. With the narrow entrance, the architect’s intention was to break up visiting groups into individuals and to stop discussions in order to focus on and take in the sudden view of the cemetery.

The narrow entrance of the cemetery (Photo: Author’s own)

The mound or tumulus has a 4-meter-high basalt cross on the top with two statues on its sides. The mound is a mass grave, a "Comrades' Grave" (“Kamaradengrab”) and has 207 unknown and 89 identified German soldiers underneath. The tumulus is surrounded by 49 plots, each containing 400 graves. The graves are identified by flat, dark grave markers. Groups of five black basalt ornamental crosses can also be found between the markers. On the markers, the name, the rank and the date of birth and death is indicated. In case of unidentified soldiers, the text reads “ein deutscher Soldat” (“a German soldier”). This kind of layout differs completely from that of the American or the Commonwealth cemeteries. For instance, American military cemeteries managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) use white marble Latin crosses and Stars of David for grave markers. The markers of unknown American soldiers read “Here Rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms Known but to God”. Normal headstones indicate the name, rank, unit, the state in which the soldier had enlisted and the date of death. At the bottom of the back of the headstones the service number can be found. In Commonwealth cemeteries managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), the standard headstone has the soldier’s name, regiment, rank, service number, religious emblem and a personal inscription provided by the family on it. The text on the headstone of an unknown soldiers reads “Known Unto God”.

The graves and the ornamental crosses surrounded by trees (Photo: Author’s own)
The graves and the ornamental crosses surrounded by trees (Photo: Author’s own)
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Currently, La Cambe is the resting place of 21,140 German soldiers, making it the largest German war cemetery in Normandy. In addition to Germans, foreigners who served in the German armed forces are buried here, too. Some of them volunteered, while others were conscripted in Central or Eastern Europe.
 
In 1996, 21 maple trees were planted to create a Peace Park (“Friedenspark”) along the road leading to the cemetery. The trees symbolizing peace can be sponsored with 250 Euros (approximately USD 300) to honor the memory of the fallen. Now, there are more than 1,200 maple trees growing in the park. At the edge of the park, visitors can see a quote from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Albert Schweitzer saying: “Soldiers' graves are the greatest preachers of peace.” Small plaques at the foot of individual trees show the name of the donor.

The Peace Garden along the road leading to the cemetery  (Photo: mapio.net, Markus Fässler)
The Peace Garden along the road leading to the cemetery (Photo: mapio.net, Markus Fässler)

Let’s look at a couple of notable burials in the cemetery: American General Lesley McNair was temporarily buried here before being interred to the Normandy American Cemetery. He was killed by friendly fire during Operation Cobra on July 25, 1944. The operation started with an aerial bombardment that knocked a hole in German lines. Unfortunately, some of the bombers dropped their ordnance early, killing or wounding 600 American soldiers, including McNair. His foxhole was hit by a bomb near Saint-Lô. His only son, Douglas McNair, was killed in action on the island of Guam on August 6, 1944, 12 days after the death of his father. Lesley McNair was posthumously promoted to general from lieutenant-general in 1954.

General Leslie McNair (Photo: U.S. Army)
General Leslie McNair (Photo: U.S. Army)

Maybe the most controversial person buried in the cemetery is SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann from the 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich" which had a history of atrocities committed against civilians. On June 10, 1944, his unit massacred 642 people in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane as collective retaliation for the killing of an officer of the division by the French Resistance (Read our earlier article – The Martyr Village of Oradour-sur-Glane). Diekmann died in action in Normandy in Noyers-Bocage near Caen on June 29, 1944. After the war, French Head of State Charles de Gaulle decided that the destroyed village should not be rebuilt, but instead preserved as a "Martyr Village".

Adolf Diekmann’s grave at La Cambe (Photo: Author’s own)
Adolf Diekmann’s grave at La Cambe (Photo: Author’s own)

Lastly, a slightly less controversial German soldier buried in La Cambe is SS-Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann, the famous tank ace. He is mostly known for his highly successful ambush on an armored column of the British 7th Armoured Division at Villers-Bocage on June 13, 1944. He and his crew were killed in battle a month later on August 8, 1944 between Caen and Falaise. They were buried in an unmarked grave and were interred together at La Cambe only in 1983.

Michael Wittmann’s grave at La Cambe (Photo: Author’s own)
Michael Wittmann’s grave at La Cambe (Photo: Author’s own)

The meticulously kept cemetery is open to the public and has become a symbol of French-German reconciliation. Visiting it is a sobering experience regardless of the nationality of the visitor. After the war, since many deceased soldiers were still teenagers, German parents came here to visit their children’s graves. For some Germans, the visit can still be an uncomfortable experience and tense due to the role Germany played during WWII. High-level German politicians tended to avoid visiting La Cambe because of the infamous SS soldiers in the cemetery. Nowadays, since there are only a few veterans left, the visitors are mainly tourists and the descendants of those buried here. Joint D-Day commemorations of the German, American and French armed forces and remaining veterans are also held. Thanks to the Volksbund’s educational programs, young generations get to visit the cemetery on a regular basis. Hopefully, they will learn from the past and will be able to prevent a similarly disastrous conflict from happening.

The logo of the German War Graves Commission (Photo: Facebook)
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