The biggest surprise about the German military cemetery at La Cambe is its size – it is small (16.5 acres), given that 21,222 German soldiers are buried here.
That’s much smaller than the American Cemetery at Colville (172.5 acres), which has 9,380 graves. The reason is that, not only are the graves packed closer, but each small marker set in the ground has two soldiers buried underneath.
It makes a visit to the cemetery, extra intense. The soldiers buried here in such numbers ranged in age from 16 to 72, but as you read the marker stones a huge number were just eighteen and they died in those few intense weeks between 6th June and 20th August 1944.
The cemetery was created by the United States Army Graves Registration Service in 1944 as a mixed cemetery site with German dead buried in one field and American dead in the next field. Once the war was over, the American dead were either repatriated or reburied at Coleville, and the La Cambe site was taken over by the German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge), who in 1954 began to gather the remains of German soldiers from small graveyards and burial sites scattered around Normandy into six large cemeteries. La Cambe received an extra 12,000 dead.
The cemetery is unlike American and Commonwealth cemeteries. It has a brooding gothic feel to it. There are little groups of five short crosses in grey schist stone standing between the rows of graves which are marked with stone plaques in the ground. In the centre is a large memorial mound covering the mass grave of 207 unknown and 89 identified warriors.
There is a small gatehouse (with a surprisingly narrow entrance that somehow adds to the concentrated feel of the place) with memorial rooms, and a modern visitor centre outside, that has a database of the graves and information about the German War Graves Commission.
I only discovered that the German tank ace, Michael Wittmann, is buried here with some of his crew, after my visit. So I shall have to seek him out and pay my respects next time I’m in the area.
Declaration: I was on a self-driving press trip as a guest of the Normandie and Calvados tourist offices.
Cimetière militaire allemand de La Cambe
Les Noires Terres
14230 La Cambe
The cemetery is surprisingly quiet, given that it sits right next to the N13/E46 dual-carriageway that is the main route through the Calvados region of Normandy. If you are driving east or west on the dual carriageway, take the La Cambe exit and follow signs to the cemetery.
The cemetery and visitor centre are open daily from 8.00am to 7.00pm, however the visitor centre closes for lunch (12.00 noon – 1.00pm).