The Cambridge American Cemetery

Cambridge American CemeterySomething like 3 million US citizens passed through the United Kingdom during the Second World War.  The Cambridge American Cemetery commemorates almost 9,000 Americans who died while based here, or en route, in those years of conflict.  They died at sea on convoys transporting essential supplies, troops and military equipment, across the Atlantic; they died in the air attacking targets over Germany and occupied Europe, or defending Britain’s coast; they died preparing for Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa in November 1942, and Operation Overlord, the invasion of Western Europe in June 1944, or from wounds received in action; they died in enemy air raids on this country; they include civilians as well as service personnel, women as well as men – and six children.  Some died even before Japan’s strike on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 sparked the United States’ entry into the war; they were merchant seamen, or volunteers fighting alongside Britain.  Eighteen Americans serving in Britain’s armed services, mostly the Royal Air Force or Air Transport Auxiliary, and one Canadian of the Royal Canadian Air Force, are buried in the Cambridge American Cemetery.

American, Military, Cemetery, CambridgeThe Cambridge American Cemetery is the only World War II American military cemetery in the United Kingdom.  The site was established as a temporary military burial ground in 1943, on land donated by the University of Cambridge, and has been granted free use in perpetuity by HM Government.  It was dedicated in 1956, covers 30.5 acres and lies on a gentle slope overlooking farmland.  Simple, white marble, headstones – mostly crosses – mark the resting place of 3,811 of America’s war dead. They line up in parade-ground precision, pure white on green, the graves radiating out, theatre-style, from a grand flag pole where the Stars and Stripes flutters and flaps in the breeze.  The arrangement has been likened to the spokes of a wheel, an aeroplane propeller, or a baseball field.

Reflecting pools, Wall of the Missing, American cemetery, United KingdomTo the east of the main entrance is the Great Mall, where beds of deep red roses surround serene reflecting pools.  On the southern edge of the Mall, the 472 foot (144 metre) long Portland Stone Wall of the Missing records 5,127 names – people who have no grave – lost or buried at sea, or missing in action.  Rosettes mark those whose remains have since been recovered and identified.  The Wall is guarded by statues of a soldier, sailor, airman and coast guardsman.

American Cemetery, Memorial to the Missing, statuesThe Mall leads to the Memorial Building, also constructed of Portland Stone, where great teak doors decorated with bronze representations of military equipment lead into an elegant ante-room.  The ceiling is covered by an extraordinary mosaic, predominantly blue in colour, through which ghostly aircraft are depicted making their final flights.  The mosaic continues into a small chapel displaying religious imagery with the words ‘Into Thy Hands O Lord’ in large bronze letters over the doorway.  On the southern wall of the ante-room is an astonishing map, which is both tactile and curiously beautiful.  Presumably named by committee, it is called “The Mastery of the Atlantic – the Great Air Assault Map”.  It shows the principal routes across the Atlantic, and the types of craft used, the aircraft (USAAF and RAF) engaged in operations – anti-submarine, bombing – and the routes to European targets.  It is 30 feet long, 18 high (9 x 5.5 metres) and belongs in a (very large) text book; but it’s a work of art.  It is also an illustration of sheer power.

Memorial Building, Cambridge American CemeteryCambridge American Cemetery, mapClose to the main entrance to the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial is an absorbing visitor centre.  It tells the story of some of the men and women commemorated at this place and gently explains a little about US involvement in the Second World War, particularly the Battle of the Atlantic, the Strategic Bombing Campaign – and a little about Americans in Britain during those years.  The personal stories are fascinating, and moving; big events are made by people and every perspective is unique.  The visitor centre is extremely well done, respectful, yet captivating.  It not only puts those remembered in context, but almost brings them to life as well.  In 2017, staff at the Cemetery launched an appeal for photographs of every man and woman it commemorated.  I don’t know how they’re doing with that; but what a wonderful idea.  There was a display of some of the photographs on the day A Bit About Britain visited. Inevitably, they were mostly young; frozen in time on the threshold of life’s great adventure, unaware they had so few days left when they posed for the camera. You can’t avoid your eyes moistening.

Commemorated at the Cambridge American Cemetery Among the better-known remembered at the American Cemetery in Cambridge are Joseph Kennedy and Glenn Miller.  Lieutenant Joseph P Kennedy Jr, US Navy Reserve, was flying a B-24 Liberator aircraft loaded with high explosive on a secret mission against a German V2 rocket site on 12 August 1944, when his aircraft exploded.  He was the older brother of the 35th President John F Kennedy and son of the controversial Joe Senior.  Major Alton Glenn Miller, innovative musician, composer and band leader, was flying to Paris from a small airfield near Bedford on 15 December 1944, to make arrangements for a Christmas broadcast, when his plane vanished over the English Channel; it has never been found.

Stars and Stripes, Cambridge American Cemetery, UKMilitary cemeteries as we know them are a relatively new phenomenon, emerging from European wars of the 19th century and the American Civil War of 1861-65. The latter broke the custom of mass graves for the ordinary soldiers who did most of the fighting, and that practice was taken up by the British Empire in the Boer War of 1899-1902.  It is interesting how the military cemeteries of different nations each appear to have their own distinct characteristics: the Germans seem dark and sombre; the British neat, but colourful and homely; the French basic and slightly untidy; the Americans immaculately elegant.  Are these a reflection of national characteristics, I wondered; or a perception of them?  In any event, no blade of grass dare be out of place at the American Cemetery in Cambridge, no weed is allowed to break the pristine, uniform, so green carpet-like lawn.  I seem to remember that the cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy, overlooking Omaha Beach where so many young men, so far from home, gave their lives on D-Day, 6 June 1944, is very similar.  There is equality in death; officers are buried alongside other ranks, no distinction is made between races.  Religion might be a different matter.  The vast majority of grave markers at Cambridge are Latin crosses, which was obviously judged appropriate at the time, when most of those interred were assumed to be, at least nominally, Christian. The one exception is the odd Star of David – 81 of them, in fact.  It strikes me as curious that a nation formed from so many cultures seems to have adopted one symbol, the cross, as its default marker in this instance and then highlighted just one other creed, the Jewish.  Were there really only two faiths in the United States of the 1940s?  Based on cursory research, it seems to be a different story in the National Cemetery at Arlington, Virginia, where something like 60 different religious symbols are approved for use on a plain, slab-like, headstone. Anyway, I digress…

Boeing B-17, Flying Fortress, Sally B, DuxfordWhether or not there is any such thing as ‘the special relationship’, durable bonds exist between the United Kingdom and the United States; two strong allies with a mutual heritage divided by a common language.  Though it would be naïve to ignore the differences, tensions and suspicions between the two nations – before, during and since WW2 – we undeniably share much, and there was an unquestionable unity of purpose in defeating Hitler and restoring ‘freedom and democracy’ – albeit these can be subjective terms.  If there was ever such a thing as a just, or necessary, war, it was the one that had to be waged against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  After the Soviet Union and the United States joined forces with Britain and the Commonwealth, winning became a matter of when, not if.  However, whatever the propaganda said, other than the essential defeat of Hitler, the Soviet Union had little in common with most Britishers; and Soviet servicemen and women were far away – unlike America’s.  So, just as a visit to America’s Second World War cemetery and memorial in Cambridge recalls the individuals who are commemorated there, it also reminds us of the ‘friendly invasion’, when so many Americans made their temporary homes in Britain.  They – including those who gave their lives – did not exist in isolated American enclaves – though the Americans certainly built their own massive bases – but would also have experienced our pubs, high streets and homes.

Americans in Britain, WW2The first US troops stepped ashore in Belfast in January 1942.  By 1944, during the build-up to D-Day, Americans were everywhere.  Issued beforehand with a handy (and amusing) booklet ‘Instructions for American servicemen in Britain’, they discovered that ‘British reserve’ did not necessarily mean that people were unfriendly, that ‘bum’ and ‘bloody’ were words to use with care, that British cities really did not have skyscrapers, the coffee was awful – if any could be found – but that warm beer could be OK.  The British discovered that not all Americans resembled Hollywood movie stars or pistol-toting cowboys, but were much better paid than home-grown servicemen; and their uniforms didn’t scratch… GIs – slang for American troops (the term may have come from ‘Government Issue’ or ‘Galvanised Iron’) – were described by their British counterparts as “overpaid, oversexed and over here”. The GIs allegedly retorted that British Tommies were “underpaid, undersexed and under Eisenhower” – two of which accusations were certainly true.  Some 70,000 British women married American servicemen and an estimated 9,000 babies were born out of wedlock.  The GIs introduced Coca-Cola, doughnuts, pinball machines, jukeboxes, good music and were generous, often supplementing meagre British rations with exotic foods not available in the shops.  The traffic was not all one-way; most Americans had never been away from home, were lonely, and found unconditional friendship in these islands; little pieces of British culture and language found their way back across the Atlantic too.

Cambridge American Cemetery entranceOddly enough, for a country with an empire that was arguably institutionally racist and where, as recently as the 1960s, it is alleged that signs on boarding-house windows warned, “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs”, Britain struggled with the American practice of racial segregation. During WW2, around 100,000 black US troops arrived in the UK, where the black population at the time may have been around 7,000.  American troops were segregated here as a matter of policy, in the same way as they were in the USA, and I am genuinely proud that this decision resulted in problems between local British populations and American military authorities – both of them white.

There’s a fascinating interactive presentation about Americans in Britain on the website of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

There are stories behind the stones at any cemetery, but visiting a military cemetery is invariably a sad and humbling experience too.  The American Military Cemetery in Cambridge is certainly that; but it is also a beautiful place, and one which puts its own perspective on the sometimes cold pages of history.

US Flag, flown in Britain

 

57 thoughts on “The Cambridge American Cemetery

  1. Dash

    I have a comment and as question. First, you ask, “Were there really only two faiths in the United States of the 1940s?” Well, essentially, yes. The other symbols offered at Arlington are a relatively new phenomenon. Second, how can I contact the Visitor Center about sending a photo to their collection? I have looked online and can’t find anything. Thank you for any help you can give!

  2. Melanie

    Fascinating article! I didn’t know this place existed. They truly did a wonderful job creating this cemetery–a lot of love and care went into the design,

    There was a documentary on the BBC a few years ago (I’m in the US, so I streamed it) about children born of the alliance of British women and black US troops. It was really interesting.

    https://www.melanie.city/

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      The cemetery is certainly thoughtfully designed. That documentary does sound interesting – I’ll keep an eye open for it. Thanks very much for dropping in and leaving a comment 🙂

  3. paxami

    While on tour with a group from my alma mater, we were told (as we were passing) that there were no time to visit, but here was a WWII America cemetery. We insisted that we stop and were so impressed by this outstanding memorial. You have written and photographed it beautifully and accurately. The military cemetery in Los Angeles is the the final resting place of 80,000 plus 2 dogs. The white granite headstones are rounded rectangles with mostly crosses or Star of David insignias but there are also other symbols. Like Arlington (as you have aptly described) it is “immaculately elegant.” Every Memorial Day in May, the Boy Scouts place a flag in front of every grave. Something to see—80,000 flags fluttering in the breeze. As usual, your article is so well done. Thanks for the “re-visit” of such a special place.

  4. CherryPie

    I really enjoyed this post and the accompanying photographs. We ran out of time when we were in Cambridge last year and didn’t get chance to visit. So it was good to be able to see it through your eyes.

  5. marmeladegypsy

    As always, Mike, your posts are eloquently written, well researched and so beautifully photographed. And they give us much to ponder in these days where peace seems so very fragile. What a beautiful, peaceful place this is — and the men (all men?) there deserve peace after their deaths. I have visited the cemeteries at Colville sur Mer and St. James and found them to be very similar. It’s a good feeling to be there and a bit overwhelming as well.

    Which leads me to my question. You wrote: “The Cambridge American Cemetery is the only World War II American military cemetery in the United Kingdom.” And I know you do your homework so if that’s the case, are the Colville or St. James cemeteries (and I presume others) NOT “WWII American military cemeteries”? And if not, what are they — what’s the difference?

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Flattery will get you everywhere, Jeanie! The other cemeteries you mention are in Normandy. The only other American military cemetery in the UK is at Brookwood, near Woking in Surrey, which commemorates those who died in WW1. It’s next door to a large Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery. Have a look at https://www.abmc.gov/

  6. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – fascinating and thorough as I know your posts to be … I must visit when I return. I remember something about the German cemeteries being set up and the difference between other cemeteries because of the ‘conflict’ … I’m sure somewhere there’s something about them. It was via a tv programme that I noted it – British programme – whether BBC or Channel 4 I’ve no idea now.

    It’s interesting the differences that have occurred … at that time and now – take care – cheers HIlary

  7. M.B. Henry

    “…big events are made by people and every perspective is unique.” An excellent point – one that brings a real personal note to something as vast as World War II. I think my eyes would get quite moist as well! Beautiful pictures – would love to visit there someday.

  8. Michael Gould

    Thank you Mike: a moving, respectful, and evocative piece, deserved by all those young men who died that we might live in freedom.

  9. Clare Pooley

    A cousin of my mother’s was one of the many women who married an American serviceman.
    This is a most lovely, peaceful place and so well tended. Thank you for this moving post, Mike.

  10. Cynthia

    What a beautiful place, and these soldiers (and a few others) deserve nothing less. Thanks for all the wonderful details. Interesting statistics about the numbers of black troops compared to the number of blacks in Britain.

  11. Kay G.

    MIke, what a beautiful post this is! My Uncle George spent two years in England, as an MP in one of the American bases there. (HIs brother, my Uncle JIm was not so lucky, he was in Patton’s army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He survived but was never the same again, according to my Dad.)
    Also, I do know of an American buried at the American Cemetery in Cambridge…it is Damon “Rocky” Gause…he wrote a journal which his son published years later. The book is “The War Journal of Major Damon “Rocky” Gause”. It is such a fascinating book! If you ever get back to this cemetery, promise me, you will look up his grave. Let me know. Thanks! (I do not know the family personally but the family is from Georgia.)

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Thanks, Kay. I really appreciate your comment and the information. It’s hard not to stop and look at every memorial at these places – but I promise I’ll look him up if I visit again! The Battle of the Bulge was very ugly; I think ‘Band of Brothers’ covered it very well.

  12. Dash

    Thank you for your detailed article on this cemetery. My grand-uncle, Earl Wellington Watson, is buried there. He died August 14, 1941. He was part of the crew ferrying a bomber over and something went wrong and it crashed on landing. I had not heard they were looking for photos. I have one, although it is not very good. I will visit the web site and find out if it meets their requirements.

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      My pleasure. As you know, that was before the USA came into the war – and I see your uncle is listed as being in the RAF Ferry Command. So many accidents, not just combat losses. I bet they’d love to get a photo of him.

  13. artandarchitecturemainly

    I have visited many war cemeteries, but I hadn’t seen a layout of graves similar to your second, Cambridge photo. I thought the white marble graves radiating out from a flag pole was a bit strange, but an aeroplane propeller shape makes sense.

    British, Australian and other Commonwealth men who died in Europe could not be taken home by their families and had to be buried where they fell. Were American parents also not allowed to repatriate their sons’ bodies?

  14. mekslibrarian

    It is hardly surprising that German military cemeteries or memorials are rather on the dark and sombre side – after all, “we” started those wars and still feel responsible for having brought terror and death across way too many lives. Dark and sombre are, though, definitely not national characteristics – at least I can not say there is more darkness etc. in the characters of my friends, family, colleagues that are German (or in myself).
    Anyway, this was very moving and touching, and I could write the longest comment EVER if I didn’t feel it inappropriate. Thank you for all this.

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Meike, if there are such things as national characteristics (maybe stereotypes?!), I don’t really believe they are reflected in cemeteries. In fact, I remember that the German cemetery at Cannock Chase – is not in the least bit gloomy, though the stones are dark. But the German cemetery at Langemark in Belgium has a very sombre feel. Nor is it true to say that “you” (ie the German people of today) are responsible for events that happened so long ago or could not influence – that would be ridiculous. Actually, from a historical point of view, it is not accurate to blame Germany for WW1 – though it may be convenient to do so. There were heaps of complex factors at play in 1914, but given the background I believe the two decisive acts that virtually guaranteed a general European war were 1) the attitude of Austria-Hungary toward Serbia and 2) the Kaiser’s ‘blank cheque’ to his ally. As for WW2, well we can certainly lay the blame with Herr Hitler – but maybe the settlements reached by the Allies after WW1 helped create the climate where someone like Hitler could gain power. That said, someone should have taken him out! Anyway, I’m glad you found the article moving and very grateful that you left your comment!

  15. Mary Hennessey

    I found this very enlightening and beautifully written…my roots are English and Irish…all my grandparents emigrating from those countries to the USA. I’m very proud of my heritage. Mary in Colorado

  16. 56packardman

    Mike, thank you for posting this. You’ve written a fine tribute to those who are buried there.

    You mention the equality of how the ranks and officers are buried together. This is the case at the military cemeteries in San Bruno, California (on the Peninsula south of San Francisco) at the cemetery in the Presidio in San Francisco and the Sacramento Valley cemetery on Midway Road south west of Dixon, California.

    At San Bruno, four U.S. Navy Admirals and their wives are buried together: Admirals Nimitz, Spruance, Turner and Lockwood. They served together in the Pacific under Nimitz. They all agreed that they did not want to be buried at Arlington (though they could have been), they didn’t want monuments – they insisted they receive the same slab tombstone as the ranks who served with them. Such a gesture was typical of Nimitz.

  17. Judy Masrud

    Moving post, Mike, and I had no idea that was there. Anyway, the U.S. was founded on Judeo/Christian principles, and in the 1940’s most of the people who would have fought would have at least on the ‘roster,’ declared themselves to be Christian or Jewish, although of course there were other religions in a minority over here. I also wonder if pragmatism of time and uniformity (of display aesthetics) had something to do with it. This looks like a beautiful place. Reminds me of Arlington National Cemetery, which was, at one time, Robert E. Lee’s backyard. I always enjoy seeing how WWII American soldiers are portrayed in British mysteries. The term ‘ugly American’ isn’t without foundation. Enjoy your trek to the Great North.

    1. Dash

      Just a note that I can’t resist posting. “The Ugly American” was the title of a book about a man who was very ugly but actually very nice. The term has been completely misused almost from the start. Odd, isn’t it?

      1. Judy Masrud

        When I think of the term ‘ugly American,’ regardless of it’s origin, I think of people who travel abroad and complain (loudly) all along the way because they can’t find a McDonalds close enough or their hotel room doesn’t have enough space for their ten pieces of luggage they brought along, etc. etc.

  18. Lisa G.

    What a beautifully arranged place, as you said. I love this post! You must have spent quite a bit of time there, when you went. I think that, before recent memory, our nations thought of themselves as Christian. Hence the crosses, but also the religious imagery in the Memorial Building. If it were to be built today I’m not sure those things would be included in this post-Christian era. But that map is fabulous-looking!

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      It’s one of those places that has to be written about; AND it makes you think. In one sense, it’s no different from any other military cemetery – but they all have to be looked at in context.

  19. Darlene

    These place are so moving. I visited a Canadian War Memorial Cemetery in Holland and was moved to tears. An excellent description of this one. Thanks.

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