Last updated on October 27th, 2023 at 10:50 am
Something 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.
The 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.
To 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.
The 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.
Close 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.
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.
Military 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…
Whether 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.
The 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.
Oddly 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.