History War Cemetery
History of Wyvern Graveyard in Brunssum
British War Cemetery – Brunssum
How War Cemetery Brunssum came about
From D-Day in June 1944 until the successful completion of Operation Overlord in August, the Allies had fought their way across Belgium and France until, in September, things started to unravel. The British attempt to cross the Rhine at Arnhem, Market Garden, had failed. Leaving the Canadians to take the left flank with the British taking the centre and the Americans the right flank, the Allies shifted their focus further south.
Facing the British and Americans from Kleve, near Nijmegen, stretching right down to the Swiss border was the formidable Siegfried Line, also very aptly called the West Wall. This was going to be a major problem and would require a major effort. The British believed in mass artillery support and so, as forces began to assemble in Limburg, one of the many units was 94 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, who arrived north of Heerlen on 9th November 1944. Artillery have always been a popular target for enemy artillery and air attacks, and 94 were no exception. However, with the Germans still positioned between Brunssum and Sittard, and the front uncomfortably close, enemy night patrols were a real hazard. On the night of 11th November, a German patrol slipped through the lines and attacked an anti-aircraft gun position, taking prisoners and leaving dead and wounded behind. And so the story of the Brunssum War Cemetery begins, with the death of Bombardier George Pitfield on 13th November 1944.
We know so much about the units that visited and passed through our area of Limburg. We know many of them by name, their faces, where they fought, and sometimes where they died. In many cases though we can only try to piece together how they were killed, where they died and how they found their final resting place in Brunssum. Our history tells us:
“The first burials in the cemetery were made by an Advanced Dressing Station and a Casualty Clearing Station which were situated at Merkelbeek in November 1944 when the 43rd Division were engaged in clearing a triangle between the Rivers Roer and Maas.”
But if we know their regiments, the dates of their death, which medical units did they come from? Who were these unsung heroes who did so much to save the lives of the wounded but who, in the end were the source of the dead heroes that we commemorate every year?
It starts in late September 1944, when A and C companies of the American 48th Armored Medical Battalion set up their field hospitals in Treebeek, Amstenrade and Molenberg. Intended to support the 2nd Armored Division, as medical units do, they treated American, Commonwealth, German and civilian wounded. In October 1944, they found a new location, the Carmelite monastery in Oude Merkelbeek, about one and a half kilometres from the municipal cemetery in Brunssum, a perfect place for the dead – not too far for it to be present a logistics problem, but not so close that it could have a demoralizing effect on those still alive.
The monastery had become used to a military presence. Before the Americans arrived it had been used by the Germans not just as a medical treatment centre but even as accommodation for Russian prisoners of war. At first, the Americans set up tents in the fields around the monastery which, over the next few months was to become a ‘harbour area’ for a tremendous variety of units from infantry to light cavalry tanks, artillery units, and of course medical units. Towards the end of October, in the bitter winter of 1944, it became too cold for the troops in tents and so they moved in the monastery itself, where they turned one of the halls into a field hospital. Accompanying them was a 24-man graves registration detachment and, towards the end of November, they were joined by a British medical unit.
A large number of British medical units passed through and sometimes settled in Limburg. The smaller units were not required to submit official reports or keep diaries so many of them left no trace of their presence. Others, like 3 Field Dressing Station (who handled only major and acute cases), who took over a school in Nuth; 129 Field Ambulance, who occupied several locations in and around Brunssum, 130 Field Ambulance, who occupied locations in Brunssum, Nuth and Schimmert, left copious records of who their personnel were, where they served and the numbers and types of casualties they dealt with.
The British and Americans had completely different ideas about how to deal with their dead soldiers. The Americans made no distinction between the dead and the living, in theory, passing them both down the “evacuation chain”. Theory doesn’t often survive contact with reality. Neither side was prepared for the horrific number of casualties (3 days after D-Day, more than 30,000 bodies were scattered along the Normandy beaches; at high tide the dead were washed up, at low tide crews went into the sea to retrieve bodies from under wrecks). Bodies were passed from battalion aid posts to field hospitals and collected by men of the Quartermaster Graves Registration companies. 603rd and 607th were active in Limburg, with a 105th Evacuation Hospital in Vaals and Sittard.
Traditionally, British units were instructed to bury their dead where they fell. It often made the task of locating bodies very difficult or, in the case of RAF aircrew whose aircraft often crashed a long way from any towns or villages, nearly impossible. Where casualties died at medical units, they were often buried alongside (or even in) existing cemeteries, as in Brunssum, Schinnen, Schimmert, Nuth, Heerlen and numerous towns throughout the province.
While the British had, with the bitter memory of World War 1 behind them, grown used to the idea of leaving their dead “in some foreign field that is for ever England”, the Americans were determined that no American should ever be buried in “enemy ground”. As the invasion progressed towards and over the German border, the Americans began to formulate plans for relocating their dead. Consequently, in 1944, farmland was requisitioned near Margraten and No. 1 American Cemetery started to take shape.
From that point on, all American dead were buried, or moved, to Margraten, while Brunssum continued to receive a steady stream of soldiers. Almost like markers, we can walk around the graves and note the regiments the dead belonged to. From the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division, the division whose mythical Wyvern dragon insignia gave our cemetery its original name “The Wyvern Cemetery”, men from the Dorset Regiment (16), the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (16), the Hampshire Regiment (18), the Royal Artillery (26), the Royal Engineers (54), and from the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division, men from the Royal Scots Fusiliers (8), the Highland Light Infantry (30), and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (35), each of the dates a poignant reminder of the battles they took part in: Operation Clipper, Operation Queen and Operation Blackcock.
The story does not end with the end of the war in 1945. While the Americans had been relocating their dead, the British had their own equivalent units. Following in the tracks of the Graves Registration Units came the Graves Concentration Units. The Geneva Convention forbids the mistreatment of the dead and generally demands that the fallen are left undisturbed. However, in many cases it was clear that the dead could not be left where they were. No. 32 and No. 39 Graves Concentration Unit travelled throughout the Netherlands in 1944 and 1945, inspecting cemeteries, graveyards and individual graves, culminating at the end of March 1945 when the cemeteries in Sittard and Brunssum were inspected and approved as permanent locations.
But the final chapter in the story of the Brunssum cemetery comes a little later with the arrival in July 1946 of 18 bodies from two cemeteries in Schimmert and another 10 from the municipal cemetery in Nuth. Spread across a period of 3 months and many kilometres, 328 souls found their truly final resting place, in Brunssum.