France: la Glacerie

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Prisoner-of-war camps were set up in Normandy for German soldiers following the D-Day landings. After the capture of Cherbourg and the Cotentin Peninsula, the Allies stopped sending prisoners to internment camps outside Europe. The camp at La Glacerie, established by the American authorities in August 1944, was the first of many to be erected in the region. In August 1945, it was handed over to the French authorities and was finally closed in October 1946.

It was during archaeological investigations for Gallo-Roman remains, in advance of a proposed housing development, that the excavation team came across significant archaeological features containing WWII artefacts. Further research, including discussions with local landowners, revealed that this was, indeed, the site of a former POW camp.

The Service Régional de l’Archéologie (SRA) took the unprecedented decision to order a full-scale rescue excavation – the first ever for a World War II archaeological site in France – and called in Oxford Archaeology to carry out the project. The two big questions were: How does the archaeology compare with the historic record? And can archaeology replace living memory, which, by its temporal nature, will soon no longer be available to us?

Aerial reconnaissance throughout World War II built up an invaluable archive of photographs. One, found at the French records library at Le Mémorial, Caen, is dated to August 1947, and shows the site of the POW camp. But it had already been dismantled.

However, an RAF sortie in August 1945 produced a photograph that, astonishingly, revealed the complete layout of the camp. No other source of information has been found that shows the actual layout.

It was a formal camp, developed to the south of an east-to-west aligned road that is still in use today and descends to the west of Cherbourg. A less well-organised, elongated rectangular area can also be seen to its south-west.

Documentary studies show there were several POW camps in the community of La Glacerie, each referred to by different identification references. Confusingly, these references changed when camps were handed over to the French authorities.

The reference number of this particular camp was unknown, a major drawback to applying the mass of documentary and photographic evidence available. So excavation was key to linking it to the documentary sources.

Establishing identity

A major breakthrough came with the discovery of five identification tags that were stamped ‘Labor Service Center 137 112’. This, then, was a ‘labour camp’ attached to the south-west boundary of the main POW ‘transit’ camp.

By combing excavation and aerial photographic evidence, a detailed record of the layout and features within the labour camp could be ascertained. It occupied a rectangular area of approximately 10.5ha, subdivided into 16 rectangular compounds, each of which contained 80 to 100 structures or tents. Further structures and roadways to the south-west suggest it was serviced and administered separately from the transit camp.

Five compounds were chosen for excavation, to establish whether they had different functions or imprisoned different nationalities.

This is an extract.  The full article can be found in issue 51 of Current World Archaeology, on sale now.


  1. My dad, Capt. James T. Owen, was the judicial officer (or some such title) at a Cherbourg P.O.W. camp starting at the end of the war in May 1945. He was back in the states by December 1945. He said since he didn’t speak German, he went through the prisoners’ records— the SS had already been weeded out and sent elsewhere— and chose a professor from the University of Heidelberg to be in charge of the other prisoners; what he couldn’t handle, he was to bring to my dad. On August 3, 1945, they presented my dad with a little nine-page booklet, which was dedicated to him. It was signed by Rudolf Lemmler (if I can read the signature correctly) on behalf of all the German P.O.W.s there at The P.O.W. Theatre Enclosure 112-A Cherbourg. I believe he is the professor. A man named W. Dietz signed the pages with drawings, and another named K. Lessig signed a sketch of my dad. Both men so talented, and the printing is awesome! My dad was dumbfounded. (Partially because they supposedly had no access to the paper or pencils.) The theme of the booklet was “…to forget our sorrows and drive our troubles aways …”. The pages of the booklet were eventually framed and hung in my parents’ stairway for years. I just this week dismantled it to make each family member a copy as when we divided our inheritance that was the one thing everyone wanted.
    Andrea (Owen) Brown

      • Shenan,
        all I can do is tell you with 95% confidence there was a very gifted artist: K Lessig at that camp.
        I have a fantastic oil on (army cot) canvas 15×17 of my dad( LT Wendall W Dow) signed K. Lessig Cherbourg 1945.

        This internet page is the first and only mention of K Lessig I have found.

        if you find more do share


        • My great-grandfather was also in that camp and he made my great-grandmother a beautiful bracelet out of a tin can. We still have it to this day although it’s broken. Reading your comments I think a lot of men there might have encouraged each other to create art.

    • Thank you so much Andrea!
      I have been searching endlessly to prove the story that my dad told me!
      I have a fanatastic (true to life) approx 15×17 oil portrait of him as 1st LT Wendall W Dow signed K. Lessig Cherbourg 1945.
      The REALLY fascinating story of this oil on canvas is that it is painted on a cut up WWII army cot! (complete with attaching WWII thumb tacks)

      Do you have any more info on K. Lessig?

      send me a email, I’ll gladly send you a pic’ of the portrait

      You just really made my day
      thank you
      Steve Dow and family

      • Hi Steve, I have been searching for any information on an artist who painted a portrait of my husband’s grandfather, who was an officer in the US army in ww II that is also signed ‘K. Lessig 1945’. We were also told it was painted by a German POW during his time stationed in France. The styles are incredibly similar and I believe his portrait to also be done on a cot like material and not a true canvas. I really feel It’s very possible we have portraits created by the same artist. I would be happy to send you a photo of the painting we have. Please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected] if you’d like!

  2. After leaving my comment on December 24, 2017, I checked the site off and on for a few years and never saw any response nor any other mention of the camp excavation continuing—until today, March 24, 2023, the 112th anniversary of my father’s birth. (He passed in 1994.). I feel such a connection with others also searching for our fathers’ and grandfathers’ journeys through the war and then toward peace. My father was surprised to be presented with a nine-page booklet and an 8×10 penciled drawing of him dedicated to him “in Memory of the German P.O.W. – Enclosure 112 Cherbourg 3rd August 1945”. (I assume that was the day the camp was turned over to the French.) It was signed by Rudolf Lemmler (or perhaps Leuuuler), Campleader. Again, I can only assume this is the German professor from the University of Heidelberg my father chose to be in charge of the other prisoners.

  3. my Dad was a German POW in Cherbourg. Captured 1945 .He was 15.Released in 1948 and he was 18.He returned home to Berlin and migrated to Melbourne Australia in 1955.He was a Medic or stretcher bearer during the war.My beloved Dad( Vati) passed away in a nursing home in February 2016 aged 87
    May he RIP.I miss him terribly. He said the Americans treated him well.He was taken from school at aged 14 to train for the front.I would like to visit Cherbourg one day.

  4. I heard the are excavating.I had hoped to travel from Australia to Rosclare Harbour in County Wexford Ireland (have relatives in Ireland).and take a ferry to Cherbourg. I thought perhaps the.camp would be a museum.Unfkrtunately not.

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