02 April 2010

The British cemetery at Ocracoke

Most people probably don't know how close to the U.S. East Coast the German navy was operating during the World War II years. Between January and July 1942, for example, German U-Boats ("undersea boats" or submarines) sank 400 ships off North Carolina's 300 miles/500 km of coastline.

The people who lived in places like Hatteras and Ocracoke could hear and see the explosions as all those cargo ships were being torpedoed not far offshore. Wreckage and bodies washed up on the beaches regularly.

The little British military graveyard at Ocracoke

I my home town, Morehead City, which is 75 miles south of Ocracoke, the situation was the same. I was born five years after the end of the war, but I remember my parents and other older people telling us kids about those bodies washing up on local shores. The ships torpedoed by the German navy were mostly unarmed cargo vessels. In fact, the hospital in which I was born in Morehead City was enlarged as part of the war effort, because so many wounded merchant marines needed medical care after their ships were sunk.

During those years, people started using the terms "Graveyard of the Atlantic" and "Torpedo Alley" to describe the N.C. Outer Banks and the waters near the N.C. coast. In the early months of the American involvement in the war — following the December 1941 attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii — the U.S. Navy had deployed most of its fleet in the Pacific Ocean.

Meanwhile, the U.S. merchant marine fleet was busy supplying the British with essential supplies and materials in 1941 and 1942. That's why the Germans sent their U Boats to the Cape Hatteras area. They wanted to disrupt traffic on the shipping lanes along the U.S. coast and cut off the flow of supplies supporting the British war effort.

To help protect the shipping lanes on the other side of the Atlantic, the British Royal Navy requisitioned a small fleet of North Sea fishing trawlers, armed the ships with with machine guns, depth-charges, and mine-sweeping equipment, and sent a convoy of them westward across the ocean to patrol the waters off the Outer Banks. One such trawler was the HMT Bedfordshire, newly converted and armed.

In May of 1942, HMS Bedfordfshire was assigned to escort a convoy of U.S. merchant ships south along the Outer Banks from Norfolk, Virginia. The Bedfordshire's destination was Morehead City, where it would be based for the duration of the war. According to records, HMS Bedfordshire was torpedoed by a German U-Boat on May 11, 1942, off Cape Lookout, N.C. (12 miles from Morehead City). The entire crew was lost.

Three days later, two bodies washed up on the beach at Ocracoke. Papers in the pockets of the dead men identified them as members of the HMS Bedfordshire crew. Over the following few weeks, more bodies washed up on Ocracoke's beaches, including those of two more Bedfordshire crew members. An Ocracoke family donated space in its family cemetery and the bodies were buried next to the graves of family members' ancestors. Family cemeteries on the island were family-maintained back then.

In the 1980s, the state of North Carolina deeded the British cemetery in Ocracoke Village to the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It will remain British property for as long as it is a cemetery. Later, British authorities had new headstones for the lost sailors erected on the plot, but the Ocracoke Preservation Society decided they wanted to keep the original crosses that had been put up to mark the graves in the 1940s. The British agreed. You'll see both sets of tombstones in my pictures.

These crosses were the original grave markers that stood
in the British cemetery from the 1940s until the 1980s.

The little British cemetery is now maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. Every May there is a memorial ceremony attended by a British delegation and representatives of the U.S. military. The two HMS Bedfordshire crew member who were originally identified were Sub-Lt. Thomas Cunningham, R.N.V.R., and Stanley Craig, 2nd Class Telegraphist. Two unidentified British sailors lost in the sinking of the Bedfordshire are buried next to them.

You can read more about the HMS Bedfordshire and the British cemetery on Ocracoke here.


  1. How interesting. Commonwealth War Graves turn up in all sorts of unexpected places. I assume The War Graves Photographic Project (www.twgpp.org) knows about the existance of these ones, but I will check with my contact there just in case. Their aim is to photographically record every Commonwealth War Grave in the world.

  2. I've always been fascinated and moved by the courage of the men who fought in WW2. I knew about the convoys, of course, but I didn't know they sailed that far south. Thank you for this interesting post and ... welcome home in Saint-Aignan! Martine

  3. I'm glad to hear that you are safely chez toi.

    I'm a bit sad that your vacation is over though since your posts of your trip have been so interesting. I had no idea so much history took place on the shores of North Carolina.

    There was a German prisoner of war camp here at Fort McClellan during the war and I think there is a cemetery here as well.

  4. Glad you're back safe and probably sound also!

  5. Hello Susan, Martine, Evelyn, and CHM. I'm glad to be back at home in France. I am safe and healthy, though tired. We are working this weekend to be ready for the attic conversion work to start on Tuesday...


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