The creation and duties of the War Graves Service
After World War II, a large number of foreign war dead from different countries were found in Norway, spread throughout the country and buried in war cemeteries and ordinary cemeteries, at military facilities and in outlying land, in boggy and inaccessible mountain terrain, often in unmarked graves.
In autumn 1946, the Ministry of Defence ordered the Norwegian Defence Command to set up a ‘Central Office for War Graves’, later renamed the War Graves Service. This office was to be the responsible authority for the graves of foreign war dead on Norwegian territory and for the graves of Norwegian combatants abroad.
Given the number and dispersed distribution of foreign war dead on Norwegian territory, it was deemed necessary to gather their graves in fewer places, and a national plan was drawn up for this purpose. The War Graves Service was charged with the task of implementing this plan.
Soviet war graves
Soviet nationals who had lost their lives in German captivity in Norway were found in more than two hundred different places in the country, most of them in Northern Norway.
By a Government decision of 26 June 1951, Norway took responsibility for ensuring that the Soviet war dead had worthy graves and for estimating what this would cost.
The Soviet dead who were found in Northern Norway were transferred to a war cemetery built by the Norwegian authorities on the island of Tjøtta in Helgeland.
The Tjøtta Soviet War Cemetery was formally opened on 8 July 1953.
On 27 November 1944, a German prisoner transport ship, the MS ‘Rigel’, was attacked by allied planes and sunk near the island of Rosøya west of Tjøtta. According to the captain’s report, 2,456 people died during the attack. Of the dead, 2,098 were Soviet prisoners, the remainder Germans and Norwegians. Work on salvaging the dead started in spring 1969 and was concluded in autumn 1970. Those who were found were taken ashore to the island of Tjøtta and buried in a separate war cemetery beside the Soviet cemetery.
Tjøtta International War Cemetery was consecrated on 6 September 1970.
In Southern Norway, most of the Soviet war dead were gathered in six war cemeteries:
Verdalsøra in Nord-Trøndelag. Vinjeøra and Oppdal in Sør-Trøndelag, Sunndalsøra in Møre og Romsdal, Jørstadmoen in Oppland and Haslemoen in Hedmark.
The remaining Soviet war dead were laid to rest in ordinary cemeteries, in separate plots, in common graves or individually.
Today, there are Soviet war dead buried in 63 cemeteries in Norway.
At a meeting on 1 July 1954 between the parties in the bipartisan Norwegian-Soviet War Graves Commission, agreement was reached to build monuments at certain former burial sites for Soviet war dead. The parties also agreed on the design of the monuments and the text they were to display. The production and erection of 29 such monuments with texts in Russian and Norwegian was carried out by the War Graves Service. The erection of the monuments was completed in 1955.
German war graves
In a letter of 22 October 1953 to the Federal Republic of Germany’s Minister in Oslo, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided that German citizens who had lost their lives through acts of war and who were buried in Norway were to be gathered in a few war cemeteries and that the necessary moving of graves would be organised by the Norwegian authorities. For its own account, the Norwegian Government would design appropriately dignified German war cemeteries, but the Government stated that it was willing to consider German design proposals in a favourable light. The Norwegian Government declared its willingness to maintain and tend the war cemeteries after they had been created. At the same time, the Norwegian Government also took note of the fact that the German war graves service, Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e.V., was authorised by the German government to attend to all tasks in connection with German war dead in consultation with the relevant Norwegian body.
In accordance with the above, the German war dead were gathered in five German war cemeteries:
Alfaset in Oslo, Solheim in Bergen, Havstein in Trondheim, Botn in Saltdal and in Narvik.
Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e.V. financed all the stonework at the war cemeteries itself, such as gravestones, memorial halls and walls etc.
Work on the German war cemeteries was completed in August 1960, when they were opened for visitors.
Yugoslavian war graves
The assumption in the national plan for the gathering of the war graves was that the Yugoslavian war dead recovered in Northern Norway were to be gathered in Botn in Saltdal, where the occupying powers had had a cemetery for prisoners of war during the war. The plan was approved by the Yugoslavian Legation in Oslo in a diplomatic note of 9 September 1953 to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Norwegian authorities purchased the plot and built a new war cemetery there. A monument paid for by the Norwegian state was unveiled in a formal commemorative ceremony on 26 September 1954 in the presence of high-ranking representatives of the Norwegian and Yugoslavian authorities.
The Yugoslavian war dead who were found in Central Norway were gathered in separate plots at the ordinary cemeteries of Lademoen and Moholt in Trondheim. Twenty-seven war dead were moved from Ulven near Bergen to Os cemetery at Øsøyro.
The gathering of the Yugoslavian war dead was completed in autumn 1953.
British war graves
During the first years after the war, the British war graves service, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, attended to the graves of its war dead itself. The British practise the principle that their war dead should preferably be buried as close to the place they died as possible. From out of the way and inaccessible places, however, war dead were moved to ordinary Norwegian cemeteries where there were already several British war graves.
Today, British war dead are buried in 76 ordinary cemeteries in Norway, from Tromsø in the north to Lindesnes in the south. The largest concentrations of British war graves are at Stavne cemetery in Trondheim and at Vestre Gravlund cemetery in Oslo.
French war graves
The French who lost their lives in the fighting in the counties of Trøndelag and Nordland in 1940 were buried in a common grave at Namsos cemetery and in a separate plot at Narvik new cemetery.
Polish war graves
Most of the Polish war dead lost their lives during the fighting for control of Narvik in 1940. They are buried in separate plots at Håkvik cemetery and in a common grave at Narvik new cemetery. The remainder are buried in individual graves at Moholt cemetery in Trondheim and in a common grave at Vestre Gravlund cemetery in Oslo.
Dutch war graves
At the request of the Dutch war graves service, de Oorlogsgravenstichting, a separate plot was created at Vestre Gravlund cemetery in Oslo for Dutch nationals who had lost their lives in Sweden after periods of captivity in concentration camps in Germany. Dutch nationals who had fallen in battle or died in German captivity, and who had previously been buried in other places in Norway, were also moved to this plot. Dutch nationals who died in the service of Germany are buried in German war cemeteries or in ordinary cemeteries.
Swedish war graves
Most Swedes who died in the service of Norway were crew members on Norwegian ships who died at sea. Nine Swedes fell in battle against the Germans on Norwegian territory. After the war, two of them were repatriated to their home communities in Sweden at the request of surviving family members. Four of them are buried at Vestre Gravlund cemetery in Oslo, one at Drevsjø, one at Os in Østerdalen and one in Mosjøen.
A monument with the names of Swedes who died in the service of Norway was unveiled at Vestre Gravlund cemetery in Oslo on 7 May 1970.
Danish war graves
Danish war dead were gathered at Vestre Gravlund cemetery in Oslo.
American war graves
After the war, the American authorities moved their war dead from Norway to the USA, or to large American war cemeteries on the Continent.
Registration of foreign war dead
The War Graves Service has registered 28,178 foreign war dead:
12,678 Soviet nationals, 11,500 German, 2,410 Yugoslavian, 1,148 British, 164 Polish, 131 French, 92 Swedish. 54 Dutch and one Estonian.
With the exception of the Soviet war dead, most of them are registered by name. The work of identifying as many Soviet war dead as possible by name is still continuing.
Norwegian combatants’ graves abroad
The term combatants refers to personnel belonging to the armed forces.
With respect to fallen Norwegian combatants, the task was as follows:
To trace and identify and, if surviving family members so wished, to bring home fallen combatants, or to organise and maintain the graves of fallen combatants who were not brought home.
Of the fallen Norwegian combatants who were found and identified abroad, 290 were brought home - 57 of them from the Norwegian Army, 135 from the Royal Norwegian Air Force and 98 from the Royal Norwegian Navy. They were entrusted to surviving family members. The graves of the remaining fallen Norwegian combatants abroad were attended to and marked with official Norwegian war gravestones.
Norwegian merchant seamen’s graves abroad
The merchant navy suffered the greatest losses abroad, and most of the seamen who died were never found. War graves for seamen were the responsibility of the maritime authorities. At the request of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Seafaring, however, in 1954 the War Graves Service took over responsibility for organising and maintaining a limited number of seamen’s war graves abroad. The Ministry covered the costs of attending to the graves.
Norwegian war graves administered by the War Graves Service
The War Graves Service administers 288 Norwegian war graves abroad – 17 from the Norwegian Army, 16 from the Air Force, 39 from the Navy and 216 from the Merchant Navy – in the following countries:
Algeria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Eire, France, the Faeroes, Gambia, Ghana, Gibraltar, Iraq, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Libya, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Sierra Leone, Sweden, South Africa, Tunisia, Germany and the United Kingdom, including Shetland, Orkney and Northern Ireland, and in the USA.
Maintenance of war graves
In 1962, the War Graves Service entered into an informal agreement with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission concerning the maintenance of war graves. Pursuant to this agreement, the War Graves Service assumed responsibility for maintaining British war graves in Norway in return for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, on behalf of the War Graves Service, assuming responsibility for maintaining Norwegian war graves in the United Kingdom and in other countries where Norwegian war dead were buried together with war dead from the Commonwealth. This agreement was formalised on 1 March 1995.
The War Graves Service also administers the other nations’ war graves in Norway, without corresponding services being performed in return.
The War Graves Service does not have a separate maintenance section, but it covers wage costs for the supervision of the war cemeteries at Tjøtta and in Botn. Otherwise, maintenance of the war graves is carried out by the local authorities, joint church councils or private persons in return for compensation from the War Graves Service, which carries out annual inspections to check the condition of the war graves.
Protection of war graves
The war graves are under the protection of the Norwegian state and they are subject to permanent conservation orders. Pursuant to the Act relating to funerals of 7 June 1996 – in force from 1 January 1997 – war dead in plane wrecks and shipwrecks have also been accorded legal protection. Section 1, second paragraph of the Act states:
”When a deceased person lies on the seabed or out in open land, this constitutes a natural grave that must not be disturbed for any other reason than to move the whole body to a cemetery or burial site pursuant to the first paragraph, nor be subjected to actions that constitute direct disturbance or desecration.”
Cooperation with foreign agencies
The War Graves Service cooperates directly with the Red Cross, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e.V.
In cases that affect the war dead of other countries, the War Graves Service cooperates with representatives of the central authorities of the countries involved.
The War Graves Service, September 2007