DNA breaks are extremely harmful lesions that need to be repaired efficiently throughout the genome. However, the packaging of DNA into nucleosomes is a significant barrier to DNA repair, and the mechanisms of repair in the context of chromatin are poorly understood. Here we show that lysine 56 (K56) acetylation is an abundant modification of newly synthesized histone H3 molecules that are incorporated into chromosomes during S phase. Defects in the acetylation of K56 in histone H3 result in sensitivity to genotoxic agents that cause DNA strand breaks during replication. In the absence of DNA damage, the acetylation of histone H3 K56 largely disappears in G2. In contrast, cells with DNA breaks maintain high levels of acetylation, and the persistence of the modification is dependent on DNA damage checkpoint proteins. We suggest that the acetylation of histone H3 K56 creates a favourable chromatin environment for DNA repair and that a key component of the DNA damage response is to preserve this acetylation.