Still they seek those vanished aircrew. Work of R.A.F investigators



Still they seek those vanished aircrew. Work of R.A.F investigators


Account of the investigations of the Air Ministry Casualty Branch on the the fate of those declared missed in action.



Temporal Coverage





One newspaper cutting


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Three and a half years have passed since the war ended, and yet the fate of some 20,000 flying personnel of the Royal Air Force and the Dominions Air Forces remains shrouded in mystery. It is to elucidate each of these mysteries that the Air Ministry Casualty Branch pursues its remarkable detective work -night and day- wherever our airmen fought and fell. Here is a story told by a member of the Branch
Until after D Day,1944, all investigations had to be carried out at long range. Information about the fate of the missing reached the Casualty Branch in various ways. The main source was from the International Red Cross Committee, with its headquarters in Geneva. From time to time the International Red Cross Committee received from enemy sources news of casualties which they passed on to London. The news was incorporated in long telegrams referring to numerous crews.
Each item in the telegram included a date, the type of aircraft and the fate of some or all of its occupants, known or unknown: thus “8/4; Lancaster: Smith, Jones captured; Robinson, Brown and two unknown dead”; “17/6; Halifax: seven dead: White, Green and five unknown.” The place of crash was not mentioned and no burial particulars were given. The I.R.C.C. telegram was usually followed by a schedule called by the Germans a Totenliste or list of dead. This confirmed the data in the telegram and sometimes gave a burial place. For security reasons, the place of crash was not given.
Other sources of information during the war were reports from Allied agents in enemy or enemy occupied territory, from the French, Dutch, Norwegian, etc., Red Cross, forwarded by permission of the Germans, from French organizations [sic] such as the Anciens Combattants (roughly corresponding to the British Legion) and from Air Attaches and others in neutral countries.
The information received had to be sorted out and digested by the Casualty Branch. It was often obscure in the extreme and its solution demanded considerable detective ability. Sometimes the only clue available was a laundry mark, a set of initials or a crest on a cigarette case or signet ring, a number on an Air Ministry wrist-watch, or markings noted on a fragment of an aircraft. Occasionally the clue could be followed and the problem solved by searching through the records in the Casualty Branch.
In other instances it was necessary to establish contacts outside. Help was forthcoming from other branches of the Air Ministry, from the Directorate of Aeronautical Inspection, Ministry of Aircraft Production (now Ministry of Supply), from the editors of two laundry journals (who circulated laundry marks), and from many other sources, including even the College of Heralds.
Humble Beginning
To cope with this specialized [sic] work a small Missing Research Section was established at the Casualty Branch early in 1942. Its work steadily expanded until D Day, 1944, after which it developed with almost unmanageable rapidity.
As soon as the liberation of Europe had begun, reports began to pour in. The new sources of information included Army formations and units, Air Force units, individual members of the Forces and French, Belgian, Dutch and other sympathizers. [sic] In a few weeks the work of the Missing Research increased tenfold and expansion of the Section became imperative. Moreover, a radical development of the organization [sic] now became possible.
With the advance of our armies on the Continent and the progressive liberation of territory, we were no longer restricted to London. We could send out teams to France and other countries to collect information on the spot. Thus was formed the Royal Air Force and Dominion Air Forces Missing Research and Enquiry Service. The R.A.F., R.C.A.F., R.A.A.F., R.N.Z.A.F., and S.A.A.F. all took a share in the work. The first Missing Research and Enquiry Section, of five officers, was established in Paris in January, 1945.
The officers of this Section had definite instructions from the first. Briefs, known as Casualty Enquires, were sent them by the Casualty Branch. These briefs gave all the known information about an aircraft casualty and instructed the Section to find out the rest. It may have been known, for example, from German reports, sent through the International Red Cross, that a Lancaster had crashed on a certain date and that two of the crew had been buried in a certain French village cemetery; but nothing was known of the other members of the crew.
Working to a Brief
A Search Officer went to the village, interrogated the Mayor, Cure, Gendarmerie and others, verified the grave locations of those said to be buried and ascertained, if possible, the fate of the rest. It may be said here that a successful search, like the paths of glory, led but to the grave. None of the missing aircrew members was discovered alive and suffering a loss of memory, despite the persistent hope of many distracted relatives. The information collected by the Search Officer was summarized [sic] in a report which was sent to the Air Ministry. The Air Ministry duly informed the next of kin.
The passing on to the relatives of information collected by Missing Research is one of the most delicate tasks of the Casualty Branch. It frequently happens that news of the casualty is not obtained until several years after the event. It is necessary to tell the next of kin, but, in the process the past is recalled and grief inevitably reawakened. A tactful and sympathetic approach is therefore imperative. The many kindly letters of appreciation received in the Branch prove that the right method has been found.
Working to a brief was not the sole [missing] [/missing]
Mobile Sections (Nos. 3 and 4) were formed. The duty of these sections was to visit every town, village and hamlet in each department or province and send in reports on their discoveries. In time these “X” reports rivalled in importance those on Casualty Enquiries.
From the start the R.A.F. Missing Research and Enquiry Service worked in close co-operation with the Army Graves Services. The Army was responsible for the registration, exhumation and concentration of graves into British Military Cemeteries. A Royal Air Force or Dominions Air Force officer was normally present at an exhumation to help in the identification of bodies known or believed to belong to one of the Air Forces.
The work was carried out in accordance with the principles agreed between the Air Ministry and the War Office. In France and other Allied countries bodies buried in communal cemeteries were not disturbed but bodies buried in isolated spots or temporary burial grounds were concentrated to British Military Cemeteries. In Germany and other ex-enemy countries it was decided to concentrate all Air Force graves into British Military Cemeteries.
The organization [sic]quickly expanded. In April, 1945, a second section (No. 2) was established in Brussels to operate in the Low Countries. A month later No. 5 (Holland) Section was formed, to relieve the pressure on No. 2 Section. It was quickly followed by No. 6 (Norway), 7 (Denmark) and 8 (Germany) Sections. Meanwhile in the Mediterranean-Middle East Missing Research and Enquiry Service had begun to function in Italy, to cover Italy, the Balkans, North Africa and the Levant.
By the summer of 1945 a large expansion of the service became necessary. Four Missing Research and Enquiry Units, each comprising six (later eight) Sections, were formed with a headquarters at A.H.Q., B.A.F.O.
From Brussels to Burma
Neither the Units’ Headquarters nor their area of operations were intended to be permanent. At first No. 1 Unit, at Le Mans was concerned with a large area of France; No. 2 Unit, at Brussels, with the Low Countries and part of Northern France; No. 3 Unit, at Esbjerg, with Denmark and Norway; and No.4 Unit, at Hamburg, with the British Zone of Germany.
The principle underlying the siting of the Units is clear. The intention was to begin in the outer countries of Europe and gradually work inwards, with Germany and Central Europe as the final target.
As the work proceeded, No.1 Unit took over the whole of France, moving its headquarters to Chantilly. In August 1947 it was disbanded, leaving behind a France Detachment, which survived another year. In October, 1946, No.2 Unit moved to the French Zone of Germany, leaving at The Hague a Low Countries Detachment. In July, 1947, the Unit formed Advanced Headquarters at Prague and cleared Czechoslovakia. It was disbanded in October 1947. In September, 1946, No.3 Unit took over Missing Research in the American Zone of Germany, with its base at Karlsruhe. It was disbanded in February, 1948. In December, 1947, No 4 Unit, after two moves, settled at Sundern, some twenty-three miles W.N.W. of Minden. The Berlin Detachment of this Unit has been operating since October, 1946, in the Russian Zone. Another detachment has completed its task in Poland.
In the Far East search teams have operated in Burma, Malaya and other countries. There they have had to contend with the difficulties of climate, the immense distances and the non-cooperation or even hostility of the natives, in addition to their other problems.
Results so far are encouraging. More than half the 42,000 missing had been located by 1st December, 1948. Of the remainder a large number -estimated between 12,000 and 17,000- are believed to have been lost in the sea, leaving a residue of between 4,000 and 9,000 whose fate it is still hoped to discover. [missing]



“Still they seek those vanished aircrew. Work of R.A.F investigators,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed December 1, 2023,

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