As the Second World War reached its conclusion, many problems confronted the victors, from disarming defeated enemies to repatriating millions of men and women to their homelands. However, many thousands would not be going home. They included the Allied aircrews lost on operations—and in most cases no one knew exactly where they were or how they had been killed.
All of them had taken off into hostile skies and vanished. Survivors parachuting from burning planes brought only the most fragmentary reports of what had transpired. Enemy records were rarely explicit. Those of civilians in formerly occupied countries were only marginally better. In many cases the search began with letters to mayors and burgomasters, asking for information about possible Allied graves in their local cemeteries.
Figuring strongly in these searches was Squadron Leader William Mace Mair of the Royal Canadian Air Force. He had gone overseas in August 1942, serving on staff duties at the RCAF Repatriation Depot and No. 6 (Bomber) Group headquarters until July 1944. He was then loaned to the British Air Ministry, initially with an office known as the Base Personnel Selection Office. In December 1944, Mair was assigned to the Missing Research and Enquiries Section (MRES) which had been busy locating and identifying aircrew casualties—most of them occurring in the United Kingdom—since the outbreak of war.
Expansion of these tasks to Europe and beyond resulted in MRES being reorganized as the Missing Research and Enquiries Service (MRES). Mair went to the Continent and subsequently worked as part of the British Air Force of Occupation. This also entailed working with British and American Graves Registration units. He was finally repatriated to Canada in September 1947 and retired the same month.
Precisely why Mair was chosen for this work or what had prepared him for it is unknown. Nevertheless, his work was deemed so outstanding that the Royal Air Force recommended him for an Officer, Order of the British Empire which was gazetted in January 1948. The recommendation for this award read, in part: “He…has taken a large and responsible part in the initial organization of this Branch of the Service. He is entirely responsible for the exhumation procedure now in use, which he evolved from his own experience of research work in the field, and the application of his methods has enabled a large number of missing aircrew to be traced. Apart from being a most efficient officer, Squadron Leader Mair subordinates everything to his official duties and does not spare himself. He has continuously worked for long hours in an endeavour to perfect the organization and much of the success of the Missing Research and Enquiry Service is due to his foresight, planning and energy. The Missing Research Enquiry Units have a thankless and at times horrible task to perform but their importance cannot be too strongly emphasized. Squadron Leader Mair’s work is particularly noteworthy.”
In the European theatre, the operations were conducted by five Missing Research Enquiry Units (MREU), each with a specific geographical area to comb. These in turn had eight search sections. A search section was commanded by a squadron leader with four flight lieutenants as search officers, plus five vehicles and their drivers. The search officers themselves were former aircrew personnel who were deemed to have special knowledge of uniforms, aircraft parts, and generally an instinct for deductive reasoning.
Overall, MRES operated with only minimal political interferences. Investigations were much the same whether a casualty was the son of a peer or the son of farmer. However, a policy was laid down that the MRES should be staffed in proportion to the air forces whose personnel were missing. Thus, 17 per cent of the staff was RCAF. On Sept. 25, 1945, RCAF Overseas Headquarters diary recorded, “The RCAF will participate in the Missing Research Enquiry Service to the extent of 25 officers and 35 other ranks. The entire officer personnel to be supplied by AFHQ (Air Force Headquarters) and they are expected to arrive in the U.K. on approximately 22nd October 1945.”
Unfortunately, a complete roster of RCAF participants appears not to have been compiled. Moreover, Canadian authorities pressured their British counterparts to complete the work so as to speed up repatriation of RCAF personnel by September 1947.
Flight Lieutenant Roger St. Vincent had a large role in the RCAF portion of MRES which he described in the fall 2005 issue of Air Force Magazine, in an article titled Missing in Action: Finding the Lost Airmen. After three years of overseas service he had been returned to Canada. In the spring and summer of 1945, St. Vincent was virtually killing time while waiting for either demobilization or acceptance into the postwar force. In August that year, the RCAF requested volunteers for MRES work, and St. Vincent was made a member of the selection board to test personnel for fluency in French. This took three days and he placed his own name at the head of the list, although he had to argue and pull strings to keep it there.
Wing Commander John Angus MacLean, Distinguished Flying Cross, also left a memoir—a chapter in his book titled Making It Home. MacLean is best known for his postwar political career marked by years of decency, dedication and honourable service.
As a MRES investigator from 1945 to 1947, MacLean directed staff engaged in identifying friends and former students as well as non-Canadian personnel. One case was especially poignant. Six members of an RAF bomber crew had bailed out successfully, but a seventh had disappeared. MacLean assigned Flt. Lt. George Nadeau to investigate. A study of the sequence in which the six survivors bailed out and where they had landed revealed a significant gap. This area was searched intensively, and with the help of a local forester some notes were discovered, written by the missing man, stating he had broken both legs and was unable to move. Finally, skeletal remains were discovered, scattered by wild boars.
MacLean also recalled some lighter moments. Transport on the Continent was always a problem. There never seemed to be enough vehicles, serviceability was low, and often the search units found themselves working far away from support services, including coal and gasoline depots. The winter of 1945-46 was particularly bitter. A supply of antifreeze turned out to include a barrel that contained only coloured water—something discovered after several vehicles sustained burst cylinder heads and damaged radiators. Black marketers had intercepted the shipment, stolen the real antifreeze and covered their tracks with the simple ruse.
Work with the service was a combination of systematic investigation and fortuitous discovery. There was little hope of finding or identifying those lost at sea, unless a body floated ashore. Postwar draining of the Zuider Zee in the Netherlands turned up many aircraft wrecks, although identification of casualties was complex. Whether on land or in shallow water, the wreckage itself could yield valuable clues. Airplanes carried a serial number which could be traced back to its crew, whether the pilot of a Spitfire or the crew of a Lancaster. Even if the aircraft serial had been obliterated, individual engine serials could connect missing men to missing aircraft. German crash reports and burial records were useful, but in 1944-1945 these were increasingly terse as the number of wrecks increased, while fear and contempt for what were regarded as “terrorflieger” (terror flyers) led to perfunctory investigations and burials by the enemy.
Identification of particular individuals, especially in multi-crew aircraft, was complicated. Finding remains in a particular crew position (for example, a tail turret) might provide an answer, but this rarely happened. The multiple traumas of gunfire, fire in the air, explosion and impact with the ground often left little to identify. Excavation of graves—once found—was a harrowing process, especially when crews had been hastily buried in common graves. Occasionally the investigations shaded over into searches for evidence of war crimes.
Investigating officers examining remains—two to six years after initial interment—looked for several clues. The first was uniform—a very dark blue would identify a member of the Royal Australian Air Force. “Canada” and “New Zealand” shoulder flashes were important when one considers that little distinguished RCAF or Royal New Zealand Air Force uniforms from those of the RAF. Particular aircrew badges would narrow the field of possible victims. Laundry marks were surprisingly durable and useful. Identity discs were helpful, although not always found and then not necessarily with the right person. Signet rings, very common with British personnel, often established identities. Also useful were engraved jewelry, cigarette lighters and even sweetheart pins. Indeed, more than one body was identified by tracing a wife or girlfriend. Dental records provided clues, but only the Australian and Canadian air forces had systematically maintained such information.
Difficulties encountered in Western Europe were magnified elsewhere. Russian and Polish authorities regarded MRES investigators as potential spies and threw up obstacles at every turn. In Greece, MRES teams had to work around hostile factions waging civil war. African deserts and Burmese jungles swallowed wreckage, bodies and graves whole.
A few examples of the work may explain the process better than a recitation of procedures. On Jan. 15, 1947, a MRES team discovered a grave in Ranschbach, seven kilometers west of Landau, Germany. The site was marked with a cross on which was written TWO UNKNOWN ENGLISH FLYERS SHOT DOWN 12.9.44. The local burgomaster stated that a twin-engine aircraft of wooden construction and with RAF roundels had crashed near midnight on the night in question, exploding and burning on impact. Two badly charred bodies had been found in the cockpit; they were buried in the village cemetery, without coffins or military or religious ceremony.
The wooden construction pointed to a Mosquito aircraft. A few metal parts bore assorted serial numbers, none of which led back to a specific airplane. The remains were exhumed on Aug. 13, 1948, at which time the identity disc of Flying Officer J.A. Kennedy (RAF) was found. The other body was therefore that of FO William Ransom Breithaupt (RCAF) of Kitchener, Ont. They were reburied in a common grave at Reinberg Military Cemetery on Sept. 30, 1948.
Although many men died in unknown circumstances, Breithaupt and Kennedy were killed in a strangely dramatic and well documented manner. As pilot and navigator of a night fighter belonging to 239 Sqdn., they had shot down four German aircraft and been decorated with the DFC. On the night of Sept. 12, 1944, they were attacked and set on fire by a Me.110 night fighter. As the German machine overtook the Mosquito, Breithaupt shot down the Messerschmitt before his plane crashed. The German crew bailed out and testified to the villagers of Ranschbach as to the nature of the combat.
When a Halifax bomber of 431 Sqdn. was shot down near Altranstadt, Germany, on the night of Dec. 3-4, 1943, the bombs did not explode. The wreckage burned for almost three hours before Luftwaffe personnel recovered seven bodies which were subsequently buried in coffins, though without ceremony. Three of the bodies had been identified by name, but the other four were simply listed as Unbekannter Soldat, Kanada (Unknown Canadian Soldier (sic), Canada).
It took many months for investigators to locate and sift through German records of crashes and burials. On Dec. 12, 1946, No.4 MREU was instructed to investigate the Altranstadt area. The site was in the Russian zone of occupation and access to the area was delayed. When the site was finally visited by MRES investigators in October 1947—accompanied by Russian escorts—they were able to confirm identities of the three already established by the Germans. For example, the pilot, Sqdn. Ldr. Robert G. Cook, DFC, was easily identified by his rank and pilot’s wings.
Sorting out the others was more difficult. The Germans had mistakenly listed the crew as consisting of six Canadians and one British; the mix had actually been four RCAF and three RAF. Of the RCAF personnel, two were air gunners: Sergeant W.J. Rattigan and Sgt. J. Williamson. The latter had been identified at the time of the crash. By process of elimination, the other RCAF air gunner’s remains had to be those of Rattigan. It was impossible to determine which of two graves belonged to Pilot Officer M.V. Snow (RCAF navigator) and which to Flt. Lt. E.L. Lister (RAF, bomb aimer) and they were ultimately reburied in a common plot.
Not long after it was formed, MRES came under pressure from what can only be described as the ultimate “bean counters”—Treasury officials who wanted to save money by terminating the program at the earliest possible date. By 1952, the formal searches for unaccounted personnel had run down. The RAF could then turn to the matter of commemorating those who had never been found or identified. The Runnymede Memorial, dedicated solely to British and Commonwealth air force personnel, was unveiled in October 1953. It was followed over the years by the El Alamein, Malta and Singapore memorials, and the Commonwealth Air Forces Ottawa Memorial.
The process of tracking down thousands of lost airmen has been described in detail by Stuart Hadaway in his book, Missing Believed Killed: The Royal Air Force and the Search for Missing Aircrew, 1939-1952, published in 2008 by Pen and Sword Books. He begins with one veteran’s observation that the MRES was “the greatest detective job in the world.” Hadaway’s own conclusion is equally memorable: “In the age before computer databases, DNA testing or any form of effective biometric records, the Air Ministry went out to search for 70,000 needles in an unimaginably large haystack. More incredibly still, for the most part they found them.”
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