When the war ended, the RAF had 41,881 missing men. A large proportion of these were thought to have been lost at sea, but about 60 per cent of the losses were estimated to be traceable on land.
In order to find these missing men, the RAF set up a dedicated service, the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, or MRES, which in Western Europe began work in January 1945.
However, by an agreement made between the Air Ministry and the War Office, the RAF was not responsible for the exhumation, registration, or burial of its own dead. In Western Europe, these tasks were carried out by the branch of the Army Graves Service attached to 21 Army Group, later the British Army of the Rhine.
Where RAF burial sites were concerned, opening the graves was strictly prohibited by RAF standing orders. One strongly worded memorandum to RAF search officers spoke of the need to work in cooperation with the Army graves units and made the position quite clear under the heading: ‘NO INDEPENDENT ACTION’.
In no circumstances are bodies to be exhumed or moved except by an authorised section of a GCU or GRU.* This is their province and attempts by the RAF at independent action would serve only to make our overall job more difficult. […] Where the need for exhumations is delaying the completion of important cases and areas, details should be reported though Unit HQ to Graves Liaison Officers and MRES HQ.**
Frequent delays occurred as a result of the division of responsibilities between the RAF and the Army, and as a result, the head of the MRES, Group Captain Hawkins, came to the conclusion that the RAF would have been better off forming its own graves units.
Nonetheless, the RAF kept to the agreed demarcation lines until the main body of the Graves Service in Western Europe was disbanded in September 1948.
* GCU and GRU stood for Graves Concentration Unit and Graves Registration Unit – these were the units operating under the Army Graves Service
** TNA, AIR 55/65, Air Ministry, Group Captain E F Hawkins, ‘Report on Royal Air Force and Dominions Air Forces Missing Research and Enquiry Service 1944 – 1949’, Part V, Appendix F1.