Colonel Stott, the Commanding Officer of the Army Graves Service in Western Europe was in many ways the most influential figure of all in how the Second World War British military dead were identified, buried and honoured. Besides the work for soldiers, he was of key significance in the work on behalf of missing RAF aircrew.
Stott was a self-effacing man and so far we have not traced any official photographs of him performing his duties. However, there are two photographs in the Gelders Archief in Holland which are 99% certain to include Stott. The first, being posted today, shows him at the commemorations for the Arnhem dead, which took place on 25 September 1945. Stott’s attendance at the commemorations is mentioned in his war diary.
The liberated countries provided the most immense amount of help in finding, identifying, and honouring dead British soldiers, sailors, and airmen. This new article gives a number of examples of their invaluable contribution: The Liberated Countries and the War Dead
This is a new article, looking at the huge difference in identification rates between the American and British programmes for the dead. Unlike the Americans, who ran a joint programme for soldiers and airmen, the British Army and the RAF had two somewhat separate agendas, reflecting the RAF’s intense concentration on finding and identifying its missing. Identification Rates – American and British
Robert Whitley was an Air gunner from Canada, flying with a Wellington crew of 419 Squadron. He and his crew were lost when their aircraft crashed at Argenteuil in France on 30 May 1942. They were buried as ‘unknowns’.
When the MRES sought to establish who the men were in the graves, they had only a few clues to go on. In what was a highly unusual move for the time, the Air Ministry Casualty Branch gave the London Press information about these clues. The London Press, including the Daily Mirror, duly ran the story on 18 September 1945. What happened next was extraordinary…
When the John Conybeare Landon & the Aspin Crew page was published yesterday, I had a lapse of concentration and wrote that Hotton Cemetery was in Germany. Someone kindly pointed out the mistake, which I at once corrected.
However, it is clear that somewhere in the back of my brain there was a thought process at work. In the normal course of events, the Aspin crew would have been relocated (the official term was ‘concentrated) from their original graves in Germany to the nearest British cemetery in Germany. This was official British policy and rigorously enforced. My brain was clearly rambling off on its own about the mystery as to why the crew had ended up being buried in Belgium.
This morning, looking at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission burial records, all has become clear. Before being transferred to Hotton, the crew had been buried at the United States Military Cemetery at Neuville-en-Condroz in Belgium, and they were only moved by the British in July 1949.
The likeliest explanation is this. The crew were originally buried by the Germans near the crash site in Germany. However, without British permission they were disinterred by the Americans after the war and taken to the American CIP (Central Identification Point) at Strasbourg, which failed to identify them. The bodies were then reburied in the United States Military Cemetery at Neuville-en-Condroz in Belgium, all or some of them labelled as ‘unknowns’.
The Americans had a tendency to remove bodies on the grounds that they ‘might’ be American. This was well known to the British, and there were a number of notable cases where a great deal of trouble had to be gone to in order to retrieve the bodies. On the Neuville-en-Condroz list on which the Aspin crew appears (by reference number, not name) there are other British bodies which were also relocated to Hotton.
This is a complicated subject, and sometime in the couple of weeks I will be adding a page on how the American and the British graves services interacted, often to mutual benefit, but sometimes in a way which created confusion, as in the case of the Aspin crew.
The Aspin crew are buried at Hotton in Belgium (their graves having been relocated from Germany after the war). All crew losses are tragic, but in the case of John Conybeare Landon his death was one of three wartime tragedies which were suffered by the Landon family. What also makes the crew’s story so memorable is the testimony which was given about the loss of the crew by a Frenchman, a forced labourer in Germany, who witnessed the crash in February 1944.
John Conybeare Landon & the Aspin Crew
Oxford Street is so associated nowadays with shopping, eating out, and generally having fun that it is difficult to imagine that the Air Ministry Casualty Branch, dealing with many thousands of tragic losses, was once situated there at the Tottenham Court Road end.
From late in 1942 until March 1947, the offices processed the paperwork on dead, missing, and injured airmen. See this page: Casualty Branch, Oxford Street
All officers serving in the MRES were volunteers. Importantly, they were also surviving ex-aircrew who felt a strong degree of involvement in the task. Amongst their number was Harold Wilson, who had flown with 97 Squadron of the PATH FINDER FORCE during the war.
Accurate post-war confirmation of the graves of British servicemen could be an extremely complicated and difficult task. Cemetery records were not always correct, and sometimes only an exhumation could solve difficult cases. Even then, an answer was not necessarily forthcoming. The complex story of some British graves at Enschede in Holland illustrates this point perfectly.
After an RAF grave had been identified and registered by an Army Graves Registration unit, a temporary wooden (or sometimes steel) cross was erected.
If the grave was a communal one (because the inhabitants of it had not yet been individually identified), a communal marking was made.
For details of the markers for one particular crew, that of WILLIAM DARBY COATES, follow the link.