21 Army Group was the key British force at D-Day and in the subsequent campaign to liberate Europe. Four months after the European war ended, it was reconstituted as the British Army of the Rhine, the BAOR. The Western Europe Graves Service worked within this military framework, its commanding officer being Lieutenant Colonel Stott.
The British programme of care for the military dead in Western Europe, which included the search for missing airmen, ran from D-Day until 31 December 1951 when the RAF closed down its last office in Berlin.
In this time, the military cemeteries known so well today were constructed in Europe by the Army. When the cemeteries were full, they were handed over to the care of the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) with a roll of all the burials and a four-page Handing Over Certificate which listed the most important details of the cemetery and its occupants.
The work on behalf of the dead and the missing was enormously complex and difficult, ranging over a vast geographical region and into Soviet territory as the Cold War began. The Army Graves Service and the associated RAF units worked systematically through an enormous geographical region which stretched ‘from Marseilles to Copenhagen, and through Germany to Warsaw’.* The problems were immense, particularly in Germany, not least because East Germany and East Berlin, together with Czechoslovakia and Poland, had fallen under Soviet control in the last months of the war.
The work for the dead in this vast region was not unique — similar searches, burials and registrations were going on in other ex-theatres of war including Italy. However, the work here was by far the most significant and complex. The wrecked state of North-West Europe, the fraught relationship with the Soviet Union, the difficult issues surrounding the dead and missing in Germany, the length of time which had elapsed since the 1940 campaigns in France and Norway, and the vast losses of the RAF over this territory, all contributed to making it a colossally difficult task.
The work could never have succeeded without the dedicated help of the liberated countries, which had cared for the graves during the war.
* TNA, 171/8653, BAOR HQ, GR&E, War Diary, January to June 1946, appendices for January, Colonel Stott, ‘The BAOR Graves Service: Position as on 19 January 46’, memorandum, 19 January 1946.