Division of Responsibilities, MRES and Army Graves Service

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.

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* 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.

 

MRES Structure

The man ultimately in charge of RAF missing research was the Air Member for Personnel, the AMP, the equivalent of the Army’s Adjutant-General. Beneath him came the Directorate of Personal Services, the DPS, and beneath this came the Air Ministry Casualty Branch, whose Missing Research and Enquiry Service, the MRES, operated in the field after the liberation of Europe. It was the MRES which, in liaison with the Army Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries, conducted all the post-liberation and post-war fieldwork of identifying the RAF missing in Europe.

At the outset of the war in September 1939, the resources devoted to missing research had been inadequate to deal with what soon proved to be the rapidly escalating nature of RAF losses. Thereafter, resources were increased in response to a series of crisis points when existing staff could no longer cope with the heavy workload.

The changes in name and structure can be briefly summarised as follows. At the beginning of the war, the Air Ministry Casualty Branch was known by the departmental name of S.7 (Cas). Its resources were almost immediately discovered to be too small. It was re-designated P.4 (Cas) and increased in size, but the burden of work was so immense that, in January 1942, the Missing Research Section (MRS) of the Casualty Branch was formed to deal with this specific aspect of RAF casualties.

The MRS was confined to offices in Britain until after the invasion of Italy in September 1943 and of France in June 1944. Under its new name, the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, the MRES worked in the field in newly liberated Europe.

Lastly, there was a massive increase in MRES resources in the summer of 1945 when it became obvious that this was the only way that the search would be completed within a reasonable timescale.

The MRES units were never intended to be permanent, and they gradually closed down as their task was accomplished. The last one was disbanded in September 1949 at the same time as MRES HQ.

A considerably smaller unit was then set up, the RAF Graves Service, which was comparatively short-lived, leaving by the end of 1950 only two Missing Research Officers on the Continent to follow up on various outstanding cases. These officers were Flight Lieutenant Hughes in Berlin and Flight Lieutenant Massé, who had a dual role as Liaison Officer working with the Americans at Liège and the Imperial War Graves Commission at Arras.