A further installment in Geoffrey Cotterell’s letters about the search for his missing brother, Anthony. The picture on this post is of the memorial plaque affixed to the former Post Office at Brummen, outside which, on 23 September 1944, the SS shot into a truckload of British prisoners. Several were wounded, two dying at the scene. The exact nature of Anthony’s wounds were a subject of intense speculation because his family were hoping that he had been able to survive them.
This latest extract from the letters shows Geoffrey going for the first time to Brummen, to the scene of the shooting, which had occurred just over one year earlier.
Two of the posts/pages from my PER ARDUA site last year, while working on the 75th Anniversary commemorations for Black Thursday, 16-17 December 1943.
The Mass Funerals at Cambridge, 22 December 1943
Anthony Cotterell’s disappearance after the battle of Arnhem, when he was shot and seriously injured by the SS whilst an unarmed prisoner of war, became the focus of extensive war crime investigations. Researching what happened to Anthony was my first real foray into what happened with missing British servicemen. It is a uniquely well-documented case not only because the war crime files still exist, but also because Anthony’s brother, Geoffrey, who was a writer like his brother, wrote a long sequence of letters to his parents about the search.
I am serialising extracts from these letters on this website because they give such a unique view of the conditions in Europe just after the war, conditions which formed the backdrop to the Army Graves work and the research carried out for the missing, both Army and RAF.
The image above shows Geoffrey (left) at Brummen, at the house of the Tjeenk-Willinks, in 1946. This was within walking distance of the place where his brother had been shot in September 1944.
Below are the links for the pages about the two brothers and the first installment of the letters, which open just as Geoffrey has left England in October 1945.
The Cotterell Brothers
Geoffrey Cotterell Letters – 22-25 October 1945
There is, therefore, a complete official service designed to secure for you and to tell you all discoverable news about your relative. This official service is also a very human service, which well understands the anxiety of relatives and will spare no effort to relieve it.
This new page shows the wartime leaflet which was given to relatives anxiously awaiting news of their loved one who was missing.
The aim of the British Graves Service was as far as possible to treat enemy combatants equally. However, this did not mean that they were buried with the Allied dead. German plots were created, which used the same style of temporary cross and lettering as in the Allied plots, as in this image of an unknown German cemetery.
Norman McIntyre kept a small photograph album and in it there appears a picture of him with three of his RAAF friends. Vince and Jeff died whilst training in Canada, in July 1942. Norm only survived them by 18 months, dying over Berlin on 16 December 1943. See the new page: Vince Jarvis and Jeff Everist, RAAF
Ownership of remains were always problematical when other countries were involved; it was particularly so when there were intermingled British and American remains, because the two national programmes had clashing objectives where repatriation was concerned. The case of Orde Wingate, the famous leader of the Chindits, is an example of this problem. See our new page: Orde Wingate & Sir John Dill, Arlington, USA
What is often not realised about the evacuation of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) from France in June 1940 is that not everyone left from Dunkirk. Several thousand men came out from St Nazaire on the edge of western France, and amongst these was Arthur Owen Stott, later to be the Commanding Officer of the Army Graves Service in Western Europe.
Stott and his unit was evacuated only a day and a half before the sinking of the Lancastria outside St Nazaire, a horrific tragedy in which some 3,000 troops, RAF men, and civilians lost their lives. In February 1945, when CO of the 21 Army Group Graves Service, Stott would investigate a fraudulent claim for compensation concerning the Lancastria.
SEE OUR NEW PAGE: Stott and the Evacuation from France, June 1940
The Dutch tradition of laying flowers on all the individual graves in a cemetery began very soon after the war. The photograph here, taken at the Arnhem-Oosterbeek cemetery, was probably taken in 1946 or 1947.
In 1947, The Times recorded that ‘on one day recently […] over 30,000 Dutch people visited the graves of the fallen of Arnhem’. It added:
On occasions it is alleged that graves are cared for by those whose real interest is in the reward of cigarettes and food sent from England, but one has only to mark the many graves of the unknown that have been adopted to see without a doubt that this cynical charge applies only to a few isolated instances.
Special Correspondent, ‘The Dead of the Empire: Work of Army and Imperial War Graves Commission: Ideals and Achievement’, The Times, 11 November 1947.
Further to yesterday’s post about Colonel Stott and possible photographs of him at work, the second photograph, also in the Gelders Archief, shows Stott in the very early days of the ARNHEM-OOSTERBEEK CEMETERY. He is deep in conference with Captain J T Long, of 37 Graves Registration Unit.
This cemetery was developed with the full cooperation of the local authorities, and a remarkable pair of letters show the cordial relationship between the authorities and the Army Graves Service: CORRESPONDENCE.
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
There were countless official documents regulating and recording the work which was done on behalf of the missing and dead.
This page contains a small selection, to which more will be added in time. The four included are: an official permit issued by the Belgian government to allow the British units to carry out their work; one of the cemetery plans which was used when creating the burial grounds; and two pages of an identification details form used by the RAF when trying to name missing airmen.
The cross featured is to the memory of William Alexander McVie, a Hampden pilot, who died on 16 May 1941, near this spot, and who is now buried at Amsterdam New Eastern Cemetery.
As part of our Memorials series, a page has been set up telling the background story to the McVie cross.
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.
RAF losses in North-West Europe began on only the second day of the war.
The funeral above, conducted with full military honours, took place in October 1939. It is thought to be that of Percy Edmund Boyce Sproston, from 144 Squadron, who was killed on 29 September 1939.
During the war, German burial methods ran the whole gamut from the meticulously respectful to the lazily slipshod, the latter style becoming increasingly prevalent as the bombing campaign became more intensive and the war was gradually lost.
More information on the German treatment of the RAF dead will be added at a later date.
Major Anthony Cotterell disappeared after a war crime was committed against British prisoners of war after the battle of Arnhem in September 1944.
Despite intensive post-war investigations, his fate was never determined. The tombstone for his supposed grave at Enschede, in Holland, notes at the top, ‘Buried near this spot’, reflecting the uncertainty as to where he actually lay.
André van Aarsen has recently sent information on a possible explanation for Anthony’s fate. See the comments attached to the previous post: Missing Soldier-Journalist: Anthony Cotterell
The above picture was carried in his wallet by Anthony’s devoted brother Geoffrey throughout his long post-war search for the truth of what had happened to Anthony. Anthony had disappeared in Holland after being wounded during a war crime committed by the SS against unarmed British prisoners of war.
As a Major serving in Occupied Germany after the war, Geoffrey was in a unique position to carry out investigations which began one year after Anthony had disappeared.