Major Cotterell and Pilot Officer Benting, Enschede, Holland

Despite exhaustive investigations, nothing was ever discovered to confirm the fate of the missing soldier-journalist Anthony Cotterell who had disappeared after being wounded during a war crime carried out by the SS against unarmed prisoners of war. The crime had occurred shortly after the battle of Arnhem in September 1944. Anthony was reputed to be buried at Enschede, a town close to the Dutch-German border.

For many years after the war, his family refused to accept that Anthony was dead. His brother Geoffrey, who had conducted a major search before he was demobbed from the British Army, kept up a small but persistent hope that new information might be discovered about his brother. He made periodical trips to Holland, following up on any tiny leads which cropped up, but finding nothing substantial. When former airborne soldiers began to make annual trips to Holland around the 1970s, he met several of them, but no one could add anything which helped to solve the mystery of Anthony’s disappearance.

 

The Unknown Grave at Enschede

In October 1945, very early in his investigations and whilst still a Major in the British Army, Geoffrey had gone to the cemetery at Enschede, and there had written down a list of the graves of the men who had been killed by the SS in the incident in which Anthony was wounded.

burial list

At the top of the list was a grave marked ‘Unknown’. If this grave contained the body of Geoffrey’s brother, the way in which Anthony had been buried did not fit in with the burial rites of the other victims of the shooting, who had all apparently had their dog tags/Army uniforms buried with them.

One of the names on the above list is R Will-Bentinck, later corrected when the cemetery records were verified as being that of Pilot Officer Alan William Benting, the flight engineer of a 619 Squadron Lancaster from Woodhall Spa.

In late January/early February 1946, the unknown body was exhumed by an American unit, attached to ETOUSA, so that the teeth could be checked. The dental chart obtained for the body did not fit with Anthony’s dental records. To make doubly sure, the chart was forwarded to Anthony’s father, Graham, a Harley Street dentist who had performed his son’s dental treatment. He found no match.

Not long afterwards, in March 1946, a far more rigorous check of the graves at Enschede was made, probably by the Control Commission’s Search Bureau Graves division. They checked nine graves altogether, the six thought to be connected with the Brummen shooting and three more, presumably to be quite certain that no other victims of the war crime were buried there. These additional three graves were for Alan William Benting, who had been buried at the same time as all but one of the Brummen victims (McNabb), and Jean Ferdinand Huard and George Stratton Purves, airborne soldiers buried in early October 1944.

Some discrepancies were sorted out by this second set of exhumations. McCracken was discovered to be in Benting’s supposed grave. It was concluded that instead Benting was in a grave with a wooden cross which bore the name of Ernest Hughes.

When Geoffrey wrote the list above, he had noted that underneath the list of names was written in English handwriting, ‘C.E.M. Graham 23/27 Sep 44’. Flying Officer Clyde Euan Miles Graham was an RAF navigator, a member of the same Lancaster crew as Benting. Like their pilot, Flight Lieutenant Geoffrey Stevenson Stout, Graham was killed on 23rd September after the crew’s Lancaster bomber crashed near Lochem. Benting, the flight engineer, suffered critical injuries and was presumably treated for them at St Joseph’s, the hospital at Enschede, before dying there on 26th September.

St.Jozef Ziekenhuis Enschede
St Jozef Ziekenhuis, Enschede.

As for Flying Officer Graham, today he is recorded in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records as being buried at the Arnhem Oosterbeek Cemetery. The handwriting on the Enschede register is unexplained. Perhaps Graham or Benting’s families were seeking them just as Geoffrey was seeking Anthony, and someone had made the note in the register which Geoffrey referred to in his letter.

Despite the confusion with the Benting and McCracken graves, the March 1946 exhumations clearly found nothing on any of the bodies which suggested that Anthony was amongst them.

What are now numbered as Joint Graves 200-201 in the cemetery registers contain the original unknown body and that now thought to be Alan Benting’s, it not having been possible to identify which body was Benting’s. Although the March 1946 exhumation reports are closed to the public, it is clear that the body thought to be Alan Benting’s was not found with an RAF uniform because that would have made it very easy to differentiate it from a soldier’s — RAF uniforms were distinctively different in colour and design to the Army’s.

As neither body could positively be identified as being that of a man from the RAF or the Army, this suggests that there was no uniform with either body in the joint grave.

The Search Bureau clearly felt that the March 1946 exhumations had provided the definitive answer to who was in the graves at the cemetery and that Anthony was not amongst them. Kinsleigh’s report of September that year stated that no trace of Anthony’s grave could be found ‘in the cemetery of Enschede where other British PWs are buried. A very thorough search has been made, so far without result.’

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The Placing of Anthony Cotterell’s Tombstone

Not long after his mother’s death in 1982, some information came in which caused Geoffrey to believe that, all along, it had been Anthony who was buried in the unknown grave at Enschede. Though this evidence was very slender and circumstantial, it seems that Geoffrey, having lost both his parents and having no family of his own, could no longer bear the thought that Anthony had no gravestone. He approached the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and eventually it was agreed that a gravestone should be erected over the unknown grave at Enschede. It bears Anthony’s name, together with the message ‘Buried near this spot’, reflecting the still unresolved ambiguities about whether this is Anthony’s grave. The stone also bears Geoffrey’s moving epitaph for his brother:

Writer

Remembered with Love

There is also a gravestone for Alan Benting, with his parents’ touching message:

Till we meet again, Darling

Mother and Dad

 

The Coates Crew, Woensel, Holland

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.

The picture above of the communal marker for the COATES crew in Woensel cemetery, Eindhoven, Holland, was taken before the Imperial War Graves Commission replaced the temporary wooden crosses seen in the background with the permanent headstones that give the cemetery such a different appearance today.

The Coates crew were members of 97 Squadron of THE PATHFINDERS who were all killed on 25 March 1944 after their Lancaster was shot down.

Before the permanent markers were erected, the RAF Missing Research search officers had clearly managed to identify all the crew individually except William Chapman and John Baldwin, who today share a joint tombstone with the intertwined ensignia of both the RCAF and the RAF.

chapman and baldwin joint grave
Joint grave for Baldwin and Chapman, December 2014. Courtesy of Glyn Elston.

During the post-war work by the RAF to verify the crew’s identity, the local Dutch people gave testimony to the search officers about rings and a watch which had once belonged to the crew, together with the initials which had been engraved upon them. Description was the only evidence available because unfortunately all the items had subsequently been lost.

In addition, a local man gave the search officers pieces of the aircraft wreckage, amongst which was part of the starboard fin. This had a a plate with a number on it, which could be cross-referenced back to the aircraft’s manufacture, and which confirmed beyond doubt that this was Coates’s aircraft.

Notifying Coates’s family in 1946 of the confirmation of the crew’s grave, the Air Ministry Casualty Branch told them it had been established by means of a signet ring and the number on the aircraft wreckage. It may be that around that point the families of all the crew members received the above photograph of the communal grave marker. The one shown here is the one which was sent to the Chapman family.

Coates crew graves
Coates crew graves in December 2014. Courtesy of Glyn Elston.