Category Archives: Remembrance

Missing Believed Killed: Casualty Policy and the Missing Research Enquiry Service 1939-1952 by Stuart Hadaway

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has ever shed such light on something that I have worked on in the past. I’ve written about plenty of men – particularly airmen – who were lost during the Second World War – and reading about the work of the Missing Research Enquiry Service has helped me gain a much better understanding of the process involved in tracing missing men during and after the war. I guess it’s one of those things that we don’t tend to think about too much, but how did we get from the height of the war, with thousands of men being lost in action – many of fate unknown – to the neatly-kept Commonwealth War Cemeteries and Memorials to the Missing of today?

As the war was ongoing, the RAF maintained a Casualty Branch that dealt with information about men lost – either killed, taken prisoner or missing – over enemy territory. This involved collating intelligence – in some cases from the enemy via the Red Cross – to maintain personnel records, and inform next of kin. Many bereaved relatives of course received a terse Government Service telegram. But it is the fate of those thousands of missing airmen that concerns us most in this book. Early in the war it was recognised that the RAF’s apparatus for tracing missing airmen was inadequate – hence the birth of the Missing Research Section in 1941. Collecting and collating intelligence reports from a variety of sources, this information provided a basis for post-war inquiries.

With the liberation of Europe ongoing, in December 1944 the MRS was expanded into the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, and small teams were sent to France and then the rest of Europe to gradually seek the missing men. Initially the MRES consisted of only 14 men, which was soon found to be nowhere near enough. With 42,000 men missing in Europe alone, this was quite some task.

One thing that really struck me is how few people were working in this field, and dealing with so many cases. And it was extensive work – travelling, working on intelligence, talking to locals, and being present at exhumations. It certainly wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. Thousands of men were lost over thousands of square miles of Europe, let alone other continents such as South East Asia, which posed problems all of its own.

The manner in which some men were identified is quite intriguing. For the most part, RAF identity discs perished quickly in soil, so identification was left to items such as uniforms, rings, or even paperwork that had survived stuffed in pockets. It was detective work of the highest order, which in some respects a historian of war casualties can both sympathise with and admire.

I think especially of men such as Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy DFC and Flight Sergeant Francis Compton DFM, men who were shot down over occupied Europe and must have gone through the process of having their crash sites and burial locations being traced and identified by the MRES.

This is a fascinating book, full of anecdotes. As I mentioned in my introduction, I can’t remember the last time I learnt so much from one book about a subject I knew very little about, and a subject that I should know a lot about at that. It certainly adds to my grasp of researching ‘missing’ airmen, and adds a vital puzzle to understanding their stories.

Missing Believed Killed is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Bombing, Book of the Week, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

First names inscribed on Portsmouth’s Second World War Memorial

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the first batch of names on Portsmouth’s Second World War Memorial have been inscribed recently.

I haven’t had a chance to read through the panel in detail yet, but upon first glance it looks like most if not all of the several hundreds missing names I submitted are there.

Among them is my great-uncle, Leading Stoker Thomas Henry Daniel Daly who died after the SS Laconia was torpedoed in 1942.

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War Graves desecrated in Benghazi

I’m absolutely appalled by the footage of armed men desecrating British war graves in Benghazi in Libya. Click here to watch.

Footage on the BBC website shows a large group of armed men – accompanied by what appears to be a reasonably professional film crew – smashing numerous CWGC grave stones. A man is then shown climbing a ladder to try and damage the cross of sacrifice that is present in all larger cemeteries. One gravestone is clearly seen to be engraved with a star of David, denoting that it is the grave of a Jewish serviceman. At no point does anybody seem to stop them, least of all the camera crew. The group act calmly and casually – this is not the work of a few idle youths.That it was filmed does suggest that it was organised. Of course the Libyan Government has condemed the attacks, but did they do enough to stop them? Will they do enough to stop them in future? I’m intrigued about who exactly the film crew were.

War graves in Libya have been pretty inaccessible for many years, since Colonel Gaddafi came to power. One Portsmouth man is buried in Beghazi – Bombardier Henry Herbert, aged 22 who was killed on 8 January 1942 serving with 51 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery. The CWGC have confirmed that graves have been damaged, and will be carrying out a full survey soon.

Desecrating war graves is a particularly cowardly thing to do. Especially considering British servicemen have done a lot to help ordinary Libyans, both during the Second World War when the Eight Army fought to push back both the Italians and the Germans, and in the past year or so when NATO forces helped the overthrow Colonel Gaddafi. It is a cowardly thing to do, because the man buriede beneath the gravestone cannot fight back. And more important than that, a war grave is deserving of respect, no matter who is buried there. A person who died doing their duty deserves dignity and peace regardless of the uniform that they wore, or the mistakes of their political masters.

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Thoughts on War Memorials

Given my recent work researching names on War Memorials, I have been thinking about the history of War Memorials themselves.

Of course, they are important – anything that helps us remember the sacrifices of generations past cannot be a bad thing. But then again, are there aspects of the war memorial in popular culture that, in a non-intentional way, limit our remembrance? Are they a convenient way of shoeboxing remembrance? Are they a relic of Victorian and Edwardian fascination with grief?

Think about it. A certain place in a town is the place where we remember fallen heroes. Does that mean that we don’t remember them anywhere else? I guess its like Armistice Day – why should we only remember them one day a year out of 365? Does that mean that they don’t matter for the other 364?

In another sense, there is also something quite limiting about war memorials, in that very often they only show the name, or in some cases, only initials. And of course, unless you knew them, can lists of unknown names really be ‘remembered’? Does it encourage us to think ‘thats their names, they’re remembered’ and leave them there, when in actual fact, we can’t remember them if we know nothing about them in the first place?

Of course I’m not suggesting that we tear down war memorials. They are a part of our heritage. But in the modern world, with technology and no end of information at our fingertips, why limit remembrance to names in stone? We say ‘we will remember them’, and that they won’t be forgotten, but surely if all we know is someone’s name and thats about it, then they’re virtually forgotten anyway?

 

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Lest we Forget

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Memorial plaques to Portsmouth’s Blitz dead stolen

I’ve just read something pretty disappointing on the Portsmouth News website. Apparently thieves have stolen plaques from a memorial in Kingston Cemetery, remembering victims of the Blitz in Portsmouth.

http://www.portsmouth.co.uk/news/local/east-hampshire/i_hope_and_pray_the_thieves_see_the_error_of_their_ways_1_3005015

The memorial is granite, and around 1.5 metres high, with four plaques listing over 120 names, including many whose bodies could not be identified. The inscription reads:

“Erected to the memory of those men, women and children both known and unknown who died as a result of enemy bombing on this city and whose last resting place is near this spot.”

What really makes me sad about this is that either the thieves managed to prize the metal from the memorial in broad daylight (you can drive around the cemetery, so perhaps they took a van right up to it), or they did it at night when the Cemetery is closed. It is locked at dusk, because I have almost been locked in before (my Grandad was once years ago). I doubt very much whether people who are willing to go to those lengths will be too bothered about defacing a war memorial, sadly. Many of my family were in Portsmouth during the blitz, they could very easily have been killed and their names ended up on these plaques. A memorial is the same as a grave, and to steal a memorial is like grave-robbing.

It’s by no means the first time that metal has been robbed from a war memorial – perhaps the most high profile case is that of the Naval Memorial in Portsmouth, where one large bronze plaque was taken from the memorial on Plymouth Hoe. We are told that the price of scap metal is at an all-time high at the moment, and certainly there have been a lot of thefts of lead from School, museum and church roofs in the last couple of years. And then theres the theft of copper railway signal cabling.

One has to look at scrap metal dealers in this kind of situation. Someone, somewhere, will be no doubt receiving some big lumps of metal that are quite obviously from a war memorial. If scrap metal dealers had more scruples about what they accepted from dodgy characters out the back of vans, then people wouldn’t bother going out and nicking it in the first place. For me, it is time legislation got tough with the scrap metal industry.

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Commonwealth War Graves horticulture survey

Gravestones in Ypres Town Commonwealth War Gra...

The kind of scenery that makes the CWGC famous (Image via Wikipedia)

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission are once again asking for the public’s views on the horticulture of their Cemeteries.

Despite stating that there are no pre-conceived agendas, the questions in the survey are very leading. Namely, how would you feel about their being less flowers and shrubs, grass that isn’t green or isn’t mown so regularly, or no grass at all?

It points in two directions for me – one, a desire to cut costs. This is kind of understandable in the current economic climate, but surely there are better ways of cutting deficits than cheapening war cemeteries? Secondly, the CWGC has in recent years had a climate change agenda that it can’t seem to let go of. Try as they might – and they have – gravel in war cemeteries looks bloody awful. It’s a cemetery, not a car park.

If you want to protect that traditional CWGC cemetery – commonly regarded as the most moving and well-kept war cemeteries in the world – follow the link below:

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