Without a trace

As so often happens, I was prepping a post on one topic when I spotted something completely different. In this case, a short but poignant article from the October 18th, 1945 issue of Flight magazine…

Missing Airmen

Wellington Mk.Ic L7788 "KX-E" (IWM HU 112589)
Luftwaffe personnel inspect the remains of Vickers Wellington Mk.Ic KX-E (L7788) of No. 311 Squadron, shot down over the Netherlands in September 1940. In this case, the crew (one dead) were all identified. (IWM HU 112589)

One of the biggest jobs now facing the Royal Air Force is the effort to trace missing airmen.

Since the beginning of the war in Europe there have been some 30,000 cases of officers and airmen who disappeared while on operations, and so an RAF and Dominions Missing Research and Enquiry Service was set up. It has been at work since 1941, but its activities increased enormously after D-Day.

Once the liberation of Europe had begun, it became possible to establish Missing Research and Enquiry Sections on the Continent. Naturally, new opportunities for enquiry were opened up as the Allies occupied Germany and the fighting ceased. At first the service operated only in France, then their activities were extended to Belgium and Holland. They have now begun making their enquiries in Norway and Denmark, and in Germany itself. There is also a section in Italy, which intends to extend its activities to the Balkans as soon as possible.

Much sorrow and anxiety

USAAF F-5 Lightning
Alone, unarmed and unafraid… Recon flights disappeared with depressing regularity. This USAAF F-5, over Normandy, was a happy exception. (USAAF Photo)

The service is busy with cases dating from the beginning to the end of the war. Problems dating from May, 1940 are still being solved.

As everyone knows, there is no form of loss which causes more acute distress than a report that a near relative is missing. One remembers the great work done by the War Graves Commission at the end of the first world war, and what consolation thousands of bereaved relatives found in being able to visit the grave of a lost loved one.

It is still to soon to perform similar services for all the dead who gave their lives in this recent war. No doubt that work will be undertaken shortly. In the meantime much sorrow and anxiety can be relieved if definite information can be found about where and when a missing man fell, and where his remains were buried. So the Missing Research and Enquiry Service spares no pains in its efforts to trace out each case, and enquiries are sometimes pursued for two years or more.

Schoolboy French is not good enough

The methods used are like those of a detective agency. In the first place it is necessary for the enquiry parties on the spot to have a fluent knowledge of the local vernacular. Mere schoolboy French is not good enough. There are many language in the parts of Europe to be covered and men with an intimate knowledge of some of them are not easy to find.

The enquirers also need to have a good deal of the acumen and mental equipment of a Sherlock Holmes. They must be able to distinguish between a promising clue and a useless one, and have a flair for recognising and rejecting misleading (though often well-meant) stories from locals.

The oddest scraps can sometimes lead to an identification. Experience helps the parties grow expert at their work, while the organisation in London fits all the little bits of information together to arrive at its own conclusions.

Shorts Stirling (IWM COL 202)
The mighty Shorts Stirling, severely hamstrung (but sent into service anyway) by a bureaucratic decision that saw over 2 meters cut from each wing’s designed length. (IWM COL 202)

A Stirling crew

On one occasion the service was trying to find out the fate of the seven members of a Stirling crew, who had not returned from a raid in the Spring of 1943. It was known that there were three graves in a Belgian village 20 miles from Louvain, two marked with the names of sergeants and the third marked ‘Three Unknowns’. It was also rumoured that two crewmen had baled out.

Stirling (IWM HU 10752)
Short Stirling W7459 ‘O’ of No. 1651 HCU (Heavy Conversion Unit) in flight, 1942. (IWM HU 107752)

The enquiry party arrived at the village on a Sunday afternoon, when few people were about. The graves were not found in the churchyard and, while the enquirers could speak French very well, they did not speak Flemish, which was the local language. Then two passing cyclists – a brother and sister who could talk some French– told the party of another graveyard.

The girl said she knew the name of one of the missing men. She and her brother had also picked up a shirt cuff with a gold link in it and a piece of shirt collar with a name on it. She took the party to the cemetery and showed them the graves. She said that all the aircrew had perished in the explosion, and it was not true that anyone had escaped by parachute.

The girl then took the party to her mother’s cottage, where the latter produced the gold sleeve-link from a secret recess. Her sister had the shirt collar with the name on it. This was also recovered and proved to be a piece of an officer’s shirt, with a laundry mark, an outfitter’s label, and the embroidered name that the girl had mentioned. The scrap of cuff (which was tiny and had not been kept) was said to be made of the same material.

There had only been one officer in the crew of the Stirling in question, and so the chain of evidence was complete.

Overlap of services

A more puzzling case was that of a fighter which had been shot down over Calais in 1940. The only useful clue was the name of an English county. The Casualty Branch of the Air Ministry ascertained that no one with a home address in that county had been lost on that date. So the Missing Research Service then applied to the Chief Constable of the county. He did splendid work and took no end of trouble. As a result of his enquiries it turned out that the fighter in question had belonged to the Fleet Air Arm, which explains why the Air Ministry had no knowledge of it.

Typhoons (IWM CL 472)
Not much of a fighter, the pugnacious Hawker Typhoon excelled at ground attack – a role where destruction could be sudden, instant and absolute. (IWM CL 472)

Another curious case concerned a crashed Typhoon. The enquiry partly recovered its cannons, and noted the numbers on them. As it turned out, those cannon had been taken off another crashed Typhoon and installed in the machine in question, so the numbers hampered the enquiry more than they helped it.

However a scrap of coloured scarf worn by the pilot was also found, and a firm of tailors identified it as being the Old Boys’ colours of a certain school. The date of the casualty was known, and so an enquiry from the headmaster of the school ultimately led to the pilot being identified.

A tragic story

One one occasion, the body of an unknown airman was discovered near the Pyrenees, in Southern France. That caused a lot of confusion and conjecture.

Spitfire Vb (IWM COL 189)
The Spitfire Mk.Vb met its match in the Fw.190 on sweeps over Northern France – many aircraft simply disappearing from a squadron formation. This particular Vb, AD233, was shot down by Fw.190s over Gravelines on 25 May, 1942. (IWM COL 189)

The Service first imagined (and this shows how ingenious they have become) that the man must have belonged to a formation which was once flying back from Italy, but encountered a gale and tried to avoid it by flying off to the southwest. However it was impossible to link those circumstances to any known losses in that area.

The mystery was not solved for a long time, and remained open for two years. At last, a tragic story came to light. This airman had baled out over northern France, where the Maquis found him and tried to get him away. They smuggled him all the way through France and almost to the Spanish frontier, but there the Germans caught and shot him as he was about to reach safety.

From the point of view of the Service, the moral of the story is that even the strangest case may be explained in time, as long as they never give up hope.

Hopeless clues

The numbers on airmen’s watches can often give a clue to the identity of the wearer, as can rings at times. But sometimes rings have monograms inscribed on them, and it is hard to guess which order to read the three letters in. Then there are almost hopeless clues such as a cigarette case with an inscription like ‘To Dick from Vera’. They are moving, but do not provide much help towards identification.

B-17s stream east into Germany… For thousands of their crew it would be a one-way trip. (USAAF Photo)

One Mother Superior in France kept careful records of all the cases that passed through her hospital—at her own peril, she added. But, as many of the names were misspelled, it was some time before her record could be of of much use to the Missing Service. In the end, her notes would prove very useful, not only to the RAF, but to the British and American Armies as well.

Laundry marks have often proved helpful, and two trade journals currently print enquiries from the Missing Service for laundries to check. Corroboration by more than one clue often leads to a definite conclusion.

When a case has been completed and the knowledge of what happened to the missing man or men is complete, a personal letter is written to the next of kin. Official jargon is studiously avoided, and these letters are much appreciated. The Service has received numerous cordial and grateful acknowledgments from the families of once-missing men.


Halifax (IWM C 3972)
‘The bomber would always get through’ – but many wouldn’t make it back. Here a No.4 Group Halifax is silhouetted as it by fires as it flies over the burning German city of Leipzig. (IWM C 3972)

Into thin air

While this article focused on individual stories, the overall numbers of missing were simply horrific. As stated, Royal Air Force and Commonwealth squadrons lost over 30,000 airmen missing, on European operations alone. More went missing over Africa, the Far East and the world’s oceans.

Similarly, the US Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency cites 20,349 Army Air Forces personnel as ‘not recovered’ (globally) after WW2. That’s the current statistic, not the 1945 number. The Luftwaffe, too, must have as many missing again. The Russians and Japanese, even more.

To put it in perspective, we’re talking about the entire populations of several sizeable towns – like Goulburn in New South Wales or Monterey, California – disappearing into thin air.

And just to stress, those are just the missing, not the (many more) identified dead.

Two French farmers work around the wreckage of a Luftwaffe Ju-88 in Normandy, 1944. (IWM TR 2107)
Two French farmers work around the wreckage of a Luftwaffe Ju-88 in Normandy, 1944. (IWM TR 2107)

Gone but not forgotten

As the article mentions in its reference to World War 1, whatever cold comfort knowing the fate and final resting place of a loved one may bring, it must still be preferable to the cavernous lack of solace given by the epitaph ‘MIA’.

RAAF Mosquito (IWM CE 128)
One of the lucky ones… Mosquito FB Mark VI, MM401 ‘SB-J’, of No. 464 Squadron RAAF, at Friston ELG on February 21st, 1944. Hit by flak over the Channel, the crew could easily have disappeared into the sea. (IWM CE 128)

There were wars before and since. Some, notably WW1, resulted in huge numbers of MIAs. Statistically, later wars may have been ‘better’, but there’s no such thing as ‘good’.

And the missing of World War Two’s tumultuous, far-reaching air war will continue to re-emerge for the rest of time. Some cases, like the evading airman shot on the Spanish border, are resolved within years of the war’s end. Others turn up after 50, 60 or 70 years – like the P-40 found last year in the Libyan desert.

Who knows how many more are interred in the shifting sands of North Africa, in glaciers from Greenland to the Alps, on remote jungle specks across the Pacific or, beyond counting, at the bottom of a sea somewhere.

So now, we’ll always live with the ghosts of the missing. And for all those families, the words ‘gone but not forgotten’ couldn’t ring more true.

8 thoughts on “Without a trace

  1. Great article, and pleased you pointed out difficulty of language in research. I’m ex pat Northern Irish, and been living in northern France, near Belgian border for over four years. My schoolboy French, virtually unspoken for over 30 years served me little when first arrived, and the grammar still killing me, along with my accent. Also local dialects are confusing, as same word in original language and dialect, may have different meaning or emphasis. Even after picking up the lingo again and having a pretty good handle on local dialect, still having problems researching someone who used to be something of a local hero – an ex Irish soldier, in British army, that stayed behind to tend graves after the Great War. After Ireland’s partition in 1921, he went to trouble of obtaining an Irish passport. When the Germans arrived here in Valenciennes in 1940, he was interrogated by Gestapo, and being neutral Irish Republic citizen, released to return to tending the war graves of La Roche Cemetery. He was arrested in 1944, for working with the French Resistance, on the escape lines for downed airmen, and fugitives from the Germans, and died soon after in the camps. Finding more info, even on a well known local story, and someone named in the rolls of “Heroes of the Resistance” is like getting blood from a stone. Good luck on your own researches, and thanks again for great article.

    1. Thanks for your comments, and for sharing your perspective. I’m no expert, but I am aware that there are WAY more languages and dialects still surviving across Europe than the major language groups we get taught in school. Good luck with your learning curve, and with your research. It certainly sounds like a fascinating, not to mention truly heroic, story.

      1. By time I got around to using my schoolboy French, it was out of date as the language had moved on and evolved, much as English does. Not to worry – I live in a time warp anyway! Getting the French to talk about the wars not terribly easy, other than general condemnation of the other side. Takes time, and tact to worm the information out, though a little alcohol seems to help the flow! Being able to use dialect, and understand local humour has helped me a lot. Anyone needing help with French or northern Ch’ti (careful how you pronounce it!) dialect, I’m available, and work cheap – free – too much time on my hands! A bit in advance, but bon weekend biloute.

      2. You see, there’s a language/dialect I’ve never even HEARD of! And that pricks my historical interest, and there’s the morning gone. Mind you, alcohol and local humour sounds like a wonderful way to pass the evening. You’re lucky to live in such a richly layered part of the world. Best of luck with the translation service.

  2. You’ve highlighted a long and difficult process that hopefully leads to closure for many people. The number of ‘missing’ is horrendous and we can only guess what many of those folk have gone through waiting for the final news.

    1. Absolutely. It’s one of those situations where you start to unfold the picture and find yourself opening an infinitely vast human story, 100,000 tragedies. Those young men (and some women too) took off into a hostile sky and were never seen or heard of again. Their empty cots were quickly filled by more willing volunteers, but their families and communities would always have a sad, gaping mystery. I know it sounds stupid, but I lost a cat once and the not knowing just gnaws away at you. This is a subject I’ll definitely return to.

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