The Worst News
The telegram that no mother and father wanted to receive.
PLEASE NOTE: I am indebted to the Australian National Archives and their Government's policy of making personnel files and casualty reports available to modern researchers. Without this, my research would have got nowhere. The MoD were not at all forthcoming.
As a consequence, the documents shown in this section all relate directly to F/O Ward and F/S (later WO) Terras, though the remainder of the crew are mentioned in MRES reports.
The telegrams were triggered by these initial communications regarding the missing Lancaster:
These cypher messages prompted a "circumstantial report" from Waddington giving the full crew identities:
It's ironic that, with the loss of Wing Commander Eric Langlois on this very operation, the new squadron Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Hay had the unfortunate task of writing to all next of kin.
A705 Casualty Files were opened for both men on 7 March, all matters, letters and reports relating to their deaths and further investigations would be documented therein.
Right, the front cover of Colin Terras' A705 and below, next of kin contact details.
It was an unfortunate airman's task to go through and list the personal effects of each missing crew member:
I think Colin must have been expecting to have lots of colds in England with 33 handkerchieves!
Such seemingly small items such as bicycles had to be accounted for following enquiries from relatives.
The fate of the Lancaster was now known in outline, but what of the crew, they were still unaccounted for? It was known that they were not POWs and therefore presumed killed in action, but what had become of their bodies?
Missing Research and Enquiry Service
A Missing Research and Enquiry Service had been established by the Air Ministry as early as March 1945 but with the war in Europe ending on 8 May there was growing pressure on the British Government to start cutting back on the Armed Services, to demobilise personnel and get them out to work to start the much needed regrowth of the economy which had been crippled by the expense of the previous six years of war.
Much of what follows are extracts from this excellent book, highly recommended reading:
On 26 July a meeting was held in the AM in which the Air Member for Personnel, Sir John Slessor and the senior staff from his and other relevant departments gathered to discuss one thing: the men who were still listed as missing from the war so far. The estimates were sketchy, fluctuating between 20 and 30,000 aircrew. The real figure of just under 42000 plus would not be known until the following year. The focus of the meeting was the work of the MRES and whether the expenditure in men and resources in these austere times could be justified. The crucial question was, was every missing man to be accounted for?
Slessor wrote to Air Chief Marshall Sir Sholto Douglas in August warning him that "we have got to undertake this work on a very much larger scale than at present if we are to have a hope of tracing more than a very small percentage of our missing aircrew before all the clues are obliterated and local inhabitants forget or lose interest in the evidence which we know is still available. Relatives naturally wish to get information on the fate of missing aircrew, and unless we can show that everything reasonably possible is being done to trace them, we shall be failing in our duty."
And so the MRES was funded, with units operating in every wartime theatre. In Germany a section of the MREU would take an area known as a Kreise, roughly an English county. They worked on the basis of aircraft which were thought to have crashed in that area, or from casualty enquiries etc. A team would then question the local population and authorities, potential witnesses were sought out including mayors, clergymen, grave diggers, policemen, medical staff scrap dealers and anyone else who may have been involved in dealing with the crash or its crew.
Once a burial site had been determined, it fell to an MREU officer to try to identify the bodies. F/Lt Mitchell, No.4 MREU described his routine:
"I would arrange to have them exhumed....then I would start my investigation. I would look at the body. The first thing I would look at: what was the colour of the uniform? If it was a dark blue, it was an Australian. Was it a pilot, air gunner, bomb aimer, navigator? Then I would look on th epaulettes: was he an officer, or a sergeant or a flight sergeant? Then I would work down the body (I wouldn't touch it), just with my eyes. Would be working down, and this I would call to my interpreter who would be recording exactly what I was telling him. Then I would unzip the flying boots to see if there was a number, rank and name inside. Having got so far, that was all I could see from the outside without disturbing anything. I would then try to get my fingers down the neck of the roll neck pullover to see if I could hook up the identity discs. If I was unsuccessful I would then go through the pockets, the two up here first, then inside the battle dress and then the trouser pockets. And then I would come to where I have got to turn the body, to see if anything has been thrown into the coffin. I would then look to see if they were wearing any rings...."
So on the basis of their tried and tested method described above, a team was sent in 1948 to the Ladbergen area and found that a Lancaster had crashed at Pentrup (note typo below "Rentrup". The following was established :
The Cemetery Schedule referred to above shows the kind of difficulty that MREU had in determining the identity of the exhumed bodies:
The two Australian crew members, Ward and Terras, had been burned such that their identity could only be established by dental records:
Prior to positive identification their remains were interred in the same grave and a temporary cross erected. The date of death was later amended for the two Australians but not for the five RAF crewmen.
Some forms relating to their burial in the Reichswald War Cemetery, evident are the corrections to the date of death of Ward and Terras. To the right, the inscriptions to be placed on the headstone of each.