Less We Forget Poppy

The Life and Times of Hubert Brooks M.C. C.D.
A Canadian Hero

Less We Forget Poppy

Chapter 6: Missing Research & Enquiry Service – M.R.E.S.

Section 6.2: MY INITIAL TRAINING at M.R.E.S.

I reported to MRES Headquarters in London on 7–Nov–1945. We had a few days of general introduction and then I was given a 2–week leave pass as the next course was not set to start until Monday 19–November. Training lasted approximately 3 weeks.

MRES sections were to be formed from the Arctic Circle (Scandinavia), France, Holland, Germany, the Mediterranean / Middle East to the jungles of Burma and the Far East.

Eventually there ended up being 5 Missing Research and Enquiry Units (MREU):

image Number and Location of MREUs
MREU 1 and 2 History MREU 3 and 4 History MREU 5 History

The first MREU (No. 1) was established in Paris in January 1945 and initially consisted of 5 Search Officers. In April 1945 a second section (No. 2) was established in Brussels to operate in the Low Countries. In the coming months the organization quickly expanded and the other units were established.

The principle underlying the location of the units was to begin in the outer countries of Europe and gradually work inwards, with Germany and Central Europe as the final target.

Each of the 5 Units would be self–contained for operational and administrative purposes all reporting into a MRES Headquarters with a Group Captain commanding. Nominally each unit had a complement of 40 Search Officers who were divided into eight sections of five – a section having a Squadron Leader in charge of four Flight Lieutenants.

(No 4 Unit was the last survivor of the 5 MREUs. On 30th September 1949 this unit and the Headquarters of the MRES were disbanded, leaving behind the RAF Graves Service to continue the work of Missing Research and Graves Registration. Later re-named as the Commonwealth War Graves Commision or CWGC.)

I was to be in No. 3 MREU.

While at my training in London (on 1–December–1945) I was promoted to Flight Lieutenant – a rank commiserate with the job I was about to undertake as a Search Officer.

The magnitude of the 42,000 airmen lost or unaccounted for during World War II was staggering, and it seemed initially an insurmountable task with the size of team established.

We were a mixed crew who had volunteered for MRES. After six years of war, all military personnel had good reasons to simply go home so our volunteerism was very much appreciated. We were made up of men and women who had very little qualification for the massive scale detective work in front of us beyond our own experiences of the dangers, horror and lost friends; and what universally seemed as the sense of duty in seeking answers to the fate of lost comrades–in–arms. Each case solved carried a physical and a mental cost to the Search Officer. Every case solved laid a ghost to rest for a family back home.

One can obviously imagine and relate to the desperate need for any information concerning the fate of airmen categorized as "missing presumed dead" by parents and relatives back home. Often times this led to desperate measures.
In 1948 an article in a British Sunday newspaper ( The People 28 November 1948) related the story of the father of a Canadian flight sergeant reported missing on a wartime mission who had come over to England to pursue his own enquiries. One day at London�s Kings Cross station he thought he came face to face with his son. By the time the father had recovered his composure the man had gone. For days afterwards this father frequented the station hoping he would encounter the man again – but to no avail.

Sadly some parents could not bring themselves to believe their son was dead in spite of assurances from the Missing Research & Enquiry Service that there was absolutely no evidence to the contrary.

We were told that we as airmen had been singled out for the MRES job because:

Clearly initiative and dogged perseverance was needed for this job. It was stressed that the example summary reports we were shown from existing solved cases did not sufficiently reveal the great amount of study and initiative expended. A great deal of the work effort would be of an unspectacular nature, involving hours of hard application but with little to show for it. Some of the problems however would lead to very interesting and gartifying solutions.

It was thought that the requirements for a Search Officer required an officer at a rank of Flight Lieutenant or higher as it involved knowledge and experience, and, for the majority of cases, calls for unorthodox treatment and exceptional tact; from a point of view of contact with the public, and the representation of this important side of the work, the higher the rank would confer undoubted advantages.

It was made clear that this would be a gruesome task. In fact this would be one of the most daunting tasks undertaken by the RAF/ Commonwealth forces.

It was simply unacceptable that any airmen heroes would remain in an unmarked mass grave in a nameless corner of a foreign field or left exposed at a crash site.

In an era before the modern terminology of "closure", this was exactly what the MRES attempted to bring to the families of those lost.

Page 34 of MRES Report AIR 55/65 Ref: 6.1 summarized this Serach Officer selection and training philosophy:

image MRES Search Officer Job Expectations

Training Session Overview

Some of the aspects covered in our training session included:

  1. We reviewed some of the technical aspects of seeking out the wreck sites and recovering the bodies and then the commemorative nature of honoring the deceased that would follow.

  2. We would each be given detailed maps and what intelligence and police reports that were available for our assigned areas as per downed aircraft.
    Each missing aircraft had been logged by the Air Ministry, and a file started. Identifying marks and serial numbers of the plane, of the engines, of any of the major on–board components were recorded along with any operational details of the circumstances of the loss, and to this was added information gleaned from survivors, intelligence sources and German authorities themselves.
    As an example, information from the German Totenliste ie "Death List" would be provided. However we were cautioned that the Totenliste list was often inaccurate – but at least it was a start.
    We were to use all of these existing reports as jumping off points and use our initiative on–the–ground to close existing case files and establish new ones.

  3. Working to a Casualty Office brief was not the sole task of the Search Officer. It was known that a significant amount of information was scattered all over the Continent awaiting collection. To collect this information, we were to conduct "area sweeps".
    In time the reports generated from these "area sweeps", or so-called "X reports" as they became known, rivaled in importance the reports from the casualty section.

  4. We would be supported by our regional HQ in matters such as funding and organization and co–ordination of ground, sea or air transport, hotels and local translators. However from time–to–time we might have to arrange ourselves. At this stage I could not have anticipated how much a problem transport (ground, sea and air) would become and how much time we as Search Officers would spend dealing with it.

  5. We were instructed on likely candidates for interrogation in the local population and authorities. Potential witnesses and the local authorities should be sought out, including mayors, clergymen, grave diggers, police, medical staff, scrap dealers and any one else who may have been involved in dealing with a crash and its crew. Children who may have witnessed a crash were perhaps surprisingly excellent witnesses.

  6. Typically we would be responsible for arranging any local assistance needed in recovery (such as mountaineering assistance), and organize respectful burial services.

  7. We reviewed the list of standard supplies such as rubber boots, gloves and disinfectant etc that we would be issued and the importance of there use.

  8. The different roles of the Allied Grave Registration Units (GRU) and the MRES were reviewed.

    1. Typically recovered aircrew would be wrapped in Service blankets and handed over to the Army Graves Service for burial.

    2. However in remote areas, Search Officers may have to transport bodies to local village cemeteries.

    3. Normally, only the Graves Registration Units were allowed to exhume buried bodies, often using either German prisoners or local labor. The MRES could watch, and then conduct the examination, but were not allowed to physically open the graves themselves.

    4. Once a grave was opened, if the bodies were in coffins they would be raised to the surface for examination.

    5. If the bodies were not in coffins, then the Search Officer was to lower himself into the grave to study the remains in situ.

    image MRES GRU Form
  9. Once the body was exposed the MRES had a standard form to fill in, with a chart to show which body parts were retrieved.

    image MRES Form image MRES Skeletal Chart image MRES Dental Chart

    Every little clue needed to be examined and recorded carefully.

    1. The type of soil would be noted. This could be cross–referenced with the level of decay to establish a rough date of death.

    2. A basic physical description of the body was taken and a dental chart filled in.

    3. Details of the uniform and equipment were carefully noted, as these would at least point to the nationality, rank and trade of the airman, based on the type and quality of the material and the insignia.

    4. Personal equipment might bear the name of the wearer or at the very least a serial number that could at least be traced to the man issued with it.

    5. Laundry labels or other potentially important clues were taken for later analysis and cross–reference as were personal effects (such as pipes, type of cigarettes etc)

  10. One final act followed every exhumation. Standing Orders were quite clear that the first and last thing that a search officer should do on approaching or leaving a grave was to salute it.

  11. We were instructed as to the importance of constant communication and the role of our HQ in assisting with the analysis and understanding of the information found in the field.

  12. We were told that each of our assignments would be unique in some aspect or another, and that we were expected as search officers to take the initiative. Our work schedules would be coordinated with the local, regional HQ but would be largely ours in the making.

  13. Finally, before being assigned our own investigation area, we would initially be teamed up with an existing unit in the field to see first hand a typical operations methodology.

  14. Although it was emphasized that each case would be different, we went over some example cases illustrating some innovative and unusual methods of solution. A few of these cases with a Canadian slant are summarized below and illustrate a bit of the "detective nature" of this work(these cases are also documented in AIR 2/ 6330 Ref: 6.4 ).

Example M.R.E.S. Cases

Case 1- "Barbara" – Use of the Press
Case 2 – Another Man�s Clothes
Case 3 – The Well Seasoned Pipe
Case 4 – Ring From Vancouver


The Life and Times of Hubert Brooks M.C. C.D.

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