AIRCREW AND AIRCRAFT CASUALTY RESEARCH

... advice on sources

 

...    You may be lucky enough to find someone who has already researched the area, incident or casualty you are interested in and willing to pass on details. Additionally there are also now publications that focus on different sets of information for the subject (eg. high ground crashes is various parts of the UK, Bomber Command Losses, Post War RAF aircraft losses etc.). However in most cases these details are likely to be rather brief and there will almost certainly be additional information that you can discover and piece together for yourself.

Here is a short guide to the principal sources I have found useful:

SOURCES FOR WW2:

Most casualties occurred during the years 1939 to 1945 when aerial activity was at its peak and the main sources for information during this period are: (click on underlined 'hyperlink' to jump to that section)

Local People

Royal Air Force (RAF) Records – principally Operations Record Books, Aircraft Accident and Movement cards

Other Public Record Office (PRO) Records

Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWWGC) printed registers and on-line ‘Debt of Honour’ Register (service deaths during the years 1914-1922 and 1939-1947 only).

Publications (see short bibliography below)

Internet Links (best for contact with specialist individuals or groups who may be able to answer your questions) 

 

SOURCES FOR WW1:

Records are thin on the ground this far back but in a addition to Commonwealth Wargraves  Commission (CWWGC) registers the PRO holds a number of  documents. See below for details.

 

FOR ALL OTHER PERIODS:

Sources get progressively scarce going backwards from 1939.

Local People

RAF Records – principally Operations Record Books, Aircraft Accident and Movement cards

Other PRO Records

Local Newspapers – articles and obituary notices

Publications

Internet Links (best for contact with specialist individuals or groups who may be able to answer your questions)

The key information to establish:

For people:

Name(s) of person(s) and one or more initials
Service Number (if applicable)
Date of death
Unit (eg. Squadron no.)

For aircraft:

Aircraft type
Location
Date of crash
Unit

One or more of these will be needed if you are to track down circumstances and supplementary details from Accident Cards or Operations Record Books.

 

LOCAL PEOPLE

One of your best sources of clues and details about local incidents, memories of people and general reminiscences ... however be careful as human memory is notoriously selective and consequently unreliable. Look for corroborating evidence in other (probably subsequent) research to support this source of information. Make notes of, or better still, tape record your conversation for future reference. Taped interviews will in time become valuable archive material. This is a rapidly diminishing resource for WW2 so move quickly! In particular find out exactly where things happened on the ground before it passes from living memory ... official records don’t give this detail and you will almost certainly want to know when you have ‘the full story’.

 

LOCAL NEWSPAPERS

The following comments and impression about this source are based on my own experience of Bedfordshire papers. However I suspect that these will apply to most areas of the UK.

For the duration of WW2 (Sept 1939 until 1945) press censorship generally prohibited the reporting of aircraft crashes and forced landings (bad for morale and might have given the enemy useful feedback). In a few cases, in particular where civilian casualties resulted or an enemy machine was brought down, some details were given but fairly uniformly this is an unrewarding area for the crash researcher.  Local men lost in action – missing, killed or taken prisoner – are sometimes mentioned, though promotions, decorations and references to ‘mentioned in dispatches’ appear more frequently. In no cases are references made to units.

It is, never-the-less good for background information on Civil Defence issues, recruitment advertisements and normal life activities eg. agriculture, crime, sport.

In the years immediately after the war the ‘In Memorium’ section generally has more details, on anniversary dates, to the wartime loss of related servicemen and women.

For serious aircraft crashes before and after the war there are usually extensive articles, including pictures and ‘witness accounts’ (but don’t stop there as there will be more objective information to be found in the records of subsequent enquiry – see below).

The Local Studies section/department of the main library within your County will be able to tell you which newspapers they hold back copies for, the geographic area they covered, their ‘seniority’ within that area including frequency of publication, and which years are spanned. Also establish if these can be viewed on microfilm or as original (usually bound) copies. Access to the latter is becoming more restricted as they become increasingly fragile, but they are much easier to scan than moving (and often poor quality) film images. If the papers in question are still in business they may have their own archives that you can access. Copies may also exist at the relevant County Records Office.

As you work through one or a series of papers make a note of any related information that may be of use either 1) to yourself at a later date should your interest broaden, or 2) for the benefit of other researchers. Key information is paper name, issue date, page number and article heading. Brief details, and/or name of person(s) involved is also potentially very useful. Putting these into a computerised database (such as Microsoft ‘Access’) will mean you can quickly check back at a later date.

 

COMMONWEALTH WAR GRAVES COMMISSION

2 Marlow Road, Maidenhead, Berkshire, SL6 7DX

Web site home page : www.cwgc.org

Debt of Honour searchable database is at www.cwgc.org/debt_of_honour.asp?menuid=14

The Commission produced registers for every cemetery with designated service war graves (1914-1918 and 1939-1947) list the full names, rank, serial no., service arm, date of death, age and sometimes next of kin. The grave numbers given are usually meaningless unless you have a key plan or guide to the cemetery. Occasionally a unit number is given, and if accurate (the CWWG and/or their sources have been known to make mistakes) this is invaluable in that you can now track down the relevant Operations Book to see what it says. Loan copies of these are available upon request, with just a nominal charge made to cover postage. Since the registers were compiled and printed in the 1950’s some re-internments have taken place. 

Alternatively visit their web site to access the ‘Debt of Honour’ database. This is particularly useful for quickly finding out where a casualty is buried. You will need to have a name and rank to undertake and narrow down a search by this route.

There is a similar on-line memorial for Australian servicemen and women at www.awm.gov.au

 

THE PUBLIC RECORD OFFICE

Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU. TEL: + 44 (0)181 876 3444.

Web site home page : www.pro.gov.uk

On-line catalogue home page : www.catalogue.pro.gov.uk

The PRO holds records from the beginning of flight until circa 1977. The important references to look under are:

  • AIR (Air Ministry)
  • AVIA (Aviation)

Post WW1 Squadron records are in the AIR 27 class series, Stations AIR 28, and Miscellaneous Units (OTU’s/Training etc.) in AIR 29

Generally ORB’s for RFC, RNAS and RAF during WW1 are, with few exceptions in AIR 1.

All surviving service records for officers serving up until 1920 are held here in the AIR 76 class. If the officer served before 1 April 1918, check the appropriate class:

RFC officers – WO 339 (indexes in WO 338) and WO374

RNAS officers – ADM 273

 

There is a guide book titled ‘RAF Records in the PRO’ (see Short Bibliography below for further information) which goes in to detail about the history and organisation of aircraft related material that is held. There is now an on line, searchable database giving you access to the catalogue. This will allow you to identify potentially interesting documents, and their reference numbers, before you visit, so making best use of your time there. If you already hold a readers card you can order a maximum of 3 documents in advance, again making sure you ‘hit the ground running’. Time is guaranteed to fly by once you find what you are looking for.

 

THE ROYAL AIR FORCE MUSEUM DEPARTMENT OF RESEARCH & INFORMATION SERVICES (‘DORIS’)

Grahame Park Way, Hendon, London NW9 5LL.

Web Site home page : www.rafmuseum.org.uk/IndexHendon.cfm

Appointment required for visit.

See their web site for latest details of opening hours and  contact / booking information.

This is home of the RAF’s ACCIDENT SUMMARY CARDS (Air Ministry Form 1180), which are on microfilm tapes (around 140!).

These are arranged by YEAR / TYPE alphabetically (ie. Beaufighter, Blenheim, Botha etc. not maker) / then specific DATE. Use the department index to locate the tape required.

The layout of these changes over the years but you should hope to find a/c type / mark /unit / serial numbers (inc. engines) / place of incident / category of damage (inc. engines) / whether fire was involved/ pilots name, rank, serial number, experience (hours flown) / casualty numbers (killed, injured, injured slightly, uninjured) / time of accident / duty (type of flight) and duration / findings summary, and recommendations if appropriate. Strangely, and rather unfortunately, cards for incidents involving collisions between aircraft are almost always missing.

Also tape based record are the AIRCRAFT MOVEMENT CARDS (Air Ministry Form 78) which chronicle and summarise the aircrafts movements (unit allocation) and damage history.

There is also a fairly extensive aircraft PHOTOGRAPH COLLECTION, arranged alphabetically by serial number, on an index card system.

As the department has only a few tape reading machines it is important that you reserve one when you book your visit – ask the staff for guidance if you are unsure which records are on tape. 

 

IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM

Lambeth Road, London, SE1 6HZ.

Website at www.iwm.org.uk

Appointment required for visit.

I have not accessed their archives but they may have pictures and other related material that might assist you.

 

RAF PERSONNEL MANAGEMENT AGENCY

PMA(CS)2a2(RAF), RAF Innsworth, Gloucester, GL3 1EZ

No public access.

The service records of personnel who served beyond 1920 are held by this department and are normally only released to next of kin, on payment of a search fee. These include the records of members of Commonwealth air forces (RAAF, RCAF, SAAF and RNZAF) who served during the Second World War.

 

THE AIR HISTORICAL BRANCH

Ministry of Defence, Bdg 266
RAF Bentley Priory
Stanmore
Middx.
HA7 3HH

Web site at www.raf.mod.uk/history/sources.html#archives

No public access.

A branch responsible for writing official histories and answering requests, primarily from government departments and RAF units. They are unlikely to be very helpful if you are a member of the general public, and will refer you to other sources detailed on their web site, including the material held at Hendon or the PRO.

They do hold casualty records for RAF personnel killed, injured, reported missing or taken PoW during the years 1919-1985 but will provide transcripts to relatives only.

 

SHORT BIBLIOGRAPHY  

[UNDER CONSTRUCTION]

INTERNET SOURCES

My preferred ‘search engines’ are Google (www.google.com) and Altavista (www.altavista.com). Try every sensible combination of words in your searches – not too many or too few, some judgement and thought is required. eg. Sgt V C Akes will produce different search results to V Akes / Sgt Akes / Sergeant Akes / Vernon Akes / 404393 Akes etc … Familiarise yourself with search engine specific techniques for forcing exact combinations of words, as in the use of inverted commas “ ”.

 

Finally, good luck in your research. If you come across any information relating to Bedfordshire or North + East Scotland I'd be interested to know.

 

Colin Mackenzie, December 2001  

 

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