Above: pre-war photograph of the building in which the Casualty Branch would be located from 1942
At the beginning of the war, the Air Ministry only had one small section for enquiries about casualties, S.7(d), a branch of Secretarial Division S.7. It became known as S.7 (Cas).
In the early months of the war, a new branch was created, P.4 (Cas), also known as the Casualty Branch and appearing as such on letters to the public. Administratively, it was a branch of the Directorate of Personal Services and thus ultimately under the control of the Air Member for Personnel (AMP).
Initially located at Adastral House, Kingsway, it moved to 73-77 Oxford Street in late 1942. This tall Art Deco building had been the showroom for Drage’s before the war, which was when the above picture was taken. It appears that some shops remained in the building even in wartime. One account speaks of the Casualty Branch as being in ‘a suite of offices above some shops diagonally opposite the Dominion Theatre in Tottenham Court Road’.*
Those in charge clearly understood that relatives would want to visit the offices, and great thoughtfulness went into making sure that enquiries could be fully answered on the spot. This thoughtfulness would extend into the peace, when many missing enquiries were still outstanding and bodies were still being relocated, especially in Germany. In April 1948, for example, when the branch was no longer in Oxford Street, it was recorded:
Large-scale cemetery plans are being prepared, showing the position of every grave in each cemetery. Copies will eventually be sent to the Casualty Branch which will then be able to show next of kin the exact position of a particular grave.**
The Oxford Street offices dealt with an immense amount of human suffering. This affected some of the staff badly. Olive Noble was a WAAF typist who for some months in the later part of the war, worked in the Oxford Street branch. A major part of her duties was typing the ‘Next of Kin’ letters. The stream of individual files seemed never-ending:
‘On reaching our desks each morning, the sight of piled-up files filled us with a feeling of gloom.’
Many of the files included very graphic details of the last moments of an aircraft and its crew:
‘Descriptions were vivid and explicit, one could see the whole thing unfolding before one’s eyes.’
Olive Noble began to suffer from appalling nightmares, exacerbated by the V2 rockets which falling on the capital at that time, and her health problems became so bad that she had to be transferred.***
Air Ministry Casualty Branch letter (detail), Squadron Leader A P LeM Sinkinson,4 September 1946.
RPA/RAF/Cas Branch & MRES
After Oxford Street
On 19 August 1946, control of the Casualty Branch was transferred from the Directorate of Personal Services to S.7 and P.4 (Cas) was redesignated S.7 (Cas). In March 1947 S.7 (Cas) left the Oxford Street offices and moved to 2 Saville Street.
Further reorganisation saw the branch become S.14 (Cas), and in April 1949 the branch moved to Stanmore in line with the general policy of transferring Air Ministry branches out of central London.
* Imperial War Museum, Documents.9046, Flight Lieutenant C A Mitchell, The Missing Research and Enquiry Service, typescript account.
** TNA, AIR2/10031, Air Ministry Casualty Branch, Squadron Leader A P LeM Sinkinson, ‘Missing Research: Origin and Development’, report, 21 April 1948.
*** Imperial War Museum, Documents.685, Olive J Noble, Winged Interlude: A WAAF of the Second World War … Tells All!, typescript account.