Monday 9 September 2013 by Natasha Bobyreff. No comments

066921 Soputa, New Guinea. 1944-06-14/02. Corporal T.L. white, of the 7th Graves Registration Unit writing the names of deceased personnel on crosses at the war cemetery. 066921

The nature of war has often meant that many Australian sons and daughters did not return home. Have you ever wondered what happened to our servicemen and women when they became casualties of war?

In the Second World War, grave units were established to coordinate locating bodies, burials and the upkeep of cemeteries overseas. As with the First World War, and every conflict up until Vietnam, the Second World War dead were generally not repatriated to Australia.

As part of the Australian War Memorial’s process of improving the usability of our records, we have produced a new resource to help find information about the Second World War Grave Registration, Enquiry and Maintenance Units.

The following spread sheet details where and when specific units were during, and in some cases, after the Second World War. By following the link AWM 52 - Australian War Graves Unit dates and locations.pdf you can quickly and easily find information on the location of Australian War Graves Registration, Enquiry and Maintenance Units and  the country and town or city, in which each they were deployed on a given date.

129381 Rookwood, NSW. 1946-05-22. N278996 sergeant C. C. Graham, concreting a stone at the grave of 1272 Lance Corporal William Prentice, 13th Battalion (1st AIF), died 1928-03-07. He was buried in a civilian cemetery before the war cemetery was built. The war graves maintenance unit are concreting all graves. 129381

There are 34 unit diaries in the collection covering the operation period 1 September 1941 – 30 October 1947. While the Second World War ended in 1945 the mission to recover our war dead continued. The last of the Australian Graves Units were disbanded in 1947. Their work continues through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

If you are interested in learning more about the day-to-day activities of the War Graves units, the Memorial holds War Diaries in the record series AWM52 in its collection of Official Records. The control numbers that are relevant to grave units are AWM52 21/2/2 – AWM52 21/2/32.

These records concern Grave Units that were deployed in Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Japan, and also the Middle East Forces (21/2/21) which covered parts of Greece, Egypt, Libya and Italy.

When reading through these records you will find information about the daily activities of the unit. These are sometimes as mundane as reports on the weather or concrete deliveries and sometimes include more interesting information such as the discovery of an aircraft crash site (I found an account of a grub infestation!).

In addition to indicating when and where war grave units were, during and after the Second World War, some of the things typically found in the diaries are:

  • Lists of bodies found and identified, or not identified but still listed (for example – six bodies exhumed today)
  • Information about searches for and retrieval of bodies
  • Details on the amount of excavations and reburials that were conducted, generally on a daily or weekly basis.
  • Information on the unit’s composition and sometimes details on additional employees. Often it is also noted how many of these were employed on a given day – for example, in Papua New Guinea natives were employed to assist the Grave Units. In one of these diaries there is some discussion about the unit losing its workforce to crop growers who were offering higher pay rates
  • Details about the delivery of equipment, such as concrete or crosses.
  • Details on the photographing of graves
  • Grave maintenance and information on the condition of cemeteries
  • Reports on weather, troop morale, delays in receiving equipment, water shortages, ways of working (for example, receiving  information from locals about a plane crash in an approximate location and then going to the site to exhume and rebury the bodies)

Also in the AWM52 series are Grave Maintenance Units, which operated in Australia (control symbols 21/3/1 – 21/3/3). These were concerned with the maintenance of war cemeteries, rather than the building of them or burials.

129306 Rookwood, NSW. 1946-05-09. Corporal L. L. Mansfield, War Graves Maintenance Unit, lining up a cross with others at the cemetery. 129306

The references to these unit diaries can be found on RecordSearch. To find the listing of a specific diary use the advanced search for record items. Then type the series number AWM52 into the series number search box, and type 21/2* into the item control symbol search box. By visiting the Memorial’s Research Centre /research/ you can view the complete record.

While these records give a good indication of specific unit’s activities, for research on the graves and burial sites of individuals who served, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website is the best source for specific graves, memorials and cemeteries from the First and Second World Wars. The most useful agent for all other conflicts is the Office of Australian War Graves

100439 Berry airstrip, New Guinea. 1944-05-09. A section of the Bomana War Cemetery conducted by 1 Graves Registration Unit. Australians and members of the Papuan Infantry Battalion are buried here. 100439