Britain entered the Second World War on 3 September 1939, 80 years ago this month.
By the end of the war in 1945, 2.9 million men had served in the British army. For many of us, this includes someone in our family.
The surviving records can help you uncover the story of your ancestor’s service in the war and how they helped defeat Nazi Germany.
Although records survive pretty much intact, very few are available online.
This is mainly because of data protection and other privacy considerations, because some veterans are still alive.
This makes the opening of large blocks of records impossible, in case details of living people are released accidentally.
However, these four record sets are a rich resource for researching the Second World War, although they’re difficult to access and you may need to visit the archives in person.
1. Service records
FRANCE – JULY 16: World War II. Presentation of medals to British officers by Marshal Montgomery. Normandy, on July 16, 1944. (Photo by Roger Viollet via Getty Images)
A service record is the bedrock of your research into a relative’s experiences during the Second World War.
They are held by the Ministry of Defence in Glasgow and can be obtained with the subject’s permission if still alive, or by next-of-kin or other interested researchers. There’s a fee of £30 to receive them, unless the veteran is still alive and can sign a request form for their own record and receive it free.
Nothing else will give you the level of detail that a full record will provide. You may learn about wounds you weren’t aware of, disciplinary proceedings, places you never knew they served, and medals you didn’t know they had. Using the service record as a basis, you can discover other records that will show you what they (or at least their unit) were doing on a daily basis.
2. War diaries
Obtainable by visiting The National Archives at Kew or from the relevant regimental museum, war diaries will tell you what your relative’s unit(s) were doing on a daily basis.
Although most of the time this meant routine training (a soldier’s life was frequently busy but boring), when in action you can see the fighting develop on an hour-by-hour basis and often find a narrative that tells the story as seen by someone who took part.
3. Local newspapers
Although there was censorship (most of it voluntary) of the national press during the war, there was much less of local papers, who frequently reported on local heroes experiences in the war. If you know that your relative took part in a major event such as D-Day, it’s also worth looking on major anniversaries after the war when veterans seem to have been more inclined to talk.
The British Newspaper Archive has a large collection of digitised local newspapers, also available to Findmypast Pro subscribers. Local libraries usually hold old newspapers too, often on microfilm
4. Memories and reminiscences
Former soldiers’ personal recollections can be invaluable for capturing what a relative’s comrades were thinking, and for finding eyewitness descriptions of major events and humorous incidents.
The Imperial War Museum employed a team of interviewers who spoke to thousands of veterans in the 1960s and 1970s, while regimental museums hold autobiographical accounts and memoirs.
Finally 15 years ago the BBC created a huge online archive of reminiscences.