As the Second World War passes from living memory, what was once a question of talking to a relative about their wartime service has now become a historical investigation. However, family historians will be delighted to know that records for all three services in the Second World War survive in their entirety.
The British Expeditionary Force crossed into France on the outbreak of war in September 1939. For months they waited in France but, when Germany invaded France, Belgium and Holland in 1940, they were rapidly hustled back to Britain in the emergency evacuation of Dunkirk.
Having lost most of their heavy equipment, the army had to be reconstructed, but in North and East Africa they fought and defeated the Italians, and wrestled with Rommel and his Afrika Corps. In the Far East they suffered terrible defeats against the Japanese.
From the Battle of El Alamein in 1942 through the invasion of Italy, D-Day, the fall of Germany and the reconquest of Burma, an army that consisted mainly of conscripts – most with no military experience before they were called up – fought and defeated professional and dedicated enemies. Over three million men served in the British Army during the Second World War, the largest of the armed forces.
Records of individuals are still closed but can be obtained by their next of kin, while records of the units in which they served are publicly available at The National Archives (TNA). Virtually every British officer or soldier served in either a Regiment (ie Coldstream Guards or Wiltshire Regiment), the fighting troops, or in a Corps (such as the Royal Artillery, or Corps of Signals), which were support troops – men frequently involved in fighting themselves. In a Regiment, soldiers would normally serve in a particular battalion; in a Corps they were usually part of a company or were attached to another unit. To start your search, you’ll need your forebear’s service record.
Obtaining a record
Army service records are held in Glasgow.
They’re indexed by Service Number, Rank, Full Name and Date of Birth – you’ll need to provide as much of this information as possible, together with your relative’s Regiment or Corps if it is known, to help locate service records.
Records of deceased ex-servicemen/women will generally only be released to, or with the consent of, the official next of kin. You’ll need to provide a Certificate of Kinship form and a Subject Access Request (SAR) form and pay a £30 fee. Obtaining records may take some time. Full instructions are available here.
Army service records
Surviving records generally comprise forms, or cards summarising general correspondence.
These contain some genealogical information (date of birth, details of spouse, next of kin) but mostly deal with postings, service abroad, injuries or wounds, and personal conduct.
A variety of forms or cards may be sent to you including enlistment documents (Army Form B284), which may include brief records of service, Regimental Conduct Sheets (recording disciplinary offences like drunkenness or overstaying leave), Medical History and Dental Treatment sheets.
Of greatest use in tracing service is the Service and Casualty Form (Army Form B103). This gives basic personal information, then details promotions (acting temporary, local or substantive), appointments, transfers, postings, attachments, forfeiture of pay, wounds, accidents, admission to and discharge from hospital, Casualty Clearing Stations and so on. Date of disembarkation and embarkation from a theatre of war (including furlough) are also included. The whole basic structure of the soldier’s career is here!
There may also be an Army Form B102, which contains similar information to the B103, but usually in more condensed form. There may also be Discharge Papers, which provide some details of where they served, along with a testimonial (brief written note by an officer saying how they conducted themselves).
Don’t expect to find anything about what the unit your relative served in was actually doing – for this sort of detail you’ll need to consult their War Diary. The service record should provide enough information to help you trace the relevant diary(ies).
All Army units kept a war diary, recording their daily activities, invaluable for finding records of movements, training and fighting a relative took part in. Diaries are at TNA, held by ‘theatre’. If a unit served in France in 1939, then in Britain after Dunkirk, later in North Africa and in France after D-Day, you’ll have to search several theatres to get the whole history. Diaries may include maps, orders, intelligence, lists of men attached from other units or away on detachment and notes on operations.
Unlike First World War war diaries, some of which are online, all those for the Second World War still have to be viewed as original documents at TNA. By diligently following the diaries, it’s possible to build a good picture of your relative’s career.
To help you search for a particular diary there’s a list of war theatres in TNA’s online research guide entitled ‘Second World War: British Army Operations 1939-1945’ here. Service records and war diaries provide a firm foundation for your research and suggest avenues to investigate your Second World War Army ancestors further. The discoveries, and hard work, have only just begun!
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has records of everyone killed in the service of their country.
Their ‘Debt of Honour Register’ is a valuable resource for those researching a relative either killed, or who died, in the Services since 1914.
Using the search engine it is possible to trace the grave or memorial to an individual, and possibly some information about their background, even if you don’t know that much about them to start with. The website, found at www.cwgc.org, covers both World Wars as well as actions post-1945 and between the wars.
Service Records for the main Commonwealth countries (Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand) are held by their respective Armed Forces or Records Offices.
Details of New Zealand records are at www.nzdf.mil.nz/personnel-records/nzdf-archives/default.html.
Canadian Records are in the National Library and Archives in Ottawa. Requests need to be in writing and be signed, but can be faxed to the archives at ATIP and Personnel Records Division, Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington Street, Ottawa, ON K1A, ON4, Canada (Fax: 001 613 995 6274). More information on the records, proofs of relationship and death, and how to apply for copies is available at www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/genealogy/022-909.007-e.html.
A good place to start for Australian records is at www.ww2roll.gov.au, which gives very basic details of over one million Australian servicemen and women. To find out more about how to find actual service records try www.naa.gov.au/collection/explore/defence/service-records/index.aspx.
South African service records are held at the Department of Defence, Documentation Centre, Private Bag X289, Pretoria 0001, Republic of South Africa.
Colonial Servicemen: Many men and women from the smaller colonies enlisted to fight in the British armed forces, and their records should be available through the record offices of the three armed forces in Britain.
The West Indies formed the Caribbean Regiment, which served in the Mediterranean theatre later in the war – their war diaries are in TNA.
Indian Service Records: The Indian government had its own armed forces. Records for British officers and warrant officers are held in the collections of the India Office Records in the British Library, in their L/MIL series. The India Army List also gives details of their service. The vast majority of servicemen were, of course, Indian (Pakistan was only formed after the war). Their service records seem to have stayed in India after independence, but political considerations meant that for many years they have been neglected and their exact whereabouts are unknown.
Women in the army
Hundreds of thousands of women served during the Second World Wars. Conscription was introduced for women in 1941.
Territorial Service (ATS)
In the army, women generally served in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) as clerks, drivers and mechanics, in radar stations and decoding units and operated anti-aircraft guns. In June 1943, there were 210,308 officers and women in the ATS.
Their service records are in the same Glasgow MOD office as their male counterparts. Most ATS members served on attachment to other units, so you’ll need to find the War Diaries from the units they served with, though there are some War Diaries specific to ATS units throughout the main series. You can search on TNA’s catalogue using ‘Auxiliary Territorial Service’ as the key search term.
The Women’s Royal Army Corps Museum collection has passed to the National Army Museum.
First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY)
A small volunteer organisation formed before the First World War, the FANY formed the basis of the first ATS Motor Driver Companies. Other FANY were attached to the Polish Army. Many FANY joined Special Operations Executive (or were commissioned into FANY as cover) serving as cipher clerks, radio operators and administrative assistants. Many of Special Operations Executives’ women agents were FANY.
Records of FANY members are at:
FANY (PRVC), TA Centre, 95 Horseferry Road, London, SW1P 2DX.
There may be a charge for finding records.
Nurses and the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD)
The army nursing service was provided by Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service. Service records are held by the MOD in Glasgow. A few hospital War Diaries are available at TNA. A specific medal awarded to military nurses is the Royal Red Cross. There are Registers for awards covering the Second World War in WO 145/2 and WO 145/3. Medal citations are in WO 373.The VAD was part of the Red Cross, running hospitals and convalescent homes as well as helping staff military hospitals, acting as support staff to nurses, administrators, ambulance drivers and cooks.
VAD service records are held by the Red Cross in the form of record cards, information on which may include dates of service, the nature of duties performed, the detachment belonged to, the institutions and places where they served and any honours awarded.
You’ll need to write to: British Red Cross, Museum and Archives department, 44 Moorfields, London EC2Y 9AL.
Provide as much information about the individual as possible. In particular it’s useful to include: any known addresses, middle names, maiden or married names, date of marriage, any known service details and date of birth. Though no formal charge is made for information, a donation would be polite.