More than 1.25 million men and women served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Most famous, perhaps, for the epic defence of the Battle of Britain and Bomber Command’s long assault on Germany, units of the RAF fought in all theatres of the war.
They fought the Japanese in the Far East, the Italians in East and North Africa and even sent squadrons to North Russia to protect Murmansk. Coastal Command aircraft patrolled shipping lanes from the first to last day of the war.
The aircraft and aircrew were supported by a huge network of training units, repair depots, hospitals, transport pools and their own soldiers – the RAF Regiment.
Records survive for most units – there are a few gaps – and some are now online. Full service records can be obtained by next of kin, or in reduced form by others.
Other vital records are now online, too. In fact, it’s never been easier to research RAF personnel from the Second World War.
Obtaining service records
Service records are the key to finding out what your ancestor did.
To obtain a record, you’ll need either the serviceman’s written authority (if still alive) or be able to prove that you (or the person giving you authority) are their next of kin, and that the person is deceased.
You can now order RAF service records online from the Ministry of Defence, although there are substantial delays in processing orders.
The application forms require you to provide as much information as you can about your relative, including full name, date and place of birth and a rough idea of his period of service. Most important of all, if you have his service number, give that first – service numbers in the RAF have always been unique.
You may need to provide proof you’re next of kin. A fee (currently £30 but free to the veteran or spouse) is chargeable. Please allow some time before you receive a copy.
Service Records for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and RAF nurses are also held by the Ministry of Defence and you apply for them as you would for other RAF personnel.
Interpreting service records
Service Records should give you details of your relative’s postings, promotions, disciplinary record and medical condition throughout their career.
RAF officers and ordinary servicemen and women moved around a lot, frequently serving, throughout their career in RAF squadrons, RAF stations and other support units.
The service record will be full of acronyms and abbreviations that can be difficult to decipher. There are some basics – Sqn or Sqdn is Squadron, T often stands for Training or Technical, S frequently stands for School – so TTS is Technical Training School.
There are several websites that provide details of what acronyms stand for – search the internet for RAF Acronyms and several should appear. Make a chronological list of their postings (the service record isn’t always chronological) and you can then start to find records of the units that they served with.
Finding unit records
Squadron Records (Operation Record Books or ORBs) for the Second World War are available online via the The National Archives’ (TNA) website. They are also in the process of being added to TheGenealogist.
These can be used to create a list of all the flying operations that RAF aircrew completed as aircrew are usually named. They’re also an excellent source for building a picture of squadron operations.
The Squadron ORBs can be downloaded from The National Archives’ website, although they’re not searchable. They are free to download during the coronavirus lockdown.
Records for RAF Stations and the many other support units (the RAF Regiment, training schools, wireless stations, headquarters, transport units etc) aren’t online so you’ll have to visit TNA to see them. Station records are in the AIR 28 series and other miscellaneous unit records are in AIR 29 series.
You can search for them using TNA’s Discovery system – stations are usually locatable by name but miscellaneous units can be harder to find. The Advanced Search facility is useful for this but you may have to search by both the correct name and the acronym to find the ORB. These ORBs will give a day-to-day picture of events.
Searching for other records
Combat Reports compiled after fighting an enemy aircraft are also available online by clicking here. They’re searchable by Squadron but also by the name of the person making the report – usually the pilot but sometimes the gunner who engaged the enemy.
Reports usually give the time and place of the action, types of aircraft involved, casualties and a narrative in which pilot or gunner would describe how many rounds he used, what hits he achieved and if the aircraft was destroyed or damaged.
Over 50,000 Bomber Command aircrew, as well as many other pilots and aircrew, were killed over enemy territory. Records of the RAF Casualty Branch, which contain information on enquiries and investigations carried out are due to be released in tranches, starting with enquiries from 1939, into the AIR 81 series at TNA.
In the meantime, they can also be requested via the Ministry of Defence website.
Reading around the subject
There are countless books and websites devoted to the RAF, to specific squadrons and stations, and to battles like the Battle of Britain and Battle of Berlin.
The Action Stations series of books give basic histories of RAF stations. The Fighter Command War Diaries: The Operational History of Fighter Command (John Foreman, Air Research Publications, 1996-2002) and The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everit (Viking 1985) cover the two main fighting commands.
There are very many excellent books covering all aspects of the RAF during the war – your local library can help you find them.