What are War Diaries?

A key source for anybody whose ancestor served in the British Army in either of the world wars is the War Diaries. These were compiled by units and described their daily experiences. Sometimes there is just a terse comment that there “was nothing to report” but often, when the unit was in action, there are detailed accounts of what happened day by day – sometimes even hour by hour.

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The War Diaries system was introduced in 1908, and the Army still keeps them today. They were designed to be used by historians and strategists to learn lessons for future wars, and offer unique insight into life in the field.

What can you learn from War Diaries?

The diaries were written either by the commanding officer or by the battalion adjutant and, inevitably, reflect their interests and concerns. Some are very brief, particular for units stationed in the British Isles, where very little happened. However, sometimes there are fascinating snippets. For example, in March 1942 the War Diary for the 5th Hampshire Regiment records the capture of an empty German dinghy on Margate Beach, containing the kit for a spy.

But for units involved in the theatres overseas you may find detailed descriptions of battles, terse comments when things go wrong, and occasionally incidents that amused the writer.

Precious moments of rest were frequently recorded as well. During a gap in the Battle for Tunisia, the War Diary for the 5th Royal Horse Artillery for March 1943 reveals, “Most men were able to get a very welcome bathe in the sea after several weeks of short water and rations.”

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In my experience, the most informative War Diaries tend to be for the tank regiments, but regardless which unit your forebear served with these records will offer priceless information.

It is unlikely that your relation will be mentioned in a War Diary, unless they were an officer, but it may reveal what their unit did day by day covering their time in training as well as their experiences on the battlefield. In the closing days of the Second World War, gunners from the 5th Royal Horse Artillery knocked out a troublesome German 88 mm gun near Rheine “between having their main course and the pudding”.

If your forebear was killed in action or in an accident, you can often find the circumstances of their death, even if they are not named.

Frustratingly, however, War Diaries can occasionally be nothing more than a list of visits to the unit by senior officers, or the briefest summary of the work that was undertaken each month.

War Diaries from the Second World War look similar to the ones from the First World War, but there are some differences. The obvious one is that they are often typewritten, so you don’t need to worry about deciphering handwriting.

More importantly, unlike in the First World War, they were also kept by units that were stationed at home.

Many diaries, particularly for those units that went overseas, contain appendices. At first glance they look very technical, and you might think that you can safely ignore them. But don’t. They can provide extra details about what your ancestor might have experienced. Unit orders, in particular, offer an insight into how the men were organised. They often describe in detail moves to new barracks or into action, listing the kit to be carried in addition to the arrangements for the mobile kitchens.

WW2 war diaries: Where to find them

War Diaries are held by The National Archives at Kew (TNA), so search its online catalogue Discovery. The diaries are arranged by theatre of operations, with a separate series of records for each area. Diaries for units that took part in the liberation of North-West Europe in 1945, for example, are in the War Office series WO 171, and Home Forces War Diaries are in WO 166. However, it’s important to note that there are some gaps in TNA’s holdings, particularly for the Royal Artillery. Many regimental museums also hold sets of War Diaries.

Traditionally, War Diaries have not been available digitally, but Ancestry has just added the collection ‘UK, World War II War Diaries, 1939–1946’. The initial release only includes records from WO 169 for the period covering the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1942 but more will added in time.

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Finally, transcriptions for some units have been made available online by museums or researchers, so it’s always worth searching the web.

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