How to find and use RAF Operation Record Books

Discover what your flying RAF ancestors did during the Second World War with this invaluable resource

RAF bomber crew c1940

The recent addition of Royal Air Force Squadron Operation Record Books (ORBs) covering the Second World War to subscription website TheGenealogist will be welcomed by many. Taken from The National Archives (TNA) series AIR27, when the whole collection is added to TheGenealogist it should be possible to trace a large part of a relative’s service if he flew with the RAF.

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Although the addition, with a unique transcription, is to be welcomed, it does come with a price. The records are only viewable to Premium subscribers. At time of writing, that was £44.95 for a four-month subscription or £119.95 for a year. An initial search is free, but the results provided are limited. To see if your relative is recorded in an ORB go to thegenealogist.co.uk and enter the name you are researching. Don’t add dates. When the search results come up, scroll down and filter on the left by ‘Military’ and then ‘Air Force Operation Record Books’.

RAF operation record book from AIR27
RAF Operation Record Book from 1943 for No 9 Squadron, based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire
The National Archives

If you don’t wish to subscribe, these records are currently free online while access to TNA is limited. However, on TNA’s website they are only searchable by squadron and date. To download an ORB, you’ll need to create an account and sign in. Be aware that there are restrictions on the number of files downloadable over a period.

Researchers of RAF history generally will be interested to know that the search facility offered to subscribers to TheGenealogist is more sophisticated and offers keyword searches. From the main search facility on the homepage of the website, you can use the ‘Keywords’ box to enter a place, for example Berlin, and search without entering any names. You can then filter to the ‘Air Force Operation Record Books’.

Background to ORBs

ORBs were introduced at the end of 1926, and were designed to bring a degree of uniformity to the way that the RAF kept its unit histories. They were based on the Army’s War Diaries, with the exception that the ORBs were also to be completed during peacetime. They comprise both ‘Summary of Events’ forms (Form 540) and ‘Detail of Work Carried Out’ forms (Form 541), and were completed monthly. Form 540 records the activities of the squadron in general terms throughout the month but usually notes officers joining or leaving, official visits, and special events such as the celebrations for Victory in Europe (VE) Day. Form 541 records details of operations on a daily basis including fighter patrols, reconnaissance patrols, and large and small bombing operations.

There are sometimes quite detailed reports of bombing raids from the perspective of each participating aircraft

Crews are named, combats with the enemy noted, casualties recorded (all too often as “Missing”), and there are sometimes quite detailed reports of bombing raids from the perspective of each participating aircraft. The survival rate of ORBs is pretty close to 100 per cent. The main exceptions are those that were lost during the 1940 retreat to Dunkirk, and those that were lost following the debacle in Singapore in 1942 and the withdrawal through what is now Indonesia.

Their accuracy is also very high because they were completed from official documents, including intelligence debriefings of fighter pilots or crews of larger aircraft after an operational sortie. However, errors do occur. I know of one man who swapped crews after the rota was compiled and died when the aircraft came down and isn’t on the ORB; also a senior officer who took part in operational flights, whose presence is omitted from the ORB but is recorded in a logbook.

But, on the whole, they’re very accurate, although there may be fewer details at times of high activity such as in fighter squadrons during the Battle of Britain. You should also bear in mind that – particularly in the case of officers – after a spell of active service or a promotion, RAF personnel often spent time on administrative, training or other work, and this part of their service may be missing.

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ORBs exist for all types of RAF units, from mobile radar stations, hygiene units, training schools, personnel reception centres and recruitment centres to group headquarters, wings and RAF stations. However, these have not been digitised and must be seen at TNA.