How to look for records of... Prisoners of war in British hands

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide will help you find information about prisoners of war captured by the British.

2. Essential information

Few lists survive of prisoners of war in British hands and there is little documentation which provides biographical information.

The National Archives mainly holds files on

  • general administrative and policy matters
  • the implementation of conventions and agreements

3. How do I find records?

It may be best to start by contacting another organisation, particularly if you are interested in the Second World War period (see section 9 for details).

To find records held by The National Archives searching Discovery, our catalogue, using keywords and select the relevant filter.

It is not possible to look up a person’s name, as the records have not been catalogued by name.

Enter ‘prisoner of war’ plus words relevant to your research area. For example:

  • nationality
  • organisation or government body (such as Control Office or Control Commission)
  • activity (such as resettlement)
  • place or region (such as Schleswig-Holstein)
  • alternative terms (such as displaced person or PoW)

Then filter by date and/or by department to get the most relevant results. Departments responsible for PoWs include Admiralty (ADM), Foreign Office (FO), Home Office (HO) and War Office (WO).

A selection of prisoner of war records are available online via Findmypast (£) however these records are predominantly for British prisoners of war.

4. Ex-PoWs and displaced persons after 1945

The National Archives holds administrative records relating to detainees, displaced persons (DPs) or former forced labourers. It does not hold nominal rolls of detainees, displaced persons (DPs), ex-POWs, former forced labourers, or comprehensive lists of those released or tried.

The Control Commission for Germany: British Element assumed full responsibility for the administration of the British occupied zone from 1945. Their files are in the records of the Foreign Office (FO).

To identify relevant records, use the printed volumes (eds) Birke, Booms and Merker Control Commission for Germany: British Element, Inventory and the associated index to general Foreign Office Correspondence. Documents are listed under ‘Displaced persons’ and ‘Prisoner of War’.

These printed volumes are available to view in the reading rooms at The National Archives, Kew.

5. Second World War 1939-1945

The National Archives holds very few lists of enemy PoWs and it can be very difficult to trace a PoW.

Other organisations may be better sources of information – see section 9 for details.

However, The National Archives holds some records relating to enemy PoWs.

You can find:

  • incomplete sets of interrogation reports for enemy prisoners (mostly German) held by the British – search for the term ‘interrogation report’ within WO 208
  • Control Commission interrogation reports in FO 1050/169
  • interrogation reports for enemy airmen in AIR 40/2394 and captured naval survivors in ADM 186/806-809
  • lists of PoW camps and documentation on the employment of prisoners, principally Italian, in WO 199/404-409 (individuals tend not to be named)
  • inspection reports on PoW camps in FO 916
  • files on individual POW camps in the United Kingdom in FO 939
  • lists of enemy PoWs in colonial territories in CO 968/35/1-5
  • correspondence with US authorities on general PoW policy in CAB 122
  • PoW-related Prime Minister’s Office papers in PREM 3
  • reports on the health of POWs and the work of PoW hospitals in WO 222
  • Prisoner of War Information Bureau (PWIB) records in WO 307, and its overseas sub-bureaux in CO 323, FO 916 and WO 32
  • war diaries of a few hospitals, depots and camps in WO 177/1833-1855 – also check British Army Second World War diaries
  • files on the internment of PoWs in HO 215
  • correspondence on the treatment of interned enemy aliens in HO 213/494-498

6. First World War 1914-1918

The National Archives hold no lists of First World War enemy PoWs. It may be best to contact another organisation (see section 9).

Lists of names of enemy prisoners and internees were routinely forwarded to the Prisoners of War Information Bureau (PWIB) in London, which in turn informed the International Red Cross Headquarters in Geneva. Unfortunately, bombing in 1940 largely destroyed the lists and other documentation compiled by the Bureau.

However, you can find some related records at The National Archives, including:

  • two specimen lists of army, naval and civilian German PoWs in WO 900/45-46: these give the regiment, ship and usually the home address, place of internment, remarks regarding health, and date of transfer to internment in a neutral country
  • a summary of the work and history of the Prisoner of War Information Bureau in WO 162/341
  • occasional mentions of enemy PoWs by name within the card index of the General Political Correspondence of the Foreign Office: if you find an entry you can often convert it into an FO 383 reference
  • files on the employment of enemy PoWs in Britain in NATS 1/567-571
  • correspondence on enemy merchant seamen taken prisoner in MT 9 and MT 23

7. Boer War (1899-1902)

You can find:

  • registers of Boer war prisoners, recorded in prisoner number order and arranged by area of confinement (for example, Natal, Transvaal), in WO 108. Please note, some of these are available on Findmypast (£).
  • correspondence on their confinement in CO 537
  • correspondence on Dutch, German and French prisoners in FO 2/824-826

8. Prisoners of war up to 1855

There is no general index to prisoners, so searching for individuals may be hard.

Search our catalogue within ADM 97, ADM 105 and ADM 103 and refine by date.

You can find:

    • lists of prisoners, usually arranged by nationality or by place of confinement or parole, in ADM 103: these often include circumstances of their capture and eventual disposal. Please note, some of these are available on Findmypast (£).
    • prisoners’ petitions in ADM 97
    • lists of PoW exchanges, for example WO 40/2 and WO 1/905-16
    • circumstances of capture and incarceration  in WO 1 and WO 4

An alphabetical list of American prisoners compiled by the University of Virginia is available at The National Archives and supplements a general register of American prisoners (1813) in ADM 6/417. Please note, ADM 6/417 is available on Findmypast (£).

Browse lists of enemy prisoners on parole in Britain in HO 28. This is not indexed.

9. Records at other organisations

Visit the International Red Cross website for information on requesting access to their records of PoWs and civilian internees in both World Wars.

Visit the Imperial War Museum website for information on accessing photographs of PoWs in both World Wars.

Contact the International Tracing Service (ITS) at Bad Arolsen if you are searching for people in concentration camps.

Contact Deutsche Dienstelle (for German PoWs) and Ministero della Difesa (for Italian PoWs).

Contact a relevant local archive in the UK.

You may also find it useful to contact a local history group.

10. Further reading

Birke, Booms and Merker (eds) Control Commission for Germany: British Element, Inventory (available in the reading rooms at The National Archives in Kew)

Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list.

The books are all available in The National Archives’ reference library. You may also be able to find them in a local library. You can buy from a wide range of history titles in our bookshop.

Guide reference: Military Records Information 29