How to look for records of... Royal Air Force operations

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1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide for advice on locating records at The National Archives of Royal Air Force operations that have taken place since its formation in 1918. The guide also covers airborne operations that took place prior to 1918, carried out by the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Our most recent operational records are around 30 years old.

For guidance on records of aircraft production, see our Research and development in the Royal Air Force guide. For advice on searching for photographs of Royal Air Force operations, installations and aircraft consult our Photographs guide and Roy Conyers Nesbit’s The RAF in Camera 1939-1945: Archive Photographs from the Public Record Office and the Ministry of Defence.

This is not a guide to personnel records, though some of the records covered do shed light on the service of RAF airmen and officers. If you are looking for the service records of specific individuals, you should consult our guides to Royal Flying Corps airmen or officers, Royal Naval Air Service ratings or officers, Royal Air Force personnel or Women’s Royal Air Force personnel.

2. The Royal Air Force, its predecessors, administration and structure

The Royal Air Force (RAF) was not created until the last year of the First World War. It was formed on April 1, 1918 with the merger of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), which had been the airborne operations branch of the British Army, and the Royal Naval Air Service, the air arm of the Royal Navy. In April 1918 the RFC and RNAS ceased to exist.

The RAF was administered by the Air Ministry from 1918 to 1964, and then by the Ministry of Defence. Prior to the formation of the RAF and the Air Ministry in 1918, military aviation had been haphazardly organised, falling under the jurisdiction of a series of short-lived bodies:

  • The Air Committee, from April 1912
  • The Joint War Air Committee, from February 1916
  • The Air Board, from May 1916

2.2 Command structure of the RAF

The command structure of the RAF has varied since its creation, sometimes changing and often becoming more complicated during prolonged conflict. The basic structure is based on the following hierarchy, in ascending order from the smallest unit:

  • Squadrons
  • Wings
  • Stations
  • Groups
  • Commands (Second World War)
  • Headquarters

As with all branches of the military, the chain of command extended up, ultimately, to the Cabinet and, at times of war, War Cabinets.

2.3 Command structure of the RFC

The RFC, a branch of the British Army, was structured along different lines to the RAF. The hierarchy, in ascending order, was as follows:

  • Squadrons
  • Wings
  • Brigades
  • Stations
  • Divisions

3. An introduction to the records and to locating them

The records of The National Archives are divided into departments, each known by a letter code. The records of the RAF are held in the AIR department. You can find related records in WO, ADM, DEFE and CAB.

Most of the records covered in this guide are not available online so to see them you will either need to visit us in Kew, where you can look at records for free, or order copies of documents to be sent to you for a fee. There are some records available to download online – details are in section 8.1.

3.1 Determining your search parameters

Almost all searches for records at The National Archives begin in our catalogue. Using the catalogue, you can search across our entire collection, across a whole department or within a specific record series.

To search our entire collection use our catalogue homepage from where you can use keywords to search for records, unrestricted by dates or departments. To search all AIR files, or the files of any other department, use the advanced search to specify the department code in the ‘references’ boxes. To search any of the record series listed in this guide, click on the series reference to be directed to the search page for that series – from there you can search by keywords and dates or browse through the whole series.

3.2 Choosing keywords

To search for records in any of these ways you will need to experiment with keywords. Your goal is to find keywords which appear in the catalogue description of the documents you seek. For RAF operations records, among the most fruitful sets of keywords are unit numbers, especially squadron numbers. When searching with unit numbers, avoid ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on). For example, search for 32 Squadron, not 32nd Squadron; for 4 Brigade, not 4th Brigade and so on.

For First World War records it may help to specify that you are interested only in squadron or other unit records of either the RAF, the RFC or the RNAS. You can try ‘Royal Air Force’, ‘Royal Flying Corps’ and ‘Royal Naval Air Service’ as search terms but it is more common for their abbreviations to be used. Try the following variations:

  • RAF or R.A.F
  • RFC or R.F.C.
  • RNAS or R.N.A.S.

To identify some squadron records search only with the number, omitting RAF, RFC and RNAS (and their variations) altogether.

Other keywords worth trying include:

  • ‘operation’
  • the name of an operation, such as ‘Operation Neptune’
  • ‘mission’
  • the location of operations, such as ‘Greece’, ‘Atlantic’ or ‘North Africa’

4. Tracing the life of a unit: Operations Record Books

For close-up detail of operations the records to start with are usually the Operations Record Books (ORBs). ORBs were kept at almost every level of the air force pyramid, from squadrons to commands. They are records of daily events kept by the units themselves and, for records of RAF squadrons as well as other units, likely to be the most revealing documents available. However, the accuracy and detail entered within each book depends on the compiler and unit.

They comprise:

  • ‘summary of events’ forms (Form 540)
  • ‘detail of work carried out’ forms (Form 541)
  • appendices where applicable (which may include operational orders, miscellaneous reports and telegraphed messages)

Click on the record series references in the table below to search for the ORBs of a unit by name or number:

Operations Record Books of… Years covered Record series
 Commands 1920-1986 AIR 24
 Groups 1914-1990 AIR 25
 Wings 1920-1991 AIR 26
 Squadrons 1911-1988 AIR 27
 Stations 1913-1987 AIR 28
 Miscellaneous units 1912-1989 AIR 29
 Directorate of plans 1939-1942 AIR 9/445-454

These series also include the ORBs of allied and dominion air forces serving under British command.

Image of an Operations Record Book for 242 Squadron, led by Douglas Bader, September 1940 (catalogue reference AIR 27/1471)

Operations Record Book for 242 Squadron, led by Douglas Bader, September 1940 (catalogue reference AIR 27/1471)

In the absence of a service record (RAF service records remain in the custody of the Ministry of Defence and are accessible only to the service personnel themselves or their next of kin), or perhaps to supplement one, ORBs can prove very revealing. They sometimes include nominal rolls, lists of officers and details of promotions, transfers or awards.

5. Crashes, casualties and combat reports

Some of the First World War, Second World War and interwar record series listed in subsequent sections of this guide contain details of crashes and casualties.

Use the advanced search of our catalogue to search the entire AIR department using keywords such as ‘crash’, ‘crash report’ or ‘accident report’ and a year or year range. Alternatively, and to target your search to specific record series, try the following:

 

A photograph of a crashed Beaufighter at Nicosia, October 1944. This photograph is from the Operations Record Book of the RAF station at Nicosia (catalogue reference AIR 28/588)

A crashed Beaufighter at Nicosia, October 1944. This photograph is from the Operations Record Book of the RAF station at Nicosia (catalogue reference AIR 28/588). You can order a high-resolution copy of this photograph from our Image Library.

You can also consult accident record cards, available in other archives (see section 12).

6. First World War, 1914-1918

See section 4 for advice on locating Operations Record Books, though there are far fewer for the First World War than for later conflicts.

6.1 Air Ministry records

The primary record series for First World War air operations is AIR 1. This record series contains an extremely wide variety of documents, not all of them relating to operations. Among the hundreds of subseries which make up AIR 1 are the papers of military officers; RFC squadron, wing, brigade and headquarters records; some of the early RAF squadron and wing records; papers of the Australian Flying Corps and the South African Aviation Corps.

Search AIR 1 using keywords which can include the squadron, brigade or wing number, the name of an officer, the base of operations (for example, Egypt, Salonica or Palestine) and entering 1914-1918 in the date range fields.

Additional Air Ministry operational records are in the following series – click on the reference to search the respective series:

  • AIR 2 – Air Ministry correspondence
  • AIR 3 – includes some airship log books
  • AIR 27 – operations records books for squadrons primarily after the First World War but there are a few early squadron records from 1911 to 1918

6.2 War Office and Admiralty records

As the British Army was administered by the War Office and the Royal Navy by the Admiralty, RFC and RNAS records are found among the records of those departments. War Office records at The National Archives are in WO and Admiralty records in ADM.

General reports for the RFC are in series WO 158.

RNAS operational records are in series ADM 137. Use the Admiralty index and digests in ADM 12 to identify potential references in ADM 137. Read our guide on How to find naval correspondence using the ADM 12 indexes and digests for more information.

7. Between the Wars, 1919-1939

From 1919 to 1939 the RAF was involved in a number of campaigns in the Middle East and India. See section 4 for advice on locating Operations Record Books, vital documents when piecing together the story of a mission or of larger operations.

Search among the following records for further details of operations:

  • Reports on operations in AIR 1 – search by location
  • Reports on operations in AIR 5 – search using the word ‘operations’ and a geographical location, such as Iraq, Mesopotamia or Nuba Mountains
  • Chief of Air Staff records in AIR 8
  • Directorate of Operations and Intelligence and Directorate of Plans records in AIR 9
  • Air Publications in AIR 10
  • Unregistered papers in AIR 20
  • Overseas Commands in AIR 23
  • Squadron record books in AIR 27
  • Directorate of Intelligence and other intelligence papers in AIR 40

For more series covering this period see the Second World War section below – many of the record series covering the war include interwar records.

8. Second World War, 1939-1945

For an overview of Second World War operations try the periodical returns and summaries in AIR 22. They include weekly intelligence reports, losses sustained and allied and enemy activities as well as statistical material.

See section 4 for advice on locating Operations Record Books, vital documents when piecing together the story of a mission or of larger operations.

8.1 Squadron records and combat reports

These records are available online for the Second World War.

Go to our research guides on Royal Air Force operations record books 1939-1945 and Royal Air Force combat reports 1939-1945 to search for records by squadron number and download records from our website.

8.2 Bombing missions in Europe

These are primarily the records of Bomber Command.

The following are particularly useful:

  • intelligence reports in AIR 40 and files AIR 24/214 to 325
  • night and day reports in series AIR 14 – these include details of all operations carried out by Bomber Command and feature some reconnaissance photographs
  • photographs documenting bombing missions in Europe in HO 191/113-121 and in series AIR 23

8.3 Fleet Air Arm and naval aviation

Consult the following:

Other Fleet Air Arm records are held in ADM series (Admiralty records). Search in:

  • ADM 1 – try searching for “Code 90”
  • ADM 116 – search for ‘Fleet Air Arm’
  • ADM 199 – search for ‘Fleet Air Arm’ or ‘Naval Air Squadrons’

8.4 Expeditionary forces

There are whole record series for the records of the air components of British expeditionary forces. They are:

  • British air forces in France, 1939-1940 are in AIR 35
  • Air component North West Expeditionary Force (Norway, 1940) in AIR 36
  • The British air element in the Allied Expeditionary Force (North-West Europe, 1944-1945) in AIR 37
  • Planning papers for the invasion of North Africa in 1942 (Operation Torch) are in series AIR 47

8.5 Commands

The records of RAF commands contain a wide variety of information and extend beyond operational matters. They include details on the planning and conduct of operations, orders and directives, reports of various kinds, orders of battle, diagrams and, in some cases, particularly for Bomber Command, photographs.

Click on the series references below to search the series by keyword or to browse the series. As descriptions for each file are short you may find you will need to browse rather than search to uncover anything.

Records of… Series reference
 Balloon Command AIR 13
 Bomber Command AIR 14
 Coastal Command AIR 15
 Fighter Command AIR 16
 Maintenance Command AIR 17
 Overseas commands AIR 23
 Training Command AIR 32
 Ferry and transport commands AIR 38
 Army co-operation command AIR 39

8.6 The Army Air Corps and British Army airborne operations

The Army Air Corps (AAC) is the combat aviation arm of the British Army. It was formed in 1942. The AAC included the Glider Pilot Regiment.

Search for records in the following:

8.7 Air policy and planning

Files relating to policy, including some concerned with operations are in the :

Description Catalogue reference
 Correspondence AIR 2
 Chief of air staff AIR 8
 Directorate of plans AIR 9
 Private office papers AIR 19
 Unregistered papers AIR 20
 Directorate of intelligence and other intelligence papers AIR 40

The combined operational planning committee was responsible for the plans for strategic daylight operations by British and United States bomber and fighter forces. Records of the combined operational planning committee, from June 1943 to June 1945 are in AIR 42.

As with all branches of the military, the chain of command extended up to the Cabinet and, at times of war, the War Cabinet records.

This includes:

  • combined chiefs of staff committee and sub-committees in series CAB 88
  • daily situation reports for the war Cabinet and the daily summaries of information prepared in the central war room in series CAB 100
  • cabinet telegrams to overseas commands in war Cabinet in series CAB 105
  • details about personal intervention of the Prime Minister of the day in operational matters in series CAB 120 and series PREM 3

You can search memoranda about the high command in series CAB 65-68, in our catalogue. Some records of the Cabinet committees concerned with defence in series CAB 69, CAB 83 and CAB 85 can be browsed on digital microfilm. Other related records are in series CAB 70 and CAB 78.

8.8 Narratives and histories

Narratives written by members of the branch during and after the war are in series AIR 41. Material omitted in the published versions may be found in series CAB 101.

9. Post war operations, 1945-1989

See section 4 for advice on locating Operations Record Books, vital documents when piecing together the story of a mission or of larger operations.

A photo of a helicopter hovering over a submarine with a plane in the background from the Operations Record Book of 42 Squadron, taken during the Falklands Conflict, 1982 (catalogue reference AIR 27/3575/38)

A photo from the Operations Record Book of 42 Squadron, taken during the Falklands Conflict, 1982 (catalogue reference AIR 27/3575/38). You can order a high-resolution copy of this photograph from our Image Library.

The following sources may also prove useful:

  • Records of the British Air Forces of Occupation in Germany after 1945 and the British element of the Air Division Allied Commission in Austria are in series AIR 55
  • War diaries and operations record books of the Army Air Corps from 1957 to 1977 are in series WO 295
  • Air Ministry registered files in AIR 2 cover operations up until the late 1980s
  • Department of the Chief of the Air Staff records in AIR 8 include details of operations as recent as 1989
  • Air Historical Branch: Unregistered Papers in AIR 20

10. Other air forces, 1914-1947

There are some records both of the air forces of British allies and more so of British colonial and dominion air forces at The National Archives. These include:

  • South African Aviation Corps
  • Australian Flying Corps
  • Royal Australian Air Force
  • Royal New Zealand Air Force
  • Royal Canadian Air Force
  • United States Army Air Force

To locate records, start by trying a search in our catalogue using the names of any of the above air forces. For the period before 1939 target series AIR 1, AIR 2 and AIR 5. For 1939 onwards see, in particular, series AIR 2, AIR 20 and AIR 40.

There are more records in other record series. They include:

  • Operations record books for the South African Air Force in AIR 54 – these contain details of various operational units serving in Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
  • A selection of South African Air Force aircrew flying log books in AIR 4.
  • Second World War missions undertaken by the United States Army Air Force operating from bases in the United Kingdom in AIR 40/394-1133.
  • Reports of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey in AIR 48. Some intercepted German cipher messages appear in HW 1 and HW 5.

11. RAF stations and airfields

Our records of military airfields include maps, photographs and text descriptions. Some records cover airfield construction, others present a snapshot of stations at a moment in time. You can search our catalogue for document references using ‘airfield’, ‘station’ or the name of a specific airfield or station as your keywords. To target your search more precisely, try searches in:

  • AIR 2 (for 1912 to 1991)
  • AIR 10 (for 1913 to 1987)
  • WO 227 (1939-1985) – covers the construction of airfields by Royal Engineers
  • WORK 44. for detailed plans of RAF Spittlegate, Grantham, the Central Flying School, Upavon, and drawings of aircraft sheds and workshops

There is additional material for the two world wars:

11.1 First World War

There are six volumes of quarterly surveys, all from 1918, of RAF establishments around the UK. They are in AIR 1/452/15/312/26.

A map showing Houton Bay Seaplane Station, September 1918 (catalogue reference AIR 1/452/15/312/26Volume1)

Houton Bay Seaplane Station, September 1918 (catalogue reference AIR 1/452/15/312/26Volume1). You can buy a high-resolution copy of this image from our Image Library.

11.2 Second World War

12. Records in other archives

12.1 Air Historical Branch (Ministry of Defence)

Contact the Ministry of Defence’s Air Historical Branch for:

  • Accident Record Cards (Air Ministry Form 1180) which recorded non-operational crashes dating mostly from 1929 onwards
  • casualty files
  • other aircraft records

12.2 Royal Air Force Museum

The Royal Air Force Museum holds:

  • aircrew logbooks
  • Air Ministry bulletins and air publications (AP)
  • Aircraft Movement Cards (Air Ministry Form 78)
  • Accident Record Cards (Air Ministry Form 1180) – microfilm copies only
  • other aircraft records

12.3 Fleet Air Arm Museum

The records held at the Fleet Air Arm Museum’s Archive & Research Centre include:

  • photographs
  • personnel records (but not official service records)

13. Further reading

All of the publications below are available at The National Archives’ library in Kew. Some of these publications may be available to buy from The National Archives’ bookshop.

J D Cantwell, The Second World War: A Guide to Documents in the Public Record Office, (HMSO, 1972) (describes documents held at The National Archives, previously known as the Public Record Office)

Roy Conyers Nesbit, The RAF in Camera 1939-1945: Archive Photographs from the Public Record Office and the Ministry of Defence (Public Record Office, 1997)

The Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence published a number of Histories of the Great War Based on Official Documents (various publishers but mostly HMSO, 1921-1987)

W Raleigh and H A Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force (6 vols) (HMSO, 1922-1935)

Denis Richards and Hilary Aidan St George Saunders, The Royal Air Force at War, 1939-1945 (3 vols) (HMSO, 1993)

William Spencer, Air Force Records: A Guide for Family Historians (2nd Ed), The National Archives, 2008 (includes a chapter on operations records)

 

Guide reference: Military Records Information 70
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