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

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide covers all the major series for operational records from 1914 up to 1945 and also post war operations. It also contains guidance for records associated with RAF operations.

For information on how to search for a service record of an officer, airman or airwoman in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) or the Royal Air Force (RAF) from 1914 go to the relevant specific research guide instead.

2. Essential information

Most of the operational records are not available to view online unless otherwise stated.

Prior to the formation of the RAF in April 1918, operational records which survive for the period from 1914 to 1918 also relate to the RFC or RNAS.

From 1919 to 1939, the RAF was involved in a number of campaigns in the Middle East and India. Records which relate to these campaigns fall in the department code AIR.

Second World War operational records are arranged by RAF organisation units, the highest being high command. These types of records fall in the department codes AIR, CAB or ADM.

Operations record books (ORBs) may provide extra information about servicemen or women where details in the service records are patchy. ORBs exist for different units within the RAF and are in the department code AIR.

3. First World War, 1914-1918

3.1 Operational records of in series AIR 1

Identify a full document reference in AIR 1 by using Discovery, our catalogue. Using the advanced search option, search using the squadron number and AIR 1 as your keywords (separating them with AND), and entering 1914-1918 in the date range fields. If files do exist, the catalogue should supply you with a document reference, for example, AIR 1/149/15/95/3.

The series AIR 1 contains operational records for brigades, wings, squadrons and miscellaneous units. AIR 1 may supply details of service formations and other sources for use in official histories and narratives of operations.

3.2 Other Air Ministry records

Additional information may be found in series AIR 2 which also includes papers of the Admiralty and the War Office relating to aviation and aeronautics. A few early squadron operations record books are in AIR 27 which can be searched online. Some airship log books are in series AIR 3.

3.3 Operational records in WO and ADM record series

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.

For more information on other ADM record series refer to the research guide Royal Navy operations in the Second World War.

4. Between the Wars, 1919-1939

Reports on operations are in series AIR 5 under Code 57/3 and in series AIR 9. Search for squadrons records in the operations record books (AIR 27) online.

Reports on operations in series AIR 1 for South Russia, Mesopotamia, Afghanistan and India are searchable by county in our catalogue.

Other records include:

Description Catalogue reference
Chief of Air Staff AIR 8
Air Publications AIR 10
Unregistered papers AIR 20
Overseas Commands AIR 23
Operations Records Books: Squadrons Search operations record books (AIR 27) online
Directorate of Intelligence and other intelligence papers AIR 40

Many of the series for the period of the Second World War contain records relating to the inter-war period. See point 5 below.

5. Second World War: commands and policy (1939-1945)

5.1 High command

Most records about high command are found in various 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.

5.2 Commands

From 1936 onwards, details on the planning and conduct of operations are in records of the commands.  Any search in them is likely to be difficult and prolonged.

They fall in the following series:

Description Catalogue 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

5.3 Expeditionary forces

Records of RAF staff detachments at military headquarters:

  • British air forces in France, 1939-1940 are in series AIR 35
  • Air component north west expeditionary force (Norway, 1940) are in series AIR 36
  • The British air element in the allied expeditionary force (North-West Europe, 1944-1945) is recorded in series AIR 37
  • Planning papers for the invasion of North Africa in 1942 (operation torch) are in series AIR 47

5.4 Air policy

The Air Ministry was responsible for all aspects of policy. The basic pattern for the direction and conduct of the war in the air was set in 1936 and remained unchanged throughout.

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

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

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

Daily summaries of operations carried out, weekly intelligence reports, losses sustained and allied and enemy activities as well as statistical material are in series AIR 22.

5.5 Bombing missions in Europe

Bomber command intelligence reports are found in AIR 40 and files AIR 24/214-325.

Brief details of all operations carried out by bomber command are recorded in the night and day reports in series AIR 14. They include information about operations over enemy territory, daily reports on interception and tactics and final reports on operations and night raids as well as some reconnaissance photographs.

Photographs documenting bombing missions in Europe are included in HO 191/113-121 and in series AIR 23. For more guidance on where to find photographs on bombing missions consult the research guide on photographs.

5.6 Narratives and histories

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

5.7 Fleet air arm and naval aviation

Fleet air arm squadron records are in series ADM 207. Search the supplementary material in the Air Ministry combat reports (AIR 50) online. Some operational records of the fleet air arm for the period April 1933 to September 1943 are preserved in the file AIR 27/2387. Search for this operations record book online.

Other records relating to the service during the war can be found under Code 90 in series ADM 1 and in series ADM 116 with additional information in series ADM 199. Locate operations records over the Atlantic in series AIR 15.

5.8 Army aviation and combined operations

Glider pilots’ regiments and army air corps (AAC) operational records are in AIR and WO records series.

Records of the AAC air observation post (AOP) squadrons are in the operations records books (AIR 27) which can be searched online. Operations record books of glider units including squadrons and training units are in series AIR 29.

Unit records for glider pilots’ regiments and AOPs from 1939 to 1945 may be found within the army war diaries series for their respective theatres of operations.

Records which relate to airborne operations are in series WO 233 and AIR 39.

6. Second World War: operations record books, combat reports and aircraft logs (1939-1945)

6.1 What are the operations record books?

Operations record books (ORBs) comprise of:

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

6.2 Why use them?

They are particularly important for detailed studies of operations. Because of the lack of information on service records, many people choose to consult the ORBs, particularly the Form 540 for references to RAF personnel. Squadron ORBs can be supplemented with information found in the Air Ministry combat reports (AIR 50) online.

6.3 What information do they contain?

ORBs are record of daily events kept by all units of the RAF. The accuracy and detail entered within each book depends on the compiler and unit. They sometimes include nominal rolls, lists of officers and details of promotions, transfers or awards.

ORBs for the following RAF units:

Description Catalogue references
 Commands AIR 24
 Groups AIR 25
 Wings AIR 26
 Squadrons Search the operations records books (AIR 27) online
 Stations AIR 28
 Miscellaneous units AIR 29
 Directorate of plans AIR 9/445-454

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

Operations record books for the South African Air Force are in series AIR 54. These contain details of various operational units serving in Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. A selection of aircrew flying log books is in series AIR 4.

7. Post war operations (1945-1982)

Many of the wartime record series continue into the post-war period. In addition to the operations records books the following sources are particularly useful:

Description Catalogue reference
Registered Files AIR 2
Department of the Chief of the Air Staff: Registered Files AIR 8
Air Historical Branch: Unregistered Papers AIR 20

Records of the British Air Forces of Occupation in Germany after 1945 are in series AIR 55. Unit records from the Army Air Corps from 1957 are in series WO 295.

8. Crashes and casualties (1939-1965)

Information on operational crashes may be recorded in the operations record books (AIR 27). The majority of these can be searched online for this period. Please note that it may only contain brief details such as ‘the aircraft failed to return’.

A few records of Courts of Enquiry into the loss of aircraft survive in The National Archives. Brief descriptions of some military (and civil) crashes are in AVIA 5. Identify a full document reference by using our catalogue. Search by aircraft or location of crash and AVIA 5, separating your search terms with AND.

We recommend you also check to see what records are held elsewhere. The Ministry of Defence and The Royal Air Force Museum may hold relevant information. For more details, please read the section records in other archives.

Search within AIR 81 for records of enquiries into missing personnel (1939-1945). For more guidance on how to search these records, read the section on RAF personnel missing in combat (within the Royal Air Force personnel guide).

9. Military airfields and aircraft production (1912-1981)

Records about airfields from 1912 onwards are in series AIR 2. Additional material from the period of the First World War are in AIR 1/452/15/312/26 Vol I to AIR 1/453/15/312/26 Vol VI.

Photographs, maps and descriptions of most RAF stations in use during the Second World War are in files AIR 10/4038AIR 10/4039, AIR 20/7585 and AIR 20/7586.

Locate further document references to photographs in AIR 10 and airfields in AIR 2 by using our catalogue.

A few detailed plans of airfields in the Grantham area are in series WORK 44. The construction of airfields by Royal Engineers is in series WO 227.

Aircraft production for all periods is in series AVIA 15.

10. Foreign air forces (1914-1947)

For the period before 1939 browse series AIR 1, AIR 2, AIR 5. For 1939 onwards see series AIR 2, AIR 20, AIR 40.

For the Second World War, details of missions undertaken by the United States Army Air Force operating from bases in the United Kingdom can be found in AIR 40/394-1133.

The reports of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey are in AIR 48. Some intercepted German cipher messages appear in HW 1 and HW 5.

11. Records in other archives

11.1 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

11.2 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. Further reading

Some or all of the publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives’ bookshop. Alternatively, search The National Archives’ library catalogue to see what is available to consult at Kew.

William Spencer, Air Force Records: Guide for Family Historians (2nd Ed), The National Archives, 2008

Official Histories of Air Operations (First World War)

Documents in The National Archives relating to the Second World War are described in J Cantwell, The Second World War: A Guide to Records in the Public Record Office, (HMSO 1972)

W Raleigh and HA Jones the War in the Air (6 vols) (HMSO, 1922-1935)

D Richards and HSt G Saunders The Royal Air Force 1939-1945 (3 vols) (HMSO, 1974-1975)

Guide reference: Military Records Information 70