How to look for Royal Air Force personnel

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1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide for advice on how to find records of airmen and officers of the Royal Air Force (RAF). These are predominantly records of service prior to 1939.

RAF service records created since the beginning of the Second World War remain in the custody of the Ministry of Defence and are accessible only to the service personnel themselves or their next of kin. Consult GOV.UK to find out more.

If you are looking for the service record of a woman you should start by consulting our guide to records of Women’s Royal Air Force personnel.

2. RAF, RFC or RNAS?

The Royal Air Force was formed on 1 April 1918 when the RFC and the RNAS were amalgamated. Officers and men of both services who continued service after this date transferred into the newly formed RAF and were joined by new entrants. From this date onwards the RFC and RNAS ceased to exist.

Someone who served in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) or Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) as well as the RAF may have service records in more than one place and you may need to consult our guides to RFC officers, RFC airmenRNAS officers and RNAS ratings for more detail.

3. Service records

3.1 Airmen (not officers) 1918-1939

Search for a Royal Air Force airmans’ service records (AIR 79) on findmypast (£). These are records of airmen with service numbers from 1 to 562875. Some files may contain information from the Second World War but service records for the Second World War are still with the RAF (see section 3.2).

The records in AIR 79 usually contain the following information:

  • date and place of birth
  • physical description
  • religious denomination
  • next of kin
  • spouse and children
  • date of joining
  • promotions
  • units served in
  • award of medals
  • date of discharge

RAF service numbers between 313001 and 316000 indicate that the airmen previously served with the Royal Navy and then subsequently the Royal Naval Air Service, before transferring to the RAF. If the airman’s service number falls within this range there may be further records of his military service in Royal Naval Air Service records or Royal Navy records.

3.2 Airmen (not officers) after 1939

Records of RAF airmen who served after 1939, and of men whose service numbers were above 562875 are still with the RAF. Look on the GOV.UK website to find out how to obtain service records.

It can be useful to know his service number. If you do not know his number, browse through the name indexes in AIR 78 to find it.

3.3 Officers 1918-1922

Search the Royal Air Force officers’ service records 1918-1919 (£) online for officers who served in the Royal Air Force during the First World War (AIR 76). By the end of 1919, 26,000 of the 27,000 serving RAF officers had been discharged, and it is largely their service details which are held in this series.

3.4 Officers after 1922

Records of RAF officers who served after 1922 are still with the RAF. Look on the GOV.UK website to find out how to obtain service records.

4. Operations Record Books and Combat Reports

In the absence of a service record, or perhaps to supplement one, Operations Record Books (ORBs) can prove very revealing. These daily records of the life of a squadron, and of other units within the RAF structure, can provide insights into what an airman or officer did during their time at war. Sometimes individuals are mentioned by name, though often it is just the activities of the unit as a whole which are recorded. ORBs can also include:

  • nominal rolls
  • lists of officers
  • details of promotions, transfers or awards

Along with combat reports, operations record books can help to tell a serviceman’s story.

You need to know which squadron a serviceman or woman served with to locate these records. Consult our Royal Air Force operations guide for detailed advice.

5. RAF personnel missing in combat

Search for missing RAF personnel in AIR 81. Search these records by:

  • surname of missing airman
  • place/location of the incident in which air crew went missing
  • date of the incident
  • type of aircraft from which air crew went missing (for example, Blenheim)

These files may contain missing person and casualty action sheets, death certificates, personal letters and correspondence, exhumation reports, investigation reports, questionnaires by repatriated personnel and personal effects of POWs.

Please note that this series is still accruing and currently only goes up to August 1940.

6. Medal records 1914-1922

6.1 Campaign medals

If an individual in the RAF qualified for medal(s) after 1 April 1918, the only place you will find details about his medal entitlement will be on his service record.

6.2 Gallantry medals

For information on gallantry medals awarded to RAF personnel, read our British military gallantry medals guide.

7. Lists of RAF servicemen

7.1 Muster list from 1918

Consult the only complete muster roll of the RAF, compiled on its formation on 1 April 1918, on Findmypast.co.uk. The original documents are in AIR 1/819/204/4/1316 and also AIR 10/232-237.

7.2 Rolls of Honour: First World War

Browse the first series of Air Historical Branch (AHB) records in series AIR 1 for nominal rolls of individual units for the First World War.

Indexes and keys to AIR 1 are available with the printed version of our catalogue at The National Archives at Kew. The second series of AHB records, in AIR 5, contains little on individuals.

Look at AIR 2/219, the Roll of Honour for men from the USA and Dominions who served with the British Air Forces in the First World War.

7.3 Rolls of Honour: Second World War

Look at AIR 14/2091, the Roll of Honour for No. 5 Group in Bomber Command. This is the only known Second World War nominal roll for the RAF in The National Archives.

8. Records specific to officers

RAF officer ranks include:

  • Flying Officer
  • Flight Lieutenant
  • Squadron Leader
  • Wing Commander
  • Group Captain

Records of officers are usually held in separate sets of files to those of ordinary airmen. Some records were created only for officers, including records of commissions. The following record types may prove useful when tracing the career of an officer:

8.1 The Air Force List

You can trace the commissions and promotions of an RAF officer’s career from March 1919 in the Air Force List, available at The National Archives at Kew and other specialist libraries and archives (see section 11). Up until 1938 the lists also provide details of where in the world an officer was posted.

From 1939 there is also the Confidential Air Force List, similar to the standard Air Force List but often with slightly more detail on the specifics of an officer’s duties. Search it in the following sets of documents:

8.2 Officers’ pension records 1916-1920

Look in PMG 42/13-16 to find payments made to invalided RAF officers from 1917 to 1920.

Browse by reference through PMG 44 to find records of pensions paid to relatives of deceased RAF officers from 1916 to 1920.

Look in PMG 43 for supplementary payments to RAF officers and their dependents from 1916 to 1920.

8.3 Air Historical Branch papers

For additional material on awards and promotions, as well as officers’ correspondence, browse or search the Air Historical Branch (AHB) papers in AIR 1. Indexes and keys to AIR 1 are available with the printed version of our catalogue at The National Archives at Kew.

9. Courts martial 1918-1986

Browse AIR 21 for courts martial records from 1918 to 1965. These give:

  • name of prisoner
  • rank of prisoner
  • place of trial
  • nature of charge and sentence

Search by surname using the advanced search in our catalogue to find the proceedings of district, general and field courts martial of officers and men from 1941 to 1986 in series AIR 18.

Look in series AIR 2 and AIR 20 for records of courts martial policy.

10. Prisoner of war records

Air Ministry (AIR) records do not generally contain detailed information on prisoners of war. You can, however, consult:

  • a list of all aircrew known to have been held prisoner by Germany in AIR 20/2336
  • escape reports and related files in AIR 40
  • prisoner of war and internees’ files in FO 916

See also our guides to British prisoners of war c1790-1919 and British prisoners of the Second World War and the Korean War.

11. Records in other archives

For more information about the RAF, you may wish to:

12. Further reading

Visit The National Archives’ bookshop for a range of publications on Royal Air Force personnel and the associated records. Alternatively, search The National Archives’ library catalogue to see what is available to consult at Kew. The following publications are recommended:

William Spencer, Air Force records for family historians (The National Archives, 2008)

Ian Tavendar, The Distinguished Flying Medal register for the Second World War: With Official Recommendation details (Savannah Publications, 2000)

Michael Maton, Honour the Air Forces: Honours and awards to the RAF and Dominion Air Forces during the Second World War (Token Publishing Limited, 2004)

Find details of men who joined the RFC between its formation in 1912 and August 1914 (numbers 1-1400) by reading Jack V Webb and Ian McInnes, A Contemptible Little Flying Corps (London Stamp Exchange, 1991)

Nick Carter and Carol Carter, The Distinguished Flying Cross and how it was won 1918-1995 (Savannah Publications, 1998)

 

Guide reference: Military Records Information 49