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Guide reference: Military Records Information 21
Last updated: 20 January 2011

1. Why use this guide?

This guide will help you find records at The National Archives relating to military operations planned and carried out by the British Army since the end of the Second World War.

This is not the place to find advice on looking for personnel records. For British Army service records covering the period since the Second World War, all of which are held by the Ministry of Defence, go to the Veterans UK website.

2. Essential information

There are broadly two different types of British Army operations records. Those created by units of the army itself and those created by politicians, top-ranking officers and other high-level personnel.

In the First and Second World Wars, unit records were generally in the form of war diaries but by 1950 unit diaries had been largely superseded by alternative forms of record keeping.

There are countless published regimental histories and these are often a good place to start research into British Army operations - see Further reading for some examples of regimental history books.

3. How to conduct a general search

You can search Discovery, our catalogue, using keywords.

However, not all of the records have been given specific or detailed descriptions in our catalogue (some, for example, may be catalogued as 'Miscellaneous', or other generic descriptions) so keyword searches will not always find everything on that subject. 

Nevertheless, keyword searching can be a good way to begin. Try searching by:

  • name of operation or campaign (for example, 'Operation Corporate')
  • name of a conflict (for example, 'Suez crisis' or 'Korean War') - keyword searches like this work best if you put them in inverted commas
  • name of army unit. If you are looking for war diaries or other records related to specific British Army regiments and other units - these are often recorded in our catalogue using abbreviations so try a variety of terms when searching (for example, 'Regt' as well as 'Regiment', 'Bn' as well as 'Battalion, 'Bty' as well as 'Battery')

If you use the Advanced search option you can focus your search by entering an appropriate date range and/or the reference for a particular department such as WO for War Office.

Alternatively, you can do a keyword-only search and then filter your results using the options on the left of the results page.

Many records are not viewable online. To view records which are not online you will need to visit The National Archives at Kew or pay for research.

4. Politics, policy and planning: records of high command

To find records revealing the decision making behind British Army operations, government policy on a specific conflict and all kinds of other high level thinking around the operations, conflicts and wars involving the British Army, search within Cabinet (CAB) and Ministry of Defence (DEFE) departments.

Browse or search the following specific series to get started:

Date range Type of information Record series How to search
1945-1978 Cabinet minutes CAB 128 Browse or search by date 
1945-1978 Cabinet memoranda CAB 129 Browse or search by date 
1946-1963 Cabinet Defence Committee minutes and [papers CAB 131 Browse or search by date 
1937-1962 Combined Operations Headquarters records DEFE 2 Search by name of army unit or operation 
1946-1973 Chiefs of Staff Committee registered files DEFE 11 Search by country or region
1964-1982 Defence and Overseas Policy Committees and Sub-committees minutes and papers CAB 148 Search by keyword

5. Unit records in the aftermath of the Second World War

From 1946-1950, quarterly historical records and reports replaced the unit war diaries, which were mostly discontinued after the end of hostilities in 1945.

Use the advanced search in our catalogue, entering the unit or type of army service as your keyword and searching within the references (such as WO 269) shown below:

Unit Record series
Africa: East and West Africa WO 269
Austria: British troops Austria WO 263
Caribbean WO 270
Far East land forces WO 268
Gibraltar WO 266
Home forces WO 271
Malta: British troops Malta WO 265
Mediterranean: central Mediterranean forces WO 262
Middle East land forces WO 261
Rhine: British Army of the Rhine WO 267
Trieste: British element Trieste force WO 264

From 1950 onwards, unit historical records and reports are in WO 305.

Army Air Corps' operations record books and war diaries, 1957-1969, are in WO 295.

6. Specific operations and campaigns

Below are just some of the wars and conflicts since 1945 that are covered in our records. The record series listed do not necessarily contain material exclusively on these conflicts but they are amongst the most comprehensive sources.

Country Date range Record series Description
Palestine 1945-1948 WO 191 War diaries and headquarters records
WO 275 6 Airborne division papers
Korea 1950-1953 WO 281 War diaries
WO 308 Historical records and reports
DEFE 12 UN command operation reports
Suez 1956 WO 288 Headquarters papers and war diaries
WO 322 Maps
Oman 1957-1961 WO 337 Headquarters British forces Gulf area
Falklands War (Operation Corporate) 1982 WO 305 Unit historical records including war diaries and records of operational activity

7. Other records from overseas stations

Browse or search the following series by keyword in our catalogue, including by name of operation, country or region:

Overseas station Date range Record series
Africa: Headquarters East Africa command 1902-1964 WO 276
Africa: Headquarters West Africa command 1949-1956 WO 294
Caribbean: Headquarters British forces Caribbean 1948-1962 WO 336
Cyprus: Sovereign base area administration, Cyprus 1956-1964 WO 383

8. 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.

Anthony Farrar-Hockley, The British Part in the Korean War: Official History (HMSO, 1990-1995)

Lawrence Freedman, The Official History of the Falklands Campaign (Routledge, 2005)

Arthur S White, A Bibliography of Regimental Histories of the British Army (The Naval and Military Press, 1992)

Guide reference: Military Records Information 21

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