The Ministry of Defence (MOD) has begun the transfer of ten million personnel service records to The National Archives for permanent preservation.
The records will be transferred to Kew over several years. A complex project is under way to manage all aspects of the transfer, including making the records accessible to the public.
This page aims to provide answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about the service records and their transfer. We’ll keep it updated as the project progresses.
- Digitising the MOD service records
- Accessing the MOD service records
- Understanding the MOD service records
What are the service records?
The records included in this collection cover personnel in all three services – Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force – where the individual has a date of birth before or up to 1 January 1939. They include around 500,000 personnel with First World War service, and the vast majority of those who served in the Second World War.
The records are predominantly in paper format, with some photographs (mainly ID photo size), x-rays and a small amount of microfilm.
These records are of national significance, which is why we are working with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to ensure that their long-term preservation is assured through transferring them to The National Archives.
The information in the records typically consists of personal information relating to the individual and their interactions with the administering authority.
The most common information within the collection are attestation papers, which capture details of when the individual joined the service, along with a Record of Service that shows which units and between what dates the individual served in. Records may also include medical or disciplinary information.
How many records are there?
There are just under ten million records, representing the biggest and most complex transfer of public records in our history.
For context, in an average year we take in approximately 1.5 linear kilometres of physical records from government departments. Our current estimate is that these service records will require us to take in at least 50 additional linear kilometres of physical records over the duration of the project.
When will the records be transferred to The National Archives?
We have already received over four million records and expect to complete the transfer of all Army non-officer records within the scope of the project by the end of March 2024. We will then move onto RAF non-officer records in 2024-25. The whole transfer process will run until 2026.
What’s involved in the transfer process?
Once the records are transferred to us, we must ensure that all the material can be stored safely and to archival standards. In practice, this means removing them from their original packaging and placing them in specially made archival boxes that keeps the records free from any degradation or damage.
We will then index and catalogue the records so that researchers can search and browse them on our website.
Do the records contain sensitive information?
As these are personnel records, they naturally contain personal data including medical information. To protect the information in these records, they may remain closed until 115 years past the date of birth of the individual.
Whether or not the material can be open to all, or closed fully or in part, is assessed on this basis or upon request under relevant data protection and freedom of information laws.
Information relating to living individuals is their personal data and is withheld under Section 40 of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000, while medical information is considered exempt under section 41 of the FOI Act 2000 and will be treated in confidence.
Digitising the MOD service records
Will the MOD service records be digitised?
Yes. Due to the scale and complexity of the record series, we have appointed a commercial partner to digitise, transcribe and publish the records.
We have awarded a contract to the genealogy company, Ancestry, commissioning them to digitise elements of the first three million MOD service records that have been transferred.
Which MOD service records are being digitised in the first tranche?
The first four collections to be digitised are British Army service records of non-officer ranks:
- WO 420: Approximately 54,000 service records of other ranks (not Officers) who served in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) during the Second World War. The REME was established in October 1942 and was responsible for the maintenance and repair of military equipment. It consisted of skilled tradesmen, many of whom had initially transferred from other units.
- WO 421: Over 94,000 records, originally held at the Bournemouth Combined Manning Record Office, of soldiers from 12 smaller units/corps during the Second World War and immediately after, discharged as over age personnel.
- WO 419: Over 830,000 records of other ranks discharged from the infantry of the British Army between 1921 and 1939. The majority of the service records relate to individuals who served during the First World War, and who opted to continue their service beyond 1921, but also include those who served only throughout the inter-war period and were discharged before the outbreak of the Second World War.
- WO 422: Over two million records of non-commissioned officers and other ranks who served in infantry regiments of the British Army during the Second World War and who were discharged from the armed forces as ‘over age’ before their time expired in the reserves after 1945.
These collections were chosen as they contain the largest proportion of open and publishable records. They also include records of individuals from across the world who served in the British Army, particularly during the Second World War.
Are you digitising everything in each MoD service record?
No – due to the scale of the project, and the nature of the information that records contain, it is not possible to digitise each service record in its entirety.
The information being digitised includes:
- Attestation forms: structured information about when the individual joined the service
- Statements of Service: providing details of which units an individual served in, including dates
- Service and Casualty forms: providing rich information of the individual’s time in service, including details of the regiment(s) in which they served and where they were posted.
Medical forms and disciplinary and conduct forms will not be digitised as part of this project as these records contain sensitive personal data.
Will MOD service records for living individuals be digitised?
Only MOD service records of individuals with a date of birth over 100 years ago will be published. The long-accepted assumption of 100 years for life means that records can be opened 100 years and one day from the date of birth of the individual.
Our licensing partner for the first tranche of records, Ancestry, will publish newly opened records on an annual rolling basis as they reach 100 years old.
When will you publish the MOD service records online?
Our licensing partner for the first tranche of records, Ancestry, will publish the records on their platform in phases between 2024 and 2029. We will update on launch dates and details as the project progresses.
How much will it cost to access the MOD service records online?
The first tranche of service records will be available as part of Ancestry’s Premium (all UK and Ireland) and Worldwide (everything on Ancestry) membership packages, providing subscribers with unlimited access to view and download images and indexes.
The first tranche of service records will also be available on a pay-per-view basis, without an Ancestry subscription.
Will I be able to view the digitised MOD service records free of charge?
The service records will be available to view free of charge in digital format in our reading rooms. They will also be available free of charge at two more public access venues within the UK, details to be confirmed. Libraries and other public institutions with institutional Ancestry subscriptions may also offer free access.
Will I be able to access the digitised records in other libraries and archives?
The first tranche of service records will be available as part of Ancestry’s library membership – check with your local library or archive to see if they have it.
Why will I have to pay to view the digitised service records?
The cost of creating digital images from the paper originals, transcribing those records, and building the digital infrastructure to present the images and data to the general public is significant, and beyond our resources and statutory role.
We therefore offer licensing opportunities for private businesses – such as Ancestry – to work with us in widening access to the records we hold by digitising them and offering online access, with the licensee required to fully fund digitisation and associated costs.
The digitisation of this first of MOD service records, which consists of just over three million records, and an estimated 36 million images, is the largest project ever completed by both The National Archives and Ancestry.
Why was Ancestry selected to digitise these MOD service records?
We selected Ancestry as our digitisation partner for the first tranche of service records in accordance with the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. The procurement process comprised a rigorous tendering process, and the opportunity to participate was published on the Contracts Finder website.
The launch of the first tranche of service records on Ancestry will be a key milestone in their ongoing commitment to tell the story of 20th-century wartime Britain through military and civilian records.
When will the rest of the MOD service records be digitised?
The contract awarded to Ancestry comprises around one-third of the total records transfer from the MOD. We will issue invitations to tender for further service records collections in the coming years.
Accessing the MOD service records
Can I search the MOD service records in Discovery?
We are gradually cataloguing the service records as they are transferred to us, capturing information so that they can be searched by named individual. This is taking more time than it takes to catalogue other public records, as we have to check the dates of each individual record to ensure that it can be made available in line with access restrictions.
Collections now partially available to search and browse include:
- WO 420: Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers regiment (other ranks)
- WO 421: selected smaller corps (other ranks)
- WO 422: infantry over age (other ranks)
Cataloguing work continues to improve access to these collections.
More collections will be added to our catalogue Discovery on a regular basis, but the transfer and cataloguing work will take several years to complete.
Can I see the original MOD service records?
If the service record you are interested in has been catalogued and you have found it in Discovery, you will be able to order it to view in our reading rooms (advance bookings only).
You can also request a digital or paper copy of the record using the available options in Discovery.
Do I need to pay to get a copy of a MOD service record?
Yes, a fee will be charged if you wish to obtain a digital or paper copy of these records.
As a government department, we are obliged to charge for some of our public services, including record copying. The prices we charge for copying records are set out by the Fees Regulations under the Public Records Act (1958) and are based on recovering the costs of providing these services.
Why can’t I find the person I am looking for?
If you are unable to find an individual by searching our catalogue Discovery, it is likely that we have not yet catalogued their service record, or that the record has not yet been transferred to us.
How do I report an error with a service record on Discovery?
If you notice an error in a catalogue description on Discovery, please make us aware so that we can check the record and amend where appropriate.
You can do this by clicking on the ‘Found an error?’ link – this is displayed at the bottom of every catalogue description.
Does MOD still hold some of the records, and how do I know whether to request a copy from them (rather than The National Archives)?
The National Archives and MOD have access to the same name index database, which will tell us where the record is held.
If the individual you are looking for did not serve in one of the regiments listed above, it is possible that their record is still with the MOD and has not been transferred yet. You can submit a service record request directly to MOD via GOV.UK.
How long will it take to get access to a newly transferred open record?
We usually aim to process requests for access to open records within 20 working days, under the Freedom of Information Act.
Our team is currently processing a significantly high volume of requests, and responding to your request is likely to take more time.
Understanding the MOD service records
Why are some MOD service records closed?
Records in this collection will usually remain closed until 115 years past the date of birth of the identified individual.
These are personnel records of identified individuals which contain a range of personal data including medical information. Information relating to living individuals is their personal data and is withheld under Section 40 of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act 2000.
Any medical information regarding an individual is considered exempt under section 41 of the FOI Act 2000 and will be treated in confidence.
Can I see my own MOD service record?
An individual is entitled to submit a data subject access request to obtain their own information within the service records we hold. You can use this form to ask for access to your own record or the record of someone who has given you permission to act on their behalf.
You will need to provide proof of identification, and if on behalf of another, proof you have permission to act on their behalf, proof of their identification and proof of your identity.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) website provides general information on subject access requests. The information will only be disclosed to you, and the record itself will remain closed. These requests fall under the Data Protection Act 2018 and the UK General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
I am a relative of the person I am searching for. Will I be able to see all of the information in their record?
The right to access information is set out in the FOI Act. The act gives everyone a legal right to know what information is held by public bodies, including The National Archives. It also provides you with the right to have it communicated to you, subject to any exemptions which may apply.
Since these rights are given to everyone, anyone can request information, regardless of whether they are related to the subject or not. Under the FOI Act 2000, there are a number of exemptions which can be applied by public bodies to protect certain types of information, including that which is sensitive or personal. This information is exempt by law and as such is closed to everyone until certain criteria (for example, passage of time since the death of the data subject) have been met. This means that occasionally, information will be provided but with redactions in place to protect certain types of information.
Can I ask for an open record of a living individual to be closed?
If you see a record that is open, but which you believe should be closed because the person is still alive, you can ask for the record to be closed.
Our takedown and reclosure policy provides more detail of how this works in practice.
Can I open a record of an individual I know to be deceased?
Whether or not the material can be opened will be assessed upon request and considered under relevant access legislation.
To open a record, it must first be located and checked. For those records relating to individuals born less than 115 years ago, we will require proof of death so that we can consider whether information from the record can be released. Suitable forms of evidence are an official death certificate or published obituary.
Why is medical information closed for longer in this collection, when it is already available in other records that have been transferred from MOD?
Some of the records within this vast collection contain a wealth of medical information so different closure period was applied.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has issued guidance for confidential information to requests for medical records of deceased persons. Using this, we determined with MOD that 115 years after date of birth achieved a balance between recognising the obligation to keep this information confidential, while providing access to this significant collection of historical records.
How can I request access to a service record?
We’ve created special access request forms for the service records:
- Individuals born less than 115 years ago, presumed living (closed records)
- Individuals born over 115 years ago, presumed deceased (open records)
- Request your own Ministry of Defence personnel record or on behalf of a living data subject (subject access request)