How to look for records of... Bomb Census survey records 1940-1945
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
1. Why use this guide?
This research guide will help you to find air raid reports, Bomb Census maps and sometimes photographs of bomb damage sustained during air raids in the Second World War.
The information relates mostly to damage to domestic, industrial and commercial properties in London but also covers the rest of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
You might also find it useful to look at the Bomb Sight project, a website created to provide online access to data from the Bomb Census maps. Though the website does contain some inaccuracies, it provides online access to the map data which is otherwise only available in our reading rooms at our site in Kew, London.
See also our blog about Second World War V-1 flying bombs or Doodlebugs.
2. What was the Bomb Census?
In September 1940 the government started to collect and collate information relating to damage sustained during bombing raids. This was known as the ‘Bomb Census’. Initially, only information relating to London, Birmingham and Liverpool was collated but by September 1941 the Bomb Census had been extended to cover the rest of the UK.
Its purpose was to provide the government with a complete picture of air raid patterns, types of weapon used and the damage caused – in particular to strategic services and installations such as railways, shipyards, factories and public utilities. The Ministry of Home Security divided the UK into 12 civil defence regions and information about bomb damage was coordinated through these regions.
- Northern (HQ Newcastle-upon-Tyne)
- North Eastern (HQ Leeds)
- North Midland (HQ Nottingham)
- Eastern (HQ Cambridge)
- Southern (HQ Reading)
- South Western (HQ Bristol)
- Wales (HQ Cardiff)
- Midland (HQ Birmingham)
- North Western (HQ Manchester)
- Scotland (HQ Edinburgh)
- South Eastern (HQ Tunbridge Wells)
London (region 5) was sub-divided into groups and further sub-divided by borough. If you visit The National Archives you can see a list of the groups, and the boroughs that were in them, at the start of the paper catalogue list for record series HO 198.
Northern Ireland seems to have been outside the regional structure, but The National Archives does hold a small number of records relating to bomb damage in Northern Ireland.
3. How was the Bomb Census information gathered?
Information was gathered locally by police, air raid wardens and military personnel. They noted where, when and what types of bombs had fallen during an air raid and passed this on to the Ministry of Home Security Bomb Census Organisation where regional technical officers plotted the positions of the bombs onto maps.
These bomb plots along with the information gathered locally were passed to the Ministry of Home Security Research and Experiments Branch.
The information was digested, summarised and sometimes collated with intelligence from other sources. The reports were distributed to the Cabinet, Air Ministry, local authorities and to government departments with responsibility for civil defence.
4. Key sources at The National Archives
The three most useful series of records are:
4.1 Bomb Census reports in HO 198
Of particular significance among the records in HO 198 are the BC4 report forms. These forms were completed by the Research and Experiments Branch of the Ministry of Home Security and contain the following information:
- date and time that the bomb fell
- type and size of bomb
- whether the bomb exploded
- brief description of damage caused including the size of crater
- information on air raid warnings
- casualty statistics
BC4 forms give the number of casualties in an incident categorised as killed (K); seriously injured (S/I); or lightly injured (L/I) but do not give their names (see section 6 for advice on tracking down someone killed by name).
The BC4 form is often accompanied by a sketch map showing features such as the road layout, and the point of impact of the bomb. There is often also a traced copy of a section of a map which has been marked to show where a bomb fell. The map sheet reference is normally written on the BC4 form and/or the accompanying tracing.
The files in HO 198 are organised according to the type of bomb that fell (piloted aircraft, V1, V2), then by civil defence region and then by date of the air raid. London (Region 5) is further divided into groups between 1940 and 1942.
The bombs in each raid are numbered in sequence, both on the BC4 form and on the Bomb Census maps in HO 193.
4.2 Bomb Census maps in HO 193
Bomb Census maps are in HO 193. The National Archives has maps and tracings for all of the London Civil Defence Region, but far fewer for provincial towns and cities. For London, The National Archives holds tracings that show where bombs fell, but does not have the underlying printed map.
4.3 Air raid damage files in HO 192
Some air raid incidents were followed up with a more detailed investigation. These files are in HO 192. There are over 1,000 files containing reports on specific towns or London boroughs which typically contain:
- BC4 forms
- detailed technical report on the effects of the bomb and the extent of damage caused
- analysis of the size and type of bomb, especially if new
- plans of buildings showing damage
Other files in this series include general analysis of bomb damage and its effects on industry, transport and public utilities, and some transcripts of interrogation of enemy personnel.
5. How to search for Bomb Census records and air raid damage files
A search for documents at The National Archives begins in our online catalogue. The catalogue contains short descriptions of the records and a document reference for each – you will need the document reference before you can see the records. The records themselves are not viewable online so to see them you will have to either visit us in Kew or order copies.
You can search for records using keyword searches or you can browse through a series.
5.1 Search for records using keywords
You can search the catalogue using keywords and dates. You can search any of the three key record series individually from the HO 198, HO 193 or HO 192 homepages. Alternatively, use the advanced search option to search across all three at the same time, placing HO 198, HO 193 and HO 192 in the reference boxes.
Use the following as keywords to search with:
- the name of a town
- a London borough
- a civil defence region or group number
- map sheet number
- a keyword such as ‘factory’ or ‘shipyard’
You can also browse through our catalogue to locate references, as explained below.
5.2 Browse the catalogue for Bomb Census report references by bomb type
You can browse through HO 198 document references for Bomb Census reports arranged by the different types of bombs that were dropped, as follows:
- bombs dropped from piloted aircraft HO 198/1-73
- V1 flying bombs HO 198/74-102
- V2 long range rockets HO 198/103-109
5.3 Browse the catalogue for Bomb Census map references by bomb type
You can browse through HO 193 document references for Bomb Census maps arranged by the different types of bombs that were dropped, as follows:
- Piloted aircraft in London raids: HO 193/1-11, HO 193/15-40 and HO 193/84-87
- Piloted aircraft in provincial raids: HO 193/55-67 and HO 193/73-81
- V1 flying bombs: HO 193/48-50
- V1 tracings to use with maps: HO 193/69-71
- V2 long range rocket maps: HO 193/48-50
- V2 tracings to use with maps: HO 193/72
The printed catalogue available in the reading rooms at The National Archives gives more precise descriptions of the maps available than our online catalogue provides. A key to the London map sheet numbering is also available in the reading rooms.
5.4 Browse the catalogue for air raid damage file references by region
To browse through document descriptions of air raid damage files relating to a specific civil defence region, click on the following links:
- Northern HO 192/75-128
- North Eastern HO 192/129-163
- North Midland HO 192/164-199
- Eastern HO 192/200-327
- London HO 192/328-809
- Southern HO 192/810-861
- South Western HO 192/862-923
- Wales HO 192/924-931
- Midland HO 192/932-946
- North Western HO 192/947-956
- Scotland HO 192/957-961
- South Eastern HO 192/962-1094
For Northern Ireland, search our catalogue as described above.
6. Searching for casualties by name
Try searching on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website to trace a record by name of someone killed by a bomb. Try variations of a name if your first search does not yield results. For example, Bert may be listed as Albert, Bill as William, and so on.
Otherwise, try consulting the eight volumes of Civilian War Dead 1939-1945, published by the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission). A copy is available at the library of The National Archives. The volumes are arranged by county and borough and include the full name of the casualty, their age, names of parents and/or spouse and when and where they were injured and died. Sometimes the injury occurred at a domestic address but the casualty died later in hospital.
It may alternatively be worth searching online for ‘civilian war dead’ by county or London borough.
7. National Fire Service and Air Raid Precautions
For the first two years of the war, fires were dealt with by locally run Auxiliary Fire Services, staffed by men who were unable to serve in the armed forces. In 1941 these were replaced with the National Fire Service (NFS). Personnel records for the NFS and ARP have not survived but you can search our catalogue for surviving policy files and other records relating to central government oversight of the two services.
Air Raid Precautions (ARP) was established well before the war, but the number of wardens and their responsibilities increased from 1939 onwards. ARP wardens had various responsibilities including
- making sure no lights were visible during the ‘blackout’
- issuing gas masks and air raid shelters
- searching for survivors after bombing raids
- recording information about size and location of bombs and related damage
8. Other records of air raid attacks and damage
See the following record types, produced by branches of central government, for a broader picture of the effects of and responses to air raids.
8.1 Records of the Key Points Intelligence Directorate
‘Key points’ was the name used to refer to strategic targets such as factories, public utilities, service establishments and buildings of national importance. The Key Points Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Home Security compiled and distributed information about attacks on these key points and produced reports on the damage sustained. The files include general assessments and reviews of defence measures, weekly reports summarising the damage to and effect on production and daily damage reports giving the same information in tabular format.
Search by year and month only (searching by place name not yet possible) for map tracings of air raid damage to key points in HO 315.
8.2 Home Security daily intelligence reports
These reports were compiled in the Home Security War Room for senior officials, the Minister and the Cabinet. The reports, in HO 203, are arranged into just sixteen pieces and are searchable only by report number range or date, so it’s easier simply to browse the series to locate one
8.3 Home Security War Room reports
Daily and weekly appraisals of raids and damage for use within government. These reports, in HO 202, are arranged into just ten pieces and are searchable only by report number range or date, so it’s easier simply to browse the series to locate one.
9. Records in other archives and online sources
Some county, metropolitan and other local archives hold records created locally, relating to the area, such as incident maps and registers or ARP wardens’ logs. There are also some useful online sources relating to Second World War bombing.
9.1 Online sources
Bomb Sight – includes digitised images of selected Bomb Census maps from HO 193
The West End at War – based mainly on sources from Westminster City Archives
9.2 County, metropolitan and local archives
To find records held in local archives, search our catalogue and restrict your search results to ‘Other archives only’ using the ‘Held by’ filter. Alternatively, find contact details for archives elsewhere using our Find an archive tool.
9.3 London Metropolitan Archives
The London Metropolitan Archives holds the London County Council bomb damage maps and other records relating to bombing incidents in London.
9.4 Imperial War Museum
The Imperial War Museum has many personal reminiscences, both written and oral, from civilians and civil defence workers as well as photographs of air raid damage.
10. Further reading
Visit The National Archives’ bookshop for a range of publications about bombing in the Second World War. Alternatively, search The National Archives’ library catalogue to see what is available to consult at Kew, including the following publications:
Basil Collier, Official History of the Second World War: The defence of the United Kingdom (HMSO 1957)
Peter Doyle, ARP and Civil Defence in the Second World War (Shire 2010)
Norman Longmate, The Doodlebugs: the Story of the Flying-Bombs (Hutchinson 1981)
Norman Longmate, Hitler’s Rockets: the Story of the V-2s (Hutchinson 1985)
Terence Henry O’Brien, Official History of the Second World War: Civil defence (HMSO 1955)
Bob Ogley, Doodlebugs and Rockets: the Battle of the Flying Bombs (Froglets 1992) – focuses on the V weapons that fell on South East London.
Alfred Price, Blitz on Britain, 1939-1945 (Sutton 2000) – examines the different phases of the bombing attacks of Britain.
Ann Saunders (ed), The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945 (London Topographical Society 2005) – includes a very useful introduction by Robin Woolven.
Neil Wallington, Firemen at War, The Work of London’s Firefighters in the Second World War (Jeremy Mills 2007)