How to look for records of... British Army operations after 1945

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • None

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 up until around twenty years ago. These are records that broadly fall into one of two categories:

  • records created by units of the army itself
  • records created by politicians, top-ranking officers and other high-level personnel

This is not the place to find advice on records of individual soldiers and officers. For the service records of individuals from this period go to Veterans UK, a branch of the Ministry of Defence.

2. How to use this guide and get a search for records started

There are countless published regimental histories and these are often a good place to start research into British Army operations. Our library holds a copy of Arthur S White’s A Bibliography of Regimental Histories of the British Army, a useful resource for getting started.

A search for documents at The National Archives usually begins in our online catalogue. The following sections of this guide provide links to key record series that you can search within our catalogue, helping you to target your searches more precisely. By clicking on the series links (for example, WO 269) you will arrive on the respective ‘series description’ pages from where you can search the series, using dates/years and keywords, such as:

  • 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’)

Series description pages also provide information on the arrangement of the records and sometimes some of the historical context in which they were created, as well as suggesting related series you could explore.

Use the advanced catalogue search to restrict your search results to the records of a specific government department, including its predecessors (for example, the War Office or the Ministry of Defence). Use the department reference, which is always a letter code, to do this (the code for the Ministry of Defence, for example, is DEFE).

Catalogue search results provide short descriptions of our records and a document reference for each one – you will need the document reference to see the record itself. Many of the records covered in this guide are not available to view online so to see them you will have to either visit us in Kew or order copies. Bear in mind that a search in our catalogue will also search for records in other archives around the country – keep your eye on the ‘Held by’ field to establish whether the records are here or elsewhere.

3. 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

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

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.

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

Click on the following series references to search for records within each respective series using keywords and dates.

Unit Record series Year range
Africa: East and West Africa WO 269 1940-1950
Austria: British troops Austria WO 263 1946-1950
Caribbean WO 270 1946-1950
Far East land forces WO 268 1946-1950, 1965-1966
Gibraltar WO 266 1946-1950
Home forces WO 271 1945-1950
Malta: British troops Malta WO 265 1946-1950
Mediterranean: central Mediterranean forces WO 262 1946-1949
Middle East land forces WO 261 1946-1950
Rhine: British Army of the Rhine WO 267 1946-1967
Trieste: British element Trieste force WO 264 1946-1950

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.

5. 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

6. 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

7. Further reading

Some or all of the publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives’ shop. 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)