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?
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.
|Africa: East and West Africa||WO 269|
|Austria: British troops Austria||WO 263|
|Far East land forces||WO 268|
|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.
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|
|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)