How to look for records of... British Army operations in the Second World War
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 in the Second World War, planned and carried out by the:
- British Army
- Indian Army
- Canadian, New Zealand, South African or Indian forces (also known as dominion forces) under British command
- Allied and colonial troops under British command
The focus of the guide is on War Office records. However, as the army, naval and air services were more integrated than ever before during the war, you can also find many other related operational files in the records of Royal Air Force operations and Royal Navy operations.
The records include details of:
- secret operations
- daily activities of army units (as recorded in unit war diaries)
The guide does not cover records of:
- personnel (for Second World War service records visit the Veterans UK website)
- technological research
2. How to search
A search for documents at The National Archives usually 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 record itself. You can search the catalogue using keywords and dates. Use the advanced search option to restrict your search results to records of a specific government department (and its predecessors) – departments are identified by a letter code. The department in which to focus searches for British Army records is the War Office – department code WO.
For a general description of the records, read The Second World War: A Guide to Documents in the Public Record Office by John Cantwell (PRO, 1998).
Try searching the catalogue by:
- name of battle (for example, ‘Gazala’)
- name of operation (for example, ‘Overlord’)
- name of country or region where an operation took place (for example, Sicily or Belgium)
- name of army unit – many army units have been catalogued using abbreviations (for example, ‘Fd. Regt.’ instead of ‘Field Regiment’), and the formatting is not consistent (sometimes, for example, you should search for ‘8th army’, other times for ‘8 army’); you may have to format your search in multiple different ways to ensure greater success
Keep in mind that not all records have been catalogued in detail and that speculative searching in documents is often necessary. There is more search advice in the following sections of this guide should help you to focus searches
3. Unit war diaries
All units, from battalions and brigades to divisions and whole armies, maintained a daily record of events, often with appendices of signals and orders.
There are three ways that you can use our catalogue to search for a unit war diary but whichever way you search, keep in mind the advice in section 2 on searching for army units.
Search method 1
Using the advanced search, search with the name and number of the unit, restricting your search results to records of the War Office (department reference WO – see section 2) and to a specific date, year or range of years.
Search method 2
If you know the theatre of war where the unit was fighting (see section 9 for help with this) you can target your search to a specific series. For example, if you know a regiment was fighting in Mesopotamia, you can target your search to the diaries of the Middle East forces by searching in record series WO 169.
Search method 3
There is an ongoing project to make Second World War unit war diaries (1939-1946) available online. Search for these records online, by soldiers’ names, units and other details, at Ancestry.co.uk (charges apply).
Click on the appropriate record series in the table below to target your search to a theatre of operations. Search with the unit name and number.
|War Office directorates||WO 165|
|Home forces||WO 166|
|British expeditionary force||WO 167|
|North-West expeditionary force||WO 168|
|Middle East forces||WO 169|
|Central Mediterranean forces||WO 170|
|North-West Europe||WO 171|
|South-East Asia command||WO 172|
|West Africa forces||WO 173|
|British North Africa forces||WO 175|
|Various smaller theatres||WO 176|
|Medical services||WO 177|
|Military missions||WO 178|
|Dominion forces||WO 179|
|GHQ Liaison Regiment*||WO 215|
|Special services||WO 218|
|Ships Signals sections*||WO 257|
|Royal Marine Commandos||DEFE 2|
*These series include associated papers
4. Headquarters papers
The records of the military headquarters of each theatre of operation, and of the forces under their command, are the most important sources of information on the planning and conduct of military operations. Search or browse the following record series:
|British expeditionary force in France 1939-1940||WO 197|
|North West expeditionary force in Norway 1940||WO 198|
|Home forces||WO 199|
|Middle East forces||WO 201|
|Military missions||WO 202|
|Far East forces including ABDA and SEAC||WO 203|
|Allied forces in North Africa, Italy and France 1942-1945||WO 204, WO 228|
|21st Army Group in Northern Europe 1943-1945||WO 205, WO 229|
|SHAEF||WO 219, WO 229|
|North African and Mediterranean theatres: maps||WO 234|
|East Africa command||WO 276|
|Combined operations||DEFE 2|
5. War Office directorates
While the directorates were primarily concerned with administration, their records frequently include reports on actions and campaigns. Use our catalogue to search the following series, or browse them by clicking on the links:
|Directorate of military operations and intelligence||WO 106|
|Quarter-master general including exercises and plans, especially combined operations||WO 107|
|Directorate of military operations: appreciation files||WO 190|
|Directorate of military operations: collation files||WO 193|
|Directorate of artillery||WO 196|
|Directorate of military intelligence including weekly intelligence summaries and intelligence reviews||WO 208|
|Directorate of military training particularly lessons learned from operations||WO 231|
|Directorate of tactical investigation particularly studies of individual operations||WO 232|
|Directorate of air||WO 233|
|Directorate of army psychiatry||WO 241|
|Directorate of signals including signal plans and instructions for operations||WO 244|
|Directorate of staff duties||WO 260|
|Directorate of supplies and transport||WO 272|
|Engineer in Chief papers including reports on planning and operations||WO 227|
6. Records of Cabinet and high command
The records include:
- defence committees, for example in CAB 69
- Chiefs of Staff committees, for example in CAB 79
- War Cabinet daily situation reports in CAB 100
- War Cabinet telegrams in CAB 105
- Secretariat files in CAB 120 – these document the personal intervention of the Prime Minister
The archived Cabinet Papers site has themed pages on war, the empire and diplomacy, which you can browse, some with links to downloadable documents.
6.2 Prime Minister’s Office
6.3 War Office councils and committees
Browse the following series:
- minutes of War Office council, Army council and their committees in WO 163
- Inter-Services security board minutes in WO 283 (contain information on the co-ordination of operational security and the control of code names)
- secret papers concerning defence issues in CAB 121
7. Other operational records
Search within WO 32 for reports of operations, using the following search terms in our catalogue:
- ‘Code 0’ (for overseas operations)
- ‘Code 46′(for narratives of operations)
- ‘Code 95’ (for reports of invasions)
Browse WO 33 for reports on actions with the enemy.
Browse the combined operations headquarters records in DEFE 2 or search by special service brigade, commando unit or the code name of the operation. This record series covers all amphibious and some airborne operations.
8. Official histories and narratives
Search or browse the following record series:
- narratives and reports written by the official historians of the Second World War in CAB 106 and CAB 101
- official historical studies of the war, mostly published in the 1950s, in WO 277
- notes and papers of a 1947 course on the D-Day landings and ensuing campaigns in WO 223
- medical historians’ papers that include narratives of medical units in action in WO 222
9. Orders of battle
The Orders of Battle and related records give the overseas locations of units during a particular battle or campaign. They show the distribution of divisions and regiments in numerical order and provide the station of each battalion or company. This information can help you trace a unit war diary.
Browse, search or consult the following for the locations of British and Dominions forces:
Browse or search the following for the locations of Allied and enemy forces:
10. Private papers
Private and private office papers contain some information about operations. Consult the papers of: