How to look for records of... British Army soldiers of the Second World War

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

This is a guide to finding records of soldiers who served with the British Army in the Second World War. The ranks covered include Private, Lance Corporal, Corporal, Sergeant, and Warrant Officer – but not commissioned officer ranks.

Most British Army service records from the Second World War have only recently been transferred from the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to The National Archives as part of the Ministry of Defence service records project. The scale of this transfer means that not all of the millions of records transferred are yet searchable in our catalogue or viewable in our reading rooms.

How to get started and what’s online

There are three types of records which should exists for most soldiers and it usually makes sense to begin by searching for these (advice on how and where to search appears later in the guide):

  • Service records: Usually the most detailed record of a soldier’s time in the army.
  • Medal and honours records: Most soldiers were issued with campaign medals awarded for service during conflict; some soldiers were also awarded medals for acts of gallantry and meritorious service.
  • Unit war diaries: You will need to know which unit, often a battalion, a soldier served with to effectively search these records; in most diaries only officers are mentioned by name.

Whether other records survive or ever existed for a soldier depend upon a number of variable factors. If, for example, a soldier was wounded, or imprisoned as a POW or received an army pension, there may be records for these.

Of all the possible records that may exist for a soldier, only a small proportion are viewable online:

  • Recommendations for military honours and awards, 1935–1990 (see ‘Medals and honours’ section)
  • Announcements of the award of gallantry medals and honours (see ‘Medals and honours’ section)
  • British Army casualty lists, 1939–1945 (see ‘Other records’ section)

No service records are yet viewable online.

Abbreviations and acronyms used in the records

Many of the records covered in this guide contain a lot of obscure military abbreviations and acronyms and can be hard to decipher as a result. There are, however, some resources available online and at our library in Kew that can help you to interpret them.

This official list of MOD Acronyms and Abbreviations published on the GOV.UK site contains thousands of terms in current use but many were in use during the Second World War. The Government of Canada also publishes a list of military abbreviations used in service files, many of which are applicable to British records.

Though not affiliated with The National Archives, the independent Researching the Lives and Records of WW2 Soldiers website also contains a very useful list of Second World War abbreviations and acronyms.

The following books are available at our library in Kew:

Service records

A service record is usually the most detailed record of a soldier’s time in the army. The types of documents that are most commonly found within service records are:

  • Attestation forms – documents signed when first recruited or upon transfer between units
  • Statement of service – outlining an individual’s postings whilst in service
  • Discharge forms – issued when a soldier left the regiment
  • Supporting correspondence of a wide variety

The vast scale of the recent transfer of British Army Second World War service records from the MOD to The National Archives means that only a small proportion are searchable in our catalogue or viewable in our reading rooms. You should try to locate a document reference for a service record yourself first and if you are unable to we will try to locate it for you. Once you have a document reference you can order a copy of the record.

Follow these steps:

Step 1: Search our catalogue by surname, service number or date of birth or by a combination of any of these using the search box below:

Search tips:

  • If you have a service number, try searching with that alone
  • Try different formats for dates of birth, particularly for the day of birth (1 July 1910 and 01 July 1910)
  • Try variations on the spelling of the last name

If you locate a document reference whose description matches the details you are looking for, you can request a copy of the record directly from the catalogue.

Step 2: If you are unable to find a record at Step 1, submit a a Freedom of Information (FOI) application to request a search for and access to the record using one of the following three forms (charges may apply): 

Form 1: Request your own service record (or the record of another living person on their behalf)

Form 2: Request someone else’s service record where the individual is known to be or is presumed dead

Form 3: Request someone else’s service record where the individual is presumed living

Scots Guards regiment

The Scots Guards retain their own records in their own archive. To apply for a Scots Guard service record from before or after 1945, call, email or write to their Regimental Archives.

Medal and honours records

Campaign medal records

Contact the Ministry of Defence Medal Office for records of Second World War and post-Second World War campaign medals. There are also details of how to apply for a medal if you meet the criteria.

Recommendations for military honours and awards, 1935–1990

A recommendation is a full statement, usually supplied by a commanding officer, of why a medal or any other honour should be awarded to an individual. Each recommendation provides a detailed summary of the action or deed carried out by the person who earned the award. Search for online images of recommendations for military honours and awards (£) (WO 373) on our website.

Announcements of the award of gallantry medals and honours

Almost all gallantry awards to British nationals are publicly announced in the official government newspaper, the London Gazette. This public announcement is often the only record that survives of an award. Search the London Gazette on The Gazette website for the official announcements of British Army soldiers’ gallantry awards.

Unit war diaries

All units, from battalions and brigades to divisions and whole armies, maintained a daily record of events. Though they do not always record details of individual soldiers, they provide a timeline and details of the operations, actions and movements of a soldier’s unit.

To search for diaries, read the advice in our guide to records of British Army operations in the Second World War on unit war diaries. You will need to know which unit, often a battalion, a soldier served with to effectively search these records.

To access these records you will either need to visit us, pay for research (£) or, where you can identify a specific record reference, order a copy (£).

Other records

This section covers other records of British Army soldiers held at The National Archives and some of the other official records of individuals held by other archives and organisations.

British Army casualty lists, 1939–1945

Search the online daily British Army casualty lists (WO 417) on (£). These cover British Army officers, other ranks and nurses. They state the individuals’ rank, service number, date of becoming a casualty and type of casualty. It sometimes gives the unit/battalion number – you can use this to locate a unit war diary.

The term ‘casualty’ covers anyone in the British Army who was killed, wounded, missing, or was a prisoner of war.

Grenadier Guards registers and papers

Search in WO 437 by record type and year range for various records of Grenadier Guards, including:

  • discharge registers
  • registers of deserters
  • attestation forms
  • enlistment registers
  • muster rolls and pay lists
  • description books

The series covers records from the middle of the 18th century onwards. You can also consult a list of the WO 437 records covering 1939-1945.

Records of soldiers from French Tchad

This collection consists of the service records of individuals of Chadian origin who had originally served as part of the Third Fighting French battalion of de Marche, part of Free French forces in Africa during the Second World War. The individuals included in this collection had deserted the Free French and were eventually integrated as a Pioneer Company in the British Army.

Search WO 426 by surname, service number and year of birth for the available records.

Soldiers’ effects ledgers, 1901–1960

Search the soldiers’ effects ledgers (£) covering April 1901 to March 1960 (from The National Army Museum) by name or regiment on These list monies owed to a soldier who died in service.

You may be able to purchase a transcript from the ledgers which usually show

  • full name
  • regimental number
  • date, and sometimes place, of death
  • next of kin and monies paid to them

Ledgers from 1901 to 1914 also show the soldier’s trade and date of enlistment.

Courts martial registers

British Army courts martial registers covering the Second World War are held at The National Archives and contain the name, rank, regiment, place of trial, nature of charge and sentence for each prisoner. There are several series of records containing registers for courts martial held in the United Kingdom and overseas (‘Home’ and ‘Abroad’). Click on the series references below and search by year:

  • WO 86 (1829-1979) – District Courts Martial registers (Home and Abroad)
  • WO 90 (1796-1960) – General Courts Martial registers (Abroad)
  • WO 92 (1666-1704, 1806-1960) – General Courts Martial registers (Home)
  • WO 213 (1909-1963) – Field General Courts Martial and military courts registers (Home and Abroad)

For more advice see our guide to British Army courts martial records.

Absent Voters Lists, 1918–1925 and 1939

Search for a soldier by name in the Absent Voters Lists, taken from electoral registers held at the British Library, on (£) and (£).

The Absent Voter Lists enabled servicemen and women away from home to vote by proxy or by postal application. They record the address, service number and regimental details of each person.

Other resources


The following book, available in The National Archives’ reference library, is one of the most detailed reference books for Second World War records held at the The National Archives, formerly known as the Public Record Office. You can also search our shop for a wide range of history titles.

John Dennis Cantwell, The Second World War: A Guide to Documents in the Public Record Office (Public Record Office, 1998)