How to look for records of... British and Commonwealth prisoners of the Second World War and the Korean War
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1. Why use this guide?
Use this guide if you are looking for records of British or Commonwealth prisoners of war (PoWs), as well as some PoWs from Allied countries, taken prisoner between 1939-1945 or 1950-1953. The advice here refers primarily to military personnel, but does also include some information on records of civilian PoWs.
The guide provides advice on the various types of PoW records we hold and how to search for them at The National Archives. Some of these records are available to view and download online but many are not and you may therefore need to visit us in Kew to see documents.
Read our guide on war crimes for records of prison guards and other camp personnel who may have been tried for crimes committed in the camps, as well as details of camp conditions.
2. What types of records does The National Archives hold?
- some records of those held captive by German, Italian or Japanese forces
- some questionnaires which may reveal personal information as well as details of experiences in the prisoner of war camps
- some individual reports which may reveal details about capture or escape attempts from prisoners of war camps in central Europe
- selected records of Merchant Navy prisoners of war
- documents which reveal information about some prisoner of war camps
- records of enquiries into missing personnel and POWs’ recommendations for awards to civilian helpers (Europe only)
Our records are incomplete, so you may not find the information you are looking for.
3. Online records
Search and download selected prisoners of war records 1715-1945 on Findmypast (£). These are selected digitised records from a variety of record collections held at The National Archives, including Foreign Office, Colonial Office, Admiralty and Air Force collections.
Search the British Army Prisoners of War, 1939-1945 database on Ancestry.co.uk £ for information about some British prisoners of war.
4. How to search for records held at Kew
As indicated above, some of our records have been digitally copied and made available online but many have not been copied and to see these you will need to consult them at our building in Kew. The search for records held at Kew can, however, begin online, by searching for document references in our online catalogue.
The key to a successful search is knowing what search terms to search with and which record series to search within, though you can try speculative searches across our entire collection from the catalogue homepage. Most of the records are not searchable by the prisoner’s name so you will probably need to try the following search terms instead:
- ‘prisoner of war’
- country names, for example Italy, Germany, Japan, Korea with the term ‘prisoners of war’
- ‘camp’ as a single keyword, or camp name or number
- ‘prisoner of war list’
- ‘awards’ and ‘helpers’
- ‘civilian’ and ‘prisoner ‘, ‘internment’ or ‘internees’
- ship or glider name, aircraft type and number for missing personnel
- type of service, i.e. Royal Air Force and ‘prisoner’ or ‘Merchant’ and ‘prisoner of war’ for merchant seamen PoWs
The above search terms will return higher proportions of relevant results when you target specific record series using the advanced search of our catalogue. Sets of record series collectively make up record departments, most of which represent the central government departments which originally collected and created the records. Use the following reference codes to target specific departments in which PoW records are held:
- WO for War Office records
- AIR for Air Ministry records
- ADM for Admiralty records
- FO for Foreign Office records (use our guide to Correspondence of the Foreign Office, 1920-1951 for more advice on finding FO records)
- CO for Colonial Office records
- DO for Dominions Office records
- MT for Ministry of Transport records
The rest of this guide provides advice on which record series within these large departments are specifically, and in some cases exclusively, series of PoW records and how to search through them.
5. Second World War – PoWs held in Europe
If you are trying to establish whether someone was a British or Commonwealth prisoner of war held in Germany or a German-occupied territory, it may save time to start by consulting the following published sources, all held at our library in Kew. Between them they provide details of approximately 169,000 British and Commonwealth prisoners of war of all ranks and provide details which may prove vital in your search, as well as being of interest for their own sake:
- Prisoners of war, British Army, 1939-1945
- Prisoners of war, naval and air forces of Great Britain and the Empire, 1939-1945
- Prisoners of war, armies and other land forces of the British Empire, 1939-1945 (2nd edn, Polstead, 1990)
For each prisoner they include:
- service number
- prisoner of war number
- final camp location
Once you are confident that an individual was held as a prisoner of war, the next step is to search within the record series detailed below.
5.1 German record cards of British and Commonwealth prisoners of war and civilian internees (1939-1945)
Search by name for details of some 200,000 individuals held by German authorities during the Second World War, in series WO 416. Not all the records in this series are yet open to the public.
5.2 Escape and evasion reports (1941-1945)
Consult the escape and evasion reports in WO 208, which give individual accounts of escape attempts or capture or awards for those who assisted escape attempts.
The reports cover prisoners held in Europe (and North Africa).
Most of the reports are original documents only. A few have been digitised and are available to download.
Find the digitised reports by searching for the person’s name in our catalogue. You can restrict your search to reference WO 208 and the relevant year range.
If you are looking for a report that has not been digitised, you will need to use the card indexes. You have two options:
- search selected card indexes on findmypast.co.uk (£)
- use the card index in the reading rooms at The National Archives
Each entry in the card index provides a prisoner’s name, rank, number, corps and the record reference to the report in WO 208, which you can view at The National Archives.
Use the card index to identify which document reference you require in:
- WO 208/5451-5460 for detailed recommendations for honours and awards made to foreign civilians and military personnel who assisted allied escape and evaders
- WO 208/5461-5480 for individuals who assisted evaders in Belgium and Luxemburg, Denmark, France, Greece, Holland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Italy and Poland which may provide limited personal information
Consult reports of escapees in AIR 40/1545-1552 for information about Royal Air Force prisoners of war who escaped or evaded capture. These reports include internal indexes. Read our guide on RFC, RAF and RNAS personnel for other records on RAF prisoners of war.
5.3 Liberated prisoner of war interrogation questionnaires (1945-1946)
Browse through WO 344 in our catalogue for questionnaires completed by liberated prisoners of war who had been held captive by the Germans or Japanese.
These records are arranged by nation (Germany or Japan) and then alphabetically.
Browse and locate file by the relevant surname range in WO 208/5437-5450 for special questionnaires made by individuals about work of escape committees, escape aids, German Censorship and collection of geographic information which might assist future escape attempts.
5.4 Liberation and interrogation reports (1945)
Where a liberation report exists it may provide more details than the liberation questionnaire. It is a good idea to check both sources.
The reports may provide details of escape attempts and organisation.
For liberation reports, use the advanced search in our catalogue to search WO 208 by surname and either first name or initials. Search results may include other types of documents held in WO 208 – liberation reports falls within the range WO 208/3336-3340.
Locate interrogation reports in WO 208/3341-3345 by consulting the card index, sorted by prisoners’ names, in the reading rooms at The National Archives. Use the guide ‘reports by prisoners of war, Second World War’ available at The National Archives for guidance on how to find references and the explanation of the appendices.
Many reports include appendices which can provide further information relating to:
- locals who helped escapers
- feedback on the usefulness of escape aids or instructions provided beforehand
5.5 Nominal lists of prisoners of war (1943-1945)
Browse and download selected lists of British and Commonwealth prisoners of war in WO 392/1-26 for alphabetical lists of prisoners of war from all branches of HM Forces held in Germany or German-occupied territory, Italy and Japan or Japanese-occupied territory.
Please note, some of these are available on Findmypast (£).
5.6 Enquiries into missing personnel including PoWs (1940-1950)
Browse our catalogue in WO 361 for enquiries into missing army personnel in both Europe and the Far East. The series also includes miscellaneous prisoner of war rolls and details of what happened to some individual PoWs.
Please note, some of these are available on Findmypast (£).
Search by surname in ADM 358 for enquiries into missing naval personnel.
Search for missing RAF personnel in AIR 81. Search these records by:
- surname of missing airman
- place/location of the incident in which air crew went missing
- date of the incident
- type of aircraft from which air crew went missing (for example, Blenheim)
These files may contain missing person and casualty action sheets, death certificates, personal letters and correspondence, exhumation reports, investigation reports, questionnaires by repatriated personnel and personal effects of POWs.
Please note that this series is still accruing and currently only goes up to June 1940.
5.7 PoW camp reports (1941-1947)
PoW reports were compiled by the Red Cross and supply details of camp conditions.
Search by camp name in WO 224 for some details of PoW camps. Also browse using our catalogue in:
- FO 916 and WO 224 for reports from various sources on internment camps
- CO 980 and HO 215 for conditions of Far East camps
Consult CAB 101/199 and WO 32/14550 for some reports made by former PoWs.
5.8 Abbreviations for German prisoner of war camps
The following abbreviations for German prisoner of war camps are found in our records:
- Stalag (Stammlager) – in most cases, a camp for NCOs and enlisted men
- Oflag (Offizierlager) – a camp for officers only
- Stalag Luft (Stammlager Luftwaffe) – a camp for Air Force officers administered by the Luftwaffe
- Dulag (Durchgangslager) – a transit camp where captured aircrew were processed and interrogated before being sent to a permanent camp
5.9 Selected notifications of deaths (1939-1942)
Search notifications of prisoner of war deaths (RG 32) at bmdregisters.co.uk (£).
5.10 Merchant Navy prisoners of war (1939-1945)
Search by name of ship or surname in BT 373 for Merchant Navy prisoners of war.
Please note, BT 373/3717-8 and BT 373/3722 are available on Findmypast (£).
5.11 Prisoner of war accounts in Nazi persecution files
Search among the correspondence and claims files in the Foreign Office claims department records, in series FO 950, for accounts from Britons imprisoned on enemy territory during the Second World War. Search with terms like ‘POW’ and ‘prisoner’ and, less reliably, with the names of individuals.
Some records relating to individuals are closed and the claimants’ names have been withheld under the Data Protection Act. You can request the opening of closed records in FO 950 under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 by filling out our Freedom of Information enquiry form or by writing to our Records Enquiry Service at The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU. In your request please specify the series reference FO 950 and the full names of the claimants you are researching.
5.12 War Crimes committed against Allied Prisoners of War
Search in series WO 309 and WO 311 using keywords in relation to the crimes themselves to find case files of the War Crimes Group (NW Europe), which investigated war crimes, including many against allied Prisoners of War For further information, consult our research guide, War Crimes 1939-1945.
5.13 Prisoners of War maps and plans
The series WO 418 consists of the UK Ministry of Defence’s record set of escape and evasion maps produced by MI9 between 1940 and 1945. Escape maps and plans can also be found within escape and evasion reports discussed in 5.2.
6. Second World War – PoWs held in the Far East
6.1 Japanese prisoner of war index cards (1942-1945)
Search and download index cards for British prisoners of war who were captured by the Japanese (WO 345) on Findmypast (£).
Information on the index cards are partly in Japanese. For help translating some of these characters see the Dutch National Archives’ guide on translating Japanese POW cards (Note: this link will download a Pdf file).
6.2 Prisoners of war held in Singapore camps (1942-1945)
Search for the names of some 13,500 allied prisoners of war and civilian internees held in Singapore camps (WO 367) on Findmypast (£). They include both British prisoners of war and other nationalities.
6.3 Hospital registers for prisoner of war camps in the Far East (1942-1947)
These hospital registers (WO 347) kept by the prisoners of war, provide medical details such as:
- date admitted to hospital
- date of discharge, transfer or death
- sometimes the ailment/ disease admitted for
They also provide personal details such as unit, age and religion.
You will need to start your search by consulting the indexes. Browse the indexes in WO 347/60-200 and choose the relevant surname range. Once you have ordered the document identify the relevant index card and make a note of the two part reference given – for example 1/13. 1 is the book number and 13 the page number. Use this to identify the relevant book within WO 347/14-59, the book numbers run sequentially.
6.4 Other important sources
Many of the sources for British Prisoners of War in Europe also cover British Prisoners of war in the Far East.
See the sections above on ‘Prisoners of War in Europe‘ for guidance on:
- liberated prisoner of war interrogation questionnaires (1945-1946)
- nominal lists of prisoners of war (1943-1945)
- enquiries into missing personnel including PoWs (1940-1945)
- selected notifications of deaths (1939-1942)
- PoW camp reports (1941-1947)
- Merchant Navy prisoners of war (1939-1945)
7. Korean War – PoWs held in Korea
The following records contain lists of POWs held in Korea:
- WO 208/3999 (1951-1953)
- WO 308/54 (1954)
- DO 35/5853-5863 (1952-1955)
8. Records held elsewhere
The ICRC Archives holds lists of prisoners of war and internees of all nationalities for the Second World War. At present they are only taking search requests enquiries that meet certain criteria – see their website for further information.
Contact the American National Archives and Records Administration for records of over 100,000 helpers and correspondence files of the Allied Screening Commission, and the routing slips of the Commission’s paying and investigating officers.
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