How to look for records of... Royal Navy operations in the First World War

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 to find records at The National Archives of Royal Navy operations and actions that took place between 1914 and 1918. The advice in the guide can help you to:

  • trace the movement of specific Royal Navy ships during the war
  • find details of battles fought involving the Royal Navy
  • find photographs of ships and other Royal Navy photographs
  • access the official naval history of the war

The guide does not cover records of:

  • personnel
  • administration or supply
  • technological research

See our other Royal Navy guides covering the First World War for advice on finding those records.

2. Where and how to start

Very few of these records are available online and serious research will probably require a visit to The National Archives at Kew. However, you can make a start online by searching for document references and descriptions in our catalogue. If you find references you can pay for copies of the records to be sent to you but you will not be able to view the records beforehand unless you visit us.

2.1 Consult the Official History of the Great War

The best way to start your research into First World War naval operations is to consult the volumes of the Official History of the Great War and, in particular, the five volumes on Naval Operations, all available in The National Archives Library at Kew and some other specialist libraries. These publications are based on the official records kept in record series ADM 137, covered in more detail later in this guide. They provide exhaustive details of Royal Navy operations during the war and you can trace specific ships through the index in each volume.

Useful supplements to these five volumes are Charles Ernest Fayle’s Seaborne trade and Archibald Spicer Hurd’s The Merchant Navy, multi-volume works full of references to Royal Navy operations.

2.2 Use keywords to search for records using our online catalogue

To view original records at The National Archives you must know their document references. To locate document references, search our catalogue using keywords that will match the short descriptions assigned to records in the catalogue. The kinds of keywords worth trying include:

  • names of battle (for example, ‘Battle of Jutland’ or ‘Jutland’)
  • theatres of operations (for example, ‘Dardanelles’ or ‘Singapore’)
  • ship names (for example, ‘HMS Valiant’ or ‘Valiant’)
  • date or month (for example, ’31 May 1916′ or ‘September 1916’)
  • any other keyword you think may describe a document

A successful search will provide you with a document reference. For example, ADM 137/110.

2.3 Search or browse through the key Royal Navy operations record series in our catalogue

The key Royal Navy operations record series are listed in the following section of this guide. Click on the series links in that and the other sections below (for example, ADM 137) to try keyword searches in those specific series.

Not all records are described in detail in our catalogue and finding records with brief or no description is a trickier task. If your keyword searches in specific series are not uncovering records, you could try browsing the entire series in reference order. You can do this by clicking on the series links and then clicking on ‘reference’ near the top of the page.

3. Key record series

Most of the significant records for Royal Navy operations in the First World War are in three principal record series, ADM 1, ADM 116 and ADM 137. There are limits to how much you will find in ADM 1, ADM 116 and ADM 137 using keyword searches in our catalogue, though ADM 1 and an increasing proportion of ADM 137 do contain some records with quite detailed online descriptions, making them easier to find using keyword searches.

3.1 Records used to compile the Official History of the Great War (ADM 137)

The historians who compiled the Official History of the Great War used records from three principal sources:

  • The Secretariat of the Admiralty (which they called HS files or ‘cases’)
  • The Grand Fleet and other naval commands (which they called HSA files or ‘cases’)
  • Naval War Staff, principally the Trade Division (which they called HSB files or ‘cases’)

All these records are now held in ADM 137 and cover actions and complete operations as recorded via telegrams, signals and operational reports from and about:

  • ships (formerly HS and HSA files)
  • squadrons (formerly HS and HSA files)
  • stations (formerly HS and HSA files)
  • convoys (formerly HSB files)
  • minesweeping (formerly HSB files)
  • the naval blockade of Germany (formerly HSB files)

There is a printed key to ADM 137, available at The National Archives at Kew, kept with the printed volumes of our catalogue. This key is a list of all ‘titled’ papers, that is to say, papers grouped together by subject area under a specific title. These ‘titles’ appear in the large ledgers that make up the indexes and digests in ADM 12. The search process is as follows:

Step 1: Browse ADM 12/1519-1624B in our catalogue to the appropriate index or digest code for the year(s) and person or ship in question. You will need to consult the printed Alphabetical Index to Admiralty Digest Headings, available in the reading rooms at The National Archives at Kew, to decide on the appropriate digest code.

Step 2: Consult the appropriate ADM 12 index or digest volume at The National Archives at Kew and find the entry relating to your search.

Step 3: Note the ‘title’ provided with the entry. This can take various forms. Examples of titles include ‘Admiralty’, ‘Foreign Office’, ‘Coast Guard’, ‘Field Officer’ or sometimes an abbreviation or just a letter, such as ‘Cap. L’ or simply ‘B’.

Step 4: Consult the printed key to ADM 137, described above, to work out the HS, HSA or HSB volume number. Note that the key is organised by year and by ‘title’, with titles appearing in alphabetical order for each year.

Step 5: Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search by HS, HSA or HSB number in the ‘Former reference’ field (in the format ‘HS 1426’); in the ‘Keyword options’ field enter an asterisk (*) – you do not need to enter an actual keyword.

Alternatively, browse the printed version of ADM 137. Note that the printed version of ADM 137 is organised by year, with the HS numbers appearing in alphanumeric sequence for each year

3.2 Papers of the Admiralty Secretariat (ADM 1) and the Admiralty’s own ‘case’ files (ADM 116)

These records include, in ADM 1:

  • reports of actions
  • courts of enquiry documents
  • casualty lists
  • recommendations for honours and awards, chiefly from individual ships

In ADM 116:

  • larger operations and campaigns
  • operational reports of the Royal Naval Air Service
  • operational reports of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Anti Aircraft Corps
  • a set of the Grand Fleet Orders

To explore the full extent of these record series, you will need to consult the indexes and digests in ADM 12 which provide the key to them. For detailed advice on how to do this, consult our guide on Naval correspondence using the ADM 12 indexes and digests.

4. Ships’ logs and ships lost in the war

Click on the following series references:

  • to search within ADM 53 by ship’s name for logs of most Royal Navy ships
  • to search within ADM 173 by submarine’s name for logs of Royal Navy submarines

For more advice, consult our guide on How to find Royal Navy ships’ voyages in log books.

Locate online records of Royal Navy ships lost at sea between 1914 and 1919 at £. The original records are held in ADM 242/6. You can also consult British vessels lost at sea 1914-1918 at our library in Kew.

5. Station records

You can use our catalogue to search by date for correspondence sent to and from Royal Navy stations.

Click on the following series references, entering the year or years of the records you are searching for in the date field:

Though less likely to contain much material on First World War operations, you can also search the following series:

  • ADM 151 for Nore Command at Chatham
  • ADM 179 for the station at Portsmouth

6. Photographs

Search in ADM 176 by ship’s name for photographs of H M Ships. Alternatively, use the advanced search of our catalogue by placing the word ‘photograph’ in the keywords box, restricting your search by year or years in the date range boxes and searching within ADM 1, ADM 116 and ADM 137. This will uncover some of the photographs in these record series but not all photographs have been listed in the catalogue.

Much larger collections are held by the National Maritime Museum and the Imperial War Museum.

7. Correspondence and other records of the Board of Admiralty

The Board of Admiralty was responsible for the command of the Royal Navy. It consisted of a mixture of admirals and politicians.

Click on the following links to search by year for:

  • minutes and memoranda of the Board in ADM 167
  • Admiralty Weekly and Monthly Orders in ADM 182
  • minutes of the Reconstruction and Maintenance Committees in ADM 116/1745-1799
  • Private Office papers of Sir Eric Geddes as First Lord in ADM 116/1804-1810

8. Admiralty publications

Browse ADM 186, or search by year, for:

  • printed intelligence reports (which also appear in ADM 137)
  • actions and campaigns recorded in the form of monographs, compiled by naval staff
  • monthly returns of the distribution of Royal Navy ships

9. Operational records of other naval services

9.1 Royal Naval Division operations

Using the advanced search option, search our catalogue for operational records and unit war diaries of the Royal Naval Division, also known as the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, using one or all of the following sets of keywords:

  • ’63’
  • ‘Royal Naval Division’
  • ‘(Royal Naval) Division’

Search within:

  • WO 95 and ADM 137 for unit war diaries
  • ADM 1, ADM 116 and ADM 137 for operational reports
  • WO 32, WO 106 and WO 158 for operational records

9.2 Royal Naval Air Service operations

There are some references to files of the Royal Naval Air Service in the ADM 12 index volumes. These refer to records in AIR 1.

Consult the Air Historical Branch indexes, available in the reading rooms at The National Archives at Kew, to find references to AIR 1. See our Royal Air Force operations guide for more advice.

10. Further reading

The following recommended publications are available in The National Archives’ Library. They are all part of the Official History of the Great War, the work of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence.

Sir Julian Stafford Corbett and Sir Henry John Newbolt, Naval Operations (Longmans, Green and Co, 1921-1931)

Charles Ernest Fayle, Seaborne trade (John Murray, 1920-1924)

Archibald Spicer Hurd, The Merchant Navy (John Murray, 1921)

Archibald Colquhoun, A History of the Blockade of Germany and of the Countries Associated with her in the Great War (HMSO, 1961)