How to look for records of... Royal Navy operations in the First World War
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1. Why use this guide?
This guide will help you find records at The National Archives relating to Royal Navy operations and actions that took place between 1914 and 1918.
The guide does not cover records of:
- personnel (for these records see our guides on Royal Navy ratings 1853-1928, Royal Navy commissioned officers and Royal Navy warrant officers)
- administration or supply
- technological research
As yet, none of the principal operational records of the Royal Navy for this period are available online. You can search for document references or descriptions of documents in Discovery, our online catalogue, but to view the documents themselves you will need to either visit The National Archives at Kew or pay for copies to be sent to you. Alternatively, you can pay for research.
2. Principal record series
Most of the relevant records for Royal Navy operations in the First World War are in three principal record series, ADM 1, ADM 116 and ADM 137. For advice on how to search these series, see section 3 and section 4.
2.1 ADM 137: records used to compile the Official History of the Great War
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)
2.2 ADM 1: Papers of the Admiralty Secretariat
These records include:
- reports of actions
- courts of enquiry documents
- casualty lists
- recommendations for honours and awards, chiefly from individual ships
2.3 ADM 116: the Admiralty’s own ‘case’ files
These records cover:
- 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
3. Starting your research
3.1 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, available in The National Archives Library at Kew and some other specialist libraries.
In particular, consult the five volumes on Naval Operations, based on the official records kept in record series ADM 137. They provide scrupulous 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 the three volumes of both Seaborne trade and The Merchant Navy, all with references to Royal Navy operations. For more details and a list of all the useful volumes in this set of books see Further reading.
3.2 Use keywords to search our catalogue
To view records at The National Archives you must first find document references for the records you are interested in.
Use keywords to search record descriptions in our catalogue.
A successful search will provide you with a document reference. Not all records are described in detail in our catalogue (see section 4 for alternative search methods) but ADM 1 and an increasing proportion of ADM 137 contain many records with quite detailed descriptions, making them easier to find using keyword searches.
Use the advanced search to restrict your search to ADM 1, ADM 116 and ADM 137 and try searching by:
- battle (for example, ‘Battle of Jutland’ or ‘Jutland’)
- theatre of operations (for example, ‘Dardanelles’ or ‘Singapore’)
- ship (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
4. Further research in the principal record series
There are limits to how much you will find in ADM 1, ADM 116 and ADM 137 using keyword searches in our catalogue.
4.1 Further research in ADM 1 and ADM 116
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.
Consult our guide on Naval correspondence using the ADM 12 indexes and digests.
4.2 Further research in ADM 137
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 ADM 12 indexes and digests. 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.
5. Other records
5.1 Ships’ logs
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.
5.2 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 relevant to your search in the date field:
Though less likely to contain much material on First World War operations, you can also search the following series:
5.3 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.
You can use our catalogue to search by date for correspondence sent to and from the Board of Admiralty.
Using the advanced search option, enter the year or years relevant to your search in the date field, place an asterisk in the keyword field and search in:
- 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
5.4 Ships lost in the war
Search the card index by name of Royal Navy ships lost between 1914 and 1919 (ADM 242/6) online at findmypast.co.uk £. Alternatively consult the publication British vessels lost at sea 1914-1918.
Search our catalogue by ship’s name within ADM 176 for photographs of H M Ships.
Much larger collections are held by the National Maritime Museum and the Imperial War Museum.
Using the advanced search, search 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 there are many more which are harder to find as there is no index to them and not all have been described as photographs in our catalogue.
5.6 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
6. Operational records of other naval services
6.1 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:
- ‘Royal Naval Division’
- ‘(Royal Naval) Division’
- 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
6.2 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.
7. 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)
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