How to look for records of... Second World War – an overview
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
How many are online?
This guide provides a brief overview of Second World War records held at The National Archives. These are the records of central government, including all branches of the military. You’ll get a sense of the sort of records we hold and links to guides with more details and advice on how to find the records in our collection, including whether records are available online.
How the records are arranged
The original records are arranged at The National Archives by the government departments that created them. Each department’s collection of records is identified by a department code. Three of the most significant for Second World War research are:
- the War Office, which administered the British Army – department code WO
- the Admiralty, which administered the Royal Navy – department code ADM
- the Air Ministry, which administered the Royal Air Force – department code AIR
Numerous other government departments have transferred Second World War records to The National Archives. You will find details for many of them in the guides which we provide links to below.
How to search for records
Before you begin a search you should see if there is a guide to the records you are looking for – this guide is designed to help you to do that. Each guide listed below contains the links and advice you will need to search a specific set of records.
Each guide will indicate whether records have been made available online (charges usually apply). The online copies are accessed either directly from our website or from the websites of our licensed partners, including Ancestry and Findmypast.
Some records have no online version and to see these you will need to consult them at our building in Kew or pay for copies to be made and sent to you. The search for records held at Kew begins by using keywords and dates to search our online catalogue. The catalogue contains short descriptions of the records and a document reference for each – you will need the document reference to see the record itself or to request copies.
For more guidance on searching or browsing our catalogue, visit our Discovery help pages.
Records of individuals
Military and intelligence
The service record of an individual will usually provide more detail on them than any other single record. However, you can use operational records of the units they served with to paint a broader picture of service (see next section for advice on operational records). Military service records of the Second World War, including those for servicewomen and military nurses, are still held by the Ministry of Defence. Visit the GOV.UK website for further information.
In general, the identities of individuals who worked for the security and intelligence services are protected and therefore records of them are not made available to the public. For more information read our guide to records of the intelligence and security services.
For other records at The National Archives which relate to individuals who served with the military during the war, read our guide to records of deaths in the First and Second World Wars, which includes advice on finding casualty lists, as well as our guides to records of medals and honours, courts martial and prisoners of war.
We hold relatively detailed records of merchant seamen who served during the Second World War and records of their service medals.
Records of individuals on the Home Front include the 1939 Register, Home Guard, the Women’s Land Army and some records relating to conscientious objectors.
Our guide to refugees includes links to records of passengers, aliens’ registration and naturalisations.
We also have a guide to finding records of internees.
Although The National Archives has government records of policy regarding evacuation, no central records of evacuees were kept. Our guide to evacuees gives some advice and links which may help you to find information from other sources.
Military and intelligence
Among the most sought-after records of British Army operations in the Second World War are unit war diaries, which provide information on the activities of army units down to battalion level. There is a separate but related guide on how to find military maps.
Read our guide to Royal Navy operations for an overview of naval records, including ship’s logs, convoys, combined operations and naval aviation services.
Consult our guide to RAF operations for a description of operational records and how to find them, including records of squadrons and units, station records, crashes and combat reports.
For advice on finding records of Special Operations Executive (SOE), signals intelligence and code breaking and other intelligence matters, see our intelligence and security services guide.
For advice on finding digitised records recording the movements of British and Allied merchant ships, consult our guide to merchant shipping movement cards.
For information on finding records of air raid damage between 1940 and 1945, see the guide to records of the Bomb Census.
Use our guide to land requisitioned for war for guidance on finding records of land requisitioned by the military and by the state during the war.
Our guide to the National Farm Survey of England and Wales gives advice on finding records and maps from the 1941 to 1943 survey which aimed to collect data on every farm or holding of more than five acres in England and Wales.
Though we do not generally hold photographs of individuals, there are large numbers of photographs depicting elements of military operations, some of them taken as part of the operations themselves, and some from the Home Front too. Consult the Second World War section of our photographs guide for more details and advice on how to find photographs at The National Archives.
Government policy and strategy, international relations and the aftermath of the war
For guidance on finding records of government policy, the conduct of the war and international relations, see our guides to Cabinet Papers, records of the Prime Minister’s Office, Foreign Office and Colonial Office as well as Sir Anthony Eden’s private office papers.
Consult our guide to Propaganda for advice on finding records of the Ministry of Information and of the Foreign Office concerning news, press censorship and publicity and propaganda at home and overseas.
To locate copies of captured German and Italian documents follow the advice in our guide to German Foreign Ministry records.
Read our Foreign Office guide for advice on finding records of the Control Commissions and the allied administrations in Germany and Austria following the war.
Our guide to war crimes includes advice on finding records of investigations and trials of war criminals in Europe and the Far East as well as of the tracing of ex-enemy nationals suspected of committing war crimes. There is a separate guide to records of Nazi persecution.
Records of the looting of works of art and cultural property throughout Europe by Nazi Germany are covered in our looted art guide.
Records in other organisations and other resources
Our Education pages provide other resources for learning about the Second World War.
Other organisations with collections or resources which may be useful include, the Imperial War Museums, the National Army Museum, the RAF Air Historical Branch, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the National Maritime Museum and the International Red Cross.
Our guide to newspapers gives links to online newspaper archives, the British Pathé website and the British Film Institute’s Britain on film have online films from the period.
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