This is a brief guide to researching British government and military records of the Second World War. Second World War records are wide-ranging and are kept in a variety of archives. This guide will help you gain a general overview of the main sources of the information that exists, and where to find it.
Second World War service records are held by the Ministry of Defence. Visit the Veterans UK website for further information.
Allied Expeditionary Force papers (1943-1945)
Browse copies of documents from the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force and 21 Army Group, relating to a variety of headquarters responsibilities (WO 229). These are available to as digital microfilm in Discovery, our catalogue.
Cabinet papers (1915-1978)
Search records of the Cabinet Office for documents concerning decisions and discussions before, during, and after the Second World War.
The 1939 register
Search the 1939 register by name or address on Findmypast.co.uk (£).
This survey of the civilian British population was used as the basis for issuing ID cards and ration books.
Records available only at The National Archives in Kew
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 (£).
British army unit war diaries (1939-1945)
Consult section 5 of the research guide British Army operations in the Second World War for information on how to search British Army unit war diaries for the Second World War.
Government and military records
Search and browse the following departments to gain an overview of government and military records for the Second World War:
- War Office (WO), Admiralty (ADM) and Air Force (AIR) – this is where most armed forces and general war records will be found
- Foreign Office (FO) – correspondence, policy and negotiation with other states
- Prime Minister’s Office (PREM) – mainly correspondence to and from the Prime Minister’s office
- Home Office (HO) – this series focuses on domestic and internal affairs
There is likely to be some overlap between separate departments on any given subject. For example, a decision made during the Second World War may have been informed by the Foreign Office (FO), discussed by the Cabinet (CAB) and Prime Minister (PREM), and then carried out by the Army (WO), Navy (ADM) and RAF (AIR).
Records in other archives and organisations
Service Records (1920-present)
Visit the Veterans UK website for information about how to request a summary of a service record from the Ministry of Defence. These are not available to members of the general public, but next of kin may request access to them.
Wartime diaries and personal papers (1939-1945)
Visit the Imperial War Museum website for information on how to access records in their document archive and on the various collections held by the museum relevant to the Second World War.