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?

  • Some

This guide provides a brief overview of Second World War records held at The National Archives. You’ll get a sense of the sorts of records we hold and links to guides with more details and advice on how to find and view specific sets of records. There is also advice on some of the related records you can find in other archives and organisations.

What are these records?

Second World War records at The National Archives are records once held by central government departments, especially the departments responsible for the British Army, the Royal Navy, the Merchant Navy and the Royal Air Force. Among them are records of service for individuals, operational plans and reports, administrative records of various kinds all the way up to those documenting top level government policy and decision making. These are the original records, most of them paper records, that played some part in the working life of these departments and the branches of the military which they governed.

How to search for and view 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 in the sections below contains the links and advice you will need to search a specific set of records.

How you search will depend, partly, on whether the records are available online. Some of the online records are available on our own website but others are provided by our licensed partners and there are links to their websites in our guidance where this is the case.

Many records have no online version and to see these you will need to consult them at our building in Kew or pay for digital copies to be made and sent to you. The search for records held at Kew begins in our online catalogue. The catalogue contains short descriptions of the records and a catalogue search means searching for the keywords and dates that match these short descriptions (our guides provide keyword suggestions). Some descriptions are just a word or two, others contain several sentences of descriptive text.  You can narrow a search using the advanced catalogue search to target the specific departments and series into which the records are arranged, each one identified by a code. Three of the most significant for Second World War research are:

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.

When you find a description of a record in the catalogue it will come with a document reference – you will need the document reference to see the record at Kew or to request copies. For more guidance on using 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). The Ministry of Defence service records project has seen all the service records of non-officer ranks in the British Army transferred to The National Archives and access to them is explained in our guide to British Army soldiers of the Second World War. However, all Royal Navy and Royal Air Force service records, for now, remain with the Ministry of Defence.

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.

Merchant Navy

We hold relatively detailed records of merchant seamen who served during the Second World War and records of their service medals.

Home Front

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.

Operational records

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.

Merchant Navy

For advice on finding digitised records recording the movements of British and Allied merchant ships, consult our guide to merchant shipping movement cards.

Home Front

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.