How to look for records of... British Army operations in the Second World War
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
1. Why use this guide?
This guide will help you find records at The National Archives relating to military operations in the Second World War, planned and carried out by the:
- British Army
- Indian Army
- Canadian, New Zealand, South African or Indian forces (also known as dominion forces) under British command
- Allied and colonial troops under British command
The records will include details of:
- secret operations
- daily activities of army units (as recorded in unit war diaries)
The guide does not cover records of:
- personnel (for Second World War service records visit the Veterans UK website)
- technological research
2. Essential information
This is because during the war the army, naval and air services, as well as the civil government and Allied forces, were more integrated than ever before.
3. How to conduct a general search
You will have limited success if you search Discovery, our catalogue using keywords. This is because not all of the records have been catalogued in detail, and only a few have been digitised.
Many army units have been catalogued using abbreviations (for example, ‘Fd. Regt.’ instead of ‘Field Regiment’), so you may have to format your search in different ways.
However, keyword searching can be a good way to begin. Try searching by:
- name of battle (for example, ‘Gazala’)
- name of operation (for example, ‘Overlord’)
- name of country or region where an operation took place (for example, Sicily or Belgium)
- name of army unit – try different formats (for example, ‘8th army’ and ‘8 army’)
Restrict your search to the appropriate date range and search within reference WO.
For a general description of the records, read The Second World War: A Guide to Documents in the Public Record Office by John Cantwell (PRO, 1998).
4. Unit war diaries
All units, from battalions and brigades to divisions and whole armies, maintained a daily record of events, often with appendices of signals and orders.
To access the right diary you will need to know the theatre of war – where the unit was fighting (see section 10 for help with this). For example, the diaries for a regiment fighting in Mesopotamia will be with the Middle East forces diaries in record series WO 169.
First select your record series from the table below. Then search our catalogue for the unit name, restricting your search to the relevant series.
As many of these records are described in our catalogue using military abbreviations and specialist language, you may have to try formatting the unit name in different ways or browse the relevant series.
|War Office directorates||WO 165|
|Home forces||WO 166|
|British expeditionary force||WO 167|
|North-West expeditionary force||WO 168|
|Middle East forces||WO 169|
|Central Mediterranean forces||WO 170|
|North-West Europe||WO 171|
|South-East Asia command||WO 172|
|West Africa forces||WO 173|
|British North Africa forces||WO 175|
|Various smaller theatres||WO 176|
|Medical services||WO 177|
|Military missions||WO 178|
|Dominion forces||WO 179|
|GHQ Liaison Regiment*||WO 215|
|Special services||WO 218|
|Ships Signals sections*||WO 257|
|Royal Marine Commandos||DEFE 2|
*These series include associated papers
5. Headquarters papers
The records of the military headquarters of each theatre of operation, and of the forces under their command, are the most important sources of information on the planning and conduct of military operations. Search or browse the following record series:
|British expeditionary force in France 1939-1940||WO 197|
|North West expeditionary force in Norway 1940||WO 198|
|Home forces||WO 199|
|Middle East forces||WO 201|
|Military missions||WO 202|
|Far East forces including ABDA and SEAC||WO 203|
|Allied forces in North Africa, Italy and France 1942-1945||WO 204, WO 228|
|21st Army Group in Northern Europe 1943-1945||WO 205, WO 229|
|SHAEF||WO 219, WO 229|
|North African and Mediterranean theatres: maps||WO 234|
|East Africa command||WO 276|
|Combined operations||DEFE 2|
6. War Office directorates
While the directorates were primarily concerned with administration, their records frequently include reports on actions and campaigns. Use our catalogue to search the following series, or browse them by clicking on the links:
|Directorate of military operations and intelligence||WO 106|
|Quarter-master general including exercises and plans, especially combined operations||WO 107|
|Directorate of military operations: appreciation files||WO 190|
|Directorate of military operations: collation files||WO 193|
|Directorate of artillery||WO 196|
|Directorate of military intelligence including weekly intelligence summaries and intelligence reviews||WO 208|
|Directorate of military training particularly lessons learned from operations||WO 231|
|Directorate of tactical investigation particularly studies of individual operations||WO 232|
|Directorate of air||WO 233|
|Directorate of army psychiatry||WO 241|
|Directorate of signals including signal plans and instructions for operations||WO 244|
|Directorate of staff duties||WO 260|
|Directorate of supplies and transport||WO 272|
|Engineer in Chief papers including reports on planning and operations||WO 227|
7. Records of Cabinet and high command
To find further records of the Cabinet Office, search our catalogue using keywords, restricted your search to the CAB department and the relevant year range. The records include:
- defence committees, for example in CAB 69
- Chiefs of Staff committees, for example in CAB 79
- War Cabinet daily situation reports in CAB 100
- War Cabinet telegrams in CAB 105
- Secretariat files in CAB 120 – these document the personal intervention of the Prime Minister
7.2 Prime Minister’s Office
7.3 War Office councils and committees
Browse the following series:
- minutes of War Office council, Army council and their committees in WO 163
- Inter-Services security board minutes in WO 283 (contain information on the co-ordination of operational security and the control of code names)
- secret papers concerning defence issues in CAB 121
8. Other operational records
Search within WO 32 for reports of operations, using the following search terms in our catalogue:
- ‘Code 0’ (for overseas operations)
- ‘Code 46′(for narratives of operations)
- ‘Code 95’ (for reports of invasions)
Browse WO 33 for reports on actions with the enemy.
Browse the combined operations headquarters records in DEFE 2 or search by special service brigade, commando unit or the code name of the operation. This record series covers all amphibious and some airborne operations.
9. Official histories and narratives
Search or browse the following record series:
- narratives and reports written by the official historians of the Second World War in CAB 106 and CAB 101
- official historical studies of the war, mostly published in the 1950s, in WO 277
- notes and papers of a 1947 course on the D-Day landings and ensuing campaigns in WO 223
- medical historians’ papers that include narratives of medical units in action in WO 222
10. Orders of battle
The Orders of Battle and related records give the overseas locations of units during a particular battle or campaign. They show the distribution of divisions and regiments in numerical order and provide the station of each battalion or company. This information can help you trace a unit war diary.
Browse, search or consult the following for the locations of British and Dominions forces:
Browse or search the following for the locations of Allied and enemy forces:
11. Private papers
Private and private office papers contain some information about operations. Consult the papers of:
- Field-Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis in WO 214
- the Chief of the (Imperial) General Staff in WO 216
- the Permanent Under Secretary in WO 258
- the Secretary of State in WO 259