How to look for records of... Royal Air Force operations
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
1. Why use this guide?
This guide covers all the major series for operational records from 1914 up to 1945 and also post war operations. It also contains guidance for records associated with RAF operations.
For information on how to search for a service record of an officer, airman or airwoman in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) or the Royal Air Force (RAF) from 1914 go to the relevant specific research guide instead.
2. Essential information
Most of the operational records are not available to view online unless otherwise stated.
Prior to the formation of the RAF in April 1918, operational records which survive for the period from 1914 to 1918 also relate to the RFC or RNAS.
From 1919 to 1939, the RAF was involved in a number of campaigns in the Middle East and India. Records which relate to these campaigns fall in the department code AIR.
Operations record books (ORBs) may provide extra information about servicemen or women where details in the service records are patchy. ORBs exist for different units within the RAF and are in the department code AIR.
3. First World War, 1914-1918
3.1 Operational records of in series AIR 1
Identify a full document reference in AIR 1 by using Discovery, our catalogue. Using the advanced search option, search using the squadron number and AIR 1 as your keywords (separating them with AND), and entering 1914-1918 in the date range fields. If files do exist, the catalogue should supply you with a document reference, for example, AIR 1/149/15/95/3.
The series AIR 1 contains operational records for brigades, wings, squadrons and miscellaneous units. AIR 1 may supply details of service formations and other sources for use in official histories and narratives of operations.
3.2 Other Air Ministry records
Additional information may be found in series AIR 2 which also includes papers of the Admiralty and the War Office relating to aviation and aeronautics. A few early squadron operations record books are in AIR 27 which can be searched online. Some airship log books are in series AIR 3.
3.3 Operational records in WO and ADM record series
General reports for the RFC are in series WO 158.
RNAS operational records are in series ADM 137. Use the Admiralty index and digests in ADM 12 to identify potential references in ADM 137. Read our guide on How to find naval correspondence using the ADM 12 indexes and digests for more information.
For more information on other ADM record series refer to the research guide Royal Navy operations in the Second World War.
4. Between the Wars, 1919-1939
Other records include:
|Chief of Air Staff||AIR 8|
|Air Publications||AIR 10|
|Unregistered papers||AIR 20|
|Overseas Commands||AIR 23|
|Operations Records Books: Squadrons||Search operations record books (AIR 27) online|
|Directorate of Intelligence and other intelligence papers||AIR 40|
Many of the series for the period of the Second World War contain records relating to the inter-war period. See point 5 below.
5. Second World War: commands and policy (1939-1945)
5.1 High command
Most records about high command are found in various war Cabinet records.
- combined chiefs of staff committee and sub-committees in series CAB 88
- daily situation reports for the war Cabinet and the daily summaries of information prepared in the central war room in series CAB 100
- cabinet telegrams to overseas commands in war Cabinet in series CAB 105
- details about personal intervention of the Prime Minister of the day in operational matters in series CAB 120 and series PREM 3
You can search memoranda about the high command in series CAB 65-68, in our catalogue. Some records of the Cabinet committees concerned with defence in series CAB 69, CAB 83 and CAB 85 can be browsed on digital microfilm. Other related records are in series CAB 70 and CAB 78.
From 1936 onwards, details on the planning and conduct of operations are in records of the commands. Any search in them is likely to be difficult and prolonged.
They fall in the following series:
|Balloon command||AIR 13|
|Bomber command||AIR 14|
|Coastal command||AIR 15|
|Fighter command||AIR 16|
|Maintenance command||AIR 17|
|Overseas commands||AIR 23|
|Training command||AIR 32|
|Ferry and transport commands||AIR 38|
|Army co-operation command||AIR 39|
5.3 Expeditionary forces
Records of RAF staff detachments at military headquarters:
- British air forces in France, 1939-1940 are in series AIR 35
- Air component north west expeditionary force (Norway, 1940) are in series AIR 36
- The British air element in the allied expeditionary force (North-West Europe, 1944-1945) is recorded in series AIR 37
- Planning papers for the invasion of North Africa in 1942 (operation torch) are in series AIR 47
5.4 Air policy
The Air Ministry was responsible for all aspects of policy. The basic pattern for the direction and conduct of the war in the air was set in 1936 and remained unchanged throughout.
Files relating to policy, including some concerned with operations are below:
|Chief of air staff||AIR 8|
|Directorate of plans||AIR 9|
|Private office papers||AIR 19|
|Unregistered papers||AIR 20|
|Directorate of intelligence and other intelligence papers||AIR 40|
Records of the combined operational planning committee, from June 1943 to June 1945 are in series AIR 42. The combined operational planning committee was responsible for the plans for strategic daylight operations by British and United States bomber and fighter forces.
Daily summaries of operations carried out, weekly intelligence reports, losses sustained and allied and enemy activities as well as statistical material are in series AIR 22.
5.5 Bombing missions in Europe
Brief details of all operations carried out by bomber command are recorded in the night and day reports in series AIR 14. They include information about operations over enemy territory, daily reports on interception and tactics and final reports on operations and night raids as well as some reconnaissance photographs.
Photographs documenting bombing missions in Europe are included in HO 191/113-121 and in series AIR 23. For more guidance on where to find photographs on bombing missions consult the research guide on photographs.
5.6 Narratives and histories
5.7 Fleet air arm and naval aviation
Fleet air arm squadron records are in series ADM 207. Search the supplementary material in the Air Ministry combat reports (AIR 50) online. Some operational records of the fleet air arm for the period April 1933 to September 1943 are preserved in the file AIR 27/2387. Search for this operations record book online.
Other records relating to the service during the war can be found under Code 90 in series ADM 1 and in series ADM 116 with additional information in series ADM 199. Locate operations records over the Atlantic in series AIR 15.
5.8 Army aviation and combined operations
Glider pilots’ regiments and army air corps (AAC) operational records are in AIR and WO records series.
Records of the AAC air observation post (AOP) squadrons are in the operations records books (AIR 27) which can be searched online. Operations record books of glider units including squadrons and training units are in series AIR 29.
Unit records for glider pilots’ regiments and AOPs from 1939 to 1945 may be found within the army war diaries series for their respective theatres of operations.
6. Second World War: operations record books, combat reports and aircraft logs (1939-1945)
6.1 What are the operations record books?
Operations record books (ORBs) comprise of:
- ‘summary of events’ forms (also known as Form 540)
- ‘detail of work carried out’ forms (also known as Form 541)
- appendices where applicable (which may include operational orders, miscellaneous reports and telegraphed messages)
6.2 Why use them?
They are particularly important for detailed studies of operations. Because of the lack of information on service records, many people choose to consult the ORBs, particularly the Form 540 for references to RAF personnel. Squadron ORBs can be supplemented with information found in the Air Ministry combat reports (AIR 50) online.
6.3 What information do they contain?
ORBs are record of daily events kept by all units of the RAF. The accuracy and detail entered within each book depends on the compiler and unit. They sometimes include nominal rolls, lists of officers and details of promotions, transfers or awards.
ORBs for the following RAF units:
|Squadrons||Search the operations records books (AIR 27) online|
|Miscellaneous units||AIR 29|
|Directorate of plans||AIR 9/445-454|
These series also include the books of units of dominion and allied air forces serving under British command.
Operations record books for the South African Air Force are in series AIR 54. These contain details of various operational units serving in Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. A selection of aircrew flying log books is in series AIR 4.
7. Post war operations (1945-1982)
Many of the wartime record series continue into the post-war period. In addition to the operations records books the following sources are particularly useful:
|Registered Files||AIR 2|
|Department of the Chief of the Air Staff: Registered Files||AIR 8|
|Air Historical Branch: Unregistered Papers||AIR 20|
8. Crashes and casualties (1939-1965)
Information on operational crashes may be recorded in the operations record books (AIR 27). The majority of these can be searched online for this period. Please note that it may only contain brief details such as ‘the aircraft failed to return’.
A few records of Courts of Enquiry into the loss of aircraft survive in The National Archives. Brief descriptions of some military (and civil) crashes are in AVIA 5. Identify a full document reference by using our catalogue. Search by aircraft or location of crash and AVIA 5, separating your search terms with AND.
We recommend you also check to see what records are held elsewhere. The Ministry of Defence and The Royal Air Force Museum may hold relevant information. For more details, please read the section records in other archives.
Search within AIR 81 for records of enquiries into missing personnel (1939-1945). For more guidance on how to search these records, read the section on RAF personnel missing in combat (within the Royal Air Force personnel guide).
9. Military airfields and aircraft production (1912-1981)
Aircraft production for all periods is in series AVIA 15.
10. Foreign air forces (1914-1947)
For the Second World War, details of missions undertaken by the United States Army Air Force operating from bases in the United Kingdom can be found in AIR 40/394-1133.
11. Records in other archives
Contact the Ministry of Defence for non-operational crashes entered on accident record cards, casualty files and aircraft records cards. The Royal Air Force Museum also hold copies of the aircraft record cards.
For Air Ministry bulletins and air publications (AP) contact the Royal Air Force museum.
12. Further reading
Some or all of the publications below may be available to buy from The National Archives’ bookshop. Alternatively, search The National Archives’ library catalogue to see what is available to consult at Kew.
William Spencer, Air Force Records: Guide for Family Historians (2nd Ed), The National Archives, 2008
Official Histories of Air Operations (First World War)
Documents in The National Archives relating to the Second World War are described in J Cantwell, The Second World War: A Guide to Records in the Public Record Office, (HMSO 1972)
W Raleigh and HA Jones the War in the Air (6 vols) (HMSO, 1922-1935)
D Richards and HSt G Saunders The Royal Air Force 1939-1945 (3 vols) (HMSO, 1974-1975)