How to look for records of... Royal Navy 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 Royal Navy operations and actions that took place between 1939 and 1945.
The guide does not cover records of:
- personnel (for Royal Navy personnel records from the Second World War contact the Ministry of Defence via the Veterans Agency)
- administration or supply
- technological development and research (for guidance on these subjects see our Research and development in the Royal Navy guide)
2. Essential information
During the Second World War, the integration of the three armed services with one another, and with civil government and allied forces, went far further than ever before. Consequently there is a large amount of material on naval operations in records not relating specifically to the Royal Navy, and therefore not mentioned here. For a brief introduction to some of these records see our Second World War guide.
For a more detailed overview, see J Cantwell, The Second World War: A Guide to Documents in the Public Record Office (PRO Handbook no. 15, 1998).
3. Starting your research
3.1 Consult the Official History of the Second World War
The best way to start your research into Second World War naval operations is to consult the volumes of the Official History of the Second World War, available in The National Archives Library at Kew and some other specialist libraries. In particular, consult The War at Sea.
The unpublished version of The War at Sea is in CAB 101/36-39. It is annotated with file references to the original Admiralty papers on which the history is based but these references are all but redundant now, following subsequent rearrangements of the files.
A large collection of operational reports, military despatches, war diaries and other documents used by historians to compile the Official History of the Second World War are in CAB 106. Search within CAB 106 using keywords in the advanced search in our catalogue.
3.2 Use keywords to search Discovery, our catalogue
To view records at The National Archives you must first find document references for the records you are interested in.
Use keywords to search record descriptions in Discovery, our catalogue.
A successful search will provide you with a document reference but not all records are described in detail in our catalogue.
- name of operation (for example, ‘Operation Neptune’ or ‘Neptune’)
- battle (for example, ‘Battle of the Java Sea’ or ‘Java Sea’)
- theatre of operations (for example, ‘Pacific’ or ‘Persian Gulf’)
- ship (for example, ‘HMS Wanderer’ or ‘Wanderer’)
- convoy number (for example, ‘HXF 1′)
- date or month (for example, ’27 February 1942′ or ‘February 1942′)
3.3 Search in the key record series
Restrict your catalogue search, as outlined above, to the principal record series for World War Two operations. Use the advanced search to search within ADM 1, ADM 116 and ADM 199 using relevant keyword(s).
More specific guidance on how to find information in these series appears throughout this guide.
4. Naval high command
At the head of the Royal Navy sat the Board of Admiralty which was itself headed by the First Sea Lord. Records of meetings of the Board of Admiralty cover broad operations strategies for the various theatres of operations in which the Royal Navy was engaged.
Use the advanced search to search and browse the Second World War sections of the following record series. Search by placing an asterisk (*) in the keywords field, entering the appropriate years in the date range field and searching within:
- minutes of the Board of Admiralty in ADM 167
- Admiralty Fleet Orders and Confidential Admiralty Fleet Orders in ADM 182
- First Sea Lord’s papers in ADM 205
- minutes and papers of the War Cabinet Committees on the Battle of the Atlantic and on Anti-U-Boat Warfare are in CAB 86
Alternatively, use the phrase “First Lord’s records” to search ADM 199.
5. Fleets, stations and squadrons
During the Second World War the Royal Navy was deployed around the world, divided into various fleets and operating from a number of regional stations, also known as commands. The most significant were:
- the Home Fleet based at various stations in the UK
- the Mediterranean Fleet based in Alexandria, Egypt
- the Eastern Fleet based at both the East Indies Station and China Station
- the Pacific Fleet based in Sydney, Australia (this fleet was not formed until November 1944)
- the South Atlantic and Africa Station
- the America and West Indies Station
- the Western Approaches Station (base for ships deployed in the Battle of the Atlantic)
These stations and the various other operational headquarters and units of the Royal Navy kept records, sometimes in the form of daily diaries or summaries of events, many of which are now in ADM 199, as well as other record series.
- “daily summary of Naval events”
- “daily Operations Report for First Lord”
- “war diary summaries”
- “war diaries” and the name of a command or squadron (for example, “War diaries” and “South Atlantic Command”)
There are specific record series for the following stations:
- Portsmouth Station in ADM 179 (contains numerous reports of operations in the Channel)
- Western Approaches Station in ADM 217
- East Indies Station in ADM 127
- China Station in ADM 125
6. Ships, submarines and other vessels
6.1 Ships’ logs
A ship’s log is primarily a navigational record, concerned only incidentally with operations. HM ships do not keep war diaries.
Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search by ship’s name (for example, ‘Venerable’ – don’t include ‘HMS’) within ADM 53 for logs from almost all types of Royal Navy ships – use the date range option to restrict your search to the appropriate years.
For more guidance see our guide to ships’ logs.
6.2 Records of submarines
Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search within ADM 199 for reports concerning submarines. Use the following keywords and phrases:
- submarines AND reports
- “U-boat attacks”
- “U-boat incidents”
- “Submarine patrol reports”
- “Admiral submarines”
There is an incomplete collection of submarine patrol reports from the Mediterranean in ADM 236, supplementing those in ADM 199. Search by submarine name within ADM 236 using the advanced search in our catalogue.
Monthly reports of anti-submarine warfare from the East Indies Station are in the Confidential Reference Books in ADM 239. Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search by keyword ‘submarine’ within ADM 239.
Search for submarine logs using the advanced search in our catalogue and searching in ADM 173 by submarine’s name (for example, ‘H.34′ or ‘Tribune’ – don’t includes ‘HMS’) – use the date range option to restrict your search to the appropriate years.
Some of the records are missing as they were destroyed in enemy action.
6.3 Lists of vessels
The confidential edition of the Navy List, the official list of naval officers, their ranks and the ships to which they were appointed, is in ADM 177. It contains the complete information on officers and ships which was omitted from the published edition in wartime.
For other lists, use the advanced search to search by month in the keyword options field and by year in the date field, restricting your search to references:
- ADM 187, the pink lists, for location in port, though not position at sea, of all HM ships and Naval Air Squadrons in commission (issued twice weekly)
- ADM 208, the red lists, for location in port, though not position at sea, of minor war vessels in home waters
- ADM 210, the green lists, for landing ships, landing craft and the like in home waters
- ADM 209, the blue lists, for shipbuilding (issued monthly)
7. Ships lost or damaged
Search the Printed Books of Reference issued to Navy personnel in ADM 234 for reports and studies of damage to ships in action.
8. Naval aviation services: Fleet Air Arm and RAF Coastal Command
8.1 Fleet Air Arm
The Fleet Air Arm, formed on 1 April 1924, is the air force of the Royal Navy.
Using the advanced search in our catalogue, search for:
- Fleet Air Arm Operations Record Books by name and number of squadron in ADM 207 and AIR 27 (for example, for 801 squadron search using the phrase ‘801 AND “Fleet Air Arm”‘)
- various kinds of operations reports by name of squadron or ship in ADM 199 (for squadrons, try searching by number and the word “squadron” or the phrase “naval air squadron”)
- combat reports by squadron name and number in AIR 50
- flying log books of RAF personnel serving with the Fleet Air Arm in ADM 900 (search using the word “log”)
- operational and technological histories relating to the Fleet Air Arm in the Second World War in ADM 335/1-4 and ADM 335/63-65
No aircraft carrier flying log books are known to have survived.
8.2 Coastal Command
RAF Coastal Command, founded in 1936, was the Royal Air Force’s premier maritime unit, based at Lee-on-Solent in Hampshire. Amongst its most significant roles in the war were the protection of convoys and allied shipping, playing a decisive role in the Battle of the Atlantic.
The other principal theatres of operations were the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Africa.
Using the advanced search in our catalogue, search for:
- Headquarters Papers in AIR 15
- Operations Record Books in AIR 24
- squadrons and constituent formations in AIR 25, AIR 26 and AIR 27
- combat reports by squadron name and number in AIR 50
9. Convoys and operations with the Merchant Navy
9.1 War history cases and papers
Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search within ADM 199 for records of Royal Navy operations involving the Merchant Navy, including convoy records. Search using these phrases:
- “Trade Division”
- convoy AND reports
9.2 Western Approaches station records
ADM 217, Western Approaches Command, consists of an incomplete series of Reports of Proceedings from Senior Officers of Escorts and others, and is indexed by convoy and by Senior Officers’ ships. Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search within ADM 217 by:
- ship’s name
- convoy number
- start or end date of the convoy voyage
9.3 Convoy reports
‘Convoy Packs’, in ADM 237, are convoy records maintained in the Operations Division of the Naval Staff. They include:
- reports of proceedings
- Commodores’ reports
- other papers
Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search within ADM 237 by:
- convoy number (for example, ‘OG 71′)
About half this series was destroyed.
10. Combined operations
Combined operations are operations with the other branches of the military, namely the Army, RAF or Royal Marines.
Browse or search by date in DEFE 2, records of the Combined Operations Headquarters, covering the planning and execution of all sorts of seaborne military operations.
11. Naval Intelligence records
A collection of reports and papers of the Naval Intelligence Division (N.I.D.) is in ADM 223.
In addition to texts of early decrypts of German naval wireless traffic enciphered on the ENIGMA machine, there are reports and summaries, both from N.I.D. and the Operational Intelligence Centre (O.I.C.), based on this ‘Special Intelligence’. These reports include:
- O.I.C. Daily Reports up to September 1940 (ADM 223/79-83)
- O.I.C. Special Intelligence Summaries from 1940 onwards (ADM 223/8-24, 43-50, 92-101, 170-175, 310-314, 321-329)
Consult The Battle of the Atlantic and Signals Intelligence for transcriptions of documents relating to ENIGMA and the Battle of the Atlantic selected from ADM 223.
Other records in ADM 223 include:
- general daily and weekly intelligence summaries in ADM 223/146-169, 830-834, 852-863
- ‘operational packs’ regarding particular engagements and operations in ADM 223/332-342, 507-619, 676-686, 697
- photocopies of documents not yet transferred, but cited in the footnotes of Volume 1 of The Official History of British Intelligence in the War in ADM 223/84-86, 107-108, 209, 212-214
- DEFE 3 which contains the texts of enemy signals, both naval and other, decrypted by the Government Code and Cypher School
- HW 1 which contains summaries of selected signals intelligence reports sent to the Prime Minister
There are many photographs filed within the record series covered in this guide, but there is no single index to them, and no easy means of tracing them.
You can find some photographs using the advanced search in our catalogue, searching with “photograph” as your keyword (with or without additional keywords), selecting an appropriate date range and searching within ADM.
Search for photographs of:
- Royal Navy ships in ADM 176
- battle damage to ships, air and sea attacks and other photographs taken before, during or after operations in CN 1
- views of the Mulberry artificial harbours constructed for the Allied invasion of Normandy in WO 24
Consult our Photographic series guide for details of other ADM series that contain photographs.
13. Further reading
The following recommended publications are available in The National Archives’ library.
Gordon Smith, The War at Sea: Royal & Dominion Navy Actions in World War 2 (Ian Allan, 1989)
Derek Howse, Radar at Sea: The Royal Navy During World War 2 (Macmillan, 1993)
Juurgen Rohwer and Gerhard Hummelchen, Chronology of the War at Sea 1935-1945: The Naval History of World War Two (Greenhill Books, 1992)
Myron J. Smith, World War II at Sea: A Bibliography of Sources in English (Scarecrow Press, 1976)
David Syrett, The Battle of the Atlantic and Signals Intelligence: U-Boat Tracking Papers 1941-1947 (Ashgate, 2002)
David Syrett, The Battle of the Atlantic and Signals Intelligence: U-Boat Situations and Trends 1941-1945 (Ashgate, 1998)
Guide reference: Military Records Information 69