This research guide briefly describes:
- how to start searching for records
- the principal relevant repositories with strong collections relating to the history of the armed forces
- useful addresses and links and general works of reference
Search Discovery our catalogue to find records from The National Archives and over 2,500 archives across the UK. Your search results will display details from a range of archives and you can then refine your results.
Where the keywords you searched for appear in the description of a record, the search results are displayed under the 'Records' tab.
Where the keywords you searched for appear in the name of the institution or person that originally created the record (often not the same as the institution or person that currently holds the record), the search results are displayed under the 'Record creators' tab.
For further tips on searching see our catalogue help pages.
2. Accessions to repositories
Each year The National Archives collects information from over 250 of the principal record repositories across the British Isles about significant additions to their collections in the previous 12 months.
This information is added to Discovery, our catalogue. It is also edited and used to produce thematic digests, including one relating to military history. The digests are made available through this website and distributed for publication in a number of learned journals and newsletters. Further information is available at Accessions to Repositories.
3. Relevant repositories
The following provides details of repositories and institutions that hold major collections relating to military history.
3.1 General repositories
Cambridge University, Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge CB3 0DS
Holds papers of Sir Winston Churchill, including those relating to his military career; airforce, military and naval papers, predominantly 20th century, including the papers of Marshal of the RAF Sir William Dickson, Air Marshal Sir Thomas Elmhirst, General Sir Charles Bonham Carter, General Sir Thomas Erle, Field Marshal William Joseph Slim, Admiral Andrew Browne Cunningham, and Admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher. See Select Classified Guide To The Holdings Of The Churchill Archives Centre (1992).
Imperial War Museum Department of Documents, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ
Personal diaries, letters and unpublished memoirs of over 5000 servicemen and women and civilians in war time. Records of senior commanders from all three services, from both world wars, including Marshal of the RAF William Sholto Douglas, Field Marshal John Denton Pinkstone French, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, and Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson.
King's College London, Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King's College London, Strand, London WC2R 2LS
Papers of Sir Basil Liddell Hart. Private papers of higher commanders of the armed services and defence personnel in the 20th century including Field Marshal Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby, Field Marshal Alan Francis Brooke, Major-General John Frederick Charles Fuller, Major-General Sir Percy Hobart and Admiral Francis William Kennedy. Upwards of 400 individual accessions. See the Consolidated List of Accessions (1986), further Supplement 1985-1990.
Leeds University Library, Liddle Collection, The Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT
Peter Liddle's 1914-18 Personal Experience Archive, the private letters, diaries, logs and non-manuscript material of some 5000 individuals who served in the armed forces, merchant navy and wartime civilian occupations during the First World War.
The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU
Records of the War Office, Admiralty and Air Ministry and private papers of senior commanders. See individual service entries below.
National War Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh EH1 2NG
Papers relating to the history of Scottish servicemen. Private diaries and papers, regimental order books and papers including the Royal Scots Greys and the records of local militia and fencibles 17th-20th century. Papers of General Sir David Baird.
Southampton University Library, Highfield, Southampton SO17 1BJ
The main collection of the 1st Duke of Wellington's papers including military correspondence. Papers of Earl Mountbatten of Burma, covering his period in command of Combined Operations in the Second World War, as Supreme Allied Commander in SE Asia and his post war roles as First Sea Lord and Chief of the UK Defence staff. Material on HMS Kelly. Papers relating to the Dieppe Raid. Papers of Wing Commander Marchess de Casa Maury and copies of papers (some with original material) of Vice-Admiral J Hughes-Hallett. The Library also holds papers relating to the Nuremberg Military Tribunal 1945-49. See CM Woolgar and K Robson, A Guide to the Archive and Manuscript Collections of the Hartley Library (1992).
3.2 Specialist repositories - Army
Army Museums Ogilby Trust, 58 The Close, Salisbury SP1 2EX
Most of the papers held by this organisation have been deposited in the National Army Museum. See next entry.
National Army Museum Templar Study Centre, Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, London SW3 4HT
Papers relating to the British Army and earlier formations from the 15th-20th centuries, with a strong emphasis on the 18th and 19th centuries. Private papers of army officers including General Sir William John Codrington, Field Marshal Sir George Nugent, Lord Fitzroy Somerset, Lt-General Sir James Outram and General Henry Seymour Rawlinson. A large collection of personal papers and memoirs of service by individual soldiers. Regimental records including the 9th/12th Royal Lancers, Westminster Dragoons, the Surrey Yeomanry and Middlesex Regiment. Records of the Women's Royal Army Corps and the Royal Army Educational Corps. Records of organizations, including the United Service Club.
The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU
Records created by the War Office, British Army and related bodies including the Militia, Ordnance Office, Commissariat Department, Judge Advocate's Office, etc. (departmental code WO). Official and semi-official private papers of higher commanders of the British Army including General Sir Robert Brownrigg (WO 133), General Sir Redvers Buller (WO 132), General Sir Miles Dempsey (WO 285), Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts (WO 105), Field Marshal Garnet Joseph Wolseley (WO 147). Papers of secretaries of state for war, including, Edward Cardwell (PRO 30/48), Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener (PRO 30/57 and WO 159), and WH Smith (WO 110).
See Discovery, our catalogue for further information especially under the department code WO. Use the index search to identify official and semi-official private papers. There are also information leaflets describing sources relevant to the history of the Army and for researching service personnel. These can be searched or browsed from the guided search button.
See also The Second World War: A Guide to the Records at the Public Record Office (HMSO, 1972) and PRO Reader's Guide No 3, Records of the Militia from 1757 (1993).
Army Medical Services Museum Keogh Barracks, Ash Vale, Aldershot GU12 5RQ
A small MS collection, including the papers of Dame Maud McCarthy, Army Matron in Chief.
Firepower - The Royal Artillery Museum, James Clavell Library, Royal Arsenal, London SE18 6ST
Artillery topics 1716-20th century. Papers of serving officers, including papers of General Sir Robert Biddulph, General Sir Robert William Gardiner, Lt-General John Henry Lefroy, the collections of Lt-General Samuel Cleveland and Major-General Sir Alexander Dickson. Regimental archives, including Royal Artillery unit war diaries for the First and Second World Wars.
Royal Engineers Museum, Brompton Barracks, Chatham, Kent ME4 4UG
Private papers of serving and former RE serving officers, including General Sir John Burgoyne, General Sir John Hawkins and General Sir Edward Stanton. Letters from Major-General Gordon 1874-1879, miscellaneous letters, papers and notebooks of Gordon. Papers of Major General Sir Elliot Wood. Diaries, journals and papers of officers and other ranks 18th-20th centuries. A large collection of plans, maps and surveys relating to the work of the Royal Engineer Corps and predecessor bodies.
Royal Engineers Corps Library, Brompton Barracks, Chatham ME4 4UG
RE Garrison letter books 18th-19th centuries, unit war diaries, mainly the First World War, personnel registers, records of related bodies and organisations including sports clubs. Private papers, including typescript memoirs of Major FJ Mulgheen relating to tunnelling 1914-18. ER James' narrative account of Crimean War experiences (3 volumes). Sir John Glubb's diaries 1914-18. Typescript history of General Sir Charles W Pasley (founder of Royal School of Military Engineering) by Colonel JC Tyler. An extensive collection of MS and typescript technical reports, a photograph collection and a collection of maps and plans.
Royal Military Academy Library, Sandhurst, Camberley GU15 4PQ
Records of the Academy and predecessor bodies, the Royal Military Academy (Woolwich) and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. Papers of General JG Le Marchant.
Royal Signals Museum, Blandford Camp, Blandford Forum DT11 8RH
Papers relating to the history of military communications from the Crimean War to the present day. Records of the Royal Corps of Signals and predecessor bodies, the Telegraph Battalions Royal Engineers and subsequently the Royal Engineers Signal Service. Diaries and papers of officers and soldiers who served in the various units 19th-20th century.
Tank Museum, The Archive and Reference Library, Bovington BH20 6JG
Manuscripts and other material relating to the history of mechanical armoured warfare on land. War diaries and histories of British armoured regiments and papers of serving individuals.
Wellcome Library, Archives and Manuscripts Section, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE
MS collection of the Royal Army Medical Corps, comprising private journals and papers of army surgeons including Sir John Hall and Sir Thomas Longmore. MS collections relating to army medical services including the Mytchet Collection. Administrative records of the Corps, its component units and predecessor bodies are kept in The National Archives (class mark WO), including war diaries of individual units, WO 95 (First World War) and WO 177 (Second World War).
3.3 Specialist repositories - Royal Navy
The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU
Official records created by the Admiralty and related bodies including the Navy Board, Dockyards, Royal Marines, Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve and the Fleet Air Arm. Among the official papers are records of individual Royal Naval ships including logs, paybooks and ships' musters etc, and service records of Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Naval Air Force.
See our catalogue for further information especially under the department code ADM. There are information leaflets describing sources relevant to the history of the Royal Navy and for researching service personnel. You can search or browse these from the guided search button.
National Maritime Museum: The Caird Library. Manuscripts Section, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF
Official records including papers of Board of Admiralty, Navy Board, Royal Dockyards and related bodies 17th-19th centuries. Personal papers of serving officers including Admirals Beatty, Hawke, Hood and Nelson. Several large collections of naval MSS comprising letters, papers, journals, logs and order books. Some papers of the Royal Naval Air Service and business records of shipbuilding firms including Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd. See RJB Knight Guide to the Manuscripts in the National Maritime Museum, vol i; The Personal Collections (1977), vol ii: Public Records, Business Records and Artificial Collections (1980).
Royal Marines Museum, Southsea PO4 9XP
Archives of the Corps, including material transferred from the Ministry of Defence, comprising divisional order books from 1664. Personal correspondence, papers, diaries and log books of serving officers.
Royal Naval Museum, HM Naval Base (PP66), Portsmouth PO1 3NH
Papers and photographs relating to the general and in particular the social history of the Royal Navy from the 17th century to the present day. 200 hundred logs and journals, several hundred personal records of service and the official WRNS collection. Correspondence and papers of Admiral Sir Arthur Auckland Cochrane, Admiral Sir Robert Stopford and Admiral Sir Reginald Godfrey Otaw Tupper. Some official clerk's office papers of Portsmouth Dockyard. The museum now holds the manuscript collections formerly at the Admiralty Library.
3.4 Specialist repositories - Royal Air Force
Brooklands Museum, Brooklands Road, Weybridge KT13 0QN
Archives relating to British Aerospace and its predecessor companies engaged in aircraft manufacture at Brooklands, Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd and the British Aircraft Corporation, including De Havilland Engine Co Ltd, D Napier & Son Ltd and Rolls-Royce. A large collection of technical drawings and manuals. Records of aircraft designers including Barnes Wallis (with information relating to the Dams raid).
The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU
Records of the Air Ministry and related bodies (departmental code AIR); also operational records of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Flying Corps. Details of officers serving in the Royal Naval Air Service 1914-1918 are found under series ADM 273. Records of the Fleet Air Arm are located under series ADM 207 and AIR 50. Records of the Army Air Corps are found at WO 295. Records of the Ministry of Aircraft Production, including the RAF Establishment, are located under departmental code AVIA.
See our catalogue for further information especially under the department code AIR. There are information leaflets describing sources relevant to the history of the Royal Air Force and for researching service personnel.You can search or browse these from the guided search button.
See also the PRO Readers' Guide No 8 RAF Records in the PRO (1994).
Royal Air Force Museum, Department of Research and Information Services, Grahame Park Way, Hendon, London NW9 5LL
Records relating primarily to British military aviation (although they also hold some civil aviation material). Private papers of former serving officers including senior commanders, most notably, Air Chief Marshals Hugh Caswell Tremenhere Dowding, Sir Douglas Evill, Sir Roderic Hill, Sir Leslie Hollinghurst and Marshals of the RAF Sir Arthur Tedder and Sir Hugh Trenchard. A collection of air crew log books and diaries and papers of airmen and women and also papers of pioneer aviators, such as Lord Brabazon of Tara and Sir Charles Richard Fairey. Business records of aircraft manufacturers (mainly drawings) including Handley Page Ltd, HG Hawker Engineering Co and Sopwith Aviation Co Ltd.
University of Keele, Air Photo Library, Department of Geography, Keele, Staffordshire ST5 SBG
Photographic print library of the Allied Central Interpretation Unit, RAF Medmenham, comprising 5 million vertical air-photographs 1939-1945.
4. Useful addresses
In addition to the specialist repositories noted above there are several military museums which hold some manuscript material. These include Airborne Assault - The Museum of the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces, Imperial War Museum Duxford, Cambridgeshire, CB22 4QR and the Intelligence Corps Museum, Chicksands, Bedforshire, SG17 5PR.
Those interested in military aviation may also care to contact the Fleet Air Arm Museum, RNAS Yeovilton, Ilchester, Somerset BA22 8HT; the Royal Air Force Association, Central HQ, 117½ Loughborough Road, Leicester, LE4 5ND and the Royal Aeronautical Society, 4 Hamilton Place, London W1V 0BQ.
The Royal Armouries Library, The Library, Royal Armouries, Armouries Drive, Leeds LS10 1LT, holds papers relating to the study of armoury 19th-20th centuries.
5. Useful links
The Archives Hub provides a single point of access to descriptions of archives held in UK universities and colleges. At present these are primarily at collection-level, although where possible they are linked to complete catalogue descriptions.
AIM25 - is a major project to provide electronic access to collection level descriptions of the archives of over fifty higher education institutions and learned societies within the greater London area.
The Defence of Britain Project - the purpose of the Project was to record the 20th century militarised landscape of the United Kingdom, and to inform the responsible heritage agencies at both local and national level with a view to the future preservation of surviving structures. It recorded nearly 20,000 twentieth century military sites in the United Kingdom. has
The Scottish Archive Network - the project aims to revolutionise access to Scotland's archives by providing a single electronic catalogue to the holdings of more than 50 Scottish archives.
Survey of the Papers of Senior UK Defence Personnel 1793-1975 - Southampton University Library, in conjunction with the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King's College, London, undertook a survey of the papers of senior commanders and defence staff, covering between 4000-5000 individuals for the period 1793-1975.
6. Further reading
A Guide to the Sources of British Military History, (ed) R Higham (1972)
CT Atkinson, 'Material for military history in the reports and calendars of the Historical Manuscripts Commission', Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, XXI (1942), 17-34
GM Bayliss, Bibliographic Guide to the Two World Wars: An Annotated Survey of English-language Reference Materials (1977)
C Cook, Sources for British Political History 1900-51 (1975), II, VI
H Hall, British Archives and the Sources for the History of the World War (1925)
N Holding, The Location of British Army Records 1914 to 1918 (fourth edition, 1987)
SL Mayer and WJ Koenig, The Two World Wars: A Guide to Manuscript Collections in the United Kingdom (1976)
A Swinson, A Register of the Regiments and Corps of the British Army: The Ancestry of the Regiments and Corps of the Regular Establishment (1972)
G Usher, Dictionary of British Military History (2003)
MJ and CT Watts, My Ancestor Was in the British Army: How Can I Find Out More About Him? (1995)
AS White, A Bibliography of Regimental Histories of the British Army (1992)
T Wise, A Guide to Military Museums and Other Places of Military Interest (ninth edition, 1992)