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Guide reference: Military Records Information 52
Last updated: 10 March 2008

1. Why use this guide?

This guide will help you find records at The National Archives relating to Royal Navy and Royal Marines operations and actions that took place after 1945.

The guide does not cover records of:

  • personnel (for Royal Navy personnel records from this period contact the Ministry of Defence via the Veterans Agency)
  • administration or supply
  • technological research

You may also want to consult our guide to Royal Navy ships' log books. Though ships logs and submarines' logs are not the best records for details of operations, they do include some specific information on particular incidents.

2. Starting your research

2.1 Basic search principles

To view records at The National Archives you must first find document referencesA unique set of letters and numbers identifying a document in The National Archives. for the records you are interested in.

Find document references by using keywords to search record descriptions in Discovery, our catalogue.

However, not all records have detailed descriptions in our catalogue and you may have to browse through a record seriesA grouping of records held by The National Archives, based on common function or subject. to find a reference. See our Discovery help pages for more advice on whether to search or browse.

Once you have a document reference you can view the record but most of the principal operational records of the Royal Navy for this period are not available to view online. To view these documents you will need to either visit The National Archives at Kew or pay for copies to be sent to you. Alternatively, you can pay for research.

2.2 Use the advanced search option to search with keywords and by dates

Use the advanced search in our catalogue to narrow your search by year, using the 'Date range' option, and searching with keywords such as the following:

  • name of operation, campaign or conflict (for example, Suez or "Operation Musketeer")
  • battle (for example, Inchon)
  • theatre of operations or body of water (for example, Yangtse)
  • ship (for example, "HMS Amethyst" or just Amethyst)

2.3 Narrow your search by department

Records at The National Archives are organised by the government department that created them. They all have abbreviated codes and for Royal Navy records the department code is ADM (Admiralty). However, there are many other departments in which there are records on Royal Navy operations, including DEFE, WO, AIR, CAB and others.

Use the advanced search in our catalogue to narrow your search by department code, using the 'Search within' option.

3. Specific operations and campaigns

You should be able to find most of our records for operations, campaigns and wars by searching our catalogue using keywords but there are some record seriesA grouping of records held by The National Archives, based on common function or subject. that are particularly useful for specific wars. These include:

The Korean War in:

  • DEFE 12 for UN Command operations reports
  • DEFE 33 for Chiefs of Staff liaison papers
  • ADM 316 for 2nd in Command of Far East Command papers

The Cod Wars in:

The Falklands War in:

  • DEFE 14 for surrender documents only

4. Overseas fleet and station records

Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search for stations and commands within ADM 1 and ADM 116 using a keyword or phrase such as 'West Indies' or 'South Atlantic'.

There are also some record series for specific stations and fleets. These are:

  • Mediterranean Station and  Fleet up to 1966 in ADM 121
  • East Indies Station up to 1960 in ADM 127
  • Naval Commander in Chief, Germany up to 1949 in ADM 228

5. Records of high command - the Cabinet

The Cabinet and the relevant cabinet committees are the most senior strategy and policy decision-making bodies. The Cabinet would generally review such matters as the annual Defence White Paper, Defence Reviews and major decisions concerning significant military deployments.

Most other defence policy matters after 1945 were increasingly dealt with by the Defence Committee (or its successor, the Defence and Overseas Policy Committee).

Go to our Cabinet Papers online pages and search the following, using keywords (you can also browse these records by date in our catalogue):

  • Cabinet minutes (1945 onwards) in CAB 128
  • Cabinet memoranda (1945 onwards) in CAB 129
  • Cabinet Defence Committee papers (1945-1963) in CAB 131

Use dates to search or browse our catalogue within the following:

  • Cabinet Defence and Overseas Policy Committee (1963 onwards) in CAB 148 - this series is not keyword searchable

6. Records of high command - Ministry of Defence and related bodies

6.1 The First Sea Lord and the Board of Admiralty

Up until 1964 the Board of Admiralty was the body in command of the Royal Navy, headed by the First Sea Lord.

There are various record series for the Board of Admiralty and one of the most significant for Royal Navy operations in this period is ADM 205, the records of the First Sea Lord.

Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search ADM 205 using keywords.

6.2 The Chiefs of Staff Committee

The Chiefs of Staff Committee consisted of the professional heads of the three armed services. Its role was to provide advice on defence matters to the Prime Minister and government, and from 1958 was led by a Chief of Defence Staff chosen, usually in rotation, from one of the three services.

Search the following:

  • Chiefs of Staff Committee minutes in DEFE 4:
    • 1947-1969 -  use the printed indexes to this series available with the printed version of our catalogue, only viewable at The National Archives building at Kew
    • 1970 onwards -  use the advanced search online to search for agenda items from these meetings, as listed in our catalogue
  • Chiefs of Staff Committee memoranda in DEFE 5:
    • 1947-1969 -  use the printed indexes to this series available with the printed version of our catalogue, only viewable at The National Archives building at Kew
    • 1970 onwards -  use the advanced search online to search for agenda items from these meetings, as listed in our catalogue
  • Secretary of the Chiefs Of Staff Committee's standard files in DEFE 32
  • Chiefs of Staff Sub Committees minutes and memoranda in DEFE 8 and DEFE 10 (1947 onwards)
  • Chiefs of Staff Committee, Planning Staff Reports in DEFE 6 (1947 onwards)
  • Registered files - Chiefs of Staff Committee in DEFE 11

6.3 The Defence Board and Defence Council

The Defence Board was created in 1958 and included all the service ministers, the service chiefs and senior officials. This unwieldy body was renamed the Defence Council in 1964 and in wide-ranging reforms officially took over the executive roles previously held by the three independent armed services ministries.

The Board of Admiralty was dissolved and replaced by the Admiralty Board, a sub-committee of the Defence Council.

  • Browse our catalogue to find any of the four volumes of Defence Board minutes and memoranda in DEFE 30 (1958-1964)
  • Consult the indexes in DEFE 45 (1964-1979) to find Defence Council instructions, also in DEFE 45
  • Search or browse the Board of Admiralty/Admiralty Board Minutes and Memoranda by date in ADM 167

6.4 The Ministry of Defence

The Ministry of Defence was formed in 1946 but it wasn't until 1964 that the Admiralty, War Office and Air Ministry were merged into a single, much larger unified Ministry of Defence headed by a Cabinet minister. Thus the Royal Navy passed under the control of the Ministry of Defence.

As a result, the types of operational and policy documents (that are in ADM 1, ADM 116 and ADM 205 up until 1964-1965), are more likely, after 1965, to be in various DEFE series.

Try a keyword search in our catalogue within the following record series (if this fails it may prove more productive to browse the same series - see our catalogue help for more advice on whether to browse or search):

7. Courts martial and Boards of Inquiry records

Navy legal records, particularly some courts martial and Boards of Inquiry records provide insights into particular incidents and accidents, including the loss of vessels.

Use the advanced search in our catalogue to search by the names of those on trial or the ship in question, restricting your search to:

There are also courts martial records in ADM 1 and ADM 116. Search our catalogue in these record series using the phrase "courts martial".

8. Royal Marines

Unit war diaries, similar to those kept for the British Army, provide a day-by-day operational account for units involved in active duties overseas.

Unit newsletters are internally distributed official magazines written by and for each Commando. They often contain details of operations as well as social and sporting activities.

Search our catalogue using advanced search for:

  • unit war diaries (1941-1983) within ADM 202 by name and number of unit
  • unit newsletters (1960-1978) within ADM 301 by name and number of unit
  • Royal Marine Office correspondence and papers (1761-1983) within ADM 201 using keywords - it's also worth browsing this series

9. Fleet Air Arm

9.1 Squadron diaries

Search our catalogue using the advanced search within ADM 207 by squadron number for day-by-day operational accounts of individual squadrons. Some are unofficial accounts and provide varying degrees of detail on recreational and social activities too.

9.2 Operational reports, histories and other accounts

Search our catalogue using the advanced search within ADM 335 for standard operational reports but also for:

  • accounts of aircraft trials
  • a few squadron histories
  • accident summaries from 1967 onwards

Consult ADM 335/1 for a history of the Fleet Air Arm (1912-1965).

9.3 Accident reports until 1962

For records relating to accidents up to and including 1962, use the advanced search in our catalogue to search ADM 1. Use keywords such as 'aircraft accidents'.

For accident summaries from 1953 to 1955 see:

10. Records in other archives

The following institutions hold considerable archives relating to naval operational matters, including private papers and other donated collections:

In addition, try visiting the following museums for more specialist collections:

You can also search our catalogue to find records held elsewhere. Refine your results using the filters.

11. Further reading

Search The National Archives' library catalogue for the publications below. You may also want to see what is available to buy from The National Archives' bookshop.

Eric Grove, Vanguard to Trident (Naval Institute Press, 1987)

Bill Jackson & Dwin Bramall, The Chiefs: the Story of the United Kingdom Chiefs of Staff (Brassey's, 1992)

Guide reference: Military Records Information 52

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