Second World War army records


An enormous number of men and women were involved in active service during the Second World War. Phil Tomaselli tracks down elusive records.

It’s now over 70 years since the start of the Second World War and possibly the greatest war ever undertaken by Britain and her Empire is slowly fading into history. The number of veterans 
is getting smaller all the time
 and what, only a few years ago perhaps, was a question of talking to a relative about their role in the
war has now become a historical investigation. However, family historians will be delighted to
 know that records for all three services in the Second World
War survive in their entirety.

The British Expeditionary Force crossed into France on the outbreak of war in September 1939. For months they waited in France but, when Germany invaded France, Belgium and Holland in 1940, they were rapidly hustled back to Britain in the emergency evacuation of Dunkirk.

Having lost most of their heavy equipment, the army had to be reconstructed, but in North and East Africa they fought and defeated the Italians, and wrestled with Rommel and his Afrika Corps. In the Far East they suffered terrible defeats against the Japanese.

From the Battle of El Alamein in 1942 through the invasion of Italy, D-Day, the fall of Germany and the reconquest of Burma, an army that consisted mainly of conscripts – most with no military experience before they were called up – fought and defeated professional and dedicated enemies. Over three million men served in the British Army during the Second World War, the largest of the armed forces.

Records of individuals are still closed but can be obtained by their next of kin, while records of the units in which they served are publicly available at The National Archives (TNA). Virtually every British officer or soldier served in either a Regiment (ie Coldstream Guards or Wiltshire Regiment), the fighting troops, or in a Corps (such as the Royal Artillery, or Corps of Signals), which were support troops – men frequently involved in fighting themselves. In a Regiment, soldiers would normally serve in a particular battalion; in a Corps they were usually part of a company or were attached to another unit. To start your search, you’ll need your forebear’s service record.

Online resources
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Obtaining a record
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