This guide is intended to help make the process of ordering a service record for a soldier who served in the British Army during the Second World War as simple as possible. This article is divided into four sections:
- Where are Second World War service records held?
- What information do they contain?
- A guide to ordering a service record from the National Archives
- A guide to ordering a service record from the Ministry of Defence
I have a separate guide to ordering the service record of a British officer who served in the Indian Army and a series of articles to help you further your research into a soldier’s service:
- Guides to Researching Soldiers of the British Army
- Ordering a British Indian Army Officer’s Service Record
I also offer a Second World War Soldier Research and Document Copying Service.
Where are British Army WW2 Service Records Held?
All Second World War service records for soldiers who served in the British Army are either held by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) or the National Archives. The only exception is the service records of those who served in the Scots Guards. These can be accessed either through their regimental archive or online via Findmypast if a soldier enlisted up until 1938. The MOD and National Archives not only hold the service records of Second World War soldiers but of:
- All officers who served past April 1922
- All those who served in the ranks past January 1921
Service records can be ordered from the MOD and National Archives using the steps below. I have also created guides on my other website Researching WW1 if you’re looking for a soldier’s service record from the First World War. Click on the links below to find out more:
- Finding British Army Officer Service Records of the First World War
- Finding British Army Other Rank Service Records of the First World War
What Information do British Army WW2 Service Records Contain?
A service record will provide a wealth of information relating to a soldier’s service during the Second World War. They are vital records which will enable you to research a soldier in greater depth and will contain information which cannot be found elsewhere. The exact contents of a service record will vary from soldier to soldier depending on when they joined and the nature of their service. The service records for officers have the greatest variation in surviving documents and have often been heavily weeded. However, officers are a lot easier to track through war diaries than soldiers who served in the ranks. You will receive either a scan or photocopy of a service record, which will usually be between six and eighteen pages in length. A service record will usually contain the following information:
- Biographical information: when and where they were born, next of kin, address, etc.
- Description: height, weight, eye and hair colour, distinctive marks, etc.
- The units they served with and the dates they were with them
- Any trade tests passed and courses attended
- Where they served, Britain, the Middle East, India etc.
- Promotion dates
- Medal entitlement and if they claimed their medals this will be shown
- The MOD and National Archives will not release any documents containing medical or disciplinary information. However, I have seen some minor medical documents in files and dental records often appear
- A testimonial often appears if a soldier was demobilized
- If you’re very lucky, the file will contain a photograph of the soldier
The service records are full of military jargon which is often in the form of abbreviations and acronyms. I have created a page of abbreviations and acronyms which are commonly encountered which will help you decipher the documents. Once you’ve interpreted your service record, the next step will be to find the relevant war diaries which will add a lot more information regarding a soldier’s service. War diaries are the most important documents to consult after a service record. I have also written a guide to finding war diaries.
Ordering a Service Record from the National Archives
Most Second World War service records have now been transferred from the Ministry of Defence to the National Archives in London. However, not all of the service records have been added to the National Archives’ catalogue. At the time of writing, the service records are being added in new series from WO 420 onwards. A full description of the type of service record to be found in each series can be found by clicking on the links below. If you don’t find a service record in the series you expect it to be in, I’d recommend searching all of them.
- WO 420: The Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers
- WO 421: Selected Smaller Corps Other Ranks
- WO 422: Infantry Over Age Other Ranks
- WO 423: Other Ranks and Nurses
- WO 427: Women’s Services in East Africa, Nurses and Other Ranks
The National Archives may create additional series as more files are added to the catalogue. A catalogue entry will contain a soldier’s initials and surname, army or personal number, and year of birth. After a hundred years have elapsed since a soldier’s date of birth, their full date of birth will be recorded. During the war, each soldier who served in the ranks had a unique army number, while the officers’ equivalent was a personal number. If you already know this number, I’d recommend just searching the number and surname in the National Archives’ catalogue. If you don’t, then I’d recommend searching the surname of the soldier and their date of birth e.g. Osborne “13 July 1913”. Bear in mind that the date of birth listed will be that which the soldier gave on their enlistment, so may not be correct. There will also be a small number of errors in the catalogue. I have a page on finding a soldier’s army number, which will help you if you’re not sure of a soldier’s date of birth.
Ordering a Service Record which has been added to the National Archives’ Catalogue
If a soldier’s service record has been added to the catalogue, and they were born over 116 years ago, then you have two options for viewing a copy. You can either view the service record at the National Archives, or you can ask the National Archives to copy the document. If you’d like to view the service record in person, bear in mind that it currently takes “four working days to prepare” the document for viewing. You will also need a reader’s ticket. Or you can ask for the National Archives to copy the document for you. For most people reading this, the cost of the National Archives providing you with a copy will be a lot less than the cost of travelling to London.
If a soldier was born within the last 116 years, then the process is a bit more complicated. In the catalogue entry, you’ll see a box stating that “This record is closed”. There will also be a date the record will be opened. When a record is opened, you can then view it using the process outlined above. For a closed record, you will need to click on the box which at the time of writing states “Request a search of closed records”. You will then be taken to a page where you can submit a Freedom of Information request. This won’t take you long to complete. Make sure you attach a death certificate or proof of death if needed. If a soldier died in service then you can provide this information in the “Additional information” box. Due to current demand, it may take some weeks for you to get a reply.
Ordering a Service Record which hasn’t been added to the National Archives’ Catalogue
If you can’t find a soldier’s service record listed in the catalogue, then you’ll have to contact the National Archives to see if they hold it. The email address you need is firstname.lastname@example.org. Provide a soldier’s full name, date of birth, and army/personal number if known when you enquire if they hold the service record. If the National Archives holds the service record, then you’ll be supplied with the information needed to order a copy. The National Archives charges a fee for supplying service records. If the National Archives doesn’t hold a service record, then you’ll be directed to the Ministry of Defence. If this is the case, you can follow the steps below.
Ordering a Service Record from the Ministry of Defence
Nearly all Second World War service records have been transferred from the Ministry of Defence to the National Archives. You can check to see whether the MOD still holds a service record by making an application online. If a service record is still held by the MOD, then they will send it to you free of charge. For most of the people reading this, you will be informed that a service record has been transferred to the National Archives. If this is the case, then you can apply for a service record by following the process listed in the above section. The MOD may provide you with a file reference which you can give the National Archives to allow them to quickly locate the service record.
When you apply for a service record, you will need to supply at least a full name and date of birth. An army number, referred to as a service number on the MOD’s website, should also be supplied if known. Army numbers were unique during this period and will enable the correct service record to be quickly identified. I have a page on finding a soldier’s army number. If a soldier was born more than 116 years ago or died in service, then you don’t have to supply a death certificate. Otherwise, I’d strongly recommend applying with a death certificate, as the MOD’s application states, “If you do not send a death certificate when required, it is likely that we will withhold all of the requested information”. To apply, click on the link below which will take you to the relevant page, and then click on “Start now”:
You can also apply by post if you prefer. The forms you need can be downloaded from the above link. Once you click “Start now”, you’ll be taken to a page listing the branches of the armed forces. Click on “Army (including Territorial & Army Emergency Reserve)”, and then “Save and continue”. You’ll then be asked a series of questions relating to the soldier whose service record you’re applying for. You will also need to supply your contact details and address.