WW2 War Diaries

This article on WW2 War Diaries will:

  • Explain what a WW2 War Diary was
  • Explain why they are so important
  • Provide a guide to help you find the WW2 war diaries you are looking for
  • Explain my WW2 War Diary copying service

Many soldiers who served in the Second World War also served in the First World War and I have written a separate guide to finding these war diaries on my other website Researching WW1: Finding WW1 War Diaries.


What are WW2 War Diaries?

During the Second World War, a unit, whether of the British or Indian Armies or belonging to Dominion forces (Canadian, South African etc.) would keep a daily record. This record was called a war diary and it contained information regarding a unit’s location and activities.


Why are WW2 War Diaries so Important?

After a soldier’s service record, the most important documents to consult if you want to learn more about their service is the war diaries of the units they served with.

Many people are disappointed after receiving a service record from the Ministry of Defence, confronted with page after page of dates, abbreviations and acronyms. A service file will record the dates a soldier served with a unit but not the unit’s location or activities. Below are a couple of entries from the war diary of the 2nd Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment:

1 January 1941: Remained at BUQ BUQ [Egypt out in the Western Desert]. Mobile Bath Unit working, all men had hot showers.

2 January 1941: Brigade set out by march route for Salum, order QUEENS, LEICESTERS, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders; went via Summer track, covered 15 miles, encamped by SALT marshes. March discipline bad, troops definitely vehicle bound, having done scarcely any marching since the operation began.

As you can see the war diary records the Battalion’s location and activities. In addition, most war diaries contain appendices in the form of battle reports (often very detailed), orders, casualty lists, etc. Below is the war diary for the 2nd Battalion, Leicestershire Regiment for 1941 which I photographed for a client whose father served with the Battalion. With appendices, it was over 700 pages!

WW2 War Diaries

Not all war diaries will be as large as the 2nd Battalion’s for 1941 but all will provide you with additional information to understand where and in what conditions a soldier served.


How can I find WW2 War Diaries?

WW2 war diaries are held at the National Archives in London and are available to members of the public, though you will need a reader’s ticket to view them. No WW2 war diary has been digitized and can only be viewed by visiting the National Archives in person, though I offer a copying service. Before you start searching for war diaries I would recommend ordering a soldier’s WW2 service record.

Second World War diaries can be quite hard to find for two reasons:

  • Unlike First World War unit war diaries which are contained within a single record series (WO 95) Second World War diaries are found within 19 record series. The majority of these record only contain war diaries for specific theatres.
  • Units’ titles in the catalogue often contain acronyms and abbreviations which can make searching difficult. For example, if you were searching for the 389 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery in the catalogue the title would be 389 H.A.A. Bty.
  • Many units served in multiple theatres so you’ll often have to search in more than one catalogue reference.

Below are all the different catalogue references at the National Archives which contain WW2 war diaries. To search one of them click on the number on the right which is prefixed by the letters WO which stand for War Office. WO 179 contains Dominion units which include:

  • Canada
  • India (though it wasn’t a Dominion until after the war)
  • New Zealand
  • South Africa
Theatre Catalogue Reference
War Office Directories WO 165
Home Forces WO 166
British Expeditionary Force WO 167
North West Expeditionary Force (Norway) WO 168
Middle East Forces WO 169
Central Mediterranean Forces WO 170
North West Europe WO 171
South East Asia Command WO 172
West African Command WO 173
Madagascar WO 174
British North Africa Forces WO 175
Smaller Theatres of War WO 176
Medical Services WO 177
Military Missions WO 178
Dominion Forces WO 179
GHQ Liaison Regiment WO 215
Special Services (SAS etc.) WO 218
Ships Signals Sections WO 257
Combined Operations DEFE 2

WW2 War Diary copying service

I have photographed 100s of WW2 war diaries for clients over the years, many wanting to know more about what their father did during the war. No WW2 war diaries have been digitized, so the only way to view them is to visit the National Archives in person or to hire a researcher.

I offer a quick, professional service where I will photograph the war diaries you need. If you are having trouble working out which unit’s a soldier served in you can email me the documents and I can decipher it for you. I visit the National Archives once a week, so you’ll won’t have long to wait.

I can either send the photographs via the internet using Google Drive or Wetransfer or post them to you on a CD (£2.50) or USB stick (£5.50). You can use the email address below to contact me for an estimate:

researchingww2@gmail.com

I also offer a research service where I provide all the war diaries and write up a soldier’s service in narrative form. You can click on the link below to find out more:

WW2 Research Service