This article on Second World War unit War Diaries will:
- Explain what a War Diary was
- Explain why they are so important
- Provide a guide to help you find the 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 First World War Unit War Diaries.
What are WW2 War Diaries?
During the Second World War, units in the British Army and Dominion forces kept a written record of their activities and location. These narratives were called war diaries and also included appendices in the form of reports, maps, nominal rolls of personnel etc. The purpose behind keeping such a document was recorded in Field Service Regulations:
(a) To provide information from theatres of war in sufficient detail and in such a form as to provide data upon which to base future improvements in Army training, equipment, organisation and administration. The views and constructive recommendations of commanders are welcomed for this purpose.
(b) To furnish a historical record of the War.
The daily entries are usually the most important part of a war diary, with appendices adding context. The compiler of the war diary, who was an officer of the unit, was given the following instructions on what they should contain:
(a) Account of operations with notes of topographical and climatic factors affecting them
(b) Notes of how orders were carried out
(c) Nature and description of field engineering works constructed
(d) Note of any administrative difficulties encountered and action taken to overcome them
(e) Note of how time not accounted for above was spent. The type of training etc. should be specified
(f) Brief notes of the time of receipt and issue of orders and important messages and a reference to the Appendix letter and folio number; and, only if necessary, a very brief note of the contents
(g) Intermediate movements of unit or formation
(h) Notes of any important visits paid and received by commanders and senior staff officers. It is equally important to make a note of the reason for the visit and decisions taken
The above guidelines weren’t always followed and the level of detail contained in war diaries will vary considerably.
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 are 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. While a service record will provide you with a list of units a soldier served with and when it doesn’t provide any information about the units. Therefore, if you want to know where a soldier was, what ship they embarked on, which beach they landed on D-Day, where they were wounded and in what circumstances etc. you will have to turn to the unit’s war diary.
Below is an extract from the war diary of the 3rd County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters) for the 27 September 1943. The Regiment had just arrived in Foggia and sent four scout cars off to San Severo on a reconnaissance. The war diary provides an exact map reference, many do, as well as the names of the men who became casualties and those who escaped the ambush. Usually, the most detailed entries can be found on days when a unit was in action:
Lieutenant K. C. Kiddle and 4 scout cars were sent forward to recce the road into San Severo. The approach into the town was down a dead straight road for approximately 5 miles and at map reference 158,427 Lieutenant Kiddle’s car was blown up by anti-tank gunfire from an 88 mm just on the outskirts of the town. The second car was hit simultaneously, the third car tried to pull off the road and was also destroyed and the 4th car reversed for a few hundred yards, became ditched and was also destroyed. The casualties in the action were: killed: Lieutenant K. C. Kiddle, Trooper R. Humphries and Trooper D. Perryman. Missing: Corporal F. Allsopp and Lance-Corporal G. Tanner.
Sergeant D. H. Fleming, Trooper C. E. Brown, Trooper W. Whitley were the only survivors. Trooper Whitley managed to escape from the 4th car and whilst going back down the road stopped the Brigade Commander from proceeding. Sergeant Fleming and Trooper Brown walked back to Foggia and rejoined the Regiment the following morning.
In addition, most war diaries contain appendices in the form of battle reports (often very detailed), orders, casualty lists, maps etc. When a unit was in a theatre of war, there can often be hundreds of appendices.
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 Second World War unit war diary has been digitized and they 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 service record. Second World War diaries can be quite hard to find for the following 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 nineteen series. The majority of these series 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 389th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery in the catalogue you would find it recorded as 389 H.A.A. Bty.
- The National Archives hasn’t standardised its catalogue, for example, a unit may be the 152nd Company Pioneer Corps in one record series and the 152 Coy in another. This is a particular problem with units of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.
- 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 Second World War diaries. To search one of them click on the number on the right which is prefixed by the letters WO which stands for War Office. WO 179 contains Dominion units which include war diaries of Canada, India (though it wasn’t a Dominion until after the war), New Zealand and South Africa. War diaries for these units can also be found in other series, especially for the Indian Army in WO 172. Some medical units war diaries aren’t included in WO 177 but are found in the catalogue of the theatre of war they were serving in at the time.
|War Office Directories||WO 165|
|Home Forces||WO 166|
|British Expeditionary Force, France||WO 167|
|British North West Expeditionary Force, Norway||WO 168|
|Middle East||WO 169|
|Central Mediterranean Forces||WO 170|
|North West Europe||WO 171|
|South East Asia Command||WO 172|
|West African Command||WO 173|
|North Africa||WO 175|
|Smaller Theatres of War||WO 176|
|Medical Services||WO 177|
|Military Missions||WO 178|
|Dominion Forces||WO 179|
|General Headquarters Liaison Regiment||WO 215|
|Special Services (SAS, Commandos etc.)||WO 218|
|Combined Operations||DEFE 2|
WW2 War Diary Copying Service
I have photographed hundreds of Second World War unit war diaries for clients over the years. As no WW2 war diaries have been digitized, 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 units a soldier served with you can email me the documents and I can decipher them 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:
I also offer a research service where I provide all the war diaries and write up a soldier’s service in narrative form. Click on the link below to find out more: