There must be very few people indeed who haven’t got at least one parent, grandparent or great-grandparent who served in the Armed Forces in the second world war. If you’re doing your family history, at some point you will probably come up against someone who served in the Army, Navy or Royal Air Force. Considering that this will have been a major event in most peoples lives, it makes sense to spent a lot of time and effort on researching this. Not only will it fill in a lot about your family history, but you will also find out a lot about yourself in the process.
Firstly, the National Archives have a brilliant set of Research Guides that tell you 99% of everything you might need to know. Put simply, if your ancestor is still alive, they can apply for their service record themselves. If they have passed away, you can apply, but with the permission of the closest surviving relative. You will need to fill out an application form and a certificate of kinship, available from the Veterans Agency website. This can take up to 6 months, and at the time of writing costs £30.
The information that you get from them varies widely. Army records are very thorough, covering joining up, units served, locations, disciplinary and medical issues, service overseas, wounds, time spent as a prisoner, and all manner of things. Naval records, on the other hand, usually simply consist of some brief personal details, a list of ships or shore bases, and dates. Also, its worth having a root around in the loft before you apply, as you may already have this information sat in a box or something!
Once you have this information, you can get onto the internet or down the library to find out what all those annoying abbreviations mean, and where certain units served. Think of the service record as a skeleton, and then you find out other stuff to put flesh on the bones and fill in the gaps. Bookwise, there are some excellent guides by Simon Fowler, William Spencer, Brian Davis, George Forty, and Brian Lavery has written some very good books on Naval ships and shore bases. If your ancestor was an officer, they will also be in the Army List or the Navy list, which may be in your local library.
You can also get hold of war diaries or ships logs for most units. These are held in the National Archives at Kew, and give more details about what a Battalion or a ship was doing on a day to day basis. The war diary for my Grandads Battalion told me when he’d been given leave! Ships logs are not quite so detailed, and mainly contain navigational details.
If your ancestor died, they will be on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s online debt of honour register.
If your ancestor was a prisoner of war, you can apply for their POW records from the International Red Cross. This will tell you what camps they were held in and when.
Also, dont rule out just doing a bit of a google, you never know what you might find!
Finally, if you are a bit confused or want some help, feel free to give me a shout. Or, if you’re very keen, you could come along to one of my talks on ‘what my family did during the war’ – check out the ‘my talks’ page for details. You could also have a look at my article ‘researching a red beret’ in the February 2009 issue of Britain at War magazine, and I have a similar issue on researching Royal Navy ancestors that will hopefully be published soon!