I’ve been spending years now researching Servicemen from the Second World War, whether it be my own family members, or the names from Portsmouth’s proposed War memorial. Sadly, its not as easy as it could be. And what makes it even sadder, is that its usually much easier to research a person who died than it is to find out about someone who survived.
For a start, if somebody died during the Second World War, their name will be on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s online roll of honour. Chances are they will appear on other memorials, and possibly in regimental rolls of honour or official histories. And if somebody died in action, there is a stronger possibility that they were awarded a medal. And if somebody died, there is a fair chance that there will be a picture of them in the local newspaper, along with perhaps a death notice and messages from friends and family, and possibly also a ‘thanks for sympathy’ message later. These often give you somebody’s address, and names of family members, and other details such as how they died. But its a case of trawling through newspapers, often on microfilm, around certain dates.
The problem is, even if you know when and where somebody was killed, you have no firm way of knowing what else else happened to them, unless somebody else has already researched them. If you’re not a next-of-kin then you cannot access service records, which give by far the most details. Service Records are made available to the next-of-kin under strict data protection rules, assuming that the person may still be alive. At some point in the future one imagines that these will become available to the public, but when that will be, who knows… for the forseable future we will have to do without them.
For the most part, Army war diaries, naval ships logs or air force operations books only record the general outline of what was happening with a unit and rarely mention names, particularly of men. For example, a parachute Battalion at Arnhem contained just over 500 men – which is a lot of blokes. And without knowing which Company a man served in, its difficult to pinpoint his movements very specifically.
Of course, if you’re researching somebody who fought in a well-known battle, then you will have a lot more to go on – when it came to researching my Grandad at Arnhem, it was a case of working out which of the books weren’t worth reading, as enough books have been written about Arnhem to clear Sherwood Forest. But if your man fought in a line infantry regiment, say in Normandy in July 1944, or Holland in the winter of 1944, you might not find as much printed material.
If a sailor served prior to 1928 – and many of the older, more experienced sailors from Portsmouth had done – then this is the genealogy equivalent of striking oil. Their service records are available from the National Archives online. With a list of ships and dates, you can get a perspective on a man’s career in the Navy. And of course, there are other nuggets of information, such as courses, assesments, and so on.
There is one way of finding out more about officers – the Navy, Army and Air Force lists. These list Each of the commissioned officers in each particular service, and what rank they held, where they were stationed, and a small amount of other information, such as if they had attended staff college. By trawling through each years volume, you can build up a picture of how an officers career progressed. This is particularly useful for pre-war Regular officers, but less so for the large number of officers who served only during wartime.
Another aspect that many people neglect is a serviceman’s background – when and where was he born? What kind of family did he come from? What about the people that he left behind? What job did he do before joining up? Where did he live? Very often these little details help you to build a picture of a man who otherwise would be just a name. To do this, is pretty much a case of working your way through street directories and electoral registers to find addresses, and register office indexes and certificates to pin down births, marriages and deaths.
A major gap in resources is the lack of any census after 1911 being available to the public. Freedom of Information challenges have all but shown the irrelevance of the 100 year rule when it comes to releasing censuses, and having information about who was living where – including younger people – would be an absolute godsend for historians. In particular, the so-called 1939 ‘war census’ – an emergency count of people in Britain just before the outbreak of war – would be invaluable.
Isn’t it ironically sad that its much easier to research people who were killed than it is to research people who survived?