Searching British War Records from World War II

December 20, 2019  - by 

On September 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany. By the end of the war, 2.9 million men and women had fought for the British forces. If you have recent British roots, you may have a British World War II soldier or two in your family tree. Understanding British war records can help you find out more information about these family members.

To identify your ancestor in British war records from World War II, a good place to start might be the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website. The cemetery database at CWGC contains information about cemeteries and memorials in 23,000 locations and in more than 150 countries.

The CWGC honors the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the First and Second World Wars.

Conscription Records

A conscription is a “compulsory enrollment for service in a country’s armed forces.” Prior to World War II, Great Britain had a small, professional army, but by the end of 1939, more than 1.5 million men had been conscripted to join the British armed forces. About 1.1 million of those conscripted went into the army, and the rest were split between the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

British soldier from WW2 on the beach next to broken aircraft

In Great Britain, the Military Training Act of 1939 required all men between the ages of 20 and 21 to register. In September 1939, parliament passed another act, which extended the registration requirement to include all fit men between 20 and 23 years of age. Later, the conscription included all fit men between the ages of 18 and 41.

By 1942, all British males between 18 and 51 years old and all unmarried females 20 to 30 years old were liable to be called up, with some exemptions. Some exemptions included, but were not limited to, the following:

  • Students
  • Clergy
  • Police and medical workers
  • Women who had one or more children 14 years old or younger living with them

Conscription records may include the following types of information:

  • Name
  • Birth date
  • Date of conscription and date military service began

You will find conscription records within a service record file.

Service Records

The National Archives at Kew in the London area is where you will find the majority of British military records. However, for soldiers who served after the 1920s, the records can be found at the Ministry of Defense.

Service records are available for researchers for a fee. Access restrictions are in place for those persons who died less than 25 years ago.

British soldiers on a tank in WW2

You can apply for a deceased service member’s records in the following circumstances:

  • You are the immediate next of kin (spouse or parent).
  • You have consent from the immediate next of kin.
  • You have a general research interest.

You will need some important information about the deceased service member such as the full name, date of birth, and service number.

To obtain a copy of a service record, fill out a request form and a search form, both of which can be located at the Ministry of Defense website. There is a £30 fee for each separate record and any supporting documents. There is no fee if you were the person’s spouse or civil partner at the time of death or if you were a parent and there was no spouse.

Service records beginning in the 1920s may include some or all of the following information:

  • Surname, first name, service number, rank, and regiment or corps
  • Place and date of birth
  • Date the person joined and left the armed forces
  • Date of death, if the person died in service
  • Good conduct medals
  • Details about the person’s career; for example, the units served in. (You can get these details only after 25 years after the person died unless you have consent from the person’s next of kin.)

Be aware that in some cases, little or no information exists about a person’s military service.

The Home Guard

The Local Defense Volunteers (LDV), later named the Home Guard, were civilians between the ages of 17 and 65 who were not in military service but who had been asked to enlist in the LDV. Some 1.5 million volunteers signed up for the Home Guard.

British Home Guard hat on a desk

Volunteers were divided into sections, platoons, and companies. The Home Guard was responsible for guarding coastal areas and factories from attack. Information contained in Home Guard records is typically limited. Information may contain personal details on enlistment but no details of the person’s duties.

There is a nonrefundable charge of £30 to request a Home Guard service file. To request a Home Guard file, you must fill out an application form and a Home Guard search form.

Learning the service history of your British World War II soldier or volunteer can be a rewarding experience. Begin your search today by reviewing the FamilySearch wiki list of British military records online. You can also go to the FamilySearch catalog and search “Great Britain—Military Records, 1939–1945.”

Check out these other resources for further reading:

Amie Tennant

Amie Bowser Tennant is a genealogy researcher, writer and presenter.She writes blog articles and other content for many top companies and societies in the genealogy field. Her most treasured experience is working as a consultant for family history. Amie lives with her husband and three children in Ohio, surrounded by many of her extended family.

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  1. Hola
    La persona que busco es mi tatarabuelo Carlos.eckhardt nacido.en 1836 halle Alemania fallecido en 1886 Córdoba Argentina. Mucha gente cargo la misma.informacion mía. Pero yo.nevesito el acta de nacimiento en Montevideo Uruguay entre 1860 con Rosa Gallardi o Gagliardi. 15.años no.encuentro.esos documentos.
    Uds cobran por ese servicio?

    Translation: Hi
    The person I’m looking for is my great-great-grandfather Carlos.eckhardt born. In 1836 I found Germany who died in 1886 Córdoba Argentina. Many people charge the same information of mine. But I need the birth certificate and act of marriage in Montevideo Uruguay between 1860 with Rosa Gallardi or Gagliardi. 15.years I am looking for information about the documents and not finding those documents.
    Thank you
    Do you charge for that service?

    1. looking fro information on my uncle Patrick Nelson who fought for the British Army in world war 11. He was born in Jamaica west Indies. parents were Gertrude Nelson and Leopold Nelson. I understand he might have fought in Dunkirk and survived with scatter shots, went back to Jamaica then back to England where he died in the sixties. Some say he was married and had children. The wife was a nurse and died in a bombing raid, and her mum took the kids away and he never found then upon his return. I would love to know if he has children my cousins. He was called Willie and I look like him which is why my father named me little willie when I was born in 1953. I met him when I was a little girl when he came to see his mother in Jamaica and never saw him again.He had quite a few siblings including my father Vincent Arthur Nelson who died 5 years ago at 95 he was the last man standing. Don’t know if this will go anywhere but decided to try, its the least I could do for my beloved uncle that had 13 scatter shots so I was told.

  2. Please help me! My father, Clifford O’Dell Pounds, was operated on by a British military surgeon during WWII, in North Africa after being hit by multiple pieces of burning shrapnel. Our military is requiring “evidence” of this fact. My father died July 10, 2010. A WONDERFUL man who was always so grateful for this surgeon!