The problems with researching World War Two (2)

Last time, I wrote about what problems may be caused when the wonderful website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission contains no details whatsoever about a particular individual, other than the date of his death:

The name of his regiment, by the way, is of little help. Men were switched between regiments and battalions all the time. It would give you a very large shove, in, probably, the right direction, but you could never be 100% water tight sure.

If all you have is the name and the date of death, I suppose that you could try to find a website that has all the past issues of local newspapers in Britain. Hopefully, you might find Fred Walker in the Deaths section for May 22nd 1946 onwards. But how would you know which newspaper to look in? You would have to try all of the Nottingham ones and then perhaps Mansfield and then perhaps Newark. But what if Fred’s family had moved to Durham after he left the High School at the age of seven? Or Tobermory? Or Armagh? Or, as one did, Paraguay?

The second major problem is that any possibly helpful supporting details about the individual serviceman can be almost impossible to come by. So difficult, in fact, that the whole situation soon becomes an impossible one.

This is because detailed service records after 1922 are still, ninety years after World War Two, accessible only to a direct relative, such as a son or a grandson. And these records are all held in the steely grip of the Ministry of Defence:

To take my own experiences as an example, I decided to buy access to my Dad’s records of his service in the RAF.

I had to send them his death certificate and my own birth certificate, to prove that he was dead and that I was his son. Both of them had to be the original documents, because photocopies were not allowed. I also had to send them a large sum of money. Here’s my Dad, ready to take on the Führer:

And what I got back contained very little indeed of any consequence, although it did make me think of studying for “GCSE Abbreviations (Paper 1 : RAF)”.  The abbreviations included:

“S/GCA”,  “P/R”,  “NVC”,  “A3B”,  “3RC”,  16.B.C.”,  “B/X”,  “S.F.U”,  “W/Mech”,  “W/T Equip”,  “X”, “H”, “HH”,  “HHH”,  “1.S.S.” or perhaps “I.S.S.”,  “S/GCA”,  “2 GCA Unit”  and “15 R.C.”.

Just imagine. All that palaver to get the records and when you get them you can’t understand them.

And that isn’t the only problem  with accessing the records of an individual serviceman. In 1940,  just to provide the splendid celebratory pink icing on the top of the researcher’s celebration cake, heavy bombing by the Luftwaffe destroyed up to 60% of all the war records in existence up to that point.

And what the Luftwaffe missed, the various fire brigades gave a damn good soaking to make most of it completely unusable;

And that’s not all. The 1931 National Census was completely destroyed by fire on Saturday, December 19th 1942. All of its documents were being stored in a building at Hayes in Middlesex.

This catastrophe cannot be blamed on the naughty Luftwaffe though. It was just an ordinary fire, although it is difficult to believe that storing huge amounts of furniture right next to tons of census paperwork was a particularly clever move.

At all times, there were six paid firewatchers on duty in the building but it is now known that some of them were smokers and that at least one of them threw a lighted cigarette stub down on the floor at one point. That was not a particularly clever move either.

Don’t be downhearted though. Other countries are just as fond of a nice welcoming fire. A substantial proportion of the USA’s 1890 census went up in smoke. And the Irish! Well, it’s almost unbelievable!

The Irish censuses for 1821, 1831, 1841, and 1851 were all burned by a large fire at the Public Records Office. Oscar Wilde was Irish. And what was it he said?

“To burn one census may be regarded as a misfortune.

To burn two censuses looks like carelessness.

To burn three censuses might be regarded as third time unlucky,

But to burn four censuses may well be the work of

Der man ‘imself,

Art’ur Brown”






Filed under Bomber Command, History, Nottingham, The High School, Writing

25 responses to “The problems with researching World War Two (2)

  1. Pierre Lagacé

    So much easier in Canada John.

    • Absolutely. I sent off a request and a cheque to get all of my Grandad’s Canadian Army details, which they duly sent me. In the meantime, they had been put on the Internet for free, so the people dealing with my request did not cash the cheque. That would NOT have happened with British civil servants. They would have cashed the cheque and then told me the procedure to claim the money back.

  2. In 1973, we had a fire at the national Records Office in St. Louis. 16 to 18 million military records up in smoke!!

    • Mac

      I’m one of them affected as I tried to get my Active Duty records, with no success…I did get some information from my time as a Air National Guardsman thou.

    • I suppose the problem is compounded by the fact that it would have been so difficult back then to have back-up copies of so many records. Nowadays, there is no excuse, with the possibility of paying hundreds, if not thousands, of people to copy them on a computer. Hopefully, that is what is being done.
      It would certainly be nice to have access to people and events so far in the past that they surely have little if any security issues attached to them.

      • It most certainly would. I found it hard to believe that an organization that demanded paperwork in triplicate, stored the only records in one place!!!!!

  3. Jan

    John, have you considered an alternative strategy?

    From the school records you will know the boy’s date of birth and his address.

    You could use this information to pinpoint his parents and then the birth certificates of any siblings. From there it should be possible (using the search function on to track down any relatives who are alive today. They may well know enough about the OB’s war time service to provide positive disambiguation.

    I have done this myself (in a different context), so I know it is possible.

    • I’m afraid it’s too late now. After at least five years of working on the books between 18-28 hours per week, and a list of 300+ candidates, I have no more stomach for the fight.
      I have added 40 plus casualties to the accepted list on the school’s wooden plaque in the hall foyer and that will be enough for me!
      Thanks for the suggestion, though. It is certainly very ingenious, and if there was one particularly important candidate who needed checking, then it would worth giving it a try.

  4. Chris Waller

    Bureaucrats just love their acronyms, don’t they? They provide yet another way to stop Joe Public getting their hands on what ought to be public information. You also mention the destruction of records from the First World War by bombing in the WW2. I tried to get hold of my paternal grandfather’s service records but ran into the proverbial brick wall. Why did no one in Whitehall think to remove the records to a remote and secure location?

    • Because they got their jobs because of who they were, or who they knew rather than what talents they had shown so far. Because they had never taken a proactive step in their lives.
      You only have to read about the debacles at Tobruk, Singapore and Dunkirk to realise just how close the upper classes came to losing the war.
      Bomber Harris said that every member of the Ministry of War should wear a hat with a big badge on which was written, “Sorry, that’s impossible, I’m afraid”. And that about sums it up.
      Nobody in power ever takes a long view and thinks about what may happen a hundred years from now. And, if we’re not careful, that will cost us, or our successors, the planet.

  5. You have such determined patience

  6. There certainly are many barriers to researching these records, fire being the least of them. It’s certainly not easy but I’m sure your determination will see you through John.

  7. John, how supremely disappointing to get back in code the information about your father. You’d think his records were classified or something and even if they were almost 100 years later, what difference does it make? And then all those burnings …. I smell a rat underfoot. You’ve got your job cut out for you with the kind of research you do. I don’t know how you do it. And stay sane at the same time. My father served in WWII and to this day I know next to nothing about what he did or where he was. I wouldn’t even begin to know how to find out. Perhaps it is better that I don’t know. You of all people know how upsetting war is to me.

  8. From what you’ve shared, it does appear to be quite a challenge to move forward with your research. I must admit, thought, that deciphering the “GCSE Abbreviations (Paper 1 : RAF)” calls for some great sleuthing skills. Perhaps, your best options for moving forward would be personal diaries, if any, that may be available for public viewing.

    • In actual fact, what I have done is to write a few pages to be put at the end of the book to tell any future researchers exactly what a huge bureaucratic wall currently exists between them and finding out the detailed truth. Perhaps, fingers crossed, in 2119 (if there is one), society will have changed a little and information will be easier to come by for researchers then..

  9. Reblogged this on battleoftheatlantic19391945 and commented:

    battleoftheatlantic19391945/ Brian MURZA/W.W.II NAVAL RESEARCHER-PUBLISHED AUTHOR, Niagara Region, Ontario, Canada.


    • Thank you very much for that. My grandfather, Will Knifton, served in the Canadian army in WW1 and I have already seen all of his records from that period. I had not realised that the Canadians had done anything yet for WW2 but full marks for what they have done. You must have a less secretive society than we have. That wouldn’t be difficult!!

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