With a bit of effort, it should be possible to build a good picture of your relative’s career in the Second World War or later
Approximately 3,800,000 men and women served in the Army in the Second World War, most conscripted under The National Service Act, 1939. From initial defeats in Norway and France (including Dunkirk) the action continued to hard fighting in North and East Africa then Italy and back into France at D Day and the liberation of Europe. Many others fought in the Far East against Japan and endured jungle warfare in India and Burma before Japan surrendered in August 1945.
To most soldiers the important factor was his Regiment or Corps. Corps were mainly support troops such as Royal Engineers, Royal Army Service Corps or Royal Corps of Signals. Most Corps troops served in numbered companies and you’ll need to know which one. Regiments were the fighting troops; cavalry (almost all armoured) fought as regiments of 800 to 1,000 men; infantry in battalions of about 800 mainly in County Regiments such as the Norfolk Regiment. You’ll need to know the battalion number.
For data protection reasons fewer records of individuals are available online but may be opened with their authority or, if deceased, you are next of kin. Details of how and where to apply, plus relevant forms, are online ( gov.uk/get- copy-military-service
records/overview). Once you’ve got the service record you need to interpret it. Try to create a timeline showing, where possible, units served in and then look for the relevant War Diaries on TNA’s catalogue, Discovery.
All Army Units kept a War Diary, recording daily activities, invaluable for records of movements, training and fighting. Diaries are at TNA but held by ‘theatre of war’. If a unit served in France in 1939, then in Britain after Dunkirk, later in North Africa, you’ll have to search several theatres. Diaries may include maps, orders, lists of men attached from other units or away on detachment and notes on operations. Unlike First World War War Diaries, most of which are online, all those for the Second World War still have to be viewed as original documents at TNA. By diligently following them it’s possible to build a good picture of your relative’s career.
The main theatres of war were France and Belgium 1939– 40 (diaries in WO 167 series), Norway 1940 ( WO 168), the Middle East including North Africa 1941– 43 ( WO 169), Central Mediterranean 1943– 46 ( WO 170), France, Belgium, Holland, Germany 1944– 46 ( WO 171), India, Burma, Malaya 1941– 46 ( WO 172), Tunisia & Algeria 1941– 43 ( WO 175) with units that served in the UK being in Home Forces ( WO 166). Smaller theatres are West Africa ( WO 173),
Soldiers return to England after evacuation from Dunkirk, June 1940