Do it yourself
There are plenty of original documents, books and on-line sources about the RAF and its Squadrons. The Glossary, Sources and Sites & Links pages may also help in your search.
Starting from scratch
If you have a place to start, all you need is patience and curiosity: about the what, why, how and when of things. Anyone can do it and we were all beginners once. Here are some suggestions.
What are you starting with? How much can it tell you? Is there a date, a name, a service number, or any other personal or unit information shown? Where did the item come from and what came with it? How much of the story do you want to know more about? List the key things you know about it. Think: which bits are worth following? Which bits might be easiest to start with?
If you prefer books, start in a good library: see Books below. If you’d prefer to start on-line, see The Internet, below. Either way, if you’re after a particular person or unit, Service records or unit histories, below, may help.
With the right books, you can get familiar with the background and find your way into the detail at your own pace. It may be helpful to look for more general books to begin with if starting from scratch. Books about the campaign or the aircraft your subject was associated with may lead you to official histories and Unit or personal histories.
The Sources page lists all the books and official documents referred to in research for this site. Most of the books should be found through a good library, or by Inter Library Loan. There is no shortage of good (second hand) bookshops with a military bent. A reasonable set of war bibliographies is maintained by Stone & Stone while the British Aviation Archaeology Council keeps a growing list of RAF Squadron books on its Research page.
The various official histories of World War II for the RAF, the RAAF, the RCAF and the RNZAF are indispensable for getting a feel for each theatre and sometimes remarkable in the level of personal and unit detail. Those for the RAF and RAAF are listed on Sources page.
If very lucky you may find a good, tightly focussed, carefully documented book to start with. A book that includes a bibliography, a set of source notes and a good index may richly reward careful reading with fresh leads. It is worth following up to see what else that author wrote.
Never, never, never cut things out of books or magazines. You are destroying information for future researchers. Keep copies, with title and author details recorded.
Libraries and archives
If you’re able to visit, national libraries, museums and archives offer the best sources of primary, original information. You will need a reader’s ticket of some sort. These days, such places have excellent on-line catalogues and access to digitised collections. If unable to visit, owing to distance for example, it may be worth contacting a paid research service (check the library or archive of interest for any notes).
Once you’ve found a book you know is relevant, as well as checking for other books by that author, check what other books lie under the same Catalogue code, or under the same Subject heading. Ask the staff about other national and overseas catalogues and using the InterLibrary Loan system to get the book you need. Links to UK, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand National Library services are shown on the Site and Links page.
Magazines and newspapers of the period are readily available in major libraries. The Illustrated London News, The Tatler, The Sphere, The Aeroplane and Flight may all have articles of interest. The last two, for example, carry notices of deaths in pre-war RAF accidents, and brief summaries of RAF decorations throughout the war. The Gallantry awards page lists the standard references for awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross and Distinguished Flying Medal.
Bookshops and catalogues
There are a number of fine sites that offer book search facilities for new and second-hand books. There are also many good bookshops with a military focus and a Website catalogue. Books out of print for 60 years or more can be unearthed in libraries and on the market by patient searching.
Of the listings services, the widest reach across booksellers and book lists, whether rare, second-hand or new, is offered by Bookfinder.
No PC at home? Check at your local library (see above). Many offer public access to the Internet. Just ask the librarian for a little help to get started.
The Sites & Links page offers a selection of official sites and other personal sites like this. Look for national archives and library sources, or local historical societies and relevant Associations first.
The RAF and RAAF Museum sites have historical summaries on Squadrons and their aircraft. Of the UK sources, The National Archives (Public Record Office), the Imperial War Museum, and the RAF Museum sites all now have helpful on-line guides, catalogues, digitised databases and on-line ordering.
The Australian War Memorial site has a great deal of its information on-line (honour rolls, photos, catalogue, RAAF Squadron histories, and all the volumes of the World War I and World War II official histories). The National Archives of Australia likewise has on-line guides, catalogue, photos and digitised personal and official records (including RAAF Squadron Operations Record Books).
For the RAF or RAAF, a Squadron’s Operations Record Book is the primary source for details of aircrew, aircraft and operations.
For the RAF, these are available, on-line at modest cost, in the UK National Archives, while the Imperial War Museum collections database offers easy access to a wide range of photographic material.
For the RAAF, the originals are held on microfilm in the Australian War Memorial Research Centre (Series AWM 64), listed in Record Search at the National Archives of Australia. A great many units (most Squadrons, for example) are now digitised in Series A9186 and viewable at no charge via National Archives of Australia Record Search/Advanced Search:
Select the Items button,
In Keywords enter (for example) 11 Squadron
In Series number enter A9186
Finally, click the Search button and browse from there.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission site is very valuable (as a source of full name and service number, and often Unit) if your subject died in the course of the war. See also Service records or unit histories, below.
Newspapers and Magazines
The National Library of Australia holds, in Trove, a growing searchable digital collection of national newspaper issues. A similar initiative by the New Zealand National Library is Papers Past.
Although the Web is an ever-widening and often shallow stream, fine personal sites do exist. Quirky design may not matter. Content does matter. Do the site pages show some sign of careful work (in ease of navigation, in originality, and in the accuracy and depth of information)? Can you spot any serious howlers? Does the site respect copyright? Does it make an effort to acknowledge and cite sources properly, so that you can find them too? Is there a good, relevant set of links that work? Is the site updated regularly? Is the owner/compiler at least identifiable and preferably contactable, say through an Enquiries or Contact page? Will they reply (first ask yourself “Do I really need to ask?”).
Look for the search options for your chosen “engine”. They are not all the same. The Any words option often produces a forest of irrelevance. The All words option may help, while the Exact phrase option, or limiters around keywords (like this: “211 Squadron”), can work very well indeed when you are sure of your terms. Think of all likely, sensible, related keywords, as well as that which first came to mind.
The performance of any one Search engine does vary in quality over time. The Site search page offers simple alternatives for searching this 211 Squadron site.
Message boards and the rest
The popularity (and number) of on-line message boards or forums on World War II matters has fallen in recent years. Those that remain are still readily found by your chosen Search engine and, if really stumped, it may still be worthwhile joining and posting your query on one of the very few where real knowledge and help can still be found.
It is still advisable to look at board rules and the content and style of posts—and replies—before jumping in yourself. Never put your email address in plain view if you needn’t. Typing ALL IN CAPITALS is usually seen as the equivalent of shouting. You may still be taken aback by how many apparently adult, experienced members are bullies or smart alecks, lying in wait for any excuse to sneer, finger-wag, take offence or pick a fight. At least the tide of really offensive spam posts has largely ebbed as owners, moderators and members have taken more responsibility for content.
In contrast, the many other mediums (Facebook, Twitter and their kind) have become a largely unchecked tide of worthless drivel, boggling inaccuracy, mindless conspiracy fantasies, merciless trolling, racist spite and sadly murderous content. Criticism of negligent monitoring and remedial process has been rising, especially since 2019: whether to any lasting effect remains to be seen. Cannot be recommended.
Service records or unit histories
Full name is indispensable in looking for or requesting further information, while service number is nearly so. Date of birth or period of service may well be useful, while Squadron (if known) can be helpful too.
There are plenty of these, to be found in major libraries and war museums and in new or second hand bookshops with a military section.
- Official guides, whether on-line or printed, offer useful introductions to archived Service records. A selection of printed British and RAF guides:
Air Force Records for Family Historians Spencer (PRO 2000)
The Second World War: A Guide to Documents in the PRO Cantwell (PRO 1998)
Tracing Your Family History: Royal Air Force IWM 2007
- Not to mention private efforts along the same lines
Tracing Your Air Force Ancestors Tomaselli (Pen & Sword 2007)
A Guide to Military History on the Internet Fowler (Pen & Sword 2007)
For more books, see the Sources page, and for Archives, Libraries and Museums see the Sites and Links page. Some suggestions follow
- For RAF officers, the Air Force List provides useful details of rank, seniority and service no (those up to January 1939 also have current Squadron etc posting as well). The RAAF Air Force List, the RCAF Air Force List and the RNZAF Air Force List provide equivalent records for officers of those services
- For those lost in action or taken PoW, there are a number of books providing summary data:
W Chorley Bomber Command Losses volumes
Gunby & Temple RAF Bomber Losses in the Middle East and Mediterranean volumes
N Franks RAF Fighter Command Losses of the Second World War
R McNeill Coastal Command Losses
Errol Martyn For Your Tomorrow (for NZ airmen)
Alison & Hayward They Shall Grow Not Old for Canadian airmen
and for FE PoWs, Stubbs & Stubbs Unsung Heroes of the RAF.
- For those awarded a decoration in World War II, Maton’s Honour The Air Forces and Honour Those Mentioned—The Air Forces give alphabetical rolls with full name, rank, service number, date of award gazettal and (where available) Unit. For DFC and DFM award records and other sources see also Gallantry Awards Sources
- For RNZAF members, Hanson’s By Such Deeds lists all awards made for service from 1923 to 1999, by name, with summary biographical details, for all Commonwealth and foreign awards. Citations are included where available. A comprehensive reference by the late Group Capt Colin Hanson OBE and a very remarkable achievement.
- If you know your man’s Squadron, brief summaries of his unit’s history can be found in
Halley’s Squadrons of the Royal Air Force 1918—1988
Jefford’s RAF Squadrons,
Moyes’ Bomber Squadrons of the RAF & Their Aircraft
Rawlings’ Fighter Squadrons of the RAF & Their Aircraft
and his Coastal, Support and Special Squadrons of the RAF & Their Aircraft
- For other RAF units, Sturtivant’s RAF Flying Training and Support Units Since 1912 is invaluable. And like all Air Britain publications, it carries a most helpful table of RAF abbreviations.
- If you just know the aircraft type of your man’s Squadron, perhaps the best book to begin with is Jefford’s RAF Squadrons, from which you can check which units used that aircraft and work forward from there
- For the RAAF, the complete official 10 volumes set Units of the RAAF - A concise history
or Eather's Flying Squadrons of the Australian Defence Force.
There are plenty of these, too. Here is a summary, focussed on official sources for Air Force service and units. Detailed links to them all are on the Sites and Links page:
Finding Name and Service no
- For RAF men, the Index to airmen and airwomen's service records (AIR 78 at UK National Archives) should find full name (or at least initials and surname) plus service no
[July 2022: access to the free digitised image files “temporarily removed for review”]
- For RAF Officers, selected Air Force Lists from 1911 to 1945 are held in the Digital Archive
- If your subject didn’t survive the war try the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site
- In Australia, for RAAF men check the World War II Nominal Roll, the Australian War Memorial and Australians at War websites. Check the National Archives of Australia Record Search page for RAAF service and casualty records
- With name (and/or service no), it is worth checking the on-line London Gazette for details of decorations, commissioning from the ranks and (for officers and warrant officers) promotions. For decorated airmen of Canadian origin, see the RCAF Honours and Awards page.
Lodging a request
- In the UK, the Ministry of Defence Requests for Personal Data & Service Records page links to printable copies of the paper forms required to ask for Service records, subject to conditions concerning the subject (or if deceased, their next of kin). Full name and service number are essential
- The MoD can then provide copies of RAF service records. If the subject has died within the last 25 years, the level of detail released will be quite restricted
- The non-refundable £30 fee applies to all requests except those by spouse/partner.
Units and other service information
- Check the websites of the RAF, RAF Museum, National Archives/PRO, or the National Archives of Australia/RAAF Records, or the Library and Archives Canada, the War Museum Canada, or Archives NZ, RNZAF, RNZAF Museum, or NZETC. Most include on-line guides or leaflets
- Many archives now offer on-line searching of their collections, at least to title level, often with a brief abstract of the item, often with an option to lodge an order for a copy (check costs first), sometimes with access to digitised records themselves. Examples include Commonwealth War Graves Commission/Search Our Records, Imperial War Museum/Collections on-line, RAF Museum/Navigator, UK National Archives/Catalogue and National Archives/Documents on-line, Australian War Memorial/Collection databases, Australian National Archives/Record Search, and Flight/Archive
- If you know their unit and/or the aircraft type they used, also check the RAF site RAF Squadron and Aircraft histories, or the Air of Authority site
- For the RAAF, see the RAAF Museum Squadron and Aircraft histories pages and the ADF Serials site
- Look for the webpage of the Squadron or their Association (start with the Royal Air Forces Register of Associations site), or try one or more of the many veterans contact sites
- The British Aviation Archaeology Council keeps a good and growing list of RAF Squadron books on its Research page
- As well as those shown here in the Glossary, good lists of RAF unit and other abbreviations and terms are also to be found on the Royal Air Forces Register of Associations site.
You’re looking for answers: order from chaos. You may find it a help to have an ordered plan, and to keep notes, copies, ideas and emails in some sort of order. Take time to review what you’re finding: what it means, how it fits together, what pattern it makes, what connections—or inconsistencies—are appearing out of the mist. Prefer open questioning “How did they do that?” to bald assertion “It must have been...”. The first path leads to new leads and understanding, the second to dead ends and errors.
Look out for connections: pointers, ideas, names, places and events related to your main focus. Keep an eye on them all, as they will multiply like rabbits. Prefer the ones that seem most closely related and accessible to begin with. Learn to look at them, to become familiar with them, to assess which ones you should follow now, which to return to later, which to note but abandon. Look for inconsistencies too: always wiser to check than to ignore, and sometimes paying quite startling dividends.
As you learn to see the place you are searching in, a set of keywords (events, names, units, equipment, places, sources etc) will emerge. Whether you choose to keep them in the back of your mind or as a checklist, these keywords will be a help for further study. Note, their keywords, rather than yours. So in the Army you might look for “War Diary”, in the RAF “Operations Record Book”. Learn their jargon: it will help.
Everyone makes mistakes: those who were there then, those who recorded then, those who remember now, and those who search, report and interpret now. Watch for them, compare them, note them but correct them only when you have clear evidence that you're right. If you do put forward a correction, make sure you explain the change: silent corrections are only for minor spelling slips and the like.
How close to the events are your sources? Primary contemporary sources (written at the time by a participant) are very, very valuable but not necessarily “right”. And how primary is primary?
You might think that entries in an Operations Record Book or Flying Log Book of the time would be accurate beyond argument. However, there may in fact be differences between them. For example, there may have been different lags between the event and the record entry. Squadron records may be missing, destroyed or lost beyond recovery, sometimes to be recompiled later from memory or other records. A missing Log Book may be recompiled by copying from others. Style, content, completeness and accuracy are also very variable, even within the one unit or document over time. As far as possible, do look to original records of the time but do not expect perfect accuracy.
Mistakes by participants are most often made in all good faith. There are several well known tricks of the mind that often bedevil reporting, even reporting soon after the event. Vivid events tend to have a sort of stickiness from the start, while the passage of time tends to telescope events. Some examples:
- The date of an event may be recalled as on a near, more memorable date (a birthday, for example, or Friday the 13th)
- Events that were separate may be recalled as a single event
- Events that happened to a close colleague may be recalled as having happened to the observer
- Details learnt or seen much later may be recalled as part of the observer’s own experience.
The real damage is done by credulous and uncritical third party reporters, tempted to interpret by mere assertion or to repeat erroneous stories from unreliable accounts—without checking to source. History can be both vivid and inexact: adding to the muddle with Chinese Whispers helps no-one.
You too will make mistakes. It is all too easy to see what you want to see, in photographs or in documents. Dates and events may get stuck together in your mind, while clear connections and equally clear inconsistencies may unaccountably elude you. Take time to step back, return and recheck your stuff later. Ask someone else to read your stuff.
Correct your own blunders promptly. A website is easy to update but hard to access for those without Internet. A book is easy to read but hard to update.
As time passes, as more and more inadequately checked material appears in print or on-line, layers of blundering build up, even for otherwise well-documented RAF terms. The simple fact is that once started, such blunders spread and keep spreading. While it might be tempting to dismiss this as nit-picking, the result is that on-line search increasingly requires extra care, as results do vary. Multiple searching on the correct term and on all incorrect variations is thus needed to get a comprehensive result.
Here are some examples, where properly documented terms have become overlaid with error.
This is correct for the three lowest grades of airmen (Aircraftman Class 2 being the lowest) as recorded in RAF and Air Ministry documentation of the day, eg the RAF "bible", The King’s Regulations and Air Council Instructions For The RAF (AP 958). The various grades are listed here in the Glossary.
Despite that incontrovertible evidence, in recent years the patently incorrect "Aircraftsman" has spread perniciously through official sources like the UK National Archives Discovery catalogue, and then repeated elsewhere. Enquiry or request for correction met with blank misunderstanding.
Aircrew and some skilled trades were, on qualification, awarded and authorised to wear the appropriate badge. Some examples:
For Pilots, the winged Flying Badge of embroidered cloth worn on the left upper tunic:
their “wings” (plural) for short
For Observers, the O with single wing, a cloth badge worn on the left upper tunic
For Air Gunners, at one time, the winged bullet metal badge worn on the upper sleeve
For Wireless Ops, the fistful of lightning cloth badge worn on the upper sleeve.
These, for officer or airman, are all badges, as Jefford’s Observers and Navigators explains. They are not “brevets”, a completely different thing. Further, to refer to any non-pilot aircrew trade badge with single wing as a "half wing" or “half-wing brevet” is patently incorrect. No such thing exists, any more than it could fly.
A Squadron’s heraldic emblem, since 1935 prepared by the Inspector of RAF Badges at the College of Arms and approved by the Sovereign of the day, is the Squadron badge and not, as commonly miscalled, the Squadron “crest” (again, a specific and different heraldic item).
All but invariably one word in RAF documents, Armament Vol I (SD719) for example. Finger trouble nowadays sometimes renders this as "Bomb site" or "Bombsite", which may or may not amuse, depending on reader experience and context. Wrong, either way.
Operations Record Book
This is the correct title, repeated at the top of every printed Form 540 and Form 541 sheet, as well as in many other RAF documents including the King’s Regulations and in the RAF War Manual. Often “ORB” for short but also “Monthly Summary” and/or “Daily Summary”, being the Unit diary of operations and work carried out in peace or war. For some reason, quite often miscalled “Operational Record Book”, when the term “operational” refers only to the state of readiness of a Unit.
Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve
Summarising heavily, from its pre-war existence for part-time Officer pilot recruits, in war-time the RAFVR became the arm which took in virtually all new entrants of all ranks and trades. The title is as shown: variants like "Voluntary" and/or "Reserves" are incorrect.
Unexpected and disappointing to find a quite common place name becoming mangled in official collection records: Fremantle, the well-known (and in war-time principal) port of Western Australia, named for that Capt Fremantle RN associated with the early history of the State. By some nonsensical accident, in the National Archives of Australia Record Search catalogue this became quite mistakenly rendered in many, many, many cases as "Freemantle" and so remains despite enquiry,
Beyond these simple blunders lie more elaborate and as oft-repeated historical myths that arose from mis-reporting in the press at the time. One such is the supposed Japanese origin of the Beaufighter “Whispering Death” nickname (though much debunked as summarised here). Another, about the 99ft wing-span of the Short Stirling, started by a baseless throw-away presumption in one British aviation jourmal of 1942. In fact the Stirling’s admittedly limited wing-span had nothing whatever to do with the supposed width of RAF hangar doors (again comprehensively debunked, see for example Sinnott The RAF and Aircraft Design 1923-1939 (Cass 2001) Ch7 pp 168,169).
Cover-ups, conspiracies, can’t find nuthin’
They must have hidden it all!
Rubbish. Think cock-up before cover-up. They were ordinary people just like you.
They made mistakes and they lost things: in the press of events, through enemy action, through carelessness, and over the passage of the last 80 years or so.
Have a cup of tea and start again tomorrow.
www.211squadron.org © D Clark & others 1998—2023
Site created 15 Apr 2001, last updated 31 Jul 2023. Page created 30 Oct 2002, last updated 31 Jul 2022
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