The Operations Record Book
Other than the terse mysteries of the personal Record of Service forms, perhaps the next most misunderstood official RAF document is the Operations Record Book, although its functions and varying imperfections are quite well-recorded in a variety of places, including the various Guides published by The National Archives UK and others.
So for example, the correct title is indeed as shown: Operations Record Book or RAF Form 540, often nowadays the ORB for short. The National Archives UK Discovery catalogue refers to these as Summary of Events, although that is no more than a column heading on the Form.
Written up as a monthly diary, it is some times said that only Squadrons kept these formal records, and then only while operational in war-time. In fact all units including HQs were required to keep such a record—whether in time of war or peace, whether operational or stood-down, and from formation until disbanded.
The Form 541 Detail of Work Carried Out, the daily summary of sorties, was an additional requirement: an Appendix form to be completed for major operations, and continuously in time of war. The form is referred to by National Archives UK as Record of Events, again a misnomer (if convenient).
It is sometimes thought that the Operations Record Book is made up only of the Form 540 and Form 541. In fact the expected Appendices (of which the Form 541 was just the first) vary somewhat over the course of the war, and might include any or all relevant operational orders, combat reports, raid reports, photographs, pro-forma strength and equipment tables and (in the India and Burma theatre, for example) the Sortie Report or OPREP.
As a historical record, the Operations Record Book is, like the Flying Log Book of individual aircrew, a rich source of wonder and sadness, delight and frustration: varying in completeness and accuracy from day to day, much dependent for its quality upon the immediate needs of the moment and the man. Nor is it all that unusual to find discrepancies between the ORB and the Flying Log Books of aircrew for the same event (or even between individual Log Books).
Indeed, this is true of every conceivable form of war-time Service document, whether original or summary, primary and thus contemporary, or secondary reportage then or later. From every period, in every circumstance: all are liable to error, omission or loss, whether in press of war or in carefree peace.
What was wanted
The formal provisions for keeping the Operations Record Book were documented in The King’s Regulations and Air Council Instructions (AP 958) as well as other sources like the RAF War Manual (Part II, AP 1301). Here, then, are the main KR & ACI provisions:
“2349. Operations Record Book.—1. Every unit and each formation headquarters will maintain continuously in duplicate an Operations Record Book (Form 540).
2. The object of the Operations Record Book is to furnish a complete historical record of the unit or headquarters from the time of its formation, including an accurate record of each operation carried out by the unit. Officers responsible for compiling the Operations Record Book are to ensure that the entries made are sufficient to achieve this object.
3. Entries should include
(a) the circumstances of the initial formation of the unit, e.g. where formed, its establishment, its equipment, the names of its commanders, etc.
(b) subsequent changes in the unit's location, function, organisation, establishment, strength, command, equipment, accommodation, disbandment, resuscitation, etc.
(d) a summarised account of all operations and important exercises ;
(e) any important particulars relating to the allocation of duties among the personnel;
(f) the particulars of any officer or airman promoted for gallantry or meritorious service, decorated, or mentioned in despatches ;
(g) a record of casualties to officers, airmen and any troops or civilians attached (i.e. killed, wounded, etc.).
4. During major operations or when a unit is placed upon a war footing, the Operations Record Book will be compiled from day to day and the following documents will be attached as appendices to the original and duplicate copies of the book:
(a) R.A.F. Form 541 "Detail of work carried out."
(b) A copy of each operation order and instructions issued.
(c) A copy of operation orders and instructions received from a higher formation, when no longer required for reference purposes.
(d) A copy of each narrative of, or report on, operations drawn up by the unit or headquarters.
(e) Any sketches or special maps referred to.
4A. Form 765A will be completed in full and inserted as an additional appendix to Form 540 when special instructions to this effect have been issued by the Air Ministry, In these circumstances a copy of the form will be rendered daily to the Air Ministry as required by para. 41 of Chapter XX of the R.A.F. War Manual, Part II (A.P. 1301). If the special instructions have not been issued, operational flying and armoured car units engaged in minor operations will complete certain parts of the form only, as specified on the form. A copy of the modified Form 765A will be inserted in Form 540 but a copy will not be forwarded to the Air Ministry.
4B. Non-operational units, flying and non-flying, will not in any event use Form 765A. They will use Form 765B or 765D in accordance with the instructions given in A.P. 1301, Chapter XX, para. 41. Form 765B and Form 765D will not be inserted as appendices to Form 540.
5. Events should be entered up promptly, otherwise much of importance may inadvertently be omitted.
6. Writing will be on both sides of Form 540 and will be distinct. Names of persons and places will be given in block capitals. The spelling of place names will be that shown on the latest maps issued. Map references will be given.
7. The Operations Record Book (Form 540) will be secret.
8. The extraction of appendices, maps, etc., from the Operations Record Book (Form 540) is an offence under the Official Secrets Act.
2350. Disposal of Operations Record Book.—1. During normal conditions the original Operations Record Book (Form 540) will be held by the unit or formation concerned. The duplicate copy will be forwarded through the usual channels to the Air Ministry in January of each year following the date of formation of the unit.
2. When a unit is placed upon a war footing, or is called upon to undertake major operations the performance of which may make it difficult for the unit to provide safe custody for the original Operations Record Book, this, with appendices, will be sent through the usual channels to the Air Ministry together with the duplicate form (and appendices) compiled since the beginning of the year. A new record will immediately be started as directed in para. 2349, clause 4.
3. During the conditions referred to in clause 2, both original and duplicate copies of Form 540, together with all relevant appendices, will be forwarded monthly through the usual channels to the headquarters of the command or force. The latter will forward the original (and appendices) as soon as possible after the end of each calendar month to the Air Ministry. It will forward the duplicate copy to the Air Ministry when the copy is no longer required for reference, in any case not later than six months after its receipt from the unit.
4. On the resumption of normal conditions, the Operations Record Book (Form 540) of any unit which has forwarded it to the Air Ministry for safe custody under the terms of clause 2 will be returned to the unit, and the action described in clause 1. will be recommenced
5. When a unit is disbanded or otherwise loses its identity, both copies of the Operations Record Book will be completed to the date of disbandment by the insertion of full details of the unit's distribution and will then be forwarded to the Air Ministry.”
The Operations Record Book was thus intended as a running history recording the life of each RAF unit in peace and war, its content laid down by formal regulation. The extent to which these requirements were met in practice and in action is another matter, varying not only according to the immediate needs of the chain of command but also in depth, completeness and accuracy, both over time and between units, according to the whim, resources or application of the signing CO and his compiling officer in the Adjutant’s Office. And subject, too, in time of war, to damage and loss (or, as a Secret Document, to destruction if ordered).
What was done
RAF Form 540
In Squadrons, the Form 540 generally recorded summaries of operations, notable events, and other more general conditions. It almost invariably reported changes in CO. Other Officer postings, promotions and duties are reported quite frequently, but markedly less so if at all for other ranks (although NCO aircrew drafts posted in fare rather better). Pre-war records may include annual rolls of officer and NCO aircrew.
Decorations are generally recorded, regardless of rank. Casualties, whether in action, or through accident or illness, are almost invariably recorded, regardless of rank or duty. Sometimes the detailed reports from the various ground Sections are also included, either as Appendices or, later in the war, fairly consistently as part of the Form 540.
Form 540 front page header (TNA AIR 27/1302).
The note to the left of the title reads
“See instructions for use of this form in KR and ACI para 2349 and War Manual Part II chapter XX and notes in RAF Pocket Book.”
RAF Form 541
The Form 541 recorded each operation or sortie, by aircraft and crew, with a summary of objectives and results. Where individual aircraft were fully identified by Air Ministry serial number (L8513 for example) and individual call-sign letter, a fuller history of the Squadron’s work and aircraft can readily be developed. But it was not uncommon to record just the last three or four digits, or even simply the individual letters for the aircraft of the day—always liable to be used more than once on a Squadron and in pretty short order as aircraft came on and off Squadron charge.
Form 541 front page header (TNA AIR 27/1302).
While the Form 541 was itself treated as a monthly Appendix, from time to time other documents might also be attached. These were generally noted by identifying letter in the Reference to Appendices column of the Form 540. They might include typed narrative reports from the various ground Sections, operations signals, operations narratives, bombing reports, combat reports and air photographs.
Subsequently, these were sometimes filed together with the Forms 540 but more often separately—in which case the TNA Catalogue shows them, where they exist, as Appendices in separate “pieces” in the relevant AIR Class, though not necessarily numbered in order of creation. Entries in the TNA Discovery catalogue warrant close study of description and order, in the initial Search results and when checking the Browse from here option, lest the full set be missed.
Today these deeply interesting documents lie in the custody of The National Archives of the United Kingdom (TNA), either on microfilm and in digital form (Squadron records in AIR Class 27, for example) or on paper (such as OTU and AMES records, in AIR Class 29).
The filing of the various parts and periods is sometimes complex, occasionally muddled, and sometimes incomplete. For 211 Squadron, the main run of the Operations Record Book Form 540s and Form 541s for 1937 to 1941 is in “piece” 1302: the TNA reference therefore is AIR 27/1302.
So, for example, because the 211 Squadron record in AIR 27/1303 began in January 1944, the period for 1943 in India was thought by some to be missing, but it had simply been filed all along with earlier material: in AIR 27/1302.
For 1940 and 1941 all other Appendices are held in AIR 27/1304, 1311, 1312 and 1313. Those for 1944 and 1945 are in AIR 27/1305, 1306, 1307, 1308, 1309 and 1310. Details of all the remaining 211 Squadron records held are shown below in date order.
Whatever order they are now filed in—not always date order—the documents in any individual item or piece might also be stamp-numbered in sequence at some point. Clues to missing documents can be found by comparing the original, written, page numbering order with the stamped sequence, by date and piece number. Pages apparently missing from an archived set may simply turn out to be pages missed on photocopying.
211 Squadron Operations Record Book
For 211 Squadron, the records for the period from 1937 to 1946 are incomplete, missing some or all material from at least six periods, either through non-compilation (August and September 1938 in part, June 1940 in part, late July 1941 to December 1941 entirely omitted), through loss or destruction in the field (March to April 1941 Forms 540 compiled in May/June, January to March 1942 entirely lost) or possibly to administrative error (apparent loss of individual Operational Summary reports September to November 1944).
The remaining 211 Squadron set is laid out in detail below and in more summarised form on the Sources page. For some periods, substantial parts of the remaining record were scarcely legible as paper copies: in recent years, the creation of digital greyscale PDF images has eased that difficulty somewhat.
June 1937 to May 1940
Form 540: compiled regularly with varying detail, by hand until October 1939, typed thereafter. TNA AIR 27/1302.
Form 541: None found, although the Squadron mounted operations in Palestine from July to September 1938 and Appendices were clearly submitted.
Appendices: No trace of submitted Recco Reports for August and September 1938. Narrative reports on activities by Squadron Sections for March, April, May 1940. TNA AIR 27/1304.
Photographs: May 1940. TNA AIR 27/1311.
Form 540: completed sparsely by hand and lacking any operations detail. TNA AIR 27/1302
Form 541: None.
There are no pages missing from the archived file set as the running page numbers are in sequence. Either not compiled or possibly lost in transit to enemy action.
July 1940 to February 1941
Form 540: compiled regularly with consistent operational detail and some other remarks. TNA AIR 27/1302.
Form 541: matching Form 540 events and compiled regularly, adding details of aircraft, crew, objective and results. TNA AIR 27/1302.
Appendices: narrative raid reports and combat reports from August 1940 to end February 1941 TNA AIR 27/1304.
Photographs: August 1940 AIR 27/1311.
Photographs and report forms: December 1940 AIR 27/1311.
Photographs and report forms: January 1941 AIR 27/1312.
Photographs and report forms: February 1941 AIR 27/1313.
March to June 1941
Form 540: March to late April 1941 clearly compiled or recompiled in Palestine in May or June after destruction of records on withdrawal from Greece. TNA AIR 27/1302.
Form 541: None. Stood down from operations from 5 June and posted to The Sudan.
July 1941 to November 1941
Form 540: entries end on 18 July 1941 with a cryptic (non-Squadron) pencil annotation. Tasked to operate as an OTU from June 1941 to November 1941, the Squadron was briefly absorbed into 72 OTU on 18 November 1941.
Form 541: None required.
December 1941 to March 1942
Form 540: None extant.
Form 541: None.
The Squadron re-formed out of 72 OTU resources on 20 December 1941 and deployed to the Far East from mid January 1942 until dispersed in Java March 1942. No Squadron records survive.
August to December 1943
Form 540: compiled regularly with growing detail after re-forming in India. TNA AIR 27/1302.
Form 541: None required.
January 1944 to May 1945
Form 540: compiled regularly with more or less consistent detail. TNA AIR 27/1303.
Form 541: As above. TNA AIR 27/1303.
Appendices: pro-forma Sortie Reports of daily operations (OPREPs)—
January and February 1944 AIR 27/1305
March and April 1944 AIR 27/1306
May and June 1944 AIR 27/1307
July and August 1944 AIR 27/1308
September 1944 to November 1944: none, and no matching AIR item, the numbered sequence being unbroken. Lost?
December 1944 to February 1945 AIR 27/1309
March 1945 to May 1945 AIR 27/1310.
June 1945 to March 1946
Form 540 more summarily prepared from June 1945 onwards after operational stand-down, conversion to DH.98 Mosquito, and deployment to Siam. TNA AIR 27/1303.
Form 541: None required.
72 Operational Training Unit Operations Record Book
November 1941 to January 1942
Form 540: Narrative summary of the formation of Middle East OTUs from September 1941 to December 1941, the work of 211 Squadron as an OTU up to the formation of 72 OTU on 18 November 1941, 72 OTU establishment, re-forming of 211 Squadron 20 December from OTU personnel. TNA AIR 29/686.
Form 541: None required.
Appendices: Correspondence including Movement Order No 2 of 19 December 1941 with Nominal Roll of “reclaimed” 211 Squadron groundcrew staging to Egypt to re-establish the Squadron. TNA AIR 29/686.
A faithful transcript of the Squadron’s Operations Record Book, month by month and year by year, offers author and reader a searchable resource (see the Site search page) of very considerable use. The years now transcribed are:
1937, 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1943 and 1946.
Movement Order No 2 19 December 1941, 72 OTU
For 1942, I have compiled a partial reconstruction from available Flying Log Books, Diaries and other records of the day, in the absence of the formal Squadron record.
The sheer volume (and legibility) of available material for the years 1944 and 1945 makes further transcription essentially impractical. The copies gathered some years ago, thanks to Elizabeth Kaegi, have been of considerable use in drafting personal accounts and aircraft fates. In the meantime, digital retrieval at the UK National Archives has at last made at least Squadron records readily accessible to all, at reasonable cost.
211 Squadron Operations Record Book 1937-1946 TNA AIR 27/1302 to 27/1313 inclusive
Air Ministry The King’s Regulations and Air Council Instructions (AP 958) HMSO 1943
Air Ministry War Manual Part II Organisation and Administration (AP 1301) HMSO 1940.
Spencer Air Force Records for Family Historians (PRO 2000)
www.211squadron.org © D Clark & others 1998—2023
Site created 15 Apr 2001, last updated 31 Jul 2023. Page created 26 Jan 2009, last updated 8 May 2020
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