DRAFT. Last Updated 17 October 2021
Quite a lot of people have asked questions such as “My uncle was in the RAF, how do I find out what he did?” or “Where do I start to do some research?”. So here is a beginners guide to how I started the research, where to look and various hints and tips. Persistence and dogged determination are also required.
Using my father Leslie’s collection of original documents and photographs, many books and using the internet I started to search for and order documents from various locations. All of the examples shown below obviously refer to Bomber Command, RAF Wickenby, 12 squadron and our crew.
- Key Information – Enable your research to begin.
- RAF Records Department at RAF Cranwell – Service records for personnel.
- RAF Air Historical Branch – Casualty files for aircrew lost on operations.
- Reference Books
- UK National Archives – Copies of original RAF squadron documents.
- RAF Museum at Hendon – Air Ministry Cards for RAF aircraft.
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission – Identify those killed in action.
- International Bomber Command Centre (IBCC) – Document and Photo Collections.
- Imperial War Museum (IWM) – Document and Photo Collections.
1. Key Information
These are some of the key pieces of information you may require to begin your research.
- Name, Rank and Serial Number.
- RAF Squadron, e.g. 12 Squadron.
- RAF Airfield name, e.g. RAF Wickenby in Lincolnshire.
- Aircraft Type, e.g. Lancaster, Halifax, etc.
- Aircraft Serial Number, e.g ND424.
- Dates, e.g. date joined the RAF, date aircraft lost.
2. RAF Records Department at RAF Cranwell
The RAF Records Department at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire store Service Records for personnel who served with the RAF and it includes key dates, details of their time in service, movements, e.g. posting to squadron, awards, etc. To request a Service Record send a letter with full details to:
- RAF Disclosures
- Room 221B
- Trenchard Hall
- RAF Cranwell
- NG34 8HB
In January 2010 we requested a copy of Leslie’s service record after proving his identity by sending a copy of a recent utility bill and it eventually arrived by post in March 2010. At the time there was no charge as Leslie was still alive. It consists of two high quality A3 scans and it makes interesting reading once the RAF abbreviations have been decoded. As the covering letter says “RAF Form 543 was designed as a basic administrative aid to assist the personnel administrators and was not intended as a biographical document”. However it gives a useful time-line of a persons service in the RAF.
3. RAF Air Historical Branch at RAF Northolt
The RAF Air Historical Branch at RAF Northolt in Middlesex store Casualty Files for aircrew who were lost on operations. The files can be requested via e-mail or by post by sending all relevant information, e.g. name, serial number, date of aircraft loss. Their e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Their postal address is:
- The Air Historical Branch (RAF)
- Bentley Priory Building
- RAF Northolt
- West End Road
- HA4 6NG
The RAF casualty file request form is at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/545146/20130314_RAF-ApplicationFormPart1_GeneralEnquirersandPart2.pdf
E.g. Leslie’s Casualty File was requested and received in September 2015. It contained a lot of valuable information some of which we had not seen before, such as letters to and from his French helper and the report from RAF Gibraltar to say he ‘will be returned to UK at earliest opportunity’.
The RAF casualty web site is now at: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/request-information-held-on-the-raf-casualty-files
4. Reference Books
Two reference books that are vital to doing initial research into RAF Bomber Command operations and losses are:
The Bomber Command War Diaries – An Operational Reference Book, 1939-1945
Authors: Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt (1985). ISBN: 978-1-85780-033-3. This documents all of the operations flown by RAF Bomber Command throughout WWII.
Royal Air Force Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War – 1944
Author: W. R. Chorley (1997). ISBN: 0 904597 91 1. This is volume 5 of a monumental series of 9 books covering Bomber Command Losses for each year of WWII and also volumes covering ‘Operational Training Losses 1940-1947’ and ‘Heavy Conversion Units and Miscellaneous Units, 1939-1947’.
It contains details Bomber Command aircraft lost during 1944. E.g. for ND424 on 27/28 June 1944 it contained the names and fates of the crew, whether they were evader, prisoner of war, injured or killed in action. It also has references to specific document references held by the National Archive such as escape reports.
Note: Some amendments and additions to this book may be found on the web site: http://www.rafinfo.org.uk/BCWW2Losses/. However author of the above books Bill Chorley told me it is no longer being maintained.
Other Useful Reference Books
Author: Oliver Clutton-Brock (2009). The Comprehensive Story of Thousands of Escapers and Their Escape Lines, Western Europe, 1940-1945. ISBN 978-0-753722-79-4.
Luftwaffe Night Fighter Combat Claims 1939-1945
Authors: John Foreman, Johannes Matthews and Simon Parry (2004). ISBN 0-9538061-4-6. Copy bought 2018. The definitive list of claims submitted by Luftwaffe night fighter pilots for Allied aircraft shot down in WW2.
Nachtjagd Combat Archive – 1944
Author: Theo Boiten. A series of books covering the operational history of the German night fighter force in WW2 on all fronts and an analysis of all claims including Flak units against RAF Bomber Command. I bought the following editions:
- ‘Part 1 – 1 January to 15 March 1944’ (2019). ISBN 978-1-906592-60-8.
- ‘Part 2 – 16 March to 11 May 1944’ (2020). ISBN 978-1-906592-61-5.
- ‘Part 3 – 12 May to 23 July 1944’ (2020). ISBN 978-1-906592-62-2.
MI9: Escape and Evasion
Authors: M.R.D. Foot and J.M. Langley. ISBN-13: 978-1849541312. First published May 1979.
BOOKS ABOUT SPECIFIC OPERATIONS
The Nuremberg Raid: 30-31 March 1944
Author: Martin Middlebrook. ISBN-13: 978-1844158751.
Battle Under the Moon: The RAF Raid on Mailly-le-Camp, May 1944
Author: Jack Currie. ISBN-13: 978-0859791090. The author served with 12 Squadron in 1944.
5. UK National Archives
The UK National Archive based in Kew in London has a website that enables searches for particular file references. I found the search engine on the website difficult to master but just kept at it until I found what I was after. They provide a cost estimate via e-mail and you can pay online via a secure link. They can send the estimates or copies of the documents online or by post, you can employ an independent researcher or you can visit them to do your own research. They charge for printing and copying or you can photograph the documents. See http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
They hold the documentation archive formerly created and held by RAF Squadrons, e.g. 12 Squadron at Wickenby. We travelled there and carried out research in September 2011 and again in June 2017. The following items show the relevant document ‘piece references’ found when searching the National Archive catalogue.
RAF Operations Record Books (AIR 27)
Operations Record Books (ORB’s) are a primary source of RAF information and for 12 Squadron are held under NA references AIR 27/168, AIR 27/170, AIR 27/171 and AIR 28/945. All RAF units kept an ORB but the quality of input to them varies. They record the activities of the Unit and may include details of the operations flown by Service personnel with listings of aircraft and crews. The ORB was also a brief summary entered in a Squadron log book for each crew after they returned from an operation.
12 Squadron ORB (AIR 27/171)
12 Squadron ORB’s, Appendices ‘Orders for Night Flying’ compiled by 12 Squadron staff before the operations so these are planned not actual, so are far less reliable. However, this ORB can also contain ‘Special Recco. Reports’ written by pilot and crew after an operation with detailed information about the target, the attack, enemy fighters and flak.
12 Squadron ORB (AIR 27/168)
Based on RAF Form 540 ‘Summary of Events’ compiled by the 12 Squadron Adjutant Flight Lieutenant K. M. Smith after each operation.
Lancaster ND424 ORB (AIR 27/168)
Based on RAF Form 541 ‘Details of Work Carried Out’ compiled by 12 Squadron staff from information provided by crews after returning from an operation.
Wickenby ORB (AIR 28/945)
Based on the ‘Summary of Events’ compiled by RAF Wickenby staff after an operation. Duration was calculated from take-off and landing times.
Combat Report (AIR 27/171 – Appendix)
Some ORB’s can contain Combat Reports with details of the action from an operation such as details of combat between gunners and a night-fighter and was found in some ORB’s.
E.g. AIR 27_171 Appendices.pdf page 44, Combat Report for Lancaster ND424 ‘G’ on the operation to Stuttgart on 15 March 1944 and mentions a single unidentified twin engine enemy aircraft attacking them.
Crash Report (AIR 14)
Bomber Command aircraft that were lost in action had a Crash Report written that describes the loss. An internet search for ‘Lancaster ND424’ a reference to the crash report was found, then a search of the National Archive web site found the ‘crash report’ reference below. A copy was requested and paid for online and a copy was received.
E.g. NA Reference: AIR 14/1442 ‘K’ report 203, Lancaster III, ND424, 12 Squadron, 29 July 1944.
Evader Reports (WO208)
These reports were compiled be MI9 after an interview when the evading crew member had returned to the UK.
E.g. NA Reference: WO 208/3321/2069, L. J. Faircloth, RAF, M.I.9/S/P.G. (-) 2069, 10 Aug 1944.
POW or Liberation Reports (WO 344)
These are the POW or Liberation reports compiled after the crew member had returned to the UK after being released from their POW camp.
E.g. NA Reference: WO 344/127/1 (GROAT – GUMPSTY), M.A. Guilfoyle, RAF, M.I.9/Gen/1421397 (?), 3 May 1945.
6. RAF Museum at Hendon
The RAF Museum at Hendon in London store the following Air Ministry Cards for RAF Bomber Command aircraft. They can be requested via e-mail and they return PDF copies via email.
- Aircraft Delivery Card.
- Aircraft Movement Card (A.M. Form 78).
- Bomber Command Loss Card.
- Accident Card (Form 1180).
The cards contain a number of abbreviations and the definitions of these are at: http://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/documents/london/archive/air-ministry-form-abbreviations.pdf.
1. Aircraft Delivery Card
This records details of the batch of aircraft ordered from a manufacturer.
E.g. ND424 was one of a batch of Avro Lancaster III bombers built by A.V. Roe (at Chadderton) with airframe number in the range ND400 to ND499.
2. Aircraft Movement Card (A.M. Form 78)
This card records the movement of an aircraft during its service life in the RAF.
E.g. For ND424 this was from its delivery to 12 Squadron, repair to damage after being attacked by a Luftwaffe night-fighter on the operation to Stuttgart, its return to 12 Squadron and its loss.
3. Bomber Command Loss Card
This card was created for each aircraft that failed to return from an operation. The data recorded on the cards normally includes the names of the crew, their fate, the route taken and bomb load. In some cases information from survivors may also be added.
E.g. For ND424 this was created following its loss on the operation to Vaires-sur-Marne on 27/28 June 1944.
4. Accident Card (Form 1180)
This was created if an aircraft was lost in an accident and not on operations, such as bad landing during training. Not created for ND424 as it was lost on an operation not in an accident.
7. Commonwealth War Graves Commission
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission honour and care for the men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the First and Second World Wars, ensuring they will never be forgotten. They maintain a database that can be used to search for those killed in action, their place of burial and who they served with. It can searched by name, cemeteries or memorials. Their website is at: https://www.cwgc.org/
8. International Bomber Command Centre (IBCC)
The International Bomber Command Centre (IBCC) serves as a point for recognition, remembrance and reconciliation for Bomber Command at http://www.internationalbcc.co.uk/.
They have a growing Digital Archive that can be used for research that holds documents and photographs donated by former Bomber Command personnel at https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/
9. Imperial War Museum (IWM)
The IWM holds huge collections of documents and photographs including the RAF and Bomber Command. Explore around 800,000 items that tell the story of modern war and conflict, collected by the museum since 1917. See https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections IWM Collections | Imperial War Museums.