What’s your RAF Family history?

By September 1945 the RAF had grown from relatively small pre-war numbers to over 940,000 serving members. Tens of thousands more had seen service and been killed or discharged, so it isn’t surprising that many of us have relatives who served our country. To help you more about them, historian and author Phil Tomaselli has provided us with a handy guide to researching your RAF family history.

RAF Family History

Occasionally, names can be attached to archived photographs, as shown above where pilots at RAF Fowlmere rest during the Battle of Britain. AIR 4/58, courtesy of TNA.

The National Archives (TNA) at Kew in London has pioneered the digitisation of records relating to the air services. Almost all records are available to visitors or accessible through their website. They can be downloaded remotely (usually at a cost, but currently free), printed at TNA at cost, or downloaded free at TNA if you have a wi-fi accessible laptop. The main records relating to WW2 airmen are the ‘AIR’ series; the most relevant parts of which are looked at here.

When searching for an RAF ancestor from WWII, the first thing to do is find any paperwork you or your family might have. Speak to relatives to see if they have any medals, log books, official papers, letters or memorabilia that might be useful. Ask if they remember any stories they might have been told about where your relative served and what they did. While such stories need to be treated with caution, they often contain information vital in helping you begin your search.

Personal Service Records

Everyone who served in the RAF has a unique service record which gives basic details of their service, where they went, their promotions, medals and next of kin. But records for those who served during WWII are closed to the public. You’ll need to apply to the MOD for a copy, and certain conditions must be met before any records can be released. A charge will also apply if you are not next of kin of the individual you are researching. Details of how to apply for these records are available here.

While obtaining the individual’s service record will be a great help, they are not always easy documents to read. The most important details concern movements (the units he or she was sent to), and promotions. Service records will also detail casualties, wounds, campaigns, medals, clasps, courts martials, decorations and mentions in despatches. Occasionally, additional details of postings are given. There should also be at least some information regarding the individual’s character and trade proficiency.

As service records are usually compiled during the period of service, they only detail incidents and movements that will affect pay, pension or medal entitlement. Some small movements or temporary postings may not have been considered relevant. Treat the service record as the bare bones of a career – if there is other evidence that suggests an unrecorded gap or posting, follow it up by looking through other records. Even without a service record though, a great deal can be uncovered by expanding your research into other areas.

Log Books and ORBs

If you’re lucky enough to have a relative’s log book it can save you a lot of work researching your RAF family history, as they contain a great deal of information. Everyone who flew regularly was required to keep an up-to-date one. This was partly because flight pay depended upon proving a minimum number of hours had been flown each month. A log book should tell you which squadron the owner was with, which bases they flew from, their aircraft and the type and duration of their flights. It wasn’t only pilots who kept log books though, observers and air gunners did too. If you don’t have a log book, some do survive in TNA’s AIR 4 series. Unfortunately it’s only a representative sample, as many unclaimed logs were destroyed in 1959 and only some from the RAF’s operations overseas, the Battle of Britain, and major Bomber Command operations were kept.

RAF Family History

Led attack on Möhne and Eder Dams. Successful.” This simple entry, from the log book of Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC, records the famous Dambusters raid of 16 May 1943. AIR 4/37 (42), courtesy of TNA

Operation Record Books (ORBs) are vital for understanding the daily work of RAF squadrons. These reports consist of monthly summaries of events, daily reports and appendices with a wealth of other details such as squadron movements, transfers of individual airmen, leaves, promotions and next of kin addresses. Some also include reports made after each operational sortie, with pilots noting the basic details of their mission plus any mechanical issues, enemy fighters or flak they encountered. All squadron ORBs for the years 1939–45 have been digitised and are available in TNA’s AIR 27 series.

Combat Reports

Compiled upon the return from an operation in which they’d fought an enemy aircraft, the combat report was designed to provide immediate intelligence on enemy aircraft and tactics. Though the format of the forms changed over time, the basic elements remained the same, and included: date and time of combat; squadron; type and number of enemy aircraft; height and location of the action; approximate number of rounds fired; any damage done to the enemy, and any damage or losses to allied aircraft.

The individual writing the report also had the opportunity to explain what happened in more detail. Presented with the space to write their own account, these descriptions can be quite dramatic.

Combat Report

Extract of Flight Lieutenant Forbes’ combat report, 303 Squadron, from 7 September 1940. AIR 50/117 (39) 303, courtesy of TNA

Collected together in TNA’s AIR 50 series, these reports provide fascinating snapshots of the war in the air. Since larger bombers – such as the Lancaster – had a crew of seven, you may not find your relative named if they were, for example, the flight engineer, navigator or wireless operator. If you have a log book it will usually name the pilot and mention an encounter with an enemy aircraft, so you can search using the squadron, pilot or date. Unfortunately the AIR 50 series is incomplete, and an unknown number of combat reports don’t survive.

Missing Personnel and POWs

A dedicated RAF Casualty Branch was formed in September 1939. The staff undertook research into the whereabouts and fate of RAF personnel listed as missing. Missing Research Sections were established across Western Europe in 1944 “for the purpose of research and enquiry, in liberated territories and those occupied by Allied forces, into the circumstances of air crews reported missing of whom no previous trace has been found”. Records of enquiries and investigations carried out are currently being released in tranches in the TNA’s AIR 81 series. Some of the material (such as autopsy reports) is distressing, so it is wise to be aware of this before viewing these documents. This material is likely to be of use where a relative was killed or reported missing over enemy territory. While many AIR 81 files are open to the public, many – usually from later on in the war – are still closed. These will become available in future. Many AIR81 files have also yet to be digitised, so you can either visit TNA in person or order their digitisation (for a fee) to find out about your RAF family history.

RAF Family History

This gold ring, taken from the site of a Blenheim bomber which crashed in France, shows the kinds of material collected in the AIR 81 ‘enquiries into missing personnel’ files; and offers a poignant reminder of what can be discovered when researching your RAF family history. AIR 81/605 (1), courtesy of TNA

Many thousands of RAF personnel were captured by the enemy during the war. Over the last few years an increasing number of records relating to them have been released to TNA. As the war came to an end, MI9 carried out a mass screening of all prisoners of war. Pre-printed questionnaires were given to all prisoners, and the completed results are in TNA’s WO 344 series. The questionnaires ask about place and date of original capture, camps held in, any illnesses suffered, adequacy of medical treatment, interrogations, training received on escape and evasion, escapes attempted, sabotage undertaken, knowledge or suspicion of any collaboration with the enemy and knowledge of any war crimes.

Casualties

If your relative died or was killed during WWII, the best place to start looking for information is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWCG). This has a searchable database of casualties and often provides more details. Content of database entries varies, but can include: name; rank; serial number; date of death; age; squadron; next of kin, and any inscription the family had placed on the headstone. There can also be documents attached to these entries showing the grave’s exact location and whether the individual was originally buried elsewhere before being reinterred in a CWGC cemetery. Known as Graves Registration Reports, these can also provide clues on potential crew members. For example, if an individual is buried in an adjacent plot to other RAF personnel killed on the same day, it is possible that these men were all part of the same crew.

RAF History

Graves Registration Report from the CWGC showing four individuals from the same squadron, killed on the same day and buried in two adjacent graves. Cross referencing this with TNA documents shows these men were the crew of a Hampden bomber shot down over Cologne on 21 April 1941. ©CWGC.

Miscellaneous Units

In addition to the front-line squadrons and their immediate support units and bases, the RAF had an enormous administrative and support organisation, each unit of which was expected to keep their own Operations Record Book (ORB). These are held in the AIR 29 series at TNA. Simply browsing this catalogue gives an idea of the number of units involved. A more or less random selection includes ground control interception stations, sector operations rooms, beach balloon units, bomb disposal squadrons, balloon centres, RAF Regiment squadrons, photographic interpretation units, signal centres, photographic reconnaissance units, marine and launch sections, navy and army cooperation units, anti-aircraft practice camps, servicing commandos, air sea rescue units and ferry units.

Other Sources

In addition to official documents, exploring other avenues to find out about your RAF family history online can often throw up some interesting information. Searching for RAF ancestors on genealogy websites like Ancestry or findmypast can sometimes put you in touch with other descendants who have new information or even photographs of the person you are researching. Online forums dedicated to researching RAF history can also be goldmines when searching for leads about where to look next, and some forum members are extremely knowledgeable and very willing answer the questions of new researchers. Inevitably, when seeking an individual, you’ll find some records have been destroyed, mislaid, not yet released to the public or have been indexed in a way that their title gives no hint that useful information is contained inside. Persevere, think laterally, try looking further up the command chain for copies of documents that might be relevant and seek out other collections. Who know what fascinating discoveries await when you begin researching your RAF family history?

This article was first published in Air Mail’s January 2021 issue. For more articles like this, sign up for membership and include Air Mail magazine, the official magazine of the Royal Air Forces Association, in your subscription.

Phil Tomaselli has researched the RAF for 30 years, writing numerous articles and books, including Air Force Lives and Tracing your Air Force Ancestors.