D-Day: How to find out what your ancestors did in the Second World War

Asking the experts how families can find out what their relatives did during the conflict

Lisa Salmon
Monday 13 May 2024 11:09 BST
Members of the Women’s Transport Service (Northern Ireland Section) taking compass bearings from the terrace of Killyleagh Castle, County Down, Northern Ireland
Members of the Women’s Transport Service (Northern Ireland Section) taking compass bearings from the terrace of Killyleagh Castle, County Down, Northern Ireland (PA)

As the 80th anniversary of D-Day approaches, there aren’t many people old enough to remember the day that marked the turning point of the Second World War, when Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy to begin the liberation of north-west Europe from Nazi occupation.

And because there are so few people left to tell the tale of what happened on June 6, 1944 – or during the rest of the war, it’s hugely important to find out, particularly about your own family members.

But without a detailed history of what relatives did during the war, how do families go about discovering what their ancestors’ roles were?

“The Second World War had a huge impact on the British Isles and the lives of our families, and many people have stories of family members who served, or snippets of information about an ancestor who was involved,” says Simon Pearce, a family history expert at Ancestry UK. But there is little more to go on.

“It’s so important that we remember the monumental sacrifices made by our ancestors during the war, whether at home or overseas, and keep their stories alive for future generations. One way we can do this is by researching their military service – like all types of family history, Second World War research can be challenging, but it’s incredibly rewarding.”

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cares for war graves at 23,000 locations throughout the world, commemorating almost 1.7 million men and women who died in the First and Second World Wars. CWGC spokesperson Lewis Brown says the CWGC website or app are good places to find records of the men and women who fought for British and Commonwealth forces, and who died in the war.

He points out: “Perhaps most heartbreakingly of all, the records also show the personal inscriptions on their headstones.”

Lewis Brown
Lewis Brown (Lewis Brown/PA)

An example of one of the headstone inscriptions is: ‘Into the mosaic of victory our most precious piece was laid’, from the headstone of Royal Marine Edward William Durn. He is buried at Bayeux War Cemetery in Normandy, which is one of the key sites for D-Day commemorative events this year.

How to find out what your family members did in the Second World War

Ask those closest to you

Start by speaking to family and ask parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles questions. “It’s amazing what you can pick up from a simple conversation and asking, ‘Did anyone in our family serve during the Second World War?’,” says Pearce.

Search for family memorabilia

A photograph of someone in uniform, a letter, diary or newspaper cutting could contain clues to help you research your ancestor, suggests Pearce.

Look through the CWGC records

Although the CWGC doesn’t store military records, its database holds commemoration records of Commonwealth servicemen and women, who died during the war. This includes any Commonwealth war casualty who died in service between the outbreak of war in 1939 and the end of the CWGC commemoration period, December 31, 1947.

Search the CWGC Find War Dead page, entering any information you have on your relative, such as their first and last name, service number and regiment.

Members of recruits of the Horse Transport Unit attached to the Royal Army Service Corps learning how to shoe a horse
Members of recruits of the Horse Transport Unit attached to the Royal Army Service Corps learning how to shoe a horse (PA)

Brown says: “When people search for the war dead, they can discover a casualty’s regiment/unit or ship, date of death and age, where they are buried or commemorated at, and their country of service. There’s also additional information on our records, which usually show details of relatives and an address.”

Search the National Archives

You can find out more about what your ancestors did by searching the National Archives, which offers a wealth of information, including official records, personal correspondence, diaries and leaflets.

Try their regiment

If you know what regiment your relative served in, look at their regimental records to get more information about their military career.

Look at unit war diaries

If your ancestor served in the British Army, their unit war diary will provide a day-to-day account of what a battalion or unit was doing during the war. War diaries can be seen in the National Archives, and there’s a selection of Second World War diaries on Ancestry UK, covering D-Day and the Second Battle of El Alamein.

Look at Second World War service records

While service records used to be held by the Ministry of Defence, many have been transferred to the National Archives for digitisation. The Ministry of Defence website (MOD) outlines what has been transferred and how to apply, whether it’s through the MOD or the National Archives.

Check out other records

Further information available through Ancestry UK includes Second World War Casualty Records, such as the British Army Casualty Lists, Allied Airmen Roll of Honour, the Merchant Seaman Deaths collection, or the Allied Prisoners of War collection (1939-1945) .

Don’t forget the Home Front

As well as researching ancestors who served in the military, Pearce suggests trying to find out what other family members did on the Home Front, by checking the Home Guard records.

“The Blitz, evacuation and rationing had a significant impact on our families, and their stories are also worth exploring,” he points out.

For more information on what non-military ancestors did during the Second World War, try checking the 1939 England and Wales Register. Taken on September 29, 1939, the register indicates where people were living, who was in their household, when they were born and their occupations.

“It’s a great tool for establishing where your ancestors were living less than a month after the British declaration of war,” explains Pearce. “You may notice that your family member was an evacuee, living away from home, or had an evacuee staying in their household.”

There may also be details of any voluntary war work carried out by your ancestors on the Home Front, such as an air raid warden or a fire watcher.

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