This page contains information about researching Second World War British soldiers, especially those who served in the Durham Light Infantry. It was compiled by Steve Shannon for Durham County Record Office in March 2016.
The British Army kept detailed paper records on every one of its soldiers, who served during the Second World War. These records still survive and are held in Glasgow by the Army Personnel Centre of the Ministry of Defence.
You can apply for a copy of these records and the application procedure is explained on the Veterans UK website:
Get a copy of military service records
Second World War campaign and service medals (for example the Africa Star, Burma Star or Defence Medal) were not sent automatically to soldiers after the war. Soldiers had to claim their medals and many did not, especially those who had served in the Home Guard.
These medals may still be claimed from the Ministry of Defence Medal Office either by the veteran himself or by his next of kin. The application procedure is explained on the Medal Office’s website:
Applying for a medal – the Ministry of Defence Medal Office
Durham Home Guard
In June 1940, over 1,500,000 volunteers joined the Home Guard – Dad’s Army. Many of these were veterans of the First World War.
In 2012, The National Archives made available on-line (via pay-per-view) the Enrolment Forms for the Durham Home Guard. Over 80,000 men served in the Durham Home Guard between May 1940 and December 1945.
Each form records the name, date of birth, address and next of kin of each volunteer, plus brief details of any previous military service.
Durham Home Guard 1939-1945
The Home Guard service records for other counties are still held by the Ministry of Defence and you should go to the Veterans UK website for help.
Get a copy of military service records
The details of a soldier’s grave or memorial, if he has no known grave, are held by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The wills of soldiers, who died whilst serving in the British Army between 1850 and 1986, are now available on-line (via pay-per-view). 80% of these wills date from the First World War, however, whilst many soldiers left detailed wills, others left no more than a brief written instruction and the name and address of their next of kin.
Find a soldier’s will
If the soldier you are researching was from the North East and died during the Second World War, then you should look at the North East War Memorials Project website. This project is working towards recording every war memorial in the North East of England from the main memorials in towns and villages to those small memorials found in schools, parish halls, factories and offices.
The North East War Memorials Project website includes the Memorial Website to 70th Infantry Brigade 1939-1944, which included 10th, 11th and 12th DLI and 1st Tyneside Scottish battalions.
The Brigade website includes the full war diaries of the Brigade, the three Infantry battalions, and lists of those known to have served with those units. In addition, the list of units is intended to cover, eventually, all the supporting units which served with, or as part of, the Brigade Group – this has already included 187th Field Ambulance, the associated Field Hygiene Section, Engineer and Artillery Units – though there are more yet to document.
Those interested, or who have queries, can contact the Lead Researcher at firstname.lastname@example.org. For telephone or postal enquiries use the contact details on the main page of the Memorial Website to 70th Infantry Brigade 1939-1944.
The 70th Brigade website includes the facility to search for details of individual soldiers.
Prisoners of War
During the Second World War, the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva collected information about those soldiers, including British soldiers, made prisoner of war. Because of their personal nature, however, these records are not open to the public.
Surviving official records relating to British POWs are held by The National Archives and information about these records can be found in the guide to British prisoners of the Second World War and the Korean War.
DLI Archive Collection
The regimental archive of The Durham Light Infantry is held by Durham County Record Office (DCRO), where it has been fully catalogued.
This archive contains some very useful Second World War records covering not only the Regular and Territorial DLI battalions at home and abroad but also the Durham Home Guard.
War Diaries for the 1st, 6th, 8th and 9th Battalions DLI
These War Diaries rarely mention a soldier by name, but are very useful for giving the circumstances of a soldier’s death or wounding, plus essential background information for any soldier’s career. Note: All the DLI’s WW2 War Diaries are held at The National Archives in Kew.
British Army operations in the Second World War
DLI Photograph Albums
There are some albums held at Durham County Record Office dating from the Second World War (e.g. for 2nd, 6th, 8th, 15th, and 70th Battalions DLI) but unfortunately most photographs are unnamed.
Other DLI Records
Other interesting Second World War records held at Durham County Record Office include unpublished battalion histories, Regimental Newsletters (including Prisoner of War lists 1940-43), maps, and soldier’s papers. Details will be found in the on-line catalogue.
Listen to the Soldier
For over twenty years, the Imperial War Museum recorded interviews with DLI veterans from the Second World War. These recordings cover every campaign fought by the Durhams from 1940 to D-Day and the final victory in Berlin in 1945.
These recordings provide listeners with a unique insight into what it was really like to be an infantryman during the Second World War as veterans reflect on their experiences from recruitment to active service and as prisoners of war.
Listen to the Soldier extracts