Researching with British War Diaries

During the Second World War British military Units were required to maintain a daily record of their actions and events in War Diaries. These war diaries contain dates, times, locations and a description of the days events and actions. They often reference appendices such as patrol reports, telegrams, sketches and a list of officers.

War diaries contain varying amounts of detail from unit to unit, often they will list the names of Officers who are wounded or killed and a count of the wounded and killed for “Other Ranks” and place names or grid references of daily locations and key events.

Where can I find war Diaries?

Most of the British WW2 War Diaries are located at the National Archives in Kew, London. To view the physical documents you will need to register for a readers ticket and reserve the documents. When you visit the archives you are allowed to photograph the documents so it's worth bringing a camera to create copies for later use.

Alternatively you can request the National Archives create a copy for you, but this can be prohibitively expensive at £8.40 for a page count then £1.10 per page with some war diary months being 25 pages long. It is also worth searching online as some documents have been shared on forums.

We've uploaded the transcripts for the June and July war diaries for 4th - 7th Dragoon Guards, 6th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, 7 Bn Duke of Wellington, 7th Bn Royal Tank Regiment and No 3 Commando so they can be seen for free in our Normandy WW2 War Diaries section.

You can search for the war diary records at the National Archive using https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/. It is useful to remember that the war diary names have not been standardised. Some record names have abbreviations while others do not. You may need to search for variations of a unit name e.g. “7th Bn Royal Tank Regiment War Diary”, “7th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment War Diary” or “7 Royal Tank Regiment”.

Finding a war diary grid reference location.

British WW2 War Diaries use the “Modified British System” grid references, typically these will appear as a 6 digit number but could be a more detailed 8 digit number or occasionally a 4 digit number.

Sometimes the number will be prefixed with 2 letters which denote which 100km square grid the grid reference is located in e.g. vU145752.

The British Modified System has multiple grids for Western and Central Europe, Normandy is contained in the French Lambert Zone 1 grid. A map showing the other grids can be found at http://www.echodelta.net/mbs/eng-grids.php.

The most accurate way to find a location is to locate the grid reference on an original map and compare it to a modern map or satellite images. I’ve linked to many of the maps for the Normandy area available online to view for free further below.

Alternatively if you don’t have access to a map or want to quickly see the location on a modern map/satellite photos you can use the conversion tool at http://www.echodelta.net/mbs/eng-translator.php although this can be out by 150 to 1000 meters.

An example of converting a grid reference

Snippet from No 3 Commando war diary

In this example from the No 3 Commando June 1944 war diary there is the entry “Message from 1 Troop: “Four smoke shells landed 134753”” we can also see “Chateau d’Amfreville” in the place column.

To find the location of grid reference 134753 we need to first find the 2 letter prefix (denotes the 100km grid). This can be found by locating the general area of Chateau d’Amfreville using the image at http://www.echodelta.net/mbs/grillesj/frenchlambert1.htm. In this case it is vU so the full grid reference is vU134753.

The Grid reference can now be entered into the online converter after selecting the French Lambert Zone 1 Grid

Screenshot of the converter form

The grid references location will now be displayed, this tool is not 100% exact but does give a good indication of the area.

Screenshot of the converter result

Free sources of British WW2 maps online

A key resource in accurately finding the location of grid references from the war diaries are the original maps. Below is a list of some of the maps for Normandy that are available to view for free online.

1:50,000 - Isigny (6E/6)

1:50,000 - Caen (7F/1)

1:50,000 - Creully (7E/5)

1:50,000 - Vire (6F/6)

1:50,000 - St Lo (6F/2)

1:50,000 - Torigni-sur-Vire (6F/4)

1:50,000 - Aunay-sur-Odon (7F/3)

1:50,000 - St Pierre-sur-Dives (7F/4)

1:50,000 - Flers (7F/5)

1:50,000 - Falaise (7F/6)

1:50,000 - Cany-Barville (8E/2)

1:50,000 - Lisieux (8F/1)

1:50,000 - EU (9D/3)

1:50,000 - Dieppe (9D/5)

1:25,000 - Ouistreham

1:25,000 - Creully