Ah! Research.
The process of going up alleys to see if they are blind.

Maybe one day research will be done from the comfort of one's armchair in front of the computer screen. But until then, most of the donkey work has to be done by you! I hope, however, that these notes will help you in your quest.
The Public Record Office in Kew, London, is a good place to start and most of these notes relate to documents held there. As this is a fairly long page, click on these shortcuts to whiz to the section you want.
Navy News Lost Shipmates Ministry of Defence Fleet Air Arm & Coastal Command
Lists Operational Records Older Naval Records Other Naval Operational Records
Ship's Logs Station Records Public Record Office Naval Intelligence Records
Admiralty Admiralty Records Combined Operations Service Records - World War II
Photographs Other Records Officers Service Records Service Records - World War I
Publications Historical Works Ratings Service Records Chatham Chest & Royal Hospital
      Ships Co. UK (web site)

Navy News

This is a monthly publication covering all things Navy. Many veterans and ex-Service personnel subscribe. It is available in some newsagents but a subscription will bring it to your door. It includes a section entitled "Calling Old Shipmates" where people may advertise to get in touch with ex-shipmates, a "Reunion" section and "Over to You" where you can ask about any naval subject. There are of course, lots of advertisements for naval memorabilia, books, medals, etc. Web site
The Editor, Navy News, Leviathan, HMS Nelson, Portsmouth, Hants, PO13 3HH
Tel: +44-(0)1705-724194 (Direct Line To Editor's Secretary)

Lost Shipmates

This is another good source for tracing old oppos. It is published by Mike Crow. Issue 12 for Summer 1997 consists of eight pages of small adds for lost shipmates and old ship's associations, reunions etc. For further information visit or drop a line to Mike for details at:
Lost Shipmates, 7 Heath Road, Lake, Sandown, Isle of Wight PO36 8PG.
I highly recommend the use of "Contact Associations". They are by far and away the best way of tracking down specific individuals, alive or deceased.

Ministry of Defence

If your search is for ex-servicemen / women who were your own relatives, and they were either Officers ~or~ Ratings, then you may contact the Ministry of Defence (M.o.D.) directly via the following address for copies of their Service Record(s):
Date of enlistment prior to 1892: see Public Records Office.
Date of enlistment from 1892 to 1938:
Ministry Of Defence CS (RM),
Navy Search Room 17, 2a Bourne Avenue, Hayes, Middlesex, UB3 1RF
Tel: UK 0181-573-3831 x341, Tel: Int. +44-181-573-3831 x341
Date of enlistment from 1939 to present day:
Ministry Of Defence,
Centurion Building, NPP(ACS), Grange Road, Gosport, Hampshire, PO13 9XA.
Tel: UK 01705-702223, Tel: Int. +44-1-705-702223
If you have enquires about Medals contact the Gosport office [Branch 1C(3)]
Tel: 01705-702204 (ask for Mrs. Rix).

Public Record Office

By law, all Admiralty documents dealing with events which occurred more than thirty years ago, and which have been considered worthy of permanent preservation, are held in the custody of the Public Record Office. Exceptions are information which may have any affect on National Security or information pertaining to personal sensitivity. These documents are likely to be listed but are annotated as closed, which means that the general public will not be granted access to them. The P.R.O. does not undertake research on behalf of others, but is open to the general public, Monday to Friday between 0930 and 1700 hours (public and other holidays excepted).
Admission may only be gained by presenting a "Reader's Ticket" which must be obtained in advance by writing or can be issued upon your arrival provided you have proof of identity, such as a passport or drivers license.
Documents in the Public Record Office relating to the war are described in The Second World War; a guide to Records in the Public Record Office, J Cantwell, (1993 London, HMSO 2nd edn).
Public Record Office - (P.R.O.) Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU
Tel: +44 -(0)181-392-5200; Fax Enquires: +44 -(0)181-878-8905
E-mail enquires about your visit or the records:

Admiralty Records

All Admiralty Records bear the prefix ADM and are divided into a number of classes.
Relevant ones to yourself are:
ADM 53   - Ship's Logs;
ADM 173 - Submarine Logs;
ADM 182 - Admiralty Fleet Orders
ADM 199 - War History Cases: these include war diaries, convoy records, submarine patrol reports, operation reports, merchant ship survivors reports.
Two frequently used groups of pieces are 199/786-796 (Dunkirk) and 1550-1689 (Operation "Neptune" [D-Day]).
ADM 187 - Pink Lists - showing wartime stations and positions of major vessels;
ADM 208 - Red Lists - showing wartime stations and positions of minor vessels;
ADM 208 - Green Lists - showing wartime stations and positions of Combined Operations craft (mostly landing craft);
ADM 234 - Battle Summaries (Naval Staff Histories).

Operational Records

The most important operational records are to be found in three classes, ADM 1, ADM 116 and ADM 199. The first two represent the original records of the Secretariat of the Admiralty, from which a large part of ADM 199 was subsequently extracted by the official historians. Other records used by them and incorporated in this class derive from the Naval Staff and from naval commands at home and overseas. ADM I and ADM 116 are each arranged by subject according to a system which is fully explained in the class lists. ADM 199 is listed in very general terms, and in an almost completely random order. There are card indexes to ships, convoys and operations in the Research Enquiries Room, and readers should be prepared to spend much time and energy in searching this class. The main series of the class includes convoy commodores reports, the War Diaries of commands and squadrons, and a large number of reports of actions of all sorts, including those of Fleet Air Arm Squadrons, and of the United States Navy in the Pacific. To this series have been added others, including records of Operation Neptune (the invasion of Normandy, 1944), 'X Cases' (Naval Staff records), 'Y Cases' (papers of various flag officers), a collection of submarine patrol reports from Flag Officer Submarines, the First Lord's Records, Daily Operations Reports for the First Lord, Daily Summary of Naval Events, and War Diary Summaries, U-boat Incidents and analyses of U-boat Attacks, Monthly Anti-Submarine Reports, Wartime Damage to Ships, and records of the Trade Division of the Naval Staff and of the South Atlantic Command.

Station Records

The Portsmouth Station Records (ADM 179) contain numerous reports of actions and other papers concerning operations in the Channel. The records of the South Atlantic Station, as noted above, are in ADM 199, which also contains some material extracted from other station records. ADM 217, Western Approaches Command, consists of an incomplete series of Reports of Proceedings from Senior Officers of Escorts and others, and is indexed by convoy and by Senior Officers ships. No other station records of this period have been transferred.

Other Naval Operational Records

ADM 236 is an incomplete collection of submarine Patrol Reports from the Mediterranean, supplementing those in ADM 199. ADM 237 'Convoy Packs', are convoy records maintained in the Operations Division of the Naval Staff. They include Reports of Proceedings, Commodores Reports and other papers. About half this series was destroyed. References are included in the card indexes in the Research Enquiries Room.

Ship's Logs

In ADM 53 are the logs of battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers and armed merchant cruisers, with some gaps caused by enemy action. In ADM 173 are submarine logs. The logs of all other HM Ships are in ADM 53 for 1939 and the early months of 1940, but thereafter only a very few have been transferred to the Public Record Office; the remainder are. believed not to have survived. It should be borne in mind that the log is primarily a navigational document concerned only incidentally with operations. HM Ships do not keep War Diaries.

Combined Operations

Many Combined Operations are dealt with in the main series referred to above. DEFE 2 consists of the papers of Combined Operations Headquarters, which cover the planning and execution of all sorts of sea borne military operations. ADM 202 contains similar papers of Royal Marine Headquarters, including Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisations, and the War Diaries of Royal Marine units. References are included in the card indexes in the Research Enquiries Room.


The Minutes of the Board of Admiralty are in ADM 167, and a set of Admiralty Fleet Orders and Confidential Admiralty Fleet Orders in ADM 182. The First Sea Lord's papers are ADM 205. The minutes and papers of the War Cabinet Committees on the Battle of the Atlantic and on Anti-U-Boat Warfare are in CAB 86.

Naval Intelligence Records

ADM 223 is a collection of reports and papers of the Naval Intelligence Division, including the texts of early decrypts of German naval wireless traffic enciphered on the ENIGMA machine, and numerous reports and summaries, both from N.I.D. and the Operational Intelligence Centre, based on this 'Special Intelligence'. There are also reports from the Mediterranean and Far East O.I.C. The Daily Reports of the O.I.C. have been transferred only up to September 1940, and its Daily Log is still withheld. The class includes photocopies of documents not yet transferred, but cited in the footnotes of Volume I of the Official History of British Intelligence in the War. DEFE 3 contains the texts of all enemy signals, both naval and other, decrypted by the Government Code and Cipher School which have been transferred to the Public Record Office. At present, many of the naval, military and political decrypts from March 1941 have been released, but none from earlier periods of the war.

Fleet Air Arm and Coastal Command

The surviving Operations Record Books of Fleet Air Arm Squadrons are in ADM 207 and AIR 27. Reports of Proceedings are with those of ships and squadrons in ADM 199 and elsewhere. The Headquarters Papers of Coastal Command are in AIR 15, with its Operations Record Books in AIR 24 and those of its squadrons and constituent formations in AIR 25, 26 and 27. No Carrier Flying Log Books are know to have survived. Fleet Air Arm and Coastal Command combat reports are in AIR 50. A few flying log books of RAF personnel serving with the Fleet Air Arm are in ADM 900.


The confidential edition of the Navy List, containing the complete information on officers and ships which was omitted from the published edition in wartime, is in ADM 177. The Pink List, ADM 187, issued twice weekly, gives the location in port, though not the position at sea, of all HM Ships and Naval Air Squadrons in commission. The Red List, ADM 208, gives similar information on minor war vessels in home waters; the Blue List, ADM 209, (issued monthly), covers ships building; and the Green List, ADM 21 0, deals with Landing Ships, Landing Craft and the like in home waters.


ADM 234 contains a set of the Admiralty O.U. and B.R. series of publications, which include Naval Staff monographs and Battle Summaries. ADM 239 contains a set of Admiralty Confidential Books (CB) including monthly reports of anti-submarine warfare from the East Indies Station.


ADM 176 consists of photographs of HM Ships, but very much better collections of such photographs are held by the National Maritime Museum, Romney Road, Greenwich, SEIO 9NF and the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SEI 6HZ. In WO 240 are views of the "Mulberry" artificial harbours. Many other photographs occur in the classes mentioned in this leaflet, but there is no union index to them, and no easy means of tracing them. A start has recently been made on the work of extracting photographs from files and giving them separate references. Photographs from Admiralty documents are being placed in class CN 1. The majority of photographs will not be so treated for many years.

Historical Works

CAB 101/36-39 consists of a set of the Official History of the War at Sea annotated with the references which were omitted from the published edition. These references are to the original Admiralty system of registering papers, now so much disrupted by subsequent rearrangement as to be, in many cases, almost impossible to use. CAB 106 is a large collation of despatches, reports and narratives, both published and unpublished, and covering all three Services, made by the Cabinet Office Historical Section. In ADM 189, the papers of HMS Vernon, the Torpedo and Mine School, are monographs on the development and operation of mines, minesweepers, net defences, anti submarine weapons, demolitions, torpedo. aircraft and submarine attacks.

Other Records

ADM 212, the papers of the Admiralty Research Laboratory, include papers on camouflage which draw directly on operational experience. The same is true of the Director of Naval Construction's papers, ADM 229, which deal with the design of warships. ADM 219 is the papers of the Directorate of Naval Operational Studies, which applied statistical and other methods to the analyses of naval operations with a view to improving their effectiveness.

Service Records - Second World War

The Royal Naval records of all ratings entering since 1892 and of male officers entering since c1890 remain in the custody of the Ministry of Defence. These records are not open to public inspection but the MoD will do a search for anyone willing to pay the non-refundable fee of £20. It is hoped that the older Royal Navy records may be deposited at the Public Record Office in the early years of the 21st century. Records of WRNS officers ("Wrens"), however, are already in the Public Record Office, in class ADM 318.
Details of naval officers and ratings lost at sea or who were casualties during either of the two 20th century world wars can be supplied from the registers of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 2 Marlow Road, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 7DX. Tel: +44(0)1628-34221; Fax: +44(0)1628-771208. This service is free to relatives, but otherwise requires a small donation to cover administration costs. With common names the CWGC may require a service number, rank, or name of ship, which is sometimes not known.
Alternatively, for English and Welsh servicemen, death certificates of the deceased can be obtained (for a fee) by searching in the Index to Naval War Deaths: 1914-1921 and in the Index to Naval War Deaths 1939-1948 held by the Family Records Centre, 1 Myddelton Street, London EC1R 1UW; Tel: Int. +44 (0)181 392 5300, Fax: Int. +44 (0)181 392 5307.
For Scottish casualties there are separate war registers covering naval deaths 1914-1918 and 1939-1945, held by the Registrar General of Scotland, General Register Office, New Register House, Edinburgh EH1 3YT, while Northern Irish deaths indexes and registers, 1939-1945, are in the custody of the Registrar General for Northern Ireland, General Register Office, Oxford House, 49-55 Chichester Street, Belfast BT I 4HL, Northern Ireland.
Sometimes service details of someone serving in the navy (or the army) during the First World War are revealed in the "Absent Voters Lists" which appear with some electoral registers for 1918 and 1919, or for the Second World War in the "Service Voters Registers" for 1945. These were recorded to allow absent servicemen to vote in their home constituencies and should be available in the appropriate local authority archives or large local reference libraries.

Service Records - First World War

If you are totally stumped, knowing nothing of the service of an ancestor who served in the Royal Navy during the First World War then it can be worth searching through the Medal Rolls at the Public Record Office. The medal rolls may contain service information which will enable you to identify your ancestor and assist in obtaining his service documents (from the Ministry of Defence), but don't expect too much detail beyond a service number, rank, date of enlistment and some service/medal particulars. Everyone who served during the hostilities was at least entitled to the "British War Medal", and probably also the "Victory Medal" and/or the "Star" or other awards.
The First World War Royal Naval Medal Rolls are available at Kew on film under reference ADM 171/89-134. There is an index to it in ADM 171/78-88. The rolls are initially an alphabetical listing, by surname, but the forenames and initials are not strictly alphabetical. Once into the forenames and initial(s) for the listings of a surname of interest, the indexing can be confusing and great care must be taken not to overlook the person sought.
If you are unable to visit the PRO at Kew, Sunset Militaria, Dinedor Cross, Herefordshire HR2 6PF, Telephone: Int. +44 432 870420, has a copy of the First World War Royal Navy Medal Rolls (and other Great War medal rolls including the Army Medal Rolls, plus other military and naval records) and will search their copies for specified full names in exchange for a fee. Send an SAE for full details of their research facilities.
There are other Royal Navy campaign medal awards at the PRO, going back to 1793, also under ADM 171, and gallantry awards from 1854, though, until the First World War, awards are listed by the name of ships and you may need to know the name of the vessels on which an ancestor served in order to avoid a very long search. There are currently no service medal rolls available for the Second World War.
It is sometimes possible to purchase replacement medals for a deceased ancestor, though normally only by the next of kin down to the first generation by applying to: Royal Naval Medals OSIO, Empress State Building, Lillie Road, London SW6 ITR. (This address may be out of date - try the MoD at Gosport to check). This department does not carry out research in its records and you must know the medal entitlement before contacting them.

Older Naval Records

The Public Record Office at Kew has custody of almost all the older naval records of interest to family historians, which date from c1660 to c1890. They comprise a huge series of records, mainly in the Admiralty (ADM) and Paymaster Generalís Office (PMG) series, and an outline article of this nature can only mention the most useful of them. In a sense, this is only an introduction to the naval records at the PRO and is really just the tip of the massive naval "iceberg" available.
Researchers with Royal Navy ancestors are advised to obtain a copy of Naval Records for Genealogists (HMSO 1988) by N.A.M. Rodger, and there is a most comprehensive section on the records of the Royal Navy, including some of the more obscure records, in Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office (HMSO 1990) by Jane Cox and Timothy Padfield (fourth edition updated by Amanda Bevan and Andrea Duncan). In addition, the PRO also publishes a number of fact and information sheets, which are freely available at Kew. Family Fact Sheets No 4: Tracing an Ancestor in the Royal Navy: Ratings, and No 5: Tracing an Ancestor in the Royal Navy: Officers, are useful introductions, while PRO Information Leaflet No 2: Admiralty Records as Sources of Biography and Genealogy, is more detailed.

Officers Service Records

As with most branches of HM Armed Forces, research into commissioned officers in the Royal Navy is generally easier than for ratings. In very general terms, officersí individual service records do not start until the mid-19th century, though their earlier careers can be traced from ship to ship using other records. On the open shelves in Research Enquires at the PRO are a number of printed volumes which assist mainly in tracing the careers of commissioned officers. Care must be taken in distinguishing between commissioned officers and warrant officers, as some classes of warrant officer were raised to commissioned status at different times mainly in the 19th century.
The starting point for tracing Royal Navy officers should begin by reference to the printed Navy Lists. First published as Steelís Navy List from 1782-1817, the regular Navy Lists were published annually from 1814, many with quarterly updates, and show the seniority lists of serving officers and their appointment to the various Royal Navy ships. The confidential versions of the Navy Lists published during the hostilities of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 have to be ordered from ADM 177. By using successive editions of these volumes it is possible to trace an officer's career. Most are indexed.
Commissioned Sea Officers of the Royal Navy, 1660-1815 (National Maritime Museum 1954) lists commissioned officers and their seniorityís for that period, while another printed work, The Naval Biographical Dictionary, (London, 1849) by W.R. O'Bryne lists all Royal Navy officers alive in 1846. Both the above books are available in Research Enquires at the PRO. Sometimes copies of them are also available in larger reference libraries.
Officers Service Records, or Service Registers in ADM 196/1-6 began in c1845, with much retrospective detail, and cover the period to 1875. There is an index to them on the open shelves at Kew under ADM 196/7. These records usually list the ships on which the officers served, the date and place of birth, marriage and death, plus occasionally, the parents or next of kin (though very rarely names of children) and pension details, etc. There are also Service Registers for various warrant officers at different times, which are too numerous to list here.
Three overlapping sets of Passing Certificates contain details of midshipmen and others who passed their lieutenants examinations from 1691 to 1902. They summarise each officer's career and training, with some personal details, and sometimes contain supporting papers such as baptismal certificates, They can be found in ADM 6/86-116, ADM 107/1-63 and in ADM 13/88-101 & 207-238 for the period 1854-1902, which has gaps. Each set has an index.
There are two incomplete "censuses" of serving and retired Royal Navy officers taken in 1817 (updated to 1822) and in 1846. Known as Surveys of Officers Services they are to be found in ADM 9/2-17 (for 1817), ADM 6/73-85 & ADM 106/3517 (for 1822) and ADM 9/18-61 (for 1846). They are indexed in ADM 10. Several classes of warrant officers were similarly surveyed from 1817-1859, mostly in ADM 11.
Amongst various registers in ADM 6/349 are records of Commissions of Service and Warrants from 1695-1849, which list successive appointments of officers to warships and is partially card indexed at the PRO.
Succession Books in ADM 6/425-426, arranged by ship and indexed, record similar details for officers from 1673-1688, while they may also divulge the seagoing careers of warrant officers in ADM 106/2898 & 2902-2906 (for 1764-1831) and ADM 6/192 and ADM 11/31-33 (for 1800-1839). Details of Officers earnings appear in Officers Full Pay Registers in ADM 24 and cover the period 1795-1872, while details of Officers Half Pay Registers for 1697-1924 are in ADM 25, PMG 15 (1836-1920) and ADM 23/33-140 (1867-1900). Black Books in ADM 12/27 list officers from 1759-1815 who were declared unfit for service through misconduct, while some records of Courts Martial are to be found in the very voluminous ADM 1 records, which also contain an index to courts martial from 1680-1701. There is a closure period of 75 years on court martial records, usually running from the date of the last entry in a book, so, in effect, it may be a further five years.
Amongst other records relating to the officer classes are various day-to-day Captains and Masters Logs in ADM 51 and ADM 52, while the National Maritime Museum, Romney Road, Greenwich, London SEIO 9NF, has a considerable holding of lieutenants Logs, catalogued by ship, amongst its many collections which relate to the Royal Navy.

Ratings Service Records

The Public Record Office at Kew has custody of the records of ratings who entered the Royal Navy between 1853 and 1891. A system of Continuous Service Engagement Books was introduced from 1853-1872 (then extended as Registers of Seamenís Services to 1891, see below) and seamen entering the service were given a continuous service number. Their entries in the books show where and when a man enlisted plus some personal details like the date and place of birth, physical appearance and, in the case of young boys, a signed form of parental consent. The records of Continuous Service Engagement Books are in ADM 139/1-1018, for 1853-1872 and surname indexed with the appropriate CS numbers in ADM 139/1019-1026 available in Research Enquires. The later period from 1873-1891 is covered by Registers of Seamenís Services in ADM 188/2-244. In addition to the details listed above, in the earlier series there may be a summary of seamen's careers. Again there are indexes to the Continuous Service numbers for this later series in ADM 188/245-267, available in Research Enquires.
Before 1853 the service career of ratings can only be traced from ship to ship by using Ships Muster Books covering the years from 1667-1878 in ADM 36 to ADM 41, or from Ships Pay Books covering the years from 1691-1856 in ADM 31 to ADM 35. Musters and pay books should enable a researcher to trace a rating's movements from one vessel to another. Musters are catalogued by the name of the ship (which you must know) and were really a sort of "register" of each ship's company. They were indexed by first letter of surnames from c1815, usually at the back of each volume. Each man is named, and other details recorded are, when they enlisted, whether "pressed" or not, appearance details (wanted for a description in case of desertion or "run"), rank, and discharge details. Since 1764 musters should also contain seamen's ages and dates and places of birth (not always reliable and not always completed). Information in pay books was copied from the musters, so may contain copying errors, but they are indexed much earlier, from c1765. Moreover, they sometimes contain details of next of kin to whom wages were paid. If you want to trace the naval career of a rating entering the Royal Navy before 1853 you therefore must know the name of at least one vessel on which he served, as a starting point, before searching for him in musters or pay books. In many cases, this information may not be known, but if your ancestor was a warrant officer or rating and served sufficiently long in the Navy to obtain a 19th century pension (normally at least 20 years), or a gratuity or an award, he would have needed a Certificate of Service to support his claim. These certificates were issued from 1802-1894, are in ADM 29/1-96 and are indexed in ADM 29/97-104. The early ones contain much retrospective service detail before 1802.

Chatham Chest and Royal Hospital, Greenwich

Since 1581, seamen of all ranks in the Navy have had deductions of 6d per month made from their wages, to support the "Chatham Chest" which made charitable payments over the centuries to deserving causes, including widows, until it fell into disuse early in the 19th century. There are account books (1653-1657) and registers of payments to pensioners (1675-1799) and indexes to pensions (1744-1797) in ADM 22, ADM 80 and ADM 82.
Otherwise naval pension schemes were sporadic until well into the 19th century. Many in-pensioners retired to the Royal Greenwich Hospital from its foundation in 1694 until 1869. There are Entry Books of these from 1704-1869, many indexed, and Admission Papers from 1790-1865 in ADM 73. The Royal Hospital Greenwich also supported much larger numbers of out-pensioners living in their own homes or lodgings and there are pay books which relate to these in ADM 6/271-320 covering 1789-1859, ADM 73/95-131 covering 1781-1809, ADM 22/254-443 covering 1814-1846 and in WO 22 (War Office) covering 1842-1883.
From 1853, ratings serving for 20 years could claim a pension, but few pension records for ratings survive. Retiring officers were also paid proper superannuation starting in the late 1830s. Unlike the pension records of ratings, most Officers pension records have survived and comprise a very large and diverse collection mostly in ADM 22 and ADM 23 (1830-1934). There are also good records of pensions paid to widows and orphans of both officers and ratings, dating from 1673, under a variety of different classes. Papers submitted by widows for claims frequently contain marriage or other certificates. They are listed in full detail in Naval Records for Genealogists by N.A.M. Rodger.
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