Free Digital Downloads from The National Archives

The saying goes that every dark cloud has a silver lining and that is certainly the case with The National Archives at Kew. COVID19 has forced them to close their doors to the public however during this period they are offering free downloads from their digital collection.

You must register to take advantage of this generous offer and are limited to 50 free downloads during a rolling 30-day period. With downloads normally costing an average of £3.50 (~CAD$6) it is well worth visiting their website to check out the full details on accessing their free digital records.

What’s available you ask? The short answer: a lot, especially for those of you researching military ancestors. They’ve compiled and published a series of guides to their online collections and it’s a good place to start. Be aware that some of the record sets are only available through third-party subscription services (Find My Past, Ancestry, etc.) but these are clearly noted. Also, the majority of their collection has not been digitized and so a broader search might reveal the record you’re looking for but require you to visit The National Archives when they reopen.

One obvious place to start is in their British Army war diaries 1914-1922 collection. It’s not only of interest to those researching British army units because during the course of the First World War many Canadian units served for a time under British command. You’ll find over 500 records relating to Canadian units, especially artillery and cavalry.

Officers of HMS Grenville in 1917. Source: author’s collection

If you’re interested in naval history you’ll find records sets relating to the Royal Navy, Royal Naval Reserve , Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and Merchant Seaman. There is also a Women’s Royal Naval Service personnel guide detailing records from the First World War.

If you’re researching a flyer or a particular squadron then buckle up because there are an impressive number of Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Air Force records to explore. For example, the Royal Air Force operations record books 1911-1963 are fascinating and include references to many Canadians who flew in both world wars. The majority of records pertain to the Second World War and you’ll find information on RCAF units that served in Britain by entering “RCAF” in the Squadron search box. Although there are fewer First World War records there is still a lot of information for those researching Canadians who flew in the RFC and RNAS … this should be no surprise as 4 of the top 15 aces in the First World War were Canadian.

Case Study

Royal Aircraft Factory FE 2b. Source: Wikipedia Commons

I’ll end with a case study showing how I used these records to learn more about my cousin (twice removed), Captain Gerald Gordon Bell DFC who served as a Lieutenant in the 38th Battalion (Ottawa) before being seconded to the RFC in early January 1917. His CEF service file (from Library and Archives Canada) provided some useful information on his early RFC days and with the help of specialist sites such as The Aerodrome I was able to build up a basic timeline of his service. These sources revealed that he began as an observer in a Royal Aircraft Factory (RAF) F.E. 2b, flying with No. 22 Squadron in France. He claimed a share in his first three 3 victories before returning to England in August to train as a pilot. Note: to see a F.E. 2b in the air check out this YouTube video by the Historical Aviation Film Unit.

The records held by The National Archives included Gerald’s RFC service file and the No. 22 Squadron Operations Book and these added more detail to his story. The service file showed that in October 1917 he was attached to No. 83 Squadron in Egypt before transferring to 16th Wing Headquarters in Salonika in January 1918. It was here that he remained for the duration of the war and where he added another 13 victories to his total. He flew with No. 47 Squadron before transferring to No. 150 Squadron which was formed in April with flyers from No. 47 and No. 17 Squadrons. I found the No. 17 Squadron Operations Book in their collection and this provided details on the formation of the new squadron. Note: there are four files relating to No. 150 squadron that have sadly not yet been digitized.

I’ve always wanted to know what planes Gerald flew in the war and although the Aerodrome provided details on those flown when he scored victories I was happy to discover his service file provided a complete list. I’ve interpreted the ‘census’ shown below, rightly or wrongly, as follows: M.F. Avro, RAF B.E. 2b, RAF B.E. 2e, RAF B.E. 12, Bristol Scout, Bristol Monoplane (M1C), Nieuport (likely 17), Vickers Bullet (FB19) and RAF S.E. 5a.

Excerpt from Lt. G.G. Bell’s RFC service file. Source: The National Archives AIR 76/32/137


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