Since The Light Over London has come out, I’ve received dozens of emails from readers telling me about their personal connection to the book. In several cases, the children of Gunner Girls have reached out to say that reading the book inspired them to dig in and research their mother’s history in the service. However, the research process felt daunting, and they didn’t know how to get started.
After sending several people information about accessing British service records, I thought it was probably time to write an article giving some guidance about how you can research your family’s wartime stories.
(Authors, a lot of these suggestions can be used if you are researching a WWII-set book.)
We all know the expression knowledge is power, and starting a research project is no different. You likely already have some of the pieces you need to start your search, such as:
Date of birth
Branch of service
Locations of service
The more information you have, the better. However, don’t be discouraged if all you know is your family member’s name and branch of service. You still have a good starting place.
If your family member is still alive, I would recommend speaking to them about the war. Some of the richest stories you’ll find are the first-hand ones passed from generation to generation.
If your family member served in World War II...
Here are some resource that can help you get started.
In the UK
The Imperial War Museum has a great guide for navigating different databases and other resources.
Tracing Your Family (Imperial War Museum)
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission can help you find a war grave or a cemetery or memorial.
If you are looking for access to your own service records, this website can help:
In the US
The National Archives has an excellent page that highlights the various databases and lists of US service members.
It also produced a brochure to show family members how to find information about a person’s participation in the war.
The Library and Archives Canada’s guide helps family members find service records, military medals, and more
If your family member was on the UK Home Front…
Obviously, not everyone fought in the war. People did many things on the Home Front to both further the war effort and maintain as much of their normal lives as they could. You may find it helpful to look to books and documentaries to learn more about living in Britain during the war to find out what you family family members might have experienced.
The 1939 Register was taken just after war broke out. It provides a look at the civilian population of England and Wales. You can use it to find out more about your family.
The Mass Observation diaries are an incredible resources to historians and curious historical fiction readers alike. A country-wide sociological experiment, people from a large swath of social backgrounds and geographical locations sent in records of their daily lives. This is a wonderful way to get a snapshot of the area your relatives lived in or the work they did during the war. I used the Mass Observation diaries when writing my upcoming book The Whispers of War.
And finally, the UK has been vigilant about recording as much historical accounts from people who actually lived the war. The BBC has something called the WW2 People’s War project with many different oral histories (some in audio and some in transcript form.) I actually used this resource to learn more about the Gunner Girls’ experience when I was writing The Light Over London.
Persistence is a big part of any historical research project, so don’t be disheartened if you feel like you hit a brick wall. Step back and try to think creatively about where you might look next. Keep talking to family members, digging into archives, and using resources like Ancestry.com and see what family history you can uncover!