80th Anniversary of the start of World War Two

September 2019 will see the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II which ran from 1st September 1939 to 2nd September 1945 – remember it with us now.

At 11:15 on September 3, 1939 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced on the radio that Britain was at war with Germany after it ignored their ultimatums to withdraw German troops from Poland.

"This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final Note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.

I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.

You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different that I could have done and that would have been more successful.

Up to the very last it would have been quite possible to have arranged a peaceful and honourable settlement between Germany and Poland, but Hitler would not have it..."

Mr Neville Chamberlain
Mr Neville Chamberlain   


World War II, or the Second World War (often abbreviated as WWII or WW2), was a global conflict. It involved most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis

It was the most widespread war in history, with more than 100 million military personnel mobilised. In a state of "total war", the major participants placed their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities at the service of the war effort, erasing the distinction between civilian and military resources. Marked by significant events involving the mass death of civilians, including the Holocaust and the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare, it is the deadliest conflict in human history, resulting in 50 million to over 70 million fatalities.

Although Japan was already at war with China in 1937, the world war is generally said to have begun on 1 September 1939, with the invasion of Poland by Germany, and subsequent declarations of war on Germany by France and most of the countries of the British Empire and Commonwealth. Germany set out to establish a large empire in Europe. From late 1939 to early 1941, in a series of campaigns and treaties, Germany conquered or subdued much of continental Europe; amid Nazi-Soviet agreements, the nominally neutral Soviet Union fully or partially occupied and annexed territories of its six European neighbours, including Poland. Britain and the Commonwealth remained the only major force continuing the fight against the Axis in North Africa and in extensive naval warfare. In June 1941, the European Axis launched an invasion of the Soviet Union, giving a start to the largest land theatre of war in history, which, from that moment on, tied down the major part of the Axis military power. In December 1941, Japan, which aimed to dominate Asia, attacked the United States and European possessions in the Pacific Ocean, quickly conquering much of the region.

The war in Europe concluded with an invasion of Germany by the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, culminating in the capture of Berlin by Soviet troops, the suicide of Adolf Hitler and the German unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945, generally known as Victory in Europe Day (VE Day). Following the Potsdam Declaration by the Allies on 26th July 1945 and the refusal of Japan to surrender under its terms, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6th and 9th August respectively. With an invasion of the Japanese archipelago imminent, the possibility of additional atomic bombings, the Soviet entry into the war against Japan and its invasion of Manchuria, Japan announced its intention to surrender on 15 August 1945, in effect bringing the war to an end and cementing total victory in Asia for the Allies.

By the time Japan signed the official surrender document aboard the Battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on 2nd September 1945, 383,700 servicemen and women from the United Kingdom (including Crown Colonies) and 67,200 civilians would have perished in the Second Great War.

These anniversaries should remind us that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to all servicemen and women who have served and, in some cases, made the ultimate sacrifice for us. We should remember this debt and support them in every possible way not just on specific days of the year, or on specific years, but always. The conflicts may become the stuff of history lessons but the real people involved certainly aren’t, and we must make sure that continues

Helping you find your WWII Ancestor

By far the most common problem that people researching their family trees come across is a shortage of accessible records relating to the Second World War. The Public Records Act governs which materials created by the government can be released over what timescales. The agreed policy between MOD and The National Archives is that service records will be transferred to The National Archives at the point that the majority of the subjects of the record have passed their 100th birthday as, until that point, the record relating to any one subject will be closed.  Whilst MOD and The National Archives have not discussed in detail the transfer of Second World War service records it seems likely that the records will become publicly available in the mid-2020s given that an 18 year who enlisted at the mid-point in the war would have been born around 1924. However, there are numerous exceptions which continue to restrict access, e.g. when release of records may cause damage to the country’s image, national security or foreign relations.

Records from the Second World War fall under these restrictions, as many of the men and women who served are still alive and wouldn’t want personal information disclosed. Thus, you won’t find the full record for a relative who fought in that war anywhere except with the Ministry of Defence.

Small parts of a Second World War serviceman’s record may be found, such as those listing his or her death, casualty/missing reports, capture or medals awarded. Forces War Records, for example has a total of over 5 million World War Two records, these are made up from ‘some’ of the following collections:

WWII Daily reports (missing, dead, wounded & POWs)

  • Kept under reference WO417 at the national archives these ‘daily’ reports were made on a 24/48 hour basis and often include information that can’t be sourced anywhere else!

Bomber/Fighter Command Losses 1939-1945

  • Bomber/Fighter Command Operational Losses in the European Theatre of War covering both Aircraft and Aircrew 1939-1945.

Imperial Prisoners of war held in Japan

  • 56,000+ of those held by the Empire of Japan were recorded in the War Departments records now held at Kew under the title ‘British Prisoners of War Held in Japan Or Japanese-Occupied Territory’

Prisoners of War of the British Empire held in Germany 1939-45

  • Personnel of the British armed forces as well as Merchant seamen were captured during the Second World War and placed in one of the different types of prisoner of war camps run by the Germans. Oflag was a prisoner of war camp for officers, Stalag was for enlisted personnel, and there were separate camps for navy, aircrews and civilians (Marlag/MIlag, Lufts and Ilag respectively)

Our database also includes many more collections from Rolls of honour, IWGC Registers, UK Army Lists, nominal rolls, Home Guard records, RAF, Navy collections and SO much more. Please see our full collections list HERE

Do you know enough about your ancestors who fought in the Second World War?

Log on to Forces War Records and find out more

80th Anniversary of WWII

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