This is my own personal take on beginning Military Research in the UK which I offer as a general survey of how to get started.
The following example was written for someone who was interested in the medical care of German POWS of the British Army during the North Africa campaign, where a relative had served in the Army Dental Corps. This might seem to be a fairly specialised area but the general approach to starting WWII research remains the same, whatever aspect you are looking at:
The Main Centres of Archives and Research
There are several key places where you would ordinarily begin military research in the UK:
The National Archives …
The Imperial War Museum…
The Liddell Hart Centre at King’s College…
There also are major centres that focus on the different branches of the military, for example
The National Army Museum…
For the Royal Navy see the comments by Captain David Tall at the entry about HMS Turbulent
Finding material within their enormous collections can be a challenge but I have invariably found their archivists and public assistants to be extremely helpful.
There are also all the local and more specialised institutions – the following link is to all the places that had NEW military records acquisitions in just 2013, so is not complete. It does give you a very good idea of what sort of stuff is becoming available.
Starting from where someone else has begun
Another good starting point is to get hold of an existing published work and see what sources they have found already.
For example the following list comes from Frank Harrison: TOBRUK – The Great Siege Reassessed
This book focuses on the earlier Tobruk period but also gives the main primary sources for the North Africa campaign.
Any serious piece of research will have a similar list of sources. Many early studies, good solid pieces of research, can be found on Amazon for very little more than the price of postage. Even if you may not be interested in all of the book in question this can be a very economical method of obtaining a specialised ‘study guide’.
From the above list you can make a good guess that the main division you want to be looking for at the National Archives is
and a simple Google search tells me that there are over 6,000 sources available of which 1,274 are available to download online.
However the Dental Corps stuff is not online:
To take a different approach start browsing broad lists of general searches online, or site specific searches which often throws up documents you had no idea might exist. If you looked at the main list of military history archives being added year by year to different museums and institutions you will find there are many other possible sources:
shows all the new material added around the country in 2013 alone.
Browsing through these lists I saw the following which would be of interest to this area:
Royal College of Surgeons of England, London
Leslie Woods Lauste: registers of operations perfomed at Second World War POW camps, photographs and personal memorabilia
The Royal College of Surgeons probably does not come up high on most lists for “military research”. This rather underlines the point that just by browsing around you can find relevant material – and that new material is still becoming available all the time.
Conclusion – do as much as possible online before starting the legwork
The net result is that you have probably got to visit London ( where almost all of the main institutions are based) to do some personal research and find the original documents for yourself. This can be a lengthy – and hence expensive – process. So the more time you spend in advance, narrowing down the likely sources you want to look at, the better placed you will be.
Good Luck. If you do eventually publish something on World War II I am always happy to publish a short extract and a link under my “New” Features.