When I first started researching my family history I spent time with to my parents collecting as many family stories as I could. In one conversation with my Dad, he told me that my grandfather had a cousin in the RAF who had been killed early in WWII “on a leaflet raid over Germany”. Dad knew no more, not even the name of the poor chap who died.
Here was a puzzle. Who was he? When did he die? Was it really on a leaflet raid? I’ve always had an interest in military history and desperately wanted to know more.
By building up the extended tree of the Isherwood family I identified the cousin of my grandfather who had served and died in the RAF: Leonard Isherwood, born in 1919 in Stockton Heath, Cheshire, a village on the outskirts of Warrington.
When researching RAF ancestors, it’s always advised to order the service record from the Ministry of Defence https://www.gov.uk/guidance/request-records-of-deceased-service-personnel. But there was a hitch – I’m not a direct descendant of Leonard and I don’t have contact with his branch of the family, so I’m not entitled to access his service record. Just how easy would it be to research Leonard’s RAF career without it?
It turns out that it’s possible to do very thorough research without a service record and in this article I’ll share how I did it.
The first step in researching any British or Commonwealth serviceman who lost their life in the world wars is to check the Commonwealth War Graves Commission site: https://www.cwgc.org. Here is Leonard’s Memorial page:
Starting from a blank, this was a treasure trove of information: rank, service number, squadron, date of death, age and place of burial.
For RAF Bomber Command casualties, there’s a further vital source – the Losses Database at the International Bomber Command Centre: https://internationalbcc.co.uk/history-archive/losses-database/. Here is Leonard’s entry:
Again, there’s some wonderful additional detail here, including the type of aircraft (a Whitley bomber), his role onboard, the names of his crew mates and the target of their attack. But I want to go much deeper. I want to understand his whole war.
Finding the Records
To really understand the details of an RAF airman’s operational service, it’s necessary to consult the Operations Record Books, or ORBs, at the National Archives in Kew. These records are digitised and can be downloaded for a fee from TNA Discovery (https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk). But there’s a catch – each squadron posted two ORBs each month and each record costs £3.50 to download. Leonard’s operational flying career potentially covered the period September 1939 to July 1940, so I would need to download eleven months of records across twenty two files, costing £77! It was going to be cheaper to drive to Kew and access the records in person.
I set a trip to Kew as one of my 2020 family history objectives. Well, as we all know, 2020 didn’t pan out the way any of us expected. In this case though, there was an upside – a few weeks into the first Covid lockdown the National Archives took down their paywall and allowed free downloads for the duration of the pandemic. I was back in business!
The ORBs for all RAF squadrons are found at TNA in class AIR 27. The records for Leonard’s unit, 58 Squadron, are in AIR 27/543. Each month generated two documents: a “Summary of Events” containing orders received and squadron level comments, and a “Record of Events” containing details of each crew despatched on an operation and brief comments on each.
As you can see from the examples above, the details in the official records are brief, to say the least. The two records have to be read together and there is no contextual information to help interpret the few details that are stated. Worse, this falls well short of allowing me to get inside the minds of the crews of the mission, to understand what they went through and why things turned out as they did.
Finding Sources for Contextual Detail
I knew I would need something else to help me breathe life into the official records. Fortunately, WWII is the most documented war in history and there are scores of books that can be helpful. I searched Amazon and eBay for relevant books and was able to find an account by a colleague of Leonard’s, Larry Donnelly, who had also served in Whitleys in the early part of the war, albeit in a different squadron.
Donnelly’s book is both a personal memoir and a broader account of the role the Whitley bombers played in the early part of the war. It includes a full list of missions that the Whitleys participated in and a full list of losses. It’s an invaluable resource for my research and provides much of the context I so sorely needed.
In addition, I was able to find a great deal of contextual detail about the early months of the war from my personal library of history books, and about 58 Squadron and Whitley Bombers online at Wikipedia. Although Wikipedia has a poor reputation amongst academics, it’s ideal for contextual research on well documented subjects like the world wars.
So, I have the official records of Leonard’s death, his squadron’s Operations Record Books, a detailed memoir-cum-history covering Whitley operations in 1939-1940, and an array of contextual supporting materials. Despite not having Leonard’s service record, I have everything I need to draw a detailed picture of his war career. Join me next time as I tell the true and tragic story of a Cheshire lad who went to war to save his country in its hour of need, and made the ultimate sacrifice.