From airhead to Top Gun: researching Second World War RAF pilots

Charles James Drogo Montagu's Grave in Amsterdam New Cemetery, Netherlands.

Charles James Drogo Montagu’s Grave in Amsterdam New Cemetery, Netherlands.

We often get readers coming into The National Archives wanting to find information about their ancestors in the RAF, yet they come with only their name.  With service records from 1920 onwards still held at the Ministry of Defence, how much is it possible to find out and how easy is it to do with just a name? Are we limited to learning about only a small part of their life or can we get a bigger, broader picture?  Being relatively new to The National Archives and wanting to develop our records knowledge  in order to best advise readers with their enquiries, these were questions we were keen to find the answers to.  So armed with the name, Charles James Drogo Montagu, chosen from a recent visit to the Amsterdam New Eastern Cemetery in the Netherlands, we began our journey.

Where to begin:

Our first point of call, as with many servicemen, who fought and died in combat during the world wars, was the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website. Helped by the fact that our man had an unusual name, we quickly discovered he was a Pilot Officer in the 77 Squadron (had our man had a more common name the process of identifying the correct individual could have made research somewhat more difficult).  He died on 25th August 1940, aged 19, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).  The CWGC also gave us his parents’ names: George E.S and Doris Montagu of Wiltshire. Brilliant, we thought. So, where do we go next?

AIR 22/59 showing the weather report for North West Europe in July 1940.

AIR 22/59 showing the weather report for North West Europe in July 1940.

The easiest thing was to work backwards. So, we began by looking at the Squadron Operational Records in AIR 27, by searching for the 77 squadron and looking for the reports of August, the month of his death. It told us little about the specifics of his death, other than he (and his crew) ‘failed to return and were posted missing’. However, it did tell us that Augsburg Airframe Factory was the primary target and that Montagu and crew (whose names we now knew) set off at 20:00. It also gave us a further hint of where to look, making reference to C55 of the appendices, also in AIR 27. So, in our quest to find out more about the fateful evening in August, this is where we turned to next, easily searchable in Discovery by searching ’77 squadron AND appendices’. This told us that, whilst Augsburg was the primary target, it was actually Ludwigshafen Nitrogen Plant that was the target for the 77 squadron. It confirmed that the Whitley Vs took off from 20:00 and were to leave the target by 00:30. Supplemented by information collected from Bomber Command Losses (an excellent book detailing information on all of those lost in bomber command squadrons) and weather reports in AIR 22  we found out that he took off under cloudy, drizzly weather condition and that they crashed at approximately 03:00 near Amsterdam. So, using a combination of primary and secondary literature, we drew a more comprehensive picture of his last few hours.

 Next, we wanted to investigate why Montagu was awarded the DFC. To do this, we returned to the squadron records in AIR 27. Continuing to work backwards, we looked at the report from July 1940 and found an entry reasonably quickly on 12th July. This then allowed us to search for the entry in the London Gazette for this date. We were lucky in that his citation was rather more substantial than many others, giving a brilliant blow-by-blow account of what they endured: ‘for three and a half hours…on one engine [that] steadily lost height’ Montagu showed ‘coolness and efficiency’ throughout. On another occasion, earlier in June, he was forced to abandon his aircraft after it set alight, despite his efforts to extinguish the fire. Our man, it seems, had a calm exterior in such situations; how he really felt in such moments, we will of course never know.

77 Squadron record from June 1940 showing how P/O Montagu and crew won the DFC in AIR 27/655/20

77 Squadron record from June 1940 showing how P/O Montagu and crew won the DFC in AIR 27/655/20

We continued to work backwards, looking at earlier squadron reports, which gave the first mention of Montagu participating in an operation in May, whilst the Daily Routine Orders in base records for 1940 show that he was Orderly Officer from 18th May 1940. The Daily Routine records, whilst not giving detailed information about a specific individual, were an interesting read, detailing life within the base from orchestra practise to football matches. What they told us about Montagu, however, was that he most likely joined the 77 squadron in May 1940, meaning he saw only three months of combat– unfortunately not uncommon for men within the RAF and hitting home the magnitude of the sacrifices that these men made for their country. We were now keen to find out if we could find out more beyond his life in the RAF. We began with the basics: when was he born, was he married, where did he live? Using a combination of Ancestry and FindMyPast, we determined that he was born in the spring of 1920 in Pewsey, Wiltshire and he wasn’t married. With no census records available after 1911, but the names of his parents and that he lived in Wiltshire, we decided to start with this. We found a definitive result from the 1911 census which told us that he came from a wealthy family, his parents living on ‘Private Means’ in a seven roomed house complete with a servant in Wilcot. Through further digging we found his father’s Medal Index Card from the First World War. Seemingly Charles had followed in the footsteps of his father in serving his country; unlike his father’s war service, however, Charles did not return to a hero’s welcome.

Final thoughts

So, what had we learned? Let’s refer back to the main question posed at the beginning: is a name enough? In this case at least, we found a great deal of information with just a name, not only from  his time in the RAF, but we had  been able to delve deeper into the life of this young pilot – both during, and prior to, the Second World War.

The main things we learned were:

  • Begin your search by consulting research guidance.  For records held at The National Archives a number of RAF research guides are available that will help understand what records exist and where to begin.
  • Work backwards. Often, it is the better, and sometimes only, option. Work from what you know and go from there! As you continue, you will uncover new facts and confirm things you know already, helping to build up a more complete picture of an individual which may lead you to other sources.
  • Don’t limit yourself. Look in all kinds of series and records: don’t limit yourself to one set of records. When we set ourselves this little challenge, we had no idea that The National Archives held weather reports or daily routine orders, for example. So think outside the box!
  • Use secondary literature. Secondary literature can be really useful in helping to fill in any gaps or directing you to somewhere you may not have thought to look. Often someone else has done the hard work already so use it!

Useful records and secondary literature for RAF airmen/officers:

Squadron Reports   – AIR 27

Base Records – AIR 28

Daily Weather Reports – AIR 22

Daily Routine Orders  – AIR 28

Chorley, W.R., Royal Air Force Bomber command Losses of the Second World War (Leicester, 1992)

Carter, C & N. Carter, The Distinguished Flying Cross and how it was won (London, 1998)

6 comments

  1. Simon Younger says:

    Fascinating. This really shows just how many different avenues there are to explore to build up a full picture. It may also be worth noting that some RAF squadrons merged, or were subsumed into other national air forces – especially in the later stages of the war. For example, some RAF squadrons that operated in North Africa, and which then moved to Italy for the Balkans campaign, merged with SAAF squadrons. In trying to find my late father’s service records (thank you TNA for starting me on the right tracks!) I have accepted that as well as some rich material in Kew, there’s quite a lot more sitting overseas on the other side of the equator, as well as in Zagreb too. Maybe one day all of the various record sets will be digitised and published with open linked metadata to make it all accessible online. But if it becomes that easy, where would be the fun in researching it?

  2. Lauren Willmott says:

    Thanks for your comment, Simon and that’s a really good point to mention here. Of course, looking in other archives might also hold valuable information and our new-look catalogue, Discovery may help you with this. There are also even more records to look at that we didn’t manage to mention in the blog such as casualty packs in AIR 81, which are recently transferred records and are also fascinating records to look at.

  3. Lauren Willmott says:

    I should also point out that AIR 81 is still being transferred to The National Archives and at the moment only runs up to mid August 1940. As more records are transferred here, however, this will extend to cover the rest of the war period.

  4. […] From airhead to Top Gun: researching Second World War RAF pilots on The National Archives blog. […]

  5. Tim Bucknall says:

    Can i access Polish pilots records in the same way you describe above
    I wish to research the late Boguslaw Stanislaw Felix Panek aka “Stan” (DCM-bar) 305 sqdrn

    His Family are dead and i am not related so some avenues of inquiry are closed to me

    basically i’d love to know what he was decorated for so i can add it to his online memorial

    1. Lauren Willmott says:

      Hi Tim,

      Thanks for the comment.
      If he fought in the British RAF, yes you can follow the lines of inquiry as in the blog.

      If you would like more advice or assistance, please see our research guidance http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/.
      You can also contact our records experts using the form http://apps.nationalarchives.gov.uk/Contact/contactform.asp?id=1, or send a question to one of our Live Chat sessions (http://apps.nationalarchives.gov.uk/Contact/#livechat), and someone will assist you.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      Lauren

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