Posted by Kristen Hyde on February 13, 2020 in Research

To mark the update to the WWII Royal Artillery Tracer Cards collection, we asked Simon Pearce, military specialist at Ancestry ProGenealogists to offer his advice on how to decode the records and why they are such an important resource for family history research.

About the Royal Artillery Tracer Cards

I was excited to hear that the Royal Artillery Tracer Cards were going to be digitised and made available to the public on Ancestry. This is a great source for researching an ancestor who served with the Royal Artillery, particularly during the Second World War. The cards provide an enlistment date, service number and chronologically details the units within the Royal Artillery that the individual served with (Batteries, Brigades, Heavy Regiments, Anti-Tank Troops etc). The cards are particularly helpful if you have not yet obtained your ancestor’s service record and can be a good starting point for your research.

The records relate to other ranks only (not officers) and the cards pertaining to soldiers who died in service were destroyed following their deaths; the aim of the cards was to efficiently indicate where a soldier was serving at a particular time and thus became redundant following an individual’s death. There are different versions of the cards, varying in appearance, but they are not too dissimilar.

Getting started with the Royal Artillery Tracer Cards 

Before getting started it is worth bearing in mind that the cards, for all their value, may not detail the complete service of the individual and there may be gaps. The tracer cards are an excellent starting point, but you should always review the individual’s service record, accessible via the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Before I fully delved into the tracer cards, I had the benefit of speaking with the very helpful staff at the Royal Artillery Museum, whose archive administers the collection, and they very kindly provided me with documentation and advice on how to interpret the cards. The cards can be a daunting prospect even for seasoned researchers and it may be worth studying multiple cards in the collection, even if they do not relate to your ancestor, just to get used to the format, abbreviations and handwriting. The Royal Artillery was a huge regiment, and, in many respects, it is more challenging than researching an infantry regiment who generally have numbered battalions that are relatively straight forward to follow.

One key aspect of the cards is that they detail the individual’s name and service number, useful clues if you are going to research the servicemen in other collections (such as the UK, Allied Prisoners of War, 1939-1945 collection we have on Ancestry). The cards also indicate when the person enlisted and sometimes the location; particularly useful for establishing when your ancestor’s service started. If your ancestor transferred to the Royal Artillery from another regiment, say an infantry regiment, the card should note this.

What you can find on a Royal Artillery Tracer Card

The cards are split into two columns, sometimes with or without a line down the middle. Units are recorded chronologically, from top to bottom, starting with the right-hand column and continue onto the left-hand side.

Take the card here for example:

Terence Alan “Spike” Milligan enlisted on 5 March 1940 and joined the 56th Heavy Regiment of the Royal Artillery; the unit saw service in North Africa and Italy during the war. According to the card, on 7 January 1943 Spike proceeded overseas; his service record would indicate to which theatre he was being posted and where he was stationed between enlistment and prior to shipping overseas. Here are a selection of the references on the card:

• X List 2 NA 25/9/43 – this relates to hospitalisation, due to wounds or sickness for example. X lists relate to those who became non-effective, e.g. as a result of wounding, becoming missing in action or being taken prisoner of war.
• 56 Hvy Rgt 20/10/43 – re-joined the 56th Heavy Regiment.
• X List IV N.A. – Spike was deemed fit for duty and waiting to be transferred to a unit.
• X List (1) CMF 16/2/45 – X list (he became ‘non-effective’ again, perhaps due to illness or a re-current wound). ‘CMF’ refers to Central Mediterranean Force, giving an indication as to where he was serving.

The beauty of some of these references to units, such as the 56th Heavy Regiment, is that it allows you to follow up the unit in other sources such as war diaries (held by The National Archives) and gain a greater understanding as to what the unit were doing and experiencing on a day-to-day basis.

During your research you may encounter a reference to the ‘Y’ List on the cards; this generally relates to individuals posted home (the UK) due to sickness or wounds, reported sick at home or prisoners of war returning home.

If you encounter a unit and you are not familiar with the abbreviation, try searching online for the abbreviation with ‘WWII’ after it; you may see references on military sites or forums to the unit which will help you to decipher its meaning.

Another key tip would be to not get too bogged down with the numbers at the start of some entries, for example: ‘216/43’ – this isn’t the unit the individual served with but is connected to Regimental Orders and is not of great significance when deciphering units.

Finally, the bottom of the card indicates that Terence was discharged on 18 October 1946 Under Paragraph 390 of the King’s Regulations of 1940 (part XXIX); essentially the rules governing discharges from the military, amongst other areas of military service. You may be able to find transcriptions of the King’s Regulations online. The ‘Z’ in the top right-hand corner appears to relate to soldiers on Terminal Leave from the Army prior to discharge but were too old to be placed on the Reserve List.

Hopefully the collection will help readers learn more about their ancestors who served with the Royal Artillery and spark further research and discoveries in additional collections.