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British Documents

British Cabinet Office Records on the Second World War | British Government Archival Resources at Stanford | British State Papers and Calendars | British Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts

British Cabinet Office Records on the Second World War

Guide to Government Publications Series

The Public Record Office, London, recently declassified and issued on microfilm several classes of records relating to the Second World War. The most important of these were purchased by the Government Document Department of the Stanford University Libraries and are available for consultation and loan.

The fifty year `closed' rule for public records was emended with the Public Records Act of 1967 to a thirty year closed rule. As a result, the first documents of 1939 relating to the Second World War were to be declassified in 1970. In order to facilitate the needs of the research community, the Government decided to accelerate release for the wartime period, 1939-1945. Classes relating to the war comprise nearly seven miles of shelving, and the practicalities of release were enormous. The result was the decision to release the Cabinet records as quickly as possible and to complete this release by early 1972. The major portion of these classes was microfilmed in 1972, thereby extending the availability of the material. Individual pieces of any particular class may still be classified because of varying `closed' periods for certain items, e.g. fifty or seventy-five years. This variance is generally indicated in the class lists and on the microfilm. Because of the volume of papers, however, very few institutions will be able to afford to purchase entire holdings of even a single class. Stanford University has committed itself to securing this data, which complements not only its book collections on the war, but also the archival resources of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. The following paragraphs will describe the microfilm holdings and some of the other resources available at Stanford.

Cabinet 65/1-55 contains the minutes of the War Cabinet beginning with the Cabinet conclusions for 3 September 1939 and ending with the conclusions for 24 July 1945. These printed conclusions are based on the duplicated conclusions which were earlier submitted to the ministers in attendance at a meeting. The duplicated items were then subject to amendment and to final approval of the Prime Minister as necessary. The printed conclusions are arranged by year, each followed by the confidential annexes which contain the conclusions recorded in the Secretary's Standard File. These annexes are then parallel volumes to the printed conclusions. Among them is information on forthcoming military operations and on the Commonwealth, allied and foreign governments. The yearly series of conclusions and annexes is designated the `WM series' during the war years 1939-1945. The conclusions and annexes for the Churchill caretaker government of 30 May - 24 July 1945 are designated the `CM series'. Cab. 65/55 holds the annual indexes for the conclusions in the WM series. The Stanford call number for the sixteen reels of Cab. 65 is Microfilm N.S. 1102.

The memoranda of the War Cabinet for 1939-1941/42 are divided into three series, each with its own class number:

WP series - Cab. 66/1-67 contains the memoranda dealing with policy or with operations
WP(G) series - Cab. 67/1-9 contains the memoranda dealing with more general matters including procedures and notification of committees
WP(R) series - Cab. 68/1-9 contains memoranda dealing with reports and returns of various government departments.
The WP series (Cab. 66) continued through May 1945 with the war coalition government and became the CP series for the May - July 1945 Churchill caretaker government. The Stanford call number for the 32 reels of Cab. 66 is Microfilm N.S. 1101; that for the five reels of Cab. 67 is Microfilm N.S. 1376 and that for the six reels of Cab. 68 is Microfilm N.S. 1377.

Cabinet 79/1-91 contains two files: pieces 1-84 consist of the minutes ofmeetings of the Chiefs of Staff (COS), while pieces 85-91 consist of documents in the Secretary's Standard Files that had become so fragile that a photocopy of the original surviving items was made. The Chiefs of Staff Committee was composed of the chiefs of the three military services and was responsible for "advising the War Cabinet on any matters affecting, or affected by the military aspect of the conduct of the war." This included manpower, equipment, munitions, logistics, directives to commanders, strategy and relations with allies and neutrals. The minutes extend from 2 September 1939 thru 30 December 1946. From September 1940 to 30 December 1944 COS minutes were also circulated within an "O" (operational) series which was more restricted than the regular series. These "O" series minutes are contained in Cab. 79/55-84. Certain documents stated in the minutes to be recorded in the Secretary's Standard File were found to be missing in 1949: those for 3 September 1939 - 7 February 1940 and 2 May 1940 - 19 April 1941. The items for 8 February 1940 - 1 May 1940 are contained in Cab. 79/85. Those for 20 April 1941 - 8 January 1945 are contained in Cab. 79/86-90 with some gaps. Piece 91 contains the subject index to the minutes of the COS for 1939-1946. The Stanford call number for the 30 reels of Cab. 79 is Microfilm N.S. 1375.

Cabinet 82 contains the minutes of meetings of the Deputy Chiefs of Staff (DCOS) for 4 September 1939 - 6 January 1947 as well as the minutes of meetings of the various sub-committees. The areas of consideration included air defense, inter-service training, vulnerable points, defense services police forces, and atomic weapons. The Stanford call number for the 7 reels of Cab. 82 is Microfilm N.S. 1373.

Cabinet 83 contains the minutes of meetings and papers of the Ministerial Committee on Military Coordination for 13 November 1939 - 20 May 1940. The Committee stood between the Chiefs of Staff and the War Cabinet. Its function was to advise the War Cabinet on the general conduct of the war, but the mechanics of the Committee did not operate well and its functions were finally absorbed by other committees. The Stanford call number for the two reels of Cab. 83 is Microfilm N.S. 1374.

With the advent of the war, Churchill combined the Office of the Prime Minister with the Office of the Minister of Defense (an office which did not previously exist). This arrangement allowed the civil and political aspects of the Prime Minister to reside within one structure and the military aspects of the PM within another. The papers belonging to each of these distinct categories comprise two classes of records: Prem. 3 contains papers relating to defense and operational subjects which were housed in the War Cabinet Office near the subterranean War Room, and Prem. 4 contains papers relating mainly to civil and political matters which were housed at No. 10 Downing Street and is essentially a continuation of the peace- time Prem. 1 series. Each class is particularly voluminous and covers virtually any topic conceivable within military and civil affairs, and some topics which seemed inconceivable e.g., tube alloys (atom bomb research). Prem. 3 is arranged alphabetically by major key words (Aegean, camouflage, oil, Palestine, etc.), and chronologically within each word. Prem. 4 follows the same general arrangement but includes a subject index in Prem.4 102-135 (Stanford reels 113-131). The Stanford call number for the 184 reels of Prem. 3 is Microfilm N.S. 1514 and for the 131 reels of Prem. 4 is Microfilm N.S. 1411.

Class lists for each of these categories are available in the Search Rooms of the Public Record Office. Photocopies were supplied to Stanford and allow for a general guide to the contents of the microfilm. The lists are available for consultation in the Government Document Department, but are not available for loan. The List & Index Society has published the class list for Prem. 4 as its Volume 126.

The most thorough guides to date on the above materials are Public Record Office Handbooks, no. 15 and no. 17: "The Second World War" and "The Cabinet Office to 1945."

A parallel title published in seven volumes by the Kraus-Thomson Organization in 1976 is the Cabinet Office's Principal War Telegrams and Memoranda, 1940-1943. These principal telegrams were mainly those exchanged between London and the commanders in the field. Copies were made for members of the War Cabinet, heads of major departments and the Chiefs of Staff in order to keep them informed of developments in the major battle areas.

Information on the resources relating to the Second World War at the Hoover Institution will be found in the forthcoming guide to the collections, particularly the several sections by Mrs. Agnes Peterson. The Great Britain portion, with its paragraphs on "World War II" and on "Government Documents" is especially pertinent.

PUBVII-4 revised 7/90


Last modified: May 30, 2006

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