World War Two (primary sources)
Where can I find primary sources for World War Two?
Image: 274 Newspaper at Tyndall Field, Florida WWII by [unknown] on Flickr.
Entry last updated: 20/12/19
Primary sources are things like letters, diaries, photos, poems and other documents written during the war or soon after by people who were involved in it. These sources can give you information about what life was like during the war, and about the sort of language they used during those times.
Although there aren't as many sites with World War Two primary documents as there are for World War One, there are still some good websites that have primary source material (like letters, diaries, and photos). Here are some of our favourite sites. Remember diaries and letters show how that person experienced the war.
The Canadian Letters and Images Project is an online archive of the Canadian war experience, as told through the letters, diaries, photographs, and other related materials of Canadians themselves. This project began in August 2000 and is located in the Department of History at Vancouver Island University.
The website has plenty of primary source material and can be searched for letters, diaries, photos, poems etc. You can browse the WW2 collection by the individual names by clicking and choosing World War Two Collection under Collections at the top of the home page.
To search for specific items.
- Go to Collection Search.
- Under collection choose WW2.
- Select the type of documents you wish to view under the heading document type.
- Click 'apply' then 'view' to see an item.
Tips: A good way of checking the reliability of a website is looking at the About page. This should tell you what the organisation or company's purpose and values are.
The Poetry Foundation publishes Poetry magazine which has a selection of poems from and about the Second World War.
- Have a look at the page called The Poetry of World War II. Here the poems are listed by year and you can read a digital copy of the poem as it appeared in the Poetry magazine.
- They have a page called World War II Poets with a collection of poets who served as soldiers, medical staff, journalists, or volunteers, this also includes civilian poets who died in the war.
WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation).
To explore the archives choose either the Full Archive List button for the list of categories you can browse, including diaries, letter and poems (many written by soldiers)or choose the Timeline to navigate through the various categories in date order.
As the site is archived there isn't a search option, but if you are after a specific place or event there are instructions on how to search by using a search engine on the About this Site page.
Tips:Web archiving is the process of collecting portions of the World Wide Web to ensure the information is preserved in an archive for future researchers, historians, and the public.
Another good place to look is EPIC. EPIC is a collection of reliable databases covering lots of different topics and is put together especially for New Zealand school students. You may need a password from your school or local library to access it.
This database has primary source material including literary works as well as biographical information and literary criticism.
- Select a level.
- Do a keyword search.
- Limit your results to primary sources by selecting the Primary Sources and Literary Works option on the right side of the results.
Tips: Search words, or keywords, are the most important words in our question. Usually it's better to leave out small words like the, a and of and just choose the main ones, eg Monte Cassino. We can always change our keywords or add more if we need to.
This EPIC database provides an overview of world history, including World War Two.
To find the best primary sources:
- Search for World War II in the search box.
- Choose 'World War II, 1939-1945' from the drop down list.
- Look down the page and select Primary Sources.
- Hover over the coloured shapes to see the reading level.
Tips: To get to the EPIC resources you will need a password from your school librarian first. Or you can chat with one of our AnyQuestions librarians between 1 and 6pm Monday to Friday and they will help you online.
Some EPIC databases may also be available through your public library.
The Witness to War Foundation is dedicated to capturing the stories of individual combat veterans. This is a great site to start exploring what life was like for soldiers during the war.
- From the home page choose Photos and Memoirs.
- Choose Memoirs/Stories.
- Select WW2. You can then refine your selection on the left to the Branch of Service or document type. Some of the the downloads are quite large, but contain lots of information about daily life and events that soldiers' experienced.
New Zealand websites
There are also some excellent websites that have primary sources by New Zealanders or about New Zealand's involvement in World War Two.
This organisation has started digitising a small collection of primary sources relating to World War Two.
- From the home page, go to Explore.
- Go to Local history, and select Digital Heritage.
- Look under the heading Wars and conflicts on the left side of the page.
- Choose WWII.
Here you will find a small selection of World War Two primary sources, including letters, diaries, postcards, and a Troopship magazine.
Tips: Hand writing can be difficult to read - take it slowly, and look out for letters and words you can recognise and compare them with ones you're not so sure about.
This website is great for newspaper articles published in New Zealand about World War Two.
- Choose 'newspapers' and you will have the option to limit your search by title, region or date.
- Search for 'war' between the years 1939 to 1945, and select articles under the heading content type to view newspaper articles.
- You can also search for keywords such as 'prisoners of war' or battles like 'Monte Cassino' or 'Dunkirk'.
- Sometimes just the headline will display. In this case, choose text then View the full page to see the article in its original form.
Tips: We like PapersPast because it is from a government organisation (the National Library of New Zealand). You can tell this by their web address, which includes .govt. It is also a New Zealand site, so relevant for us.
If you are looking for more detailed written sources, published not long after the war by people who were there, this website has a collection of digitised books about World War Two. These include:
- Journey Towards Christmas: Official History of the 1st Ammunition Company, Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force, 1939-45.
- Shovel, Sword and Scalpel: a Record of Service of Medical Units of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Pacific
To explore this website further:
- Look on the right side of the page under Browse Collection.
- Under subjects select New Zealand History.
- Then choose New Zealand World War Two History
- Select one of the Works.
- Go to 'Chapter One' to start reading.
Tips: We like sites like this because they’re reliable. You can tell by their web address. This website has .ac in the web address because it belongs to Victoria University.
This website includes films and documentaries that have appeared on New Zealand television, including the very relevant and interesting series created for the internet, Memories of Service, where New Zealanders talk about their experiences mainly during World War Two. Although these were recorded many years after the event, they are still a valuable resource.
Tips: Websites that have .com or .co in the address can have good information, but you need to assess how reliable it is. Check the About us link on this website. This can tell you what the company’s mission and values are.
This website is created to access an audio documentary series featuring Kiwi Veterans telling their stories of fighting in Italy in WWII. It also contains a glossary of terms and slang used in the documentaries.
Tips: A good way of checking the reliability of a website is looking at the About page, if you can find one. This should tell you what the organisation or company's purpose and values are. On this website it is called the Introduction page.
There have been many books written about World War Two - check out your local public or school library to see what they have.
Some suggested titles are:
World War II by John Sutherland & Diane Canwell.
Women Heroes of World War II : 26 stories of espionage, sabotage, resistance, and rescue by Kathryn J. Atwood.
Diary of a Kiwi Soldier in World War II by Cecil Coughlan.
World War II by Sean Callery.
SCIS no: 1892969