How to identify an ancestor's military medal


02 May 2024
How to trace ancestor Second World War medals family history Family Tree UK The Defence Medal and the 1939-45 War Medal
Follow our guide for family historians, to help you learn more about your ancestor's war medals. Our steps will help you learn about some of the most well-known military medals, awarded to members of the British and Commonwealth armed forces and to women in auxiliary roles during the First and Second World Wars.

Tucked away in drawers and boxes, the chinking medals that our ancestors were awarded are a tiny memento of the wartime ordeals they had to endure. The various medals, their ribbons, clasps and bars, and the strict eligibility rules that applied to each medal, all help to teach us more about our ancestors’ service.

To follow are some of the questions you may have when tracking down your ancestors' WW2 medals. The answers to these questions are provided with help from military historian Simon Fowler, who also has a new book out How to Research Your Second World War Ancestors (History Press 2024).

A list of family history WW2 medal research FAQs

Who was awarded medals in WW2?

Can I order my parents' WW2 medals?

How to order a medal

What can I do if medals are stolen?

How to identify WW2 medal ribbons

A list of World War 2 campaign medals & stars

A list of World War 1 campaign medals & stars

How to trace honours and awards

How to trace my ancestors' service records and learn about their military service

To find out more about your wartime ancestors, order the June 2024 issue of Family Tree - which includes an in-depth guide to tracing your Second World War military ancestors, by Simon Fowler. Grab your copy.

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Who was awarded medals in WW2?

During the Second World War every man and woman who served in uniform in the British or Commonwealth armed forces was entitled to one or more campaign medals. Campaign medals were issued for service in a particular theatre of war or for service at home, at sea or in the air. For example, the Atlantic Star, the Africa Star or the Air Crew Europe Star. No more than five campaign medals could be worn by an individual. As a cost-saving measure medals were not inscribed with the names of the individuals to whom they were awarded, although a number of individuals subsequently had inscriptions added privately. If there is no inscription be careful that you attribute the medals to the correct family member.

Can I order my parents' WW2 medals?

Veterans had to claim their medals after they had left the services. Luckily it is still possible to submit a claim today for your parents’ WW2 medals, as some people did not request their medals at the time. For the full eligibility criteria, to see whether you personally are able to claim someone's WW2 medals, see

How to order a medal

To apply for or replace a medal, see the order form at

Replacements of medals issued after 1920 can be ordered from Armed Services Medal Office at Ministry of Defence Medal Office. They can no longer be ordered for those issued before this date, however replicas are available for sale. 

What can I do if medals are stolen?

To claim medals, replace stolen or destroyed medals or find out whether an individual is entitled please contact the MoD Medal Office. Details at

How to identify WW2 medal ribbons

Find illustrated examples of the WW2 campaign medal ribbons at

The specific ribbon colours will help you to identify your ancestor’s medals found at home. For each medal on the website, click through for eligibility criteria

Below: listings of First and Second World War medals by Family Tree.

A list of World War 2 campaign medals and stars

Eight different campaign stars were awarded in World War II, and the most someone could receive was five. If they qualified for more, this was shown by a clasp on the nearest relevant medal (eg a Burma clasp on a Pacific medal ribbon). In addition they could qualify for the Defence and War medals.

1939-45 Star1939-45 Star – for six months’ active service (two months for aircrew) between 3 September 1939 and 2 September 1945. Ribbon:  dark blue, red and light blue (representing the Navy, Army and Air Force respectively).

Atlantic Star – for six months at sea 3 September 1939 to 8 May 1945 (or two months operational). Ribbon: blue, white and green (representing the colours of the Atlantic).

Africa Star – for one day operational service in North Africa between 10 June 1940 and 12 May 1943. Ribbon: buff background (for sand) with a dark blue, red (central) and light blue stripe.

Pacific Star –  for operational service in the Pacific Theatre 8 December 1941 and 2 September 1945. Ribbon: green and yellow central stripes (for jungle and sand), bordered by dark blue, red and light blue stripes.

Burma Star – for one day operational service, or one sortie for aircrew (six months for Naval personnel) in the Burma Campaign. Ribbon: red, bordered by dark blue and yellow stripes.

Italy StarItaly Star – for operational service in the Italian, eastern Mediterranean region, 1943-1945. Ribbon: red and white striped, with green central stripe.

France and Germany Star – for service in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Germany from D-Day to 8 May 1945. Ribbon: dark blue and white striped, with red central stripe.

Air Crew Europe Star – for two months operational flying, having already qualified for the 1939-1945 Star. Ribbon: mid blue, edged with black and yellow stripes (for sky, night sky and enemy search lights).

Defence Medal – for military and some civilian UK-based roles. Ribbon: orange central, with green and black edging stripes (for green fields and blackout).

War Medal – for Armed Forces or Merchant Navy for at least 28 days (Merchant Navy service must be at sea) between 3 September 1939 and 2 September 1945. Ribbon: red, white and dark blue.

A list of World War 1 campaign medals and stars

To qualify for a medal, active service in a theatre of war had to be experienced for a certain period of time, however death or awards of gallantry would overrule these requirements. Those invalided out of the war permanently were awarded a Silver War Badge.

1914 StarThe 1914 Star (sometimes nicknamed the Mons Star or Pip) – for the 378,000 servicemen, medics and nurses who served in France or Belgium between 5 August 1914 and 22/23 November 1914. Ribbon: red, white and blue.

1914-1915 Star (also nicknamed Pip)– for the 2 million men who served in a theatre of war before 31 December 1915, but who didn’t qualify for the 1914 Star. Ribbon: as for 1914 Star. 1914-15 Star

British War medalBritish War Medal 1914-1920 (nicknamed Squeak) – 6.5 million were awarded, for 28 days’ mobilised service. Ribbon: central orange, with blue, black and white border stripes.

Victory MedalVictory Medal 1914-1919 (nicknamed Wilfred) – was awarded for active service in a theatre of war between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918. 6.3 million were awarded. Ribbon: rainbow.

Each serviceman’s name, rank, number and unit were inscribed, on the reverse of the stars and rims of the medals.

Mercantile Marine War Medal 1914-1918 was awarded to 133,000 members of the Merchant Navy who sailed in at least one war zone and served for at least six months. Ribbon: green and red (representing port and starboard) with white central stripe.

Silver War Badge – awarded to 1.1 million servicemen who were injured and no longer able to fight. Inscribed ‘For King and Empire Services Rendered’.

How to trace honours and awards - eg how to trace a Victoria Cross, how to trace mention in despatches etc

In addition to the campaign medals, there are also Honours (such as the Order of the British Empire (OBE) and ‘Awards’ (such as Victoria Cross, Distinguished Flying Medal down to a 'Mention in Despatches' etc).  Personnel mentioned in despatches could wear an oak leaf on their medal ribbon. Those awarded the same award more than once would wear a bar on the relevant gallantry medal. While millions of campaign medals were awarded, a gallantry award is found much less frequently. The Victoria Cross was awarded just 182 times during the Second World War and only 628 Victoria Crosses were awarded throughout World War I.

  • Honours and awards are listed in the London Gazette. Often just the individual’s surname and initial, rank and award are listed.
  • See also local newspapers sometimes with additional information about the heroes’ action.



To find out more about your wartime ancestors, order the June 2024 issue of Family Tree - which includes an indepth guide to tracing your Second World War military ancestors, by Simon Fowler. Grab your copy.