Becoming Spies of WWII for the Day!

This week we had our first Spies of WWII session here at the Modern Records Centre. We had a group of Year 9 students from Westwood Academy come in to get stuck into our archive activities…

The day started with a quick introduction to archives. We learnt that although material is usually thought of as an archive after 30 years, anything that is no longer in use by its owner can be defined as an archive. It became clear that the students weren’t completely sure what archives are so we promptly got stuck into our activities to learn more!

The session is made up of 4 different activities, designed to improve source analysis skills, encourage independent research and bring alive the history of WWII. The class split into 4 groups to rotate around each activity. Each activity base contained a mysterious envelope containing a scenario and task for the group:

o   Psychological Warfare

For this task, the group were part of the Home Front Propaganda committee, whose job it was to evaluate the effectiveness of their propaganda. The sources included posters, cartoons and written pamphlets. They had to identify the purpose of the sources and judge how and why they were effective. Westwood Academy agreed that this poster was by far the most effective:


o   Individual Profiling

This task aimed to demonstrate that not all archives are written documents. The students had to use sound and video recordings to evaluate Churchill’s leadership and ultimately decide whether he made a good prime minister. All the students were very perceptive, and allowed for bias in these formats of sources too.

o   Code Breaking

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This activity was by far the most popular amongst our groups. Before they began the task, we showed the group some authentic code sheets for our archives. It was these codes that inspired the encryptions for this activity. For this task, our students were British spies in Germany. They had intercepted some encrypted messages and had to decide which messages were intended as decoys. This activity was based on Operation Quicksilver, a real military deception of WWII. This operation was used to convince Germany that the Western force intended to invade Pas de Calais, rather than Normandy.

o   Gathering Intelligence

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There’s a whole selection of archive material on the Blitz at the MRC, including local sources from Coventry. We chose a varied selection of formats and types of source to give the students a broader sense of archive research and the sort of material they might expect to encounter. The students had to use these sources to write up a report of the Blitz. This activity gave students a hands-on approach to research. The Fire Watchers Record Book demonstrated the personal connection to history that you get when using archives, as it contains poems and doodles by the firemen who wrote in it.

During the activities we took the groups out to have a tour of the strong rooms, which provides a great insight to what happens behind-the-scenes of archives. The students were particularly taken with the vast amount of archives stored here, and the moving shelves of course!

We concluded the session with a sum up of the activities and what we had learnt about using archives for research. If we have time at the end of the Spies of WWII session, students are encouraged to create their own archive, giving their account of the day’s activities.

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The students really enjoyed the session and gave us some great feedback:

‘It was an interesting and different experience and it was good finding out about archives’

‘I found today interesting and fun. It was cool to get a look at the original items and learn more things. I especially enjoyed the code breaking’

‘We got to interact with actual evidence and enter the archives’

‘I have really enjoyed myself. Thank you’

I’d like to thank Westwood Academy for coming in, it was a pleasure having them.


We’d love to have more schools in for this session so please spread the word!

Find out more about Educational Visits to the Modern Records Centre here.

If you are interested in booking this session for your school then please email Nuala at

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