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Reference SA/TIH/B/2/1/1
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Level Series
Extent 11 boxes
Title War Office Selection Boards (WOSB)
Date 1941-1987
Ordering Instructions This archive record describes a grouping of orderable items: to order any of them for consultation, order copies or view them if they have been digitised, navigate down the archive hierarchy to Item level.
Description From 1942, the method by which officers were chosen for the British Army, based upon psychological methods developed by the Tavistock group. These methods were later developed for use by the Civil Service (Civil Service Selection Boards were known as CSSBs) and Unilever, amongst others.

War Office Selection Boards, or WOSBs, were a scheme devised by British Army psychiatrists during World War II to select potential officers for the British Army. They replaced an earlier method, the Command Interview Board, and were the precursors to today's Army Officer Selection Boards. .

An experimental unit, No. 1 War Office Selection Board (WOSB) was established in Edinburgh and opened on 15 February 1942. The first WOSB was based in the Genetics Institute headed by Francis Albert Eley Crewe in the King's Buildings of the University of Edinburgh. Colonel J.V. Delahaye DSO was the first WOSB President. Wilfred Bion was the Board Psychiatrist, and Eric Trist the Board Psychologist. The first sergeant-testers were Alex Mitchell and David O'Keefe, and the first Military Testing Officer was Captain W.N. Gray. Ten batches of candidates passed through the experimental WOSB: under the new system, rather than a simple interview candidates went to a large country house and underwent three days of testing incorporating various methods.

In April 1942, the War Office expressed its satisfaction with the scheme and commanded that WOSBs should be created "throughout Great Britain as fast as possible." Boards were hosted in country houses, which had the space to accommodate candidates and the tests. WOSBs were later also created overseas. Boards were also created for choosing women officers for the Auxiliary Territorial Service, staffed by women including women psychiatrists. Very little documentation on the Women's Boards seems to have survived.

At the peak of the WOSBs, there were nineteen psychologists (five women), thirty one officers, nearly six hundred non-technical officers (about fifty women) and seven hundred NCOs (about two hundred women) working on selection. Between 1942 and 1945, more than 125,000 candidates passed through the WOSBs in the UK, of whom nearly 60,000 passed. In the Middle East, Italy, and North Africa, around 12,700 candidates attended WOSBs and roughly 5,600 passed.

The methods of the WOSBs were intended to select candidates who were capable of managing men and relating well to others, as well as being intelligent and physically and technically capable. To select such candidates, a typical Board took place over a course of 3 days, during which a battery of tests were used. The usual format of the days at Boards was as follows:

New candidates introduced to the Board staff and given arm bands (names and ranks were concealed in an effort to limit bias). They were given written tests including questionnaires, psychological pointers, and tests of mental ability.

Groups of candidates took part in Command Situations which involved obstacle courses and/or discussions and Leaderless Group Tests.

Interviews were conducted and the final conference was held at which Board staff made decisions on candidates. Opportunities were provided for candidates to receive feedback whether or not they had been successful.

Mental Ability:

Though they were often called "intelligence tests," advisor John Raven was emphatic that several of the tests used at WOSBs were not intelligence tests but tests of mental ability. Tests included verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests and a version of Raven's Progressive Matrices that was specially created for WOSBs to better distinguish between those at the highest end of the mental ability scale.

Psychological Pointers:

Various "psychological pointers" were used to help highlight areas that the psychological members of the WOSBs may like to follow-up on in later interviews or observations. The pointers were determined by three psychologists: Jock Sutherland, Eric Trist, and Isabel Menzies Lyth. The "pointers" included a self-description, word association, and thematic apperception tests.

Command Situations & Leaderless Groups:

Candidates were expected to demonstrate their ability to relate to others as a leader or in a more ambiguous position via Command Situations and Leaderless Group tests. As the names suggest, in Command Situations, a person was given command of a group whilst they completed an activity or held a discussion and behaviour was observed. In Leaderless Group tests, no leader was appointed to the group, who were then set a task to complete. The task was the "set" problem, but the "real" problem which psychologically trained observers were judging was the participant's ability to balance their desire to do well as an individual with the need to work with and support other members of the group. Leaderless Group tests in particular were credited as changing the entire character of the WOSBs because the innovation made the Boards centres for experimentation and learning.

Questionnaires & Interviews:

Two questionnaires were given to WOSB candidates: Questionniare I covered education, occupation and hobbies and Questionnaire II covered medical family history and so only medical members of the Board were permitted to read Questionnaire II.

The final component of the WOSBs was interviews. The interview method was intended particularly to help the Board to make decisions on borderline candidates who had been highlighted by the preceding tests. There were also two interviews: the Board President and the Board Psychiatrist both interviewed candidates. At some boards, the two interviews led to conflict and jostling for power between the President and the Psychiatrist.

Some of the methods used at WOSBs (and No. 21 WOSB itself) were used by the Army psychiatrists in early investigations of problems with repatriated prisoners of war. See SA/TIH/B/2/1/2 for records relating to the Civil Resettlement Unit (CRU) programme.

The WOSBs were a precursor to the Army Officer Selection Board that is in place today. During World War II, WOSB selection methods were adapted for use by armed forces all over the world, including in India and Canada. WOSBs were also adapted for use as Civil Service Selection Boards (CSSBs), for use by the Office of Strategic Services, Unilever and other commercial enterprises, and for fire services, police forces, etc.

The staff who created the WOSBs found that they had many shared interests. Calling themselves the "Invisible College" (in reference to the Invisible College who were the precursors of the Royal Society), they went on to form the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations after the war.

For more information on War Office Selection Boards, refer to the Wikipedia page "War Office Selection Boards".

Digitised No
Access Status Open
Access Conditions The papers are available subject to the usual conditions of access to Archives and Manuscripts material.
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MaterialType Archives - Non-digital
System No. bf4e1b7b-6b7f-4918-ae7c-081401efa219

Associated person entries (click number link for details):


Adam; Sir; Ronald (1885-1892)


Bion; Wilfred (1897-1979)


Bowlby; John (1907-1990)


Braund; Dick


Bridger; Harold


Brooke; Sir; Alan Francis (1883-1963)


Buchanan Smith; Alick Drummond (1899-1984)


Crew; Francis Albert Eley (1886-1973)


Dawson; Ian


Delahaye; James Viner (1890-1948)


Gray; W. N


Hargreaves; Ronald (1908-1962)


Jacques; Elliot (1917-2003)


Main; Thomas Forrest (1911-1990)


Menzies Lyth; Isabel (1917–2008)


Mitchell; Alexander (1912-2007)


Murray; Hugh (1919-?)


O'Keefe; David


Rait-Kerr; Rowan Scrope (1891-1961)


Rees; John Rawlings (1890--1969)


Rendel; Richard Meadows (1887-1966)


Rodger; Thomas Ferguson (1907-1978)


Sutherland; John Derg (1896-1962)


Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (TIHR); 1946-present


Thorne; (Augustus Francis) Andrew Nicol (1885-1970)


Thorsrud; Einar (1923-1985)


Trist; Eric Lansdown (1909-1993)


Wilson; Tommy (1906-1978)


Wittkower; Eric (1899-1983)