He was the eldest son of Bryan Ward-Perkins, a British civil servant in India, and Winifred Mary Hickman. Ward-Perkins attended the Winchester School and New College, Oxford, graduating in 1934. He was awarded the Craven traveling fellowship at Magdalen College, which he used to study archaeology in Great Britain and France. He served as assistant under Sir R. E. Mortimer Wheeler (1890-1976) from 1936-39 at the London Museum. There he wrote a catalog of the museum's collection. During these years Ward-Perkins was also involved in the excavation of a Roman villa near Welwyn Garden City. In 1939 Ward-Perkins became chair of archaeology at the Royal University of Malta.
During World War II Ward-Perkins saw military service in the British Royal Artillery in North Africa. He was assigned to protect the sites of Leptis Magna and Sabratha. There he gained an intimate knowledge of Tripolitania and its Roman ruins. After the war he was appointed as director of the Allied sub-commission for monuments and fine arts in Italy. He married Margaret Sheilah Long in 1943. She was a daughter of Henry William Long, a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Together they had three sons and a daughter.