Head Postmaster of Dover AWB Mowbray kept a typed account of the Blitz years in what became known as ‘Hell’s Corner’, recounted here by BPMA Curator Vyki Sparkes.
While the full force of the Blitz was focused on London, British ports, industrial towns and cities and other key strategic places throughout the country were also in the firing line throughout 1940 and 1941. One of the major targets was Dover, as attested by a document held at the British Postal Museum and Archive. Entitled ‘Dover Post Office and its Staff in War-Time’, the typed account begins in June 1940, shortly after its author – Arthur William Bradshaw Mowbray – became Head Postmaster of the town. Owing to its proximity to the continent, Dover was of course an important link between Britain and France but, as Mowbray wrote, ‘Later we wished the Straits were not so narrow’.
Upon the start of the Battle of Britain, Dover became the front line, suffering almost daily air battles above it and frequent bombing of ships in the harbour. Streams of machine gun bullets and flying shrapnel from anti-aircraft guns regularly made the streets unsafe. The Post Office counter had to be closed at times, with extended opening hours arranged when it was possible for the public to visit safely.
Map of Dover 1940-44, showing bombed spots. (POST 118/1612)
As well as aerial bombardment, Dover was also subject to long-range shelling with over 1,700 incendiary shells falling on the town between June to December 1940. By the end of 1941, the siren had sounded 1,599 times in the town since Mowbray had started his account. He proudly notes that in 1941 the Telephone Exchange was abandoned only four times.
Council House Street Sub Post Office was partly demolished by shellfire in November 1940 and in 1941 a large bomb exploded 20 yards away. Yet the Sub Postmaster opened his office door punctually the next morning. After a third raid with delayed-action bombs, he was persuaded to leave the district with all other residents. Another office near the docks was so badly damaged that one could stand in the Sub Postmaster’s bedroom and see through both of his neighbour’s houses. The Sub Postmaster was found – dishevelled, covered in lime dust and cobwebs with his cat, which had been buried under debris for several hours. It was thought unnecessary to close the office.
In May 1941, the Garage and Mail entrance of Dover Post Office was shelled – the Sorting Office that adjoined had its numerous gaps in the roof ingeniously blocked, allowing work to be resumed and all collections and dispatches to be made to schedule. In other raids, this same Sorting Office was flooded due to broken pipes, and had an incendiary lodged in the roof slates.
Frament of shrapnel found embedded in a Letter Packet received in the Reading mail despatched from Dover, 11 September 1940. The bag had been perforated by shell fire. (2002-0953)
Overall, in the first few years of the war Post Office buildings and staff were relatively unscathed by the attacks. Mowbray expressed his thankfulness for
….our good fortune in escaping wholesale destruction or injury [which] does not detract from my admiration of the high morale of the Staff which enabled them to carry on under continuous hazards at a time when the majority of our Island people were still only reading of the war in the newspapers.
Sadly that luck was to run out, as later in the war a number of GPO staff in Dover did become casualties.
Vyki Sparkes’ podcast The Post Office and the Blitz can be downloaded for free from the BPMA website, iTunes or SoundCloud.
There will be more from the AWB Mowbray accounts in future blog posts.