David Gentleman, whose many British stamp designs are currently being exhibited in our Search Room, is no stranger to controversy. In 1965 he wrote to Postmaster General Tony Benn (who had announced a new policy for stamp issues in late 1964 and was seeking suggestions) and requested that the design limitations of having to include the monarch’s head on stamps be addressed. Benn, a republican, was keen to remove the monarch’s head, and saw Gentleman’s design limitations argument as an excellent – and non-political – way to achieve this objective.
Gentleman, and his wife Rosalind Dease, had already been commissioned to design stamps commemorating the death of Winston Churchill and the 25th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and supplied Benn with versions of the designs without the Queen’s head. Ultimately, it was decided that the monarch’s head should remain on British stamps (you can read the full story by downloading the PDF The David Gentleman Album from our website), but this was not the end of the controversy as far as the Battle of Britain stamps were concerned.
More than a month before their release date a number of newspapers published images of the stamps, with several tabloids highlighting two of the eight stamps, which showed German aircraft. The first of the two stamps in question showed the wing-tip of a Messerschmitt fighter overshadowed by the wing-tip of a Spitfire; the other stamp showed a Dornier bomber sinking into the sea while Hawker Hurricanes flew above it. The reason for the focus on these stamps was that the German aircraft pictured featured German military emblems, the Balkenkreuz (cross) on the Messerschmitt and the swastika on the Dornier.
The six 4d Battle of Britain se tenant stamps designed by David Gentleman and Rosalind Dease. The two other stamps in this issue showed anti-aircraft artillery, and an air battle over St Pauls cathedral. They were designed by Andrew Restall, and Gentleman and Dease, respectively.
The inclusion of these emblems, particularly the swastika, caused great concern, with several Members of Parliament and the House of Lords speaking against the stamps. At the same time, representatives of a number of organisations, and many members of the public wrote letters to The Queen, the Prime Minister and Tony Benn, requesting that the Battle of Britain stamps be withdrawn.
A London Rabbi, writing to Benn on behalf of 775 families of his congregation, wrote “Please don’t allow swastika on our stamps. They are the 20th Century symbol of persecution, oppression, suffering and all that is evil”. The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Mr S. Teff, also expressed his concerns in writing to Benn: “The Board has already received numerous complaints from members of the Jewish community to whom the sight of the swastika in any form is offensive in the extreme.”
A common theme amongst many of the complainants, in particular those who had served in the war, was that issuing a stamp bearing the swastika was an insult to the war dead. Others objected to the swastika appearing alongside the Queen’s head.
Withdrawing the stamps would have been very difficult for the Post Office as the Battle of Britain issue was the first set of stamps to be commissioned since Benn had changed the policy to include stamps commemorating important anniversaries. Indeed, the Battle of Britain stamps had come about partly due to lobbying from the Royal Air Forces Association and a number of Members of Parliament. The issue was also the largest issue of commemorative stamps to date.
Benn and his department took the view that the reason for the objections to the stamps was that the tabloid press articles which had highlighted the stamps featuring German aircraft, had not made clear the purpose of the stamps, and that black and white images of the stamps which appeared in various publications did not effectively convey the subtlety of the designs.
“The purpose of the stamp is to commemorate the victory over Nazism and I am sure that when the stamp is seen in colour it will be quite apparent that the swastika on the tail of the Dornier bomber is both split and half covered by water; the shattered Dornier is sinking in the English Channel and high above four RAF fighters, objective achieved, are flying back to base” wrote one official, in reply to a member of the public.
“In effect, the stamp is meant to be symbolic of the crushing of the Nazis and all that they stood for. We hope you will agree that within the limits of stamp design, it is difficult to do justice to a subject without introducing features of this kind into a series illustrating the Battle of Britain…”
Benn himself said in one letter “I feel that the stamp is a true reflection of that period in our history and…will be seen as a reminder of a great victory over the evil of Nazism. Because of this I do not propose to withdraw it.” He also argued that no objections were raised to the swastika being seen in newsreel footage of German planes, and that the RAF had displayed and flown captured Nazi aircraft on numerous occasions.
Eventually criticism died down, and despite threats to boycott the stamps sales were healthy, although the GPO arranged for adequate stocks of ordinary small size stamps to be available for those who did not wish to purchase the Battle of Britain issue.
Writing in his 2002 book Design, David Gentleman reflected “the tabloids [made] a great furore over the inclusion of a swastika and an iron cross. But without an enemy there would have been no battle and, as the stamps showed the Germans getting the worst of it anyway, the whole manufactured fuss quickly died down.”
The British Postal Museum & Archive holds many files relating to the Battle of Britain stamp issue. Details of these can be found on our online catalogue.