Tag Archives: Battle of Britain

By Air, Land and Sea, The Battles of Britain

October 2015 marks 600 years since the Battle of Agincourt, a major English victory in the Hundred Years War. It saw the superiority of English archers defeat the French knights, leading to a unification of the two countries.

Stamps are an expressive way to remember and commemorate historic battles and I have chosen just a few to document the terrains of war faced by the British throughout history. First we will focus on land.

The Houses of Lancaster and York 1st Stamp (2008) Henry V (1413-22)

The Houses of Lancaster and York 1st Stamp (2008)

Henry V’s men were greatly outnumbered at Agincourt, however the narrow battleground prevented large scale manoeuvres benefiting the English. Their innovative use of the longbow also kept the progressing French at bay. The defeated French Knights can be seen in the below stamp taken from the illuminated manuscript ‘The Vigil of Charles VII’ c.1484. 

The Houses of Lancaster and York 1st Stamp (2008) Battle of Agincourt, 1415 Henry V's Triumph

The Houses of Lancaster and York 1st Stamp (2008) Battle of Agincourt, 1415 Henry V’s Triumph

After the battle Henry married the French King’s daughter Catherine of Valois and their children were acknowledged as heirs to the throne. It was their son Henry VI who would become King of both England and France.

The Houses of Lancaster and York 54p Stamp (2008) Henry VI (1422-61 & 1470-71)

The Houses of Lancaster and York 54p Stamp (2008)

As an island nation we have always been under threat from invasion by sea. The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 saw 27 British ships defeat 33 of the combined forces of France and Spain. It was here that Admiral Lord Nelson’s unorthodox tactics confirmed British Naval supremacy.

Bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar (1st issue) 68p Stamp (2005)

Bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar (1st issue) 68p Stamp (2005)

Nelson decided that instead of attacking the enemy ships parallel, which awarded a greater target area, he would attack straight on. By moving two smaller groups forward perpendicular to the enemy he was able to split their line. This formation can be seen in the above stamp from 2005.

Bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar (1st issue) 1st Stamp (2005)

Bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar (1st issue) 1st Stamp (2005)

Though a tremendous victory, it saw the death of Nelson who was mortally wounded aboard his ship the HMS Victory. This event was immortalized in numerous paintings like the one depicted in the stamp above. Nelson’s body was brought back to England in a cask of brandy, where he was honoured with a state funeral.

Maritime Hertiage 24p Stamp (1982) Lord Nelson and HMS Victory

Maritime Heritage 24p Stamp (1982)

With the advancements in technology the new danger to the nation came from the sky. 2015 also celebrates the 75th Anniversary of The Battle of Britain, the first campaign to be fought predominately in the air. Below you can see an image of ‘The Few’, the name given to the boys who defended their country.

The Battle of Britain £1.33 Stamp (2015)

The Battle of Britain £1.33 Stamp (2015)

In the stamps below you can see the Supermarine Spitfire designed by Reginald Mitchell. The aircraft was light, quick and a match for the Lufwaffe’s Messerschmitt Bf 109. Although Hawker Hurricanes were used predominately by the RAF, it was the Spitfire that became the iconic symbol of British defence.

Architects of the Air 20p Stamp (1997) Reginald Mitchell and Supermarine Spitfire MkIIA

Architects of the Air 20p Stamp (1997)

1st, Supermarine Spitfire by R.J.Mitchell from Design Classics (2009)

1st, Supermarine Spitfire by R.J.Mitchell from Design Classics (2009)

The Hawker Hurricane can be seen in the below stamp accompanied by Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding. Dowding played a huge role in the success of the Battle of Britain as the Head of RAF Fighter Command. It was here that all information was collected and decisions made, ultimately winning the battle.

Royal Air Force 17p Stamp (1986) Lord Dowding and Hawker Hurricane Mk. I

Royal Air Force 17p Stamp (1986)

Throughout history Britain has been at war. The stamps displayed here celebrate the dedication of those who took part and the lives of the men and women lost in the conflicts. Through the medium of stamps we can circulate a message of national remembrance.

-Georgina Tomlinson, Philatelic Assistant

The Post Office at War at Bletchley Park

Over the August Bank Holiday weekend the 2010: Festival of Stamps will be celebrating the Post Office at War event at Bletchley Park.

Taking place on Sunday 29 & Monday 30 August, the two days will remember the role of the Post Office during World War Two and the importance of stamps in our history.

As well as running children’s’ activities on code breaking, designing your own stamp, and writing an airgraph, the BPMA will be taking our exhibition The GPO and the Home Front. The exhibition explores the impact World War Two had on the largest employer in Britain, when a third of its staff joined active service. It also looks at the role that GPO staff played in preserving normal functioning on the home front, helping to promote the domestic war effort and support military operations. Ensuring mail got to troops was also an integral part of the war effort, helping to keep up morale.

Bletchley Park Mansion

Bletchley Park Mansion

A series of talks over the weekend will include BPMA Assistant Curator Vyki Sparkes, who will be discussing the little known GPO Rescue and Salvage Squad, using unique research from the Royal Mail Archive.

The Enigma Cinema will be showing BPMA films from our GPO Film collection If War Should Come. The 18 films in this collection provide a fascinating and poignant insight into a nation on the cusp of war and its transition to the brutal realities of life in the Blitz.

Elsewhere at Bletchley, the Post Office Vehicle Club will be putting on a display of vehicles used by the Post Office during the war. Also on display will be a vast collection of historic stamps, representing all aspects of life.

Bletchley Park Post Office

Bletchley Park Post Office

Further children’s activities around the site will include learning what it was like to write home as a wartime evacuee, and re-enactors will show how people lived during the war. There will also be a rare opportunity to see a stunning display of World War Two airpower with a Battle of Britain Memorial Flight flypast featuring a Hurricane and a Spitfire.

We hope you can join us for what promises to be an exciting weekend!

For more information and how to get there, please visit the Bletchley Park website.

The Battle of Britain stamps controversy

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 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.