Tag Archives: Royal Engineers (Postal Section)

A Project Archivist Farewell

I’ve just completed my final task as Project Archivist: appraising and cataloguing a vast deposit of records on the Army Postal Service (APS). The files focus mainly on the Royal Engineers Postal Section (REPS) and its successors, and date from before the First World War to the 1970s. I’ve catalogued nearly 500 files, volumes, photographic collections and plans.

Matt presents a small selection of the Army Postal Service files he's been cataloguing.

Matt presents a small selection of the Army Postal Service files he’s been cataloguing.

There have been challenges along the way. I’ve had to battle an onslaught of Armed Forces vocabulary:  being able to tell a sitrep from a sapper was essential, and woe betide an archivist who confused the DAPS with a WOLO.* My geographical knowledge has also been tested: the deposit included files on British and Allied Forces’ postal arrangements in India, North Africa, the Middle East and Far East, with many locations identified by their old colonial names. The most unexpected item was a manual from an Army post office in Kiribati!

The deposit’s greatest strength is its rich insight into the APS during the Second World War and its aftermath. Virtually every theatre of operations is covered. There are Directorate-level files on postal arrangements during the Siege of Malta (POST 47/1034), the Battle of Madagascar (POST 47/871), the Dunkirk evacuation (POST 47/925) and the D-Day preparations (POST 47/747), to name just four. The handover of postal and telecommunications services to the government of newly-independent India is also documented.

Public confidence in the APS was vitally important during the War. This letter concerns one of many press visits to postal facilities organised by the Armed Forces and the Post Office. [Extract from POST 47/1028.]

Public confidence in the APS was vitally important during the War. This letter concerns one of many press visits to postal facilities organised by the Armed Forces and the Post Office. [Extract from POST 47/1028.]

The files also hold lots of personal stories about the careers of REPS officers. POST 47/780, for example, partly records a falling-out between the APS staff at HQ First Army and Allied Force HQ during the Tunisian Campaign and the interception of ‘artistic’ postcards that were being received by First Army soldiers. And if you ever wanted to know how many bugles were held by the Post Office Cadets at the Home Postal Centre in Nottingham in 1947, POST 47/942 will tell you.**

A list of band parts on loan to the Post Office Cadets in 1947, attached to a letter concerning a shortage of bugles. [Extract from POST 47/942.]

A list of band parts on loan to the Post Office Cadets in 1947, attached to a letter concerning a shortage of bugles. [Extract from POST 47/942.]

The APS files have been catalogued in POST 47 and 56. The deposit also contained large amounts of non-postal material on the REPS more generally. These have been catalogued as a separate ‘REPS collection’. All these files will appear on our online catalogue in the coming months.

This is the end of my year-long, grant-funded Project Archivist post. I’ve catalogued over 1,500 files from all over the Archive in that time. But I’m not leaving the BPMA! Instead, I’m regenerating into a new incarnation as a catalogue systems archivist. I’ll be doing lots of data-processing work and beta-testing our shiny new online catalogue before it launches later this year. Watch out for an update from me on this blog in the Spring.

– Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

* Sitrep = situation report; sapper = the Royal Engineers’ equivalent to a private; DAPS = Director Army Postal Service; WOLO = War Office Liaison Officer.

** Two (one substandard).

The British Forces Post Office

Recently a small group of BPMA staff and Friends visited the British Forces Post Office (BFPO). Based in an impressive purpose-built building at RAF Northolt, the BFPO provides a mail service to members of the British armed services, as well as a number of government departments and corporate clients.

The BFPO can trace its history back to 1799 when the office of Army Postmaster was established. Over time the service has formalised and expanded to become an important part of military life. From its initial beginnings as part of the Army it now ensures letters and parcels reach serving Navy and Air Force personnel too.

One reason for the longevity of the service is its value as a morale booster. During the Second World War (WW2) General Montgomery was heard to say that his soldiers could march for three or four days without food on the strength of one letter from home. These sentiments were echoed by Lieutenant Colonel J.A. Field, the present Commander of Defence Postal Services.

For this reason the BFPO and its predecessors have always been keen to use the technology of the day to deliver mail quickly and efficiently. Trials of airmail were conducted by the Royal Engineers (Postal Section) in 1918 and these proved so successful that a regular service between Folkestone and Cologne was established the following year. During WW2, Postal Section personnel were regularly detached with forward troops, often establishing postal services within hours of their arrival. In recent times the BFPO has used cutting-edge OCR technology to sort mail, and has established an innovative hybrid mail system called the e-bluey.

The BFPO uses OCR technology (foreground) to read addresses on mail. Once an address has been read the item of mail is dispatched down a chute (background) and bagged for dispatch.

The BFPO uses OCR technology (foreground) to read addresses on mail. Once an address has been read the item of mail is dispatched down a chute (background) and bagged for dispatch.

Families of British service personnel have long been able to send letters on special blue stationery (known as a blueys), as well as packages weighing up to 2kg, free of charge, but e-blueys enable them to send a message electronically – which will usually arrive within 24 hours. E-blueys can be hand-written and faxed, or sent through the BFPO website. Drawings and colour photographs can also be included, a feature particularly popular with personnel with young families.

Once sent, the e-blueys are delivered via an encrypted computer system to Field Post Offices, where they are printed out using a special printer which seals each message as it is printed. The messages are then distributed to troops with regular mail, having been seen by no one apart from sender and recipient. The e-bluey system is extremely popular, and photographs and drawings which have been sent in this way are said to adorn the walls of many a barracks.

In addition to its sorting, delivery and logistics activities, the BFPO has a Philatelic Bureau which issues a number of First Day Covers each year. The BPMA group was lucky enough to receive one of these to commemorate our visit. As part of an initiative to collect items from postal services other than Royal Mail, the BPMA’s curatorial team collected BFPO bag labels, e-bluey samples and a range of other material.

The BFPOs First Day Cover to commemorate our visit

The BFPO's First Day Cover to commemorate our visit

The BPMA would like to thank BFPO for allowing us to visit, and is particularly grateful to the Officers and staff who provided us with information and assistance.