Tag Archives: The Blitz

They came to do a job and they did it

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.

Mowbray wrote with pride when a member of his staff, Miss W N Scanlan, was awarded the British Empire Medal in October 1941. This was announced in the London Gazette alongside a notice that the same award was awarded to two other female supervisors in charge of Post Office telephone exchanges.

Medal awarded to Miss W Scanlan during World War II for bravery during bombing raids on the Telephone Exchange at Dover. (2004-0024/01)

Medal awarded to Miss W Scanlan during World War II for bravery during bombing raids on the Telephone Exchange at Dover. (2004-0024/01)

Little more is known of these women’s particular acts of bravery, aside from what is written in the newspaper:

These three Supervisors of Women Telephone Operators have, by their courage and devotion to duty, set a fine example to their staffs. Throughout the air raids in the areas where they work, they have maintained an efficient telephone service during periods of constant danger.

According to the General Post Office press release, eight other female supervisors and telephonists had previously received awards and commendations.

Over 100,000 women had been employed by the GPO by November 1941 – more than one-third of the total staff. Due to the shortage of manpower, women worked a range of duties including some previously considered ‘male’ occupations – such as telephone engineers and the first ever female motorised van driver.

Mowbray describes how, in Christmas 1941…

… the kaleidoscopic effect of the multi-coloured jumpers and overalls of the women temporary sorters who fluttered about like so many butterflies was unmarred even by 2½ hours of shelling in one evening…they came to do a job and they did it regardless of the large quantity of roof glass.

Additionally, one-third of the Sub Post Offices in the country were controlled by women. It is clear that without them, the vital communication networks cared for by the Post Office could not have been maintained.

In addition to these examples there are many other notable tales of bravery by postal staff during the Blitz. A total of 27 post office staff died on duty in 1941. By the end of that year, over 100 men and women had received commendations and awards from the King, while on Civil Defence or Post Office Duty. These ranged from 38 British Empire Medals to eight George Medals.

Mowbray himself was to be included in the New Years Honours list in 1942, as a Member of the Order of the British Empire. In 1941, 117 staff were also commended by the Postmaster General for their work on the home front. For every Post Office worker who won an award, there were countless others behind them who received no official recognition. Miss Scanlan announced the award to her staff by flourishing the letter and saying ‘Girls we’ve got the British Empire Medal’. And, as Mowbray himself readily acknowledges, it was the co-operation of the police, fire, transport and military services, and the cheeriness of the population that helped his staff cope with the strain of war.

We do not like the phrase “We can take it”. It would be more honest to say “It’s forced on us”, but the Dover people and Dover Post Office staff do their utmost to make the best of decidedly unpleasant circumstances.

Vyki Sparkes’ podcast The Post Office and the Blitz can be downloaded for free from the BPMA website, iTunes or SoundCloud.

See Shells Over the White Cliffs and Harder times in Hell’s Corner for more from the AWB Mowbray accounts.

Harder times in Hell’s Corner

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.

Working and living conditions were incredibly arduous in Dover during the Second World War as Mowbray records:

…the demands made on the Staff were many, and the inconveniences suffered legion, but the response was excellent at all times, especially when one bears in mind the nuisance raids – lone raiders swooping on the town and harbour from high altitudes with engines cut out – the first intimation of their presence being the whistle of bombs; four or five visits a day sometimes for lengthy periods, was not conducive to the maintenance of a high standard of morale, but the Dover staff showed no weakness; Postal services were invariably completed, sometimes a little late when streets or roads were unsafe.

When the destruction of his neighbour’s house brought the danger uncomfortably close to home, Mowbray slept in a public shelter for five weeks while awaiting safer accommodation. With a corridor reserved for his family, he dryly comments: ‘This mode of retiring was not exactly what I had visualised as being proper for a Head Postmaster’, but he found it a useful experience to understand what other staff and townspeople had to endure.

Apart from the numerous disturbances by policemen, wardens, gunfire and bombs, this shelter sleeping was not without its entertainment. Owing to the continuous strain under which we lived, people talked frequently in their sleep – of their fancies in ladies, beer or pictures, of the merits of this Dictator or that – I only trust I gave away no official secrets myself. The comradeship was most striking. It seems strange that it should take wars to settle national differences, yet in a public shelter, no matter whether the folk be rich or poor, clean or grimy, a tin of sweets works wonders with frayed tempers and jaded nerves.

On several other occasions Mowbray and the evening staff needed to spend all night at the office as safe travelling was impossible.

‘The Demon Postmaster’. This is believed to be a comic portrait of AWB Mowbray, Head Postmaster of Dover during the Second World War. (POST 118/1557)

‘The Demon Postmaster’. This is believed to be a comic portrait of AWB Mowbray, Head Postmaster of Dover during the Second World War. (POST 118/1557)

One American philatelist wrote to Mowbray at the time, keen to obtain letters date-stamped ‘Hell’s Corner’, as the German pilots had nicknamed Dover. A polite reply was sent, reading

…although this is a veritable “Hell’s Corner” to the Germans, we are proud of it. Our town and harbour have been bombed, shelled and mined, but there is not a finer lot of men, women and children anywhere. It is business as usual. I am sorry we have no date stamp ‘“Hell’s Corner”, but our lads have stamped “Hell’s Corner” on Jerry’s mind plain enough.

Vyki Sparkes’ podcast The Post Office and the Blitz can be downloaded for free from the BPMA website, iTunes or SoundCloud.

See Shells Over the White Cliffs for more from the AWB Mowbray accounts.

The Central Telegraph Office as I knew it

Jim (Dusty) Miller, who was a Messenger/Young Postman at the Central Telegraph Office from 1946-1950, recently visited the Royal Mail Archive and was kind enough to write down his memories. In this, his final article, he tells us what he remembers of the Central Telegraph Office.

The Central Telegraph Office (CTO) was located on the corner of Newgate Street and St Martin’s Le Grand. It was originally five stories high but was reduced to one as a result of the bombing during the 1940 blitz. A second, brick built, story was added in 1946/7. This floor was used to re-house much of the admin staff such as the typing pool, Chief Inspector of Messengers, etc.

Central Telegraph Office - bomb damaged interior, 1941 (POST 118/5169)

Central Telegraph Office – bomb damaged interior, 1941 (POST 118/5169)

The Central Telegraph Office exterior, decorated for King George V Silver Jubilee, 1935 (POST 118/1130)

The Central Telegraph Office exterior, decorated for King George V Silver Jubilee, 1935 (POST 118/1130)

The function of the CTO was to act as a clearing house for both inland and overseas telegrams. It was connected to most major cities in the world by teleprinter (the forerunner of the fax machine). It was also linked to almost all of the central London post offices by a pneumatic tube. By placing a telegram awaiting despatch into a container, that resembled a 25lb shell case covered in felt like material, it was possible to send the telegram via an underground tube direct to the CTO or the smaller tube officer located in the basement of King Edward Building, for despatch. Alas most of this system was destroyed during the war, although a large part was reinstated when the roads were repaired during the rebuilding of inner London.

Plaque giving instructions for operating Pneumatic Tubes (2002-0376)

Plaque giving instructions for operating Pneumatic Tubes (2002-0376)

Just across the road from the CTO was another building. This building was almost as big as the CTO and was known as Angel Street. This building was connected to the CTO by a bridge built at the second floor level. The function of this building was to provide rest rooms, locker rooms and a restaurant for the many staff employed at the CTO. These facilities were needed as many of the staff worked split shifts and were required to work, say, from 7am to 11am, then they would be required again until 2pm when they would work until 6pm. This building was also badly damaged at the same time as the CTO. The surviving part was used to provide a ground floor restaurant whilst the upper two floors were used as locker/rest rooms for the messengers and girl probationers (the equivalent of the boy messengers). The remaining areas, because it contained undamaged basements and sub basements was asphalted over and used as air raid shelters. It was locked-up when the war ended and never re-opened.

The CTO was connected to the other three local buildings by underground passages and despite the damage suffered during the war it was still possible to use this method of contact.

The CTO was finally demolished in 1967. When the site was being prepared for redevelopment a large Roman mosaic floor was discovered. During the subsequent excavation a Roman burial ground was also uncovered. The Romans wrapped the bodies in a form of straw matting and placed them into slots in the wall as their final resting place…

I thought at the time how ironical it was that people should shelter from the bombs in a burial ground.

The Post Office and the Blitz

Our archive and museum collections could tell a billion stories. In our latest podcast Assistant Curator Vyki Sparkes reveals some of them as she uses diary extracts and official documents to show how postal workers and buildings were affected by the Blitz.

New Cross Exchange, damaged by two High Explosive bombs which fell close to the building on 4 October 1940. (POST 56)

New Cross Exchange, damaged by two High Explosive bombs which fell close to the building on 4 October 1940. (POST 56)

Between September 1940 and May 1941 Nazi bombers targeted important infrastructure in the British Isles, including General Post Office (GPO) buildings such as sorting offices and telephone exchanges.

Many GPO staff showed great courage and determination to keep mail moving and telecommunications services functioning. Amongst them was Frederick G. Gurr who led the GPO Rescue and Salvage Squad, a small group of men who rescued mail, money and supplies from Post Offices and letterboxes bombed in the City of London.

To find out more about Gurr and other GPO World War 2 heroes download The Post Office and the Blitz podcast from www.postalheritage.org.uk/podcast or subscribe to our podcast with iTunes.

The ‘Rescue Man’ and the ‘Danger Squad’: Frederick G. Gurr and the GPO Rescue and Salvage Squad

This coming Bank Holiday Monday, Vyki Sparkes, Assistant Curator at the BPMA will give a short talk at Bletchley Park on a little known story of heroism and bravery: Frederick G. Gurr and the GPO Rescue and Salvage Squad. The talk is one of many activities taking place at Bletchley Park as part of the Post Office at War weekend.

During the Blitz in the Second World War the Salvage Squad were featured in newspapers, a radio broadcast, and Gurr, their overseer, was awarded the British Empire Medal by King George VI for his heroism. Despite these accolades, this small but important group fell into obscurity – until the recent discovery of a collection of scrapbooks and photographs in our museum collection.

A newspaper article in Gurr's scrapbook about the Salvage Squad meeting George VI

A newspaper article in Gurr's scrapbook about the Salvage Squad meeting George VI

Delayed by Enemy Action handstamp impression

Delayed by Enemy Action handstamp impression

Correspondence was of crucial importance during the Second World War, not only for military or governmental purposes but to maintain social morale. During the War, the Post Office’s intention was that no letter should be delayed more than 48 hours due to enemy action.

From 1940 with the continuous heavy bombardment of London, as well as other parts of the UK, this aim became even more challenging. Frederick G. Gurr, a postman close to retirement in the City of London, was concerned that ordinary Salvage squads did not recognise the importance of the mail, and set up the GPO Rescue and Salvage Squad. Their purpose: to rescue the mail, money and supplies from Post Offices and letterboxes bombed in the City of London. Gurr kept newspaper cuttings and photographs relating to the squad in a homemade scrapbook, all carefully annotated with his own handwritten accounts.

A newspaper article in the scrapbook showing how Gurr's team rescued £40,000 from a safe

A newspaper article in the scrapbook showing how Gurr's team rescued £40,000 from a safe

The talk at Bletchley Park will feature key moments of the 1940-41 Blitz, told through the pages of this scrapbook and accompanying photographs. All are welcome, and the talk is free, to those who have a valid entry ticket to Bletchley Park.

For those who cannot make it to the Bletchley event, Gurr’s wartime scrapbook is currently on display in the Treasures of the Archive exhibition, in our Search Room.

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.