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Royal Mail’s role in the Two World Wars

/ 24 September 2015

World War I

Royal Mail’s own battalion, the 8th Battalion, The London Regiment (The Post Office Rifles) was launched in 1867. The regiment was made up almost entirely of employees, who were called on to help protect mail buildings from attack. During the First World War, 12,000 postal workers served. 1,800 were killed and over 4,500 wounded.

Four former postal workers were awarded the Victoria Cross - Sgt Albert Gill from Birmingham, Sgt Alfred Knight from Nottingham, Major Henry Kelly from Manchester and Sgt John Hogan, a postman from Oldham. Sgt Albert Gill was killed in action in 1916, when he directed the fire of his troops while defending the position against an attack. Sgt Alfred Knight single handedly captured an enemy position during the Battle for Wurst Farm Ridge in 1917. Knight survived the war. Major Henry Kelly from Manchester, under heavy fire in Le Sars, France, led three men into an enemy trench, and then, when forced to retreat carried his wounded Company Sergeant Major to safety. Major Kelly continued to work for the GPO after the war. Sgt John Hogan, a postman from Oldham, was awarded the Victoria Cross for great courage under fire on 29 October 1914 near Festubert, France. He died in 1943.

Women played a key role in keeping the lines of communication open during World War I and World War Two. During the First World War, thousands of women, whether married or single, were employed to deliver mail in urban areas and work as telegraph messengers. Women’s employment was similarly greatly extended in the Second World War.

The First World War also saw a huge rise in the number letters, postcards and parcels sent between the home front and loved ones abroad. To cope with the increase, Royal Mail built the home depot, an enormous wooden temporary sorting office in Regent's Park that covered several acres. At its peak, 2,500 staff handled 12 million letters and a million parcels in a week. In December 1917, 341,000 registered articles were carried to the British Expeditionary Forces.

World War II

In June 1944, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (and later President of the United States) General Dwight D Eisenhower wrote to Captain Harry Crookshank, Postmaster General, thanking the staff of Royal Mail for their help in the run up to D-Day, just over two weeks earlier. General Eisenhower’s D-Day invasion force relied on communications laid by GPO engineers. Nearly 60,000 telephone circuits had been provided for the use of the Forces. Eisenhower writes: ‘The build-up of the necessary forces for the current operations has involved the construction of a vast network of communications radiating from key centers of vital importance in the United Kingdom. The greater part of this work has been undertaken by the Engineers and Staff of the General Post Office’.

The airgraph was introduced in the Second World War, as a solution to the circuitous route for air communication between Britain and the Middle East. The airgraph service, first suggested in 1932, reduced letters on special forms onto microfilm, and enlarged them at the end of the journey. A contract was signed with Kodak Ltd, and the first equipment was in place in April 1941, allowing letters to be filmed in Cairo and enlarged in the UK. This is the first airgraph message; sent by Queen Elizabeth (later The Queen Mother) to the Commander in Chief of the Middle East Force.

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