Saturday, August 22, 2009

History of Airgraph - from India

World War II is credited to fuel innovations in almost all the sectors. Today's article is one of such postal invention by British Post Office and Kodak company.

During the war, there were many problems associated to sending mail to and from troops far away from home. The amount of mail was huge, and mail transport from one continent to another was difficult which threw a challenging task to postal service.

The situation got worse when Mussolini declared war on Britain and France in June, 1940 as he closed the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean for Allied seaborne traffic. The consequence of this was that mail to and from British soldiers serving in the Middle and Far East had to travel home by way of the Cape of Good Hope - a detour of 12,000 miles. This meant that a letter from Cairo or Bombay could be in transit for anything from three to six months.

In an effort to overcome this delay, the possibility of using air transport was considered but, during these early years of the war, few transport aircraft were available and those that were had little space available for carrying mail.

To find a solution to this problem, a study was made into the feasibility of using micro-photography. The result was the Post Office innovation with the help of Kodak, the Airgraph Service, which was inaugurated in August, 1941, by Her Majesty the Queen (now Her Majesty the Queen Mother) who sent the first airgraph letter to Egypt addressed to the Commander-in-Chief, General Auchinleck. The English version of these sheets is called Airgraphs, while V-mail was the US system.

Illustrated sheets were handed out to the troops and their folks at home (upon request), where the sender could fill in name and address to the receiver. The forms were sent to dedicated V-mail stations, or photo stations, where they were photographed (16 mm film), and the film was sent to a photo station on the same continent as the addressee. There the pictures were processed and enlarged, and were mailed to the addresse by ordinary mail. The original forms were 21 cm wide by height 28 cm, while the processed forms are 10.5 by 13 cm. On the same side as the written or drawn message was space for name and address to sender and receiver. On the other side of the form were printed instructions for use, and space for address to the V-mail/Airgraph station. This side was not photographed. Personnel in the armed forces were allowed to send the forms postage free to the photo station, while civilians had to stamp their V-mail/Airgraph forms (more details below). The processed V-mails/Airgraphs were sent postage free from the photo station to the receiver.

Shown above is one of such unique hand drawn airgraph from India in 1943 with censor marking.


I like the airgraph where pictures or cartoon are illustrated to reveal the humorous side of human being even during wartime.

The sheet was folded after processing/enlarging, and placed in a special purpose window envelope (shown above and below), so that the receiver's name and address was shown through the window.

All processed V-mails/Airgraphs have therefore a horizontal bend slightly above the centre. The envelopes are not very exciting for thematic collectors, but on the V-mails and Airgraphs one can find many fine illustrations. The illustrations are considered to be fully postal, and can be used in a F.I.P. competitive thematic exhibit. Most common was the use of sheets with pre-printed text and illustrations, but there was also a possibility for writing and illustrating the sheet yourself. The sheets often show religious illustrations, such as Christmas or Easter greetings; caricatures or war scenes.

Did I say, I love airgraph with illustrations ;) Here is other one from my collection:

A unique hand drawn airgraph from India again from 1943 with censor marking.

"as you pass the laundry John go in & play hell about that lost surplice?"

Some more information on British Airgraphs system:

Airgraph forms were available from local post offices upon request. With the form was given a verbal warning that it must not be folded or creased in any way and that the writing should be clear and distinct. The message, anything upto 230 words, was then written on the form and either handed back over the counter or, as was the case in some rural areas where people were concerned with the aspect of privacy, it could be forwarded direct to the London office which was situated in King Edward Building (subsequently KEB), near St. Paul's Cathedral. On arrival at KEB the forms were individually hand-stamped with consecutive numbers by Post Office women workers who worked at an amazing speed. (In 1944 it was stated that 'no machine can match the combination of a swift right arm and a deft feminine left hand thumb and finger.') The forms were then sorted by men and women of the Army Postal Service for the various arms of the Services and the theatres of war.

Having been so segregated the forms were then photographed in miniature by a girl sitting at what looked like a flat-topped metal desk. In the top of the desk was a slit, just wide enough to accept a single form. As each form was inserted into the slit, it automatically operated a light switch and was illuminated for a fraction of a second, long enough to be photographed by a 16 mm camera situated below the desk. The resulting film, 100 feet long and 16 millimetres wide, contained a continuous succession of 1,700 airgraph photographs and, with the metal container into which it was coiled, weighed 5½ ounces (154g.). These messages, if sent by ordinary letter post would have weighed 50lbs (22.5kg.). The film of reduced airgraphs was taken by plane to its destination where the process was reversed and the film projected onto a strip of moving sensitized paper resulting in a series of positive prints approximately one quarter the size of the original. The strip was then cut and each airgraph print inserted into an envelope by hand or machine ready for delivery to the addressee.

Another attractive feature of the service was that all airgraph letters arrived at their destination. Because each message was numbered and photographed, it was possible for any mail lost in transit to be quickly reproduced from the original. An example of how quickly this could be accomplished can be seen from the case of the flying boat 'CLARE' which was lost in September, 1941, whilst carrying mails from India, East Africa and South Africa. As soon as the loss had been confirmed the countries of origin were speedily contacted by telegraph and duplicates of the lost films were received in London on the 15th October, then processed and delivered to the addressees within three days.

The figure of ten million airgraphs despatched from the United Kingdom to the Middle East was reached at the end of May, 1942. The total weight of film involved was less than one ton (1016 kg.). The equivilent weight of air mail letters would of been in excess of one hundred tons. By October 1st, 1942, when about one million airgraphs were being sent in each direction, in and out of the country, each week, the total number of airgraphs handled reached forty-five millions. By the time the service was discontinued in July, 1945, 330,000,000 messages had been handled.

Another unique hand drawn airgraph from Burma (SEAC) in 1944 without any censor marking.

"Well, have you any complaints this morning?"

I hope you will not have any complaints with this post :-)

1 comment:

Padmini Sankar said...

This is amazing!

I wonder if you could help me? I am writing a life history based on my grand-father and father. My father served in the MET dept of the RIAF in India. The family story goes that his sister and her family, who were then in Borneo and who they had not heard from for three or four years, finally received a letter from my dad in Papar (Borneo) in Dec. 1945. From all accounts, I understand that this was a normal airmail letter, and not an airgraph. My aunt (who is still alive) said they had gone to the postal office and received the letter.
Do you have any information about mail sent from India (from the RIAF bases probably in Avadi) to Borneo? Any information would be greatly appreciated. Regards, Padmini Sankar

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