Imagine saying goodbye to your husband or son, knowing that you will not see his face or hear his voice for years — maybe forever. That’s why mail was absolutely critical during wartime, both for the boys over there and the folks back home. And never more so than at Christmas.
I assume the RCAF pilot in the Star Weekly illustration above was home less than nine months ago – otherwise he wouldn’t look so happy!
But when it came to long separations, I always think the countries that had it the worst were Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
The British servicemen went home on leave, and so did the Germans and the Russians and the Italians.
The Americans also endured long separations, although they didn’t start going overseas until early 1942, after they entered the war.
On the other hand, some Canadians left home in 1939 and didn’t see their families again until 1945. That’s six Christmasses far away from home!
Since the only contact with their families was through letters, no wonder the mail was so vital. The isolation of the men overseas, the hardships, and the homesickness was alleviated only by the presence of a letter from home. It was a shot in the arm, an inspirational message from the loved ones left behind, and a reminder about the way of life they were fighting for.
I chose this photo because it really captures the loneliness of a Royal Air Force anti-aircraft gunner reading his mail somewhere on the desert.
(Photo Credit: Imperial War Museum).
Mail was a living, breathing lifeline between the home front and “over there.”
My grandfather was the postmaster at Battleford, Saskatchewan. A veteran of World War One, he understood the importance of mail. When a letter arrived in Battleford from one of the boys overseas, he delivered it himself on his way home from the office, unwilling to let the family wait even one extra day for that precious letter.
My mother June, who was a teenager at the time, recalls writing letters until her hand cramped, six or seven every week, some of them to boys she scarcely knew, in an attempt to keep their spirits up. (In my wartime novel, one of my characters named June is the postmaster’s daughter in the fictional town of Touchwood, Saskatchewan. Read more here: Bird’s Eye View.)
And people sent thousands of parcels overseas, containing hand-knitted socks and scarves, soap, dried fruit and candy. The items were wrapped in heavy cotton fabric and sewed shut with needle and thread. The addresses were inked on the surface of the cloth with a fountain pen.
To make the separations even worse, people on the home front couldn’t look up their son’s location on a map, or follow the progress of his regiment, because they weren’t allowed to know where he was or what he was doing.
So all the mail went through a central depot and was readdressed by postal workers on the other side.
Here’s a happy U.S. Marine in the South Pacific who just received his Christmas parcel from home, addressed to the Postmaster in San Francisco.
And wartime letter-writers also had the uncomfortable knowledge that someone was reading all their letters, just to make sure they weren’t letting something slip.
Names and ranks of officers or fellow servicemen, travel plans, names of bases, mention of raids or other military actions – all were blacked out, or sometimes even cut out with scissors, by the censors.
This photo shows a Postal and Telegraph Censorship Department worker checking the content of a letter.
(Photo Credit: The National Archives.)
Transporting all that mail back and forth across the oceans was a huge job.
At the outset of war, the Canadian Postal Corps had 50 personnel. By the end, there were 5,000 people operating 170 field post offices at bases across Canada, plus exotic locales such as Cairo, Bombay and Karachi. They could deliver a letter or a parcel to the most remote theatre of war.
The Base Post Office in Ottawa was the heart of the vast, far-flung operation. It was located in a five-storey brick building on Nicholas Street. Every piece of mail addressed to a man or woman overseas, in either the army or the air force, or stationed at a base in Canada, went through this depot. Navy mail went to a Halifax depot. (All incoming mail went through civilian post offices.)
The volumes grew exponentially, like the war effort itself. In 1939, Ottawa was moving fifteen bags of mail a day. The following year the daily average had grown to 255 bags and in 1941, it hit 450.
Two years later, the staff was processing 3,000 bags per day and working some incredible hours.
Members of ‘The Morale Squadron,” as they called themselves, understood that mail was a priceless commodity and a vitally-important weapon in the battle for victory.
This photo shows some of those dedicated postal workers in Ottawa. There were no computers then — every piece of mail had to be read and sorted by hand. It was tedious, back-breaking labour.
(Photo Credit: Library and Archives Canada).
The Canadian Postal Corps was so eager to get the mail delivered on time for Christmas that they recruited the high school students shown here, who volunteered in November 1943 to help sort the gigantic volume of letters and parcels.
(Photo Credit: National Film Board).
They even delivered newspapers! Yes, the hometown paper was often sent overseas to keep the boys in touch with their communities. They were keenly interested in everything that was happening back home in their absence.
Here’s a magazine cover by that wonderful American illustrator Norman Rockwell, showing a fictional serviceman that Rockwell named “Willie Gillis,” neglecting his chores because he is so engrossed in the paper.
At first, most overseas mail was sent by convoy and often took up to three weeks to reach the United Kingdom. Canadians were not happy about the delay, and their made their views known.
So in November 1941, the post office introduced the airgraph, a one-page form that could be picked up, free of charge, at any post office in the country. The user wrote a letter on one side, folded it as directed, addressed it in a special panel and put ten cents postage in a designated space.
According to an article in The Legion Magazine, Canadians mailed their airgraphs at their local post offices, and they were sent to Toronto. Then they were turned over to the Canadian Kodak Company, photographed and placed on microfilm. Each reel could hold some 1,600 airgraphs and weighed about four ounces, package included. Sent as ordinary letters, these messages would weigh 25 pounds and fill half a mailbag.
These reels were sent to overseas post offices, first in England and later in Algiers, Cairo, Naples, Bombay and elsewhere. The messages were transferred from film to paper and then distributed to the troops.
I have an airgraph sent from overseas to my grandmother in Battleford. It’s so tiny I can’t read it with my naked eye (or even with my glasses).
The Americans adopted the idea of photographing and shrinking their mail as well, and they called it Victory Mail, or V-Mail for short. Here’s a propaganda poster created for that purpose.
And here’s an advertisement for shoes, of all things, also promoting the V-Mail message. Don’t you love the kid in the miniature uniform?
But the mail from Canada was still taking too long to reach its destination, so in late 1943, the government created the 168 Squadron RCAF, commonly known as the “Mailcan Squadron,” to move letters and parcels by air.
The first flight occurred Dec. 17, 1943, and during its thirty months in existence, pilots made 636 transatlantic flights in Liberators and B-17 Fortresses loaded with mail.
Here’s a publicity photo showing airmen loading mailbags through the waist gunner’s window in the fuselage of a 168 Heavy Transport Squadron “Fort.”
(Photo Credit: Department of National Defence).
The RCAF 168 “Mailcan Squadron” had this handsome crest.
And what happened on the other side? The mail for Canadians was flown to Scotland, and came down to London by train. There it was delivered to the Canadian Overseas Postal Depot, and then sent out to the various stations.
Here’s a photo of the depot, camouflaged to protect it from air attacks, located in the former Brylcreem Building.
Among those who sorted the mail in England were about forty women in the RCAF. Alice Lymburner (nee Revel) of Woodstock, Ontario was one of them.
She recalls working day and night to get the mail sorted, and being “almost overwhelmed” at Christmas. The same team worked together for two years, and became very close.
Here’s a 1945 photo of Alice working the K section of the Canadian Overseas Postal Depot Unit, while Dolly Wood stands in front of the F section.
(Photo Credit: The Memory Project).
The RCAF women working at the post office even received an inspection by Queen Elizabeth. You’ll notice that right behind her is Princess Elizabeth.
(Photo Credit: The Memory Project).
Andy Comstock from Sanditon, Saskatchewan, was interviewed in 1996 at her home in Nanton, Alberta, about her work as an RCAF postal worker at the London base office.
She said one of the more painful duties was to check all the names every morning against Daily Routine Orders – to see which men had been transferred to a different station, or were listed as missing or dead.
Their mail was either returned to sender, or given to the Red Cross for redistribution.
This is a sad photo of Christmas parcels that will never arrive – addressed to U.S. servicemen who have been killed. They were piled up in New York City in 1944, awaiting a “Return to Sender” stamp.
What a horrible experience to see the parcel that you created with such love come back to you unopened, never to be delivered!
The postal workers understood full well how important it was to get the mail through to the fighting men at the front.
Joe Tobin, who served with the Canadian Postal Corps in Italy, was interviewed by The Memory Project and said this:
“The most important thing that a person would get was the mail. It was above food, above everything. This is something that, right down the line, to the lowest peon, I mean, everybody was dedicated to getting that mail out and getting it out in good condition. Like it would be raining cats and dogs and you know, we just had a tent, we had to get out and try to find ways to cover the mail so it wouldn’t get wet. The dedication of everybody was just absolutely fantastic.”
I think the look on the face of this guy, Corporal L. R. Bluett of the Royal Australian Air Force, says it all. He was photographed in Borneo in 1945.
While writing my own wartime novel Bird’s Eye View, I included letters between my heroine Rose Jolliffe in England, and her mother Anne on the home front back in Saskatchewan.
To achieve the right tone and language, I read hundreds of wartime letters. I even created this mock envelope, to inspire myself with the right degree of authenticity!
By the end of the war, the Canadian Postal Corps had handled 190 million letters, 18 million ordinary parcels, nine million tobacco parcels (a special package ordered through tobacco companies for the men overseas), and eight million pounds of newspapers.
And that, dear readers, may very well be one of the reasons we were ultimately victorious!
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STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week. Here’s an image from October 25, 1942, showing two kids preparing a Christmas parcel for “Daddy.” To see my entire collection of covers, click: Star Weekly At War.