Find out about postal workers who undertook their jobs in extraordinary circumstances.

This month, The Postal Museum is commemorating the work of the Post Office during conflict. We recently posted a blog about how postal staff defended buildings and mail during the Second World War’s aerial bombardments. This blog explores how Local Defence Volunteers prepared for possible invasion and how ordinary postal workers undertook their jobs in extraordinary circumstances.

Local Defence Volunteers

On 17 May 1940, Sir Anthony Eden, then Secretary of State for War, broadcast an appeal to British men, aged between 17 and 65, to become Local Defence Volunteers, and protect the country from possible enemy ground level attack. Postal workers formed their own Battalions to defend Post Office buildings, of crucial strategic value – both to the British military and an invading army.

The 16th West Riding GPO Home Guard

Our archive holds a diary of the 16th West Riding GPO Home Guard battalion’s actions, written in 1945 by Captain J. Parker and C.S.M. Burnell. The diary details how the West Yorkshire postal units of Local Defence Volunteers prepared for invasion; which sites were guarded day and night, how many men volunteered, and how many weapons they had. The West Yorkshire unit in May to June 1940 had strikingly few weapons at their disposal. The Bradford Telephone Area Platoon had just one rifle between seven volunteers.

Post Office Rifle Clubs loaned some rifles to the cause and these were dispensed amongst the units. The Local Defence Volunteers were trained to operate anti-aircraft weapons, grenades and to fight with bayonets. Files in the archive describe the 24-hour, seven day a week defence of Bradford Telephone Exchange: a full-time, armed doorkeeper, plus armed workers on guard by day. At night: an external guard, along with armed workers were in force.

In 1942, a number of American citizens gifted and loaned their privately-owned weapons to the Home Guard and this boosted the number of weapons available to the postal units.

Operation “MERCURY”

In November 1941, an exercise code-named “MERCURY” challenged the Ilkley and Skipton sub-units to defend their towns. Members of the Ilkley Post Office sub-unit were not actively engaged but ‘derived the benefit of practical experience in the part they would have to play in the locality defence plan.’
In contrast, the Skipton sub-unit were ‘actively engaged’ and ‘called upon to repel two direct assaults on the Post Office.’ The enemy, represented by regular troops:

‘penetrated into the centre of the town and within two hours had captured the vulnerable points of the Railway Station and Town Hall as well as the local Home Guard Battalion Headquarters. The Post Office was attacked… Hand to hand struggle ensued in which a few good knocks were given and taken.

The second attack failed and the enemy withdrew leaving two prisoners.’ A local Home Guard Company ‘staged a counter-attack on the enemy inside the town but the damage had by that time been done and had it been the real thing it is very likely that the Post Office would also have suffered considerable damage. The Home Guard telephone operating members of the sub-unit were on duty throughout the exercise.’

‘Searching for the enemy.’ 20th City of London (3rd GPO) Battalion Home Guard or The Post Office Home Guard. City of London ‘Invasion’ exercise 29 June 1941.

The Post Office Home Guard ‘accomplished a very creditable performance in preventing the capture of the Post Office, the only building of importance not taken by the enemy.’ Exercises such as “MERCURY” were vital in preparing the Home Guard to defend British towns and cities.

Women and Civil Defence

From 8 September 1943, women could be nominated for certain Home Guard duties. Positions for women were limited to clerical and telephonist work, cooking and the service of food, and driving motor vehicles. Additional roles were available to women in other areas of Civil Defence.

Firewoman, one of the uniforms supplied to the National Fire Services, May 1944 (POST61/92)

On 6 December 1944, the Queen (better known now as the Queen Mother) addressed the women of the National Fire Service and the Civil Defence Services, declaring that ‘when future generations look back on this most terrible War, they will recognise as one of its chief features the degree to which women were actively concerned in it’ and that the ‘War could not be won without their help.’

The Queen praised the women who had ‘driven vehicles while bombs were falling… put out incendiary bombs… maintained essential communications at critical times… and brought succour and help to those who have suffered from the attacks of the enemy. You women of the Civil Defence have inscribed your names indelibly on the National roll of honour.’

Firewoman Motor Cyclist, one of the uniforms supplied to the National Fire Services, May 1944 (POST61/92)

Dover, Hell’s Corner

The determination of Post Office workers to maintain communication networks in the face of unimaginable terror is described in our archives by the Head Postmaster of Dover, AWB Mowbray, who kept a typed account of the Blitz years:

…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.

 

Dover was so badly bombed that it became known as ‘Hell’s Corner.’

Map of Dover 1940-44, showing bombed spots. (POST 118/1612)

A member of Mowbray’s staff, Miss W N Scanlan, was awarded the British Empire Medal in October 1941. A newspaper reporting on Miss Scanlan’s medal, and the work of the women of the Dover Telephone Exchange, wrote:

‘Throughout the air raids in the areas where they work, they have maintained an efficient telephone service during periods of constant danger.’

British Empire Medal, 1939-1944 (2004-0024/01)

The Salvage Squad

Despite the difficulties of war, the Post Office aimed to deliver all mail delayed by enemy action within 48 hours. To help in this mission, Frederick G. Gurr established the GPO Rescue and Salvage Squad to rescue mail, money and supplies from Post Offices and letterboxes bombed in the City of London. Gurr compiled newspaper cuttings and photographs recounting his team’s efforts in scrapbooks and was awarded the British Empire Medal by King George VI for his heroism.

The Post Office Rescue and Salvage Squad, c.1940

Almost 7000 Civil Defence workers were killed during the Second World War. Across the two world wars, 12,830 postal workers lost their lives.

Visit us this June for a month of activities marking the essential role the Post Office played in the First and Second World Wars.

– Joanna Espin, Curator