Curator Joanna explores the Post Office's role in maintaining postal and telephone communications.

During the Second World War, home front organisations protected British civilians from aerial bombings and prepared to defend the country in the event of invasion. This blog looks at the efforts made by postal staff to defend buildings from aerial attacks.

Collection of photographs of Ministry of Home Security uniforms and equipment supplied for civil defence services, May 1944 (POST61/91)

Air Raid Precautions

In 1937, before the Second World War began, the Air Raid Precautions (A. R. P.) Act came into force, calling on local authorities to prepare for possible air attacks. Air raid wardens, fire watchers, firefighters, first aiders, ambulance crews and medics were enlisted to defend civilian areas.

The Post Office deployed A. R. P. to protect their buildings, which had great importance to both civilians and the military in maintaining postal and telephone communications.

On 7 December 1942, an order came into force giving the power to compel women to perform fire guarding duties at government premises. Training for all fire guards was also made compulsory. The Sub-Postmistress of one Post Office complained of ‘having to go on the roof’ to watch for fires, however as no ‘volunteer was forthcoming’, she was obliged to keep watch.

Mount Pleasant, ARP (Air Raid Precautions) roof spotter, 1945 (POST 118/1528)

Entire families equipped for aerial bombardment, even babies. In 1939 the Postmaster General informed Postmasters across the country to allow parcels containing babies’ Air Raid Precautions helmets to be carried via the inland parcel post, even if they exceeded the usual maximum dimensions.

Destruction and Bravery in Manchester

Many Post Office buildings were destroyed or damaged by aerial bombardment. Our archive holds an account of one such incident: the incendiary bombing of Manchester Central Exchange building. The account details the efforts of Post Office staff to save the important building and equipment.

‘The surrounding buildings were largely warehouses, many filled with textiles. Once the fires resulting from incendiary bombs had gained a hold in this quarter they continued to spread despite all efforts of the fire services. Water pressure failed and at daybreak Central Exchange was surrounded by burning buildings…

Despite a warning by the Fire Brigade that it was dangerous to approach, and in the face of great personal danger from falling masonry and clouds of smoke pouring from the surrounding buildings, Mr. Little, accompanied by two colleagues, succeeded in making an entry and after strenuous efforts the fires within the building were extinguished and the building with the plant was saved.’

 

Mr Little was awarded the George Medal and two junior colleagues were awarded the Order of the British Empire medal for ‘gallantry and for the enterprise displayed by them in saving the building.’

Central Exchange – Manchester, c.1941 (POST 56)

Later this month we will explore how the Post Office Home Guard prepared for a possible invasion. In the meantime, if you’re curious about how the postal services changed during the First World War, read on!

– Joanna Espin, Curator