Article from Summer 2001 issue of Dekho!
We often take it for granted that our mail will get to us and we rarely give a second thought to how such an extraordinary logistical feat is accomplished with such relative ease. The mail service to those serving in Burma was no exception, indeed it was as complicated as any of the other logistical operations associated with warfare in that region, During the war, the responsibility for the Army Postal Service (APS) to British troops in the Far East was shared between the British Director of Army Postal Services, in London, the Welfare Department of the Adjutant General’s Branch of the Indian Army (GHQ, India) and the Indian Army Postal Services (lAPS).
After 1942 any mail that was posted in the UK for troops in the Far East was sent by the GPO to the Home Postal Centre (HPC), Nottingham, which was run by the Royal Engineers (Postal Section). At the HPC the mail was then sorted down to unit level by a mixed staff of over 3,000 Postal Sappers and ATS women, many of the men had exchanged their GPO uniform for a British Army one. Most of the mail travelled by sea from Liverpool to Durban, South Africa, where an APS Postal Regulating Office was established, after which it crossed the Indian Ocean to the lAPS Postal Clearing Section at Bombay and from there it was forwarded to the formations in Burma. There was also a limited airmail service in operation between India and Britain, but due to the Luftwaffe’s air superiority over Europe and the critical shortage of airlift capacity, the mails were carried by sea to Takoradi in West Africa or Durban. From either of those places it was then carried by air to Khartoum, and then onto Cairo, Basra, Bah rain, Dubai and Karachi where it was finally off-loaded by the staff of the lAPS Base Air Depot, who then put it on a train bound for their Postal Clearing Section in Bombay. This service was made more readily available with the introduction of lightweight Air Letterform, even though they were rationed to one per month per person. After the fall of Rangoon in March 1942 and subsequent retreat from Burma, the service came to a standstill. A Postal Sapper with the 7th Armoured Brigade later wrote of his escape “We were just getting things on a good footing when the ‘flap’ came and we had to run for it. We shifted at night and hid in the jungle during the day… In the end the Japs got in front of us and we had to burn our truck, postal stock and kit. We crept through the Jap lines at night and over the mountains. It was hell climbing and falling, praying and swearing…
I reached Assam with a rifle and 50 rounds and a dirty torn suit to stand up in”. He was the only one of his Postal Unit to reach Dhond, India and after he had a spell in hospital to recover from a skin disease and sores, he set about re-establishing his Brigade Field Post Office (FPO). A task complicated by the fact he had “no stock and no stores” and that the Indian Director of Postal Services there did “not seem interested” and the Brigade was only keen to keep their FPO staff. Nevertheless, he did manage to get despatches off, but was soon frustrated by the fact that “mail for missing or deceased men, correctly endorsed and signed by an officer” which was despatched to Bombay, was frequently “returned to the Brigade”. This highlighted a fundamental weakness in the postal system, namely the use of the Postal Clearing section at Bombay at which after the disasters of Malaya, Singapore and Burma, a serious backlog of undeliverable mail was building. Subsequently, a Postal Sapper officer, Lt Col EG Hucker RE, was sent out to investigate the apparent service’s shortcomings and thereafter it was decided that the Indian Army Postal Service should be reorganised along British lines, this decision coincided with the establishment of the HQ Allied Land Forces, South East Asia (HQ ALFSEA) in 1943. In the same year, an Airgraph service was made available to British troops in the Far East.
The HQ ALFSEA soon set about the planning of the recapture of Burma and it was realised that a flexible postal system would be required. To this effect in August 1944 a Base Army Post Office was established in Calcutta from where mails were pushed forward by road, rail and air up the line of communications to the Army Post Office in the supply centre at Imphal and later at Chittagong and Myitkyina. The mails were then moved onto the FPOs attached to each formation of the XIV Army. The nature of the warfare involved the innovation of resupply by air, so when the XIV Army fought its way back into Burma, the mails were taken forward from the main supply centre at Imphal by aircraft flying special mail sorties. On these sorties, the mails were either off-loaded from the aircraft which had landed at the jungle airstrips or were dropped at pre-arranged dropping zones (DZ). Unlike supplies, mail can only be delivered to the person to whom it is addressed (eg a pair of size ten boots can be worn by a person with size 10 feet, whilst a letter addressed to 123 Pte Snooks is only of use to Pte Snooks), therefore during this period, it was essential for the integrity of the service that mail was delivered to the right DZ or airstrip. To ensure that happened, it was the responsibility of each FPO, to inform their Postal Unit HQ of their location and projected locations so that the mails at the supply centres would be put onto the correct aircraft. The aircraft loading arrangements came under the control of the Combined Army and Air Transport Organisations (CAATO), who were assisted by Postal staff located at the air despatch stations.
During the campaign between ten and fifteen tons of mail was moved forward a day. Outbound mails were carried out on medical evacuation planes and the normal re-supply aircraft. Mail losses were relatively small and were generally due to parachutes either falling short of or overshooting the DZ. The biggest loss sustained was when the engine of a mail plane failed and the pilot was forced to jettison 98 bags over jungle country. Offers of reward to the locals led to the recovery of 14 of the 423 registered letters contained in the despatch. this result was not unexpected; any bag which missed the DZ usually, disappeared without a trace. The Army and Field Post Offices provided a mail collection and distribution service, their counters sold postal stationery, stamps, Money Orders (this was particularly relevant to Indian troops for it allowed them to remit monies back to their families), and accepted Savings Bank deposits. In some locations, a limited telegram service was also available.
In March 1945, the main air supply centre was moved from Imphal to Chittagong and the service to the Arakan was improved by an extension of the main air route from Chittagong to Ramree Island. When Rangoon was retaken a Base Army Post Office was established in the city and the air supply centre was moved to Akyab. At the same time the Army Postal Service took on the responsibility of distributing the Command newspaper SEAC, which also coincided with the introduction of a direct air link with Britain, which improved the airmail transit time. Shortly afterwards Japanese resistance in Burma came to an end and the XIV Army was returned to India in preparation for an invasion of Malaya, plans of which became unnecessary due to the Japanese surrender. The Base Army Post Office in Rangoon remained in operation until March 1947.
Simon Fenwick MSc MBA