HL Deb 20 May 1941 vol 119 cc202-7

, who called attention to the delays in transit of mails of troops serving overseas, and moved for Papers, said: My Lords, I must begin by making the usual apology which you are accustomed to receive from those who have the hardihood to address your Lordships' House for the first time. Your Lordships are wont to listen to elder statesmen, to Admirals, to Field-Marshals, to Air Marshals, to bankers, to right reverend Prelates and to other famous speakers whose names are known throughout the country. I can make no such claim upon the attention of your Lordships' House. I am what I believe is known as a backwoodsman. I come from Sherwood Forest, where I live, to bring forward a matter which is causing distress among my friends and neighbours and which I believe is not unknown in your Lordships' House. I refer to the difficulty experienced by many parents, wives, sisters and fiancées in getting news of the young men in whom they are interested, who are serving as soldiers, sailors and airmen with His Majesty's Forces overseas.

With your Lordships' permission I will read one letter out of several which have reached me on the subject. The writer is a distinguished business man in Nottingham, and this is what he writes: Some time ago you were good enough to say that you would take up the question of the delay of mails from the Middle East. Just then they improved. We (from two boys) and others with sons in local regiments have not received any letters for nearly two months. It is very trying for parents. All the mails cannot have been sunk. They got through a Christmas mail in about a week. There must be some lack of organisation. I am sure, many parents will be glad if you could ginger things up. I am far from suggesting that the noble Lord who will reply for the Government needs gingering up, or that any poor words of mine would be effective for the purpose, but I do urge the noble Lord to give the matter his kindly consideration, remembering Solomon's ancient proverb: "As cold water to a thirsty soul so is good news from a far country."

During the last few days—after I had put this Motion on the Paper—a strange hybrid has appeared on the horizon, named an airgraph. It is a means, I understand, of transmitting messages by photography. I would like to congratulate His Majesty's Government very warmly upon the discovery of this invention, because I feel that it will go a long way to meet the point which I have ventured to raise. These letters when received will be regarded as most interesting war records by the people who receive them. May I venture to hope for an assurance from the noble Lord that the young men will be allowed to tell their own story in their own way and that their letters will not be subjected to too vigorous a censorship? I beg to move.


My Lords, I am sure it will be your wish, as it will be my great privilege, to congratulate the noble Earl on his first addressing us, and to express the hope that we shall very often hear him in your Lordships' House in future. With your Lordships' permission I should like to say half a dozen words in support of the noble Earl's Motion. I had the opportunity during eighteen months abroad of noting the reaction of officers and men generally in the so-called Middle East to the very sad situation as regards the mails. During the whole time that I was in that part of the world the one and only complaint I ever heard was on that particular subject. The question men asked was: "When are we going to get our letters?" It was not only letters, but such communications as night letter telegrams and cables that were delayed. I myself had the experience of a telegram taking nine days from London to Egypt. Since I left there I have had a letter from a colleague saying that a telegram despatched on December 28 reached him on February 4. Those are extreme cases, but I met the censors out there, who had the job of going through the letters of men in all three Services, and they all told the same story, that the only complaint they received was "When are we going to get our letters?" I would ask the Government to give very serious consideration to this matter, because when officers and men are carrying out rather arduous duties in a very trying climate it is a matter of supreme importance, as I am sure the Government will realise, that they should get letters at the earliest possible moment.


My Lords, if I may be permitted I should like to congratulate the noble Earl on his maiden speech. That speech disclosed that he had some practice in public speaking, and I understand he was for many years a member of the London County Council. I am sure we shall all hope that he will take part in our debates frequently in the future. I should also like to welcome the noble Lord who has returned from that part of the world where our eyes are turned so continuously in these days.

Under present conditions considerable delay in the transit of all overseas surface mails is inevitable, especially in the case of those between this country and the Middle East for which the circuitous route via the Cape is almost the only one at present available. Sailings are irregular and are subject on occasion to delays which, owing to war conditions, cannot be avoided. In actual fact twelve surface mail consignments and thirty-three air mail consignments have been received in Cairo since January I and thirty-eight surface mails and sixty air mails have been received from the Middle East in the same period in this country. Mails for the Middle East Force sent by surface route take from six to thirteen weeks to reach the base, and, in addition, account must be taken of the time mails may be awaiting dispatch from this country, and the time occupied in distribution from the base to the addressee's unit, which, in view of the vast area covered by the Middle East Force, might be considerable—particu- larly in the case of units situated in remote places. The units may frequently be from 700 to 2,000 miles from the base, and they are engaged in hard fighting and in a war of movement. Rail services hardly exist except in one or two parts of the area.

Mails from troops serving overseas in the homeward direction are subject to similar conditions; and in addition to the actual time taken in transit time must be added for the collection of correspondence from the various units into the Base Post Office, which may in some cases be considerable, as well as the time they may have to be held waiting for a ship. At the present moment there seems to be no hope of improving on these arrangements as far as surface mails arc concerned. The whole problem has been receiving the constant attention of the Departments concerned, as well as of the Overseas Mails Committee, and, in view of the impossibility of improving the position as regards surface mails, attention has been directed to the possibility of improving the air mail service.

When Italy entered the war, the Mediterranean was closed to British civilaviation, and since then air mail correspondence for the Middle East has had to be forwarded by sea to Africa for conveyance thence by air. At first it was necessary to send the air mails by sea to South Africa, but since the beginning of this year we have been able to dispatch them to West Africa for connection with the air services operating from there. The average time of transmission to the Base Army Post Office is now about 5½ weeks, but this does not include the time letters may be waiting for the next mail from this country, or the time taken, to distribute the correspondence after the arrival of the mails in the Middle East. This is still the position as regards the general air mail service for letters, and at present the aircraft accommodation is quite insufficient to provide a normal service by air throughout. Improvements have, however, I am delighted to say, been authorised recently, and some have, indeed, actually been introduced which enable a mail of restricted weight to be carried by air between this country and the Middle East.

A new air mail postcard to the Forces has been inaugurated. By restricting the correspondence to thin postcards it has been found possible to reserve space to carry a mail of this kind by air all the way to the base. The first flight left on April 13 and reached the base on April 21, carrying just over 100,000 postcards, and since then other flights have been made and a total of well over half a million postcards have already been dispatched. There is every prospect that regular services of this kind can be maintained. It is also hoped to introduce shortly what is called an airgraph service from this country to the overseas base. So far as the outward service is concerned this is at present held up for technical reasons, but the first airgraph service in the inward direction, that is to say, from the Middle East to this country, comprising 50,000 airgraph letters, actually arrived on May 13, having been dispatched from the East on May 2. Under the airgraph scheme letters are written on special forms which are photographed on miniature films which are carried all the way by air to this country where enlargements are made for delivery. The films occupy an infinitesimal proportion of the space which would be taken up by an equivalent number of letters, and this is how it has been made possible to arrange for their carriage by aeroplane.

Yet another service has been introduced to help the troops in the homeward direction. This is known as the "rationed" lettercard service. These lettercards are now beginning to arrive: they are due to be conveyed partly by air and partly by surface mail, and should take about one month in transmission from the base. Now that the quicker airgraph service has been introduced the rationed lettercard service may be regarded as supplementary. The ordinary air mail service by sea between Africa and the United Kingdom is still available at the ordinary rates, which are substantially greater than those charged on these special services.

We have appreciated from the first that it is of the utmost importance to speed up communications, and essential to morale that contact with home is maintained. I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving me this opportunity of stating what steps are being taken, and we have every hope that under the new schemes in operation, or about to operate, contact will be greatly speeded up.


My Lords, I am exceedingly grateful to Lord Ailwyn for his powerful support in this matter. It was more than usually valuable because it was support coming from the other end. I desire to thank also the noble Lord, Lord Croft, for his sympathetic and kindly reply, and I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.


My Lords, before the Motion is withdrawn, I should like to draw the attention of my noble friend Lord Croft to an important matter. I thank him for the steps which he has taken, but I have had very serious complaints about the postal service with regard to West Africa. Lord Croft did not mention in his reply if he was going into this, so may I now draw his attention to the fact that precisely similar complaints to those which the noble Earl has mentioned in connection with the Middle East have been received from troops stationed in West Africa? I shall be very grateful if the noble Lord, Lord Croft, will look into this matter.


Yes, I certainly will.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.