§ [The question was as follows:
§ To ask His Majesty's Government, what is the present position with regard to the delivery of mails to our forces in Italy; and whether they can give any details of the average times taken by air-letters, airgraphs, ordinary letters and parcels to base areas and to forward positions.]
§ LORD CROFT
My Lords, knowing the great interest that the noble Lord takes in this question, and in view of the interest which has been displayed by your Lordships' House in this matter, and also because I am sure the noble Lord would wish me to include a word about cables as well as the matters mentioned in his question, I hope I may be forgiven if I take a moment or two longer than is usual in the case of an answer to a starred question. On the occasion in July last when the noble Lord raised this matter I explained that the extreme importance of regular and speedy mails to troops overseas was fully realized by those responsible for the well-being of the troops and that everything was being done to maintain and, wherever possible, to improve the service. Since then the campaign in Italy has developed, and I can assure the noble Lord that these con- 434 siderations have governed, and will continue to govern, the operation of the mail services to our troops in that theatre of war.
The difficulties to be contended with are, however, still very great. In the first place there is the weather. This affects the air mail service in particular, and especially so in the winter months. In fog, for example, the planes with the mail may be grounded for some days. There will be times when for a period a considerable proportion of mails, at least those which go by air, will take longer on their journey than normal. The other main difficulty I mentioned at some length in my reply in July—namely, the fact that a soldier in the fighting front cannot easily be reached even at the best of times, that he frequently moves either with his unit or as an individual, and that he may become a casualty and be evacuated to hospital. There will therefore always be cases where for one reason or another mail takes a long time to reach certain individuals. It would, however, be a mistake to suppose that these cases are typical of the mail service. This is confirmed by a report which was recently received from North Africa early this month on the distribution of mail to troops in the forward areas.
I will now give the figures which the noble Lord has asked for. An air letter takes on the average not more than seven days to reach the Forward Field Post Office with the Fifth or Eighth Armies. I would stress that this is the average time. On several occasions in one month this winter, air mail reached the Forward Field Post Office on the western part of the front four days, and on the eastern part five days, after it left the postal centre in this country. This is all the more creditable when the difficult winter flying conditions are considered as well as the increase of about 70 per cent. which has taken place in the amount of air mail carried to North Africa. Owing to the need for processing airgraphs, they take about four days longer on the average than air letters to reach their destination. On the other hand they save very valuable space, and in case they are destroyed by the enemy they can be repeated within a few days. Only recently I heard of a remarkable case of a vast number of these airgraphs being destroyed, and I think I am right in saying that in ten days they were duplicated 435 and in the hands of those they were intended to reach.
Surface mail, that is letters, newspapers and parcels, take on the average 31 days to reach Italy. If a letter or parcel reaches the home postal centre just after mail for a convoy has left, it has to wait for the next sailing and this time is included in the average figure of 31 days which I have just given. In cases where not all the surface mail can be carried at the same time letters are given preference and it would probably be fair to add something to the figure given for parcels only. The noble Lord will appreciate that the service has been maintained and, in spite of the increase in the volume of mail carried, and in spite of the adverse weather in winter, it is perhaps now better than it was on the whole last summer. As I have already said we are fully alive to the importance of this question. Everything possible is being done to speed up the services and make them more regular, and I hope the noble Lord will himself become aware, and will be told by his correspondents, of a progressive improvement in these services.
The other point he asked me about concerned telegrams and cables. Telegrams for members of the Central Mediterranean Force are transferred by the Post Office to Cable & Wireless Ltd., and are telegraphed by them to the base abroad. They are handed over there to the military authorities who are responsible for sending them forward to the addresses by the quickest means of transport available. Both the telegraph company and the military authorities dispose of these personal messages as speedily as the difficulties of the situation permit. The constant movement of personnel causes some delay and further delay is caused by the fact that for security reasons it is necessary to send telegrams addressed to individuals in code. These delays are, I fear, inevitable, but if the noble Lord will let me have particulars of any cases where he thinks there is a delay which is unpardonable in view of the factors I have named, I give him an assurance that I will have them investigated.
My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord for his full reply, which I think will give general satisfaction.