New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
Appendix II — 2 NZEF ARMY POSTAL SERVICE
2 NZEF ARMY POSTAL SERVICE
(By Lieutenant-Colonel A. V. Knapp)
Although considerable experience had been gained during the 1914–18 War in connection with the conduct of Army postal activities, very little information was available in the early stages of the Second World War. The functions, etc., of most of the other arms of the Service were covered by textbooks, but little information of value was to be found so far as the Army Postal Service was concerned. Although in some ways this caused initial difficulties, later experience showed that perhaps there were advantages, in that it was possible to build up an efficient organisation without the handicap of trying to work along the lines of the more static formation which operated in the earlier war.
When a decision was made in 1939 to send an Expeditionary Force overseas, a Postal Unit was formed as one of the components of the Force. In the early stages, only a few of the personnel had had previous Post Office training, but before the First Echelon left New Zealand a reorganisation was made, and trained Post Office men were appointed to the officer and higher NCO positions. The value of this action was amply demonstrated as the War proceeded. An appreciable portion of the work performed by an Army Postal Unit is very similar to civilian Post Office activities. Army Post Offices in the field were required to carry out almost the full range of activities of a civilian post office—the sale of stamps and postal orders; the acceptance of telegrams; the acceptance of letters, parcels, etc.; and the despatch and receipt of mails.
The Postal Unit which left New Zealand with the First Echelon was in two sections: one the nucleus of a Base Postal Unit, and the other a Divisional Postal Unit. On this occasion, all the personnel of the Unit were on one vessel. This created difficulty in handling mail matter on other transports of the convoy, and also in compiling address card records. After this experience, action was taken with the Second and Third Echelons and subsequent reinforcements to send Postal Unit personnel with each vessel.
In addition to handling all mail posted by the troops on board the transports during the voyage from New Zealand to the overseas theatre (in this case Egypt), the postal personnel page 728 had to prepare an address card for every New Zealand Forces person on board each of the transports. This card-record system was the basis of the whole working of the 2nd NZEF postal system, and it is pertinent to state here how the system worked.
As mentioned, an address card was prepared during the voyage from New Zealand for every serviceman or servicewoman who went overseas. These cards showed the surname and initials of the person concerned, his Army number, and the unit to which he belonged. The cards prepared for the First Echelon were, of course, the initial record, and as each subsequent Echelon or contingent arrived in Egypt, the records prepared on the voyage were sorted into the main record system.
All changes of address of each soldier were recorded on the cards, these changes being taken from the copies of the daily casualty returns prepared by every unit. In effect, it was possible through these record cards to trace the movements of each soldier from the time he left New Zealand shores until he re-embarked for return to New Zealand, and also the civilian address he proposed to use on his re-entry into New Zealand.
As mail matter was received at the Base Post Office in Egypt from New Zealand or any other source it was all checked against the record cards, and the latest addresses recorded on the articles before being despatched to the soldiers concerned. This was done during the whole War so far as letters and parcels were concerned, and, in the early stages, with newspapers also.
In 1942, owing to the very large volume of newspapers received from New Zealand in particular, action was taken to deliver them in the first instance to the address shown on the newspapers. Although this meant that appreciable numbers of newspapers were returned from units because the addressees had moved to some other unit or perhaps to hospital, it did save the great delay in delivery which would have resulted had everything been checked against the record cards before despatch.
On arrival in Egypt in February 1940, the Base and Divisional Postal Units were first located at the New Zealand Base Camp at Maadi. A little later, however, the Base Postal Unit (from then on known as the 2nd NZEF Base Post Office) was accommodated in part of the main Cairo Post Office building. As the quantity of mail increased, several subsequent changes of location were made, until, in May 1940, a building in Sharia Fum el Terra el Buloqia, near Kasr el Nil Barracks, was occupied. The Base Post Office remained there until the termination of the War and the return of all New Zealand troops to New Zealand. The building, which had been a garage prior to the War, had approximately 10,000 square feet of floor space, and, except at certain times, particularly about the page 729 Christmas period when very large quantities of mail were received from New Zealand, it provided quite reasonable facilities for handling the mails from units of the 2nd NZEF.
For some time after the arrival of the 2nd NZEF there were difficulties about the prepayment of postage on mail matter posted by the troops. The Egyptian Government regarded the New Zealand Expeditionary Force as civilians so far as postal facilities were concerned, and they insisted on the prepayment in Egyptian stamps on all correspondence posted by the troops. Although all the actual work of sorting outward correspondence was performed by the Army postal staff, the actual despatch of the mails was made by the Egyptian Civilian Post Office. Parcels posted by New Zealand personnel also had to be prepaid in Egyptian stamps and many difficulties were encountered in respect of checking of weights, postages and compliance with Customs formalities.
All inward mails from New Zealand were also received through the Civil Post Office and duty was chargeable on all articles contained in the parcels which were subject to duty according to the Egyptian Customs laws.
In addition to Customs charges the Egyptian Government also insisted upon the payment of terminal charges on all parcels, i.e., that portion of the postage which is allocated as a delivery fee to the country concerned under the Parcel Post Agreement which happens to be in force. In regard to parcels from New Zealand for 2nd NZEF personnel, all the Egyptian Post Office did was to unload the mails from the conveying steamers and deliver them to the New Zealand Base Post Office in Cairo.
In March 1941, however, by agreement between the Governments concerned, the collection by the Egyptian Post Office of postages, etc., on all mail matter, including parcels, despatched by the various Empire Army Postal Services, was abolished. Each Force provided its own stamps from its Home Country and letters, parcels, etc., requiring postage were prepaid in the stamps of the Service handling the mail.
At this time there were British, Australian, South African, Indian and New Zealand Army Postal Services operating on Egyptian soil, all using stamps of their respective Home countries. To avoid the complicated arrangements which would have been necessary if, say, postage prepaid in New Zealand stamps on correspondence for the United Kingdom had to be accounted page 730 for with the British Army Postal Services, a ‘gentleman's’ agreement was entered into between the various services to the effect that each would accept mail matter prepaid in stamps of any of the services concerned. It will no doubt be appreciated that this action saved an inestimable amount of accounting, especially as frequently British units would be served through New Zealand Field Post Offices, South African through British Field Post Offices and so on. Although no special statistics were ever taken it has been estimated that the ‘balance of trade’ was about equal between all the services.
As soon as the new system came into operation, the New Zealand Army Postal Service handled all their own mails. Outward mails were despatched direct from the Base Post Office to the airport or ship and inward mails were handled in the same way. To all intents and purposes the New Zealand Army Postal Service (also the other Empire Services) became an independent Postal State. The only control which the Egyptian Government retained was the right to examine parcels for tobacco, which was one of the few items which was still regarded as liable for Customs duty. This right of examination did not prove onerous in any way and little, if any, duty on tobacco was ever collected from the troops. Later (in 1943) agreement was reached with the Egyptian Government that tobacco for troops could be imported free of duty provided it was not resold to civilians and Customs examination ceased on troops' parcels.
During the period that mail was required to be passed through the Egyptian Civilian Post Office postage had to be prepaid on all types of correspondence. When the Services commenced handling their own mails all articles up to 2 oz. in weight for despatch to New Zealand by surface means were accepted free. Postage was still required on air mail correspondence, parcels and other articles over two ounces in weight.
In addition to normal postal business cables, EFMs (Expeditionary Force Message—a special low-rate cable) exchanged between New Zealand Service personnel and New Zealand were also handled by the New Zealand Army postal service. This service was operated direct with the Marconi Radio and Telegraph Company of Egypt, S.A.E. Cables, EFMs, etc., were accepted at all Field Post Offices, whence they were despatched by mail to the Base Post Office, which in turn delivered them to the Marconi Company for transmission. Delivery of inward messages to the troops was made by the Company to the Base Post Office and onward despatch was made by mail.
All messages for despatch through the Marconi Company telegraph systems were listed at the Base Post Office before being handed over to the Company and accounting was on a monthly basis.