A Philatelic ABC — Postage stamps and old envelopes illuminate the past

**Starting with the letter “A,” postal artifacts **

• A is for Azad Hind

In 1938, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a self-proclaimed nationalist, became leader of the Indian Nationalist Party, which sought to expel the British from India by whatever means available. In 1968, India issued this set of two stamps commemorating 30th anniversary of the founding of the Indian Nationalist Party.

In 1942, Bose signed an agreement with Hitler proclaiming the provisional government of Free India Azad Hind. In 1943, with the help of the Japanese, he set up the provisional government of Azad Hind. He organized an Indian National Army, composed of three divisions, in Burma. An Azad Hind Legion was also set up in Europe, and fought there briefly.

•• These Azad Hind stamps were printed in Germany, and are listed in the Michel catalogue. There is some question as to their legitimacy. Forgeries may have been made. Most of the Azad Hind stamps are quite easy to obtain, and are availa0ble in both perforate and imperforate varieties. This is a short set of imperforate stamps, missing the key stamp. There is also at least one color variety.

Bose was killed in an air crash on the island of Formosa on 18 August 18th, 1945, and the Azad Hind movement disappeared with his death. While the Azad Hind movement ended with Bose's death, it has not been forgotten.

••• Last year in a B.C. Phil auction I won what appears to be a "wishful thinking" maximum card prepared in Vancouver. It's "franked" with a corner from the 1998 Canadian "Year of the Tiger" souvenir sheet and cancelled with a first day cancellation. It's appropriate that the Year of the Tiger stamp is used: A leaping tiger was the symbol of the Azad Hind movement, and is seen on the flag on the right side of the card. The Azad Hind¿ "stamp" is not real but is printed on the card.

Shirali Shiji provided translation of the topmost line which read, in Hinki, "Ghulami ki shrinkalayem toot gayeee," which means "The chains of bondage have been broken," but the image, which shows British troops being routed by Azad Hind soldiers, presents an historical fiction. Although a combined force of Japanese and Azad Hind troops came within 10 km of Imphal in eastern India in 1944, it was repulsed by the British Indian army.

B & C

• I chose to combine the letters B and C into one segment, about the BCATP – the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

This Canadian air mail stamp was issued as part of the War Issue of 1942. The inscription on the block reads, "BRITISH COMMONWEALTH AIR TRAINING PLAN / PLAN D'ENTRAINEMENT ARIEN DU COMMONWEALTH." The stamp shows a North American Harvard trainer, the trainer used in Canada and the U.S. to train fighter pilots.

Great Britain, faced with theó need for thousands of air crewmen to fight the war against Hitler, proposed the BCATP to Canada on less than a month following the German assault on Poland in 1939. Throughout the war, Canada undertook the training of thousands of pilots, gunners, navigators, bombardiers and radio operators. The Plan resulted in a construction boom across Canada, and turned hundreds of small civilian airfields and flying schools into military camps.

•• A real-photo postcard in my collection shows the graduation ceremony at #11 Service Flying Training School at Yorkton, Sask. The aircraft are North American Harvards, previously seen in the block of B.C.A.T.P. airmail stamps.

••• I first learned about the Air Training Plan when I found this postcard in an antique store in Quesnel. It shows the Royal Canadian Air Force Barracks in Regina. It was sent from an airman named Joe Hicks, on July 28, 1940, from the Initial Trainƒing School at Regina. The school hosted an elementary flying school and an air observer school. At ITS, candidates followed a strict regimen of classes, marching, cleaning, and physical training. There was no flight training at initial schools. They were ground schools, "boot camps" where trainees learned basic aeronautics and mathematics.

•••• The back of the postcard carries a simple message, "How about writing???" and was mailed to a friend in Fort William, Ontario.

Joe Hicks was later stationed as an observer with 420 Snowy Owl Squadron at RAF Station Waddington in eastern England.

••••• At that time the squadron was flying Handley-Page Hampden bombers, which were already obsolete when war broke out. Despite their limitations, Hampdens had been flown on mining, leaflet, and bombing raids against German shipping and military and civilian targets in Germany.

On May 25, 1942, Joe's bomber, on a mission to attack the north German city of Rostoc k, was badly damaged by a German night fighter near the Dutch island of Ameland, and eventually crashed on the Danish island of Funen, also known as Fyn. Joe, the Hampden's pilot, and a gunner were killed. One gunner survived.


• D is for Dachau, the first and one of the most notorious of the German work camps. Established on March 21, 1933, Dachau became the model for all future German concentration camps. The first prisoners at Dachau were political opponents of the Nazis and included: communists, social democrats, members of the trade unions and a few members of the conservative and the liberal parties. In the following years, Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Catholic clergymen were detained at Dachau, and often died there. In 1938, Nazi thugs targeted Jews in a rampage of hatred that came to be known as Krystal Nacht" or "Crystal Night," named after the shards of glass in the streets from the broken windows of Jewish shops. Some 10,000 Jews were arrested and taken to Dachau.

It is estimated that as many as 238,000 prisoners may have died at Dachau as a result of exposure, disease, or as the result of executions for supposed violations of the "Disciplinary and Penal Code for the Prison Camp." Corpses were incinerated in specially built ovens. Gas chambers were not used at Dachau until 1943.

This cover, which bears the remains of an "Osten" overprinted Hiterhead occupation stamp, did not originate from the main Dachau camp, but from one of the many work camps administered from Dachau. These work camps were located through occupied territories, including the Ukraine and the Baltic countries. It is typical of covers and letter sheets that were printed for use by prisoners at Dachau.

•• The content of the letters and packages sent to and from Dachau was strictly regulated and restricted; the printed information on the cover and on the enclosed letter, lays out the regulations. The letters were of course censored; recipients of letters from Dachau or any other German concentration camp could know little more than that the senders were alive when the letters were written. Note that the stamp has been partially removed. Prisoners at times tried, in vain, to hide secret messages beneath stamps.


• E is for Eastern Front. When Germany broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and attacked Russia on a broad front on July 22, 1941, it sealed its fate. By the time Russian forces overwhelmed <the German army at the Battle of Kursk two years later, a broad range of postal items documenting that historic period had been produced.

The Russians called the Second World War the Great Patriotic War; this is an example of patriotic Russian postal stationery which presents a stirring if inaccurate image of Russia at war. The Soviet Union lost an estimated six million soldiers, almost twice as many as Germany, and its army was often poorly supplied and commanded by inexperienced officers because Joseph Stalin had purged most of the experienced officers before the the war.

•• Here is the back of the the letter.

••• Russian Soldiers commonly folded letters in the shape of triangles. The reason for the shape might have been purely practical, since the letters required no tape or adhesive to hold keep them folded. ˘ •••• This is the back of the triangular letter.

••••• These labels were produced on behalf of the French Legion Against Bolshevism. Most countries occupied by Germany during the war raised legions in support of the Nazi cause, not necessarily because the legionaires had Nazi leanings but because socialism, even Nazi-style socialism seemed to be a better alternative than Communism. Perhaps even more important was the fact that German soldiers were well equipped and well fed, which appealed to young men who had lived through the Depression. French Legionaires who fought in Russia apparently suffered 100% casualties.

••••• This commercial cover, mailed from a bank in Occupied Ukraine to a woman in Munich, comes from the period near the end of German a˘ttempts to subdue Russia. It was mailed only on May 29, 1943, just 36 days before the Battle of Kursk, which began on July 4, 1943, with the main offensive beginning on July 5. Kursk was the greatest battle between armoured divisions ever seen. Germany was soundly defeated, and from that point on the German armies were pushed steadily westward towards Germany and ultimate defeat.


• F is for Faroes. This widely travelled cover was sent by a well-known stamp collector from Thorshavn, Faroe Islands, to his brother , who was a crewman on a Danish ship, the Marie Maersk. It was first postmarked in Thorshavn on February 3, 1940, and then in Copenhagen 11 days later, on February 12. It is virtually impossible to decipher its travels past that point. ÙDerren Carman says that the German censorship marking was in use from July, 1940 through November, 1941. Perhaps the cover was detained for several months in Germany before being sent on its way. It apparently got as far as Texas, because there is a "from Texas, USA" endorsement on the front. Somewhere during its journey it was censored by the British, but it could not be delivered, and was eventually returned to Thorshavn.

•• This is the back of the cover.

The Marie Maersk was later used by the Allies, and was sunk at Piraeus by German bombs on April 12, 1941, during the Allied evacuation of Greece. A modern container ship of the same name, owned by the same Danish shipping company, is currently sailing.


• G is for Guernsey

Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands, was occupied by Germany in 1940, shortly after the Blitzkrieg which brought the Low Countries and France under German control. The Channel Islands, in fact, were the only British soil that was occupied by Germany during the war; the occupation was allowed by Britain in part because they couldn't stop it, and in part because the islands were deemed to have no military significance.

The occupation of the Channel Islands was relatively benign compared to that of other European countries, although most of the islands' Jewish population was "transported" to the Eastern Europe and never heard from again. The war period was characterized by shortages of all commodities, and many people suffered from malnutrition because the Germans exported most of the islands' agricultural produce back to Germany.

Among the shortages were postage stamps. Guernsey, like Jersey, had always used British postage stamps, but soon after the occupation began, supplies of stamp ran out, and postmasters began to bisect stamps to make up the proper rate for intra- and inter-island mail. The only civilian mail to enter or leave the islands during the occupation was Red Cross mail, but islanders, many of whom must have been stamp collectors. This wartime cover shows one such locally used bisected British stamp. The postmark shows another result of shortages caused by the occupation. The Guernsey post office was unable to get a slug to make up the second "1" in the year "1941," so the "0" of 1940 was filed down to produce a "make do" numeral 1.


• H is for Reinhard Heydrich, but I will take a moment to explain some history. In 1938, Germany annexed the Sudetenland region of Western Czechoslovakia, renamed it Bohemia and Moravia, and began a bloody regime forcing Czechs to produce arms for Germany. This 1943 cover makes clear Czechoslovakia's position as a "protektorate" of Germany.

•• Reinhard Heydrich was named "Reichsprotektor" of Bohemia and Moravia in 1941, and became known as the Butcher of Prague for the bloody way he maintain´ed production quotas of the Czech armaments industries. Heydrich's death mask, shown on this Moravia and Bohemia stamp, issued in 1943, might be grusome, but it is perhaps an appropriate memorial to one of the tragedies of the war.

••• This cover shows the stamp used on a philatelic cover mailed in June, 1943.

More than a year earlier, in May, 1942, Joseph Gabcik, a Czech resistance fighter who had been trained in England, was parachuted into Bohemia and Moravia. He was memorialized in the set of Czech Heros" stamps issued in 1945. The complete set is shown on this covere. A few days later, Gabcik led a team which attacked Heydrich while he was being chauffered to work. He ydrich was wounded by a grenade and died ten days later from infection and shock resulting from his injuries. German revenge was swift.

Even before Heydrich's death, the assasins were trapped in the basement of a church. The Germans pumped gasoline into the basement and torched it, killing all of the resistance fighters.

The Nazis commenced an orgy of revenge following the attack on Heydrich. They identified the small Czech village of Lidice as the home of a family with possible, but unproved, connections to the resistance fighters. The SS arrived in the village at midnight and killed all male inhabitants over the age of 16 years. Children were taken from their mothers; babies under one year of age and some older children were taken to Germany for "re-education." The remaining children and their mothers were either gassed immediately in execution vans, or later died in Ravensbruck concentration camp. Lidice itself, which dated from the Middle Ages, was destroyed by explosives and bulldozed out of existe˛nce. A nearby village called Lezaky suffered a similar fate at the same time. In Prague, the Nazis executed1,331 Czechs, including more than 200 women.

•••• The Czech government, in its 1945 "Heroes Issue," memorialized Joseph Gabcik.

The Nazis did not succeed in destroying the memory of Lidice. There was a storm of protest around the world, several small villages changed their names to Lidice, and women began to name their daughters Lidice. Since the war, Czechoslovakia has issued several stamps on succeeding anniversaries of the destruction of Lidice and Lezaky. Here are two examples.

••••• & •••••


• I is for Italy. Italy did not join Germany for almost a year after the invasion of Poland, and thereafter played a lackluster role, with its army, navy and air force being out-fought and outgunned by the Allies from the beginning. At best, the Italians were able to help the Germans slow the Allied advance into North Africa and Southern Europe. The relationship between Italy and Germany was much more obvious on Italian stamps than on German stamps. I am aware of only one German stamp picturing Mussolini, but there are many Italian stamps showing Hitler, always accompanied by Mussolini. There were also Hitler/Mussolini stamps issued for use in Italy's African colonies. This censãored cover, franked by two of the Italian Hitler/Mussolini stamps plus two one-lira airmail stamps, was postmarked in June and received in Upper Falls, Maryland, in July, after being forwarded once. It was apparently not franked with the correct airmail rate, as indicated by the red handsstamp.

•• I is also for the Italian Social Republic. Following the Allied invasion of Sicily and the Italian Penninsula in 1943, the Italian government turned on Mussolini and surrendered. Mussolini was arrested, but was rescued in a daring operation by German commandos. With the support of the Germans, who themselves would soon be ousted from Italy, he established the short lived Italian Social Republic. This overprinted stamp was cancelled on the day that the Field Marshall Kesselring received orders from Hitler to evacuate Rome in the face of advancing Allied armies. This is a perfect example of a stamp wÛhich has minimum catalogue in used or mint condition, but becomes a collectible artifact because of its cancellation.

••• This is an example of a Canadian Aerograph, a British invention which involved using microfilm to photograph letters to and from servicemen in order to save weight on transport aircraft. The same system was used by the United States, where the photographic letters were referred to as V-Mail. This particular example is unusual because it was mailed without an envelope.

•••• This slide shows the same Aerograph opened. It was written by a Canadian officer, who describes his life in Italy a few months after the Allied invasion. He mentions the prevalence of venereal disease, and the fact that "nice" Italian girls are constantly chaperoned.


• J is for Jersey

I've already told you about the Occupation of the Channel Islands, and how shortages of postage stamps resulted in the creation of bisects which were legitimately, if postally, used on cover.

When the shortage of sta mps soon became critical, German occupation authorities ordered the production of new stamps. Guernsey's stamp was a crude affair, and rather cheeky considering that it replicated the arms of the Kingdom of England and Normandy. When the Germans approached a Jerseyman, Col. N.V.L. Rybot, to design Jersey's stamps, he at first declined, and then after thinking about it, he agreed to produce stamps very much like those of Guernsey, but with a difference.

•• Into each corner of the one-pence stamp the Colonel engraved a tiny capital A, to stand for the Latin Words "Ad avernum, Adolphé Atrox, or "Go to Hell, Atrocious Adolf."

It wasn't much of a sabotage. the Germans apparently didn't learn about it during the occupation, and Col. Rybot did not reveal it until after the war. Although many Jerseymen appear to have been stamp collectors, none of them apparently questioned those A's. Perhaps there was a shortage of magnifying glasses....

••• Earlier I mentioned that the only civilian mail that entered or left the Channel Islands was carried under the auspices of the Red Cross. This is an example of a Red Cross letter form which was written in England , probably carried in a Red Cross packet by way of Portugal and into Occupied Europe, finally reaching its destination.

(Read letter)

•••• The recipient replied (show back) and it was returned to England (Read Reply)


K is for KIA – Killed in Action.

• One of the innovations of the First World War, in addition to the military aircraft and submarines, was the tank. It was developed out of a need to be able to cross over trenches and through barbed wire barricades that characterized trench warfare. The first tanks to go into combat, as shown in this contemporaneous postcard view of the battle of Combles, weren't very effective, or safe. Their top speed was only four miles per hour, and they were lightly armoured, and armed. They were called "tanks" to hide their nature as weapons; the earliest models looked like large water tanks mounted on treads.

Although the tanks of the First World War were failures for the most part, British propaganda about their success was believed by the Germans, who secretly developed awesomely powerful tanks by the outbreak of the Second World War. Great Britain, Russia, Canada and the United States were not far behind.

•• With the outbreak of the Second World War, the Canadian Army started preparing in earnest for coming tank battles. This cover is from a soldier in the First Canadian Armoured Division at Camp Borden, Ontario. It was pZostmarked on June 2, 1941.

••• The back flap of the cover sports this wonderful division crest, showing a First World War tank in profile.

•••• By the end of the summer of 1941, the First Armoured Division was in England, training for the invasion of Europe. This cover, from another tanker in the division, was postmarked on by Field Post Office #34 on August 28, and carried via the North Atlantic Air Service.

•••• This slide shows the back of the cover, with a beautiful strike of the postmark the First Army Tank Brigade. It's interesting that it was not censored.

••••• Early August of 1944 was one of the most crucial periods of the war in Europe. Canadian, American, and British army units were confronting battle-hardened German infantry, armoured and artillery units in the battle for supremacy on the Normandy peninsula. This contemporaneou s German postcard, probably produced in late 1944 or early 1945, shows a temporary German victory, presumably in the weeks following the invasion of Normandy. A German Panzer tank is shown overrunning a British 25-Pounder field gun position.

By August 16, the Allies had prevailed in the Battle of the Falaise Gap, and German units, caught between the British and Canadians on one side, and the Americans on the other, were withdrawing through the "gap" in a desperate struggle to survive intense Allied pressure.

The Battle of Falaise Gap officially ended on August 17, but almost complete chaos still reigned in the days after that, with thousands of German stragglers desperately trying to evade capture or death.

•••••• In Canada, the families of men who went missing in combat or were killed were notified by telegram. But news of the death of men in the military might well reach their friends and acquaintances by way of the "KIA" letter — a letter which failed to reach the recipent because he or she had been Ki lled in Action.

This cover was mailed to Robert J. Tester, a member of the 22nd Armoured Regiment of the Canadian Grenadier Guards, which was a tank regiment. He died on August 18, 1944, but apparently was wounded earlier: his official unit diary, written on or soon after August 18, records no deaths on that day. It is likely that he was in hospital in a rear area when he died.

Note the date the stamp was cancelled. Ironically, it is August 18, 1944. I have not been able to learn any details about Tester's death, but he is listed on the roll of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Using a flashlight, I was able to see the word "DECEASED" in block letters beneath the censored area in the lower right corner of the cover.


• L is for Luxembourg. It isn't just soldiers and civilians and buildings and bridges that are targets in wartime. Language, it seems, is also targeted. It appears that the person who mailed this commercial cover, mailed in Occupied Belgium to German in 1940, took pains to ensure that it was a German cover in all respects: All printed French words on the envelope have been crossed out or altered to their German equivalents. Thus, Rue becomes Strasse, and "Luxembourg" with an "o" becomes "Luxemburg," matching the postmarks. The French words "pneus," "huiles," and "antitartre" are crossed out, but remain highly completely legible.


• M is for Missing in action

Of all possible communications that families and friends receive in wartime, the message that a loved one is "MIA" -- "Missing in Action" -- celrtainly causes the most pain, especially if the person who goes missing is never heard from again. It is all too common. In the 20th Century, 27,000 Canadians went missing in action and have no known graves. This much-redirected "Missing in Action" cover reveals little of the fate of the missing soldier, a Lt. Jay W. Anderson. He appears to have been a U.S. Army Air Force officer, perhaps stationed in China. The cover is backstamped by Army Post Office #211, which indicates that he may have been stationed in China. The cover was postmarked on Nov. 30, 1944, four days after B-29 bombers based in China bombed Hankow, a Japanese supply depot, with incendiaries – a raid that proved how vulnerable Asian cities were to destruction by fire. It's possible that Lt. Anderson was lost on this raid or one of the many others that were originating from American bases in China.