Fringe Box



Can Anyone Solve Wartime Air Mail Mystery?

Published on: 19 Dec, 2014
Updated on: 19 Dec, 2014

Bob Hind, whose memories of working in a Guildford butcher’s shop and his later career on the railways featured here recently, wonders if any Guildford Dragon NEWS readers can provide some answers to a wartime mystery he has.

Bob writes a regular history column for the Portsmouth News, and the story reproduced here, about a seaman from Southsea, who became a prisoner of war and who received letters by air mail, has, so far, drawn a blank for Bob in his quest to find out more about the air mail service during the Second World War. Can anyone help?

The air mail envelope that has sparked the query about how such a service worked during the Second World War.

The air mail envelope that has sparked the query about how such a service worked during the Second World War.

In 1942 the light cruiser HMS Manchester was involved in Operation Pedestal the supply of the besieged island of Malta escorting a convoy.

On August 13 she was torpedoed by two Italian motor torpedo boats. Thirteen men were killed in the attack.

HMS Manchester in the dockyard at Philadelphia 1941.

HMS Manchester in the dockyard at Philadelphia 1941.

Severely damaged, with a hole that a car could be driven through and her engines stopped, her commander Captain Harold Drew decided to save as many of his crew as he could and scuttle the ship.

For this action he was later court-martialled dismissed the service. It broke his heart that he should be thought a coward when his ship never had a chance of making a neutral port.

142 men were taken off by other ships. 375 men and 27 officers took to the boats and landed on the Tunisian coast held by the Vichy French and held in a POW camp believed to have been a former Foreign Legion fort.

Taken in Philadelphia here we see Frederick as a chief petty officer aged 26.

Taken in Philadelphia here we see Frederick as a chief petty officer aged 26.

One of those men was Chief E.R.A. Frederick Cecil Comlay, of 135 Westfield Road, Southsea.

I must thank his son Neil for the following photographs and information on his father.

When in the camp he was sent letters from his wife Kathleen, and as can be seen from the envelope it was sent by Air Mail par avon via Madrid, Spain.

Can you believe that there was such a thing as air mail in 1942? I have never heard of such a thing and I wonder if there was  some special allowance for marked aeroplanes to fly to neutral countries?

I very much doubt it of course, but I would really like to know how it all worked. I am sure one of my readers would have some knowledge of how it happened.

Previous to this action, HMS Manchester had been damaged by ariel torpedo on July 21, 1941, and was sent to Philadelphia for repairs before returning to Portsmouth Dockyard where final repairs were completed in April, 1942.

Frederick was billeted with the Bradfield family at 46, Waverley Road, Monoa, Upper Darby, Philadelphia.

Frederick had joined the navy in 1930 at HMS Fishgard and worked his way up through the ranks to become a lieutenant. He later saw service in Burma and at D-Day.

At the end of his career he joined the RNZ Navy and retired in 1965. He died in 1993 aged 77.

The reverse of the air mail letter with a Madrid stamp.

The reverse of the air mail letter with a Madrid stamp.

David Rose adds: If anyone can add some details, please leave a reply in the box below, as Bob is a regular reader of The Guildford Dragon NEWS. Also, if anyone can supply details of how all kinds of mail was actually passed between both sides during both the First and Second World War, I would be interested to know. Did it all go via neutral countries for example?


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Responses to Can Anyone Solve Wartime Air Mail Mystery?

  1. John Lomas Reply

    December 19, 2014 at 5:26 pm

    It is certainly not unique, there is another example on this forum post#35

    The page is in German but Google translate worked for me.

    I wonder if there might be more info available for Bob via this forum?

  2. Frank Phillipson Reply

    December 19, 2014 at 8:17 pm

    During WW2, BOAC (and other civil aircraft operators to Portugal) flew routes from the UK to Gibraltar – Malta and also to neutral Portugal. The actor Leslie Howard was killed when a DC3 of KLM/BOAC flying from Lisbon to Bristol was shot down over the Bay of Biscay on June 1, 1943 by eight Ju88 fighters.
    Other aircraft used for these flights included flying boats and other long range aircraft such as the B24 Liberator.
    Air Mail from Spain via either of these routes would have been possible.

  3. Frank Phillipson Reply

    December 19, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    This book would seem to explain the subject:-
    Bridging the Continents in Wartime; Important Airmail Routes 1939-1945
    By Hans E. Aitink and Egbert Hovenkamp. Published 2005 by de Stichting Luchtpostgeschiedenis Tweede Wereldoorlog, Brassehorst 11, 7531 KH
    Enschede, The Netherlands. 228 pages, soft cover, in full colour. ISBN 90-809628-1-3. Printed in a very limited quantity, reportedly sold out soon after release. For further information try contacting the publisher or the Dutch Federation (NVPV) Secretariat by e-mail at
    This is an outstanding book that describes the wartime airmail routes all over
    the world. Route maps are exceptional. Each route section includes a table of all flights on that route during this period, where known, not just the First Flight.
    Included are the dates of all intermediate stops as well as the flight number or name of plane. Research information abounds. Both historical and
    aerophilatelic information is provided in detail. Many actual flown covers are shown. Each chapter includes a bibliography for further study. This is a major contribution to the aerophilatelic history of this confusing period.

    [David Rose adds: Many thanks to Frank for supplying the answers (I thought he might), and also to John Lomas for his useful reply. I am emailing Bob Hind now to tell him to have a look!]

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