Picture the past: Airgraphs

Picture the past: Airgraphs

In World War Two, airgraphs were a crucial way for families and people in the forces to communicate – and they can provide useful details for family historians

Picture the Past, Picture the Past

Picture the Past

Picture the Past

How did families and service people communicate safely in wartime? In the 1930s the Eastman Kodak Company, in partnership with British and American air carriers, came up with a solution which was both reliable and practical: the airgraph. Letters were written on tailor-made airgraph forms, which were then photographed, given an identification number and sent as negatives on rolls of microfilm. At the receiving end they were then printed out at readable size on photographic paper and delivered by the Army Postal Services.

A key advantage was the weight reduction: 1600 messages weighed only around 140 grams instead of more than 20kg. Copies of the microfilm were also kept as a back-up in case an aircraft was shot down.

Airgraphs were sent from 1941 to 1945, initially one-way from Britain to the Middle East, and eventually further afield and in both directions as the necessary equipment was distributed. The first ever batch of 70,000 took three weeks from sender to recipient. More than 130 million were sent in the four-year period.

One limitation, other than lack of privacy, was the size – less than 10cm square – but people made imaginative use of the space, as the pictures on these pages show. Messages were subject to the censor’s approval. A similar system called V-Mail was adopted by the United States.

Eventually air capacity increased and the airgraph was no longer needed – but they remain fascinating documents, which can often reveal interesting details both about the war and family life. With few records from WW2 publicly available yet, they can also be invaluable to family historians.

The collection here was sent between 1943 and 1945 by Alistair Callam, who served with the Air Formation Signals in the British Army in North Africa (BNAF). In 1942 Kodak had established an airgraph processing station in Algiers.

Airgraphs were sent from the processing station in a date-franked envelope. In this case the date of receipt has been written by hand, presumably by the recipient – only two days after it was sent
The first message sent records Callam’s arrival in North Africa and his reactions to the sultry conditions, including “my first bathe in the mud”
Although details of campaigns were subject to censorship, Callam includes an optimistic comment here in November 1943: “I hope it shall not be long now since Jerry seems to be definitely on the run.” He also discusses the 1942 film Random Harvest.
Servicemen would often make full use of the cramped writing space with drawings – though in this case the illustration was pre-printed to mark Christmas 1943
Note every airgraph has his army number and his unit, the 10th Air Formation Signals (see here) – this information might be helpful in tracing a relative through regimental records. If you are a direct descendant, the place to start is here
This airgraph shows that people still sent airmail letters and parcels as well. Here Callam writes of receiving a parcel containing The Spectator, Reader’s Digest and two bars of soap. He discusses culture again, mentioning Lassie Come Home and Dante’s Paradiso in almost the same breath!
Another Christmas greeting, this time with a pre-printed map of the Mediterranean. Note the stamp at the top confirming messages have been passed by the censor. Also, Callam has now moved to the 1st Air Formation Signals
In this case the airgraph has been sent in the other direction, to Callam from a family friend at home in Dunfermline. In this case there is also a reference to a local newspaper reporting on the war, perhaps even mentioning Callam personally – this could be followed up in local archives. The BBC also has a personal memory of the 10th Air Formation Signals, here

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