THE AIRGRAPH SERVICE (17 April 1941 to 31 July 1945)

Airgraph propaganda poster, 1942


In the early months of World War II, the Ministry of Transport in Great Britain was faced with serious problems in maintaining a postal service for forces stationed in the Middle East (GB controlled the Suez Canal from 1882 to 1952). After the French surrender to Germany in May of 1940, and with Italy a key Axis member, the western and central Mediterranean were under Axis control, with key parts of North Africa also Axis-dominated, thus closing the short route to the Atlantic. The preferred alternative was to send mail by air, but space for mail by air was extremely limited, so letters to and from the Near and Far East were taking 3 to 6 months to reach their destination by the only method remaining - via ship around the southern tip of Africa.

The short way
Maps of Europe and Africa

Keep in mind that air travel was still in its infancy - the first transatlantic service carrying both mail and passengers had been inaugurated only in 1939.

The long way

How it worked


The British Post Office realized that the solution could lie in the Kodak microfilm system (Recordak) that had been used for record-keeping by banks and other businesses since the early 1930's. It had even been proposed to the B.P.O. before in 1932, simply as a means of reducing the cost of sending mail, but it had been rejected then as unacceptable to the public. By 1940, however, things had changed dramatically, and almost anything that could aid the war effort seemed worth trying. Thus the "Airgraph" was born, the word becoming a registered trademark of Kodak Ltd., who controlled the process.

The basic concept was simple. Letters were photographed on the sending end, then the negatives were sent by air to the destination end, where they were printed and delivered. The volume and weight of the film were less than one fiftieth of the volume and weight of the letters, so a large number of letters could be transported quickly at a relatively small cost.

The Kodak office in Cairo already had the equipment required to photograph the letters, and was able to start processing almost at once. Airgraph service started from Cairo on April 21, 1941, arriving in London May 13. That first shipment comprised some 70,000 letters, a testament to someone's efforts to sell the concept. About 350,000 messages were sent during the first month of the service and over 500,000 in the second month.

Serviceman writing an Airgraph

PIGEON POST, 1870-1871

A similar concept had been in use by the French as early as 1870, to transport mail by carrier pigeon into and out of the besieged city of Paris (though the images were projected onto a screen and transcribed by hand on the receiving end).

At left, privately printed Xmas message, 1943, with news article about the French Airgraph precursor.


It took a while to establish service in the other direction, though, as getting Cairo set up to transmit had been the first priority, and getting London set up to transmit turned out to be more complicated. By the time the first dispatch left London nearly 1,000,000 Airgraph messages had been received in Britain, that from official records. The first Airgraph from the UK was sent in August by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth (wife of King George VI and mother of the current Queen) to General Sir Claud Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief, Middle East Forces, conveying a formal message to inaugurate the service. Shown below, it has serial number one!

Buckingham Palace, August, 1941

My dear General Auchinleck

In this first message by the new Airgraph Service to the Middle East, I wish to tell you, on behalf of all the women at home how constantly our thoughts turn to all those under your command.

I know how grievous is the separation which parts wife from husband, and mother from son, but I would assure those whose achievements have already filled us all with pride that their example is an inspiration, and I do not doubt that even greater accomplishment lies before them. Many of them come from homes in our Dominions, and to those I send a special message of greeting. Their valour has been the admiration of the world, and to one and all I wish a speedy victory, and a safe return to their homes and those they love.

I am, Yours Very Sincerely, Elizabeth R

First Airgraph to Cairo from the UK

Earliest Airgraph form
Address box at bottom


There were objections to the idea, of course. The letters had to be written on special forms that had been designed to work with the processing equipment, and the maximum length of a message that one form would hold was only a few hundred words ( detailed instructions were on the back side of the form). The form was not to be folded, and had to be handed in at a post office, and then handled first by censors, then by sorters and other processing personnel, and some people were sure everyone who handled the forms would read them, and private details of one's life would be known. Nonetheless, the system caught on, and by the end of the War, over 330 million Airgraphs had been processed.

As you can see in the instructions, those who were concerned about loss of privacy had the option of mailing the form to the London GPO Foreign Section, but had to bear the cost of an envelope plus extra postage. It is not known how many chose that method.

Starting some time in 1942, the instructions changed slightly. The amount of the fee is not stated, presumably to accommodate the new civilian service, which had a different fee, 8d instead of 3d.


Forms printed in the UK are found in three basic types, with 30 printings, distinguishable by numbers on the forms, and variations in the text on the back.

Type 1 Address box at bottom (there is a sub type with no text at right)

Type 2 Address box at top, no date stamp circle.

Type 3 Same as #2, but 'Date Stamp' circle at top right.

There are no records for dates of issue but forms must have been available in the UK well before 15th August, 1941, when the first flight carrying Airgraphs to Cairo left with 9 reels of film containing approximately 13,500 letters (and on the 21st & 27th, 69,000 and 163,000 Airgraphs respectively).

Steve Dunderdale adds - In Keeton's book he uses the date on the forms as printing dates, but I think this is wrong, these dates are when the warrants (Government authority) were issued for the work, printing dates being later. Warrant dates for forms with address box at bottom are recorded 2/41 to 11/41 and the first for address box at top 9/41 onwards. Forms were not withdrawn when changes were made, as wartime conditions did not allow waste, they continued in use until stocks were exhausted.


The forms themselves were free of charge from Post Offices. Indeed, anyone could produce their own forms, if they complied with the size and layout of the official issues. Such private forms were rare, as paper and printing ink were scarce. Troops overseas were issued forms free, how many depending on the command in which they served, and conditions at the time.

To the left are examples of three hand-made Airgraphs, all by the same enterprising civilian. (All of these images and their descriptions below are courtesy of Alan Berman. The references in brackets are page numbers in Keeton's book.)

TOP - Hand-drawn by E H Dear with Swan & heron in address panel - to RAF/MEF Also original ink artwork for full size form of same design. Rare pair. With original letter from Francis Field: "This set of two items ... of special interest and value in the history of British Airgraph practice" Who was Horace E Dear? An employee of East Ham Borough Council. He embellished standard and Greetings forms. His home-made pictorial designs using plain paper cut to the correct size were strictly contrary to regulations, as only official forms should have been used, except when supplies were in short supply as a result of enemy action.

MIDDLE - G.B. 1944 Horace Dear hand-drawn showing V1 or doodle- bugs heading for London SCARRED BUT NEVER SCARED rocket thematic [P.89NW]

BOTTOM - G.B. 1944 Horace Dear hand-drawn showing warship ?Here comes your Relief? - to Sardinia [P89SE]

It may be hard for anyone under forty to imagine a time when there weren't copy machines everywhere, but in the 1940's even the crudest copying was available to very few. Perhaps Mr. Dear had access to facilities of the township.

The A to Z of Airgraphs: Foreign Forms

Airgraph forms were produced in many countries, from Aden to Zanzibar, wherever needed, and in whatever language was appropriate. Troops stationed there would use these local forms, which were then sent to the nearest processing station. The basic format of all forms had to be the same, of course, to conform to the processing system. Forms printed outside the UK can be identified in various ways - some by mention of local currency, others by variations in the instructions, or by local postage imprints (see below).

Airgraph form printed in India - "postage is 3 annas."

Airgraph form printed in India - "postage is 3 annas."


Note that each form needed to have 3d postage affixed (later, 3d for mail to service personnel, 8d for mail to a civilian). Mail to servicemen On Active Service was sent at the normal UK inland rate and this is still the case today for Iraq. These charges applied to civilians only. Military personnel on active duty were allowed to send Airgraphs (and all other correspondence) free of charge.

The postage affixed to forms submitted by civilians was cancelled at its point of entry, as proven by the fact that all the extant used forms sent by ordinary mail have either local or field post office cancels.

Images to the right - Cancelled stamps on Airgraph forms. These are scarce, since forms were destroyed once filmed. Most that survive are ones either returned for some reason, or forwarded as ordinary mail because Airgraph service was not available to their destination.



Strip of Airgraph film

Roll of Airgraph film

A few technical details may be of interest:

The original forms were 11 x 8¼ inches. These were microfilmed onto 100-foot rolls of 16-millimetre film, which was sufficient for approximately 1600 forms. The film plus aluminum container weighed 5½ ounces and measured 4 x 4 x 1 inches. The equivalent quantity of ordinary letters would have weighed approximately 35 pounds and filled two mailbags.

Two copies of each film were made, one to be sent, the other to be held until it was certain that all letters on the film had been delivered.

Films and forms were official documents, classified as confidential and were normally destroyed as confidential waste but one or two reels of film have surfaced over the years.

The end product of the service, a letter delivered to the addressee, was a photographic print, 5⅛ x 4¼ inches, approximately one quarter the size of the original, in a crude brown envelope measuring about 3¾ by 4¾ inches.

Very early Airgraph, as delivered in the UK
Postmarked May 15, 1941, third day of service
Type 1 envelope with winged arrow symbol and rectangular window


Development of Airgraph service was hampered by the shortage of specialized equipment and the need to ship materials overseas in order to install processing stations abroad. However by April 17, 1941, arrangements were sufficiently complete to start services from Cairo, with mail from the Middle East Forces. The first films from the outgoing facility in Cairo reached London for processing in early May, earliest date recorded from the postmark on a delivery envelope being 13th May 1941. From posting to receipt (date on letter, date of postmark) took approximately three weeks for microfilming, transit, enlarging and delivery, although longer and shorter periods are known.

During the life of the service all films incoming to the UK were processed and prints made at Kodak's Wealdstone factory. Initially they were manually inserted in special envelopes and passed to the Post Office for the application of the "Post Paid" cancellation before normal delivery.


There are four major types of UK Airgraph envelopes, with 15 varieties

Type 1 envelopes have winged arrow symbol with rectangular window

Type 2 envelopes have winged arrow symbol with oval window, 'No. 243.' above symbol.

Type 3 envelopes have cloud symbol with oval window (Envelopes from the Christmas period have red square in place of day in date, or no date at all)

Type 4 envelopes - As #3 but cancel in blue, made and printed by Dickinson.

All except #4 are found with wavy line (Universal) or double ring (Pitney Bowes) cancels.

Although processing continued at Wealdstone, the envelope manufactures John Dickinson adapted existing machinery to create a system which combined forming the envelope, printing the Post Paid postmark, as well as folding and inserting the Airgraph, finally sealing the envelope flap. With this new equipment, Airgraphs could be produced at the rate of 8,000 per hour. Envelopes from this period are easily recognized, as the POSTAGE PAID mark is printed in the same color as the later Airgraph trademark, a cloud symbol.

Later type 4 Airgraph envelope

London personnel numbering Airgraphs forms prior to filming

Lights, Camera, Action!

Processing of forms being sent from the UK to military personnel required that they first be sorted according to service (Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force) and destination. Next they were censored, then serially numbered to enable individual forms to be located on the film in case of problems. Finally they were fed individually, by hand, through the machinery that photographed them onto the roll of 16 mm film, which was then developed, rolled onto a reel, and boxed for transport.

Processing of forms being sent back to the UK was simpler, as no preliminary sorting was required (the Post Office sorted the final product, just as it would any mail). The raw forms were first censored, then serially numbered and photographed on the Recordak machine. The exposed film was developed and ready for transport back to the UK.

Photographing the forms


Forms were destroyed once it had been confirmed that a film had been received, processed and satisfactory prints made. Thus apart from those returned to the senders, and a few which were sent by ordinary mail, properly used Airgraph documents are exceedingly scarce, and are highly prized by collectors.


The few used forms that are seen are usually those returned to sender, and usually have an explanatory note or handstamp giving the reason for the return. From within the UK, the following handstamps are known: "NO SERVICE - POSTAGE REPAID," "TRANSMITTED BY ORDINARY MAIL - NO AIRGRAPH SERVICE AVAILABLE TO ADDRESS," "AIRGRAPH SERVICE NOT AVAILABLE TO LOCATION OF SHIP - FORWARDED BY ORDINARY MAIL." Similar manuscript endorsements are known from other theatres, but forms with any endorsement or handstamp are uncommon.




At their destination, the rolls of microfilm were processed for delivery to their intended recipients.

#1 Film being enlarged onto continuous rolls of photographic paper.

#2 Continuous developing tanks.

#3 Checking rolls of prints for defects.

#4 Rolls being guillotined into individual messages.

#5 Messages ready for inserting in envelopes.





As delivered to the addressee, Airgraphs were not much to look at. Their appeal to most people today lies in the veiled stories their messages tell, of the hardships and loneliness of war.

Millions of Airgraphs survive, and provide a poignant history of individuals caught up in the deadliest conflict humanity has known.


To a collector, the most interesting Airgraphs are those with special markings that reveal something unusual - and often tragic - about an Airgraph's journey. Those stamped "RETURN TO SENDER" tell the saddest stories.

At right -

Top - MISSING (probably deceased, but it wouldn't have been proper to communicate that so coldly)
Bottom - envelope and form used to return form addressed to area where no Airgraph service existed


A rare Airgraph handstamp is "REPRINT" (no example available) which is usually found on the back of an Airgraph, indicating that the original film had been lost in transit. In September 1942, for example, the Short C-Class Empire flying boat "Clare" was lost while carrying parcels and 55,000+ Airgraphs from India, East Africa, and South Africa. (Destroyed by engine fire in the air off Bathurst, West Africa 14th September 1942) The Airgraphs, which amounted to 35-plus films, were re-photographed, sent to the UK, processed and dispatched to the addressees within 10 days and should have been handstamped "REPRINT", but for some reason this was not done.

Returned Airgraph (MEF) - MISSING

Returned Airgraph (MEF) - POW

The Return to Sender slip was in the envelope
but unfortunately not the original Airgraph.


CZ CLARE departed Lagos at daybreak for Bathurst, refuelling at Freetown. At Bathurst ?CZ was refuelled and a new crew (Captain Musson, First Officer A.D.C.Jenkins, Second Officer A.O.Cundy,& Radio Officers E.F.G.Brent & J.A.Wycherly) took over for the sector to Lisbon. Captain Musson liked to fly tangents to a 60 n.m.circle round Dakar. One hour out of Bathurst the Captain decided to return, having lost an engine. Minutes later a request for ?Flares? was followed by ?SOS Fire?. ?CZ CLARE crashed in the dark some 30 minutes flying time from Bathurst. The next day all available aircraft searched without success. On 16 September a BOAC Catalina (Captain J.C.Parker, Second Officer Talbot & Navigator D.McGregor) searched to the west of the assumed track - McGregor had flown with Captain Musson ? finding six bodies and wreckage.

From FLYING EMPIRES by Brian Cassidy (click on link to download pdf of the book)


By the end of the War, Airgraph processing overseas was being carried out at the following places: -

Cairo, Calcutta, Algiers, Naples, Toronto, Johannesburg, Wellington, Colombo, Bombay, Nairobi, and Melbourne.

Opening of stations was gradual, with availability of equipment and the difficulties of sea transport being the main problems. The final station was opened in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), in September 1944 - the island was HQ for S.E.A.C and troop numbers were being increased there ready for operations in Burma and further east.


Undoubtedly the richest, most varied, and most visually appealing area in the field of Airgraphs is that of Illustrated Greetings which, starting as early as Christmas 1941, were issued by Regiments and Commands. A master form was prepared with a humorous or sentimental theme, then duplicated and distributed. Often the design left space for little more than a signature - they were the WW II equivalent of Hallmark cards.

Others were "one-off" drawings by the sender, and in some cases even Postal Authorities issued them.

Sometimes it's hard to tell which of these are one-offs and which mass-produced. There were a lot of talented drafts-men and -women in the services. So unless we find multiple copies of a design (or a blank form!), we can't be sure it isn't unique.

Apart from an early catalogue by Stephens, (1948) no work has been published detailing them, and this is still an active area of research, as many new illustrations have been found and indeed are still being found. "Airgraph," by E.H. Keeton (1987) deals more with the actual service and ordinary types, but does show a few pictorial types as well.

If you wish to see a lot more illustrated Airgraphs - or purchase a few - go to the web site of Alan Berman, dealer in UK postal history, who has an exceptional stock of Airgraphs, and includes them regularly in his auctions.

Official B.P.O. Airgraph for Xmas 1943

1943 and 1944

For Christmas 1943 and 1944 the British Post Office issued official Airgraph holiday forms in the UK. The 1944 form bore a violet 3d imprint stamp (whereas all other UK forms had a space for a stamp to be affixed). This form was available at post offices for the cost of the postage - 3d (all others were free).

Official B.P.O. Airgraph for Xmas 1944


Although some Airgraphs were printed or embossed with postal indicia, only one postage stamp was specially issued for Airgraphs, in New Zealand, for civilian Airgraphs, May 1, 1944, 10p overprint on 1940 1½p issue.

First Day Cover with New Zealand Airgraph stamp


Some postal authorities chose to print the postage right on the form (Which the B.P.O. did only for the special form issued for Xmas 1944 - see above).

All images in this section courtesy of Jerry Kasper

Kenya & Uganda
South Africa


Attachments were prohibited, because they jammed the Recordak, but people still tried them, and some got through. Newspaper and magazine clippings were thin enough that, if glued down carefully enough, they worked. Photographs were too thick, but a few survived.


The ability to send photos on Airgraphs was popular enough that an effort was made to provide such a service. In early 1943, Dufay-Chromex, a film manufacturer, announced their system for putting photos on Airgraphs. It involved photographing the subject, then printing the photo onto a form, a process that took several weeks, and was both labor-intensive and costly.

An article in the May 7, 1943 Manchester Daily Sketch:

The extension of the Airgraph system to include photographs offers civilians and members of the forces stationed abroad an opportunity of receiving up-to-date photographs of their relatives and friends in addition to the customary messages.

Over 200 people a day are taking advantage of the new service in Manchester, where the Dufay Company has opened a studio at Lewis's store. The sitter is photographed onto a special sensitised form, which is developed in about two weeks, and the message is then written round the photograph, after which the completed form can be handed in at any post office in the usual way for transmission abroad.

The service is run in conjunction with the Air Ministry and the GPO, and the Manchester studio is one of five which exist in the country, the others being in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Kingston. A similar service exists for American Service men, who may have themselves photographed onto their "Victory Mail" form, which is then sent by airmail to their homes.

Based on the survival rate of the Dufay-Chromex Airgraphs today, the idea did not catch on. It was expensive, 3/9d vs. the basic 3d for a forces Airgraph. It was unpopular, however, not primarily because of cost, but because of the great number of forms one was required to fill in. The Government of course kept a very tight control of all chemicals and photographic materials during the war.

Dufay Process news article and example

Matched Pair of Dufay Airgraphs



The original purpose of Airgraphs was to help Forces members keep in touch with their families. But reduction in weight for every sort of mail helped the war effort, so in 1942 Airgraph service was made available for mail to civilians, at 8d per letter. In August 1944, the charge was reduced to 3d. Identifying these is difficult, since once in the system they were handled as any other Airgraph mail. The example shown here survived only because it was returned to the sender - Airgraph service was not available to civilians in the USA, and the postage paid was not enough to cover the postage for regular mail.


When cheap airmail postage to troops was introduced early in 1945 the use of Airgraphs declined rapidly and the service ceased, with the last acceptance of forms in all theatres on 31st July 1945. It is staggering to think that in approximately 4¼ years over 330 million Airgraphs or approximately 14 films per day were processed.

After four years Airgraphs were old friends, and some chose to commemorate their departure.

End of the Airgraph Service


In November 1941, Canada initiated its own independent Airgraph service, which lasted until July, 1945. But that's another story.


Inspired by Great Britain's example, the USA instituted its own version of the Airgraph, called V-Mail. For much more about that, please visit my V is for V-Mail page.


This page is based on an article by Stephen Dunderdale, noted Airgraph collector in the UK, who also supplied most of the images for this page.

The premier Airgraph dealer is Alan Berman, dealer in UK postal history, whose stock features an exceptional selection of Airgraphs. He also conducts regular auctions, which usually include important Airgraph material. Alan most graciously consented to my use of images from his web site, all of which are credited above - let your mouse arrow rest over any image for more information about it. Visit Alan's web site to see over a thousand images of Airgraphs and related material, most of it for sale.


AIRGRAPH, by E.H. KEETON, pub. January 1987, Forces Postal History Society, 260pp. This details all the known types of Airgraph forms, listing them by country or area in which they were produced.


Below are links to other sites with information and images about Airgraphs.

AIRGRAPHS - by Malcolm Sander (no longer available)

History of the Second World War Army Postal Services (1939-45) at the Royal Engineers Museum web site. (No longer available)

Airgraph Material at the British Postal Museum & Archive

The Postal And Courier Service - BFPO HISTORY (http://www.tafsc.com/PostalHistory.htm)


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All text Copyright © 2007, William M. Senkus

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Created -- 5/14/2007
Revised -- 7/24/2020