Sunday 23 July 2017

A Second World War 'Aerograph' Letter

An "Aerograph" message sent from Italy by
Liet. Corp. R.W.E Taylor, 1944
[From my own collection]

Updated May 2024

I have always been intrigued by a small 1944 letter in my collection, being from a World War Two New Zealand serviceman to his Aunt in New Zealand. Obviously a photographic print, this is what is termed an "Aerograph" [known in the USA as "V-Mail"] and carries an interesting story. But the story of who wrote it, or at least as much as I have found out, is also equally fascinating in that the writer served with one of just two mobile New Zealand Field Transfusion Units stationed in Italy.

But before we look at the "Aerograph" postal system and the Field Units, what do we actually know about the writer himself? Well initially I knew very little as the writer, being one 'Edgar Taylor', does not appear in any family history for my Grandmother's extended family. So hopefully this blog may also elicit further information from family descendants. The Lucy Froggatt he mentions in the first sentence is however known to me as a family relative.

What we do know is that the letter is written by 15160 Lieutenant Corporal Robert William Edgar Taylor of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Having to pass a censor the letter is short on some specific information. 'Edgar', as he was obviously known, states that he had "now been overseas for over three years" and that he had met and become engaged to a New Zealand Nurse in Cairo, being a Miss May Croom of Wanganui who had since returned home.

Additionally, Edgar writes that while he came over in the infantry he was recalled to the Laboratory at the No 1 New Zealand General Hospital based at Helwan near Cairo then around 1942 was offered a position at the Field [blood] Transfusion Unit when it was formed;

"...It is a most interesting...[position] and brings it's own reward in seeing the help that we can give in the field to our wounded comrades."

After moving from Helwan to Molfetta in Southern Italy in April 1944, the No1 NZ General Hospital then moved in August 1944 to Sengallia north of Ancona which is about half way up the Italian Peninsula on the Adriatic coast. It would be from here that the 'Aerograph' was written.

Just two New Zealand Transfusion Field Units operated in Italy, consisting of one medical officer, two transfusion orderlies, and two drivers with at least one being a refrigeration mechanic. Two trucks were used for each unit, one being a 3-ton truck being fitted with "a refrigerating pump using methyl chloride as a cooling fluid, and driven by a small petrol motor." An insulated box surrounded by a water jacket could hold up to 110 bottles of blood, plasma / saline, and glucose / saline which were all obtained from the British Base Transfusion Unit. The other truck in each unit acted as a stores vehicle.

I assume Edgar to have been one of the four orderlies working with the two units. While he must have had some medical knowledge or training he would appear to have been employed by the Canterbury Education Board in a management position just prior to the war.

By August 1944 the New Zealand forces had joined the British 8th Army’s march east and north towards the Italian plain and the Savio River but the rugged terrain of the Apennine mountains, numerous destroyed bridges, and heavy rain turning the low lying east to mud made progress difficult. It would be in the immediate footsteps of this campaign north and west of Ancona that Edgar Taylor and his transfusion units would have served.

With not being a close relative I have not attempted to access his World War Two military record but this would certainly answer a few additional questions. It does appear from statutory records that Mr R.W.E. Taylor, born 28th July 1916, died in 1999. I'm sure he had a few interesting stories to tell of his war service but also of his first hand experience of the human face and aftermath of war. If any relatives read this I would be very interested in hearing from you. An email link appears in the right hand menu bar.

As to the "Aerograph" itself, the short UTube film below is more or less self-explanatory. Basically, instead of despatching a very bulky and heavy quantity of mail from servicemen to their home countries, in this case half way around the world in New Zealand, letters written on special forms would be taken to a central point (I assume the UK), passed by the censor, photographed, probably onto 35mm film, and the reels of negatives then sent by the quickest method, including by air, to their intended country of destination. There the negatives were printed out onto thin photo sensitive paper and the letters then dispatched to the recipient by ordinary postal mail. And of course being mail from servicemen in the forces there was no cost to the sender or recipient.  

And considering that images were printed out on photographic paper with very little time for fixing and washing away of residual chemicals my 'Aerograph' is in a perfect state of preservation and legibility, just rather small to read. The paper size appears to have been kept to a minimum to reduce the use of imported photographic paper and I have also noted this with personal photographs printed out during the war years.

This short one minute explanatory video is well worth watching :

"The Aerograph Letter Service"
A British Movietone Film

Footnote : A son of Lieutenant Corporal Robert William Edgar Taylor made contact with me in March 2024 after having read this Blog post. While we are none the wiser as to why Edgar referred to my Grandmother as "Aunty Emma" it appears most likely to have been a term of childhood endearment from stays on the family farm.

Sources :

- Personal family papers
- New Zealand Electronic Text Collection / Te Pūhikotuhi o Aotearoa
- New Zealand History / Nga korero a ipurangi o Aotearoa
- Archives New Zealand / Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga
- New Zealand Military Nursing website
- Taylor family (New Zealand)

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