In The Spotlight
GBCC President Gordon Milne interviews
Chris Miller, collector of and expert in World War II censored mail
Published in the January, 2003 issue of The Chronicle, the journal of the Great Britain Collectors Club. Reprinted by permission.
Milne: First of all, Mr Miller — or may I call you Chris?
Miller: Yes, please do!
Milne: Good! Already, that makes me feel more at home and less formal! Thanks for having given your agreement and, not least, your time, especially at this busy holiday season, to answer my and other GBCCers’ questions about this fascinating area of GB philately called “censored mail.” My first question is an obvious one: How and when did you get involved in this area of the hobby?
Miller: I was a stamp collector in my youth and spasmodically after I got married.
Milne: A familiar refrain!
Miller: I really only returned to collecting stamps at about the age of 45 when I gave up sports and joined the local stamp club. I found the displays of other items much more interesting than the stamps. However, to supplement my own stamps, I originally started to collect covers.
Milne: And is that where you are today?
Miller: No! I sold my stamp collection as recently as 2001. When I started pursuing covers, my guiding rule was “the more the better!” But, inevitably, I found some aspects more interesting than others.
Milne: For those who know nothing about censored mail — and I’m not far removed from that!! — enlighten us, please, about the major differences between civil and military mail….
Miller: There are a number of definitions, but the one I use is that civil mail is that posted in the normal way at a post office or mail box. Military mail, on the other hand, is that posted at the unit, and, in times of war, would have been censored there and often only entered the normal mail stream at the time of delivery. A number of military items entered the normal civil mail system after having been censored at the unit and, quite often, the base, too. So there are a number of items which are strictly military but that also bear civil marks.
Milne: That makes it more easy to comprehend! Now, as I understand it, your main area of collecting is World War II material. Why this period, rather than World War I or both?
Miller: Only because I collected stamps from the British Empire during the reign of King George VI (1936 – 1952)… and, out of this period, the time of World War II had more of interest to me.
Milne: Very logical! Now for ignorant person like myself, what were the major differences in the way civil mail was censored between the two World War periods?
Miller: I know little about WWI censorship, but, as the practice of the Second War was based on that of the First, there should not be that much difference. One big difference, however, is that much more mail was censored in WWII in what were then the outposts of the Empire. So civil mail in the Second World War period has much more variety to it. Another significant difference between the two periods, of course, is that, in World War II, there was a much wider availability of airmail… which adds a broader dimension.
Milne: My next question is a two-parter and addresses the area/period of your WWII specialty: first — How many censors operated in the U.K. at that time? and second — Is there any way to know where any or all of the censors were located… for example, by way of the number on the label?
|This unframed handstamp was used only in Los Angeles. To see the full cover and explanation, click here.|
Miller: This is a toughie and one to which I don’t have a definitive answer, as nothing to that end is contained in the official records. Although some censors retained their allocated personal number when moved about the world, you can find that a person with a U.K. number, operated, at different times, in Gibraltar, Bermuda and, perhaps, Trinidad. The only way that the location of individual censors can be established is by the study of a huge volume of historical material. The vast majority of U.K. censorship was carried out in Liverpool. CCSG member, Konrad Morenweiser, is an expert in this field.
Milne: And “CCSG” stands for?
Miller: Oh, I’m sorry! That’s the “Civil Censorship Study Group””
Milne: If, like me, a collector is fascinated by the numbers on the censor label, has there been determined a maximum number of such items that can be collected?
Miller: Well, I, too, am interested in individual censors, where they can be identified… but it is not always by the number printed on the label. Sometimes there is a manuscript or other added number or initials for this purpose. As to your search for a total number, I cannot really answer the question, but would guess that, for the British Empire, it runs to about six figures. You may like to know that a listing of U.S. censor numbers appears in Broderick and Mayo.
Milne: Fascinating! Along the same line of (ignorant) enquiry (from me), can you explain please the significant difference between a P.C. 60 label and a P.C. 90?
Miller: P.C. was a prefix used to identify forms used by the “Postal Censorship” and this is thought to be what P.C. stands for. It is fairly standard throughout the British Empire although there were exceptions.
Milne: Why does that not surprise me??!!
Miller: For instance, South Africa used the U.C. prefix which stood for “Union Censorship.” An attempt was made, in early 1942, to standardise the practice throughout the whole of the Imperial Censorship operation (i.e.. that of the British Empire and its Dominions), but, although instructions had been issued much earlier, there exists some variety in the use of resealing labels of apparently similar design but with different numbers.
Milne: I think I understand that… but I’m not sure!!
Miller: Whether a P.C. 66 or a P.C. 22 or a P.C. 90 was used depends more on when and where it was used. In Tanganyika the early labels of this type were numbered for individual censors, so you can find P.C. 1, P.C. 2 and so on. The standard version from the spring of 1942 onwards should have been P.C. 90.
Milne: That helps! And also encourages me to go through my increasing accumulation of covers to see if mine fit those parameters. Another question I have in this area is that labels seem to read either “EXAMINED BY CENSOR XXX” or “OPENED BY EXAMINER XXX.” Is there a significant difference between the two wordings?
Miller: No. The significance of the difference between Examiner and Censor is that the change followed representations, particularly from the U.S., about censorship. It was thought that Examiner was more sensitive!!!
Milne: O.K…. continuing my pursuit of answers, answers, answers… I have covers where the type-face on the labels is different, both in terms of size and scipt. Why did that happen? And are covers bearing those differences separately collectible?
Miller: Much of the printing of those labels was carried out locally and had to fit in not only with the exigencies of the war but also the printers’ businesses. The differences are highly collectible.
In Mauritius, for example, at one time the printer ran off some censor labels at the end of his day’s work, using whatever ink was left in his machine. The resulting labels are among the scarcities of WWII censorship and command high prices. There are few known of any colour and only single examples of some of the rarer ones.
Milne: I’m indebted to Janet Klug for the next two-part question. She asks: What type of specialist training did the censors receive? And did they have security clearance?
Miller: In precise terms it is hard to answer this question….
Milne: That’s not surprising! She usually asks difficult questions!!!
Miller: Each censor was given a booklet entitled “Duties of a Censor” and in the bigger censor stations the work was allocated in a way that channeled mail for censorship in accordance with the censor’s experience, seniority and command of a language.
Milne: How fascinating!
Miller: Yes, further to that second part of her question, there must have been some security vetting, but examples are known where censors have been recruited from those held in internment camps! To my knowledge, there are very few examples known of a censor having to be removed because of a breach of security, but this information may have been, purposefully, suppressed because of the wartime conditions.
Milne: Janet also asks why the censors obliterated the town names from some postmarks? And she goes on to add: Was there a list of towns that got this treatment? If so, how long is that list? And is it published anywhere?
Miller: Although it seems strange, town names were removed to deny information to the enemy. As there was no prohibition on printed return addresses and addresses of senders were usually required on the mail, this could have had little effect! I have never seen a list of towns (as Janet queries) but there are a number of studies of Canadian “blackout” cancellations identifying the actual device used.
In Britain the town name was blacked out on certain items of forces mail before a major event was likely to take place. This was done so that the presence of large numbers of troops in coastal towns (for instance) could be disguised.
Milne: You talked earlier, Chris, about “sensitivity.” What sort of information was thus classified?
Miller: This is pretty logical and obvious, in that “sensitive information” was defined as anything that could either be of value to the enemy or information that would tend to demoralise the civilan population. In particular, the enemy had to be denied information about the accuracy of its bombing and the timing, routing, and deployment of any military units.
Although the purpose of censorship in WWI was considered to be to deny information to the enemy, the main reason in WWII was economic. Shipping was the big subject. The amount of information obtained that was of use to the Allies was very small, although useful information was obtained about civilian morale.
During time of war, civilians were encouraged to limit the information in their letters to matters of a personal or family nature.
Milne: What happened to a letter that didn’t pass the censor’s scrutiny? And were the censors themselves “overseen?” If so, by whom, and how often?
Miller: Failed letters could either be held by the censor or returned to the sender. In the latter case, a memorandum was usually enclosed, stating why the letter was being returned.
|The cross on this label indicates that it was condemned. Other markings show that it was held and delivered after the war. To see the full cover and explanation, click here.|
Some letters were condemned because of a breach of a regulation regarding money transference and these items were often marked “CONDEMNED” and were released and allowed to continue on their journey’s way at the end of the war.
Other held items, described as “Prize Court Sales,” were sold at war’s end.
Milne: What happened to mail that was being sent to a neutral country? Did it require a special identification/marking to allow it to go through unscathed?
Miller: Special arrangements were required for mail to a hostile or occupied country, mail to a neutral or friendly country being regarded as the norm. It was the neutral mail that was virtually always censored at the point of posting or en route. The address to which it was going was sufficient for it to receive this treatment.
Milne: Is there evidence of mail actually having been intercepted by enemy agents?
Miller: Not that I am aware of. Some mail — particularly to Switzerland — was usually intercepted by the German censors, and this was known and allowed for by the allied censors.
Milne: What determines the value of a censored cover? Obviously as with most philatelic material, I would assume the condition of the cover to be fundamentally important, but do the stamps applied or the location to which the item was being sent also affect its value? If so, to what degree?
Miller: I feel that value is essentially related to supply and demand. For example, I feel that a fairly usual censored cover from a popular country will fetch much more than a unique one from an unpopular country. Further, there are a number of items where only a single copy is recorded and the condition is not always good. The stamps affixed usually do not represent much of the value, except on a common item.
Milne: A whole lot of collectors out there are obsessed with the need for completion. Is there such a thing for censored mail?
Miller: Completion is possible… until something new turns up! I started trying to amass an exhibit for a country on which a major new article had just been written. Within three years I had about a dozen items either not listed or incorrectly shown!!
In the censorship field, there is currently an issue on what comprises “censorship.” For example, some government departments did their own censorship. If they marked items “Passed by Censor” (or similar), there is no problem, but many just used their departmental date stamp.
Milne: One of our enthusiastic Canadian members in this field — David Cooper of Nova Scotia (who exhibits WWII material) — asks a range of questions that extend some of my earlier ones. Let’s take them, if we can, separately, the first being: Why are only some covers censored? (He asks this because he has examples of two covers from the same town/area being treated differently — i.e. one is censored, the other is not.)
Miller: There were instructions issued as to which mail should be censored, ranging, typically, from all going to or from a certain individual or country to, selectively, mail to friendly countries or within a country. The listing of “dubious” individuals has always been a closely-kept secret and, although “watch” lists have been admitted, none has been published or produced for examination.
Milne: Dave further asks: “Why are some active service covers censored and, again, others not?”
Miller: I am afraid I know nothing about active service covers. All civil mail could be passed unopened and unread, or repeatedly opened and read.
Milne: Was there a separate series of examiner tapes, Dave questions, for the Northern or Southern routes? And for someone like me — less knowledgable than he (or you) — please expand on how a novice collector can detect which route was travelled by that piece of mail. Further, explain, please, what routes these were and where they went.
Miller: Dave’s first question here is difficult to answer as the same tapes were used at a number of locations. I would not use censorship as a means of identifying routes taken by a specific item of mail but, rather, published details of the flights. I have seen a list of the routes taken by each Trans-Atlantic flight by dates, but, generally, a small booklet such as Wartime Airmails: Great Britain, Trans-Atlantic and Beyond will give, in general terms, most of the information needed. It is available from Charles Entwistle, Bloomfield, Perth Road, Abernethy, Perth PH2 9LW, Scotland.
Milne: I was confident somebody from my native land would have an answer!!
Miller: To respond to the other parts of Dave’s question, as I remember it, there were four main carriers of Trans-Atlantic mail: BOAC, PanAm, American Export Airlines, and the Bomber/Atlantic Ferry routes.
The Ferry services went: i) from Dorval via Goose Bay and Reykjavik to Prestwick; or ii) Gander to Foynes and then Prestwick; or iii) via Gander and the Azores to Prestwick. The other routes can be found from Airmail books, but I recall that, for BOAC, their summer route was from New York to Botwood to Foynes and their winter ones either via Baltimore, Bermuda and Lisbon or Baltimore, Bermuda, Trinidad, Belem, Bathurst and Lisbon to Poole.
|This label was stamped “condemned,” and the letter was held. It was then stamped “released” when it was delivered. To see the full cover and explanation, click here.|
Milne: Dave asks another question on the tapes (which I’ve wondered about as well), namely: Were certain censor tapes used for specific Commonwealth-destined covers, or were they universal?
Miller: If I understand the question correctly, the tapes did not refer to the destination at all.
Milne: Mr. Cooper is more specific than I was earlier on the different types of label. He observes that there appeared to have been a universal form, printed by many different firms, for examiner purposes, e.g., P.C. 90. If these were a government form, Dave asks, was permission given to print locally? (He asks this in light of having imprints of 51-1545 CP&P Co. Ltd. and 51-317 W.H.H. Ltd. in his collection.) Would these have been purchased by the sender?
Miller: The tapes and imprints referred to are to be found on U.K. tapes that were also used in the West Indies. They are all government forms, but often produced by a range of independent printers, and these are the printers’ imprints. The forms were purchased and used by the censor authorities, not the sender.
There is an excellent book on U.K. censorship currently available at a reduced price from the CCSG via me. Further, there is also a book on Trinidad Censorship, written by Ron Wilke (and also available from me) that has a good list of known U.K. censor numbers in the West Indies. This will be updated when the CCSG publish “The Americas” volume of our WWII series, probably in 2004.
Milne: And how would Dave, or any other GBCCer for that matter, get in touch with you, Chris?
Miller: You can reach me by e-mail at email@example.com or, by postal mail, at: 161 Upper Woodcote Road, Caversham, Reading, Berks. RG4 7JR, ENGLAND.
Milne: Very helpful. Thank you!
Miller: May I add, as a friendly aside, that a number of these probing questions would need an article to answer fully?!
Milne: I have to say that answer doesn’t surprise me… and, at the same time, makes me, as a novice in this area, feel less dumb than I was beginning to suspect!!
Moving on to Mr. Cooper’s final question, he asks (since his main exhibit is entitled “U.K. TRANSATLANTIC MAIL : 1939 – 1953,” featuring, primarily, the 1s 3d rate) :What existing rarities in the WWII civil censorship area would you suggest he try to acquire to elevate the status and appeal of his exhibit?
Miller: There are a number of West Indies rarities that might have been used on Trans-Atlantic mail. The Bermuda shield mark CM23 fetches good prices at auction, although I have only seen it used on surface mail. Also from Bermuda there are rare censor numbers. Any censor instruction or censorship memorandum is rare, but some would have been used on trans-Atlantic mail. There are also the “condemned” or “held” letters — although most of these were not from the U.K. — and a U.K. “Prize Court” item would also be a great addition to an exhibit. If Mr. Cooper includes all trans-Atlantic mail in his exhibit, he would be going in the right direction if he pursued any of those items.
Milne: On his behalf, Chris, let me thank you for that piece of clearly expert advice. However, the two of you have combined to make feel even more of a novice myself!!!
On a more general basis, what would you recommend as the best reference work(s) for someone just starting to collect this field?
Miller: The answer must depend on the area collected. The U.K. book is a great start for collectors of WWII British Empire and Commonwealth….
Milne: As one feeling more and more that he’s at the start, mark me down for that one!
Miller:For a general collector, I would also recommend joining the CCSG, and that is what I did and why….
Milne: Me too!
Miller: … and if any of your members lets me know the name of the country or area they collect, then I’ll do my best to recommend suitable, helpful reading.
Milne: That’s very generous of you, Chris! Thank you!
I know you are currently the Secretary of the CCSG. It’s free promo time! So, tell us a bit more about your organization….
Miller: Well, the Civil Censorship Study Group was the brain child of a Scot…
Milne: Why does that not surprise me! We’re at the top of most things! Forgive me. At times I get carried away. Please continue…
Miller: His name was Tony Torrance. He placed an ad in a philatelic magazine, asking if there was any interest in the subject. He received six replies, and so the group was formed.
Tony, himself, produced the early newsletters on a spirit duplicator.
Many of these early members belonged to other Societies and also collected forces mail.
We have always been regarded as the child of the Forces Postal History Society and have a close relationship with them and also the Military Postal History Society in the States. The same applies to the AGZ (which is our sister organization in Germany). Because of this, our emphasis has tended to be on Allied mail.
The main contact that most members have with the Group is via the newsletter, which we call the Civil Censorship Study Group Bulletin. It is a weighty document, typically having 30 or more pages of editorial matter including pictures and a members’ auction.
It is issued four times a year and, for North American-based collectors, membership, which costs a modest $20 a year, can be had by applying to: Charles LaBlonde, 15091 Ridgefield Lane, Colorado Springs, CO 80921.
There are also periodic meetings of an informal nature. We sometimes meet at the Royal Philatelic Society, and we extend an open invitation to any of your British-based members.
The CCSG is looking to publish books on censorship, and work is currently proceeding on a volume in the WWII British Empire Civil Censorship Devices series for the Americas (as I think I mentioned earlier in the interview). A number of books have already been published and are still available via our website, which is http://ccsg.postalcensorship.com.
The group currently has nearly 300 members, of which about one third live in the Americas.
Milne: And now, to start wrapping this up — you’ll be glad to hear!!! — a few questions about Chris Miller himself. For example, what other type of G.B. material — if any — do you collect?
Miller: This one is the easiest, Gordon, you’ve asked yet since I don’t today collect G.B. as such. Instead, it’s mainly censors and patriotic and propaganda items of WWII, although, on a broader basis, I collect all British Empire postal history, including used postal stationery. My main love at present is South Africa.
Milne: What prompted you to sell your stamp collection? And from what sources do you primarily acquire material for the collections you are currently pursuing?
Miller: I sold my stamps because I was not adding to the collection and did not want my material to rot away unloved in a cupboard. The money came in useful as well since my three sons have all married for the first time since I retired.
To the second part of your last question, acquiring good material is always difficult. I belong to a number of specialist groups and have acquired much by those means. I buy a bit on eBay, but specialist dealers are, probably, my best source.
Milne: I am always fascinated at how collectors house their collections. Have you any special advice to offer on how to house/display censorship material?
Miller: I keep all loose Cinderellas in stamp albums, but everything else is — correction, will soon be! — mounted on album pages or exhibition cards. I keep the pages in box files locked in a cupboard. They certainly take up a lot of space, but I like the flexibility involved. I mount covers on the pages, using big photo corners made in Germany. I like the lick ’em types since the self-adhesive ones, I find, tend to bleed into the paper.
Milne: Interesting! I hadn’t heard of that drawback of the self-adhesives before. I’m now forewarned.
And lastly, do any other members of your family collect, and, if so, what?
Miller: No other members of the family collect as my sons are too busy with careers and family. The others just have no interest… although my oldest granddaughter has shown a flicker… but I suspect that is prompted by her mother rather than herself!
Milne: Well, Chris, that was an engaging interview, and I thank you for the time and effort it took to answer my questions, especially at this festive (and busy) time of year.
Even though I still feel I’m in the kindergarten class of this, your area of philatelic knowledge and expertise, I’m keen to learn. The answers and indicators you have given during our time together will, I am sure, further fuel my interest to pursue this area of collecting.
Good luck in all your future endeavours, and to you and your family, my best wishes for a happy and prosperous New Year. Thank you.