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The Christmas That Gave Us A Postmark And A Hydrogen Bomb



In the latter part of the 19th century a few settlers arrived on Christmas Island to exploit the "guano" - bird poo to you and me - and in 1912 Lever Bros began planting coconut trees. Lever Bros sold the coconut plantation a year later to The Central Pacific Coconut Plantations Co Ltd and they maintained communication with Christmas Island primarily using their own ships and local stamps (which are now highly prized).

The island's postal history started to roll a little faster when some items of mail from the island began being cancelled on receipt in Sydney, New South Wales not long before WW1 kicked off. Envelopes bearing local postage are also known from this era with additional various French colonial settlement postage stamps used to validate mail being sent elsewhere in the world.

But it was not until Valentines Day 1939 that a British Post Office was opened on Christmas Island using a single ring datestamp reading POST OFFICE / CHRISTMAS ISLAND. Soon after this the US joined the combatants in World War 2 and their forces were stationed on the island using US Army Post Office APO 915. US APO numbers during this period were sometimes not included in cancellations so some Christmas Island mail may have to be identified by the use of FPO 915 in the sender's return address. The US APO on Christmas Island eventually closed in 1948 and civilian postmarks carried on in use.

Fast forward eight years and Christmas Island would gain an explosive new postmark! In the early 50s Britain began testing atomic weapons in Australia but she was unwilling to host the later Hydrogen Bomb tests. 1956 therefore saw a large British Armed Forces and scientific presence begin to build on Christmas Island as preparations were made for a series of British Hydrogen Bomb tests codenamed Operation Grapple. Although the first test detonations would not take place until May 1957, British Forces arrived nearly a year earlier to upgrade the wartime US runway, establish camps and get all the necessary facilities in place to accomodate a population of thousands.

Prior to the arrival of British Forces, local mail was being sent and received only two or three times a year, usually as the coconut palm contractors were changed over, but this would change when, among the first military arrivals in 1956, the personnel of "504 Postal Unit RE, British Forces Post Office 170, Christmas Island Pacific" arrived.

Commanded by Major A S Fancourt, seconded from the Field Post Office (FPO) operation in Kure, Japan, most of the Postal Unit RE staff had travelled on the troopship H.M.T Devonshire from Liverpool sailing via the Suez Canal.

HMT Devonshire troopship carried some of the first personnel to arrive on Christmas Island for Nuclear testing
HMT Devonshire Troopship carried many of the first personnel to arrive on Christmas Island in late June 1956

Major Fancourt didn't come aboard the Devonshire until she reached Singapore and it was only then that most of the postal staff learned they were to establish British Forces Post Office 170, Christmas Island Pacific and make postal history by being the first British Field Post Office (FPO) to openly disclose its geographic location within its datestamp. Their mission on Christmas Island would be to establish the FPO and provide Postal and Counter Services for all three combined services, scientists, the crew of Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships and further Commonwealth support services.

The FPO was among the very first military units to get up and running on Christmas Island during the last days of June and early July 1956. It comprised of a large marquee tent housing a front counter area, a sorting office and sorting bay plus sleeping accommodation for three postal staff. First hand accounts say the FPO had no incoming mail to handle in the first few days but counter services were made available immediately.

Inbound mail was to be flown in from BFPO 171 established at Hickam Field, Honolulu in Hawaii to support Operation Grapple and it also provided a glamorous place for Christmas Island personnel to enjoy some R&R. I've recently learned that the first consignment of airmail from London to Christmas Island was despatched on 19th June 1956 but, instead of being sent via BFPO 171 at Hickam Field in Hawaii as intended, it was incorrectly routed via the US Post Office and delayed as a result.

During Operation Grapple numerous Christmas Island supply flights to and from Hickam Field were undertaken by a faithful old RAF Hastings - basically a four engined version of the Dakota - and many British personnel who who flew in to and out of Christmas Island have never forgotten the experience! The British Field Post Office at Hickam Field used the steel FPO handstamp numbered 1063 (thin bars) during the period of the bomb trials on Christmas Island. While general mail items from forces personnel on Christmas Island between 1956 and the early sixties is not too rare, examples of Hickam Field's FPO 1063 mail sent by transit personnel (or those granted a few days R&R in Hawaii) are harder to find.

Field Post Office 1063 at BFPO 171 Hickam AFB Honolulu Hawaii
GB Forces Airmail to UK posted at BFPO 171 established at Hickam Air Force Base, Honolulu, Hawaii USA.

Now up and running, the British Army Field Post Office on Christmas Island had quickly became very busy and mail arrivals became more frequent. During the earliest weeks it's understood that the Field Post Office 158 handstamp was used but, after the FPO moved from the Port Camp to the now established Main Camp, the well known single ring BFPO Christmas Island c.d.s. entered use. The FPO 158 postmark had been operational in Korea earlier during the 1950s so collectors should note that only dates on mail from mid 1956 can be attributed to Operation Grapple at Christmas Island and valued accordingly.

Airmail to GB posted at BFPO 170 Christmas Island during British H Bomb testing
An example of airmail posted on Christmas Island during British H Bomb testing.

As facilities on Christmas Island and it's runway were prepared, the island was crawling with heavy plant machinery, tractors, rollers, bowsers etc. These were all coming ashore from Royal Fleet Auxiliary and Transport Steamers. These same supply ships would also land surface mail, parcels and newspaper post for distribution among the island forces and civilian staff. By now the FPO was providing postal services to Army, Navy, Air Force, Commonwealth Navy staff, scientists and civilian meteorologists. The sorting room was constantly full and frequent changeovers of personnel caused a heavy redirection workload for the Christmas Island "posties".

Counter services consisted largely of providing Postal Orders and G & H Registered Envelopes to send money home to families as, in those days, service pay was still usually made in person using cash. The currency in use on Christmas Island was the Australian Pound, worth about 80% of the Pound Sterling at the time.

The local village, primarily housing the coconut plantation workers, was placed off limits to most military personnel to avoid too much disturbance to their lifestyle. It might seem incredible today, but the UK Government had decided there was no safety concerns sufficient enough to merit an evacuation of the civilian population from the island during the test period - even when one bomb trial was to be detonated above Christmas Island itself! A few military staff - police and posties for example - did have the authority to visit the local village.

The FPO posties made daily visits to the local village Post Office as they were now officially providing inward and outward carriage for local mail. This was a huge improvement to the service available on the island before Operation Grapple began. There were obviously a few stamp collectors among the postal staff and their friends as some interesting items were posted and postmarked locally during the period of the tests. Collectors should keep their eyes open for covers (usually addressed to the UK or Commonwealth countries) bearing Gilbert and Ellice Islands stamps cancelled with the G&EI Christmas Island postmark between mid 1956 and the early 1960s. These would have also been flown to BFPO 171 at Hickam AFB and are scarce compared to the regular FPO postmarked items they accompanied.

Christmas Island Gilbert & Ellice cover posted to Scotland 1957
An example of Gilbert & Ellice stamps (used on OHMS envelope) postmarked on Christmas Island and sent to Scotland in 1957
The cover would have been flown from BFPO 170 on Christmas Island via BFPO 171 in Hawaii.

In addition to the regular military mail back to loved ones, many philatelic covers bearing GB stamps (usually Wilding definitives) were produced on site featuring the FPO Christmas Island cds including some illustrated covers featuring mushroom clouds and/or the Operation Grapple logo. Some were postmarked on test detonation days. Personally I prefer to collect "real mail" that bears the scars of a job done but I can understand the collector demand for the philatelic covers prepared at the time. Examples of commercially used mail bearing the Christmas Island FPO postmark - and the knocks and grazes of use - can usually be secured for half the cost or less compared to the more pristine examples which tend to reflect philatelic use.

Cover posted and addressed to BFPO 170 Christmas Island during British H Bomb testing
An example of a philatelic mail posted on Christmas Island during British H Bomb testing.

Covers displaying the Operation Grapple designs used with anonymous, undated naval postmarks can be found. As several ships were involved in the Christmas Island mission these merit inclusion in any collection despite the lack of date or location in the postmark.

Operation Grapple design illustration on cover posted to UK with anonymous naval postmark
An example of a surface mail featuring the Operation Grapple logo design postmarked with anonymous and undated naval postmark.

From time to time you will also see covers bearing the Christmas Island FPO postmark with no stamps used at all. While there was no free concession for British forces personal correspondence, mail considered "official" was eligible to be posted free of charge. Such mail was meant to be endorsed, at least in manuscript, with an officer's signature authorising the free carriage but it seems things became a little relaxed in the sunshine as I've seen several examples of postmarked, stampless mail with no visible endorsements confirming "official mail" status.

The final British Christmas Island H Bomb test took place on 23rd September 1958 after which the numbers of servicemen on the island was significantly reduced. Valiant V Bombers - painted in an anti-flash white during Grapple - had been used to drop the various bombs leading to Britain's emergence as a nuclear power. The base at Christmas Island was kept open after operation Grapple and the British presence once again built up on the island as another series of US nuclear weapons tests took place in 1962.

A notification from Directorate of Army Postal Services archived by the British Postal museum & Archive (BPMA) confirms British Forces Post Office 170 officially closed with effect 22nd June 1964. This closure was shortly followed by BFPO 171 at Hickam AFB which ended operations effective 11th August 1964.

The British weapon designs tested around Christmas Island never actually went in to production as, having been proven, the US became willing to sign the 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement. This put an end to UK independent nuclear weapons development - and the associated high expense involved - by providing Britain with access to technology based on American weapon designs.

Today, with the benefit of hindsight, opinions about 1950s weapons testing tends to focus on whether servicemen from the UK and various Commonwealth countries including New Zealand, Australia and Fiji suffered adverse health effects. While I doubt anyone reading this article would celebrate the need or purpose of nuclear weapons now, it should be remembered that these tests took place little more than a decade after the two Atomic bombs dropped on Japan were widely credited with ending WW2 much sooner and, arguably, saving many thousands of allied lives.

Each of us can form our own moral opinion about the development and deployment of nuclear weapons in the latter half of the twentieth century. But, whatever that opinion is, I hope it will be recognised by most readers that it was in no small part the forward thinking use of a distinctive postmark that now helps to keep Christmas Island, now Kiritimati, and the tests hosted there well documented and remembered as the people who actually witnessed the events sadly start to dwindle in number.



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