Rocket Post: That’s one small step for mail…

Post&Parcel features an audacious attempt to deliver post by rockets. Scarp is not among the best known of Hebridean islands (situated off the west coast of Scotland), but 75 years ago it had its moment of fame, albeit due to somewhat bizarre circumstances.

By 1930, rocket research in Germany for both peaceful and military applications was being enthusiastically, if sometimes discreetly, pursued – the Reichswehr having noted that the Treaty of Versailles made no reference to rockets or their manufacture. Among the enthusiasts was a young rocket pioneer, Gerhard Zucker, who was obsessed with the concept of using rockets as means of carrying mail.

Zucker was not the first to launch a mail-carrying rocket in Germany – Reinhold Tiling successfully delivered 188 postcards this way on 15 April, 1931. However, when Tilling was killed on 11 October, 1933, Zucker became the principal advocate of rocket mail in Germany.

Zucker had successfully launched his first mail-carrying rocket on 13 August, 1933, from the North Sea town of Duhnen to Neuwerk Island. On 6 June, 1934, Zucker successfully launched a mail-carrying rocket on the Sussex Downs. Envelopes carried on this flight were franked with special ‘stamps’, created by overprinting the APEX souvenir vignettes with the inscription “ROCKET POST – First British Flight”. These stamps did not bear any indication of face value but were tied to the envelopes by a rather elaborate cancellation which showed the date and location of the ‘trial firing’ and (in tiny lettering) the words “Zucker Rocket Post – Rocket Fee Two Shillings Six Pence Paid”.

Although the first British rocket mail flight had proved successful, the Sussex Downs were not typical of the locations that Zucker envisaged would benefit most from his rocket system. Zucker was looking to places where planes could not operate due to lack of airstrips and other factors, particularly in island communities. And so, in July, 1934, Gerhard Zucker brought his rockets to the island of Scarp in the Outer Hebrides. Scarp is a small, rugged island lying just off the north-west coast of Harris, the two islands being separated by the narrow Caolas an Scarp. Although only little more than four kilometres by three kilometres in extent, Scarp supported a considerable population in the 19th century – 32 families, totalling 120 people.

In 1934, the island provided an ideal location to launch Scotland’s first mail rocket, the 500 metres width of the Caolas an Scarp being well within the range of Zucker’s projectiles. The launch date agreed was 28 July, 1934, and Zucker had special stamps prepared as he had done for many of his previous mail flights. These were rather more impressive than the ones used in the Sussex Downs trial and depicted a rocket in flight towards an island, and an upright rocket ready for launch. The stamps were inscribed ‘WESTERN ISLES ROCKET POST’ but bore no indication of face value. However, two versions were printed, one in green, which was sold at two shillings and sixpence, and the other in red which sold at five shillings, the former being for use on ‘printed paper rate’ items of mail, and the latter for ‘letter rate’ items such as sealed envelopes.

The rocket stamps were cancelled by the same complex design which had been applied to the mail items in the Sussex Downs demonstration, except that the location and date elements were, of course, altered to read ‘TRIAL FIRING SCARP-HARRIS 28 VII 34’. The part of the cancellation in small lettering referring to the ‘Rocket Fee’ of two shillings and sixpence was identical to that used at Sussex Downs and was applied to both 216d and 5/- rocket stamps. The sale of these stamps was clearly intended to publicise the experiment and to defray some of the costs, but few would have been purchased by the less affluent members of society in a year when 5/- would have bought a bottle of Douro port wine, 1216d a bottle of Clachnacuddin ‘pure malt whisky’, 10/- a pair of ladies’ shoes, and 50/- a man’s lounge suit. Nevertheless, the venture attracted sufficient interest to ensure that Zucker was able to load the steel chamber of his rocket with 1,200 items of mail. The consignment included letters addressed to King George V, Ramsay MacDonald, then Prime Minister, and other government notables.

On Saturday, 28 July, 1934, a crowd gathered near the eastern shore of Scarp to witness the proceedings, the presence of the area’s Head Postmaster signalling a degree of official interest in the outcome. Gerhard Zucker pressed the electric starter button and there was a dull explosion and flash of flame before everything was obscured by smoke. When the smoke cleared the shattered rocket could be seen among the remains of the launch apparatus with smouldering letters scattered around.

Zucker put the cause of the disaster down to a fuel fault and, undaunted, determined to repeat the experiment. However, in view of the previous mishap, it was decided to launch the rocket on the Isle of Harris but not across the Caolas an Scarp, no doubt much to the relief of the inhabitants of Scarp. The launch site was to be at nearby Victorian Amhuinnsuidh Castle.

A second rocket was prepared and loaded with another consignment of mail. Of the original letters, 793 had been recovered in more or less reasonable condition, and these, together with a further 142 new items were enclosed in the rocket’s mail compartment. On Tuesday, 31 July, with the onlookers no doubt at a suitably respectful distance, Gerhard Zucker ignited the rocket, which promptly exploded in a cloud of smoke and flame. Reporting the incident a few days later, the Inverness Courier pointed out, rather unkindly perhaps, that “a piece of the rocket was found somewhere near the objective”.

However, on this occasion, all the mail was safely recovered, and the envelopes shown opposite survived both the attempted launches. Franked with a King George V 2d stamp (printed paper rate) for onward transmission by the GPO by conventional means after the rocket flight, the envelope also bears the Zucker green (216d) rocket stamp with the appropriate cancellation. The GPO stamp was cancelled by the normal double-circle cancellation of Harris post office on 1 August, 1934, the day after the second launch. Like many of the mail items recovered from the first attempt, this envelope bears small scorch marks around the edges, and an explanatory cachet was applied to the rear of such items with the wording “Damaged by first explosion at Scarp – HARRIS”.

The new items of mail, which were added to the rescued remainder from the first launch, had the rocket stamps cancelled with a similar design to the original, except that the wording was altered to “TRIAL FIRING HARRIS – SCARP”. The date remained as 28 VII 34 although the second launch took place on 31 July.

Fortunately, no injury was sustained during the two launch attempts – except perhaps to Herr Zucker’s pride – and the hapless inventor decided to call it a day. He returned to the south of England where, on December 19, 1934, he attempted an unsuccessful rocket mail flight from Lymington in Hampshire, across The Solent, to the Isle of Wight. The Scarp connection was not over yet, however, as Zucker utilised the remainder of his Rocket Post stamps for the Solent flight by overprinting them with the words “Isle of Wight First Flight”, with the “WESTERN ISLES” inscription obliterated. .

From England, Gerhard Zucker returned to the Continent and continued his rocket mail experiments in a number of West European countries. By this time, however, the situation in Germany had changed. Hitler had become Chancellor in January, 1933, and, by the end of that year, the Nazi Party had tightened its control on virtually every aspect of German life. In the field of rocket research, experimental groups such as the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (Society for Space Travel) – to which Werner von Braun, the young scientist who would one day see his dream fulfilled, belonged – were closed down, with all further research being under the control of the army at the Kummersdorf Research Station in the Brandenburg Forest. There would no longer be a place in his homeland for Gerhard Zucker’s rocket mail experiments, which may well have been the reason why he pursued his particular dreams outside Germany for so long. When he did, eventually, return, it is believed that he was conscripted to join the hundreds of scientists and technicians working on the development of Hitler’s V1 and V2 ‘Vengeance Weapons’. If so, it would have been sadly ironic if he had been aware that German ‘rocket mail’ was successfully carried across the Channel when, in 1944, a number of V1 Flying Bombs packed only with propaganda leaflets, were targeted on London from their launch sites in the Pas de Calais. Gerhard Zucker did, however, survive the war and, by 1960, was, once more, launching his mail rockets into the skies of Europe!

And there the story might have ended had not an enterprising film company decided to make a film of Zucker’s exploits in 2002. Entitled The Rocket Post, the £10m production was directed by the late Stephen Whittaker and starred Kevin McKidd, of Trainspotting fame, and Shauna MacDonald. Filming was to have been carried out on Scarp but the island’s owner did not give consent and the set was located on the island of Taransay, the scene for the BBC’s Castaway television series, which lies some 11 kilometres south-east of Scarp as the crow (or mail rocket) might fly. Although the film was not widely acclaimed in Britain following its release, The Rocket Post hit the headlines in August 2004, when it was announced that it had been awarded the Festival Grand Prize at the Stonybrook Film Festival in New York, seeing off the challenge of eleven other films in the process.

As with many film dramas, the story line was romanticised at the expense of historical accuracy. The film was set in 1938, instead of 1934, presumably to facilitate the introduction of certain Nazi activities, and, as King George V had died in January, 1936, the facsimile rocket mail shown in the film had to be franked with George VI definitive stamps – nice attention to detail but historically inaccurate.

This article will be published in March 2010’s Mail & Express Review.  To subscribe to the industry’s leading quarterly publication, please click here. June issue now available!

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