Early Horseshoe Route, June - August 1940

After Italy entered World War II on 10 June 1940, mail could no longer be flown between Alexandria (Egypt) and the UK via the Mediterranean. Air mail that was in transit and had still to cross the Mediterranean was 'dumped' and sent by surface, usually via the Cape.

The trans-Tasman, the Australia - Alexandria and the Cairo - South Africa airmail services were still possible. The result was the Horseshoe Route whereby mail was flown from Auckland to Sydney and from there by the normal Eastern Route via Singapore and India to Cairo. From Cairo, it was flown to Durban in South Africa and from there to the UK by sea [2].

Horseshoe Route

The first flights on the Horseshoe Route, NE1 from Durban to Sydney and WS1 from Sydney to Durban both left on Wednesday 19 June and arrived at their destination on Monday 1 July.

The situation in June and July is complicated. Although the Empire air services had been suspended, air mail was still posted and various alternative routes were used to handle it. Without transit marks, it is very difficult to determine the route taken by a particular cover and many covers are wrongly attributed to being flown by the Horseshoe Route [6].


The first dispatch from London was on 19 June and was sent on the Arundel Castle to connect at Durban with NE4 which left Durban on 10 July and arrived in Sydney on 24 July [4,5]. However, the availability of this service was not made public in the UK until 28 June [1]. The service from Australia was reported in their newspapers on 20 June and the report in the Melbourne newspaper The Argus is shown. Interestingly, it reports the service as being from Brisbane.

There were dispatches from London for the Horseshoe Route on 3, 11 and 17 July [5], but in addition mail continued to be flown to the USA and then by steamer across the Pacific as the weekly Horseshoe Route did not have the capacity to handle all the mail. This problem was alleviated in August when the frequency of the Horseshoe Route became twice a week.

According to Aitink & Hovenkamp [4], there was a trans-Tasman flight from Sydney on Wednesday 24 July, but NE4 was two days late and was flown from Townsville to Sydney on that date and so the mail could not have made that connection. However, Startup [3] states that the trans-Tasman service from Sydney was on a Thursday and so a connection could have been made if the flight was on 25 July. The first Horseshoe Route air mail from the UK may therefore have arrived in New Zealand on 25 July.

Unfortunately, few covers show transit marks and so there is little evidence of when mail posted on different dates in the UK finally arrived in either Australia or New Zealand.

First dispatch on Horseshoe Route

Australia to Durban and on to UK

The first dispatch WS1 from Australia on the Horseshoe Route was on Wednesday 19 June and arrived in Durban on Monday 1 July [4].

Cover postmarked in Sydney on 14 June and likely sent on WS1. The first Horseshoe mail left Cape Town on the Winchester Castle and arrived in the Clyde on 21 July. Proud lists the arrival date as 24th July [10], but that seems to have been when the mail was dealt with in London.

Palestine to Durban and on to UK

This censored airmail cover from Palestine to the UK has a Field Post Office 121 postmark on 22 June, 1940 and is franked with 60 mils in Palestine stamps which was the BOAC air mail rate to the UK. The cover has Imperial Airways in manuscript although that company had been incorporated into BOAC on 1 April.


It joined the first Horseshoe service, either at Tiberias on 27 June or at Cairo on 28 June and the cover was redirected in Edinburgh on 25 July.

Crewe describes a cover with a Hong Kong postmark of 11 June which has a London transit mark of 24 July [7].

Burma to Australia

The first dispatch NE1 from Durban on the Horseshoe Route was on Wednesday 19 June and arrived in Australia on Monday 1 July [4]. The Calcutta to Bangkok via Rangoon leg was on 26 June,

This cover was postmarked in Rangoon, Burma on 25 June and is addressed to Australia. It may therefore have joined the first dispatch in Rangoon on 26 June.

On arrival in Australia, it was passed by the censor in Melbourne as shown by the three red dots on the Australian censor tape.

Second dispatch on Horseshoe Route

The second dispatch WS2 from Australia on the Horseshoe Route left Sydney on Wednesday 26 June and arrived in Durban on Tuesday 9 July [4].

Malaya to India


This cover is postmarked in Singapore on 29 June and backstamped in Bombay at 8am on 6 July. These dates fit with the cover being flown on WS2 which left Singapore on 30 June and arrived in Karachi on 3 July [4].

It has a Passed for Transmission handstamp applied in Singapore and was then opened and by the censor in India. There is a Bombay backstamp and a Passed by Censor C 18 handstamp over the Indian censor tape. C was the censor code used in Bombay.

Iraq to UK

This item from Iraq was flown on the second dispatch, WS2. The back of the cover is shown as all the stamps and postmarks are on that side.

It is postmarked at Kirkuk, Iraq on 1 July and at Baghdad on 2 July. According to the information that came when I bought the cover, it left Baghdad (Lake Habbaniya) on 5 July on the Flying Boat Circe and arrived in Durban on 9 July. These dates correspond to the second Horseshoe dispatch which left Australia on 26 June [4].

The information with the cover then states that the mail left Durban on 12 July on the SS Stirling Castle which arrived in Liverpool on 29 July. That fits in with the manuscript on the front of the cover that it had been delivered in London on 31 July.

My understanding is that the sea voyage between the UK and South Africa was to Cape Town. The UK port had been Southampton, but was changed to Liverpool around this time. Proud [10] states that the SS Stirling Castle arrived in the UK on 30 July.

Palestine to UK

This censored airmail cover from Palestine to the UK was sent to the same address as the previous airmail from Palestine, but was sent the following week. It has a Field Post Office 121 postmark on 27 June, 1940 and joined the second Horseshoe service, either at Tiberias on 5 July or at Cairo on 6 July [4].

After arriving in Durban on 9 July, it was sent to the UK and was redirected in Edinburgh on 1 August. Again it is franked with 60 mils.

Third dispatch on Horseshoe Route


WS 3 left Sydney on 3 July and arrived in Durban on 17 July. Proud [10] states that the SS Arundel Castle left South Africa on 19 July and arrived in the UK on 6 August.

This censored front is postmarked in Jerusalem on 4 July and has Recd 8th August 1940 in manuscript on the front. Due to censorship delays and transfer time to Cairo, it would have missed WS 2 in Cairo on 6th July and been sent on WS 3 on the Clifton which left Cairo on 14 July. (Clifton and Cleopatra were Short S33 flying boats while the others on the Horseshoe were all Short S23 flying boats.)

The receiving date ties in with it being carried from South Africa to the UK on the Arundel Castle.

First dispatch on Horseshoe Route from UK


The first dispatch from London was on 19 June although no official announcement was made until 28 June. The mail left the UK on 20 June on the Arundel Castle and connected at Durban with NE4 which left Durban on 10 July and arrived in Sydney on 24 July [4,5].

This cover is postmarked in the UK on 18th June and is addressed to Saigon in French Indo China. Unfortunately, it has a 3d stamp missing to the left of the top stamp.

Saigon back

The cover has a Hanoi transit on 20 July and a Saigon arrival mark on 22 July. These dates prove that it was sent on NE4 which arrived in Bangkok two days late on 19 July. It was then sent on the Bangkok - Hanoi - Hong Kong service on 20 July.

Horseshoe Route from New Zealand

first dispatch

The New Zealand Post Office was slow to accept mail for Britain on the Horseshoe Route with the first acceptance not being until 22 July [11]. Instead they advocated a route via Hawaii.

This cover is postmarked at 6.40 am on 18 July in Greymouth which is on the west coast of the South Island. It would be carried on the Greymouth - Christchurch express train to Christchurch where it was opened and passed by the censors.

The trans-Tasman airmail closed in Christchurch at midnight on a Friday (i.e. 19 July) and so there was sufficient time for the cover to arrive in Auckland to be flown on the first acceptance on 22 July.

Flight WS 6 left Sydney on 24 July and arrived in Durban on 6 August. There was a poor connection at Durban and the Windsor Castle did not arrive in the Clyde until 1 September. Walker reports that the mail was delivered on 5 September [1].

It appears that mail was accepted to intermediate destinations before that. A cover to India is shown in [8] that was postmarked in New Zealand on 14 June 1940 and is backstamped in Calcutta on 25 June 1940. It was therefore flown on the first Horseshoe service which arrived in Calcutta on 24 June [4].

Horseshoe Route to New Zealand

July 1940
from New Zealand Forces in Middle East

This airmail cover from a member of the New Zealand forces in the Middle East is postmarked 24 July 1940 at New Zealand Field Post Office 1 (N.Z. F.P.O.1) and is franked with Egyptian stamps.

The airmail rate to British Empire countries was 10 mills per 20 grammes surface with a 30 mills per 10 grammes air mail surcharge. There appears to be a stamp missing which I assume is a 10 mills stamp and so the cover weighed between 10 and 20 grammes. It should be noted that three of the Egyptian stamps are special Army Post stamps at least one of which had to be used in the franking.

It has a signed Passed by Unit Censor handstamp in purple.

It may have been sent on NE6 which left Cairo on 27 July and arrived in Sydney on 5 August.

July 1940
Sent via USA

In the week before the first dispatch from the UK mail for New Zealand and Australia was sent via the USA instead of waiting for the first Horseshoe service.

Because of the lack of capacity on the Horseshoe Route, mail continued to be sent from Britain to New Zealand via air to USA in July and the first half of August.

Airmail cover postmarked in UK on 20 July and redirected in Wellington on 27 August. The next Horseshoe dispatch from the UK was on 26th July which connected with NE 9 and that flight did not arrive in Sydney until 29th August and so the cover could not have been carried on the Horseshoe Route.

There was a dispatch via US airmail on 24 July and its mail connected with the Aorangi which left Vancouver on 8th August and arrived in Auckland on 25th August in time to be redirected in Wellington on 27th August [12].

After 19 August, flights on the Horseshoe service were increased to twice a week and so there was no longer a need for an alternative route.

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All scans were made by the author.
[1] Airmails of New Zealand, volume 2, D.A Walker, 1986, Air Mail Society of New Zealand
[2] The Horseshoe Route, Chavril Press, 1992.
[3] Airmails of New Zealand, volume 3, R.M. Startup, 1997, Air Mail Society of New Zealand
[4] Bridging the Continents in Wartime: Important Airmail Routes 1939-45, H. E. Aitink and E. Hovenkamp, SLTW, Enschede, 2005.
[5] Aspects of the Horseshoe Route, W.H. Legg, Air Mail News, vol 45, no 177, pp 44 - 53, May 2002.
[6] Alternatives to the Horseshoe Route in June and July 1940, R. Clark, The Kiwi, vol 58, pp 42-47, March 2009.
[7] Hong Kong Airmails 1924-1941, D. Crewe, Hong Kong Study Circle, 2000.
[8] Answer 251 to: When did the first "true" Horseshoe Route Covers leave Sydney?, Air Mail News, vol 44, no 176, pp 245 - 251, February 2002.
[9] Australian Newspapers 1803-1954, Trove, National Library of Australia
[10] Intercontinental Airmails Vol 2 - Asia and Australasia, E.B. Proud, Proud Publications 2009.
[11] Further Aspects of the Horseshoe Route: a New Zealand Perspective, R. Clark, Air Mail News, vol 53, no 211, pp 179-184, November 2010.
[12] Not the Horseshoe Route, R. Clark, The Kiwi, vol 62, no 5, pp 106-107, September 2013.