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The War on Paper

The War on Paper

When you can show your phone to a machine instead of handing over a train ticket, how strange to see Neville Chamberlain’s handwritten British Airways ticket to Munich. In The War on Paper, along with that ticket, Anthony Richards presents Second World War documents such as Montgomery’s sketched plan for Operation Overlord with ‘Most Secret’ double underlined at the top, or the note from Churchill’s office authorizing the ‘Mincemeat’ deception: it is an extraordinary collection of handwritten, typed or printed wartime papers.

Looking back from 2023 to the electric typewriters of the 1980s, it is difficult to imagine how we coped with the carbon copies and inky ribbons; how men and women during the Second World War managed the paperwork using manual machines or pen and paper is simply awe-inspiring. Thousands of names and addresses had to be written on ration books; local fire-watching schedules had to be worked out and filled in; at the Belsen War Crimes Trial, a Junior Member of the Court kept meticulous notes in his unlined notebooks, and Montgomery’s pen corrected the text of the Instrument of Surrender before it was signed.

Drawing on Imperial War Museum archives, Richards’s book focuses on important or representative documents, such as a Kindertransport passport or the Queen’s ration book, to trace the pivotal events of the war, but these handwritten notes, typed pages and sketches are also striking evidence of how different life was without our twenty-first century gizmos. Rear Admiral Harwood, commander at the Battle of the River Plate, had to find the Graf Spee somewhere in the south Atlantic without radar, let alone GPS.

Montgomery’s sketched plan for Operation Overlord (the Allied invasion of occupied Europe) with ‘Most Secret’ double underlined at the top, 11 February 1944. Montgomery also remarks ‘The key note of everything to be simplicity’ – in triple underlined capitals.
This official notification from Churchill, dated 16 April 1943, authorized Operation Mincemeat. The body of ‘Major Martin’, carrying documents designed to mislead the Germans, had been prepared and it was just a question of receiving the Prime Minister’s go-ahead before the plan could be executed.
Names and addresses were written on everybody’s ration book. The one issued to Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, in 1944 gave her address as Marlborough House, which had been her London residence since 1936.
Lieutenant Colonel R McLay served as a Junior Member of the Court at the Belsen Trial in Lüneburg, 17 September–17 November 1945. This page from his notes describes the allegations made against Josef Kramer, ‘The Beast of Belsen’.
The Instrument of Surrender for the German Army in Holland, northwest Germany and Denmark was amended by hand to make clear that it included naval ships and signed on Lüneburg Heath, 4 May 1945.
In addition to a passport, the children who came to Britain as part of the Kindertransport scheme needed numerous other identity documents to authorize their journey.

This rota for fire watching duties in Douglas Road, Renfrew, covers a 12-month period from March 1941 to March 1942. Locally organized schedules were crucial to ensure constant vigilance in case of fire breaking out due to bombing.

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